Not starting with a bang - Arsenal's Premier League opening day nightmares
The Canaries produce sweet music at Highbury
Arsenal 2-4 Norwich - August 15, 1992
The Premier League will be 22 years and 24 hours old by the time the eagerly awaited 2014/15 season commences this Saturday. But nowhere among all those opening day fixtures was there such an upset for Arsenal Football Club as losing 4-2 at home to Norwich City in their first-ever Premier League fixture.
Change was apparent everywhere. The beloved North Bank terrace had been pulled down to be replaced with a mural. On the pitch a goalscoring midfielder who wowed in an international tournament was purchased with high expectations. Unfortunately his name was John Jensen who replaced the never-to-be-forgotten David Rocastle (RIP). Rocky cried his eyes out when George Graham told him he could leave. The majority of the Arsenal fans in a much-reduced 24,030 Highbury crowd felt like crying too, after watching their team dismantled by what was to prove a vintage Norwich side.
The Gunners, like the pre-match entertainment of parachutists, got off to a flying start with an early goal from Steve Bould. The assist came from Nigel Winterburn floating in a delightful free-kick. Better was to come when Lee Dixon strode purposely down the right (who says gnarled Arsenal defenders only started playing football after Arsene arrived) before finding Kevin Campbell in the box with a well-crafted through-ball. The packed Clock End terraces erupted as the powerful forward slotted past a bemused Bryan Gunn to make it 2-0 to the Arsenal.
Whatever Canaries boss Mike Walker said to his team at half-time in those long-lost art deco Highbury changing rooms, it had a startling effect as his boys pulled a goal back soon after the break through debutant Mark Robins. Incredibly, Dave Phillips made it 2-2 after a flap by David Seaman. Equally incredibly – so startled was he at having equalised – he actually managed an awkward celebratory somersault, before trotting sheepishly away by himself seemingly embarrassed at his unprompted actions.
As shock turned to disbelief for the home and away fans, Ruel Fox nipped in to make it 3-2, before Robins capitalised superbly on a rare Tony Adams slip to lob from 30 yards for 4-2.
It was an extraordinary goal to end an extraordinary game – a game which still makes Arsenal fans of a certain vintage shudder to this day, and one which left manager George Graham vowing such an opening day humiliation “would never happen again”. He was wrong.
The Mighty Quinn? You bet
Arsenal 0-3 Coventry City - August 14, 1993
Micky Quinn, the Coventry City forward, was 50/1 to be top scorer in the second season of the Premier League. Such long odds didn’t look too daunting by 16:50 on August 14, 1993. Certainly not after he came away from Highbury with the match ball after hitting an improbable but deserved hat-trick - as the Gunners suffered a first day shock for the second time in 12 months.
The North Bank was proudly opened as an all-seater end. However some fans were left speechless when they got to their appointed seat only to find it missing as they hadn’t been installed in time - forcing them to stand. When a jobsworth steward shouted at a huddle of bemused Gooners to sit down they replied memorably to the delight of everyone: “On what?”
An Arsenal player who also had problems that day was Paul Merson. Years later he explained in his book he had spent half the previous night engaged in, shall we say, nocturnal activities. Most fans realised the loveable scamp had been up to something when an apoplectic George Graham hauled him off after an hour of resembling a Sunday morning footballer with a bad head.
Micky Quinn, on the other hand, enjoyed one of the finest days of his career, in a game Coventry fans still talk about fondly. For his first, the mighty Quinn struck a penalty to the right of a despairing David Seaman. The goal was in front of an embryonic seated Clock End which was undergoing major work. The desolate grey concrete of the unfinished stand matched Arsenal fans' mood as Quinn put the Sky Blues 2-0 up in the second half with a powerful shot from the edge of the area.
Arsenal’s normally resolute defence was in tatters as Quinn netted a third with an instinctive low angled shot which flew past a helpless Seaman. So shocked was the amiable Scouser he even attempted a jubilatory dance so wooden it could have been a forerunner to a particularly bad Britain’s Got Talent hopeful. Quinn didn’t care. He also put a whole £50 on himself scoring 30 league goals that season. Ultimately he didn’t even come close. But to this day, Arsenal fans haven’t forgotten the shock of Mickey Quinn tearing their team to shreds. You can bet on it...
Sunderland hand Pires an English lesson
Sunderland 1-0 Arsenal - August 19, 2000
Robert Pires was signed by Arsene Wenger from Marseille for £6 million, fighting off stiff competition from Real Madrid and Juventus. He won two titles and three FA Cups under his compatriot, as well as the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship. No wonder the magical left-winger was voted Arsenal’s sixth best player of all time.
