By Tony Attwood
What do you do after you have won the double in your second full season at a club?
Answer: you do it again. That is what some fans expected. In fact the expectations were very high – and were dashed.
1998/9 started with four draws and a win. OK no defeats but not what we all expected, especially as three of the draws were 0-0.
The team we started with was
Dixon Keown Adams Winterburn
Parlour Vieira Petit Overmars
What strikes me with the benefit of hindsight is that this team is one which today we would look at a think – everyone there can do his job. Everyone is tried and trusted. There is none of the stuff that you hear today about half the team not being fit to wear the shirt.
If there were whisperings in the north bank it was over transfers. Manchester United had brought in Jaap Stam, Jesper Bolomqvist and Dwight Yorke. Arsenal purchased David Grondin from St Etienne and Nelson Vivas from Lugano. Manchester United spent £24 million (equivalent to about £60 million today with the way transfer fees have escalated).
It was with that difference in mind that we were all aware of discussions that supposed were going on over moving Arsenal. There were talks of Wembley, talks of enlarging Highbury, talks of going out north of Cockfosters to the fields around the M25, but nothing was resolved.
We spent a couple of million and sold Ian Wright to West Ham, David Platt retired. Freddie Ljunberg came in, in September, largely unknown in England apart from an international appearance for Sweden against England. His fee was around £3m.
The other player we wanted was Kanu, but Inter refused to deal at the price Arsenal offered (£4m) until January, and so we were short of forwards – not least with Chris Wreh, who had (remember) played in the Cup Final team ahead of Wright, utterly losing the ability to recognise a football for what it was. The other player who might have helped was Luis Boa Morte who had had a good international summer, but couldn’t do it for Arsenal either. Elsewhere we even tried Kaba Diawara, but to no avail. Even when Kanu arrived it took several months for him to get a regular place in the team.
But things did pick up and from 20 December onwards we only lost one game – the penultimate against Leeds on 11 May. Manchester U knocked us out of the cup semi-final after a replay, and we lost 5-0 at home to Chelsea in the league cup, playing what was pretty much a reserve side. (Bergkamp played, but I believe he was suspended from league matches at the time after delivering an elbow, but able to play in the league cup, so he got some match practice).
That League Cup team is interesting because it represents a half way house between the “play the first team” approach and the “play the juniors” idea that came later. The team was
Vivas Grimandi Upson Grondin
Ljungberg Garde Hughes Boa Morte
We played the Champions League games at Wembley in front of packed houses but with average results, the killer blow being a 1-0 home defeat to Lens. The idea was to test out whether there really were 60,000 plus people who would come to see Arsenal – and there were. It was in fact the seasons that we played at Wembley that laid the ground for the Ems – Arsenal could and would attract the big crowds if the space was there. It convinced Arsenal – all they had to do was convince the banks.
The league appearances tell a story as always
- Overmars 36
- Dixon 35
- Parlour 34
- Anelka 34
- Keown 33
- Vieira 33
- Seaman 31
- Winterburn 30
- Bergmap 28
- Petit 26
- Adams 25
- Vivas 22
At the bottom end of the list of those appearing there were players for whom we might have had hope, but none broke through. Boa Morte, Upson, Grondin, Mendez, Caballero – none of them made it – except perhaps Upson, and his misfortune was to be there when we had a rather fine array of experienced centre halves.
So it was not a season to win anything – but there was one amazing moment, which is now in the history books – the FA Cup fifth round against Sheffield United. A Sheffield player was down injured, and they kicked the ball out. Ray Parlour did the usual thing and threw the ball in – as it happened to Kanu, who did not do the usual thing and pass the ball back to Sheffield. He gave it to Overmars who scored.
Several things happened – some of which are often recorded, some not. First Steve Bruce called his players off. On the films of the game you can clearly see him waving to his players to leave. That should have resulted in a lengthy ban for him, but the FA did nothing.
Second, although the focus was on Kanu and the suggestion that he and Overmars didn’t know the convention (which certainly was possible since this was not the way the game was played everywhere), the fact is that scoring from such situations was not unknown. Tottenham had done it in the past, as had Wimbledon. There was anger on those occasions but the game was played on. None of the Sheffield histrionics.
Third, when Mr Wenger offered a replay, Uefa blocked it, saying it would set a precedent. Arsenal said they didn’t care about Uefa, and anyway they had no jurisdiction over the FA Cup. So the replay went ahead and the result was the same – 2-1 to the Arsenal.
In the end we won nothing, and came second. But second was good compared with the end of the Graham era and what Rioch delivered.
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