1998/9 was an almost season; an up and down season for Arsenal. Having won the double the season before, this time there were no trophies with Arsenal ending up second to Man U (one point and one goal behind) and going out in the FA cup semi-final, also to Man U. However we did compete in the Champions League for the first time since it gained its new title, but there again didn’t get past the group stages.
By the standards of the previous season therefore, a failure, by the standards of the Rioch and final Graham seasons, a stunning success.
1998/9 started unpromisingly, with a 2-1 victory over Nottingham Forest on the opening day followed by four draws (0-0 away to Liverpool, 0-0 home to Charlton, 0-0 away to Chelsea, 1-1 away to Leicester.) We had a goal-scoring problem.
A 3-0 victory over the eventual Champions on 20 September 1998 made things look better, but then we had a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday – the game in which Di Canio pushed the referee over and got a suspension for his pains.
It was an incident I remember well having been at the game with my pal Roger – I seem to recall it taking several moments for the ref to go down as he tried to keep his balance, and the tackling throughout the match from Wednesday was not so much industrial as primaeval.
The result left Arsenal in 9th – seven points behind the leaders Aston Villa. But by the end of the year things were settling down as Arsenal went on a run in which they did not let in a goal.
- 26 December 1998: Arsenal 1 West Ham 0
- 28 December 1998: Charlton 0 Arsenal 1
- 9 January 1999: Arsenal 0 Liverpool 0
- 16 January 1999: Nottingham Forest 0 Arsenal 1
- 31 January 1999: Arsenal 1 Chelsea 0
- 6 February 1999: West Ham 0 Arsenal 4
By this time the table was looking better – we were five points off the leaders (Man U) with a game in hand although a far inferior goal difference. Tottenham were in their customary mid-table 11th.
So the match on 17 February was an important test of our revival, and although the run of not letting in goals ended, but the result was considered very satisfactory given Man U’s position at the top of the league.
In this game Kanu made his league debut, and set up the goal in a manner that suggested that the low scoring that had marked so much of the early season might be coming to an end.
For the goal Ray Parlour passed to Kanu who did that thing where he looked like he had all the time in the world, sent the ball to Anelka and he scored from close range. The United reply came from Andy Cole – who was always referred to in relation to Arsenal as “the one that got away”.
With the score at 1-1 Arsenal continued to counter-attack, Seaman was superb, and United put on the pressure, eventually getting one of the penalties that they always seemed to get at home during that Ferguson era. Johnsen took the ball on the edge of the area, Parlour stood his ground, Johnsen went down under seemingly no contact, and Dwight Yorke strode up full of bravado to take the penalty and push Man U to victory.
He missed the goal totally. He also missed a sitter later on.
Man U then added their standard Plan B of having eight or nine-player surround the referee for several decisions – the ref showing weakness by just flapping his arms and walking backwards. It didn’t give confidence in his ability to run the game, nor in any sort of even-handed approach on the part of referees.
I recall being hugely relieved at the end to have got away with a point. It meant we were still in touching distance. And Kanu did indeed look promising.
As for the results, between 20 December and 5 May we didn’t lose a single game. Not a bad run.
We finished the league in second, but had clearly established ourselves as one of the two top clubs in the League.