In the last decade I must have written more than a million words on Arsenal Football Club. I've contributed to the Gooner, for the vast majority of the last fifty issues (thanks Mr. Francis), to the Highbury and Islington Express with an opinionated Fans Eye View column, to Chris Parry's excellent arsenal-world.net (he really did say that! - ed.) and in enough emails to crash several hefty servers. I even wrote a 10,000 word, twelve-page special back in 1999 on the future of Highbury. Verbiage on matters red and white has not been a problem for me. Yet, in the warm afterglow of events of the last ten days, I find myself curiously word shy.
And when it comes down to it, the reason is because I know words cannot really do the colossal performances of the entire squad justice. Yes, there have been individual stars but twenty-two players, a Premiership record, qualified for a Championship medal. Tony Adams started only two more league games than Stuart Taylor did. Arsene was spot on (as ever) when he put our success down to the squad. And what success it was. To score in every game is something but to go an entire season away from home undefeated is without parallel in the modern game, both domestically and throughout the footballing world.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, they say, and the celebrations at the final whistle in Cardiff proved that theory correct. Joy unconfined in the 'lucky' red half of the stadium was reflected on the pitch. The pain we all felt after Michael Owen's late late show the season before was erased at last. Tony lifting the trophy with Paddy was a nice touch; Wiltord's impromptu jiving on the podium another. Sol Campbell loved every minute of it. But it was Lee Dixon who best summed up the occasion, standing alone in the centre circle for at least twenty minutes looking up at the celebrating Gooners, soaking up the party atmosphere. For me, the feeling was one of overriding relief. After three frustrating years without a trophy, the team had at last re-discovered the winning touch. Celebrations for the team were cut short, with the players all at home long before the midnight curfew, knowing that the job was still very much in need of finishing. The Millennium stadium in Cardiff is an impressive structure. Built in less than two years for a fraction of the cost of the 'new' Wembley, it is a tribute to the country. The city itself, with the castle, station, stadium and 70 plus pubs all within a quarter of a mile or so, is an excellent venue for the big occasion. Fans of both teams mingled happily in the grounds of the castle, drinking, taking photos, playing pick up games with footballs of varied colour and quality and generally lapping up the convivial pre-match atmosphere. Just as last year against the Scousers, Cardiff proved to be a fitting venue for the grand old tournament.
Four days later it was Old Trafford and the chance to snatch the title from the champions on their own patch. Ferguson, fed-up at losing the mind games this time round, lost it with a group of journalists the day before the big match. One of his comments, 'You are f**king idiots' has already made it onto T-shirts available on football365.com. The atmosphere in the stadium, from the top tier of the North Stand where I sat right amongst the Manchester United faithful was as tense as it was vitriolic and I hid under my cap, one hand covering my face, the other holding onto the seat. It turned out that in my row there were eight Gooners in a row which gave us silent confidence, but also more chance that we would be discovered and kicked out of the ground.
The decibel level in the first half matched the ferocity of the Manchester United tackling, but the men in gold (remember how much that shirt was hated when it was launched?) stood firm. Ashley Cole was magnificent, silencing the doubters that think he can't defend; Wiltord ran his heart out. Campbell and Keown repelled everything that came their way. Nil nil at half time and the tension levels in the stadium crank up another notch. Then eleven minutes into the second half it happens. Ljungberg breaks into the box, through the legs of the hapless Blanc, shoots firmly and Barthez gets down low to push it out. From the stand where we sit, level with Wiltord as he strikes the ball, time stands still. All I can think is knock it in son, knock in son. And suddenly the ball is in the back of the net and I just about refrain from leaping out of my seat. The seven others with me are equally silent but a couple can't help stifling a softly spoken 'yessss'. Wiltord slides onto his knees into the corner below me and a delirious Kanu leapfrogs over him by a clear two feet. The rest of the team soon joins in and all in can do is bury my face in my hands and smile until I think my cheeks are going to crack.
The minutes tick by, each slower than the last. With twelve to go I started to think the clock had actually stopped, judging by the number of times I looked at the scoreboard to my right. Sweet tension, could we hold on? And as the time turned into single digits it looked like we could. United Fans began to swarm out of the stadium (long trip back to London when you've seen your team outclassed huh?) in increasing numbers. Our fans are belting out the songs; we love you Freddie, we'll win the league in Manchester, champions, he comes from Senegal, he plays for Arsenal, Sol's a gooner. I have no nails left, I've bitten them all off. Come on ref, blow your whistle. About three days later (or so it seems) he finally does. And we're champions. We've done the unthinkable. The treble double is completed in the home of our closest rivals. My Dad was at White Hart lane back in 1971, we watched Anfield '89 on the TV and after all the stories of those two great nights I at last had one of my own. We were quiet walking down the thousand steps from the dizzying heights of the third tier, but once we were out onto the stadium concourse, we couldn't help but celebrate. We tried to join the Arsenal boys cavorting in front of the Sky cameras but were repelled with a 'move on or get arrested lads' by the decidedly unhappy Mancunian police. No matter, we had our songs and celebratory lagers back in the hotel in Altrincham where we were joined by a particularly sour United fan who didn't last long. We watched the game again and then Sky Sports News on repeat until 4:30am when we succumbed to a few hours kip. My last waking thought was of the home made flag unfurled in that jubilant corner of the stadium which read: 'Old Trafford Champions Section'.
The home game with Everton was always going to be a knees up and the fireworks going off around the stadium and the massed ranks of celebrating Gooners, spewing from every conceivable alcohol serving establishment confirmed it. Those selling vast quantities of "unofficial" Double winning merchandise made a small fortune. The game itself was little more than a distraction. It felt like a testimonial, but credit to Everton they certainly made a contest of it. Countless presentations were made before the game, but one in particular stood out. The reluctant and typically unassuming Bob Wilson has devoted 39 years to the club, looked almost sheepish at his tremendous and heartfelt reception. All we wanted was the trophies and as ever the club did it in style with every player taking it in turn to lift the pot. Even Junichi Inamoto (who didn't make a single appearance) got his hands on it. When Pires went up, limping heavily, the rest of the team, on their knees, bowed to him to salute his tremendous contribution. But then there were so many heroes it seems vaguely churlish to single out the Frenchman.
From a personal perspective it was an amazing week. I left for a job with our New York agency the day before the home debacle with Charlton and it was tough leaving my Clock End season ticket, albeit in the safe hands of my father and sister. On my two trips home I saw us labour to home wins against Boro and Derby as well as the defeat by Deportivo. So to come back to see two trophies in four days was nothing short of phenomenal. As I waited to leave my Dad called to say I'd never see anything like that again and although I'm sure we'll win plenty more trophies, I doubt I'll see it done quite like that again. Flying home to New York never seemed tough before! Some observers reckoned Arsene's quote that this team were up with the all time greats was premature, but the records set this season, in my opinion, give his claim credence. Next season United will roar back like a wounded animal and Liverpool might yet be the biggest threat. Arsene will already be thinking, plotting and scheming what's next, but I hope he takes the time to sit down once in a while this summer, with a good drop of claret (French naturally), and reflect on the amazing success he's masterminded.