Thursday, May 15, 2014

10 Years After Arsenal's Invincibles: Where Are They Now?

May 15, 2004, 10 years ago today: Arsenal defeat Leicester City, 2-1 at Highbury, and complete an undefeated Premier League season.

Only once before had an English team gone through an entire top-flight season without a League loss: Preston North End, in the 1st Football League season, 1888-89. And that was a season of 22 games. Arsenal in 2003-04? As the announcer on that day's broadcast, Jon Champion, said at the final whistle, "Played 38, won 26, drawn 12, lost exactly none!"

The season before, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was mocked for saying he dreamed of going an entire League season unbeaten. When it didn't happen, oh, how the English media and fans of other teams laughed at him. But a year later, in 2003-04, he did it. No other manager has.

Like those Preston pioneers, the 2003-04 Gunners became known as "The Invincibles." Their League unbeaten streak, which began late the preceding season, would stretch into the first quarter of the next season, reaching 49 games. The old record of 42 was set by Nottingham Forest in 1977-78.

Where are they now?

1 GK (Goalkeeper) Jens Lehmann, Essen, Germany: Left for Stuttgart in 2008, playing 2 seasons, then retired. Came back to Arsenal as an emergency goalkeeper after all of the keepers they had on their roster got hurt, except for the man who had succeeded Mad Jens as starting goalie: Manuel Almunia -- who, by that point, was so bad that Gooners were calling him "The Clown." Was 41 years old, missing by 8 days becoming the club's oldest player ever. (Jock Rutherford, a winger, was the oldest, in 1926.)

Now 44 and retired for good, he does a lot of charity work.

3 LB (Left Back) Ashley Cole, Stepney, East London, England (of Afro-Caribbean descent): Controversially began the process of leaving Arsenal when he felt insulted by a lowball contract offer, he was transferred to Chelsea early in the 2006-07 season, and was even more successful with them than with Arsenal. Now 33, was just left off England's World Cup roster, and is rumored to be leaving Chelsea as well.

(UPDATE: Signed with Italian capital side AS Roma, and has now moved on to the Los Angeles Galaxy.)

4 MF (Midfielder) Patrick Vieira, Dakar, Senegal by way of Dreux, France: Had hinted that he wanted to leave for another club for a couple of years, but stuck with Arsenal through 2005. His last acts as a Gunner were to convert the final penalty in the 2005 FA Cup, and then raise the Cup as the winning Captain. Played 5 seasons in Italy: 1 at Juventus of Turin, 4 at Internazionale of Milan. Closed his career with a season back in England at Manchester City.

About to turn 38, he now coaches Man City's reserves. (UPDATE: Now the manager of Man City's MLS farm club, New York City FC.)

5 CB (Centreback) Martin Keown, Oxford, England: Left at the end of the season. Played 1 more season, with Leicester City and Reading. About to turn 48, now back at Arsenal as a coach, and is a pundit on BBC and Ireland's TV3.

7 MF Robert Pirès, Reims, France (by ancestry, half-Spanish and half-Portuguese): Remained with Arsenal through 2006. Played 4 seasons in Spain for Villareal, and 1 more in England for Birmingham club Aston Villa.

Now 40, Super Rob is involved with several charities, including playing in charity matches. (UPDATE: He came out of retirement to play 2 seasons in the fledgling Indian Super League, for FC Goa. Has since resumed training with Arsenal, giving rise to a rumor that he may move into a coaching capacity with them.)

8 MF Freddie Ljungberg, Vittsjö, Sweden: Remained with Arsenal through 2007, then moved to East London club West Ham United for a season. Played 2 years with the Seattle Sounders, and, in a game away to the New York Red Bulls, became the 1st former Arsenal player I ever saw live. Which, as Freddie the Red himself would say, in his lightly accented but superbly-grasped English, was "fuckin' excellent!" Briefly played for the Chicago Fire, in Scotland for Celtic, and in Japan for Shimizu S-Pulse.

