The date was the 25th of June 2007, Arsenal’s record goal scorer, long time talisman and skipper had just been unveiled as Barcelona’s new multi-million pound signing. The talk had been building for all of the previous season, Arsenal’s disappointing exit to PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League round of sixteen only added fuel to the increasingly inescapable fire. Henry wanted the Champions League and felt the best chance of doing that was in Spain. The flirtation was finally consummated and the inventible happened, we saw an Arsenal favourite hold the famous red and blue shirt of Barca aloft, a sight we would have to get used to seeing over the next few years.
Losing your star man, all time record goal scorer and captain in one swoop is always going to be a bitter pill to swallow but there was so much else going on around the club at that time that made it all the tougher to handle.
It was around this time that the words turmoil and crisis started to become synonymous with the club, reports of financial struggles were starting to be peddled, blamed on the stadium build that was sold as doing the complete opposite. Our manager, whose reputation was untainted by fan protest at the time, was heading into the final year of his contract and rumours were circling that he would leave the club at the end of that contract due to not being willing to work under said financial burdens. Further to this Arsenal were without David Dein who had left the club abruptly a couple of months earlier, this was said to have unsettled Wenger and players alike. The wrong message was being sent out and all Arsenal fans were wondering which cherished piece of the club was next to walk out the door.
To add further to the frustration, Henry recouped a seemingly pitiful fee in comparison to some of the deals that were being done at the time, for context, he was sold for less than Hargreaves, Anderson and Darren Bent that summer. Just about everything looked uncertain, the boardroom was shuffling, the long-time boss was running down his contract, the invincibles were being dismantled piece by piece and with the recent departure from Highbury, the identity of the club felt like it was in jeopardy.
But in some respects Arsenal stuck to an identity and reputation that they had made for themselves in recent years, choosing to sign so called ‘lesser known’ players. While there was talk of signing Samuel Eto’o or Micahel Owen to replace the daunting gap that Henry left, it was actually Eduardo Da Silva from Dinamo Zagreb that was signed. And while Chelsea were signing Belletti, Arsenal signed a certain right back called Bacary Sagna from Auxerre. Although these players proved to be fans favourites, at the time these signings did little to appease the fans, Liverpool had signed one of the hottest prospects in world football in Fernando Torres and Manchester United had added Carlos Tevez to their already frightening attack.
But when the football started, the talking stopped and it was time to judge Arsenal on what really mattered. The first game looked set to deliver exactly what all fans were dreading when Lehmann made a mess of backpass in the first minute of the game and gifted Fulham an early goal but the game was turned around in the last six minutes, when goals from Van Persie and Alex Hleb secured the three points. From that point the gunners didn’t look back, they went fifteen Premier League games without tasting defeat before going down to Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough team. At this point many thought that this young Arsenal team would start to slide down the table but they reacted well, going on a another unbeaten run of eleven matches, beating Spurs and Chelsea along the way. These valiant performances in the face of so much doubt earned Arsenal a place at the top of the league at Christmas.
At the halfway point, a lot of the doubts that were being casted in the summer had been dispersed – Arsene Wenger looked set to build a new team and had extended his contract by three years and Arsenal found their replacement of Thierry Henry in the shape of Adebayor who had stepped up to the fore dramatically. The resilience of the team was being proved week by week, coming from behind to beat Spurs twice, rescuing points late on against Liverpool and Man United and reacting to the end of an unbeaten run by starting a new one.
The feel good factor continued into the new year, Eduardo had translated his form in the cup competitions to the league and Wenger had found a way of getting both Eduardo and Adebayor in the team and in the goals. Confidence seemed to be flowing and the belief on and off the pitch was growing. In the middle of February Arsenal had extended their lead at the top to five points.
But laid before this young and confident team was an ordeal that lives long in the memory of every Arsenal fan and for all the wrong reasons. In just the third minute of the now infamous Birmingham game Martin Taylor horrifically broke Eduardo’s leg, the players visibly distressed gesticulated for physios and paramedics to attend to the Croatian, after seven minutes where the world seemed to stand still Eduardo received treatment on the pitch before being rushed to the nearest hospital on oxygen. The game restarted but the trauma of the injury had affected the Arsenal players, they spent the rest of that half going through the motions and went into half time one man up but one goal down.
A young Theo Walcott exploded the Gunners into life in the second half with two goals that seemed to have turned the whole game around but in added time a lazy and tired challenge from French full back Gael Clichy gave Birmingham a penalty, a decision which led then Arsenal captain William Gallas to try and leave the pitch before the game was finished, only stopped by a daunting looking brummy steward. The penalty was converted and seconds later the full time whistle blew. Inexplicably when Gallas could have left the pitch with the rest of the players he decided to sit alone in the centre circle as the rest of the stadium emptied around him. Only Arsene Wenger could lift the clearly emotional captain from the St.Andrews turf.
