Lee Dixon: League Cup victory can lead to a golden new era at Arsenal – that's what happened in 1987 - News & Comment - Football - The Independent

Lee Dixon: League Cup victory can lead to a golden new era at Arsenal – that's what happened in 1987

The Weekend Dossier

So here go Arsenal, looking to put six years without a trophy in the past this weekend. As barren times go, they've been here before.

When I arrived at the club in January 1988 they had won the Littlewoods Cup after 16 years with only one trophy. (That dates me. Quick check to remember what it was called that year!) It was certainly a relief from the fans' point of view when Charlie Nicholas's two goals beat Liverpool in March 1987 but the pleasure of ending that drought would be nothing compared with how it would feel if Arsène Wenger's players claim the Carling Cup tomorrow.

It was a slightly different situation in 1987. George Graham had not been at the club that long and, from his point of view, it was the end of one era and the start of another, with the older players like Kenny Sansom and Charlie leaving the club and younger ones, like Nigel Winterburn and me, coming in. There was a building process going on. At the Arsenal of today, we're seeing that building process nearing completion and the club now waiting for the rewards of it all.

Comparisons aren't always useful. The fans look back to that time when George took over as manager, when he quickly won the Littlewoods Cup and then put together the team that won that famous league title by seeing off Liverpool in 1989. We then lost the title and claimed it back again, to make it two championships in three years. But the truth is that the current team and that team of George's are poles apart. We were not half as talented a side back then as Arsenal are now. We didn't have the skill and quality to be able to change a game so quickly as this one has. If I were in this side I would be really frustrated because they are displaying some of the best football we've ever seen in the modern game – football which is so good to watch – and yet they've still not made it to silverware.

It's frustrating to see that, as a former player, but if they prove to be the whole package this time they could go on to dominate for years. They are not far off, either. This could be the year it comes together. There has definitely been an improvement defensively and in that respect the 4-4 draw at Newcastle was a blip, and nothing more. Sooner or later, everything is going to change for Arsenal and Sunday could be the start of it, even though Wenger will consider the season to be a failure if they win the Carling Cup and nothing else. He has always said that you judge all aspects of a club – how dynamic and patient you are – on the title race alone.

The fact that it has been so many years without a trophy will bring nerves, I'm sure. I always found there are different types of those. Some can be debilitating, though when you are a bit more experienced you fear the time you don't get them because it's a bloody big thing you are about to do and you want to feel that. I always found it to be a nice, warming nervousness, which focused the mind. You learnt how to deal with it. The absence of time without a trophy can have positive and negative effects. The spotlight is so much more intense now but we also had the wilderness years of the mid-1990s without a trophy and it does creep up on you.

It will be a dreadful day for Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas. I'll never forget missing the 1993 League Cup final through suspension – I see it was the Coca-Cola by then! – because I had been sent off in the FA Cup semi-final win over Spurs, two weeks before. That final was one of the worst of my career and I didn't even play in it. I can picture the tackle that put me out of it, even now. I had been booked early in the first half of the semi-final after a tussle with Nayim near the corner flag, and there were 20 minutes to go when I went to tackle Justin Edinburgh on the half-way line. I was thinking "get the ball, you're on a red here" and I was halfway through the tackle when I realised it was going wrong. Seconds later I was looking for the red; actually thinking what I would do on the day of the final. Missing the win over Sheffield Wednesday was horrible – I was actually standing a few yards away from Steve Morrow when he broke his arm in the celebration – though beating Wednesday to the FA Cup in that bizarre year made up for it.

There are hazards ahead for those members of Wenger's team who do make Sunday's team, not least the fact that – with no disrespect to Birmingham – Arsenal will be playing a side they would expect to beat 20 times out of 30. If they don't win, people are going to say "they bottled it" and "will the opportunity ever come to win something?" It's a funny one: when you are playing a tougher opponent your mind tends to focus more sharply and quickly on the game you are in. It's amazing how sharp your brain gets if you are up against Ryan Giggs, or Rivaldo at the Nou Camp. It can be different if it's lesser players and that's the idea that Alex McLeish will be planting in his players' minds. He will be saying: "There's one or two of them who think this game's won." That's McLeish's carrot for his players and that's where their chance lies.

