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1999 -2000 All change Yes, he knew This was a defining year for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger and David Dein. This set the pattern for every year afterwards. Arsene Wenger revealed his philosophy and his vision – that running a football club the right way was paramount to all else. Of course, he meant the right way as he saw it. It was exactly parallel to the vision to be unveiled by Roman Abramovich 3 years later. Stability was the order. A state of the art training ground at Colney, paid for by the sale of our new wunderkind, Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid. Now, Anelka’s family were pushing for this move although it was debatable whether Anelka was. Wenger did want him to stay and develop into an Arsenal icon. Anyone who saw him at Arsenal in those days recognized that an exceptional talent was being formed. But it was in this whole episode that we saw the genius of Wenger. Because he sold Anelka for £23.5 million and paid for the then astonishing Colney training ground, easily the best in the country at the time with £10m and Thierry Henry £11m with Davor Suker coming the other way from Real Madrid for £3.5m. A big mistake? I will take an in depth look at these decisions later but first let me give my impressions of the time. Man Utd, our only serious rival, never worried about spending money. They had given us a lesson in comebackability the previous season. 2 years before, we had won the double of league and cup. Then they won league, cup and the mighty Champions league to put us in our place as second best. But we decided to sell potentially our best player and top scorer in Anelka to pay for a training ground? We got Davor Suker, a Real Madrid castoff and Thierry Henry, a Juventus castoff as compensation? The message was we should forget about competing with Man Utd, who don’t sell their best players, but we put financial security first? I am not sure many of us were happy. Now there is a general belief that Wenger was a genius in the transfer market and he probably was but that was not so evident at the time. Lots of players were coming and going without any impact. 11 players went and 6 came in but most of them were not notable other than the ones mentioned above. The aging Steve Bould was moved on to Sunderland with Oleg Luzhny brought in and Remi Garde retired. Anelka our GOAT? Could have been our greatest? Bergkamp was sublime but never the quickest although he might have had the quickest brain. Anelka seemed to have the world at his feet. He was quick, he was talented, he was scoring goals and surely the perfect foil for Bergkamp or Kanu. But we got rid. And we got Davor Suker who was good, yes, but started out injured and really was mostly used as a sub or in the less important matches. Honestly he wasn’t better than the 3 I have just mentioned. Was he better than Thierry Henry? At that stage it was hard to say. Henry may have won a world cup but he couldn’t score for us and he kept missing chances. Sukor, when he got a chance, seemed to score. Now, I know what you are all saying at this moment. Gus, you are talking nonsense. Henry is probably Arsenal’s best ever player. Anelka ended up playing at the likes of Bolton. Wenger was a genius. I agree, but I didn’t quite know that then, and nor did all that many fans. What we saw was a team that had been weakened by the loss of Anelka and we had got a winger trying to play as a striker who didn’t know how to score. Man Utd were the best team in Europe and Juventus had dumped Henry. Real Madrid had snatched potentially our best player to try and become the best in Europe. And us? We got a winger who couldn’t score and the best training ground in the world. We wondered could the training ground get out on the pitch instead and knock in a few goals? London Colney - the best on the planet It is a magnificent facility, to be fair,and still among the best on the planet although teams with bottomless pockets have come after us. To give you an idea the training centre covers an area of 143 acres, it houses ten full-size pitches, an indoor facility and a medical and rehabilitation centre. Inside the complex there is training and rehabilitation areas, physiotherapy and massage rooms and remedial and hydrotherapy pools. This was when a lot of teams trained on their home pitch. It has undersoil heating, and the grass is designed to mimic Highbury which was generally regarded as being the best kept ground in England if not the world. The landscapers were experts and given the best resources. So with the medical facilities and players were to be given a level of treatment unprecedented as they strived to have players perform at their very best. Ian Wright had moved to West Ham and thought he was being sent back to the dark ages with their facilities and that was before London Colney had opened. Could you imagine what