The men for all season

"It is the biggest moment since I arrived. My dream has always been to play a whole season unbeaten. It's something unique," Arsÿne Wenger, Arsenal manager
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The Independent Online

At the end, his daughter, seven-year-old Lea, was jig-jogging on the pitch among the euphoric Arsenal players, savouring the moment that had been her father's vision. The architect himself, Arsène Wenger, preferred to stand quietly and absorb it all from the sidelines.

"If I had jumped around the pitch, they'd have said I was crazy and should go to hospital,'' explained the urbane Frenchman. He added that his youngster had been among several, including one of Dennis Bergkamp's children, who had joined in the celebrations. "The trouble is that now she'll think that winning a trophy's easy.''

In truth, the title is being secured with a degree of regularity under the Arsenal manager. This was his third in seven seasons. But the crucial addendum to this one, achieved ultimately with a degree of comfort, is his team's negotiation through a Premiership season undefeated - the first top-division side to do so since the Invincibles of Preston North End in 1888-89. "It is the biggest moment since I arrived here,'' Wenger said. "My dream has always been to play a whole season unbeaten. It's something unique, because no other manager can say that in the top League. I'm very happy, I'm proud of my players.''

He added that it was at Portsmouth two games ago "that they [the players] had realised something special was on''. Yet he conceded that such a remarkable feat had not been recorded without the summoning of rapidly depleting reserves of fortitude. "Something goes when you win the championship,'' he explained. "It's the sense of relief, and the fact that everyone wants to beat you. You become a trophy.''

This day will no doubt be reviewed repeatedly in years to come. A few grainy photographs are all that remain to remind us of the Invincibles of Preston. Clad in knickerbockers, brandishing spectacular moustaches or beards and sporting severe middle partings, their images encapsulate an age when footballers like Dave Russell, North End's redoubtable central defender, supplemented his football "expenses'' by playing the music halls as a comedian and violinist.

What would he have made of his early- 21st-century counterparts, such as Thierry Henry, who tend to confine their entertaining to the pitch, and are paid handsomely for it, though they are not averse to supplementing their millionaires' lifestyle by helping to sell Renault cars with the mere utterance of "Va Va Voom''?

Worlds apart, and over a century distant; yet the two teams have shared a common desire to confound those who opined that rationale dictated it simply could not be. By any standards, the Lancashire club's feat was considerable. Yet, as Wenger had emphasised only on Friday, Preston had just 11 rivals; Arsenal have 19. And those 38 matches have to be regarded in the context of a schedule which includes a rigorous Champions' League campaign and two cup competitions.

So, we have Arsenal, "Les Invincibles'', but not the impeccables. That unpleasant business involving Ruud van Nistelrooy at Old Trafford back in September - producing images that will remain all too long in the memory - does taint this achievement, though ironically, the errant penalty attempt by the Dutchman, late on with the game still scoreless, which preceded the brutish behaviour was a defining moment. A loss of any kind, but particularly to the previous year's champions, may just have altered the whole complexion of the season.

What would the original Invincibles have made of Le Professeur back in 1888-89, you ponder. In those Preston photographs, among the players, there is just one fellow in a suit, a tall hat clamped to his head. He is merely referred to as a member of the committee; one assumes his principal responsibility was writing out the teamsheet well before the time managers acquired such astonishing powers, finance and status for essentially doing the same thing.

Highbury loves Wenger, though it is not always evident within the stadium that opponents' supporters refer to disparagingly as "The Library'' due to the frequent lulls in volume levels. Cathedral would be more appropriate, given the moments of silence and the respectful demeanour from all those who enter here. Yesterday, though, was different; the commotion was as vibrant as an Eastern bazaar. Inflatable championship trophies were de rigueur, and the crowd were expectant of a notable addition to their club's already distinguished record. Equalling Preston's achievement was surely just a formality...

The danger to Arsenal was a sense of premature exhilaration. It permeated the stadium from the start. Even the wily Wenger had been seduced by all the pre-contest hyperbole, with words like "immortality'' already on his lips.

Still, as a potential wrecking gang, already-condemned Leicester looked as likely a bunch as the Village People. Henry teased, but to no avail. He over-hit one corner. "What the f****** hell was that?'' cried the Clock End. The Frenchman dispatched an attempt over the bar, but it surely mattered not a jot. There was a pile of ammunition. It was just a matter of time before the Gunners found their range. Leicester's Paul Dickov thought not. The diminutive Scottish striker reacted to Frank Sinclair's prompt with aplomb. Mission Possible? The vaguest hint of concern niggled away at Wenger. Henry watched a lethal effort deflect wide for a corner. In his irritation, he clenched his fists at the crowd, exhorting them to raise the level of their vocal backing.

Paul Durkin, arguably our most respected referee, but adjudicating in his final Premiership game, gave one debatable decision against Arsenal. Wenger was on his feet, bristling à la Sir Alex Ferguson in indignation. The frustration was getting to everyone.

A minute into the second period, and Durkin obeyed the orders of the 38,000, less the vociferous visiting contingent, and pointed to the spot after Sinclair had felled Ashley Cole. Henry converted the kick, his 30th Premiership goal of the season, and the relief was almost tangible in both the players and the faithful. Halfway through the second period, Patrick Vieira skipped through and toed the ball past Ian Walker. We knew then that the celebrations could begin in earnest.

At the end, the heroes returned from the dressing room, led by Vieira, to accept the championship trophy which had long been theirs. "Boring, boring Arsenal'' sang the crowd with the kind of self-ridiculing gusto that such moments demand. And in the full knowledge that in this, of all seasons, Wenger's men have been anything but.

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