Now 37, is rumored to be coming out of retirement to play in a new league in India. (UPDATE: He and Pires both did so, but injuries limited Freddie to 4 games for Mumbai City, at which point he retired again.)

9 FW (Forward) Jose Antonio Reyes, Utrera, Spain: Like his namesake, former Met shortstop Jose Reyes, ended up a great disappointment. Also like that other Jose Reyes, it was in part due to his own attitude. Arsenal loaned him to Real Madrid in 2006, and sold him to Atletico Madrid a year later. He was on their books for 4 years, but that included a season in Lisbon, Portugal with Benfica.

Now 30, just concluded a season back at his original club, Sevilla, in his native Spain, in which they won the Europa League.

10 FW Dennis Bergkamp, Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Stayed with Arsenal through 2006 and retired. His testimonial match was the 1st event at the Emirates Stadium when it opened that summer. Now 45, the Dutch Master -- known to many Arsenal fans as God, leading to the lines, "Praise Dennis" and "Dennis, save us" -- is back at his former club, Ajax Amsterdam, as assistant manager to former teammate Frank DeBoer. Has often been rumored to be a successor to Wenger as Arsenal manager.

11 MF Sylvain Wiltord, Neully-sur-Mar, France (of Afro-Caribbean descent): Left Arsenal after the season, playing 8 more seasons in France. Now 40, he is retired.

12 RB (Right Back) Lauren Etame Mayer (like #s 17 & 19 on this list, usually known only by his first name), Kribi, Cameroon by way of Sevilla, Spain: Remained with Arsenal through 2006, playing 3 more seasons in England with Portsmouth and 1 in Spain with Cordoba. Now 37, he has been a pundit on various TV networks.

14 FW Thierry Henry, Les Ulis, France (of Afro-Caribbean descent): Remained with Arsenal through 2007, succeeding Vieira as Captain for 2 years. Moved on to Barcelona, and since 2010 has been the face of the New York Red Bulls -- indeed, of the entire MLS.

Now 35, Titi is no longer the best player in the world, but he's still got it. (UPDATE: Retired after the 2014 season, is now studying to become a coach, and is a pundit on Sky Sports.)

15 MF Ray Parlour, Romford, East London: Left Arsenal after the season. Played 3 seasons with Middlesbrough and Hull City before retiring. Now 41, "the Romford Pelé" is a pundit on the BBC and Radio 5 Live.

17 MF Edu Gaspar, São Paulo, Brazil: Played 1 more season with Arsenal, 4 in Spain with Valencia, and 1 back in Brazil with his original club, São Paulo-based Corinthians. Now 36, he is on temporary leave as that club's director of football, so that he can assist Portuguese star Carlos Quieroz with the Iran national team at the World Cup. (UPDATE: He is back as Corinthians' DOF.)

18 CB Pascal Cygan, Lens, France: Generally considered the prototype for the "bad Arsenal player who wears the Number 18 shirt," followed by Mikael Silvestre and Sebastien Squillaci. (UPDATE: Nacho Monreal appears to have shattered that jinx.) He still managed to play on the Invincibles, 2 FA Cup winners, and a team that reached the 2006 Champions League Final.

After that Final, joined Pires at Villareal, and after 3 years closed his career at another Spanish club, Cartagena. Now 40, he is out of the game.

19 MF Gilberto Silva, Lagoa da Prata, Brazil: Stayed with Arsenal through 2008. Joined Greek powerhouse Panatinaikos for 3 years, then closed his career back in Brazil with Gremio and Atletico Mineiro, closing his career by (along with the great Ronaldinho) leading them to the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the European Cup/Champions League.

Now 37, he is not signed to any team, but has not officially retired. (UPDATE: He officially retired in October 2015. As of March 2016, he was not employed with any club.)

22 LB Gaël Clichy, Toulouse, France  (of Afro-Caribbean descent): The youngest and longest-lasting of the players who received a Premier League medal, stayed with Arsenal through 2011, going to Manchester City. Only 28 going on 29, but has barely played for them in their 2012 and 2014 Premier League title wins.