he would have thought if he had been inside it? Easy to be good at such places There are tricks that can be performed at such training grounds, you can make easily it a replica of your home ground or you can make it the same size as your next opponents which helps with your passing and spatial awareness. Your next opponent has a very tight ground and size? Just change your markings and you are ready to train. Ah, but the legend was emerging Henry was slow to score and slow to impress but in September he scored. He was our top scorer that season with 17 in the league and 26 in all competitions. The legend had arrived. Still a bit raw, but he was learning from the intelligence of the players around him, Bergkamp, Kanu, Overmars, Petit, Vieira but don’t underestimate that stubbornness, will to win and ferocity of the back four, particularly Adams and Keown. He was taking from everyone, adding a bit to his game from all, becoming the most feared striker in the Premier League. Henry learned from everyone So was it good business? Getting Anelka and what were regarded as his greedy family to take the money and go so they could pay for stratospheric training and medical facilities plus Thierry Henry? You betcha! No wonder the phrase “Arsene knows” became a byword. But spare a little thought for Nicolas Anelka. At Arsenal maybe he could have been like Thierry Henry, a legend, overtake Ian Wright by far as he was 2 years younger than Henry, developed his game with Wenger looking after him, and learning, like Henry did, from all the stars around him. Instead he was pitched up, still raw, with the galacticos of Madrid where he was gobbled up like Pacman and bounced around football until he ended up with the likes of Sam Allardyce. We might now be talking about him with awe as we do about Henry as the GOAT. Sometimes in life you have got to make the right decisions and instant money isn’t the right answer. You have got to do what is right for you. Ask Arsene Wenger, he knows.
1998-99 Champions forever For those of you who are young, I must explain one thing, Manchester United, under Alex Ferguson, were the kings of English football in the 90’s. Year after year they seemed to win the league, and cups and other trophies. But in 1997-98 we were champions and double winners in Arsene Wenger’s first full year and we got to play United in the Charity Shield because they were league runners up. We showed them who are the new kings of England as we thrashed them 3-0, Overmars in the first half and Christopher Wreh and Nicolas Anelka in the second to send them back to Manchester crying all the way. We were ready, we were Arsenal, and this year we could win everything. Maybe we needed to play cricket or rugby to give us a challenge, football was too easy. I don't think so Eh, hello, it wasn’t to be. Although we beat Forest 2-1 in the first match we weren’t very convincing but then we had 4 draws to tumble to ninth. We were flash in the pans, not a new star in the sky and the glory that Wenger seemed to promise us was fading away. Back to the old Arsenal for us. David Platt retired from football never quite becoming an Arsenal hero We hadn’t done much in the transfer market and had got rid of our talisman and record scorer, Ian Wright. David Platt had retired as injuries kept piling up. We brought in Nelson Vivas as cover for the full backs and he was a good player who never quite made it at Arsenal. It was here that Wenger proved he knows, leading to the famous saying all Arsenal fans could recite. He brought in Freddie Llungberg who was to become one of our all time favourites. What could this midfielder do? Everything, score goals, provide assists, link play, dribble, even head the ball. Our sweet Swede - Freddie Llungberg Arsene knows Later he brought in Nwankwo Kanu from Inter who was a superb footballer. His only real problem at Arsenal was that he was similar to Dennis Bergkamp but a fraction less good. One year I was in a pub watching Liverpool vs Arsenal with an Anfield follower David Lynch and Bergkamp went off after tormenting Liverpool and my friend let out a sigh of relief, then groaned as Kanu came on. That’s how good Kanu was. The sublime Nwankwo Kanu But we took a long time to get going in the league and Man Utd had come back at us, they weren’t going to let some fancy Frenchman walk all over them. We were suffering from a winning hangover and not able to get really flying properly. It was a flaw that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had, we were never able to retain the league and this season was an early indication of that. However, we did show battling qualities in the second half of the season and we got top on game 34 after going 19 games unbeaten from December. Competition for places I should emphasise that Llungberg and Kanu were bit players that season but I feel they were crucial to the team upping their game, as we now had 2 players who could