It’s a sunny September day at Highbury and Ian Wright has just made history. His shirt’s over his head, Ravanelli style, revealing his now-iconic vest: 179, Just Done It. He removes the shirt completely and his gold tooth glimmers as Ray Parlour comes to congratulate him. So, why is this moment from the Arsenal archives so vivid for a lifelong Leeds fan?
The context for my Arsenal love affair
My first ever football match was the Euro ’96 opener. Sat cross-legged on the floor at Wakefield Prison Staff Club, a late Kübilay Türkyilmaz penalty provided a fitting introduction. I’d already pledged allegiance to Leeds, but my cousin was undecided – until he saw David Seaman. I’m convinced that the garish kit played a part, but either way, he decided to become a Gooner.
1996 was a unique period in English football. I’d say that more changed during the first ten years of the Premier League than in any other period. Overseas stars such as Eric Cantona and ‘Tino’ Asprilla were still considered a novelty. And at the start of 1996/97, Chelsea’s Ruud Gullit was the only top-flight manager from outside the UK & Ireland. The Dutchman was competing with 11 Englishmen, 6 Scotsmen, 1 Irishman, and 1 Northern Irishman.
So, when Arsène Wenger was unveiled as Arsenal’s first-ever overseas manager in September 1996, a lot of questions were asked. Not least of all by the Evening Standard, whose “Arsène Who?” headline is now legendary. “At first, I thought: what does this Frenchman know about football?” confessed then-skipper Tony Adams. “He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?”
This wasn’t a division that was ready-made for Wenger’s methods or his philosophy. Arsenal had struggled with corruption and a prevalent drinking culture since their title win in 1991. But rather than roll his sleeves up and attempt to adapt, Wenger did the complete opposite. He revolutionised not only Arsenal but the role of managers in general, clubs’ approach to recruitment, training methods, and nutrition.
Red cards and wonder-goals for Wenger’s Arsenal
Now obviously, as an 8-year-old boy, I wasn’t particularly tuned in to what Wenger was doing behind-the-scenes. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I’ve come to admire him even more. What I was particularly tuned into was the way that his side played football.
At the time, Arsenal had the reputation of being ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal’. Their stadium was known as the ‘Highbury Library’ and their ‘1-0 to the Arsenal,’ chant became self-deprecating. Stodgy, ugly, pragmatic: the hallmarks of George Graham’s approach which had festered under Bruce Rioch. That I was then enduring Graham’s approach first-hand with Leeds is no coincidence. In the 1996/97 season, Graham’s Leeds somehow finished 11th whilst scoring only 28 goals.
So, this new brand of exciting continental football was irresistible to me. Wenger had inherited the deadly strike-force of Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp. He had the unstoppable back-four of Adams, Keown, Dixon, and Winterburn, backed up by David Seaman. And there was another magic ingredient which Wenger had pre-emptively added: Patrick Vieira.
This combination of silk and steel was everything that you could ask for in a late ‘90s powerhouse. Some of those Bergkamp goals still blow my mind to this day. Teenage star Nicolas Anelka replaced John Hartson in January ’97. And then a month later, Ian Wright’s two-footed lunge on Peter Schmeichel sparked a full-on brawl. For a while, it was all red cards and wonder-goals.
The Frenchman’s fierce rivalry with Ferguson
At the end of Wenger’s second season, it wasn’t just schoolboy thrills that his side were providing. The addition of Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit elevated them even further, and his scintillating side romped to a double. He was the first overseas manager to achieve ten straight wins. Bergkamp’s hat-trick against Leicester was pure poetry. And of course, Wright’s ‘179: Just Done It’ t-shirt was history in the making.
Anybody who’d instantly doubted or dismissed Wenger was now being made to squirm in their chair. Or in the case of Sir Alex Ferguson, stick 11 proverbial rockets where the sun doesn’t shine. The fierce rivalry between Wenger and Ferguson is one of the defining features of his legacy. A mild-mannered Frenchman nicknamed ‘The Professor’, and a tough-talking Glaswegian from shipbuilding stock.
