Part one -The first 10 years….
20 years? 20 years since the unknown French manager walked through the door and who would have thought he would still be manager to this day. Wenger arrived at Highbury in October 1996 and Arsenal fans didn’t have a clue who he was. Wenger had a lot to prove when he moved from Japan but the Frenchman soon dismissed any doubts over his appointment. People soon knew Wenger was a composed figure and someone who knew what he was doing. The English players often set up pranks on Wenger and nicknamed him “Inspector Clouseau” because of his clumsy nature. But things like dietary needs were important to the Frenchman. He made this clear to the players early on and he soon banned drinking and promoted pasta as the pre-match dish, encouraged boiled chicken instead of red meat and discouraged junk food. Arsene issued the players with vitamins pills and supplements minutes before matches and Tony Adams recalls having a mars bar and a cup of tea before a game and Arsene saying “No Tony, no sugar. You have to eat more carrots, more raw vegetables”. Training sessions would sometimes be 45 minutes long with a few stretches to start, then a small game and then a run around the field to finish. Wenger was also someone who liked to do things his own way and his approach was very direct and assertive. His new regime spoke of things to come and promised exciting times ahead.
It was 12th October 1996 and it was the day of Wenger’s first match in charge. There was huge excitement around the club. The mood had changed as soon as Wenger walked through the door. Arsenal travelled to Blackburn for their first game and it ended comfortably 2-0 with Ian Wright bagging a brace. Wright remembers feeling very depressed when Wenger first joined the club and even handing in a transfer request. But Wright admired Wenger’s calm and cool character and all the players respected him and would take on board what he had to say. With the likes of Vieira, Adams, Keown, Seaman, Parlour and Wright in his squad Wenger had a very good group of players to work with. But one man in particular thrived under Wenger’s appointment. Dennis Bergkamp had suffered quite a difficult first season in the premier league after Bruce Rioch made him his first signing spending £7.5m for the Dutch international.
Bergkamp only managed 11 goals in 33 appearances and was slated by the national press after not scoring in his first 6 games. But Wenger’s appointment seemed like the start of a new chapter. Despite making fewer appearances in the 1996/97 season Bergkamp was a lot more influential in the first team creating 13 assists. Arsenal led the premier league for a while but then poor form in February saw them finish 3rd and miss out on champions’ league qualification.
It was now time for a reshuffling in the Arsenal squad for the 1997/98 season. Wenger decided to take his Arsenal squad to Austria, which would become the club’s usual pre-season base. The players were given a night out which midfielder Ray Parlour revealed was spent at local pub with the other English players. Wenger in the meantime continued improving the squad; having let John Hartson’s move to West Ham United in February 1997, he convinced French teenager Nicolas Anelka to join Arsenal. He raided his old club Monaco to make 3 signings including Christopher Wreh, Gilles Grimandi and Emmanuel Petit. And with the loss of Paul Merson to Middlesbrough, Wenger decided it was time for something Arsenal lacked. He turned to Ajax and signed winger Marc Overmars who was set to bring pace and flare to the premier league but things weren’t going well and by Christmas Arsenal were in 6th place. Wenger called for a team meeting and from there things started to pick up immensely. Wenger’s team went onto win 9 consecutive wins towards the end of the season with a crucial 1-0 over Man United at Old Trafford and secured the premier league title. Things didn’t stop there for Arsene’s men as they went onto clinch the double, beating Newcastle in the FA Cup Final. The 1998/99 season wasn’t as successful for Wenger as he was reliant on Nicolas Anelka and Dennis Bergkamp to score the goals up front for Arsenal.
He went on to sign Nwanko Kanu in January 1999 but his addition to the squad couldn’t help Arsenal’s title push with Man United beating them to the title with the Gunners finishing in 2nd place. It got worst for Arsenal as they went crashing out of the FA cup semis to United. This would see Arsenal have a fierce rivalry with Man United as they battled it out for the next few premiership titles.
The summer of 1999 saw Arsenal bring in some new faces and saw the departure of Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid and the arrivals of David Sukor and Thierry Henry for £11.5 million.
But from here on in until 2001 there wasn’t going to be much to shout about for Arsenal fans and they were heavily beaten to the title by Man United in two consecutive seasons. Arsenal, however, did make it to the FA Cup Final against Liverpool only to be undone when a young Michael Owen took matters into his own hands scoring two late goals after Arsenal had dominated the game. But 2001 – 2006 were to be Arsene’s best years in charge at the club and would see Arsenal create Premier League history. In the next year Wenger was very busy signing players as he added Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Lauren to tighten up his defence. He strengthened his midfield with Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg joining and their careers at Arsenal would go on to flourish. Wenger’s way of doing things would soon pay off greatly and in the 2001/02 Arsenal were triumphant after they secured the double for the 2nd year under his reign, clinching the league at Old Trafford and beating Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup Final after a wondrous strike from Ray Parlour. Arsenal’s playing style of quick passing and intricate link up play made Arsenal a very tough opponent. Arsenal got off to a flying start in the 2002/03 season after winning 14 games on the bounce. And after the summer additions of Gilberto Silva and Kolo Toure fans were confident the club could win the league again- maybe too confident. After leading Man United at the top they were overhauled towards the end of the season and United went onto win the league.
But what happened in the 2003/04 season nobody could have dreamt of. Wenger and his Arsenal team were just too good and went the whole season unbeaten. The players were playing with a freedom and no team could handle them. With goals coming from all over the pitch the Arsenal team were known as ‘The Invincibles’.
Arsenal only made one major signing that summer replacing David Seaman with Jens Lehmann and Arsenal were now the team to beat. It was an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible without Arsene Wenger in charge. The next two seasons saw the emergence of Cesc Fabregas who would go onto produce great things at Arsenal. Fabregas started in the 2004/05 Fa cup final win against Manchester United. In the 10th year as Arsenal manager Wenger managed to get his team to the Champions’ League final only to lose to Barcelona. This was to be Arsenal’s last season at Highbury and they moved into the newly built Emirates Stadium.
Midlands mighty Gooner.
I am 15 and I have always been a passionate Arsenal supporter. I like to share my thoughts on Arsenal and I am very interested in pursuing a career in sports journalism writing about the beautiful game. I have stuck by the Gunners through the good and bad times but hopefully the future is bright for us Arsenal fans.