In spite of their record-breaking season, Arsenal's players and supporters still feel disappointed. Jon Spurling explains why some think that the team have fallen short
On the face of it, Arsenal’s season represents the perfect fusion of old and new. Amid the group huddles, badge-kissing goal celebrations and Old Trafford shenanigans, team spirit shone through. Securing the title at the home of mortal foes prompted Arsène Wenger to gush about “the togetherness which runs through the very veins of the club”. Throw in the irresistible blend of pyrotechnic football which saw the team equal Preston’s unbeaten league run of 1888-89 and it is little wonder that the expectations of all those connected with the club hit stratospheric heights.
The talk of “invincibility” and “immortality” has expanded celebrity Arsenal fans’ egos to monumental proportions. Former Mirror editor Piers Morgan hyped his forthcoming book Va Va Voom – A Season With Arsenal to biblical proportions. “It’s one of the greatest stories ever told,” he reckons. Jonathan Creek star – and self styled “true Arsenal fan” – Alan Davies was recently approached by a budding young writer with a view to an interview for The Gooner. Davies casually dismissed him with the response: “Go and ask my agent, mate.” Even former Arsenal players are getting in on the act. “The club should soak up the here and now, and revel in what they achieved,” opined Sky pundit Alan Smith.
No such glib statements emanate from current Arsenal stars. As he bade farewell to the fans after his testimonial match, Martin Keown commented: “I hope this is just the start for this team.” Patrick Vieira concurred, claiming: “This is only the beginning…” The truth is, it was not, as Robert Pires said, “enough to satisfy our appetites”. Gunners fans taunted those of opposing Premiership clubs with chants of “Beat the Arsenal? You’re having a laugh”, as the season drew to its climax. The riposte – of solar-plexus smashing proportions – was “Champions League? You’re having a laugh”. That is the painfully sharp truth and it bursts the oversized bubble of confidence surrounding Morgan, Davies et al.
Arsenal’s record in European football compares badly with that of Liverpool and Manchester United. Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa boast far superior records in the old European Cup. Tottenham’s glory nights in the 1960s and 70s also outrank Arsenal’s European accomplishments at Highbury. Beating poor Juventus and Lazio teams aside, too many Highbury showcase occasions have ended in barely a whimper. “Well, it’s happened again,” shrugged Thierry Henry after the Chelsea defeat. On a world stage, along with Highbury’s capacity and the size of Wenger’s transfer kitty, Arsenal remain distinctly average competitors, with little genuine pedigree, and the players know it. Europe is now the yardstick by which the majority of Arsenal players measure themselves. Too often, they have been found wanting.
The club’s presence in the powerful G-14 group and the array of talent at their disposal suggest that Arsenal should be rather more advanced in their quest for the Holy Grail than they are. Edging painfully towards success on the grand stage is proving to be the hook which keeps the French contingent at Highbury. Wenger recently commented that he and his assortment of World Cup and European Championship winners have “unfinished business” at the club.
During a delay in play at Villa Park early in 2004, Villa fans taunted the triumvirate of Vieira, Henry and Dennis Bergkamp with “European Champions? You’ll never sing that song”. Their body language – heads bowed – spoke volumes. The crushing sense of disappointment experienced by the players on an annual basis cannot be outweighed by domestic triumphs.
Ultimately, bringing the Champions League to north London in the next couple of years could be a double-edged sword for the club. Wenger’s grand vision – along with the completion of the Ashburton Grove project – would be fulfilled and the manacles binding the stars to the club would be removed. The projected cost of the construction suggests that the club will continue to struggle to compete financially with Chelsea, Real Madrid and others in the foreseeable future. Wenger recently commented: “In football, you must never stand still. When we complete a task, we must move onto the next challenge.”
But as Arsenal players are rapidly becoming aware, actually getting their hands on the trophy is proving the most difficult challenge of all.
From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month