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Defeats that struck deep at our hearts …but were far from terminal

The desperate feeling that we all felt as we were taken apart in the second half against Aston Villa is a relatively rare feeling for an Arsenal fan but from time to time we experience a defeat that is so important or profound that at the time it feels like the world is caving in. This has happened to Arsenal teams down the ages, some of them extremely good teams and when the defeats occur it is easy to feel a season is likely to end in massive disappointment.

Some defeats are epically disappointing. The two most cataclysmic for me, in emotional terms were the 1969 League Cup Final against Swindon Town and the 2006 Champions League Final v Barcelona. That they occurred in finals accentuated the pain. At the closing whistle the contrast between the rejoicing opposition fans and us was stark and painful. A long journey home is always far more daunting with a massive defeat to contemplate.

But defeats can also be watersheds and can provoke responses that transform a seemingly hopeless situation and underline the character of a side. I shall touch on three such moments that prove there truly is darkness before the dawn.

First let us flip back to May 1989. There are three matches to go in our season and after enjoying a massive lead in the title race, the Hillsborough tragedy caused a delay in the season. We watched as agonisingly Liverpool clawed back our lead. At kick off time we were two points ahead of Liverpool with a marginally better goal difference? Our opponents were Derby and we were confidently expected to beat them. I remember a girl in our office asking if she could attend the game with me because her new boyfriend was a Gooner and she wanted to surprise him with her knowledge of the team. The real reason was that I was clearly irresistible to women but I remember being deeply irritated by her constant questioning as Arsenal stuttered unconvincingly and missed a slew of easy chances. Never mind – news came through that Liverpool were losing at Wimbledon. Midway through the half, against the run of play, Dean Saunders lashed a half-volley past Seaman and in off the bar. Liverpool turned the score around against the Crazy Gang and as the second half wore on a clumsy challenge on Saunders by Tony Adams in a Derby breakaway resulted in a clear penalty which Saunders dispatched comfortably. A very late Alan Smith goal was not enough to bring us back meaningfully into the game. A few days later we entertained the Crazy Gang. Despite leading twice through a Winterburn right-footed screamer (honestly!) and a Merson close-range effort we were pegged back twice . Liverpool’s five goal victory against the spineless Hammers left us needing to win by two goals at Anfield. A completely impossible task… the rest is history!

Moving on eight years we had entered the Wenger era. The 1997-8 season had begun very promisingly but two recent defeats had seen us slip seriously behind Manchester United. We welcomed Blackburn Rovers to Highbury and the game began well with Overmars seizing on a long lobbed pass and dinking it past Flowers in the Blackburn goal. It is salutary to think that we fielded our legendary back four but in the second half we fell apart as we allowed Blackburn back into the match. Firstly Wilcox volleyed the equaliser and then Kevin Gallacher swept a bouncing ball past Seaman into the top corner. As we pushed up for an equaliser the loathsome Tim Sherwood (looking several yards offside) found himself clear of the Arsenal defence and beat Seaman at the second attempt. The reaction from the Arsenal fans was vitriolic. Several around me talked of another season written off (in November) and outside the main entrance in Avenell Road a distressed Ian Wright berated the critical fans.

The defeat prompted a heated team meeting in which Tony Adams (who had a very flawed game rather like the Derby performance) called out his two French midfielders for not protecting the defence more. It is interesting that we tend to think of those players as infallible but there were periods in their Arsenal careers where the wheels seemingly came off. Arsenal did not lose another game in the League that season until the title was secured and for good measure completed the League and Cup double. Might a defeat that comprehensive have been a blessing in disguise? On Easter Monday in the return fixture, (played in snow for long periods!) we were 4-0 up at half-time and ran out 4-1 winners.

Defeats can definitely represent watersheds in a season.

Just to prove that even the best teams can slip to defeat my final example is in the marvellous Invincible season. We sailed on serenely until March in all three competitions. Chelsea were still within reach of us in the League but we had already prevailed over them three times that season. Fate decreed that we should play them again in the Champions League, four days after an FA Cup semi-Final against United. Arsene has subsequently said that he needed to rotate more given the size of the stakes facing us in that week. A traditional Nemesis, Paul Scholes, scored the only goal of a semi-final in which United employed the tactics that they employed to combat us during that period by trying to kick us off the pitch. We didn’t bring Henry on until late in the second half but on a frustrating afternoon, the chance of a domestic double had gone.

