1997/8 was Arsène Wenger’s first complete season at Arsenal, and as you might remember (if you are of a certain vintage) Mr Wenger set himself an impossibly high bar to measure up to thereafter by giving us a Double. It was our first championship in seven years, the first league/cup double since 1970/1 (although George Graham got the country’s first ever cup double in between). Only the League Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea stopped the dream of the domestic treble. Europe was uninspiring, but no one seemed to mind.
And all this in the season when we let Paul Merson go to Middlesbrough for an offer of over £4m (considered to be huge at the time). But the incomer – Manu Petit – most certainly caught the eye. Gilles Grimandi wasn’t a huge star player, and he proved a superb he of scouting in France after he stopped playing. .
And then there was Marc Overmars, who came in for £7m – which explained Merson’s leaving. For what a stunning player he turned out to be – and what a profit maker too, when he eventually went (complete with an injury) to Barcelona for an insanely huge price.
Christopher Wreh also came in, and has since been the subject of considerable controversy – along with Boa More, Mendez and Manninger. Indeed during the summer of 1997 it was hard to keep up.
As for the FA Cup, in the 3rd round it looked like Mr Wenger was going to fall into the sort of disaster area that beset previous managers facing lower league clubs – we drew at Highbury with Port Vale. We drew the replay too, but did manage to go through on penalties. Not an auspicious start given that not only were Port Vale a second tier club (known as Division 1 in those days) but that they missed relegation at the end of the season by just one point.
So we come to 24 January 1998: ten years to the day after we suffered our eighth consecutive league game without a win. We played Middlesbrough of Division 1, heading for promotion – they ended up second that season. It was away, and was where Marc Overmars scored in just about a minute, and Ray Parlour scored the second. Inevitably Paul Merson scored against us.
A goalless draw at home to Crystal Palace took us to a replay in the fifth round but we won with a less than full strength team.
Then in the 6th round we went behind to West Ham, London’s 3rd team at the time, just behind Chelsea, but some way ahead of London’s Premier League also rans – Tottenham (who only just avoided relegation by four points) and Wimbledon, who gained the same number of points as Tottenham. Wimbledon and Tottenham matching each other eh? Who would have thought it!
But for Arsenal Dennis B. scored a penalty, to give us our third replay in four cup games. This was getting a habit – and for those of us paying, an expensive ticket.
Worse (at least for the nerves) it was another draw in the replay and another penalty shoot out.
This was also the time when (amazingly as it now seems looking back) a few of us thought Chris Wreh was a real prospect. And I do remember in the build-up to the semi final against Wolverhampton Wanderers thinking for the first time that we could actually do the double here – and that was before Wreh scored.
So to the final on 16 May 1998. There was no Bergkamp, and I think we all assumed that the forward line would be Wright and Anelka, or maybe it was just me. But it wasn’t… it was Wright on the bench – something that became an issue when he didn’t even get on at the end for his medal.
I remember it as a lopsided affair in which Newcastle didn’t really look a serious threat – in fact I am sure I remember after talk of them not even showing up – especially after Marc Overmars scored on 23 mins, putting the ball between the keeper’s legs. Was there no end to what Wenger could give to us? We were going to do the double!
Nic Anelka got the second and Wreh looked ok – which is worth noting given his subsequent history. But everyone raved over Marc Overmars, quite rightly. Except Ian Wright.
- 3 January 1998: Arsenal 0 Port Vale 0; 3rd round
- 14 January 1998: Port Vale 1 Arsenal 1; replay Arsenal win 4-3 on pens
- 24 January 1998: Middlesbrough 1 Arsenal 2; 4th round
- 15 February 1998: Arsenal 0 Crystal Palace 0; 5th round
- 25 February 1998: Crystal Palace 1 Arsenal 2; replay
- 8 March 1998: Arsenal 1 West Ham 1; 6th round
- 17 March 1998: West Ham 1 Arsenal 1; replay, Arsenal win 4-3 on pens
- 5 April 1998: Wolverhampton 0 Arsenal 1; semi-final at Aston Villa
- 16 May 1998: Arsenal 2 Newcastle U 0; Final.
A second double in Mr Wenger’s first full season. Well I never!