Yet, as he sat on the substitutes' bench that day he seriously contemplated leaving the club he had just joined. As he recalled later: “Arsene told he would not use me in our opening game at Sunderland. He told me to sit on the bench and just watch. I thought I was ready to play but I agreed. After 20 minutes of witnessing such intensity, such crazy tackles, I thought to myself – my god what I am doing in England?”
He wasn’t wrong. The Mackems under Peter Reid tore into the Gunners from kick-off - the ferocity of those opening exchanges was a sight to behold. Tackle after crunching tackle flew in leaving Bobby Pires to wonder what he had let himself in for. Sunderland, having got under Arsenal’s skin, broke the deadlock just after half-time. A Michael Gray cross led to hesitation from the 36 year-old Seaman, before ex-Gunners beanpole Niall Quinn headed into the net on 53 minutes. Cue pandemonium on Wearside.
The Arsenal team marshalled by Vieira, including such luminaries as Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg, refused to be cowed as they attempted to gain parity. Especially Vieira, who was also becoming increasingly agitated by the attentions of his counterpart, the adhesive Darren Williams. With the game heading for a Sunderland victory Vieira finally snapped at Williams, flinging his arm out as much in frustration as anger. Arsenal fans could understand his actions even if the referee Steve Dunn failed to, as he eagerly sent him off to cap a miserable first game of the season for all associated with the club.
As Robert Pires said: “This was the day which made me realise you needed not only skill to play in England - but a warrior spirit.”
The Big Sleep
Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland - August 18, 2012
Quite simply one of the poorest goalless draws in Arsenal's entire history – and this coming from someone who attended the infamous 0-0 vs Birmingham City at Highbury in November 1986 where the ball failed to cross either team’s goal-line during the entire 90 minutes.
This dismal, instantly forgettable match can be summed up thus: Olivier Giroud missed a sharp chance on his debut. It was sunny. The end.
Valiant Villain’s prompt Wenger woe
Arsenal 1-3 Aston Villa - August 17, 2013
This was as bad as it got under Arsene Wenger’s stewardship – meaning something had to give. Was it to be his perceived parsimony in transfer dealings, or – judging by the toxic atmosphere in the ground at the end of the game – his head?
Arsenal took the lead as early as the sixth minute when Tomas Rosicky fed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain down the left flank, who crossed for an unmarked Olivier Giroud to fire past Villains keeper Brad Guzan to put the Gunners 1-0 up. For those of a red and white persuasion it was to be the day’s highpoint.
Gabby Agbonlahor, lively all afternoon, slipped the ball between Koscielny’s legs to nudge it past Szczesny who subsequently pulled him down. The referee, Anthony Taylor, then played an advantage but, after Andreas Weimann fired his shot into the side-netting, awarded a penalty. Arsenal’s Polish keeper managed to save from Christian Benteke, but the powerful centre-forward showed anticipation by reaching the bouncing rebound to head home convincingly.
There was more anguish for Wenger and the fans in the second half. On 62 minutes, Santi Cazorla lost the ball to Agbonlahor, who went to accelerate past Koscielny in the box. The French international slid in appearing to get a substantial part of his foot on the ball yet the official, Taylor, awarded another penalty to Villa. Benteke made no mistake from the spot second time around and sent Szczesny the wrong way to make it 2-1.
The mutterings in the stands increased as Koscielny capped a game to forget by picking up a second yellow card when he fouled Weimann moments later. On 86 minutes Antonio Luna ran through to score Villa’s third on the day as the ball evaded Szczesny before rebounding off the post and into the goal.
The game ended in acrimony as boos rained down from some fans, with others demanding money be spent on transfers. Other fans simply stood in stunned silence disturbed by what could be described as the first open signs of civil war between fans and the club.
In a mesmerising Arsenal Fan TV interview, made infamous by the intensity of feeling, one particularly anguished supporter was vehement in his condemnation of the club’s transfer dealings and the failure to “spend some f***ing money.”
Whatever fans views on the worrying saga it was clear to all, including Wenger and the board, signings had to be made. Supporters didn’t necessarily require a ‘marquee’ signing – rather a purchase as a statement of intent instead – not only to bolster the squad but to give the whole club a morale boost.
Immediately after the game Wenger, looking as dejected as he had ever done during his entire tenure at Arsenal, said: “We are ready to buy the players if we find that the players are good enough for us.”
At £42 million pounds, Mesut Ozil was his name.
Layth’s book: 'Arsene Wenger: 50 Defining Fixtures' will be published on August 28. To pre-order a copy click here.
He is having a book launch on Saturday August 16 from midday at the iconic Arsenal fans pie shop Piebury Corner, 209-211 Holloway Road, London, N7 8DL. Tel: 020 7700 5441