Turn the clock back to 15 May 2004: Patrick Vieira latches on to an exquisite Dennis Bergkamp through-ball before rounding the goalkeeper and finishing in one sharp movement. The goal completed a second half comeback to give the Gunners a 2-1 victory over Leicester City on a pristine Highbury turf. Perhaps not being one of the most remarkable results the club has racked up but it’s certainly one of – if not the most – historic that the London club has recorded since its birth.
Arsène Wenger’s champions imposed themselves as one of English football’s greatest ever sides, ending the campaign unbeaten. With a heavy Francophone influence, Arsenal blitzed the league, accumulating an impressive 90 points, 11 points clear of their prosperous neighbours Chelsea.
It’s a feat matched only by the great Preston North End side of 1889, victors in the inaugural season of the football league’s top flight. Despite reaching similar heights, though, are they all that similar at all?
The Lilywhites were primarily formed as a cricket club prior to switching to the beautiful game 17 years down the line. As professionalism was prohibited until the football league was formed, with many holding the belief that the game should be played by gentlemen amateurs, players were paid with boot money. But in 1888, six teams from the north-west and six teams from the midlands established the Football League. North End were already firmly ingrained as one of the country’s best sides, still to this day holding the record for the biggest ever FA Cup triumph as they sailed to a 26-0 home win against Hyde FC.
Originally, Preston North End were hailed as the Invincibles in the season preceding the formation of the English Football League. Competing in 70 games throughout the campaign, they were an impenetrable force in the game, victorious in 42 matches in a row as well as in various games accumulating double figures. This prodigious purple patch came to a halt in the FA Cup final, as West Bromwich Albion remarkably triumphed 2-1.
Despite the heartache of losing in the final, Preston had a mind-blowing goal ratio that year, netting 316 and at the other end leaking 81. The end of the campaign saw the Lilywhites rack up 59 wins and lose seven of those 70 games, a truly implausible return. So what makes that Preston side better than the conspicuous glamour of the Gunners in 2004?
Arsenal’s side, crammed with a vast amount of skill coupled with their powerful rear line, managed the feat after over a century of their existence. North End’s heroes accomplished it just eight years subsequent to transferring from cricket and thus being created as a football club. The club’s rise to the summit is nothing shy of spectacular, with some bewildering stories along the way. The London club were a mid-table division two side eight years after their establishment, a stark contrast to the boys in white.
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Two years after the club was created Preston played local rivals Blackburn Rovers and were trounced 16-0. As anticipated, North End weren’t going to be mentioned in the same breath as the best in the land in just two years of existence, but it didn’t take long for them to climb up the ladder. In 1887-88, Rovers returned to Deepdale and were dismantled by the Lilywhites 7-0; a 23-goal swing is something that would be deemed unheard of in the modern age and signals just how quickly they became the best team in the country.
Preston North End’s very own club historian, Ian Rigby, details the problems that the club had to deal with, competing in the earliest era of the Football League. The Lilywhites had a man named William Sudell at the helm, but his responsibilities stretched much further than coaching the team. “He was like a trainer, come masseur, come groundsman, come kit man, come player. There was one game where he had to fill in as a player and they beat Reading 18-0 in the cup and he scored a hat-trick on the right-wing. It’s phenomenal when you think about it,” says Rigby.
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But there were no sports scientists, nutritionists or physios amongst the backroom staff, and with next to no squad rotation it really does put the modern footballer to shame that players who were amateur could play so many games in such a short period. “They build up a lot of stories around the Invincibles, whereas Arsenal – alright they didn’t lose a game that season [in the league] – but they wouldn’t have played as many games as Preston,” Rigby explains. “Arsenal played more league games than Preston, but that wasn’t Preston’s fault, it was because of the size of the league. Preston played 42 friendlies that season as well as the league and cup games.
If you look at the list [of friendlies] it’s unbelievable what they played. But it’s all the travelling because in them days the travelling was horrendous. When they used to play Blackburn they used to get a horse-drawn coach over to Blackburn.”