Freddie Ljungberg and Nwankwo Kanu joined the double-winners. And even though they were always neck-and-neck with Manchester United, they still always felt like the unlikely underdogs. The Premier League era was synonymous with Old Trafford glory and it’d take something colossal to shift that.
From beating my beloved Leeds 3-1 on 20 December ’98, Arsenal gained a breath-taking 49 points from a possible 57. That’s 15 wins, 4 draws, and 0 defeats. This ended on 11 May against Leeds (who else?!) and they eventually missed out on the title by a single point.
As if that wasn’t tough enough, they’d also lost to Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-finals. Ryan Giggs’ extra-time winner and the subsequent chest wig celebration is still in pretty-much every FA Cup montage going. And as we know, even that wasn’t enough for Ferguson. Wenger wins a double; he wins a treble.
Heartbreak and high drama at Highbury
Arsenal’s start to the new millennium was even more dramatic than their first few years under Wenger. It was always either euphoria or heartbreak at Highbury. They threatened to charter new territory when they reached the UEFA Cup Final in 2000, only to lose against Galatasaray.
This links to a heavily poignant moment for me. Ahead of our top of the table clash at Elland Road on 16 April, their players present ours with some flowers. Two of our fans had been stabbed to death by Galatasaray fans in the semi-final only ten days earlier. Still shell-shocked, we lost 1-0 at Aston Villa on 9 April and then 4-0 against Arsenal. Our title challenge was effectively ended that day, but football itself mattered far less.
In that same season, Kanu scored a goal against Chelsea which almost defied science. A relatively unknown French winger called Thierry Henry arrived from Juventus under a cloud of doubt. This was worsened by the fact that he failed to score in his first eight appearances. Then again, Davor Šuker had also arrived to provide support.
Heartbreak and high drama followed them in the 2000/01 season. Vieira was sent-off in the first two league games and bagged a brace in the third before serving his suspension. Henry’s goal against Manchester United in October was the stuff of dreams. Chipping the ball up before volleying it into the top corner with his back turned, as Fabien Barthez stood motionless.
Revenge was served cold: a humiliating 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford saw their title challenge ended as early as February. Freddie Ljungberg converted their dominance into a well-deserved lead against Liverpool at the Millennium Stadium. But two late goals from Michael Owen saw the FA Cup head to Merseyside.
The making of Arsenal’s Invincibles
Having initially threatened to inflict a new period of domination, Arsenal were now looking wobbly. Three trophy-less seasons since painted them as also-rans. Their football was exhilarating, but was that enough?
2001/02 was relatively uneventful, and yet Arsenal silenced the critics with another double: bolstered by Sol Campbell and business-like. Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle is my favourite non-Leeds goal. And four days after beating London rivals Chelsea in the FA Cup Final, they sealed the title at Old Trafford.
The following season showed glimmers of what was to come. Another significant result at Leeds played its part. Their 4-1 win at Elland Road saw Arsenal score in a record-breaking 47th consecutive game. More importantly, it was such a jaw-dropping exhibition of Total Football that the home fans clapped them off.
They reached a record 30 Premier League games unbeaten; eventually shattered when a 16-year-old Wayne Rooney scored his first senior goal. Henry’s goal at Tottenham won Match of the Day’s Goal of the Season. And with Arsenal going strong in the FA Cup, everything looked set for a historic back-to-back double.
However, one of the most bizarre sights in modern football saw their title stolen at Highbury. Unsurprisingly, Leeds were involved once again. In the throes of a cataclysmic downfall, we needed a win to avoid relegation. With Arsenal on the brink of the title and Leeds floundering near the bottom, this was nigh-on impossible.
