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Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Runs #3: Arsenal's Invincibles (and the fundamental nature of humanity)

Some might-have-beens, May 2004

Over to the ever-superb Dan Forman (@dannyforman) for a look at Arsenal's Invincibles and the very fabric of fandom...

What does it say about the mindset of the modern football fan that I felt slightly flat at Highbury on 15 May 2004? My team had just completed an unbeaten league season, an extraordinary sporting accomplishment by any standard. Perhaps it hadn't "sunk in yet". Perhaps it was so unusual that it was too hard to comprehend. But perhaps [insert pompous cod psychoanalysis here], football can never make us truly happy.

Of course I was pleased; proud; vindicated in a belief that such defensive robustness as an unbeaten season requires could be accompanied by a glorious attacking verve (indeed that the two can be self-reinforcing); and I was more than old enough to realise that this was a feat unlikely, at least by my team, to be repeated in my lifetime. But a part of me was disappointed.

It may have been that it was - outside of its historic context at least - a mundane game. A 2-1 home victory over already-relegated Leicester City was routine, marked only by a 20-minute period in which we were behind to a Paul Dickov goal and during which it felt possible if not probable that we might not do it after all. But the game itself was never likely to do justice to this achievement. The players were tired and preparing almost to a man for a major championship. They, like the crowd, just wanted it to be over with, the record secured and the celebration to begin. And then, when it was, things felt a bit underwhelming.

The main prize had already been won three weeks previously with a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw at Spurs. There were no mixed feelings about that. Securing a league title at the ground of your neighbours is about as good as football gets. But after that we rather limped over the unbeaten season line: 0-0 at home to Birmingham, followed by 1-1 at Fratton Park (where we had reached a sublime peak in the FA Cup a few weeks previously) and a 1-0 win away at Fulham preceding the Leicester game. It was a curious mixture of the kind dead rubber ennui you often get at that stage of a season and a nervous desire to clinch the invincible accolade that meant we played, in Arsene Wenger's phrase, "a little bit with the handbrake on".

All of which meant that the historic game at Highbury was nowhere near as euphoric as the derby, despite the comparative long term significance of the two games: A record for the ages (or so we thought) versus what at the time felt like 'another' Arsenal title, our third in six years.

But broadly, and ridiculous as it sounds, even a team that had just completed an unbeaten campaign still had plenty to regret. That team was so good, so consistent, so balanced, so powerful and so strong in all positions that it should have won more both in that year and others. We were kicked out of the FA Cup in a Villa Park semi-final by a disgraceful performance from Man Utd (with Keane and Scholes' tactics in midfield at least showing they had no ambitions of out-playing us that year) that should not have gone unpunished but did. That could have led to a third successive Cup, a run that should have been extended to five when and if 2005's triumph and Stefan Henchoz's absurd 2001 goal-keeping performance are included. Similarly 2004 should have been the third in a hat-trick of league championships with Arsenal having surrendered the 2003 title (with a draw from the jaws of victory at Bolton and a loss to Leeds) to an inferior United side in a foreshadow of our mental frailties to come.

But the bigger prize was and is the Champions League and we will never have a better chance to win it. We'd done well in a quarter-final first leg at Stamford Bridge, coming away with a 1-1 draw that looked like a solid platform for the return. But the away goal turned out to be not as crucial as the cliché suggests. Perhaps still bruised from the Villa Park battering at the weekend, Arsenal were uncharacteristically lacking in confidence in front of goal and it took a scrambled Reyes strike to go ahead. Then a mistake by Jens Lehman allowed Frank Lampard a trademark 10-yard toe-poke and we were clinging on when Wayne Bridge (Wayne Bridge!) danced through our defence to slot home. The semi-final would have been against Marseille and a likely final against Jose Mourinho's Porto, both well-organised but far from our standard or that of usual European Cup winners.

Greedy? Certainly. Ungrateful? Of course. But perhaps that is partly what makes us football fans. It is in the very nature of sport not to be satisfied, to always have another target or to have wished to have done more. None of which is to say that it wasn't wonderful. No-one who had the misfortune of seeing David Hillier and John Jensen in midfield just 10 years previously would ever think otherwise. And at 8-2 down at Old Trafford in August I would have willingly given a limb for an unbeaten run of four to nine games, let alone 49. And yet the pessimistic streak still cries out to be heard, calling for the closest a professional football team has ever come to perfection in this country to be improved upon. And yet, and yet, and yet... Even the Invincibles are what-might-have-beens.

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