Today’s Arsenal unsung hero is a bit of a left-field shout. it is a fair to say that he had a fairly unassuming Arsenal career, and there isn’t really one single standout moment from him wearing the Arsenal colours…but…for me, he was part of one of the most exciting summers that I can remember. He is a hero in the context of what had passed before him…
2001 found me in a well known sports retail store in sunny Eastbourne, spending my wages on staff-discounted football boots and shirts. I was, naturally, surrounded by South-coast ‘Man U’ fans and a fair few Tottenham supporters. One or two pre-Abramovich Chelsea fans were also present, and naturally, nowhere near as cocky as they are now…
After the unexpected, but brilliant 1997/98 Double, Arsenal were amazingly close to pulling off a ‘double-double’ the following season; if it weren’t for that Dennis Bergkamp missed penalty and that Ryan Giggs goal, I think the momentum of a FA Cup semi-final win over Manchester United would’ve pushed Arsenal to retain both trophies (and denied Man Utd their somewhat fortuitous Treble…would they have had the energy left to have defeated Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp? We’ll never, ever know). As it happened, a single solitary point separated Arsenal from Manchester United at the end of a rollercoaster season.
Arsenal seemed to have been wholly deflated by the previous season’s climax, and 1999/00 was a washout which concluded with Manchester United finishing a distant eighteen points clear – a seventeen point improvement. Arsenal had spent the summer waiting for Nicolas Anelka to leave and then quickly welcomed in Thierry Henry and Davor Suker to replace the mercurial French striker. Silvinho and Oleg Luzhny also arrived. In hindsight, this was a transitional season, a season for Henry to find his shooting boots and the start of the ‘famous back five’ overhaul. But, eighteen points are eighteen points. Man Utd were clear winners who strolled over the finish line with barely a glance backwards.
2000/01 was a slightly different story. Some top players arrived; Lauren, Robert Pires, Edu and Sylvain Wiltord, as well as some real duds; Igors Stepanovs being the main example (more on him later at Old Trafford….). Crucially, however, were the exits. Emmanual Petit and Marc Overmars negotiated what would become in later seasons a fairly straightforward pathway to FC Barcelona from North London, Nigel Winterburn shuffled out to what would be another well-worn pathway to West Ham United and took Davor Suker with him after his one season wearing the #9 shirt…changes were afoot.
The aforementioned Stepanovs had a disastrous game at Old Trafford, when a Dwight Yorke-inspired Man Utd slaughtered a make-shift Arsenal side 6-1…and it could’ve been far worse. Stepanovs didn’t seem to recover from that afternoon. Arsenal finished a slightly better ten points behind champions Man Utd and made it to the FA Cup final in Cardiff. However, a catastrophic refereeing performance and two late Michael Owen goals handed Liverpool a wholly undeserved win.
On the face of it, that cup final win was brutally cruel. But it was needed. I believe that it inspired a feeling of bitter resentment through the Arsenal ranks; especially in Henry, Ljungberg and Pires. There was no way that the players wanted something like that to happen again.
So we get back to the summer of 2001. Wounds were licked. Arsene Wenger sold off Silvinho after a suspect passport incident and released a lot of players who were never going to make it; Stefan Malz, Nelson Vivas and Guy Demel included. Veteren ‘keeper John Lukic also left the club. Wenger then astonished football with his resultant spending spree, a spree that has barely been repeated by him since. In came Richard Wright to replace Lukic and rival Alex Manninger and David Seaman for the #1 shirt, Sol Campbell; in a move which almost had the shop floor staff collapsing in disbelief; regardless of club loyalty, Francis Jeffers for serious money, Junichi Inamoto and Kolo Toure. The backline was being moulded in a more Wenger flavour and the holes in midfield left by Petit’s departure a year ago were finally being filled – by a Dutch import who arrived via Glasgow; Giovanni van Bronckhorst, signed for a not-cheap at the time £8.5m. He was, in fact, the most expensive signing at Arsenal in that summer.
I was excited because A) I love Dutch players, B) I was an admirer of Glasgow Rangers from afar (I blame Brian Laudrup) and C) van Bronckhorst was always a sound buy on Champonship Manager.
Van Bronckhorst was to slot in where Petit once partnered the majestic Patrick Vieira. Suddenly, the pieces were in place.
Arsenal had a superb season. Arsene Wenger won his second Double, and the club finished seven points above Liverpool in the league. Arsenal finished a handsome ten points clear of Man Utd; a twenty point swing from the year before.
Van Bronckhorst sadly suffered a torn cruciate knee ligament in February 2002 which kept him on the side-lines for eight months. Robert Pires suffered a similar fate in March that season too. But this Arsenal team didn’t collapse like the future Arsenal sides when Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey suffered brutal injuries. This Arsenal side rallied, and were sure-as-Hell going to win the trophies for their fallen comrades. Henry wore a ‘Gio, Robert, Thinking of U’ t-shirt under his red and white and you could see how highly the two were thought of at the Premier League trophy presentation.
“It’s tough when you’re injured and a long way from the club and it can be easy for the other players to forget you a bit because they have a lot on their minds. Gestures like that show the sort of guy Thierry is and the kind of spirit that exists among the Arsenal players.”
Van Bronkhorst rotated with Edu and the post-World Cup 2002 purchase Gilberto Silva to partner Vieira in 2002/03, before being loaned to FC Barcelona during The Invincibles season in 2003/04. He later made the move permanent for a paltry £1.3m and played most of his remaining career for club and country as a roving left back; a position he performed in brilliantly. Van Bronckhorst emerged on the victorious side when FC Barcelona faced Arsenal in Paris for the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final.
I personally believe that van Bronckhorst should have been kept after his initial loan, especially after Ashley Cole’s departure in 2006. Van Bronchorst had the quality to challenge for several positions in that Arsenal line up and The Invincibles were disbanded so swiftly following 2005/06. I think that his Arsenal exit was premature and short-sighted.
What was his best Arsenal moment? Well, I’d suggest that this strike against Chelsea should be the one:
A swift counter-attack featuring Henry and a bullet strike from distance. Pure win.
And let us not forget this World Cup 2010 golazo for The Netherlands either!
Gio van Bronckhorst – an unsung Arsenal hero.