So much so that Leeds fans jokingly likened it to a request on classic TV show ‘Jim’ll Fix It’. Never a fanbase to do things by half, a huge chunk of the travelling support dressed as Jimmy Saville. A pulsating encounter saw Mark Viduka score our dramatic 88th-minute winner. Cameras panned to the away end, where “football limbs” featured thousands of Jimmy Savilles.
Rivalry boils over as Arsenal make history
A 1-0 win against Southampton had seen Arsenal retain the FA Cup, but it was merely consolation. What followed will never be repeated in the English top-flight. Liverpool came close in 2020, but not close enough. 26 wins, 12 draws, and 0 defeats: The Invincibles. They’d strengthened further with Jens Lehmann, Cesc Fàbregas, and Robin van Persie, but the core was capable.
Even then, the hallmarks of Wenger’s early years remained. A September stalemate became the “Battle of Old Trafford” after Ruud van Nistelrooy’s 90th-minute penalty miss sparked a mass brawl. Arsenal’s subsequent £175,000 fine was the largest ever issued to a club by the FA. As Arsenal played “samba football”, their rivalry with Manchester United was boiling over.
A recent cup clash had seen Paul Scholes, van Nistelrooy, and Vieira all booked inside seven minutes. Jeff Winter had to summon Vieira and Roy Keane to calm things down. Keane himself was booked after Giggs missed an open goal from 18-yards. And Ferguson was so incensed by the 2-0 defeat that he kicked a boot across the dressing room: cutting David Beckham above his eye.
Overseas, a stunning 5-1 win over Internazionale at the San Siro underlined Arsenal’s strength in November. Henry’s hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Liverpool in April rendered them unstoppable. And in sealing the title with a 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane later than month, Arsenal were on cloud nine.
They suffered semi-final defeats in both domestic cups, including the FA Cup against Manchester United. And despite the hammering of Inter, they only reached the quarters of the Champions League. But none of that mattered when they came from behind to beat Leicester 2-1 at Highbury on the final day. After 115 years, Preston North End’s record had finally been matched.
The uncomfortable decline for Wenger’s Arsenal
The fourteen years that followed weren’t particularly pleasant, bar four FA Cup wins which arguably kept Wenger clinging on. They were runners-up in the Champions League in 2006 and twice runners-up in both the Premier League and League Cup. The infamous 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford in 2011 will long haunt the memory of any Arsenal fans. Even in Wenger’s landmark 1000th game in charge, they suffered a humiliating 6-0 defeat against Chelsea.
What saddens me is that the remainder of his tenure felt a little undignified. Shoving the fourth official after being sent-off in a 2017 win over Burnley. A full-strength side losing on penalties against League Two side Bradford City in the League Cup in 2012. It was a painful descent which threatened to overshadow what he’d achieved between 1996 and 2004.
We all know that their phenomenal 49-game unbeaten Premier League run came to an end at Old Trafford. Campbell refused to shake Rooney’s hand at full-time. There was no customary swapping of shirts. Tempers flared in the tunnel and police officers had to intervene. Wenger confronted van Nistelrooy before Fàbregas threw a slice of pizza at Ferguson. The tabloids had “pizzagate”, and Wenger had finally had his day.
It would’ve been wrong for me to simply ignore those final 14 years of his reign. The fact is, it’s almost exactly two-thirds of his reign in total. But I’m hoping that, as time goes on, that glorious spell over the turn of the millennium will form Wenger’s legacy.
What he achieved at Arsenal, both on and off the pitch, is simply stunning. Their combination of homegrown steel and continental flair elevated our game to a new level. Their victories were never routine or predictable: there was intense drama at every turn.
And Wenger – soft-spoken and intellectual at times, with a tenacious underbelly always lurking in the shadows – is a true icon of the game. Wenger and Ferguson were like ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and Vince McMahon back in the day. You just don’t get rivalries like that anymore.
Perhaps I’m just getting older and clinging to boyhood nostalgia. But as a neutral, I doubt I’ll ever be more enamoured than by Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal.