At the dawning of the 1997-1998 season Arsenal had gone three years without a trophy, and six without a championship. George Graham and his successor, Bruce Rioch, had moved on. Arsene Wenger had overseen much of the previous season in which Arsenal had missed out on the second Champions League berth on goal difference to Newcastle.
New blood was expected to bolster the Gunners challenge in the new season, and duly arrived, in some quantity! Marc Overmars, the flying Dutch winger, was the biggest name. Three players, with whom Wenger had worked at Monaco, Emmanuel Petit, Gilles Grimandi and Christopher Wreh, were also unveiled. Four younger prospects were added to the squad in the shape of goalkeeper Alex Manninger, plus Luis Boa Morte, Matthew Upson and Alberto Mendez. Paul Merson and, perhaps not surprisingly, John Hartson were among those who made way.
The first Premiership encounter gave little indication of the glories that were to follow as Ian Wright secured a meagre point in a draw at Leeds, but without a doubt the most exciting encounter of the opening month came at Leicester. Dennis Bergkamp showed the full range of his abilities with a spellbinding treble. To emphasise their quality the three goals took first, second, and third places in Match of the Day’s goal of the month contest. The pick of the bunch was announced as goal of the season on FA Cup final day. Bergkamp’s third goal gave Arsenal the lead two minutes into injury time but amazingly Leicester shared the spoils when Steve Walsh pounced two minutes later.
Saturday, September 13 will live long in the memory of those who witnessed Wright grab the trio of goals that made him Arsenal’s record goalscorer, surpassing Cliff Bastin’s tally of 178. The euphoria did not last long. Just three days later Arsenal fell to the only goal of their UEFA Cup first leg against PAOK Thessaloniki, and on the last day of the month a 1-1 draw in the return at Highbury ended the European dream at the first hurdle. The exit was made all the more surprising by the emphatic victories against Chelsea, West Ham and Everton that took the Gunners to the top of the Premiership in the intervening fortnight.
October started in similar fashion with nine goals scored against Barnsley and Birmingham (in the League Cup) before the frustration of consecutive blank draws against Crystal Palace and Aston Villa cost Arsenal the top spot.
November brought with it the first Premiership defeat, in match 13, at Derby. The Gunners bounced back admirably, beating Manchester United by the odd goal in five with David Platt heading a deserved winner. Coventry succumbed to a Bergkamp strike in the League Cup before a second Premiership defeat, in controversial circumstances, at Sheffield Wednesday. The month closed with a single goal reverse at Anfield. Arsenal were on the slide, and worse was to follow.
"At that low point of the season nobody could have dreamed what lay in store for ‘Mr Arsenal’"
Spirits were temporarily lifted in December, with Wright scoring the only goal at Newcastle. The first home defeat was just around the corner as Blackburn inflicted a 3-1 scoreline on their lacklustre hosts that left Arsenal 13 points adrift of Manchester United. Tony Adams, clearly not 100 per cent fit, took a large slice of the blame for that performance. He met with Wenger and the two agreed that Adams should seek professional help for his injuries, including a trip to a specialist in Nice. At that low point of the season nobody could have dreamed what lay in store for ‘Mr Arsenal’.
Without their talismanic skipper the Gunners were then subjected to an astonishing abandonment against Wimbledon. It later transpired that the floodlight ‘failure’ at Selhurst Park was the work of dark forces. Arsenal closed the year by beating Leicester 2-1, and drawing 1-1 at White Hart Lane courtesy of a rare Ray Parlour strike. The side had now slipped to fifth place, 15 points behind Manchester United.
The new year did not start well, as Port Vale earned a replay in a 0-0 draw at Highbury in the third round of the FA Cup. The League Cup quarter-final, however, saw a confidence-boosting 2-1 win at Upton Park which, little did we know at the time, featured Wright’s 185th and last goal for the club. After Leeds were toppled 2-1 at Highbury, Arsenal travelled to Vale Park and navigated their way through to the fourth round of the FA Cup, but only courtesy of a penalty shoot-out. More significantly that night Wright pulled a hamstring. There would be few more appearances for the record scorer.
A busy January continued with a tense 2-2 draw at Coventry and injury woes struck again as David Seaman broke a finger. He would miss 13 games as a result. Ray Parlour secured victory by the odd goal in three at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup. That triumph also coincided with the return of the skipper, Adams. It was the same score in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final just four days later at home to Chelsea, with young Stephen Hughes grabbing the decider. A busy month closed with a three-goal drubbing of Southampton at Highbury.
Hughes' mini purple patch continued as he grabbed both goals in a 2-0 defeat of Chelsea, but it was a brief spell in the spotlight for the midfielder. The fifth round of the FA Cup brought a goalless draw at Crystal Palace. It was anti-climax time at Stamford Bridge in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final. Bergkamp’s finish was not enough to prevent a 3-1 win for Chelsea. Giles Grimandi netted the only goal at home to Crystal Palace to strengthen the Premiership challenge and four days later the same visitors were despatched by a 2-1 margin in the FA Cup replay.
"The replayed Premiership encounter at Wimbledon survived any mysterious electrical failure and Christopher Wreh lit up the occasion with the only goal"
A goalless draw at West Ham welcomed in March, and when the same opponents visited Highbury six days later for the FA Cup quarter-final the result was also the same. The replayed Premiership encounter at Wimbledon survived any mysterious electrical failure and Wreh lit up the occasion with the only goal.
Three days later came the defining moment of the league season as Overmars skipped through the Manchester United defence to secure a one-goal triumph at Old Trafford. The Gunners were now just six points behind leaders United, with three games in hand. Nicolas Anelka struck at Upton Park to send the FA Cup replay to another penalty shoot-out, and Manninger was the hero as Arsenal won 4-3 from the spot. Six additional points were secured by 1-0 margins against Sheffield Wednesday, as Seaman returned, and at Bolton.
FA Cup semi-finals are often close, tense affairs and the game with Wolverhampton Wanderers was no different. Wreh struck early for the Gunners, who proceeded to see out the remainder of the contest without too many scares.
There then followed six Premiership encounters that yielded 19 goals and the first leg of the elusive 'Double'. Newcastle succumbed 3-1 at Highbury, and Blackburn were hit by a four-goal whirlwind at Ewood Park. The free-scoring Gunners then went one better with a 5-0 thumping of Wimbledon at Highbury, and in so doing reclaimed top spot in the Premiership. At Barnsley the visitors were afforded a standing ovation after winning 2-0 with trademark strikes from Bergkamp and Overmars. The 100 per cent record in April was secured with a solitary Petit strike at home to Derby.
"The big man closed his eyes, raised his arms in triumph, and one of the biggest parties Highbury ever saw was launched"
Sunday, May 3 will be remembered by all who were fortunate enough to witness the visit of Everton. Arsenal now required three points to secure their 11th title, yet the visitors were expected to provide tough opposition as they needed points in their own battle against relegation. Happily for the home supporters the nerves were eased by an early Slaven Bilic own goal when the giant defender was pressured by Adams.
Overmars effectively wrapped up the title with wonderful solo goals either side of the interval, but the party piece was yet to arrive. Steve Bould chipped a delicate ball into the path of Tony Adams, who galloped half the length of the pitch before thumping home a fierce left-footer. The big man closed his eyes, raised his arms in triumph, and one of the biggest parties Highbury ever saw was launched.
The prelude to the FA Cup final saw Liverpool (4-0) and Aston Villa (1-0) enjoy inflicting the first league defeats on the Gunners in 1998. All thoughts had clearly switched to Wembley, and the meeting with Newcastle United which could secure a second Double for the Club. The day before the final brought bad news. Bergkamp, architect and scorer of so many goals, had not recovered from a hamstring injury.
Wreh was selected to accompany Anelka in attack, otherwise the team pretty much picked itself, with the famous five of Seaman, Dixon, Adams, Keown and Winterburn behind a midfield quartet of Parlour, Vieira, Petit and Overmars. It was one of those sunny May days at Wembley, and Newcastle were strangely subdued throughout. Overmars gave Arsenal the advantage in the first period, and Anelka completed an astonishing introductory season with the clincher after Alan Shearer had struck a post with the Geordies’ only worthwhile effort of the contest.
"Wenger had cajoled his charges to the Double. What we didn’t realise as we watched the winners celebrate was that we were saying goodbye to a legend"
So in his first full season Wenger had cajoled his charges to the Double. What we didn’t realise as we watched the winners celebrate with their trophy was that we were saying goodbye to a legend. Wright had enjoyed a 20-minute appearance as the title was secured. That was fitting because it was his first Championship medal. Wenger’s sentiment didn’t stretch to a cameo cup final appearance and Wright moved on to West Ham during the close season.
Perhaps the last words on the season belong to Wenger’s chief foe, Sir Alex Ferguson. "They (Arsenal) had notable quality in every department and Arsene Wenger deserves immense credit".
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