On a sun-drenched May afternoon at Highbury, Tony Adams raised his arms in triumph as his jubilant teammates gravitated toward him, eager to bask in the Arsenal skipper’s moment of ecstasy. Adams had just galloped up from his own half to latch on to a Steve Bould pass before thundering a strike past Thomas Mhyre to complete a 4-0 demolition of Everton.
The moment could hardly have been more fitting – in front of the North Bank, Mr Arsenal, club captain since 21 years of age, added a grand finishing touch to one of the finest occasions in Highbury’s history. Victory over the Toffees secured Arsenal their 11th league title and evoked celebrations on the streets of N5 that would continue long into the spring night.
The 1998 title triumph was a first for the club in seven years, a turbulent period in which George Graham, a club legend and one of their most successful ever managers, was fired for his role in a financial scandal. The Scot’s managerial reign bought titles and cup success, and emulating him seemed an almost impossible task. A short stint in charge from Bruce Rioch produced underwhelming results in his efforts to bring glory back to north London, but a revolution was imminent.
The arrival of Arsène Wenger in September 1996 heralded the dawn of a new era that would transform the club, as the Frenchman first set about discouraging the drinking culture that was prevalent among senior players, while also implementing new dietary requirements. Paul Merson played under Wenger for just a year but was astounded by the effect the Frenchman had on his career in that short term.
The former England midfielder later stated his admiration for Wenger’s methods: “I played under him for just under a year. It was the fittest I’ve ever been. The vitamins, the diet, everything we were doing was like clockwork. Straight away the training was enjoyable. It was fun. It was never run, run, run until you’re sick. That’s what we had for most of our career. He never did any of it.”
The benefits of the new regime were evident almost immediately, Wenger guiding the team to a third-place finish behind Manchester United and Newcastle in his first season. It was the Gunners’ highest league position since 1992, and five years on, with a talented squad and Wenger’s groundbreaking methods taking hold, the Gunners were optimistic heading into the new season.
Despite the early promise of his reign, Le Professeur foresaw that his squad would need bolstering with specific personnel if they were to challenge for significant honours again. Patrick Vieira had joined from AC Milan in 1996 and had already offered glimpses of the midfield colossus he would go on to become, and, to complete his central midfield partnership, Wenger travelled back to the Côte d’Azur to lure Emmanuel Petit from Monaco. Merson moved to the north-east, joining Middlesborough, leaving a vacancy for the flying Dutchman Marc Overmars from Ajax, while 17-year-old Nicolas Anelka signed from Paris Saint-Germain.
The resolute back line of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Adams and Nigel Winterburn was already in place to provide a solid foundation for the array of attacking talent that lay ahead of them. Ray Parlour, an active presence capable of moments of inspiration, lined up on the right of midfield alongside Petit and Vieira in the centre, while Overmars occupied the left wing. The majesty of Dennis Bergkamp paired with the predatory Ian Wright up front completed Arsenal’s strongest side.
With a squad that also included the likes of David Platt, Martin Keown and Giles Grimandi, Arsenal supporters were quietly confident heading into the new season.
While Arsenal had everything in place for a title charge, they knew that a massive barricade in the shape of Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering Manchester United stood in their path. The sudden retirement of Eric Cantona did little to dent United’s belief and they were firm favourites to claim their third consecutive title.
Other contenders were seemingly well equipped for battle too. FA Cup holders Chelsea approached the season with a squad oozing cosmopolitan quality, which included Gianfranco Zola. Liverpool were able to call upon the calibre of strikers such as Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, while Newcastle were also expected to carry a threat with Alan Shearer leading the line under the management of Kenny Dalglish.
The Gunners made a solid rather than spectacular start to the season, winning two of their first three games before they faced Leicester in a pulsating encounter at Filbert Street. Under the floodlights on a late summer evening, Bergkamp produced a masterclass in skill and exquisite finishing. The Dutchman opened the scoring, curling beautifully into the top corner in elegant fashion from the edge of the area, and early into the second half, doubled his tally with a deflected strike to increase Arsenal’s lead.
To Arsenal’s frustration, Leicester rallied to pull level with two late goals, but there was still time for Bergkamp to unveil his masterpiece of the evening. With the frenzied match ticking into injury time, Platt floated a beautiful pass to Bergkamp in the Leicester box. Tightly marked by Matt Elliott, he seemingly had nowhere to go. However, what the Dutchman did next provided further evidence of his unique skill set.
Cushioning the ball down dead from the sky with his right foot, Bergkamp then proceeded to remove Elliott from the equation entirely with a touch of the left, before nonchalantly curling into the top corner. It was a moment of awe-inspiring imagination from the Dutchman and was an early signal of the brilliance he would regularly deliver for the remainder of the season.
The humdinger at Filbert Street had ended 3-3, but Arsenal fans were treated to further exciting exhibitions of attractive football over the weeks that followed. September saw a landmark occasion in Arsenal’s history when they faced Bolton at Highbury, as Wright overtook Cliff Bastin’s tally to become the club’s record goalscorer.
Wright had been ever-present since 1991, producing outstanding consistency since his move from Crystal Palace. The man who came to football late in life, following a career in construction, was one of the most natural finishers England had ever produced, and his partnership with Bergkamp was a considerable factor in Arsenal’s success.
Wright provided the perfect target for Bergkamp and credited the Dutchman as the finest he ever played with. Describing the artistry of his teammate in his autobiography, Wright said: ” Denis would create opportunities for you that you might not even see yourself. He would pass it, so you arrived at the ball in a certain way, and your first touch would have to go in a certain direction because he had seen how space could open up in a certain area and he wanted to influence you towards it.”
They followed up the thrashing of Bolton with a spectacular match at Stamford Bridge which would be settled by a Winterburn screamer from 35 yards. Chelsea, for their part, were keeping pace atop the table with Zola and Gus Poyet proving influential. Liverpool, too, were showing their credentials as teenage sensation Owen was living up to the hype that surrounded him. Mid-November arrived and a showdown between Manchester United and Arsenal loomed.
Visiting Highbury could be a unique football experience for a fan of any team. On a matchday, thousands of supporters emerged from Arsenal underground station on to Gillespie Road to venture towards the stadium. The usual tranquillity of the terraced streets would give way to the pre-match fervour that emanated when a home fixture arrived.
The short walk to the ground past the burger stalls, scarf sellers and ticket touts culminated in the vision of the magnificent art deco East Stand. Highbury was an ageing but enchanting stadium, and when United rocked up to north London on a cold Autumn evening, the stage was set for a fierce encounter.
United headed into the fixture four points ahead of third-placed Arsenal, and a win for the Mancunians would, as Wenger admitted, cause severe damage to the Gunners’ title hopes. With the Highbury faithful in full voice, Arsenal came storming out of the traps with Anelka smashing a powerful strike past Peter Schmeichel to give the home side an early lead. Vieira then doubled the advantage before United levelled things up before the break courtesy of a Teddy Sheringham brace.
The second half was a calmer affair, which looked to be playing into United’s hands. Arsenal knew they would need a win if they were to halt the northern juggernaut. Then, in the 83rd minute, a beautifully guided header from Platt restored Arsenal’s lead. The England veteran had arrived at Arsenal in 1995 at the tail end of his career but demonstrated his enduring class to deliver the Gunners three vital points that left them just a point behind the champions. The atmosphere at Highbury, so often derogatorily referred to as the library by rival fans, was electric at the full-time whistle.
The optimism that victory over the champions had stirred in supporters, however, was short-lived, as the club slumped to defeat in three of their next four games, including a woeful performance in a 3-1 loss at home to Blackburn. Wright, in particular, felt the wrath of the stands as he was subjected to booing upon being substituted. The striker, who had been the darling of Highbury just two months earlier, responding by haranguing the crowd from an East Stand window wearing only his underwear.
Tensions were running high with the fear that Ferguson’s men would run away with yet another crown as United began to kick into gear. Despite his record-breaking achievement, Wright endured a frustrating season. Eleven goals for the season was a respectable tally but was not up to the standards which he had come so accustomed. Injury in February meant he played a bit-part role in the run-in and. after seven seasons and 185 goals, Wright would leave at the end of the season.
Arsenal had plummeted to fifth by Christmas. Blackburn, Chelsea and Leeds all lay ahead of them in the table, which was topped by Manchester United, and any hopes of a title were beginning to appear bleak as they trailed the Red Devils by seven points having played a game more.
Meanwhile, in south-west London, Chelsea had problems of their own as Ken Bates fired Ruud Gullit and replaced him with Gianluca Vialli. Up north, Liverpool had to come to terms with the loss of Fowler to a cruciate ligament injury, and a Shearer injury reduced his playing time significantly, which effectively ended any hopes Newcastle had for a successful season.
While United were in a strong position and still favourites, their form began to stutter. Influential captain Roy Keane was ruled out for the majority of the season through injury, and indifferent performances presented a window of opportunity for their rivals if they could take the initiative. Defeats to the likes of Southampton, Leicester and Sheffield Wednesday left the champions vulnerable before they welcomed Arsenal to Old Trafford on 14 March for a clash that would go a long way in determining who would be crowned kings come May.
Arsenal arrived in Manchester on a grey, drizzly day with the knowledge that they were nine points behind in the table with a hugely inferior goal difference. The good news for the Gunners, however, was that they had three games in hand on their opponents. A United win would only strengthen their belief of further glory, while simultaneously dampening the hopes of Arsenal. Wenger acknowledged the importance of the match before kick-off but maintained a calm persona, joking: “United have a responsibility to make the league interesting so they should give us some points.”
Arsenal dominated the first half, with Overmars, in particular, posing a constant threat. The Dutchman terrorised the United defence, charging at them using the electric pace he was famous for. The home side were a little more dangerous going forward in the second half, but Overmars continued to cause panic, and his endeavours were eventually rewarded when he slotted home the winner 10 minutes from time.
