In Defining Moments former Arsenal stars select the situations that defined their career with the Gunners. This is a running feature and first appeared in the matchday programme. Ex-player Lauren is next to recall his favourites.
I had a habit of scoring on my debut. I did it for Levante and I recall also scoring for my national team in the Olympics. Remember, in those days I was not always playing fullback, but also as a central midfielder, so maybe it was no so unusual.
To score on my full Highbury debut – against Liverpool back in August 2000 – was also very special. But then Highbury was a very special place. Highbury was something else, certainly like no other stadium in Spain, or England, or anywhere.
"Also, whether we won or lost, I was always quite level headed. I had my feet on the ground regardless. I am the same now in things I do. But at the same time, when I look back to what we did back in 2003/04, I do say to myself: ‘Mama Mia!!!!’"
I had never been anywhere like it. In Spain, fans would turn up ten minutes before the game, but at Highbury there were fans on Avenell Road maybe an hour and a half beforehand.
And they were so close to you. As players, we felt so close to the fans. I’d be getting changed in the dressing room and you could hear fans talking just a few feet way on the other side of the window! It was unique.
It sometimes felt as if the dressing rooms were actually moving. I was amazed when I first arrived and saw all of this. My debut at home was a night I will never forget. I had been signed in the summer from Mallorca and was excited to be joining such a good team, with a great coach. It was all new and I was really happy.
As I said, I seemed to always score on my debut and that night was amazing. The ball broke to me and I fired it past the Dutch goalkeeper, Sander Westerveld. Actually, looking back on my career, I seemed to score a lot of goals in big situations.
I went on and scored some big penalties for Arsenal, like in the north London derby. When I had moments of big responsibility I always seemed to find inner strength.
I also scored in the semi and the final of the Olympics, and in the final of the African Cup of Nations.bI seemed to respond to these big moments. People say I always looked calm but, let me assure you, I was very nervous – I just didn’t show it.
I scored many big goals in my career, but that first one for Arsenal will also hold a special place in my heart.
In only my second season at Highbury we were champions. I was a champion. Incredible. Fantastic. Unbelievable. All of those things and more.
My abiding memory of that whole time was the parade through Islington. That is something I will not ever, ever forget. You know, as a player you focus on training, you stay with your team mates, you sit on coaches and planes – but you seldom get to spend much time with the fans. But that day it was all about emotion and sharing a wonderful experience together – players and fans as one.
Leaving the stadium on the bus and then slowly winding our way through the streets of Islington, with a sea of happy faces all the way, meant so much. It reminded you why you did your job and – importantly – who you were doing it for. The fans. Always the fans. I don’t know how many people were there, maybe 250,000 I think somebody said, but it was an incredible sight.
I had not seen anything quite like this. It also made you realise just how big Arsenal Football Club is. As we made our way down Upper Street towards Islington Town Hall I remember just standing back for a few seconds, taking in everything, the sounds, the sights, the smell even, and thinking to myself: “My gosh, this is an amazing day.”
Arsene Wenger said a year or so before, that we could go a whole season unbeaten. He put a lot of pressure on us, let me tell you! But we never thought we would actually do it, certainly it was not something that entered our minds until the last few games of the season when the press built it up and the fans began to believe. Then the pressure came.
We took it game by game but, if you remember, the run nearly came to an end a couple of times – if Ruud van Nistelrooy had not missed that penalty when we drew 0-0 at Old Trafford early in the run I would not be talking about it now.
But yes the Boss genuinely believed we could do it long before we believed it. He clearly could see the potential of the team and the squad and rightly so. He could see there were some very special players.
It was a very talented squad of players and when all those little things come together, when everyone is pulling in the right direction, it can really make something much bigger. What is that saying about the sum of the parts?
If the Boss had not seen that potential he would never had come out and said that. As I say though, it put some seriously big pressure on us players. It was the right place, the right time, the right conditions. Everything just came together for us.
At the time, the scale of the achievement was not apparent. You don’t really sit back and appreciate what you have all achieved. We were champions and that was what mattered.
Also, whether we won or lost, I was always quite level headed. I had my feet on the ground regardless. I am the same now in things I do. But at the same time, when I look back to what we did back in 2003/04, I do say to myself: ‘Mama Mia!!!!’
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