by Tony Attwood
In the last article I wrote about the foundations of the anti-Arsenal Arsenal – a grouping of “supporters” who felt that Arsène Wenger should be removed from the managership of the club.
The main complaint of the AAA at this stage was that the latest crop of signings were poor (Stepanovs was singled out), that the club was a “selling club” (witness the sale to Barca of two of our top stars), and that the double Wenger had delivered was just luck. Pires was seen as not quite up to it, and there was thought to be no depth in the squad.
Journalists were unsure what to do with this movement. The hacks had come seriously unstuck with their disgusting and disgraceful campaign to suggest that Wenger had left Japan under a cloud, with the manager outwitting the journos on the steps of Highbury with great aplomb. They were keen to get one over on him, but even the most cynical journalist had to admit that the manager had revolutionised the club, breathing new life into a defence that the previous manager had failed to motivate. (No one as yet was putting out the utterly ludicrous story that Wenger was lucky to inherit a solid defence, and that anyone could have managed that team. Clearly Rioch could and did not).
The message in Fleet Street was therefore one of wait and see, but a few careful stories were drip fed that a fourth year without a trophy would not go down well with the board.
But support for those who wanted to have a go at the foreigner in charge came from an unexpected source: Thierry Henry who complained that the club did not have a “fox in the box”. Quite where Thierry got the phrase from is not known; presumably a journalist fed it to him, but once it was out, it was used and recycled over and over again. The journos had what they wanted – a criticism from within the camp. Forget the fact that it was hardly a major breech in the walls. They had something.
That the answer to Henry’s call – Francis Jeffers – would be something of a flop, was of course not to be discovered for some time. But by and large the 20 year old was signed and forgotten – he did not get a game in the first half of the season. Next up on the transfer schedule was Giovanni van Bronckhorst from Rangers, followed by Sol Campbell from Tottenham on a free. Sol was followed by Richard Wright and Junichi Inamoto.
Of course the fact that Sol came from Tottenham has always been the main talking point, but what is often forgotten is what a surprise this was. Indeed no journalist successfully predicted this move, and even on the day of the transfer there was little excitement. In fact quite a few journalists didn’t bother to show up for the press call, expecting the Richard Wright transfer from Ipswich to be announced. Once again Wenger had got the better of the scribblers, and this time they were really annoyed.
However what the journalists particularly did not have were ex-Wenger players who could spill the beans on the inside story. Wenger the screamer, Wenger the drinker, Wenger the anything other than the cool calm man who could find unknown players, buy them for £250,000, sell them for a 1000% profit, and still deliver a team the likes of which had not been seen at Highbury for 70 years. Before Mr Wenger came the journalists had Tony Adams with his infamous “what does he know about English football?” comment. But that was in the past. Adams’ career had been given a new boost and he wasn’t about to kick the hand that was feeding him.
Thus the AAA had little going for its early campaign. They also had few seats inside Highbury, where the waiting list for season tickets was now said to be up to 8 years, and growing. Those inside the stadium were willing to give the man who had delivered the club a style of football that could only have been dreamed about in the Rioch year as much time as he wanted.
The opening game away to Middlesbrough had this team on the pitch
Lauren Campbell Adams Cole
Pires Parlour Vieira Ljunburg
It was quite an interesting team. Lauren had moved into the full back position that he then established as his own, and Ashley Cole completed his journey from the youth side to having a starting position. Pires was confirmed as the foil for Henry, with the two swapping positions on the left wing, when Pires wasn’t playing on the right, and Wiltord not Jeffers was the fox in the box. Parlour was the new Petit playing alongside Vieira in midfield. It was quite a set of changes.
The 4-0 victory away made it feel like a great start, but when the same team lost 1-2 at home to Leeds in the next game, the protests were heard. “We won’t even make second this year, let alone win anything” was the AAA claim. And although Arsenal went eight games without a defeat, the fact that the next loss was 2-4 to Charlton at home made people edgy.
There was one problem – injuries at centre back. By late September we had a central defence of Upson and Grimandi or Keown. The only thing that kept us going was Henry – 14 goals in the first 15 games. But no matter how you looked at it, by the end of the Charlton game we were fifth.
We suffered one more defeat before the end of the year (to Newcastle) and things picked up a little – especially with Pires now showing his true form (the goal against Tottenham in a 1-1 was something that should be on everyone’s all time great goals), and we ended the year with three straight 2-1 wins against Liverpool, Chelsea and Middlesbrough. Maybe things were picking up after all.
The series continues in the next article