take the place of even our best players and they had to play better to keep their place. So we had come back at Man U, we had knocked them off their perch and were top. Another season like last which had seemed to fizzle out had re-ignited and we were ready to win again. Except we couldn’t. A 1-0 defeat at Leeds on game 37 handed the initiative to Alex Ferguson and they won by a point. We had 2 tough matches against them in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and maybe that took its toll. The first match ended 0-0 after extra time and the second match 2-1 to United, also after extra time. Oh no, not Manchester United! It was to be Manchester United’s best ever season, they won the league and the FA cup and the big prize Ferguson craved, the Champions League. They famously looked like being beaten in the final against Bayern Munich but 2 goals in injury time got them the win. We were left with just the Charity Shield for our season. The Champions league was disappointing as we went out at the group stages to Dynamo Kyiv and Lens. It wasn’t a difficult group but the first half of the season was poor. We also got hammered 5-0 by Chelsea in the League Cup 4th round. One thing that took me a long time to get used to was Wenger playing understrength teams and us getting hammered because of it. 30 players were used that season, often players I never heard from again. The poor players needed a rest We had 14 goalscorers to emphasise this with Nicolas Anelka showing we didn’t need Ian Wright anymore, we had a new kid who would surely break the mighty Ian’s record, seeing he was so young. He scored 19 in all competitions and Bergkamp 16. Marc Overmars played 49 matches - why didn't he need a rest? The world had changed for me. Big squads with top players like Kanu and Llungberg only subs. The priority only being the big matches and the belief, often misplaced, that the reserves could win matches. I had grown up on 11 players and a sub being enough. Those players could play 3 times a week without complaint, now players were being rested. When I was a kid, we often would go out playing football all day long, every day, but these professionals needed to be rested. I couldn’t understand it and still struggle with the concept even though it has become engrained on the modern sports fans. We were the Arsenal - we could come back But I was an optimist. We had finished the season stronger than Man Utd. There was little to separate us in the FA cup semi-final. We could come back at them with Anelka to improve again and Kanu and Llungberg to show their stuff. We had beaten Spurs at White Hart Lane 3-1 towards the end of the season. We had 11 one-nils to the Arsenal, more than ever before. Next season, I felt, would be good. Little did I know it was to be a defining season where the shift was huge and Arsenal was set to change again. But for the better? We will see.
We could win things with these two 1997/98 again We weren't all that happy Last week, I explored the changes Arsene Wenger had made or he was putting in place. But what actually happened on the pitch? Honestly, most of the season we weren’t very happy. Yes, we had a nice spell from game 8 to game 12 when we were top, including a 4-0 thrashing of West Ham and a 5-0 of Barnsley, but after that we were back to the old Arsenal and down the table to 5th. We didn’t look like winning anything nor qualifying for Champions League. So it was same old same old. His £2M salary looked bad value in many ways. Lots of players playing meant some of our old favourites like Ian Wright weren’t playing every week. We were in the UEFA Cup and were dumped out in our first round in September by PAOK Salonika despite playing the top squad, only without Bergkamp in the away match because he wouldn’t fly. That didn’t help Wenger’s cause. Beaten by Pensioners in the League Cup We did better in the League Cup, beating Birmingham and their neighbours Coventry in our first two rounds, although we made hard work of it as we had to go to extra time in both matches. Here Wenger did play many squad members but he got away with it. Then we played some Pensioners in the semi’s. That wasn’t so good. We were beaten 4-3 over 2 legs. Chelsea were turning into a top team and had lots of fancy foreigners such as Ruud Gullit and Dan Petrescu, plus De Matteo, Vialli and Zola from Italy. Wenger played a strong team for both matches only giving starts to a small number of squad players. He kept saying his priority was the league but we weren’t lighting any fires in that. It was frustrating for fans not to see our absolute top team playing in a semi against our true biggest London rivals at the time. In fairness, Vieira got sent off on 48 and on 51 and 53, Chelsea made it 3-0 and the tie looked over after we won 2-1 in the first. Ill discipline was costing us again and Vieira was making it a habit. Wonderful player but loved red and yellow. Bergkamp scored