“When you start supporting a football club, you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.” (Dennis Bergkamp)
Similarly this book is not about one player, but about the events that transpired to bring this incredible group together to create history, the alchemy that moulded them into the Invincibles. The tale of “how a group of players is constructed, how a style is formed, connections created and a spirit fortified”.
It takes a certain skill to take such familiar material and add deeper insight to it. Amy Lawrence, a fellow Gooner, renowned journalist and writer, manages to attain a near-perfect balance between nostalgia, perspective and facts – and the result is a narrative that is as fluid, intricate and compelling as the then-revolutionary style of play Arsene Wenger introduced to the North London club and English Premier League football in general.
There is perhaps this compulsion to paraphrase and immortalise people and events, especially when they are as momentous as the achievement of going unbeaten for an entire season (49 overall if you count the whole run of games without losing) in what is considered as one of the toughest leagues in world football. But the writer mostly dodges these pitfalls by maintaining as much of the words of the players and manager as possible. This means that we also get a deeper sense of the personalities of each individual, and she manages to flesh out each person – whether it’s the intelligence of Bergkamp, the gentle firmness of Gilberto, the almost maniacal passion of Jens, the refined sensibilities of Henry, the classy strength of Sol Campbell or even the never-give-up old guard spirit of Keown.
The book doesn’t focus solely on the first eleven either. One of its main themes is the importance of teamwork above all, the coming together of a bunch of multi-lingual, multi-cultural, diverse group of players under the able, demanding guidance of Arsene “Le Prof” Wenger. Equal importance is given to every player who contributed in whatever way, as well as members of the coaching, kit, physio and ground staff. “Victory through harmony” (Victoria Concordia Crescit) is the Arsenal motto and this extends to every aspect of the running of a club always defined by its old-school family values, its class and elegance. This sense of togetherness, solidarity and family is something every player talks about as a crucial part of their Arsenal journey.
Whether it’s about how the club and Wenger stood by and helped Edu during his very turbulent initial time at Arsenal, how Lauren dedicated a goal to Toure’s mother who had recently passed away or how Viera’s first day coincided with Tony Adams coming clean about his alcohol addiction (all he remembers is the wordless support from the team at the revelation) – at the end of the day, like David Dein said, Arsenal wanted the players to know that they were at more than just a football club.
Rather than opting for a chronological account of the Invincibles season, Lawrence picks out key themes (leadership, innovation, trust, teamwork, turbulence) and weaves them into a narrative divided almost like a three-act play that stretches as far back as 1989 and explores the links and layers that eventually culminated in a piece of history. It makes for fascinating reading; as much a testament to the skill of the writer as the inherent power and magic of this story. She asks probing questions and coaxes the best out of her interviews. A few key games are handpicked (the book opens with that 0-0 at Old Trafford and the aftermath) and we are treated to some truly lyrical descriptions of football as well as an almost stream of consciousness during the all-important clashes versus Liverpool and Spurs among others. There is also a spotlight on the weaknesses, the inability to make a lasting impact in the Champions League, the FA Cup semi-final loss vs Man Utd, the second place finishes and results that still rankle. All of this contributes in giving a more three-dimensional idea of what started off as journalistic bait where Wenger first shared his previously unspoken dream of going an entire season unbeaten.
To put some perspective on the achievement, it was only the second time a team was unbeaten in England’s top flight after Preston North End way back in 1888/89. But even then, it was only 22 games (the inaugural English league season); though they also went on to win the FA Cup that season to be the only team to do the Double unbeaten. Wenger’s men were dumped out of both the FA Cup and the Champions League in the same week after facing a most gruelling schedule where they played three of their fiercest rivals over a span of 7 days. But you can’t really take anything away from a team that stayed unbeaten for 38 games over a league season; a feat that remains unrivalled in England. (Juventus managed it in the 2011/12 Serie A season winning 23 games and drawing 15)
Like a clearer picture starts to emerge when pieces are added to a particularly big jigsaw puzzle, Amy Lawrence starts at the foundation of an achievement that was years in the making and comprises of innumerable factors before laying down further layers. David Dein’s first meeting with Arsene Wenger and the integral part their eventual relationship played in building this team, for example. How revolutionary and visionary Wenger was with his methods when he first arrived in England; an integral cog in the change sweeping through all areas of the club. How he has shaped the new era of the club and added to “The Arsenal Way”. I wish there were more discussions about AW’s thoughts on tactics and technical matters, but there are some fascinating insights into the mind and the man. His scientific rationale, his beliefs, his all-encompassing passion for football and of doing things just right. How he believes in the self-education of players and hence prefers intelligent, thoughtful footballers who will learn from their surroundings and those around them without specifically being told everything. How he insists on the pinnacle of teamwork and a speed of thought that translates into speed of play. How he cares deeply about even the lesser members of the squad and hates confrontation, yet managing to keep a distance from his team.
In a squad full of such irresistible talent, there are bound to be big personalities – and lots of discussions, arguments and disagreements. From what the players themselves say, it was an atmosphere of honesty and thought encouraged by the manager, and one that eventually benefited them as soon as they stepped onto that pitch. In the end, this was a team of winners, of big-match players who didn’t like to lose and strove for perfection like their manager. There was a collective solidarity and purpose about them, an unconditional trust in each other that is hard to replicate. One that was only heightened during dinners orchestrated by none other than Patrick Viera so that they could interact off the pitch and know more about the men they worked with day in and day out. There are plenty of delightful anecdotes that I won’t spoil for readers (including one where Kolo Toure tackled the boss during his trial), and they further highlight the closeness that still holds together this group of players and the pull that keeps bringing them back to North London even now.
Like many in India around that time, my sister and I started watching football during the 2002 World Cup. Little did we know then what was about to unfold just a season away. As it happened, we could sense a feeling of something special, something irretrievably glorious. But even as our rather fragile, newborn bonds with the club we now call home deepened during 2003-2004, there is much that we cannot remember as clearly as we’d like, or feel as intensely as we do about events that occurred when we were more “settled” fans for want of a better word. That period remains one of the most extraordinary of our fan journeys till now, but the only regret we come away with after reading this book is an inability to go back and experience the same with our current love and understanding for everything Arsenal. It’s a surreal feeling of being insiders and outsiders simultaneously.
Invincibles is visceral, evocative, passionate – every bit a fan’s narrative – and yet it’s carefully crafted and structured, intelligent and objective for the most part. By May 2004, Chelsea already had the wealth of a certain Abramovich, setting in motion a chain of events that would irretrievably change the rules of modern-day football. So 10 years on, it is also a look back at a simpler time that will never come again and an achievement that could only have happened when it did. It is also fittingly a moving tribute to the hallowed marble halls of Highbury, a place I can visit only in my dreams.
Reading this book was an emotional experience I’ll gladly undergo again and again.