Ten years on from the game that set the Invincibles’ 49-match unbeaten run in motion, we look back on a night that at first did not seem an obvious launch pad for what was to follow…
It didn’t feel like a night on which the first steps towards a giant piece of history would be made.
Not even the morning after seven goals, six to the Gunners, had billowed the Highbury nets did anything of greater import appear to have taken place. Exhilarating football there had been, including two hat-tricks and a couple of quite astonishing goals, but the focus of most involved had been on what lay beyond the horizon. Almost every newspaper report dutifully referred to a “dress rehearsal for the FA Cup final” as the two sides involved, Arsenal and Southampton, went their separate ways ahead of a trip to the Millenium Stadium 10 days later.
"Exhilarating football there had been, including two hat-tricks and a couple of quite astonishing goals, but the focus of most involved had been on what lay beyond the horizon"
As 6-1 wins go, the backdrop to the game was pretty low key. Three days previously, the Gunners had been stunned by Leeds United on their home turf, thus ceding the title to Manchester United and ensuring that, to most imaginations, the match against Southampton meant little.
An air of disappointment could have been excused. With the Saints lying comfortably in mid-table and sharing Arsenal’s willingness to keep resources fresh for the trip to Cardiff, both sides made changes. The likes of David Seaman, Dennis Bergkamp, Martin Keown, Sylvain Wiltord, Ashley Cole and Gilberto were rested from the Gunners’ starting XI, while the free-scoring James Beattie was among several to be removed from the side by visiting manager Gordon Strachan.
What followed was at times testimonial-like in its nature, the crowd in shirt sleeves enjoying the embers of a balmy May evening, but - in the first 45 minutes especially - it would spring to life in devastating bursts.
Arsenal went 5-0 up within just 26 minutes, and the star of the first half was starting a top-flight game for the very first time. Just 20 years of age, Jermaine Pennant watched Robert Pires open the scoring from close range before scoring his first senior goal after 17 minutes, finishing off a delightful move from eight yards. It got better three minutes later as Pennant nodded home his second, and Pires made it two each just 180 seconds later.
The Gunners’ fifth goal was magical, and epitomised everything that would become so memorable in 48 subsequent league games. A Southampton corner - from which they didn’t come a million miles away from scoring - was cleared to Pires on the left touchline, midway inside the hosts’ half. He cut the ball infield to Ray Parlour, who deftly found Thierry Henry. The Frenchman’s control, with two defenders in close attendance, was almost incomprehensible, and he slalomed forward before arrowing a pass to Pennant, just outside the right corner of Southampton’s box. The youngster took a touch before finishing lethally, at speed, across Paul Jones for an 11-minute hat-trick. The move was simple, unstoppable and beautiful.
Southampton pulled a goal back through Jo Tessem, but Pires would have the final say two minutes after half time with what would be an iconic strike. Again receiving the ball from the back - this time via Stuart Taylor’s overarm throw - he laid the ball to Kanu and set off down the left. Eventually, Giovanni van Bronckhorst sought him out with a pass that clipped Paul Telfer’s heels and fell nicely into his path some 35 yards out.
Words could barely cover what happened next. Where most players would seek out runners, Pires acted instantly, arcing an implausible first-time chip over Jones, whose positioning was by no means inadequate, to send the North Bank into raptures. The smile with which he celebrated said it all. Arsenal now had two hat-trick scorers on the pitch, and had set a record that has not yet been matched: it was the only time two players on the same team have notched trebles in Premier League history.
After 47 minutes that have few parallels even in the Gunners’ long and varied history, the game died down. Southampton might have scored another couple, while Stathis Tavlaridis and Justin Hoyte were given their Premier League debuts by Arsène Wenger - unknowingly securing ‘Invincibles’ status for themselves at an early stage. The game played out to cheers, oles, and a lap of appreciation from the team for the fans’ support at another rollercoaster season. Nobody present had any idea of what had been set in train.
The post-match mood was reflective rather than celebratory. “This does give the players some regrets as they feel that, had they won the game against Leeds, we would be champions on Sunday night,” admitted Wenger. “We have done a lot for our goal difference and I’m convinced that had we beaten Leeds, we would have won the championship.”
"That unbeaten season there was a lot of pressure, but we enjoyed it. We went on to the pitch and we knew we were going to win"
That frustration was compounded when Arsenal rattled in another four at Sunderland four days later - Pennant this time replacing Pires after 64 minutes, with both taking a back seat to a hat-trick from the returning Freddie Ljungberg - but there would be sufficient succour in the rematch with Southampton. In a far tighter, grittier affair, Pires would score the winner shortly before the break. Pennant, on this occasion, did not make the matchday squad.
“If Arsène Wenger is looking for a player of the future, he could well have found one in Jermaine Pennant,” ran a standout line from Sky’s match commentary that night. It wasn’t quite to be, with his hat-trick proving the apex of his Gunners career by some distance. After a decent loan spell with Leeds in 2003/04, he would appear 12 times in the 2004/05 season, seven in the league, before another temporary switch to Birmingham.
Never really threatening to nail down a regular place in the Arsenal side, he joined the Midlands club permanently at the end of that season. Imminently a free agent upon the expiry of his current contract, at Stoke City, he faces a battle to perpetuate his career at the top level.
Pires, meanwhile, went from strength to strength - as did Arsenal. “That unbeaten season there was a lot of pressure, but we enjoyed it,” he said many years later. “We went on to the pitch and we knew we were going to win. We wanted to keep it going; we never secretly wanted to lose.”
Perhaps the way in which Pires, Pennant and company set about their opponents on what could easily become a workaday, unmemorable end-of-season evening in 2003 was in fact a telling harbinger of the unprecedented series of days and nights that was to come.
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