23 CB Sol Campbell, Plaistow, East London (of Afro-Caribbean descent): Remained with Arsenal through 2006. Went to Portsmouth for 3 seasons. Played 1 game for Notts County, made a brief 11-game return to Arsenal, and closed his career with 7 games for Newcastle United.

Now 39, he is not currently involved in the game. (UPDATE: He has gone into politics, and was an unsuccessful candidate for the Conservative Party's nomination for Mayor of London in 2016.)

25 FW Nwankwo Kanu, Owerri, Nigeria: Left Arsenal after the season. Stayed 8 more years in England with West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth. Now 37, he is retired from the game, and an ambassador for UNICEF.

27 CB Efstathios Tavlaridis, Serres, Greece. Only played in 3 League Cup matches, didn't get a PL winner's medal. Loaned to French club Lille after Arsenal lost the League Cup Semifinal to Middlesbrough, then signed with them and stayed 3 seasons. Now 34, plays back in Greece for Athens giants Panathinaikos.

28 CB Kolo Touré, Bouaké, Ivory Coast. Stayed with Arsenal through 2009. Played 4 seasons with Manchester City, including alongside his brother Yaya, helping them win the 2011 FA Cup and the 2012 League title. Now 33, he rejuvenated his career this past season with Liverpool.

30 FW Jérémie Aliadière, Ramboulliet, France: Stayed with Arsenal through 2007, despite loans to Celtic, West Ham United and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Played 3 seasons at Middlesbrough, then returned to France in 2011, with Lorient. Now 31, still plays for them. (UPDATE: Ha moved on to Qatar club Umm Salal.)

None of the players listed hereafter made enough Premier League appearances to qualify for a winner's medal.

32 FW Michal Papadopulos, Ostrava, Czech Republic (but of Greek descent): Made just 1 appearance, in the League Cup, as he was on loan from hometown club Banik Ostrava. Now 29, he is with Polish side Zagłębie Lubin, and has never played in Britain again.

33 GK Graham Stack, Hampstead, North London (a son of Irish parents, and thus played internationally for the Republic of Ireland): Made 5 League Cup appearances. First Arsenal, and then Reading, loaned him out to several England clubs.

Now 32, has spent the last 2 seasons as the starting goalie for North London club Barnet, who were just relegated out of the Football League to the Conference, the 5th division -- but that's hardly his fault. (UPDATE: He is still playing for them, and is now officially a coach as well.)

37 MF David Bentley, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England: Officially, stayed with Arsenal through 2006, but never lived up to his promise. Was loaned out to Norwich City and Blackburn Rovers before joining Blackburn on a permanent basis. Played 3 seasons for Tottenham, resulting in Arsenal fans serenading him with "Arsenal reject!" It got worse: That other North London club also got tired of his bad attitude, and continually loaned him out: To Birmingham City, West Ham, Russian club Rostov, and back to Blackburn. So, when those teams (except Rostov, who never came) played at the Emirates, he was serenaded with "Tottenham reject!" (Is that the lowest?)

Now 29, no one seems to want him. What a spectacular failure. (UPDATE: He has officially retired, and runs a restaurant in Marbella, on Spain's Costa del Sol. He has said, "Certain people are built for the life of a footballer, but I don't think I was. I had the tools, but I don't think I had that."

45 RB Justin Hoyte, Leytonstone, North London (of Afro-Caribbean descent): Made 2 League Cup appearances. Stayed with Arsenal through 2008, then spent 5 seasons with Middlesbrough. Now 29, he is with Millwall. His brother Gavin, 6 years younger, also played for Arsenal, but only made 1 senior appearance, and is now with Dagenham & Redbridge. Both brothers played their international football for Trinidad & Tobago. (UPDATE: Justin still plays for Millwall, while Gavin was sold to Gillingham.)

