As the goals flowed, they chanted "boring, boring Arsenal" with a sense of irony only those supporters acclaiming a mightily impressive League and FA Cup Double championship can muster. They have done so, under Arsène Wenger, repeating his achievement of 1998, with a liberating concept of football, underpinned by a resolute rearguard, which even those residents of Salford, Merseyside and Tyneside, would begrudgingly admire.
On Wednesday night at Old Trafford, it required the stretching of every player's last sinew to claim the title back from Manchester United which Arsenal had relinquished three years ago. Here, finally, Wenger's men could relax after a season of relentless pressure. Indeed, so deficient in concentration did Wenger's team appear at times that they were in danger of ending a run of 12 successive Premiership victories with the ignominy of defeat by a team of notoriously poor travellers on this, the momentous occasion of their championship trophy presentation.
Yet, ultimately, a brace from Thierry Henry, which installed him as the Premiership's top scorer and winner of the Golden Boot, with 32 goals – "For someone who was convinced he wasn't a natural goalscorer, it's amazing," said his manager – and one apiece from Dennis Bergkamp and former Evertonian Francis Jeffers meant that Arsenal claimed the championship by seven points from runners-up Liverpool. Perhaps even more satisfyingly, the Gunners finished 10 points clear of United. "The star of the season was the squad," declared Wenger, as the Highbury faithful celebrated long and loudly. "This team are tremendous. Their togetherness is fantastic."
This was always going to be a carnival rather than a classic, an occasion for unabashed emotion at which the tears of exultation were quietly shed along with those of sadness as Highbury bade fare-well to Lee Dixon, retiring after nearly 16 years at the club; Bob Wilson, goalkeeper and coach here for 39 years; and maybe Tony Adams, at Arsenal for an eternity, but who, having lifted the FA Cup last Saturday, sat this one out.
In addition, one Frenchman, Gilles Grimandi, departs and possibly another will follow. You imagine the question of whether Patrick Vieira joins those other P45 recipients could well occupy much of Wenger's summer. Despite the Arsenal badge-kissing ritual after Wednesday's game and claims that he wishes to see out the remaining two years of his contract, financial considerations will presumably be paramount for a player, who, in fairness to him, has been at Highbury for approaching six years. These days, that is almost worthy of a loyalty medal being struck. Time will tell whether his protestations are real, or if he is bound for Real Madrid.
For Wenger, the Vieira issue will be his prime concern as the manager prepares to justify his assertion that the completion of his second Premiership-FA Cup Double is evidence of a "power shift" from the north-west to north London. Wenger would be the first to acknowledge that Arsenal have underperformed in Europe for several seasons, including this one, in which his team failed to qualify from the second group phase. Until Wenger corrects that trend, his nemesis Sir Alex Ferguson, who responded with magnaminity to United's Premiership capitulation, will continue to stand supreme on the pantheon of managerial greats.
There were presentations aplenty before the game – to Footballer of the Year Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp for his ITV goal of the season, an extraordinary effort against Newcastle in March. And there had to be something for Freddie Ljungberg. He claimed the Premiership Player of the Month award.
Wenger, evidently determined to complete the season in the style to which their devotees have become accustomed, resisted any inclination to introduce aspirants from Arsenal's Academy. Vieira and Ljungberg were on the bench, David Seaman and Sol Campbell were rested and Adams and Keown were injured, but otherwise Arsenal's line-up yielded the visitors little optimism. So it was to prove. Within four minutes, Ashley Cole had cut back the ball from the goal-line, and though Alan Stubbs appeared to have control of the situation, he passed the ball obligingly across goal to Bergkamp, who duly despatched his 14th goal of the season. Yet there was soon worrying evidence for the Highbury faithful that the visitors were more focused than their hosts. Kevin Campbell nearly broke through between Cole and Igor Stepanovs. Then the Everton striker just failed to reach David Unsworth's raking cross, while a Mark Pembridge drive forced Richard Wright into a diving save.
In between, Bergkamp nudged the ball through to Henry only for the Frenchman to find the side netting from an acute angle having rounded goalkeeper Steve Simon-sen. Parlour also drove narrowly wide.
But a goal from Everton was becoming inevitable. Tomasz Radzinski fashioned the opening with a ball to Lee Carsley, who put the chance away with aplomb from the edge of area. The visitors continued to threaten, with an unmarked Campbell directing his header straight at Wright. Then Radzinski cleared the bar from Niclas Alexandersson's cross. A minute later the Polish-born forward atoned when he drove down the left, leaving three Arsenal players in his wake, before cutting in and delivering a searing right-footed drive past Wright.
Arsenal were roused and quickly levelled. Bergkamp's physical presence got the better of an encounter with Stubbs on the left and he deftly prodded a ball through to Henry, who poked it home into an unguarded net.
In the second half, Jeffers and Vieira were introduced, and together they enlivened Arsenal. Yet with 20 minutes remaining, it was Radzinski who should have made it three, only to be thwarted by Wright. It was a costly miss. Seconds later, Edu released Henry, who made the visiting rearguard appear flat-footed before shooting past Simonsen. After that it was virtually all Arsenal. Vieira found Henry with a glorious ball and the striker could have shot, but instead passed to Jeffers, who struck a post.
Alexandersson was substituted by a fellow named David Ginola. Remember him? But the former Tottenham man barely got a look-in before, with seven minutes remaining, Bergkamp sent Henry scampering to the far goal-line and his cut-back found Jeffers at the far post. Henry's joy at scoring was unconfined.
Stuart Taylor replaced Wright late on – the 10th appearance of the season for the third-choice goalkeeper, thus earning him a championship medal – but almost immediately he was picking the ball out of the net, Steve Watson having scored with a low drive with two minutes left.
But this was to be no story of a comeback by David Moyes' men. This was all about one team yesterday. And one manager, whose faith was vindicated by his men, over the most compelling of seasons, in the most imperious manner.
Bergkamp 4, Henry 33, 72, Jeffers 83
Carsley 20, Radzinski 31, Watson 89
Half-time: 2-2 Attendance: 38,254Reuse content