Ten years on from an historic night at Highbury, we speak to Graham Stack, one of seven players who made their Gunners debut in the only Arsenal home game that went to penalties.
Ten years ago, Cesc Fabregas made his Arsenal debut as an unknown 16 year old, and so took the first steps of what has become an outstanding career.
But there was another Gunners debutant that evening who turned out to have a much more dramatic first match than the Spaniard, even if their career paths were destined to lead in very different directions.
I’ve always seen the shoot-outs as an opportunity for a goalie. On a night like that, making your debut at Highbury and with the chance to become a hero, it was a dream
In fact there were no fewer than seven youngsters all turning out for Arsenal for the first time as Arsène Wenger’s side met Rotherham United in the Carling Cup third round on October 28, 2003. Four of them were named in the starting line-up - Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Jerome Thomas and Graham Stack. It would be a memorable night for all of them, but especially for 22-year-old ‘Stacky’.
The Hampstead-born goalkeeper had worked his way through the youth system at Arsenal after joining the Club at the age of 10, and was promoted to the first-team squad at the start of the 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’ season. He trained each day alongside fellow keepers Jens Lehmann, Stuart Taylor and Rami Shaaban, but it was Stack who was given the nod for the League Cup matches that season. And it all began that Tuesday night at Highbury against Division One side Rotherham…
“I remember the game clearly,” recalls Stack. “We were winning 1-0 going into the 90th minute. I’d actually had a really good game, and I thought we had done it, a clean sheet on my debut and through to the next round. I was in goal at the Clock End and then Darren Byfield popped up with a header from a cut-back to take it to extra-time. I was gutted because I wanted a run of games in the cup, but there was still plenty to happen that night.”
That’s an understatement. Although there were no goals in extra-time, Arsenal did everything but score after Stack’s opposite number in the Rotherham goal, Mike Pollitt, was sent off early on after handling outside his box. And so it went to penalties, the one and only time Arsenal have ever been involved in a shoot-out in a home match.
“It was a fairytale the way it turned out,” says Stack. “I love penalty shoot-outs but I never expected to have to take one! I’ve always seen the shoot-outs as an opportunity for a goalie. On a night like that, making your debut at Highbury and with the chance to become a hero, it was a dream.”
It was no ordinary shoot-out. Arsenal and Rotherham could not be separated after nine penalties apiece, and because the visitors had been reduced to 10 men, the Gunners had to nominate somebody to sit out too. The boss chose Stathis Tavlaridis, meaning Stack had to step up and take a spot-kick himself.
I had nearly signed for Arsenal as an outfield player anyway, so I was OK with it [taking a penalty]
“Everyone suddenly started pointing at me from the centre circle, and I realised it was my turn,” he laughs. “But I had nearly signed for Arsenal as an outfield player anyway, so I was OK with it. It was only when I was part of a Bob Wilson Soccer School that it all changed for me and I became a keeper.
"I captained Surrey Schools as a centre half, with Steve Sidwell in my team, so it’s mad how my career changed, because I played for my borough and school teams in various positions, but never in goal.
“So I was happy to take one. I’ve always been a really confident kid, maybe it’s because I was brought up in a pub. In that environment you have to be quite outgoing and I’ve always believed in my own ability.
“I had about 30 or 40 family and friends at the game, and a few of them were about four rows back in the North Bank behind the goal where the penalties were being taken. I was aware of them, so I just had to stay relaxed. I went to the keeper’s right, it went straight into the side netting and I was relieved I can tell you.”
The adrenaline was clearly pumping after he converted from 12 yards, as he saved the very next kick he faced, allowing Sylvain Wiltord to score and send Arsenal through with a 9-8 win after 11 penalties each.
Fabregas, who started the game to become Arsenal’s youngest ever player aged 16 years and 177 days, was taken off moments before the equaliser, so missed out on the shoot-out, but Stack was among those who had identified a future star even then.
“We signed a few foreign young players at the time,” he says, “and the policy was it didn’t matter where you were from, if you were good enough you got your chance. We took this 16 year old from Barcelona, who nobody had heard of, and on his first day he was training with the first team.