An extract from The Football News and Athletic Journal in October 1887 reads: “The North End have a stiff week before them. On Wednesday next they leave Preston for Edinburgh. They meet on Thursday the Heart of Midlothian, Friday Dumbarton, Saturday Queens Park, Monday Clydesdale Harriers.”
Arsenal are renowned for their constantly perfect pitch and it was much the same at Highbury. But over a century ago there were no dedicated groundsmen. This was the job of Sudell, and not much time was specifically spent towards it. “They reckon they’ve had to chase ducks off North End’s pitch because it was that wet at times,” says Rigby.
Preston’s captain and club secretary Fred Dewhurst was an amateur himself even after the league was formed. Although most of his team-mates were professional players, Dewhurst kept his main job as a teacher at a local school, which meant he missed midweek away games. Plying his trade on the inside-left position amidst four other forwards, he netted 23 FA cup goals in as many games and also managed to score 11 goals in nine games for England too.
“Preston has no son of whom she can be prouder than the genial secretary of the North End,” writes the Journal in 1888. But the Lilywhites had an array of top quality forwards and played five at one time with the formation 2-3-5. Jimmy Ross, known as the ‘little demon’ played on the inside-right position and he racked up 241 pre-league goals in 223 games. In addition to this, the little Scotsman grabbed 38 FA Cup goals in 36 games.
John Goodall will be remembered most fondly as being the league’s top scorer in its first season. Netting 20 goals in 21 games in the league, he also bagged 172 goals in 160 pre-league games. All of the forwards for PNE nearly had a goal a game ratio or better, something that you would be hard-pressed to see one striker at a club achieve, let alone five.
Preston won the league at a canter, 11 points ahead of Aston Villa, coincidentally the same amount Arsenal won the league by. Surprisingly they are the only team ever to win the league and never be presented with a trophy – because it didn’t exist.
North End also became the first ever team to win the double, lifting the FA Cup after disposing of Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-0 at the Oval. Making this even more eye-opening is the fact that they didn’t concede a solitary goal in the competition whilst only playing two at the back, showing how dominant their attack was.
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The Manchester Guardian said: “In one season they have not only won the league championship without meeting with a single reverse, but they have actually carried off the cup without allowing a solitary goal be scored against them in any of the ties. This is a record that is hardly likely to ever be approached. It certainly cannot be surpassed.”
Another paper, Daily News, was also full of praise: “It is only right that the trophy should fall to the celebrated North End eleven who for several years have been distinctly the best side in the Kingdom.”
It was time to celebrate for North End; after the heartbreak of losing to West Brom in the preceding year’s final, Preston had finally lifted the trophy that the country knew they deserved. But they didn’t get ahead of themselves and just two days later they had organised a friendly against Sussex Athletic. They could be excused for not being in tip-top shape for this one but they wouldn’t need to be, easing to a 5-1 thrashing.
It’s interesting to think just what kind of dominance Preston would have demonstrated if the season was managed earlier. The league was formed as North End were petering out. Although they won the league in consecutive seasons, there is a sense of underachievement for how good they really were – much like Arsenal.
In 2004, the London club had domestic dominance but not much else. They were shocked in the League Cup as Middlesbrough brushed them aside in a two-legged affair. Rivals Chelsea knocked them out of Europe and they lost to Manchester United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. The Gunners failed to retain the title the following season, once again showing their short-term superiority.
Amongst their ranks were some world-class players. Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, two of the most gifted forwards the English top tier has ever seen, comprised a star-studded front line. But, although not household names, the Lilywhites had a number of forwards who have superior goalscoring records than that of Henry and Bergkamp.
Taking everything into account, they are similar. Neither team maintained their dominance for very long; for Preston North End because the league was created too late, and for Arsenal because competition was fiercer.
Preston could play four games in five days with no squad rotation, concurrently having to travel with deficient transport. Resources were limited and scientific knowledge was not as extensive. It’s coherent to see that these factors would have had a massive impact on the players, and it’s debatable whether the modern day footballer could cope in this era. For those reasons, it’s a rational argument to present that although both teams pulled off remarkable achievements, it’s Preston North End that should be held in higher esteem. They are, after all, the original Invincibles.
By Jack Kevin Portley. Follow @jkportley