On the face of it, it’s the same as it ever was in England. What had passed as change in the 90s had now more or less consolidated. In 2002 England, you understood the constants. Tony Blair was the Prime Minster, Manchester United and Arsenal were the best teams in the land and football was a game played in lines of four, four and two. And the national team of course were still mediocre despite the nation’s collective will to make them otherwise.
On the face of it. But it was the closer inspection that revealed the slow and steady shifts in the country’s attitude and direction. Once unchallenged forms of leadership were in question and, as a result, so was the judgment that flowed from that leadership. In the area of the very serious, the previously unimpeachable Tony Blair was no more the golden boy as a reputed 1 million marching people were to testify in demonstrations against Blair’s decision to take military action in Iraq. In the area of the less serious, England were now managed by a foreigner, Sven Goran Eriksson, for the first time and Blair’s lesser known political advisor, Alex Ferguson (now forenamed “Sir”), was also having his judgment questioned. Change was in the air even if it hadn’t really settled in earnest.
United were still the country’s footballing heavyweights but the once unquestionable Ferguson was now under scrutiny. Having broken the English transfer record to sign Juan Sebastian Veron for English transfer record of around £24m, Ferguson seemed to invest comparable sums of energy defending the Argentinian playmaker from the vicissitudes of the English sporting press. Just before Arsenal performed their occasional changing of the title guard by winning the double in 2001/2, Ferguson had it out at the assembled journalists in the pre-match press conference, allegedly telling them to “get out” of the training ground and calling them “fucking idiots”. Things were to get better for Ferguson as United, still with Veron, regained their title the following 2002-3 season, but there was the sense that things had stagnated and new realities were around the corner for the Premier League. The 90s had given way to the 00’s and what was big then was not necessarily guaranteed to be big now. United had dominated in the era of Britpop and New Labour excitement. However, people were now marching against Blair. Liam Gallagher wasn’t even the baddest man in music anymore – some new guy named Eminem was telling everyone what his name was. La Liga had joined Serie A as the place you talked about with confidence if you wanted to be the footballing hipster. Things, in short, were moving on and football was no different.
United had spent the money on Veron in the attempt to stay the pace with the times and, specifically, heavyweights on the continent. Real Madrid, by now, were all Galaticos, Champions League winners and marketing gold. United had already suffered a misadventure with them (and particularly Fernando Redondo) in 2000 but by 2003, their supporters were left standing to applaud as the first Ronaldo to grace Old Trafford scored a memorable hat-trick against them. That United actually won the second leg of this Champions League quarter final is regularly lost as a detail of history given the significance of this game for so many reasons. Here was a game that seemed to underline once and for all, that the Premier League was a pretender to throne of the biggest clubs in Europe. Madrid had lost the game but had knocked United out of the tie with a majesty that made even a good side (with the likes of Keane, Giggs, Scholes and Van Nistelrooy still in their pomp) look like try-hards. Ronaldo, Zidane and company were players too regal for the hoi-polloi of Premier League industry. Leeds, Liverpool and Chelsea, who had tried to hang onto United and Arsenal’s coat tails, had all had occasional and creditable stints in continental competition but none, even Arsenal, had come close to even the reasonable impact that United had enjoyed between 1999-2003. By 2003, United’s 1999 treble securing European Cup victory looked like that one wild night out that probably wouldn’t ever be matched. The Premier League was not the European elite and even the excitement of the 90s appeared to now have been transferred to continental shores.
And yet. As Madrid appeared to underline English football’s status as good but not quite Carling, they also opened the door for English football’s next assault on the club footballing hierarchy through the attendance of guest in attendance that night in Manchester. It’s perhaps appropriate that BBC Radio 4 was the first place I heard of the sale of Chelsea Football Club to a then unknown Russian investor who I later learned was called Roman Abramovich. Apparently, Radio 4 is the station that the Trident submarine commanders check to ensure Britain is still in a functioning state and at that time Chelsea were but only just. With the imminent threat of the sale of the club’s then best players: Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink, Eidur Gudjohnsen and William Gallas (the jury was then still out on the unremarkable Frank Lampard), not even Champions League qualification under Claudio Ranieri looked set to save Chelsea from a miserable summer of decline. Half groggy from a long shift at work, I remember thinking that I’d deal with (what was probably) more bad news in the morning. When I finally did reach the newspaper rack at WHSmith at lunchtime and checked the message boards in the evening (twitter and the smartphone still not yet in existence), I was greeted by rather different news to what I had expected the night before.
