By Tony Attwood
I don’t know when I first went to see Arsenal – but I seem to think it was in 1956 for a reserve match against West Ham. My dad – himself an avid fan who had supported the club through the Allison era – took me. The next day I have a memory of telling my grandfather about it, with all the excitement a child can have of such an occasion. My grand dad told me about the opening of Highbury. He had been there as a child.
As a family, we know how to stay with our team.
I’ve no idea how many games I have seen over the years, but I do know the one that I count as the greatest match for me. Not the greatest game of football, but the greatest event involving Arsenal.
15 May 2004. Ever since that day I have been saying, yes, I was there. And so of course on the 10th anniversary of the day, I have to celebrate it here.
It was the day we completed the unbeaten season. The day the Invincibles came Invincible. It was a day that I suspect will never be repeated. Ever.
I remember so much – like Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments in the press just before the match about how his Rangers team had been heading for an unbeaten season and then lost the very last game – and how he wouldn’t be surprised if that happened to Arsenal. Like how dreadful I felt at half time with the score Arsenal 0 Leicester 1. Like how I actually found myself crying at the final whistle, trying like mad to hide the fact from others around me, and then realising that the guy next to me was sobbing uncontrollably.
We had done it, and I was there, for that match, on that day.
Looking back makes me realise just how different it all was ten years ago. There was talk of the new stadium of course, but for the moment we were still jammed into Highbury. There was talk of Arsenal buying David Beckham and talk of Patrick Vieira going to Real Madrid. There is always talk.
But what there was, was the unmistakable fact of the league table. And the laughter we had at every journalist who through the season had said it would not be done.
And what I knew, as a person who has earned his money throughout via the creative arts, was that this was not football – at least not football as we had known it. No, this was art.
What makes the day extra memorable is that Leicester City did turn up and made a game of it at the start. They expected Arsenal to be nervous, and Arsenal were, so they exploited it. On 26 minutes Vieira passed to Sinclair (ooops – wrong team) and the ball went to our old boy Dickov and he headed in. Cue parking of the bus, and then putting the other bus behind it. And then stop Arsenal getting the ball.
I think we assumed Arsenal would brush such nonsense aisde and get five in quick succession, just to show them, but it didn’t happen. We were 0-1 down.
That half time was horrible. Surely we could not lose, not on this day, not as Sir Alex predicted? Not to Leicester! But then on 47 minutes, Dennis Bergkamp chipped the ball over the top of Frank Sinclair. Sinclair turned, brought down Ashley Cole in the area and for the next six weeks (or so it seemed) we waited for Henry to step up. Surely this could not be the day Henry hit it into the north bank…..
No, of course it wasn’t. 1-1.
Then on 66 minutes Bergkamp did that wonderful thing he liked to do – he stopped, with the ball, looked up, looked around, considered the windspeed, noted the temperature, checked for any gravitational anomalies, measured the gradient, took into account the inward gasps from the crowd, re-checked who was where, noted the position of the sun, made sure the cameras were rolling, rounded a divot, and simply passed an impossible ball to our Patrick who had about 25 square miles of space through which to walk the ball around Ian Walker. 2-1 to the Untouchables.
It wasn’t just that we were Invincible, it was Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira. And I am going to add Lehmann. Not a player normally spoken of with the other three, but still, the only man ever to keep goal through a whole season in the top division and not lose a game. An amazing achievement.
After the game Thierry Henry admitted that life had been tough since winning the league at WHL – hard to motivate and keep going. But they found what they needed, and they did it, and we screamed and shouted and jumped and cried and everything.
In a sense there was sadness too. Kanu was going, as was Wiltord. But there was this new kid Robin van Persie who was there to wave a bit. Martin Keown made his last appearance too, and there was talk of the replacement already having been found – what the Guardian called “the Swiss prodigy Philippe Senderos”. Hmmm.
So of course we stayed after the game to see the players walk the pitch. Mr Wenger was there with his daughter shaking supporters’ hands and just smiling, smiling, smiling as he walked around. You know that way when, at the final whistle, he turns and goes straight down the tunnel. On this day he looked like he would never leave.
I don’t think I stopped clapping from the moment they came out of the tunnel for the celebration until they went back it – and that was a long time. How long did I stay after the end? An hour? Maybe more. Who knows. The watch was the last thing I wanted to look at.
And you’ll remember that corner of the ground between the clock end and the west stand where the away support was housed. Leicester came in fair numbers, and many stayed to see the celebration, and as Arsenal walked past them, they too applauded. It was a nice touch.
After that I got back to the car (we used to park near the stadium in those days – can’t do that now!) and started to drive out of London. I had no thought of the journey away from the city – until I started driving. Everywhere there were cars on the roads with red and white, windows down, horns blaring. Everywhere across the north of the city, from Highbury to the North Circular and out to the west.
It was our day, and we were not going to let it end.
Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole,
Ljungberg (Keown 87), Silva, Vieira, Pires (Edu 70),
Bergkamp (Reyes 82), Henry.
Subs Not Used: Parlour, Stack.
Attendance: 38,419. I was there.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal FC: crowd behaviour at the early matches