To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit a sensational reclamation of legendary status and a place in the history books.
There have been books written about Arsenal’s 2003/04 season of invincibility. Three years ago a film covering the unsurpassed achievement received a cinematic release. Outside the Emirates stand statues of the main protagonists.
Such cultural testimonies are deserving of an extraordinary 10-month spell of beautiful, enthralling football that avoided the taste of league defeat even once. More so they rightfully celebrate an artistic masterpiece created by Arsene Wenger in his element that was granite to the core with Jens Lehmann and Sol Campbell and Gilberto Silva and made fantastical by the devilment of Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.
Yet when viewed as a whole it is all too easy to forget the toil behind the triumphs; the reserves of faith and fortitude that were dug deep down into to ensure that history was made. It is all too easy instead to think back on only the imperious fare that saw Henry glide his way to 39 goals across all competitions; to Bergkamp twinkling and scheming and the Gunners in another gear to all around them.
It cost to be so good. To be so good they had to go right to the precipice of losing everything.
The Good Friday of 2004 was one such afternoon. A week earlier they had been spoken of as treble chasers but an FA Cup semi-final loss to Manchester United put paid to that and then three days prior to a visit of Liverpool in the league came a crushing Champions League exit courtesy of Chelsea. Doubts emerged large and foreboding. Critics began to sharpen their pencils. And here, with a peerless season only eight games off and Chelsea refusing to give up the chase seven points behind them here was a Liverpool side – Gerrard, Owen and all – who were firmly in the hunt for a top four spot.
Worse yet, just five minutes in, Gerard Houllier’s men took the lead with a close range header from Sami Hyypia. Of course Arsenal remained calm – you simply don’t amass 22 wins and 8 draws consecutively without possessing indomitable self-belief – and duly restored order with a typically classy finish from Henry on the half hour mark.
But when Michael Owen capitalised on the longest slide-rule pass in living memory from Gerrard on 42 minutes that’s surely when the past seven days would have arose gurning and taunting. In the dressing room at the break that’s when the fear would have crept in. First the treble dream was snatched from them. Then their Champions League hopes. And now Liverpool had their tails up and Arsenal’s proud unbeaten record was in serious jeopardy.
Their response in the second period revealed not only their muster but why this was a special team. It was a stylish blitz that started from the get-go with Robert Pires levelling the score with a poke following some lovely movement and inter-play and from there the home side immediately took command. It was as if this second equaliser whooshed all of the joy and arrogance back into them, replenishing the side with faith. Almost from kick-off they retrieved possession and serviced Thierry Henry who loitered just outside the centre-circle.
The Frenchman tippy-tapped forward, shoulders hunched with intent and when faced with Didi Hamann decided to take the long route past him relying on a burst of pace. With a white-shirted wall ahead of him that season’s PFA Footballer of the Year (by a country mile) identified Jamie Carragher as his victim and slalomed past with ease leaving him only with the keeper to beat. From there a remarkable solo goal was inevitable.
“Who would argue that this is not the world’s hottest striker?” the commentator Peter Drury squealed, a claim posed as a question that gained further credos later in the game when Henry completed his hat-trick.
On Easter weekend 2004 Arsenal’s credentials and aspirations were put to the sword. They responded like Invincibles en route to legendary status.
Arsenal won and drew their way into the history books becoming the only English side in the 21st century to prevail through an entire season undefeated.
Liverpool endured a campaign of frustration exiting every competition early on but at least securing Champions League qualification. In June, Gerard Houllier gave way to Rafa Benitez and a new era at Anfield was born.