As if the newsfeed of my Championship Manager game had escaped into the Fleet Street printing press, the new Chelsea owner, Abramovich, was banging down the door of every big club and every agent for their best quality talent. Imagine. One minute you’re worried about keeping Eidur Gudjohnsen and the next you’ve forgotten whether he’d even make the bench because Christian Vieri and Hernan Crespo might be playing in a front two. It is quite possible that if you take a look at any cover star of “World Soccer” for the course of 2003, Chelsea were linked with them that summer. With the expectation that they’d be coming within 24 hours, such was the speed at which Chelsea were apparently making the bids and presenting the money. Chelsea had that money, Champions League football could now bolster what was an already decent base of talent. Both the English and continental giants were on alert for what then Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein had described as Chelsea “parking…Russian tanks on our lawn firing £50 notes at us”. Even Madrid would be called upon to make their contribution to the rebuilt Chelsea team, as Chelsea took Claude Makelele the man who Zinedine Zidane had reputedly described as Madrid’s “entire engine”. This was part of a record spree that saw the Chelsea break the £100m barrier in transfer fees for likes of Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu as well domestic talent like Damien Duff, Scott Parker, Glen Johnson and boyhood Chelsea fan Joe Cole.
With the eyes of the footballing world on Chelsea and therefore on English football, it was going to take something very special to change the focus away from events at Stamford Bridge. And that is exactly what came. Arsenal and particularly Wenger who had been so threatened by Chelsea’s investment, decided to produce a team that could match any challenge from any investment. The Henry, Vieira and Sol Campbell axis was virtually unplayable as Arsenal strode through the season unbeaten. With Arsenal only engaged in squad rotation for the league cup (eventually being beaten by Middlesborough) the team trampled throughout the country and the continent. When they were eventually stopped, by Chelsea and United (in the Champions League and FA Cup respectively) it came at time when both clubs had been reduced to the ridiculous state of plucky underdog status against the Gunners. The Arsenal side of 2003/4 had otherwise rinsed sides away like a quality power shower. Most pitches in the league belonged to 30 league goal Thierry Henry, a player who seemed to take personal pleasure in demonstrating the kaleidoscope of different ways to humble defences. Henry never really needed to head the ball because the deftness of his feet allied to tornado like pace were already too much for any defence to take. With Henry spearheading an indestructible Arsenal league campaign, Chelsea managed to carve out their own niche in the Champions League by virtue of eventually overhauling Arsenal in the quarter-finals. However, a subsequent and inconceivably self-destructive defeat to former Chelsea midfielder Didier Deschamps’ AS Monaco, put paid to Chelsea’s golden chance of winning the competition.
While English football would remain in the limelight for the sensational news at the top of the league, the bottom of the league pointed to the significant lessons from the Premier League’s past. Leeds United who had, under former owner Peter Ridsdale, dared to dream big (and spend bigger) were relegated. That a side, which hadn’t finished outside the top 5 since 1998, were on borrowed time in 15th place in 2003 and relegated by 2004, told you everything you needed to know about the cost of success in this era. The dream of catching Man Utd and Arsenal and attempting to change the hegemony of English football had encouraged key figures at the club to believe that everything could be risked in the pursuit of glory, which ultimately it was. The firesale of club assets triggered by the club’s financial problems under Chairman Peter Risdale came as result of the spending done as Leeds chased titles and consistent Champions League placing. The brutal consequences of this pursuit had symbolically started and ended with the sale of key players to the club Leeds had tried to catch. Rio Ferdinand, one of the earliest examples of the club’s ambition, had been sold to United in 2002. The club’s relegation, two years later, then coincided with the sale of local boy made good Alan Smith to United in 2004. In just three years, qualification for a Champions League semi-final had been followed by relegation.
Chelsea who had skirted around the same choppy financial waters as Leeds, in a similar pursuit of United, had enjoyed rather better luck through the arrival of Roman Abramovich’s investment. However, with Arsenal now setting the bar so high with an unbeaten and almost technically perfect team, there was still more for Chelsea to do even after the massive spending. Abramovich would require something spectacular than investment if the established order in England was to change. Not since Blackburn in 1995 had anyone broken through to a title win, even if Chelsea had split the United-Arsenal top two duopoly for the first time since Newcastle in 1995-1996.
The answer was came in Europe’s own turbulent waters of change. Real Madrid Galaticos, already dented by their failure to win the Champions League in 2003 were now tarnished further by defeat to AS Monaco in the 2003-4 Champions League quarter finals. Florentino Perez’s project was now open to question and not justified by the continental domination that it had promised. Europe’s underdogs, hidden under cover of the frenzy created around Madrid’s Galaticos and Abramovich’s investment at Chelsea, were using 2003-4 to launch a miniature coup at the top table of European football. That season, FC Porto, Deportivo La Coruna and AS Monaco had, between them, removed Manchester United, AC Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea from Champions League competition. Unconvinced by a few bits of limelight, Porto had decided to go further and put themselves centre stage by winning the 2003-4 competition outright. A revolution had occurred in Europe and it was time for its winds of change to blow towards England. And so it did, in a very “special” way…