Five of the best Arsenal season openers

George Graham in 1986

1. Arsenal 1 Manchester United 0, 1986

When Don Howe left Arsenal in March 1986, George Graham’s close friend, Terry Venables, was widely reported to be poised to take over at Highbury. Despite Venables, as well as Alex Ferguson and Graham Taylor, also being closely linked, it was Graham who got the job. The Scot had convinced the Arsenal board that his commitment to discipline, team spirit and traditional Arsenal values - allied with his determination to be a ‘tracksuit manager’ - were the right combination, at just the right time.

Graham’s first match was a tough one, against Manchester United at Highbury, and Arsenal edged a fairly dour contest 1-0, thanks to a late goal from Charlie Nicholas. In a game of few chances, Niall Quinn’s back heel gave Graham Rix an opportunity to cross into the box from the left; after an untidy scramble, Nicholas prodded the ball into the net from close range.
Graham took particular pleasure in this goal, having spent time in training convincing Nicholas to spend more time in the opposition’s penalty area. Graham’s attention to detail was also evident in the way United’s best player - Gordon Strachan - was constantly harried and fouled.

The manager was also delighted with the performances of Tony Adams and David Rocastle - two exceptional young players he could build his side around. Adams was particularly commanding in his battle with ex-Arsenal man Frank Stapleton - much to the delight of the Highbury crowd.

2. Wimbledon 1 Arsenal 5, 1988

In The Times match report following Arsenal’s 5-1 thrashing of Wimbledon at Plough Lane, Denis Signy wrote: "If, as is confidently being predicted in football circles, Arsenal are about to seriously challenge Liverpool's dominance of the domestic scene, George Graham, their manager, may wryly recall the moment he failed to strengthen his side by signing Tony Cottee and saved his club £2 million. Graham is sensitive about accusations of prudency but, surely, the signings of Bould, Marwood and Dixon for less than Spurs invested in Paul Stewart, let alone Paul Gascoigne, shows shrewd judgement."

He was not wrong. All three signings started the match for Arsenal, and Alan Smith - who would have been the most concerned about the links with Cottee - responded to his critics with a wonderfully taken hat-trick. The match started badly for the Gunners, with John Fashanu heading home a routine free-kick, but Arsenal stormed back to lead 3-1 by half-time. The equaliser was a moment to forget for Wimbledon’s goalkeeper, Simon Tracey, who had just become the Don’s number one, after Dave Beasant had moved on following his cup final heroics against Liverpool a few months earlier. Tracey carried Brain Marwood’s straightforward cross clearly over the line to make it 1-1. Smith then volleyed home Lee Dixon’s deflected cross and put the Gunners further in-front, with a similarly classy finish from pretty much the same near post position - this time from a Paul Merson cross. 

Arsenal finished strongly; Smith secured his hat-trick with another fine finish - before Merson seized on another loose ball to make it five.

3. Wimbledon 0 Arsenal 3, 1990

For the second time in three years, Arsenal started their campaign at Plough Lane. Once again, they started with a convincing win. After a disappointing title defence the previous season, George Graham strengthened his side at both ends of the pitch - most notably with the signings of David Seaman and Anders Limpar. Both started against Wimbledon, and both excelled.

The convincing nature of the performance perhaps gave a small clue of what was to come that season, but at this stage few would have guessed Arsenal would finish as champions, with only one league defeat. The first half was closely fought, but in the second half, Arsenal ran riot. As Ray Harford, the Wimbledon manager, admitted: “It was even in the first half but in the second we could have lost 5-0.” 

After 56 minutes, Paul Davis pinged a beautiful crossfield pass out to Limpar on the left, and the Swede beat Roger Joseph easily to chip in a left-footed cross, which Paul Merson headed home gleefully in front of the travelling Arsenal fans. Three minutes later it was two. Davis again started the move with another pass out wide - this time to Lee Dixon on the right. Dixon’s cross was headed goalward by Alan Smith and turned in by Wimbledon’s Keith Curle. The substitute, Perry Groves, capped off the win in style late on, with a wonderful half-volleyed shot from the edge of the penalty area.

4. Middlesbrough 0 Arsenal 4, 2001

Arsenal have had a lot of fun against Middlesbrough over the years, including a memorable 7-0 thrashing at Highbury in 2006 and a Kanu inspired 6-1 humbling at the Riverside in 1999. This win, on the first day of the 2001-02 season was almost as enjoyable and certainly as important. The previous season had ended with Arsenal finishing a distant second to Manchester United and enduring a heart-breaking defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup final. “What I want is to win the title because I am fed up with being second.” Thierry Henry stated in his post-match interview, laying down the gauntlet to both himself and his teammates for the coming season. 

Arsenal had won away from Highbury on only five occasions during the previous season, and this would be one of many things which would need to be fixed if the Gunners were to mount a serious challenge. The arrival of Sol Campbell would also be crucial. The first half was close, but Henry gave Arsenal the lead a couple of minutes before half-time with a splendid volley.

The second half should have been more even after Ray Parlour was sent off with almost 40 minutes still to play, but Steve McLaren, in his first match in charge of Middlesbrough, was unable to influence matters on the field. Michael Walker, writing in The Guardian reported that: “Arsenal’s comfort, even when reduced in number, was almost embarrassing.” 

Three late goals added the gloss on a superb performance. Robert Pires made it 2-0 with a penalty, then Pires and Ashley Cole set up substitute Dennis Bergkamp for two sublime one-on-one finishes.

5. Arsenal 2 Everton 1, 2003

While this result was not quite as spectacular, it was equally important, being the first of the 38 unbeaten games which would lead to Arsenal’s title win and their ‘invincibles’ tag. Sol Campbell was sent off for a professional foul after just 25 minutes, leaving Arsenal with an apparent uphill struggle. However, the Gunners demonstrated the team spirit, fortitude and determination which would see them through similar tight encounters throughout the season.

After 35 minutes, Thierry Henry flicked the ball against Alan Stubbs’ elbow and from the resulting penalty, sent his old teammate Richard Wright the wrong way. Everton were unable to take any advantage from the extra man, and after 58 minutes Arsenal’s lead was doubled. Wright saved Henry’s long-range shot, then quickly recovered to stop Patrick Vieira’s follow up, but could do nothing about another follow up from Pires.

Tomaz Radsinski pulled a goal back late on for Everton, but Arsenal held on. Ian Ridley, in his Guardian match report wrote: “There are two ways of looking at Arsenal's close season. The negative is that because of their planned new stadium, there is little money in the transfer kitty, with only goalkeeper Jens Lehmann coming in. The positive is that they have stability.” That stability, and the unexpected success of pairing Kolo Toure with Sol Campbell at the back, led to one of the most remarkable achievements in English football history.

See also:

For latest articles follow me on Twitter @GoonerNostalgic or like my page on Facebook