Continuing the theme of Highbury memories, a couple more pieces for my benefit more than anything else. First up, what is the best goal I have seen at Highbury. There are a number of contenders that sprang immediately to mind – Henry’s flick and volley over Barthez, running the length of the pitch to beat Spurs all on his own, Bergkamp against Bolton, Barnsley, United – well, virutally everyone, Limpar from forty yards against Liverpool, Wrighty turning Matt Jackson of Everton all over the place before lobbing Neville Southall, hell even John Jensen against QPR was worth the wait. But I think I’m going to delve back into the memory banks for one from 1984. A balmy summers afternoon was brightened no end by the display but the pick was ‘Noddy’ Talbot’s second. The move built on the Arsenal right, with Noddy in the centre circle. Just as the ball was about to be crossed, Noddy started to move by the time it reached the penalty spot he was there with a flying header to put Arsenal well on the way to victory.
But one that has caused me the most thought is my all time Arsenal XI during my time of watching:
Goalkeeper is a tough one, Arsenal have had three world class keepers in my time: Pat Jennings, David Seaman and current incumbent, Jens Lehmann. Although Pat was not in his prime during his time at the club, he was still magnificent in the role. He could save with any part of his body, probably the first exponent of saving with his feet. And he seemed to have massive hands. Lehmann too is not a young man but this is not preventing him from putting in sterling performances week in week out. If he has a flaw, it is his temperament something that could not be said of Seaman or Jennings but Lehmann is perhaps the most athletic of the three. However, Seaman played the football of his career for more than a decade at the club. Who can forget the save against Sheffield United in the FA Cup Semi Final a couple of years ago?
Right Back to me is equally tough. Eboue could be the best right back the club ever had, better than Pat Rice, Lauren too has been a sterling servant for the club. But the choice for me comes down to two men, Lee Dixon or Viv Anderson. Both made the position their own at club and international level for England. Dixon, of course, was a member of the famous back four from 1988 through to Wenger’s reign. He was a capable defender, deceptively fast and more than able at supporting the attack to provide width when needed. But on this occasion, Anderson just pips him. He was a superb tackler, with great postional sense. Like Sol Campbell, he was a strong player rarely outmuscled and more of a threat going forward, his height an advantage at corners.
Left Back is another between three players, Ashley Cole, Nigel Winterburn and Kenny Sansom. Winterburn was one of the most underrated players in football, it is a constant source of amazement that he was not a regular in the England squad. Wonderfully one-footed, immensely brave and hugely popular with the fans. For a while we had a travel club, run independantly of the club, Winterburn was to be the mascot! Not sure if he knew and he probably didn’t care if he did but this guy was hugely admired for his effort and no-nonsense defending. Ashley Cole is an improving left back, defensively naive in the beginning, this aspect of his game has improved vastly in recent years. Add to this his willingness to get forward and he potentially could be the best left-back England has ever produced. But to get that honour, he will need to oust Kenny Sansom. Quite simply, he was the classiest left back ever to come from these shores. He was a natural leader, quick of mind and tackle with sound passing ability.
Centre Half was easy by comparison. Tony Adams was a complete no-brainer for one of the slots. He overcame considerable abuse in his younger days to such an extent that he is in the same class as Jack Charlton as far as England players go. His well-documented problems were overcome with dignity, something that could have broken lesser men particularly as they were largely self inflicted. Supporting him is not so straightforward, the contenders are Steve Bould, David O’Leary Martin Keown and Sol Campbell. O’Leary was the classiest of the contenders, as graceful a back four player as has ever graced the club. Bould was solid and dependable whilst up until this season Campbell has been one of the best defenders in the game. But it is Keown who gets my vote. Without doubt, he was the best man marker ever to play for the club. So good that both Wenger and Graham used him in that role.
Right Midfield is between two men, Freddie Ljungberg and David Rocastle. Ljungberg has proved himself a world class midfielder, scoring important goals and creating many more. But Rocastle, what a player. He could beat anyone on his day and scored many great goals – Anfield 1988, a vicious shot with minimal backlift – he was happiest when dribbling his way through the massed ranks of opponents defence. It is a pity that Wenger never got the chance to manage Rocky as I believe it is no understatement that he could have made him one of the best wingers the English game has ever produced.
Left Midfield is not so simple. George Graham had two of the best creators, Brian Marwood and Anders Limpar. Marwood was an extremely accurate crosser, Limpar a wizard – infuriatingly inconsistent but capable of dribbling his way out of incredibly tight situations. Wenger has not done too badly either – Marc Overmars and now Robert Pires. Overmars was pace personified, probably one of the few players who could have given Thierry Henry a run for his money. He was already a world class player when he joined the club and he proved that over the next two years. However, Pires gets the nod. At his peak, he was the most creative player seen at Highbury. Seemingly happier creating a goal than scoring, he was and still is, lethal when cutting inside to let fly from the edge of the area.
Central Midfield has been a difficult choice, more through the paucity of candidates. Paul Davis was a solid servant but not one of my favourites. Selley, Hillier and Jensen were bloody useless. Petit around for too short a time, greed taking over whilst Cesc is just beginning. Which leaves Brian Talbot, David Platt, Steve Williams, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto. The Brazilian is an underrated player, which seems strange to say about a World Cup winner. However, when he is not there, the team over the past three years has missed him. Talbot was an all action midfielder who was typical of his era and the much favoured type of England players. Platt was another whose stay at the club was too short to judge, at the end of his career. My choices though are Patrick Vieira and Steve Williams. Vieira was immense for the club, once he had resolved his disciplinary problems. A ballwinner who could distribute the ball, he ate up the ground once those long legs got moving and who should have scored more, given that he possessed a ferocious strike. Williams was the equal of Vieira, perhaps let down by his temperament. Unable to respond to authority or may be it was personal to Graham, he was shipped out sharpish after the 1987 Littlewoods Cup triumph. He could however spray the ball around the park with great accuracy and had great vision – how many other players could have scored the freekick at Doncaster in the League Cup from the near touchline?
Forwards are ten a penny during my time of watching the club – Mariner, Woodcock, Smith, Nicholas, Anelka, Henry, Wright and Bergkamp are the obvious contenders. I’ll forget about Hayes, Groves and Quinn. Of these, Henry cannot be omitted and needs no further praise than that which he has already received. He is the best player in the world. No contest. But who should accompany him? Smith was dependable whilst Mariner and Woodcock were past their best at the club. Anelka didn’t hang around long enough, a point he freely admits, whilst Nicholas was a darling of the North Bank but a completely inconsistent player. Which leaves Wright vs Bergkamp. A great goalscorer vs a scorer of great goals. One of the most clinical finishers vs one of the most skilful players of his generation. And it is the last choice that swings it for me. Bergkamp was and still is, the most skilful and visionary player ever to grace the Higbury pitch. I could fill several days worth of postings if I was to discuss the positive impact that the Dutchman has had on the club. Suffice to say, it’s been a privilege to see him in action.
Manager is the easiest of the lot, Arsene Wenger. For the style, for keeping the club at the top, he is now on his third generation of players. He will be a hard act to follow.
So the lineup is: