Graham Dougan was a youth prospect at Arsenal in the 1970s but never quite made the grade, making his career in the upper echelons of the old division two. He was also a Scottish U25 international. He is a regular pundit on TV in Malta and Luxembourg, and an after-dinner speaker of some repute.
He writes exclusively for the site and we sure you continue to enjoy his keen and unique insight into the game. This week he looks at Liverpool’s defeat to Watford and what it means for the legacy of Arsenal’s Invincibles.
We’ve all known for some time that a rampant Liverpool side, who are snarling through this Premier League season like a lion through the delicious gizzards of a sick gazelle, are going to win the title.
However, for Arsenal fans there was an additional worry: what if they didn’t lose a game? That would mean that the famous Invincibles, who won the Premier League in 2003-04 without defeat, would have to share that incredible achievement.
What a team that was. The elegance of Thierry Henry; the ice-cold Dennis Bergkamp; the telephonic legs of Patrick Vieira; and the calm assurance that only a man who has truly accepted his baldness can have in Pascal Cygan.
Some of the football they played was breast taking at times. Who can forget that day at Highbury when Henry looked at the Liverpool defence and thought ‘This is not the Liverpool of Alan Hansel, Mark Lorensorensen, and Samwise Hyppia’? He careered through them like a bulldozer knocking down skittles but instead of skittles they were orphans playing too close to a major thoroughfare. I can still hear the high-pitched shriek of Jamie Carragher as Henry’s centrifugal force knocked him off his axis like a planet blasted by the cosmic rays of an interstellar explosion. Don’t even get me started on what he did to Dietmar Hamann’s black hole.
The Gunners were deserved champions that season. Not even Manchester United with Sir Alex Ferguson in his pomp could stop them. That early season battle at Old Trafford when Vieira was sent off after a set-to with Rudd van Nistelrooykeane set the tone for the character required to go through a season without losing a game. If you need balls to win titles, Arsenal had gonads like spacehoppers.
And yet, question marks over that team remain because of what they didn’t do. Sure, they did something no other team has done in the modern era. You have to go back to the 1800s when Preston won the title without losing but that was a 22 game season and most of the players in those days suffered from a combination of Rickets, TB, Bloody Flux, French Pox, and Membranous Croup – as well as massive calcium deficiencies because of the great dairy shortage at the end of that century. Preston’s squad had the good fortune to remain free of most ailments while their opponents barked up blood and snapped brittle bones throughout the 90 minutes.
No team until Arsenal in 2003-04 had ever gone unbeaten through an entire season, and no team has done it since. It’s a unique achievement, nobody has matched it yet, but we have to ask ‘Should they have won more and done more with their talent?’.
The answer is unquestionably yes. They crashed out of the Champions League to Chelsea thanks to a goal from Wade Bridge, and it’s a black mark that they didn’t win the trophy that year. Nor did they win the UEFA Cup or the Cup Winners Cup, adding more ignominy to what is supposed to be a great club.
Even domestically they underachieved too, failing to lift the FA Cup, the League Cup, the Johnson’s Paint Trophy, the Zenith Data Systems Cup, the FA Vase, the Autoglass Shield, the Humberside over-35s 7-a-side jamboree, or the Isthmian League (third tier, regional north). I have long thought that despite Arsene Wenger’s brilliance, the fact that Arsenal couldn’t combine winning the Premier League without losing a game with success in the Myanmar National League Second Division demonstrates a fundamental failing in the Frenchman’s tenure. It will always be a major shadow on his career for me.
As for the individual players, if Bergkamp was such an intelligent person, why did he not channel his brainpower into science? Perhaps we might have a cure for the CocaCola Virus right now if he had. Similarly, would the world be so affected by war and conflict if famous diplomat Jens Lehmann had done more with his skills instead of going for a wee during a game to waste time (as well as urine)? As for the inability of Robert Pires to find a solution for so-called global warming – or climactic change as the millenniums these days call it – he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.
So, by all means celebrate a thing which no other team has done or can do. As we’ve all seen, it’s something that in all the years before and since happens so with such rarity in all the leagues in all the world that it might as well be a Tottenham trophy win. But to be considered truly Invincible, Arsenal needed to win every game of football in every competition on the planet and they didn’t. I have the proof and I’ll argue with you about this on Twitter for days if you question me.
I never sleep. I am the night.
Your pal GD