8 November 2003: Arsenal beat Tottenham 2-1 in the 11th league match of the Unbeaten season. The Observer in its review called it “another stuttering performance” from Arsenal, following up on the Times report that Arsenal fans were saying this was the worst Arsenal team they had ever seen. It was, you may recall, the unbeaten season. (Oh sorry, I just said that).
In fact this negativity against Arsenal was a constant theme in the press in the early parts of the unbeaten season. For example, on 31 August 2003 The Times reported the league match against Man City as containing “the worst 45 minutes [by Arsenal] that any of their fans could remember”. It ended Man City 1 Arsenal 2 and was the 4th league match of the unbeaten season. I would love to know who those fans were.
Indeed even at the end of the season some of the newspaper journalists could not set their dislike of all things Arsenal aside, telling anyone interested that this was not really an unbeaten season, because Arsenal hadn’t won the cups as well. And anyway it had been done before, by Preston NE. That was somewhere around the 13th century I think.
But really, what was so extraordinary during this time was the absolute inability of the media to see that Arsenal had something going for them at this time. True Arsenal had lost the Community Shield game in August against Manchester United – but that only on penalties, and that had been followed by four straight wins and a draw in the league.
Then had come the first defeat – losing 0-3 at Highbury to Inter Milan. Indeed it was as if from the start that the players knew that the league was the thing they were after, because at the end of September we could only draw with Lokomotiv Moscow away, and that was followed by a defeat to Dynamo Kiev.
Even the League Cup offered only slight respite in that we had to use penalties to be Rotherham United at home (we won the shoot out 9-8).
But all the while it was going rather well in the League.. Not every performance was magical, of course, but some were sublime, and most who were at Leeds on 1 November to see a 4-1 away victory will hold that in the memory still.
The defeat of Tottenham on this day in 2003 may not have been our finest performance but it was important – and that wasn’t just because it was Tottenham. It was the start of the return of the confidence.
Beating Birmingham away 3-0 in the next match was enjoyable but not necessarily one to remember forever … were it not for the fact that it was followed by a 5-1 away win against Inter. Even the media struggled a little to knock Arsenal after that match. Yes there were still hiccups, such as a tedious goalless draw with Fulham in the next game, but slowly the recognition arose that alone among the teams in the Premier League we were unbeaten.
“Of course it won’t last all season,” the commentators said, and indeed they were still saying that in April, but we know what happened.
After the victory on this day however we were top of the League four points ahead of Chelsea in second and 18 points ahead of Tottenham who were undoubtedly having fun even though they were 13th just four points above relegation.
Thus far we had played 12, won nine, drawn three. Defeats would come the press told us. Going unbeaten all season was impossible.