By Tony Attwood
We finished 2002 with two wins and two draws, and continued this short unbeaten run in the league until 15 March when we lost away 2-0 to Blackburn.
The run itself, totalling 11 games, had given some hope, and we put together another short run after that until the disaster of the home game against Leeds on 4 May 2003, wherein we lost 2-3 to a team near the bottom of the league. Leeds were likely to go down – it was this victory that effectively kept them up, leaving West Ham, West Brom and Sunderland to go down to the second division.
So, with two games left it was all over. Manchester United won the league and we came second. The five point lead in the league at the end of 2002 had gone and we ended up five points behind Manchester U.
This season reveals exactly the ups and downs of the long league campaign, and the futility of supporter comments part way through a season about how it can all go wrong, or right.
On New Years Day we beat Chelsea who were in second place 3-2 and in fact won five in a row, scoring 14 goals as we did so.
But by the end of the season we had injuries galore: Vieira, Seaman and Cole all missed the defeat against Blackburn, and with a vital Euro game coming up it was clear that the players simply were not focussed enough. Worse, Keown had to go off in the Blackburn game and we ended up with a centre half duo of Cygan and Gilberto.
But there were two remarkable games in the latter half of the league season that suggested there was still something incredible to come, although none of us could have known what.
First there was an extraordinary 5-1 away win over Manchester City, a middle of the table team, in which (if my memory serves me right) we were about 4 up in half an hour. It was as if Man City simply didn’t exist.
And there was something else.
7 May Arsenal v Southampton.
I remember on the way to the ground for the Leeds game on 4 May the ticket touts were out in force, offering tickets for hundreds of pounds. After the game I went on my own to Covent Garden and bought a meal in one of the cafes that sell very ordinary food, around the shopping area. It is a tourist mecca; I wanted to be lost in the crowd. Eventually I went home.
For the Southampton game three days later there was still an air of gloom and dismay. We had blown it, and the only amusing things was that the touts couldn’t give their tickets away. All the money they had stolen from real fans three days earlier was thrown away. At a dismal time it was all there was to laugh about.
Except for the match itself. We still had a Cup Final to do against the self-same opposition, so it was interesting to see what might happen. I sat at in the North Bank and can still remember moments of the game vividly.
If you have the DVD of the “49” you’ll know this match, because it was Match 1 of the series, although quite obviously no one knew it. It was one hell of a display against a solid mid-table team who had beaten us away earlier in the season, and it was an amazing way to start the 49. I will thank my lucky stars for ever that I not only attended the last match of the following season to see the end of the unbeaten season, but also to be at this game to see the start.
What made it so amazing was the scoring: three to Pires including the most amazing lob over the keeper, and three for Pennant.
The team was
Toure Stepanovs Luzhny Garry
Van Bronkhorst Pennant Parlour Pires
Tavlaridis, Hoyte and Bergkamp came on for Luzhny, Pennant and Pires.
I don’t try to suggest that because of this Stepanovs, Luzhny and Garry were great defenders for the club, but rather just to give these guys their due. They were on the pitch for a match just after the world had fallen in. The league had been lost after we were five points clear half way through the season. We were down and out and all there was left was the cup final.
And this team, now in many ways forgotten, did something rather special. They started the run of 49 games unbeaten. And only that group can ever say that. I don’t know where Stepanovs and Luzhny and Garry are now, but I just hope that they remain proud that they played in Match 1 of the greatest football show the world has ever seen.
In the next article in the series we look at the cup matches in 2002/3.
Some recent snippets…
From the series on next season’s team: Campbell on hold others pending,
From the Arsenal History site…
From the Untold Media series…