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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Arsenal's Premiership history - 1992 to the present

In the Premiership's inaugural year 1992-93, still under Graham's stern control, Arsenal again made history by becoming the first team ever to win both domestic cups in the same season, Sheffield Wednesday the unfortunate victims on both occasions. Arsenal came from behind to win the Coca Cola Cup 2-1, and eventually also won the FA Cup, winning the replay by the same score with a last minute extra time winner from Andy Linighan. The following year an ambition for further European success was fulfilled by winning the European Cup Winners' Cup in Copenhagen. Graham's workmanlike side were underdogs against the star-studded Parma of Italy, but defended doggedly for much of the match to carve out a trademark 1-0 win with Alan Smith's winner.

However, despite the cup successes with what at the time was regarded as an ageing team, Arsenal's league results during the first 3 years of the Premiership were distinctly ordinary, and following the Rune Hauge bung affair Graham was disgraced and sacked in the middle of the 94-95 season. Under the temporary stewardship of Stewart Houston, Arsenal did manage to reach the Cup Winners Cup final for the 2nd successive year, but lost in the final seconds of extra time to the Spanish team, Real Zaragoza.

The period 1995-1997 turned out to be transitional and somewhat turbulent. Bruce Rioch was installed as manager in June 1995, but after guiding Arsenal to UEFA Cup qualification with a 5th place finish in the league and significantly signing Dennis Bergkamp, he was inexplicably sacked in August 1996 just days before the new season was due to begin. The sanity and motives of the Arsenal board were questioned, but eventually the Frenchman Arsene Wenger was confirmed as Arsenal's new manager at the end of September. He quickly impressed the Arsenal faithful by the calm and assured way he took control, and without making any major changes (apart from introducing the majestic Vieira) took Arsenal to 3rd in the league, and qualification for the UEFA Cup again, by the end of the season.

The following season, 1997-98, he made history by winning the double for the second time. With some astute close season signings from abroad he revitalised and reforged the team, apart from the astonishingly enduring defence. The new faces took time to bed in, and the early part of the season reached a low point with a UEFA Cup 1st round exit at the hands of PAOK Saloniki, but the ultimate result was an exhilirating and irresistible late season surge. At one point in January 13 points behind Manchester United, Arsenal eclipsed their rivals in the title run-in to clinch their first Premiership (and 11th league) title with 2 games to spare. The second half of the double, the FA Cup, was acheived with a comfortable 2-0 win against Newcastle at Wembley in May.

The team almost performed similar heroics the following season, but this time fell just short, losing unluckily in FA Cup semi-final extra time to Manchester United, and missing out on the title to the same deadly rivals by just one point. In a sign of times to come, a reserve Arsenal side played in the Worthington cup, losing heavily in the 4th round to Chelsea. The Gunners also disappointed in the Champions' League, failing to get beyond the group stages as self inflicted woes cost them dear.