a late consolation penalty but we were out. The FA Cup? Our trophy? We had Port Vale to start and bizarrely, Wenger put out a strong team only to draw 0-0 and go to a replay where he once again put out a strong team and they took us to penalties after 1-1 after extra time, both of which were scored in extra time. Pretty much our top team couldn’t score in 2 matches in normal time against Port Vale? I hope you are getting the idea that Wenger wasn’t really feeling the love from the fans. Next time against Middlesbrough we scored 3 goals, Overmars and Parlour put us 2-0 after 19 minutes and Merson got another on 62 to make it 3-0. Just joking, he had been sold to them by Wenger so I am sure he was delighted to show he wasn’t finished. It ended 2-1. Paul Merson happy to prove Wenger wrong Then Palace in the next and a scattering of second choice players gave us no goals and a replay which, again a bit understrength, we won 2-1. Considering Palace finished last that year, it wasn’t good. The glory days of George Graham looked to be far back in the distance. We couldn't really understand Wenger's logic with Alex Manninger West Ham up next with a young Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard in their line-up. Except for Manninger in goal, a strong line-up. But we couldn’t understand Wenger’s logic of resting a goalkeeper. They rarely have physically demanding matches, particularly with our defence, and we felt that he was messing up the understanding by playing him in cup matches. And we struggled again but came through after a replay with a restored David Seaman. We were making it hard Championship Wolves in the semi, and again a bit of a struggle to win. An understrength side got an early goal via a squad player. Christopher Wreh, after 12 minutes and that was enough. Now I am going to switch to the league. We were frustrated, Arsenal were playing attacking, fast football, scoring lots of goals but also many poor displays. Suddenly, though, on March 11 we beat Wimbledon 1-0 to the Arsenal and couldn’t stop winning, Wenger must have put premium petrol in our tank because we won 10 in a row culminating in sending Everton back home to Scouseland crying after we lashed 4 goals against them. We were back, we were Arsenal and we had won the league with 2 games to go. We were the best, Wenger was the best and the players were glorious. We weren't scared of Shearer On to Newcastle in the final. We had done the double over them in the league and duly won 2-0 from Overmars and Anelka. But it went wrong for Wright. He didn’t play, Christopher Wreh being preferred. No sub for him either. He was to be shipped out to West Ham in the summer and a bit of a sad end to a legend. I guess records like that are only going to be broken at the end of your career anyway. Anelka was seen as increasingly first choice, and raw or no, he looked explosive and set to be a world great. Wright was top class but not a world great. But he did get a league title and another FA cup medal courtesy of Arsene Wenger. Surely he would turn out to be an Arsenal great? But we, now, were surely world greats? Who was better than Bergkamp, Overmars, Petit, Vieira and Anelka? Our defence was still super and we had 5 one nils to the Arsenal in the league, Wenger’s nod to George Graham. And his nod to Bertie Mee with a magical double. Enchantment was performed before our very eyes by a wizard Frenchman. The Brightest star in the sky I can’t really convey the emotion we had. A season that had stuttered and spluttered like a firework gone out, unexpectedly exploded into a lightshow unlike any we had ever seen. We were Arsenal, we were fast, bright and shone throughout the sky. And hey, Mr Ferguson, that is us, the Arsenal, that you can see as a new star in the sky.
1996-97 No, he didn't look like a football man. Arsene who? Bruce Rioch was a disaster and his career never recovered. But there was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that we knew nothing about. Stewart Houston was appointed temporary manager and again, it seemed like the typical cheap Arsenal way of doing things. As fans, we couldn’t understand why. Why not get a proven winner, with a team that had won many trophies in the recent past and was packed full of England regulars and Dennis Bergkamp? Even Alex Ferguson might have been possible if they were willing to splash the cash. But Houston was told he would not get the job despite a pretty good start to the season, even hitting top. He resigned, presumably feeling he deserved his chance. He became manager of QPR and had a reasonable career as a manager without ever hitting the heights. Pat Rice then took over but even in those largely pre-internet days we knew he wasn’t going to be the man. Johan Cruyff was mentioned and even a return for George Graham but it instead went to Arsene Wenger and, as he revealed in his autobiography, he was keeping in touch from Japan and