This is part six of a multi-part look at the history of Arsenal.
When last we left our intrepid heroes, it was 1993, and conveniently enough, the 1993-94 season was just about to start. And it was to start with a minor disruption - David O'Leary, who was an essential part of the Arsenal defense for almost 20 years and who still holds Arsenal's appearance record (722 in all competitions), signed for Leeds on a free transfer.
Other than that, though, Arsenal entered the 1993-94 season more or less intact; David Seaman kept goal in front of the Adams/Dixon/Bould/Keown back line, and there was every indication that Arsenal would finish better than the 10th place they finished the prior season.
So what happened in the first league game, against Coventry City? The legendary defense was a bit rusty, and they lost 3-0 in front of 26,000 at Highbury (yes, kids, there was a time when soccer didn't conquer all and grounds weren't sold out every game!). They quickly righted that ship though, beating the pigeon-baged neighbors 1-0 and going unbeaten in their next five matches before losing to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
And that, by and large, was the story of Arsenal's domestic season that year - some success, some frustration, and a fifth place finish. They failed to defend either of the domestic cups, as well, losing to Bolton in a fourth round FA Cup final replay and to eventual League Cup winners Aston Villa, in the fourth round of that competition. Ian Wright was Arsenal's leading scorer that season, with 23 league goals and 35 goals overall.
But that's not the real story of the 1993-94 season. The real story of that season is in Europe, in the Cup-Winners Cup that Arsenal qualified for by winning the FA Cup the prior season.
Arsenal won the unofficial Fairs Cup in 1970, but this was their first serious foray into European competitions. After the Heysel disaster, English clubs were banned from European competitions until 1991, so to have an English team back in Europe and progressing was kind of a big deal (to the English) and kind of terrifying (to the rest of Europe).
Their European adventure started rather ignominiously, with Martin Keown scoring a goal. It was ignominious because that goal was scored for Danish club Odense BK in the 18th minute. But, Ian Wright and Paul Merson would pot for the Gunners to take the first leg 2-1, and a 1-1 draw at Highbury in the second leg saw Arsenal through to the second round, against Belgian side Standard Liege.
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In the first leg, at Highbury, two Ian Wright goals bookended a Paul Merson strike to give Arsenal a nice, comfortable 3-0 win going into the second leg. In the second leg, everyone figured the legendary Arsenal defense would do their legendary thing, and that Arsenal would hold Standard Liege at bay and not do much attacking themselves. George Graham even held out Ian Wright, as Wright was one booking away from a European suspension; Alan Smith was the lone striker on the day.
Instead of clamping down, Arsenal did the exact opposite - they cruised to a 7-0 win, with goals from such unlikely sources as Tony Adams and Ian Selley, in a win that still stands (alongside a similar 7-0 against Slavia Prague in 2007), as Arsenal's biggest margin of victory in European competition. After that, it was on to the quarterfinals, against Torino.
The first leg in Turin was a tense, nervy affair that ended scoreless; Ian Wright was again held out and Arsenal fielded a defensive lineup that did the job and brought the tie back to Highbury with everything left to play for. Back at home, and as rumor has it in front of a rather...notorious celebrity guest, Arsenal Arsenal'd their way through the first half, not allowing Torino much in the way of attack but not offering much either.
Then, in the 66th minute, that most unlikely of goalscorers Tony Adams did it again, banging in the goal that sent Arsenal to the semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain. The first leg was in Paris, and the newly-returned Ian Wright opened Arsenal's scoring in the 35th minute before having that goal cancelled out by future Pigeon David Ginola in the 50th minute. The scoring ended there, so it was back to Highbury finely balanced at 1-1.
Arsenal's offensive nerves were settled early in the second leg, when Kevin Campbell scored in the 7th minute to give Arsenal the lead, and then the Arsenal defense did what they did - they shut the game down. 83 minutes later, Arsenal were in their first European final, but would have to contest that final, against Parma in Copenhagen, without the services of Ian Wright, who had picked up a yellow card and would serve a suspension in the final.
Parma were the ECWC holders, and were aiming to be the first team to repeat as Cup winners in the competition's history - their side featured Tomas Brolin, Gianfranco Zola, and Faustino Aprilla. Arsenal were creaky - in addition to the Wright suspension, David Seaman had to get a cortisone shot and was barely able to play, and John Jensen was hurt. The back four, however, was intact. Tomas Brolin hit the post in the 6th minute for Parma, but in the 20th minute, a mis-hit Parma clearance fell to the left foot of Alan Smith, and Smith made no mistake - one-nil to the Arsenal, and Seaman/Adams/Bould/Dixon/Winterburn did the rest.
70 minutes later, Arsenal were Cup Winners' Cup winners. On a personal note, this is the most amazing game I've ever watched Arsenal play - I took the afternoon off work to watch it, and those last 70 minutes were probably the tensest I have sat through as an Arsenal fan. And back then, the referees did not broadcast how much extra time there would be, so from the 90th minute until the end, the entire bar was pretty much frozen in place, desperately hoping for a whistle - after what seemed like an eternity, it blew, and life was good. I want that feeling again one of these days.
This was to be George Graham's last achievement for the club, however. In 1995, he was found to have taken £400,000 in what he called "unsolicited gifts", but that the FA called "bungs" or bribes, in the process of signing John Jensen and Pal Lyderson. So, just like that, the Graham era - the most successful era of Arsenal since Herbert Chapman - came to an ignominious end in February 1995. Graham was fired by Arsenal when the allegations came to light, and suspended for a year by the FA in May of 1995.
I could talk here about Bruce Rioch and Stewart Houston, the two managers that saw Arsenal through to late September 1996, or about Pat Rice, boss for two weeks in late September 1996, but the only real achievement of that era is the signing by Rioch of one Dennis Bergkamp and the beginning of the end of the Ian Wright era, so there's not much there.
Instead, our next chapter will start on October 1, 1996, with the hiring of an unknown Frenchman from a small Japanese club as Arsenal's next manager. Hopefully that'll work out OK.