At one time 2004 was, we thought, going to be remembered as the momentous date that Arsenal made history by getting final approval and finance for our new home. Such a colossal decision, major upheaval and over-stretching financial burden was supposed to be, according to the media pundits, the reason why Arsenal were broke and wouldn’t be able to compete for the title with the financial giants at Old Trollop and the Bridge of Sighs. We were told that Arsenal’s squad was lightweight and not up to the task, we were advised that our defence wasn’t strong enough and we were informed that whoever finished above United would be champions. What they hadn’t figured on of course is that Arsene Wenger has been fighting above his weight for a number of seasons now and getting rather good at it. Arsene positively relishes the concept that careful, considered and clever spending is more effective than huge transfer fees and that squad unity is paramount. It was the ever astute Arsene who’d got it right.
The sunny weather was perfect and the champagne corks were popping prior to kick-off outside ‘The Gunners’ and no doubt inside and outside of every other Gooner watering hole in the world. Celebrations get better with practice and we are indeed a well-practised bunch of fans. The streets around Highbury were rammed and rocking with happy, smiling, chanting party people with or without match tickets who knew there was only one place to be. The Arsenal after all were about to take ‘One historic step for Arsene but a giant leap for Gooners everywhere’. Another Championship and another batch of chants to inform the world that we are indeed the greatest football team. Happy days at Highbury, before during and after the match.
Inside Highbury I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Gooners in colours; a vibrant sea of red, white and yellow, every shirt from every era seemingly represented. The sprinklers on the pitch were going off prior to kick off and I reckon some of the crowd could have done with a minute or two under them to sober up a tad. The scoreboards flashed ‘Home of the Champions’ while one huge blue and one huge white Barclaycard championship banner fluttered over the West Stand. Durkin was our ref for the day, Arsene put out his first eleven and battle commenced with Leicester going for a 9-1 formation with Dickov up front. ‘It’s Arsenal, Arsenal FC they’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’. Arsene removed his jacket, Gooners let rip and the history lesson was go.
Henry carried on from Fulham with his crap corner routine. Pires fired wide from a narrow angle. Leicester won what I think was their first throw in after 23 minutes. Leicester broke right Dickov was clearly offside on the left, he didn’t get back onside and was clearly offside when he got the perfect header past Lehmann. A great goal from the wee man but I doubt if he was onside at any point in the move. Henry and others suggested to the follically challenged fool with the yellow flag that he should watch the replay screens. I was suggesting what he might do with his flag. 0-1 Leicester was not on my party plan itinerary, nor I suspect Mr Wenger’s.
Pat got uptight and nothing was given when Dickov fouled Kolo. The Leicester fans were obviously celebrating like mad but were shouted down with the predictable ‘You’ll never play here again’. Dabizas flattened Henry. Henry had a shot on the turn saved by Walker. Freund once again tripped Vieira but it was the niggly McKinlay who was going for a record number of fouls without a booking, eagerly assisted by Durkin. Dennis fired wide after some good hold up play by Thierry. A Pires snap shot flashed just wide. A good cross from Stewart but Bent was still their main man on the rare occasions the Foxes got the ball. Time wasting had started early.
More good Arsenal pressure saw Henry’s shot win a corner. The crowd were frustrated though. Pat was pushing forward when Henry hit a first time shot over. The lino flagged Dickov offside to huge ironic jeering. Henry’s cross had no one to meet it, and then Cole hit one into the ground. Pires was given offside but the crowd towards the Clock End totally disagreed. As they did with a lot of Durkin’s pro-Leicester decisions. A frustrating half came to an end.
Now it’s only fair to mention at this point that if notes can be slurred, then mine are. So reading them back on a Sunday morning with a ‘slight’ headache might provide some vague interpretations to events. What I can’t show you in my scribbling is the significant colour change at half time. When things are not going our way I change to a red pen. Sad I know but it took less than 75 seconds to do the trick.