51 RB Frank Simek, St. Louis, Missouri (of Czech descent). The 1st North American ever to play for Arsenal in the club's 117-year history (to that point), he made his debut in the League Cup against Wolverhampton Wanderers on December 2, 2003. It turned out to be his only senior appearance for the club. He was loaned out to fellow Londoners Queens Park Rangers and South Coast club Bournemouth. He played 5 seasons for Yorkshire club Sheffield Wednesday and 3 for Cumbrian club Carlisle United. Now 29, he is a free agent. (UPDATE: Has broken more ground for an American athlete: The 1st one to play in Vietnam, at Sông Lam Nghệ An.)

52 FW John Spicer, Romford, East London: While Parlour came from that neighborhood and played 14 seasons with Arsenal at the senior level, Spicer made just 1 League Cup appearance, and bounced around England for the next 9 years. Now 30, he is a free agent. (UPDATE: He is not listed as retired, but hasn't played since 2013.)

53 MF Jerome Thomas, Wembley, West London (of Afro-Caribbean descent): Made 2 League Cup appearances, and ended up loaned out, before being sold to South London club Charlton Athletic, and made his mark there and at Hampshire club Portsmouth. Now 31, played for South London club Crystal Palace this season.

54 MF Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, Amsterdam, the Netherlands (to parents from Ghana, and has played for their national team): Made 2 League Cup appearances. Stayed with Arsenal through 2006, before being sold to Russian giants Spartak Moscow. Now 28, he is a free agent, last playing a season ago for Panathinaikos. (UPDATE: Now plays for Portuguese team Boavista.)

55 MF Ólafur Ingi Skúlason, Reykjavik, Iceland: Made just 1 League Cup appearance, then bounced around Britain. Now 31, plays for Belgian club Zulte Wargarem.

56 FW Ryan Smith, Islington, North London (of Afro-Caribbean descent): Despite coming from Arsenal's home neighborhood, he never got past the League Cup. Played in MLS for Sporting Kansas City and Chivas USA. Now 27, he is a free agent. (UPDATE: Like Spicer, He is not listed as retired, but hasn't played since 2013.)

57 MF Cesc Fabregas, Barcelona, Spain: Only played in League Cup matches in 2003-04, but was a regular reserve the next season, and started the FA Cup Final, getting a winner's medal. Wenger sold Vieira, essentially to build a team around Fabregas, and it was then that Arsenal's trophy drought began.

Arsenal reached the 2006 CL Final with Fabregas' considerable contributions, but despite occasional spectacular goals and moves, his tenure at Arsenal was a monumental failure. He was a member of the Arsenal team that lost the 2007 League Cup Final, and his injuries cost Arsenal dearly in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons. Within days of each other, he was injured for the 2011 League Cup Final which Arsenal lost, and backheeled a pass that his former club Barcelona was able to convert to a goal, knocking Arsenal out of the Champions League and giving rise to the perception that Cesc was a "double agent" for Barca.

He confirmed 2 years of rumors and tapping-up by his former club Barcelona by whining his way into a strike, with the aim of forcing a sale. He succeeded. In the 3 years since, Barca have won a La Liga title and a Copa del Rey, but also blew 2 Liga titles that they probably should have won, and have failed to reach the CL Final. Maybe Fabregas is a jinx. Certainly, he poisoned the atmosphere at Arsenal: Cesc Mustardgas.

Now, some Arsenal fans want him back. And who, exactly, would he replace in the lineup? Mesut Ozil? Aaron Ramsey? Santi Cazorla? Jack Wilshere? They're all better than Fabregas now. Mikel Arteta? Not really the same position. There's no room for him on the team -- and there shouldn't be any place in the club for someone who stabbed Arsene Wenger, and all Arsenal fans, in the back. The future that he promised turned out to be a mirage.

(UPDATE: Having worn out his welcome at Barca, he accepted a sale to Chelsea, whom he helped to his 1st Premier League title in 2015. So, 3 years after giving Arsenal fans a stab in the back, he gave them a slap in the face.)

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