1996 was a big year in my life. I was at university at the time, wondering where my life would go, and trying as best as I could to recover from the fact that, in May of that year, my mother had passed away. There came a day when I started flipping through the channels on my television, trying to find something to watch. I landed on a channel showing a football game. As it turns out, the 90 minutes that followed would change my life.
Until that time, I have never watched an entire football game. I couldn't honestly tell you who the teams were that were competing for the English Premiership. One of the teams competing on that fateful day was known as Arsenal football club. The name stuck with me as it seemed I'd that, unlike every other team in England, this one was not named for a city or town. However, it wasn't that Arsenal were particularly noteworthy as a team. One of their players on the pitch that day, was though. His name was Paul Merson.
What one needs to understand is that, watching this game, I understood none of the rules of football, the roles of any of the positions on the field, much less the strategy involved. All I can say is that, on that day, one player inspired me to become a Gooner – the name given to an Arsenal supporter. As I would discover, 1996 was also a watershed year for the team I would become a lifelong follower of. It was the year that Arsene Wenger took the helm at Highbury. He would be their boss for 22 years.
And so, my journey began. Of course, I would visit their website and learn as much that could about this intrepid group of players. These were the years of Vieira, Petit, Pires, Bergkamp, and, of course, Thierry Henri. I was hooked. During his tenure, Arsene Wenger managed 828 games, with 476 wins, 199 draws, and 153 losses. The club would also win three Premier League titles, the last being in 2003/04 where they became the first and only team to go a 38 game season unbeaten. Until the writing of this piece, Arsenal remain the only "Invincible's".
Fast forward to 2023/24. Since Wenger left in 2018, Arsenal had Unai Emery briefly manage the club, followed by the current boss, Mikel Arteta, who famously wore the number eight shirt for the club in midfield at one time. For the first time in a long time, after having played 20 games so far this season in the EPL, Arsenal find themselves at the top of the log, five points clear of their nearest rival with a game in hand. Why do not wish to jinx anything, I am excited at the prospect of fighting for the title again.
This is a team on the rise. They are the youngest group of players in the entire EPL. They are all potential world beaters as players. And the scariest thing of all – they are only going to get better. Not so long ago, I made mention of Emile Smith – Rowe as a player who inspired me every bit as much a is Paul Merson had, all those years ago. This kid is potentially world-class and yet cannot break into the first XI on a given match day weekend. The team has depth. The team has class. The team has youth. Honestly, the only ones who are going to scuttle their season this year holiday, themselves.
I look forward to our next game against Brentford FC this weekend. This is a great opportunity to go eight points clear again. Yes, we are coming off a loss against Everton who, admittedly, raised their own game against us to a point where they were unrecognisable as a team. He that as it may, to be the best we have to beat the best. So I will be tuning in at 3 PM, South African time on Saturday and cheering my team on as I always do. The only difference is, this season, we are in with a shout and are holding all the cards.