I had to tell them what I’d seen - that he [Fabregas] was going to be a world-beater. You could see it even when he was 16. His football brain was just miles ahead
"As you would expect, there was a lot of disappointment from some of the young English boys at the time, who felt they had been overlooked. So after that first session they were asking me ‘what’s that young Spanish kid like? Is he better than what we’ve already got in the academy?’ And it broke my heart but I had to tell them what I’d seen – that he was going to be a world-beater. You could see it even when he was 16. His football brain was just miles ahead.”
Fabregas only played twice more in the Carling Cup that season, but Stack remained in goal for the four remaining fixtures, as Arsenal came within one step of the Millennium Stadium, losing the semi-final over two legs to Middlesbrough.
“It was heart-breaking really, because it would have been fantastic to play a final in my first season at that level,” says Stack, who won seven under-21 caps for the Republic of Ireland. “Saying that though, I really don’t know if I would have been selected for the final anyway. I’m not sure if the boss would have gone for Jens instead, we’ll never know, but if he had have done, I would totally have understood it and respected it.”
Lehmann was the undisputed No - he played every minute of every league, FA Cup and Champions League game that season - and Stack was the only other goalkeeper to appear for Arsenal during that historic 2003/04 season. And the two formed something of a double act that year.
“I loved Jens to bits,” says Stack. “He was a loose cannon at times, but he was a real lynchpin of that team. We had a lot of fun in training. He didn’t get on with everyone, but we had a great relationship. I think he saw a bit of himself in me, he told me I reminded him of himself when he was younger.
"There was a lot of mutual respect, though maybe we got on well because perhaps he never saw me as a serious threat to take his place, and to be honest he was probably right. I knew what my role in that group was.”
And the two were both terrible losers, as Stack explains: “He got very upset with me one day in training. We were doing sprints after one of the training sessions, and Gerry Peyton was the starter. This particular day I beat him, but I was running backwards! I thought he was going to rip my head off!
“It was in front of all the boys, and I was celebrating like mad. Thierry and some of the others cracked up, and Jens didn’t like it one bit, so he challenged me to a triathlon. I was up for it but it never happened. I think he realised he didn’t want to pick up an injury in a silly challenge like that!”
Stack, who also played in the same side as Yaya Toure while on loan at Beveren earlier in his career, eventually left Arsenal permanently in 2006, joining Reading and later playing for Leeds United and Hibernian among others.
|Arsenal 1-1 Rotherham Utd
(after extra-time; Arsenal won 9-8 on penalties)
Carling Cup third round. Highbury
October 28, 2003
Arsenal scorer: Aliadiere 11
Rotherham Utd scorer: Byfield 90
Arsenal: Stack, Tavlaridis, Clichy, J Hoyte (Spicer 117), Cygan, Fabregas (Owusu-Abeyie 85), Thomas (Smith 73), Edu, Aliadiere, Wiltord, Kanu.
Since the beginning of last season he’s been at Barnet, and he’s now club captain under manager Edgar Davids.
He’ll forever be a part of Barnet folklore after saving an injury-time penalty in April to ensure they won the last ever match at Underhill, even if it wasn’t enough to save them from relegation.
“It was an incredible day, my four kids were mascots, my parents and wife were there, and I led the team out. We knew we needed to win that to have a chance of staying up, so it was pretty special, even if we did go down on goal difference in the end.
“I’m really enjoying it at Barnet though,” says the 32 year old. “I’ve done my coaching badges as well, but I think I’ve got a fair few years left in me yet as a player.”
So on the 10th anniversary of his debut, he’s still looking forwards, not backwards, and he’s keen to fulfill one particular ambition this year.
“My biggest regret is, in all these years, I’ve yet to go to the Emirates,” Stack admits. “I’d love to come to a game, but I’ve been travelling a lot so it’s been difficult. It’s definitely something I need to do soon though. I know some of the staff from my time are still there, so I need to go and visit them at the training ground or at a game soon, definitely before Christmas.
“I look back on my time at Arsenal and I’ve got some wonderful memories. I’ve got no regrets at all. I got to the stage where I was really hungry to play regularly, so I had to leave.
“But I had a great time at Arsenal, all the way from winning the Youth Cup to playing for the first team. It’s been a rollercoaster ride over the past 10 years, but it’s been great fun.”Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source