How the Arsenal Invincibles helped the kids on the fringes launch their careers
Ryan Smith, Olafur Ingi Skulason and Michal Papadopulos only made eight appearances between them for Arsenal, but as members of the 2003-04 Invincibles squad, all three can say ‘I was there’ when history was made.
Arsenal famously won the title without losing a single game in the Premier League that season, and though Smith, Skulason and Papadopulos’s only outings came in the League Cup, just being around Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and co. was enough to make a lasting impact on the trio.
It was Smith, a childhood Arsenal supporter, who made his debut first, against Rotherham in October 2003 on the same night that another 16-year-old, Cesc Fabregas, became the youngest player to ever appear for the Gunners in a first-team game.
With only 14 players making 10 or more starts in the Premier League that season, Arsene Wenger relied heavily on youth in the cup competitions. And Smith, who also featured against Wolves and Middlesbrough in the League Cup, says the stars were always keen to ensure certain standards were upheld in their absence.
Freddie Ljungberg, in particular, stood out.
“As a winger, I looked up to Pires, who was technically outstanding,” Smith says.
“Freddie Ljungberg was not as technically gifted as Pires, but he was just as effective in the way he played. He really impressed me in how often he could make the right run during a game which drew an opposition player out of their position.
“Watching and training with Ljungberg at close quarters, I realised why he created and scored so many goals as he did.
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“Obviously I also learned a lot from Henry and Bergkamp, but every one of that squad had a trait which was special.
“Even in training, these players wanted to win, and if they didn’t, they’d be pretty upset about it.
“You had to be at 100 per cent every day, which was the mentality that carried them through the season.
“They wanted to play the game the right way. They were probably playing the best football in the world at that point, but nobody envisaged them going unbeaten because it was such a difficult thing to do.
“I think it came to fruition because all the players had a never-say-die attitude.”
Learning from the best
It’s a theory backed up by Skulason, who had joined Arsenal in 2001 from Fylkir in his native Iceland. He played only once for the Gunners, against Wolves in the League Cup during the Invincibles season, but he saw enough to know what it must have been like to play against them.
“I used to feel sorry for the opposition ahead of a game, especially the centre-halves, because of what I saw in training from players like Henry and Bergkamp,” he says.
“The squad during the 03-04 season had the right balance of characters.
“There were those with the technical skills and there were the tough guys, too, but everybody held each other accountable in the dressing room.
“You had guys like Henry, Bergkamp, Pires and Sylvain Wiltord mixed with tough footballers such as Lauren, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell and Patrick Vieira. It was a perfect blend of combative spirit and fantastic football.”
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And Skulason, who left Arsenal for Brentford in 2005, remains forever grateful for what he was able to pick up from that wonderful group of players.
“I look back on my time at Arsenal as like going to Harvard or another fantastic university, where you learn from the best,” he says.
“The first-team players always gave us pointers. I was always open-minded going in to training and learning anything that would help me in my future career.
“Coming to Arsenal from Iceland when I was 17, I was miles behind tactically and in regards to football knowledge. What I learned at Arsenal has helped me make football my occupation.
“At every club I have signed for, people have asked me what it was like to play for Arsenal and be at the club during that amazing season.
“Highbury was a dream place to play football and to step foot on that pitch is something I will always cherish.”
Like Skulason, Papadopulos looks back on his season on loan at Arsenal as an education, describing his move to Highbury from Banik Ostrava in his native Czech Republic in the summer of 2003 as akin to going from “little school to big school”.
“It was the perfect club for a young footballer like I was at the time to watch the big players and how they performed,” he says.
“As a striker, it was unbelievable to train with players like Henry and Bergkamp. Not only were they really nice guys, they also cared about the younger players in the dressing room.
“I think that says a lot about the spirit within the squad at that time.”
A part of history
Papadopulos also played only once for Arsenal, in that Wolves game, but he’s still able to feel a sense of satisfaction just to have been involved during such a historic season for the club.
“A club like Arsenal was always targeting the title, but as the season went on, everybody in the dressing room started to believe that we could do something special,” says the former Czech international, who now plays for Polish side Piast Gliwice.
“The success they had that season was down to the guys on the pitch, but I am happy that I had the experience of being in the squad.
“I am proud to have played a little part in it.”
Smith too feels a sense of pride at being involved, but unlike Skulason and Papadopulos, he also speaks with a tinge of regret.
He went on to make three further appearances for the Gunners in the 2004-05 season and was well regarded at Highbury before he was struck down by injury, something which plagued him during a career which was cut short when he was just 27.
“Being injured, which affected the rest of my career, was unavoidable, but I am so thankful to have had the opportunity I did at Arsenal,” Smith, who now works in digital media, says.
“But the rest of that (Invincibles) season was multifaceted for me because, as an Arsenal fan, I was delighted at how they were doing, but I was also disappointed not to have been part of the squad.”
By Simon Yaffe