The 2000/01 season was only our third campaign in the Champions League, but in goalkeeper David Seaman, we already had a player with plenty of experience of European football.
Our legendary keeper joined in 1990, while English teams were still subject to a ban in European football, but the following year he featured for us in the old European Cup. In 1994 he was one of our standout performers, conceding only three goals in the entire campaign, as we lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup. So when Champions League football rolled around in 1998, Seaman’s nous was invaluable.
He featured 10 times in our run to the quarter-final in 2000/01, keeping four clean sheets as we faced the most lethal forwards on the continent. Following our return to the Champions League, we caught up with 'Safe Hands' to ask him about his European memories.
What are your memories of that 2000/01 season in the Champions League?
That was the season we came back to playing games at Highbury, and they were always special, special nights, whatever the competition was in Europe. So to have Champions League games there after a couple of years at Wembley was great for us. We had had some great moments in Europe over the years, obviously winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994, which was huge for us.
When the Champions League first started it was the league winners and the runners-up I think, so we knew it would be a really tough competition – the best two teams from every country. I remember listening to the theme tune on the pitch before the games, and that was brilliant – it still is. That got you up for the games and you realised these were big occasions.
Our first game back at Highbury was a dramatic 3-2 win over Shakhtar Donestk, what was that one like?
That was when Martin Keown scored twice wasn’t it? I should remember that one better than I do then because that didn’t happen very often at all! In fact, I’m surprised he doesn’t bring that one up much, but to be honest he doesn’t recall it much, so I don’t remember it that well. But there’s no doubt it really helped us to be back at Highbury – there’s no doubt about that. It was great to be at Wembley in terms of getting so many people there to watch us, and we sold all those games out, but it felt like it lifted the opposition too. Getting back to Highbury was fantastic, and the atmosphere was amazing.
Was there a big step up in quality or a noticeable difference in style for those early Champions League games?
I think the biggest thing we had to contend with in terms of style was controlling our aggression. We liked to be aggressive – we were a tall, strong, physical side – but we had to curb that because teams liked to wind us up, use all the tricks that we might not have been used to, screaming whenever they got touched and using the dark arts. So we had to learn that side of it and impose our football style on them. Then you come up against teams like Bayern Munich, and you realise just how good they are. Lazio too we played that season, they were a very good side – they had Nedved, Inzaghi, Veron, Simeone – stars everywhere.
We took four points from Lazio in that group stage though, so did that show how high our level was at the time too?
We had a fantastic side and I’m sure it was only down to playing at Wembley that our results weren’t great at the start. But I remember that Lazio away game really well actually, even though I wasn’t playing in it. I was injured so Alex Manninger was due to play, but he got injured in the warm-up, so my good mate John Lukic had to step in at the last minute. I’d known John for so long, he used to take me to training when we were at Leeds - we’d warm each other up and work together all the time. Then I took his place when I came to Arsenal and he went to Leeds and won the league!
Anyway we were back together at Arsenal by now, and I remember he was so nervous before this game. He was nearly 40 by now, but he made a brilliant save right at the end. We were 1-0 down, Pires scored late on to make it 1-1, and John made a fantastic save. It was a really crucial save to get us a point and qualify us for the next group stage.
Did you feel we were underachieving in Europe at that time?
This was the first season that we had made it through to the knock out stages… well to win a trophy in Europe – any trophy by the way – is a really big achievement and is really special. We’d got to the UEFA Cup final the year before, and of course we won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994, and I will never forget that. That’s such a special moment for me, and one of the reasons is that when we arrived at the stadium for the final, we saw the podium for the trophy presentation under cover at the side of the pitch, and it said on it ‘Winners: Parma’. That was a great motivation for us. And another reason is because I played that game with about seven or eight injections in my ribs that I had broken a few days before the game. So that trophy means a lot to me.
I don’t know why we didn’t have that success under Arsène as well to be honest, because the way we played under him was perfect for Europe. I spoke to him recently for my podcast, and we were talking about how he changed the style when he first arrived. He said he could see in training that we were capable of playing that European way, playing out from the back, like he wanted us to. That shocked me because then I was seeing Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Martin Keown all passing it like Beckenbauer! So that’s why it’s hard to understand why we didn’t do better in the Champions League. It’s small margins though. We drew 2-2 with Bayern Munich, and only lost 1-0 away – and they went on to win it that year.
And we only went out to the beaten finalists Valencia in the quarter-final on away goals too…
Yes, and the away goals rule was a massive bugbear of mine. I’m glad they’ve scrapped it now, because how can it be right that you can go out despite drawing? We drew 2-2 with Valencia, but they went through, it was so frustrating as a player, and I’m glad they have scrapped that now. But as I said, it’s fine margins, and at that level every mistake is punished. They were the best teams in Europe, and the teams that were all in form.
For you as a goalkeeper, what was it like coming up against the best keepers that the continent had to offer?
It was great, I always liked to look and watch these other keepers because you can always learn things, no matter what stage of your career you are at. The game always evolves so you always need to change too. I remember Arsène introduced resistance training and things like that, and I would watch the foreign goalies too. They punched the ball a lot more than I did but you always need to be adaptable to what’s happening.
People ask me whether I would be able to play now, with the modern style of playing out from the back, and I always say that I played when they changed the backpass rule, so trust me I had to change my whole style when that came in. That’s much harder than what the goalies are doing now!
Oliver Kahn was a great keeper, who we played against that season – and it was also that year that we played against him for England and beat them 5-1 in Munich! He was a massive presence though, and was a big part of Bayern winning it that season, he was one I really admired, with a few others. Gianluigi Buffon as well, he came through a little bit later, but he was a great keeper. The best of the best were all in the Champions League.
Finally David, we are returning to the Champions League this season, what are you expecting from Arsenal this year?
I think Arsenal will be great in Europe this year. I’m looking forward to midweek games coming back to Emirates Stadium. We’ve had them here before, but it feels different now. Last season was so good, and I know people were disappointed we didn’t go on and win the Premier League, but we were ahead of schedule.
Taking that experience from last season, as hard as it was, into this year will be a massive plus. We know we are competing with a juggernaut in Manchester City, but if we can come out on top against them, we have a great chance, not just in the Premier League but also in Europe. They have set the standards and we need to get ourselves there.
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