I have experienced life on the receiving end of that and the game that will always stick out in my mind is the Wrexham game in the 1992 FA Cup third round. One minute we were sitting in the dressing room at half-time with a cup of tea, one up, thinking "get a couple more, fourth round, happy days". The next thing we are out. One of my memories of that day was coming off the pitch almost laughing to myself – in shock, I think – asking myself: "Is somebody going to come out and say that's a joke and we can play again?" There are certainly dangers of that kind tomorrow, though I do believe the time has arrived for this group of players. They have what they need to make this their day.

Five Asides

1. A suspicious case of all for one-all overheard in an Italian tunnel

The Independent's story of the former Rangers striker Mark Hateley being approached to go easy on Marseilles in the year the French side won the European Cup was interesting. I never heard a whisper of things like that myself, though a player once said to me he'd been in the tunnel in Italy one day when he heard the two captains say to each other "one-each?" The final score: one each.

2. If you want to see the real Hughes just look right into his eyes

Mark Hughes goes back to Manchester City this weekend with Fulham and he'll want to prove a few people there wrong. I do "get" Hughes as a manager. He might not be ranting and raving and smashing full-backs all over the place any more, like he did me, but he's not mellowed. What I see in his eyes in his interviews is a different kind of focus. You have stay calm with so much going on.

3. Right clothes, wrong place for Wrighty and me

The atmosphere for Manchester United at Marseilles' Stade Vélodrome looked tasty. The worst one I remember was at PAOK Salonika's ground in 1997. Ian Wright and I walked out in our suits but this was considered disrespectful so the crowd, 28,000 of them 90 minutes before kick-off, turned around, put their arms around each other, and started jumping up and down. Wrighty and I took one look at each other and ran for the dressing room.

4. California dream of imitating Giggs may not stretch back home again

My wife and I have been in Santa Monica, California, this week and I've taken the chance to try out some yoga. It wasn't Ryan Giggs' video that did it! I've wanted to try it and since my wife is a dancer and reasonably flexible, it's going to help her too. I've been able to attend a couple of classes and stretch with 85-year-olds without anyone spotting me. At Stage One you can get into whatever intensity you want, depending on how long you hold your pose. An instructor at our house might be the safest bet now I'm home!

5. Basketball's All Stars throw up more hype than slam-dunk action

A good chance to watch more basketball while I've been in California. I'd always draw the curtain if it was being played in the garden but I got into it a couple of seasons ago, have followed the LA Lakers and saw the NBA All Stars' game this week. Two days of hype for a throwabout!

Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Aston Vill vs Blackburn Rovers

Dixon's verdict: Villa have turned the corner in recent weeks, losing just one of the last eight matches, including an FA Cup win over Rovers. Blackburn continue to struggle for form, so it's a home success for me.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Prediction: Home win

Everton vs Sunderland

Dixon's verdict: Everton were as impressive at Chelsea last week as they were poor at Bolton the week before, so it's anyone's guess as to which Everton we will see. Sunderland may take advantage to secure a point.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Prediction: Draw

Newcastle United vs Bolton Wanderers

Dixon's verdict: Home supporters at St James' Park have only been treated to one victory in the last 11 weeks, while Bolton have tightened up well at the back in recent weeks, so the spoils could be shared here.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Prediction: Draw

Wigan Athletic vs Manchester United

Dixon's verdict: For all Wigan's occasional flashes of recovery they remain mired in the relegation zone and they won't cause too much trouble for United today. A key three points for Sir Alex Ferguson's side.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Prediction: Away win

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Blackpool

Dixon's verdict: Blackpool put an end to their poor run with a fortunate win over Spurs but are without an away win since December. Wolves tend to do better against the big sides but I'm tipping them to get the points today.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Prediction: Home win

West Ham United vs Liverpool

Dixon's verdict: A hard match to call, with both sides showing some kind of form of late. West Ham have hit 14 goals in their last five games, while Liverpool are unbeaten in eight. A point apiece is my guess.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Prediction: Draw

Manchester City vs Fulham

Dixon's verdict: Fulham hold a fine recent record at Eastlands, losing just one of their last seven trips, but I can't see them getting anything tomorrow. Edin Dzeko looked good in midweek and City will have too much.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Prediction: Home win

Stoke City vs West Bromwich Albion

Dixon's verdict: Tony Pulis has begun to make the Britannia something of a fortress again, with Stoke unbeaten in five at home, while the Baggies have won just one in 12. Another three points for the Potters.

Kick-off: Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights Tues, 12.30am, SS1)

Prediction: Home win

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