Arsenal were on the verge of entering a glorious new era, but for a few weeks in the summer of 1995, Gunners fans were forced to put up with Spurs fans chanting “Nayim From The Halfway Line”, after the former Tottenham man won the Cup Winners’ Cup Final for Real Zaragoza with a speculative punt.
The rebuilding process began on June 5 when Bolton boss Bruce Rioch was appointed Arsenal manager, despite names such as Bobby Robson and Johan Cruyff having been linked with the post. The Scot began his tenure in a characteristically brisk and positive manner, telling The Evening Standard of the “tradition”, “the huge challenge”, and the “huge stature Arsenal have in world football.” He got to work immediately.
The rumours linking Dutch ace Dennis Bergkamp with a move to Highbury from Inter Milan had been doing the rounds, and he was unveiled by Rioch just 15 days into his tenure. The aura surrounding Arsenal’s first bona fide continental superstar was quite unlike anything fans had seen before. His (new) strike partner Ian Wright claimed: “There hasn’t been anyone like him in England before.”
When he was joined at Highbury two weeks later by David Platt, England’s goal-hungry midfield captain, collective hysteria from Arsenal fans reached fever pitch. Arsenal had spent over £12 million to pay for the pair. Having shattered its wage structure, the board decided that a statement of intent was needed to convince the football world that Arsenal could compete with the likes of Blackburn, Newcastle and Manchester United. But the new signings needed to deliver on the pitch, and Rioch’s only season at Highbury, although showing promise, wasn’t entirely without problems.
Bergkamp took time to settle, but served notice of his presence when he blasted home two crackers against Southampton in late September. Platt also scored twice early in the season, but at times, the midfield appeared to lack balance, and Rioch clashed publicly with striker Ian Wright about his contributions to the team. Rioch unquestionably introduced more of a passing game at Arsenal, encouraging the full backs Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn to maraud forward. There were some real highlights on the pitch too. Eventual champions Manchester United were beaten 1-0 at Highbury and Newcastle were twice beaten 2-0 in north London.
Rioch’s Arsenal finished a creditable fifth, and qualified for the UEFA Cup, but the tabloids were full of stories about tension behind the scenes. Two weeks before the start of the 1996/97 campaign, Rioch was dismissed.
So the Gunners began the season without a manager, but it was confirmed that Grampus Eight boss Arsène Wenger would be joining the Club in late September. Although still in Japan, the Frenchman spoke to Arsenal fans prior to the match against table-topping Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury. With Wednesday winning 1-0 at half-time, on came Patrick Vieira to make his debut. Immediately it was apparent that a new-age midfielder had arrived on the scene. The Frenchman’s awesome physical presence and short, accurate passing induced terror into Wednesday’s previously well-organised ranks.
His impact was sensational. Goals from Platt and Wright (three) won the game, and when Wenger took charge for the first time three weeks later away at Blackburn, Vieira started the game and Wright’s double enabled the Gunners to win 2-0. The Wenger era was underway, and for the remainder of the campaign, fans were treated to some sensational displays. The highlight of those was arguably a magnificent 3-1 home win against Tottenham, with Tony Adams volleying home a superb second goal.
The emphasis was on short, fast, accurate passing, with the back four urged to thunder forward to heap pressure on the opposition. The transition took time, of course. In those early weeks, players grumbled about having to eat steamed chicken and broccoli prior to matches, and the removal of their post-match chocolate bars, but Arsenal’s eventual third-place finish (defeats home and away against Liverpool and Manchester United killed off any title hopes) suggested Wenger was moving the Club in the right direction.
By the beginning of the 1997/98 campaign, more continental gems in the form of Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit had arrived at Highbury, and the scene was set for one of the Club’s greatest ever campaigns. The opening two months were notable for the sharp shooting of Wright (who became the Club’s record goalscorer during a home win over Bolton) and Bergkamp, whose form ripped apart teams at will throughout August and September.
The advantage appeared to belong to Manchester United as the Gunners struggled for form in October and November (a vital, thrilling 3-2 home win against United was Arsenal’s only win in a six-match spell in Autumn), but remarkably after losing 3-1 at home to Blackburn in December, Wenger’s side embarked on an 18 league game unbeaten streak which lasted until May.
During that time, Tony Adams successfully underwent rehabilitation for a potentially career-ending ankle injury, and Petit and Vieira became the best midfield duo in the country. With Overmars cutting in from the wing and shooting at will, and Bergkamp and emerging striker Anelka scoring with regularity, Arsenal stormed to the title. Overmars’ winner at Old Trafford nudged things in the Gunners’ favour, and on a truly memorable Highbury afternoon, a stunning 4-0 victory over Everton saw the Gunners lift the Championship in front of their own supporters for the first time in 45 years.
Thirteen days later, goals from Overmars and Anelka at Wembley saw Arsenal defeat Newcastle 2-0 in the FA Cup Final, and secure the Club’s second ‘double’ of the twentieth century.
The manner of the Club’s success finally rendered the “Boring Arsenal” and “Lucky Arsenal” tags redundant. Wenger’s men narrowly failed to recapture the ‘double’ in the 1998/99 season. A stuttering pre-Christmas run of form put Arsenal a long way behind Manchester United, but sensational new year form, including a memorable 6-1 win away at Middlesbrough, and a 3-1 win at Spurs, saw Arsenal with their noses in front in the league with just two games to play.
Ultimately, a 1-0 loss away at Leeds cost the Gunners, and they finished runners up to United. There was a similar story in the FA Cup semi-final replay; had Dennis Bergkamp converted his late penalty, Wenger’s men would have reached the FA Cup final. Instead, Ryan Giggs’s stunning winner helped United on their way to an historic ‘treble’. So near yet so far, but there was more glory for the Gunners just around the corner.
- “Hartlefool! Bergy can’t even score against ten men,” boomed a tabloid headline after Dennis drew a blank against Hartlepool in the League Cup. A few days later, the Dutchman put Southampton to the sword
- Arsène Wenger claimed that Gilles Grimandi’s late winner at home against Crystal Palace was “probably the most important goal of the 1997/98 season. I could feel the pendulum swing our way when we won that game,” he said
- Emmanuel Petit nearly joined Spurs in summer 1997 before signing for the Gunners