WTTGT Writer: Mikey Mumford
Just five League Cup appearances in six years at Arsenal; it was always going to be difficult to dislodge the legend that is David Seaman from the team. To make matters worse, Jens Lehmann joined in 2003 and played every match as the Arsenal invincibles went unbeaten for the entire 2003-04 Premier League season. So for Graham Stack, Arsenal’s number two during that campaign, it was a case of looking for pastures new after numerous loan spells.
“I’d almost come to the stage where I was missing out on playing football and I really wanted to get stuck in, playing games and making a bit of a name for myself,” Stack told WTTGT.
“I took that decision upon me and I thought it was probably time to leave. I was offered a three year contract at Reading. It was too good of an opportunity to turn down really.”
Stack was signed as a nine-year-old by his boyhood club and was part of the successful youth setup that won consecutive FA Youth Cups in 2000 and 2001. Stack credits Don Howe, Neil Banfield and Don Givens for installing the winning mentality from an early age.
He said: “As far as I’m concerned it was probably the best youth setup in the country at the time; we were blessed with some of the best youth team coaches around.
“It was all about the winning although sometimes we were led to believe it was about learning, but I was very fortunate, very lucky to be around such good players and members of staff.”
After penning his first professional contract with the Gunners in July 2000, the following season saw Stack loaned out to Belgian side, Beveren, for whom Arsenal had an affiliation with. His time in Belgium became notable for his part in the ugly scenes which blighted Beveren’s local derby with Royal Antwerp.
Stack came under physical attack from a section of the opposition supporters who had run onto the field. The ‘keeper fought back, punching one of those onrushing hooligans to the ground.
Stack fights back
He recalls that moment with WTTGT: “I remember being 3-1 up at the time and I think the supporters behind my goal were away fans that carried a bit of a reputation.
“Obviously with the game continuing to go on I was in no position to leave the pitch [when the supporters came on]. I decided to stay and a couple of fellas decided to throw one or two punches. Fortunately for me, nothing really seemed to hit and then I just decided to defend myself really.
“I put one of them on his backside and that was it really, but it went a bit mad after that with TV shows and interviews.”
The goalkeeper is adamant the events which marred the game and the publicity which followed made people take note of his performances.
“In a way it sort of benefited me because people did stand back and take note; it got me quite a bit of publicity so everyone ended up watching me as a goalkeeper rather than anything else.
“It was almost like nobody knew a great deal about me until that came about and then all of a sudden, people realised I was on loan from Arsenal. It probably put a bit more scrutiny on my performances.”
Liam Chilvers, Steve Sidwell and John Halls were among the strong Arsenal contingent on loan at Beveren with Stack, and he says the prospect of playing the likes of Anderlecht, Standard Liège and Club Brugge most weeks was a great experience.
Several players had swapped clubs between 2001 to 2006, but only Emmanuel Eboué and Igors Stepanovs completed permanent transfers; the latter departing Arsenal for Belgium in 2003. Assessing the affiliation, Stack believes it is difficult and dependant on how success is measured.
“If you get one player out of that system is it a success? I’m not too sure how you sort of value the success of it.
“Manu [Emmanuel Eboué] came into the Arsenal team and over the last four or five years he’s been a big fixture. It was great for us; as far as I was concerned it was a success for me and it worked well for me,” Stack explained.
Arsène Wenger loaned Stack to Millwall in 2004 and then Reading in 2005 to gain some more much needed experience, and the opportunity to play regularly between the sticks. His consistent run of form for Millwall earned him a call-up to the Republic of Ireland U21 side where he featured on seven occasions. Stack insists his call-up to the U21s came as a result of playing regularly, admitting reserve football is no substitute for the first-team.
He said: “When I got my U21 call up I was playing weekly out in Beveren and then at Millwall, so that was a massive help because I was playing week-in-week-out.
“The reserve team football isn’t to the standard or certainly not to the importance of what playing league football is.
“Once you stop playing week-in-week-out and there’s other goalies out thre, they tend to be the ones that are going to be favoured, and rightly so.”
With Arsenal’s influx of foreign stars the difficulty of emulating Jack Wilshere’s success and coming through the ranks is arguably harder than ever. Stack firmly believes nationality is no object and the best players will make it through the system.
“I don’t think it’s changed much since I was there really, but at the end of the day if you are good enough at Arsenal you will play regardless of where you’re from. They just look for the best players possible.”
The small issue of the number one jersey at the Emirates Stadium is yet to be decided for next season but Stack will be an interested onlooker should they delve into the transfer market for a goalkeeper.
He added: “We’d have to wait and see I suppose whether or not the club are going to look to sign someone, but I must say I was very impressed with Szczęsny later on in the season.
“I thought he was outstanding; [he] looks like a terrific shot stopper and again he’s young; [and] he’s got plenty of time on his side.
“I just don’t think the club have ever replaced Jens [Lehmann]. Just someone of that mentality and character has a massive influence upon a side. I’m not comparing goalkeepers but certainly as people, Jens had a massive impact; he was a leader and was well respected amongst the team. He was full of international experience and that was something that helped players around him.”
Now 29, Stack is currently employed by SPL outfit Hibernian after consolidating his position as number one after a series of injuries cut more loan spells short at Leeds, Blackpool and Wolves. He signed on permanently at Easter Road from Plymouth and has just been rewarded with a new one-year deal.