Credit: Professional Sport / Contributor

But we still had the Champions League. As we prepared for the second leg we were drawing 1-1 after the game at Stamford Bridge where a rare Pires header had given us the crucial advantage of an away goal. After a first half in which we were well on top, Reyes scored just before half-time to put us ahead on aggregate. Surely this was to be our year? We reckoned without a rare handling error by Mad Jens who palmed a Makalele shot (as unlikely as a Pires header!) to Fat Frank Lampard who tied the score up. Anxiety grew as even the Invincibles failed to take control of the game and then with about ten minutes left Wayne Bridge proving a cruel and unlikely assassin, latched onto a pass in the inside left channel and slotted home. I think that was one of the cruellest goals I have ever seen Arsenal concede as that team would have faced a very beatable Monaco and then Mourinho’s Porto in the final, if we had prevailed over a team we used to beat for fun at that time. That team carry one wonderful title as ‘the Invincibles’ but nothing will persuade me that we weren’t the best team in Europe that season and that was our time.

Three days later, on Good Friday, we met Liverpool in the Premier League at Highbury. We trailed twice and were losing at the interval but a fine second-half rally illuminated by one of Henry’s finest ever individual goals saw us run out convincing 4-2 winners. That win assured us of a title which we clinched, to our delight, at the Swamp a couple of weeks later.

Is there a moral in this story? I think there is. Even fine sides – and these three sides were among the finest Arsenal have ever had, are human. Great defenders make mistakes and fans lose heart and belief. But fine sides and talented managers react in the right way and we need to have faith that while we may not see league titles from this current Arsenal side they will improve and be ready to challenge in the future. The darkest time really often is before the dawn.

28 Drinks to “It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn”

  1. 1
    bt8 says:

    Cheers TTG, I’m very excited to see your new post but haven’t read it yet. Am in the middle of reading this outstanding account of Sol Campbell’s move across town to Arsenal, and so far couldn’t recommend it more highly despite The Athletic paywall which should not keep you away.

    The real story of football’s transfers – Campbell leaves Spurs for Arsenal
    Dominic Fifield and more Nov 17, 2020
    (Other contributors: Daniel Taylor and Philip Buckingham)

  2. 2
    bathgooner says:

    Your post is a real tonic, TTG. Thank you. You vividly paint some of the matches that are scars borne by every Gooner but your piece is a great reminder that those lows brought out a determined response in our players. How one responds to adversity is said to be one of the major characteristics that differentiates a winner from an also ran. Fingers crossed enough of this squad have ‘the right stuff’.

  3. 3
    bt8 says:

    Really enjoyed your write up and selection of the matches, TTG, and I am hoping “Might a defeat that comprehensive have been a blessing in disguise?” applies to the club’s current situation, as you did in citing our comprehensive and deflating defeat to Villa recently. COYG

  4. 4
    Osakamatt says:

    Remember all those games well
    except for Swindon. A crackling
    read just now thanks TTG.
    I’d have probably added Luton as
    we won the league though it was
    a couple of years later – it was a
    truly flaky performance from a
    side were much more reliable
    after that game.

  5. 5
    Countryman100 says:

    Ah the Swindon game. I was 12. My maths teacher was a Swindon fan, Mr Plance . He tormented me for a week.

    Took me five years until the staff v school rugby game for me to get my own back.

    But I did. 😁😁

  6. 6
    TTG says:

    I was a very ‘ active’ young man in 1969 , if you know what I mean . That March evening I had effectively set up an extremely promising situation with a young lady whose parents were away for the evening . To her horror and surprise I moped all night and like Arsenal during the match failed to convert a host of chances .
    I’ve heard Arsenal have a deal set up in January with Hertha Berlin to sign Omar Rekik an 18- year old Tunisian international centre back. He is not a regular with Hertha and will be loaned back to Hertha . A rival for Saliba?

  7. 7
    North Bank Ned says:

    Excellent, TTG. Some memories there, sweet and painful. To this day, I don’t know how we lost to Swindon.

  8. 8
    Esso says:

    Cheers TTG.

    Most painful defeat attended in person, was FA Cup Final 2001 in Cardiff. Battered Scousers for 88 minutes, then lost 2-1. Terrible. Next worst, League Cup final 88, losing to Luton from a clear winning position.

    Watched from afar both those CL games referred to above most depressing experiences; Quarter final second leg against Chelsea and of course 2006 final.

  9. 9
    TTG says:

    Eddie
    I was at both of those games . With VAR we would have thrashed the Scousers. Henchiz handballed deliberately twice so he would have gone and we’d have had a pen . The old back four showed their age in the last ten minutes but we battered them before that .
    Against Luton it was a weird game . We were second best for a lot of the game but completely on top for about thirty minutes in the second half . Why give Nutty that penalty ….and why pick Gus Caesar?

