Graham Stack never managed to establish himself at Arsenal, yet the club still provided the goalkeeper with one of the highlights of his career.
For every major sporting success, there are those left in the background, names forgotten by the masses even though they were the closest to the action.
Names like Graham Stack.
He never played a single Premier League game for Arsenal, making most of his career appearances for Hibernian and Barnet, but as second choice to Jens Lehmann during the Gunners’ Invincibles season he was a first-hand witness to history.
Lehmann played every minute of that unbeaten Premier League campaign, but Stack had proved to Arsene Wenger he was worthy of being called upon if the big German was unable to play.
An impressive feat in itself, and something he now looks back on as one of his fondest memories in football.
“I loved it even though I didn’t play,” Stack says. “I wasn’t ready to play 38 games as Arsenal’s No.1 anyway.
“I didn’t have enough experience at that level, I still had a lot to learn technically, and my temperament still needed to improve and develop in order to turn into a composed goalkeeper.
“It was probably the right moment for me to be a No.2 and to learn from Jens, to develop both on the pitch and off it, as goalkeepers do improve as time goes on. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have won the title if I played 38 games, but it was too early for me to be a No.1.
“I was just happy to be involved, to be learning, and I did improve greatly that year under the guidance of (goalkeeping coach) Gerry Peyton and Jens, and being in that company on a day-to-basis.
“The manager showed belief in me, he played me in every League Cup game and had we got to the final I would have played in that. For him to have believed in me and given me the responsibility to play in those games – and to give Jens a rest – was fantastic.”
Stack, who won the FA Youth Cup with Arsenal in 2000, started the 2003-04 campaign as third choice but was quickly promoted to the bench after a couple of games following an injury to perennial second-choice goalkeeper Stuart Taylor.
Luck may have played a part in Stack’s initial ascension, but once in position he did not relinquish the role.
“Stuart Taylor had injured a finger, but it wasn’t long term,” Stack says. “I think he was going to miss three or four games, so naturally there was thought process that I was a stop-gap, that they might get someone more experienced in.
“Fortunately the manager stuck with me, I made a good impression when I had the opportunity. And I was grateful to be involved in that team.”
However, the mentality of the dressing room was as key to the success that season as the quality available to Wenger. Stack absorbed what he could in close proximity to those leading Arsenal to glory.
“You look through the team, the experience we had, the international caps, the World Cup winners, people had played in the Champions League, there was an abundance of experience and quality, but the biggest thing for me was the leaders: Sol Campbell, Martin Keown, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Jens Lehmann.
“It was full of men and leaders, who had lots of self-belief, but more importantly they had belief in each other, and everyone was up for the challenge and the fight.
“Over 90 minutes we always believed as a group we were going to beat anybody and we were capable of beating anybody and that’s how it panned out.
“It wasn’t just a facade, we believed as group that we could go up and down the country and beat anybody. Even when we’d come in at half-time and maybe be a goal down, there was never any stage you would look around and think we were a beaten team.
“There was always somebody in the group who spark something or say something and get the others going.”
At just 22, Stack was one of the younger members of the squad and could have been forgiven for feeling a little overawed at his sudden ascent, but he felt at home in his elite surroundings, having been at Arsenal since he was a youngster.
“I’m not a nervous type of character, I never have been,” he says. “I was quite jovial before games, I was always upbeat, positive.
“I wouldn’t say I was at the forefront of the banter, as I was just a young lad, but I was always quite a confident young player and embraced it more than anything.
“I think when you’re in a team like that people can see if you’re nervous as you’ll be the only one in that team showing symptoms of nerves, as everyone else was full of confidence.
“I would have been nervous if I was playing, but that would have been natural for any young goalie. But I like to think I took it my stride and enjoyed every game really.”
As goalkeeping coach Peyton was not involved on matchdays at the time, a big part of Stack’s role was to warm-up Lehmann before games, a job understood the importance of.
“The responsibility was on me to prepare Jens the best possible way to go out and perform,” Stack says.
“The performances he would make would improve our team performance, so there was a lot pressure on me – a different type of pressure.
“I was a young goalkeeper having to put all my energy into making sure he has all the tools that I can give him to go into a game mentally and physically right to perform and that was my job.
“I took it very seriously, and had I not done that, who knows? Jens wouldn’t have been happy, he may not have performed as well, he may have ultimately got injured, he may have a poor run of games, you can look at it in lots of different ways.”
Though he enjoyed the experience, Stack didn’t truly appreciate what he was a part of at the time.
Now playing for Eastleigh in the National League, his only other league title is the Conference he won as a Barnet player in 2014-15, but back in 2004 it all seemed normal.
“It’s certainly up there as a memory of mine,” he says. “You probably don’t realise that until later on in life, but I’ve played non-league, I’ve played abroad, I’ve played with players who have nowhere near the ability nor experience those players at Arsenal had.
“I should have probably have appreciated it a little bit more than I did, but because I was an Arsenal boy from a young age and had always been at the club, I probably felt as though it was a natural progression for me to go into the first team, so maybe I was a bit naive to think this was a bit normal.
“It wasn’t, it was a great achievement for me personally and looking back it is one of my fondest memories to have shared a changing room with such world-class players and such wonderful people and great men.
“I’ve learned so much from many of them in my career and I’ve tried to use a lot of what I learned from those players and incorporated that into how I prepare for games.
“It is a memory I will never forget and a season that is unforgettable. To achieve what we did was special.”
By Will Unwin
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