On Saturday I have to thump out a preview of our trip to Burnley which means I would have to abbreviate any attempt at covering the last twenty years in the life of Arsenal Football Club. The Arsene Wenger years have taken the club in a direction few could have foreseen in 1996, and even in the immediate ensuing years. I’m not sure anyone could adequately cover what has happened to the club we all love in those years, in the length of a blog piece.
Not all remember the arrival of Arsene Wenger, so long has he been in situ. I still have memories of that first partial season that cause me to feel shame today. We went into 1996/7 with first Stewart Houston, then Pat Rice in charge, albeit temporarily. There were rumblings of a new appointment, but actually the people I went with at the time weren’t averse to Pat getting a crack at the job. He was an Arsenal man, not like the sacked Bruce Rioch, who almost lost us the services of Ian Wright.
The rumblings didn’t go away, however, and although beaten just once in the League early doors, so very definitely title contenders, a UEFA Cup exit to Borussia Monchengladbach hastened the clubs desire to appoint Arsene Wenger. Conveniently forgotten these days, Arsene persuaded his Japanese employers, Nagoya Grampus Eight to let him terminate his contract early in order to take charge at the Gunners.
The new man had to suffer some scurrilous treatment in the English press. ‘Arsene Who’ was the least of his worries as the studious looking man entered what would prove to be a long term relationship with the ‘Tuesday Club’ and their successors. He wasn’t an immediate success. The arrivals of Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira were later proven to be the work of the man who knew he would be coming to Highbury. The latter made his debut as a substitute in the 4-1 thumping of Sheffield Wednesday in September. We knew we had a player, but not the man who had insisted on his signing.
To cut a long story short we were competitive all season, but the title was surrendered because we lost home and away to both Manchester United and Liverpool. The new boss largely kept to the back five he had inherited and slowly introduced his new ideas to a squad uncertain of his abilities. To those outside of Colney he seemed to be a good man, but not the finished article. The players, however, had already started to get the benefit of his methods.
The first full season under Arsene Wenger will long live in the memory of those of us lucky enough to have witnessed it. Eight players arrived in the close season, most notably Emmanuel Petit (another who? moment) and the dodgy-kneed Marc Overmars. The first half of the season was a mixed bag, but crucially included a 3-2 win against Manchester United at Highbury. We were competitive at last.
A disastrous start to December included a performance at home to Blackburn that resulted in Tony Adams being sent away for ‘treatment’ and Ian Wright taking issue with Gooners in Avenell Road beneath the dressing room window. At that time if someone had suggested the Wenger experiment had failed it would not have been a surprise. How he had been misjudged.
Minus his captain Arsene set up a run of form that still amazes and delights today. Although we trailed United by twelve points at the end of February (One bookie paid out to those who had backed the Mancs for the title) we put together a run of eighteen games unbeaten including the iconic 0-1 at Old Trafford courtesy of Marc Overmars wonderful finish. When the double was secured at Wembley against Newcastle United I think we knew we had a very special man in charge of the club.
Those two seasons set the tone for what would follow. Innovation, forward thinking, dedication. Arsene was the right man in the right time and place. When big decisions were needed, he invariably got them right. Nicolas Anelka, signed and a contributor to the double success, was led astray by his advisors and moved to Real Madrid for the £25m pounds that Arsene invested in the training ground at Shenley, next door to our former Colney base.
A young winger from Juve, short on confidence, was his replacement. Thierry Henry would make the next eight years a magical time for Gooners. A year later another winger by the name of Robert Pires arrived. With those two added to Dennis Bergkamp and Vieira Arsene had put four of the best players on the planet in one team, not that we realised it straight away.
A second double in 2002, achieved with ridiculous ease at the Millennium Stadium and Old Trafford, cemented Arsene’s place in Arsenal history. These were heady days for the supporters. The countless riotous evenings in the Twelve Pins testament to how awesome we were. Arsene had clearly built something very special. So special that ‘only’ landing the FA Cup in 2003 felt a little disappointing. Appreciation of what Ferguson was doing in Salford would follow later. Arsene had spoken of going a season unbeaten. The truly foolish ridiculed him for his ambition.
The following season that ambition saw fruition. Arsene’s team, challenged to beat all before them, responded. Much of the season was a stroll, but then the pointed end arrived. FA Cup and Champions League defeats in three days to Manchester United and Chelsea would have floored anybody. Liverpool led 1-2 at Highbury in the Easter sunshine. The mercurial Henry decided enough was enough. On the back of a magnificent 4-2 triumph we went on to be invincible. Arsene was totally vindicated.
The following season’s FA Cup shoot-out win against old foes United proved to be something of a watershed. We were on the move. The club needed a bigger stadium to compete, and Arsene, along with Ken Friar and Keith Edelman set about providing it. A farewell season at Highbury stirred the emotions. Memorable European nights against the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus, and Villarreal, saw us go all the way to the Champions League Final.
What followed will divide Gooners for a while to come. We all have our ideas of what we had to go through in the years of transition from one home to another. What is clear is that against all the financial restrictions that we faced for a number of years the manager enabled us to qualify for the Champions League without interruption. We produced or signed some fine players, and sadly parted with them for a considerable and necessary profit.
Arsene took the brickbats in these years, occasionally bristling with indignation, but largely with a surprising degree of class, and emerged to land consecutive FA Cups in 2014 and 2015. Perhaps we overlook what an achievement those triumphs were?
And so to 2016/17. The odd major signing has happened in recent years. Ozil at £42m, Alexis at £35m, Cech at £10m. World class players being added to the squad. Finally this year the accrued cash generated by the stadium move was seriously deployed. The best part of a £100m splashed on Mustafi, Elneny, Xhaka, and Lucas. Arsene has earned the right to splash the cash he is largely responsible for generating.
He will be judged on this season more than any other as a result. It has to be said right now that it looks as though he may have retained his touch as a footballing alchemist. After an uncertain start the Arsenal have hit a rich vein of form, winning four matches comfortably, and counting bogey side Chelsea and FC Basel among their victims in the last week. Arsene most certainly has to deliver this season, but seldom in the last decade has the mood around the Grove been as positive.
Yes, we will have to produce many more performances to achieve what is now demanded of this different Arsenal, but who is best placed to deliver that right now? For me it is a man who has devoted twenty years of his life to making twenty years of my life quite memorable.
Thank you boss.