As the full-time whistle blew, TV cameras panned in on one ecstatic fan in particular, whose frenzied reaction represented the newfound belief that this really could be their year. A joyous Wenger embraced his players and staff as Ferguson hurled his chewing gum to the ground in frustration.
Arsenal were now in control of their destiny, but Wenger was cautious post-match, insisting that United still held the advantage. Ferguson, meanwhile, was in a bullish mood, stating: “Arsenal will start dropping points soon, there’s no doubt about that, they’ve never been under pressure, so we’ll see what happens now.”
In a contradiction of Ferguson’s prediction, however, Wenger’s team appeared to thrive under pressure as they would embark on an unprecedented winning streak. They followed up two narrow wins with an outstanding performance at home to Newcastle, where Vieira slammed in a thunderbolt from 35 yards.
At the most crucial stage of the season, Arsenal were conjuring their finest form. Ewood Park was the location for one of the Gunners more scintillating performances of the season. Storming into a 4-0 lead before half-time, the pick of the goals came from Anelka as he began to demonstrate his clear potential. The 18-year-old approached Alan Fettis one on one, performed two dummies to round the goalkeeper before rolling into the empty net.
Anelka, along with Petit, was a symbol of the transfer model that Wenger utilised so efficiently in his early years. Signed for just £500,000, the mercurial Frenchman was sold two years later to Real Madrid for a £22m profit. Blessed with lightning pace, intelligent movement and composure that belied his tender years, Anelka seemed destined to replace Wright as the club’s most potent goalscorer. His stay at Highbury, rather sadly, was a short one, but his presence proved pivotal in the run-in.
Following the victory at Blackburn, Arsenal returned to the familiar surroundings of Highbury where they proceeded to batter Wimbledon 5-0, a performance that would finally see them top the table. It was United who had seemingly struggled to cope with the pressure, and two consecutive home draws meant that if Wenger and his team could carry on winning, they would be champions.
The Gunners led United by a point and had the added luxury of two games in hand. Bergkamp produced another goal of the season contender at Barnsley, curling in from 25 yards before a Petit strike settled a tense fixture at Pride Park to see off Derby. Arsenal had won nine games in a row, leaving the trophy tantalisingly close.
When 3 May arrived, it was Everton who stood between Arsenal and the Premier League title. Highbury was a vision of resplendence on a warm spring day as a sea of red and white flags fluttered in the light breeze. The home side took the game to the Toffees from the off, and their attacking intent would eventually be rewarded when Slaven Bilić nodded into his own net.
The Gunners continued to pile forward as they attempted to seal the championship in style, and before half-time, Overmars fired in his second after sprinting at the backtracking Everton defence. Shortly after the interval, the Dutchman would again display his brilliance as he produced a carbon copy of his first.
Three goals to the good, Wenger jumped up from the bench knowing that glory was secured. Highbury was ready for a party, but the icing on the cake was still to come. “That sums it all up,” bellowed Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler as Adams delivered the crowning moment in his long and distinguished Arsenal career.
The captain raised the trophy in celebration of an outstanding season in which Wenger’s methods were fully vindicated. Bergkamp was voted PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year and provided rare genius on a seemingly weekly basis – but it was the manner in which the players adjusted their games to adapt to an entirely new way of playing and thinking under Wenger that shone brightest.
Adams and either Bould or Keown were a centre-back pairing who knew each other’s games inside out. The full-backs supported Parlour and Overmars going forward without compromising their defensive duties, while the central midfield of Petit and Vieira was as strong as any in Europe. The master that was Bergkamp partnered with either Wright or Anelka offered creativity and ruthless finishing, and, when called upon, squad players such as Cristopher Wreh, Stephen Hughes and Alex Manninger made vital contributions.
An Arsenal title triumph wasn’t only good news for those in Islington. Having a consistent competitor to Manchester United’s dominance bought added excitement to the league. Although United would go on and claim the following three titles, a bitter rivalry had emerged between Arsenal and United, and in particular between Ferguson and Wenger. The Frenchman had become the first overseas manager to capture a title in England and had gotten under the skin of Ferguson.
Arsenal, not content with title success, went on to capture the FA Cup, their first such double since 1971. The achievements of the 1998 team sometimes fly under the radar due to the extraordinary accomplishments of the Invincibles in 2004. United’s Gary Neville, however, labelled the class of ’98 the best English side he faced in his career, stating: “That 1998 Arsenal team had everything: pace, power, strength, great defenders, a good goalkeeper and good finishers. That was a complete team.”
Every supporter will have their preference, but regardless of rankings or achievements, the real beauty of football lies in the memories the game leaves us. Whether it was Bergkamp’s exquisite finish at Leicester, Overmars slotting past Schmeichel, or Adams rifling in at the North Bank, the 1997/98 season provided Arsenal fans across the globe with moments they will cherish forever.
By Aaron Attwood @ajattwood