That game cost so much more than the two points dropped and the loss of the talented Croatian. The manner in which the points were dropped followed by the antics of the man who was tasked to lead a young team through moments like this derailed the dressing room and killed any momentum that the Gunners had built up. Unsurprisingly, Gallas received widespread criticism for his reaction in this game from press and fans and unsurprisingly Wenger defended and explained away his actions claiming ‘he was frustrated.’ The boss was quick to shut down any talk of a dressing room rift after the closing moments of that game. However, it’s transpired in recent years that Gallas’ actions angered the senior members of the squad. In Jens Lehmann’s autobiography, Lehmann said about Gallas ‘he abandoned the team’ he then went on to describe the Frenchman as a ‘sulky child.’ The keeper also admitted that Gilberto Silva ‘came to blows’ with Gallas and that the argument ‘dragged on for the remainder of the season.’
The appointment of Gallas as captain was a controversial pick within the group from the start, Arsene was said to have chosen Gallas as captain not because he was a natural leader or a worthy character but to appeal to his sense of responsibility after he had reportedly left the training ground without permission and turned up late for training repeatedly in his first season at the club. When making a decision with that reasoning it was inevitable that at some point it would come back and explode in Wenger’s face. Clearly many mistakes were made when it came to Gallas, let’s face it we all knew something was up when he got given the number ten shirt. Clearly he let his team down on that day and evidently he didn’t do anything to unify the group after that either. One can only wonder how some of the captains and leaders who left the club over the couple of seasons prior would have handled the situation differently.
Without the leadership those pivotal moments in a season require, that day proved irrecoverable. Arsenal went on to draw their next three league games, all of which looked winnable and then they gave away a lead to lose at Stamford Bridge to make it four games without a win. This run of games meant Arsenal dropped from top of the league to third, from three points ahead to six points behind. Overcoming AC Milan at the San Siro with a late Fabregas stunner in the Champions League was a distraction but proved to be fruitless after a disappointing collapse at Anfield in the next round. Defeat at Old Trafford in the league was the final nail in the coffin, Adebayor gave Arsenal the lead but a Ronaldo penalty and Hargreaves free-kick gave them the win and the title slipped away completely in those moments.
The season ended with Arsenal just four points off the top, making the six points dropped in the aftermath of that game in the Midlands, all the more frustrating.
Although the season was difficult in many ways, it did leave a lot to be optimistic about, this Arsenal team was young and had serious talent – Fabregas was turning into the player everybody expected, Adebayor had scored thirty goals in forty-eight appearances and Arsenal had an abundance of creativity and attacking talent in Alex Hleb, Rosicky, Van Perise and an eighteen-year-old Theo Walcott.
Although the departures of Hleb and Flamini the following summer created much frustration, the future still looked bright, Wenger was seemingly pushing forward in building a young new team. Unsurprisingly, the players that grew frustrated with Gallas left, Gilberto going to Greece and Lehmann back to Germany and exciting young players were signed in Ramsey and Nasri.
It seemed that Arsenal had much to build on and prove after that season, it was thought they could improve and go the whole way in the seasons to come but sadly that season remains the closest Arsenal have been to the Premier League crown in the Emirates era. Wenger never got that close again and the fears that were talked about in the summer of 2007 manifested themselves over the years to come, ambition was questioned by fans and more worryingly exiting players too. Arsenal lost key players season by season and become the selling club we all feared. We also had to become used to being told summer by summer that we couldn’t keep up with the financial clout that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United had at that time. Predictably, Arsenal slipped further away from the coveted crown of English football.
What we’re experiencing now is the difficult climb back up to that challenge, and step by step we’re shedding the labels that were first attached to the club around that time. Arsenal can’t be labelled a selling club anymore, talks of ambition now seem aligned with the stature of the club and big moves are finally being made in the market. Like that team of 2007/08, the players in our current squad are young, they have got much to prove and they’ve got the potential for real success but only time will tell which one of Wenger’s teams they will follow in the footsteps of.
I’m a lifelong gooner in my early twenties, hailing from coastal North Wales. The passion for all things red and white is passed down from generation to generation in the Collins family, a gift and obsession that was first passed down by my Grandad, who was a regular at Highbury in the 60’s, it’s been a lifetime of sharing the pain and joy together ever since.
It was at a cold and wet trip to Manchester City that I caught the bug, a day that ended in a defeat to a Joey Barton penalty, it’s pretty much been down hill from there but I’m sure the glory days I’ve heard so much about will return and I’m here to document that journey.