Amy Lawrence of The Guardian has deep roots at Arsenal. Her devotion to our Boxing Day visitors is well-known in sportswriting circles and she has written or co-authored several books on the north London club, including Invincible, the acclaimed story of their unbeaten 2003-04 campaign.
She also produced the feature film 89, about the dramatic Anfield climax to the 1988-89 season, in which the Gunners snatched the title from Liverpool in the final seconds.
But she readily admits to having a soft spot for the Albion, which she developed after covering the sale of the Goldstone and the club’s struggles to find a home back in Brighton. “I was with a bunch of kids the other day and they were discussing who their second team was,” she said. “When I said ‘Brighton’ and they asked why. I said ‘It’s a big story and a long story.’
“I fell into it by covering the War Years, from the dying days of The Goldstone Ground. I get the shivers just thinking about it. It was an extraordinary thing to witness, even from the outside looking in, if you care about the basic values of football and being a fan and the idea that a club represents something to its community. I’ve seldom seen something so visceral as those seasons and the aftermath.
“I was blown away by the imagination and passion of the Brighton fans who fought when it would have been understandable just to shrug and say ‘Well, what can you do?’ But that wasn’t in the hearts and souls of those fans.
There was cleverness and strategic brilliance in the way they kept their plight in the forefront of the football conversation and made sure that Bill Archer couldn’t do what he did unchallenged, and that someone like Dick Knight and the others felt obligated to do what they did. So from the depth of horror, something beautiful was there – a spirit and an incredible determination not to go down without a fight.
“It was a profound thing for someone who loves football to witness and I was swept along with the wish for Brighton to have happy times ahead. I still remember the last game at The Goldstone and people taking seats and bits of turf. But the club didn’t disintegrate. And even now, seeing Brighton establishing themselves in the Premier League as a very modern football club, that story of what is deep in their soul is worth telling again and again - how deep the fall was but how they were able to climb back.”
While Albion were struggling along at Gillingham after the loss of the Goldsone, Arsenal were beginning a period of sustained success under Arsène Wenger, reaching a peak in that undefeated 2003-04 season, which Amy chronicled and analysed in Invincible.
The recent defeat of Manchester City at Chelsea only emphasised what a feat Wenger’s men had accomplished if as complete a team as Pep Guardiola’s City could not emulate it.
“Maybe it depends on how connected you are to history in how much that matters to you, but there are quite a few Arsenal fans who celebrate every year when everyone has lost a match,” said. “It becomes an important moment in the calendar because it means that the Invincibles’ memory remains so special.”
What was the secret behind that stunning success? “You have to have incredible technical and psychological qualities and also some luck somewhere along the line. Not to have a decision go against you or a bad bounce across 38 games is pretty extraordinary. City losing at Chelsea when they are so powerful in every area and have such strength in depth stresses how difficult it is.
“In writing that book the interest was just as much in trying to understand the dynamics of such a great team as telling the story of the season – what makes players tick, those fine details, what makes a manager trust you in certain situations, how a team reacts to a setback or different challenges, how a team is constructed, the ingredients and how they are blended to create something out of the ordinary. Of course you had characters like Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole. They were an interesting bunch of people with interesting qualities.
“But in any team sport when something happens that is out of the ordinary it depends on everyone. Arsène Wenger talked about the specific challenge of coaching and communicating with the players who were slightly peripheral.
When a top team is in the groove and you are picking the same guys every week, how do you make sure the people who haven’t played for two months but might suddenly be needed feel involved and respected?
That’s all about managing the mental aspect of high-level sport. The ones who played every week spoke quite glowingly about how the fringe players kept their standards so high and the ones on the fringes spoke quite warmly about how the mainstays kept them feeling involved and valued, even in a macho sport like 21st-century Premier League football. That takes special characters.”
The unbeaten record was tested early on when Ruud van Nistelrooy of Manchester United hit the crossbar with a late penalty at Old Trafford and another controversial spot kick saved a point at home to Portsmouth, but the final four games presented a special problem.
“They had won the league with four matches to spare and then they still had what Thierry Henry called ‘the invisible prize.’ Because an unbeaten season hadn’t been done since Preston in the 19th century, it wasn’t in the language of football. And after winning the title they had fallen off an adrenaline cliff then had to pull themselves together for four more games. Arsène was obsessed with it and was saying: ‘This is historic, don’t let it go.’
But it was like trudging through treacle for them.” As Albion found in the three Championship matches after clinching promotion to the Premier League!
That invincible season was the high water mark under Wenger and was followed by a frustrating decline that ended with the Frenchman’s departure last summer.
But Amy is cautiously optimistic that Unai Emery is changing the club’s culture for the better. “Nobody was under any illusions that it wouldn’t be an enormous task to come in and make changes to a situation that has been drifting and follow a manager with a legacy of two decades.
To have a long unbeaten run after an ungenerous first few games of the season against Manchester City and Chelsea was a big surprise and testament to the fact that Emery has been able to work with a squad that he inherited plus a few important additions. He has created something quite quickly, a different work ethic, a new energy and not only a different game plan but several different game plans.
“A new development for Arsenal-watchers this season has been how often Emery switches tactically, not just from game to game but within games – early substitutions, different formations within a match.
That flexibility in a team usually takes time to generate but the players seem to have bought into his ideology quite quickly. It has been almost a calm transition. You would expect rebuilding to be more uneven or erratic after something that was so familiar for such a long time. But Arsenal have managed to be steady and not over-emotional. It has been a less stressful transition than anyone had any right to expect. You feel that people are enjoying the ride.”