Arsenal were back in a flowing mode. Sinclair tripped Henry whose quick free kick failed to catch out Walker, I bet that was a first. Dennis to Freddie won a corner. Leicester had gone for an all out attack now retaining just the eight men back. Dennis pressed; Leicester hoofed clear. Saving blocks and tackles mount in numbers and it’s only a matter of time. Jens out to take at the other end in a rare attack. Dennis crossed neatly but there was no one there. McKinlay passed to Walker from halfway, all very positive. Cole chases down the keeper. ‘71-2004’
The killer ball, as sweet as you would expect, came from Dennis who slotted one through for Pat to run onto. Pat outpaced the defence, danced around the keeper and slotted home. The perfect ball, the perfect run, the perfect finish and what an appropriate player to round off the season. 2-1 Arsenal. ‘We’ve got Dennis Bergkamp’ and we have for another season. ‘Vieira’. But how many other football crowds would applaud the passer before the scorer I wonder? Good to know that those beautiful passes will be appreciated for yet another season, the last of the Bergkamp era.
What followed was piss-take passing. Edu replaced Pires both receiving massive ovations. Leicester threw caution to the winds and played an 8-2 formation. Arsenal controlled the game but Martin was upstaging the play by receiving a massive standing ovation for his warm up runs. Henry placed a shot perfectly but it lacked power. Gilberto on a run following about two million passes. Someone replaced Freund, Who? Did we care? Coyne replaced Walker who didn’t look injured, other than that usual pained expression on his face. It was all Arsenal and all good football now, with that added invincible glow you get from going 38 matches unbeaten. Gilberto to Freddie – great ball. A Vieira pile driver whacked Stewart to fly for a corner after more great play from our Dutch maestro.
Keeper caught one from Edu. Reyes replaced Dennis, the applause for Dennis was off the decibel meter I’m sure. Reyes to Freddie whose fine shot was tipped over for a corner. Shots from Toure and Edu, I think, during a highly a pressurised scramble in front of the North Bank were blocked, as were others. Benjamin came on for Dickov who was warmly applauded by Gooners, but Martin who replaced Freddie received the ovation of the day. Durkin was still tying to even the game up but it was our day, our season and our immortality. Martin touched the ball to huge cheers. Henry broke and the prick with the yellow flag gave him offside when he clearly wasn’t. Two minutes of added time to a season of 38 league games. I make that 3,420 minutes plus added time of unbeaten football. Someone tried to start a chant ‘You’ll never beat the Arsenal’ but the anthem of the day had started elsewhere and spread until the entire stadium was chanting ‘We are unbeatable’. It was still being sung where any Gooner was capable of raising a glass into the wee small hours.
My thoughts wandered off through the season during the parade around the pitch to where it had all gone right. So just to recap it all started way back on the 16th August 2003 against Everton and continued with Boro, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Portsmouth, Manure on St Keown’s day, the Newkie Broons, Hooferpool, Big spending Bluescum, Charlton, Dirty Leeds, Scum, Brum, one f in Fulham, and Leicester, Blackburn, Bolton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Southampton, Everton again, Boro again and again, Villa, the real Mancs, wobbly Wolves, Saints, Chelski who ain’t got no history, Athletic, Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, the Merchandisers, Red Scousers, Toon Army, Doomed Leeds, the ‘71-2004’ hosts, Boring Brum, Pompey complete with those bloody chimes, Fancy dress at Fulham and finally Leicester City.
Sharing these moments on the far-flung away days and at our home in Highbury with friends is what it means to me. It’s being there, being part of it, making up the atmosphere and knowing that following the lads all around England was an unsurpassable, wonderful history making adventure. The Gooner kingdom of course stretches far beyond Highbury and England and on such a day no matter where you were in the world and no matter whom you were with, if you’re a Gooner it fills you with such immense pride. I was extremely proud, it was so beautiful it made me want to cry – and so I did.