Grampus 8. And so we had 4 managers in 2 seasons, astonishing for Arsenal. At least his name fitted He was David Dein’s man for sure. But we didn’t have Google search and instant access to information and we didn’t really know what was going on until he turned up. My reaction was no, I hadn’t heard of him and foreign managers had done little in British football up to then. The players reaction, I have learned since reading several biographies, was similar. He didn’t look like a football man, tall and skinny and with a schoolmaster feel. Of course he had managed England stalwarts Mark Hately and Glenn Hoddle at Monaco and they had got to a Euro final, so they couldn’t have been too ignorant of him as most seemed to claim. But I didn’t know of him and few English journalists seemed to know much either. It seemed another Arsenal stupidity but I was intrigued at his name, it fitted so well with Arsenal and I was always of the mindset that managers should be given a chance. Vieira: Always falling into bookings Favourites out, new ones in The transfer market was busy, Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira was brought in, our old favourite John Lukic was brought back as cover but Irishman Eddie McGoldrick was out as was Bulgarian Paul Dickov both to Man City. There’s only one Johnny Hartson, David Hillier, Steve Morrow and Andy Linighan also moved on, all players who had different types of significance for Arsenal fans. But a young kid came in from Paris Saint Germain called Nicolas Anelka who we will never forget for both good and bad reasons. He didn’t get many chances that year but I will return to him in later blogs. He has a good story. Anelka should have been an Arsenal great Remi Garde didn’t play much but let me give you my impressions of Vieira. He was good, we could see that, but as soon as the pitches got muddy and heavy in the autumn and winter, he kept slipping and sliding all over the place, he got 12 bookings mostly by slipping into players. Somehow, he avoided a red card, but I despaired that he would ever be useful for us as he couldn’t keep his balance. Grass was not for smoking Grass technology was improving all the time and Wenger paid particular attention to this area with Highbury becoming the benchmark for all other teams on the planet. But it took time for others to catch up and unfortunately Vieira could not do it on a wet night in Stoke as the saying goes. He looked ungainly and awkward but as soon as spring started shining, he was back to himself. It was very hard for me to see the great superstar that he would become. Pitches now look like video games As for Wenger, it was hard to say, really, results improved when he came in, but not to a huge extent, although we went top in October and were still top until 7th December, but other teams had games in hand on us. It was a rare position for us in the Premier League so the fans were happy. It was mixed, though, overall, Man Utd beat us twice, although we took 4 points off the Spuds. We were beaten at home by Liverpool and Newcastle, who we ended up level on points at the end with 68, 7 points behind Man Utd. Joint second on points, 3rd in the table and our best Premier league. Bergkamp, Wright and yes, Vieira were showing signs that we could be good, that we could challenge. What would Bertie Mee have done with 28 players? We didn’t do much in the cups but it was the start of a pattern that we were soon to become familiar with, fringe players would play in them. We played 28 players that season and 12 scored. Considering that Arsenal won the double in 1971 with little more than 12 players you can see the difference, the one player who couldn’t guarantee his place was Charlie George and he was fighting all the time with Bertie Mee. Even George Graham’s last champions in 1991 only used 19 players in all competitions. Wenger saw the league as priority and never liked using any player in all matches. Only Nigel Winterburn could claim that distinction that season but he was never an England regular and that might have played a part in Wenger’s decision. Most other regulars were also first choice internationals. Yo-yo Wenger? Up My verdict was a bit yo-yo. We were challenging, up near the top all season. We struggled against the top teams but we conceded less than them. The football was more adventurous, the flair players were given their chance, but we were picking up lots of bookings and some red cards, mostly through petulance, arguing with the ref and shoving other players, presumably as retaliation. Ill discipline was a byword for the Wenger era and this season presaged that. and down Was I optimistic? Yes, sort of, but Man Utd and Ferguson looked scary. He was building his second great team around the ‘92 youngsters and they fought and dragged results out even when not playing so well. Probably we needed more players. Were we going to get them? Read on next week and you will see.