  10. 10
    North Bank Ned says:

    In other news, Pep has extended his Man City contract by two years.

    https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/55003607

    Will that mean Messi is on his way up north?

  11. 11
    Countryman100 says:

    Seems Luiz chinned Ceballos at training. Got to say doesn’t worry me one bit.

  12. 12
    Esso says:

    @11 Countryman100

    Yeah read that elsewhere. Yeah – save it for Sunday you cunts – show some REAL pride in wearing the shirt. Or fuck off.

    Sorry lads I may just have had a dink(s) tonight. Cheers!

  13. 13
    Esso says:

    and TTG calling me ‘Eddie’ makes me feel good! Love you mate.

  14. 14
    TTG says:

    Esso ( or Eddie)
    Autocorrect decreed you should get a new name .
    Patrick Vieira and Bouldy had punch-ups every week. If you can’t chin your mates who can you chin! ?

  15. 15
    bathgooner says:

    Re Luiz scratching Ceballos’ nose, Ceballos has called Ornstein out as peddling ‘fake news’. I suspect that as he is the alleged ‘victim’, he is telling the truth. Anyway, as has already been observed, bust ups in training sessions happen on at least a monthly basis at most clubs. I personally believe that what happens at training and in the dressing room should stay at training and in the dressing room. What’s important is that there’s a leak in the training ground and someone leaked either the alleged incident or fake news to Ornstein.

  16. 16
    bathgooner says:

    I always thought Esso was Eddie. :0)

  17. 17
    TTG says:

    Both Mari and Martinelli were involved in full training today running with the team.Possibly they had to make up the numbers because the other lads were off fighting on the sidelines😃😃

  18. 18
    bt8 says:

    It’s not looking promising. Auba sleeping a night on the airport floor could be the least of our worries.

    Travel, playing time, Covid-19, injuries? : the Arsenal Interlull round-up

  19. 19
    BtM says:

    Wonderfully entertaining article, TTG.

  20. 20
    Osakamatt says:

    Thanks for the link @18 bt8.
    Saka played too much – fuck
    Southgate. Others allowed to
    skulk off with fake strains.
    KT played too much as well –
    fuck er whoever is Scotland
    manager now. Craig someone?
    The Gabon coach is spot on in
    his comment that clubs won’t let
    players join the squad – from my
    own experience I can say that you
    really need quite a few drinks to
    get a good sleep on an airport
    floor.

  21. 21
    Osakamatt says:

    it seems Steve Clarke is the Scotland
    manager not Craig someone. My
    apologies. But anyway, fuck him for
    playing KT another 90 minutes in a
    pointless game😡

  22. 22
    bathgooner says:

    Asked if he saw what went on, Mikel Arteta answered: “I have a really bad vision from afar. That’s why we train behind closed doors.”

    Dat’s ma boy!

  23. 23
    bt8 says:

    Out of the players listed in that Arseblog article, the three who were involved in internationals who look most likely to be freshest to face Leeds are AMN, Xhaka and Eddie, the last of whom will be facing the club he was playing for last year around this time. Speaking of freshening, Willock and Nelson should be available, to the best of my uninformed knowledge.

  24. 24
    TTG says:

    Clive will be particularly interested in another encouraging result for the U23s today. We beat Everton 1-0 at home despite having Balogun sent off in the second half for two bookable offences ( handball and diving ) . Balogun and Moller appeared to link up ver6 well and ESR , who scored the goal played 45mins which suggests he is still being eased back after injury . Sokratis, Chambers and Saliba formed a very expensive defence !

  25. 25
    Osakamatt says:

    expensive but at least they kept
    a clean sheet 😉
    Sent off on a 2nd yellow for
    diving hmmm

  26. 26
    North Bank Ned says:

    Arteta taking a hard line on the leak of the David Luiz-Ceballos handbags in training.

    https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/55023525

    Someone is probably hurridly deleting few contacts from their phone.

  27. 27
    Goonersince54 says:

    TTG
    I saw that.
    Much needed win gets us out of bottom 3.
    But worth notin the teams now below us have 2/3 games in hand.
    A better test of our improvement will come next week when we host Derby who are top of the table.
    Also our under 21’s have been drawn to play Wimbledon in the round of 32 in the EFL Trophy.
    Match to be played at Plough Lane in early December.
    I also hear that Partey won’t be fit for Leeds, so looks like Spain/Switzerland midfield at Elland Road.

  28. 28
    Bathgooner says:

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

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