The Boot Room meets Amy Lawrence: Guardian writer and Arsenal expert
As part of our regular exclusives feature, The Boot Room were given the opportunity to interview the Guardian journalist and author of Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season, Amy Lawrence. A regular broadcaster and lifelong Arsenal supporter, Amy is the perfect person to provide a detailed insight into goings on, both past and present, at the Emirates.
We got stuck in immediately, with Amy more than happy to discuss her initial involvement with sports journalism. “I never grew up aspiring to be a football journalist, it was just something I began to do for a hobby as I was able to combine two things I loved – football and writing”, she said. “I was beyond fortunate to get a chance to learn on the job when I got an opportunity on FourFourTwo magazine, and was amazed to be able to make a career in something I enjoyed so much.”
Social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, have provided the capacity for aspiring writers, from all reaches of the world, to create a pedestal for a future career in the industry. However, the reality is, very few will go on to achieve their dream. Amy’s early career was met with cynicism, with those around her suggesting she “try something else”. However, when many would have given in, she pursued with her efforts, and now very few can deny her of the success she has experienced.
“It is not an easy environment in which to find work, but write as much as you can, analyse as much writing you admire as you can, and make sure to be flexible in terms of writing, picture, broadcasting etc. That’s the way it’s going.” Sound advice, from the writer named the Football Supporters’ Federation Writer of the Year for 2014. She portrays a clear message: remain persistent, while exploring a variety of journalistic-styles.
We moved on quickly to discuss Amy’s debut book, Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season – described as a gripping insider’s account of how Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires became the first team in 100 years to go the entire season undefeated. For anyone who hasn’t already read this, make sure you do. It’s excellent. As is always the case, we were eager to discover what had made Amy decide to transgress from article-based journalism. After all, writing a 250 plus page book is no easy feat.
Invicible’s main success is the manner in which Amy’s portrays her love for Arsenal Football Club. Through her careful application of individual anecdotes and testimony, it becomes startlingly obvious that the Emirates outfit is far more than just a topic of research. “Luckily some of the research was already in my head,” she explained. “Having watched the team closely over a number of years and covered matches and made interviews at the time.”
However, her memories and previous experiences alone proved insufficient while planning a project of this scale. This task required far more than simply sitting in front of a laptop with previously acquired knowledge. “Once the publisher had approached me, I was clear that the book I wanted to write depended on the access to up-to-date interviews with the protagonists,” she told The Boot Room. “That was hard to pull together, but worth all the perseverance.”
The players’ individual testimonies, and Arsene Wenger’s reflections, in particular, provide invaluable insight, giving Invincible tremendous depth as the stories of the past and present come to life. In many ways, this is what makes this book such a special and unique read. Through impressive research, and a captivating writing style to match, Amy has successfully encapsulated the goings of one of the most impressive sporting years in English footballing history.
Despite Arsenal’s success throughout the 2004-15 season, few of the players involved stayed with the club. The main protagonists – the likes of Robert Pires, Dennis Berkgamp, Patrick Viera and even Thierry Henry – all departed in the proceeding years, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand why Wenger allowed this to happen. Naturally, comparisons have been made with Manchester United in the past, especially considering the way in which Sir Alex Ferguson retained the services of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. Perhaps this was a missed trick on the then-Highbury club’s behalf – a forsaken opportunity to build on the 2003/04 season’s success.
Was it a financial imperative to get some high wages off the books due to the stadium move, or was it a conscious footballing decision from Arsene Wenger to move them on? Amy describes how the French manager was very set on this idea of “project youth”, with the emphasis on creating a new team he hoped would be able to compete at the highest level. She said, “He wanted to build a new generation he hoped would want to stay together because they grew up together. It didn’t quite come off. A personal view is that the team was broken up too early. Although Wenger couldn’t really stop some departures, others, like Gilberto and Pires, were let go prematurely.”
While the rate at which the Invincible team left the club proved disappointing, the club’s failure to translate domestic success into European form is likely to remain more of a regret among the Gunners faithful. Considering the relative weakness of the competition throughout the 2003/04 season – a Porto versus Monaco final saw the Portuguese outfit emerge as eventual Champions League winners – it is difficult to deny that this was the perfect year for Wenger’s side to challenge on all fronts.
On this subject, Amy said, “That is one theme that comes across repeatedly when you talk to the players from that team. They all feel that was the one that got away, and there is a sureness that they felt like the best team in Europe that year.” She went on to explain how Wenger later admitted that he should have sacrificed the FA Cup semi-final versus rivals Man United, a game that fell four days before the Gunners crashed out of the Champions League to Chelsea. “They were fatigued and paid a heavy price. It was a very bad week!”
Since the departure of the Invincible team, we have seen very few of the players return to the club in a coaching capacity. Amy feels that enticing the likes of Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry to the Emirates would be a positive direction for the club to take, not only for their “excellent knowledge and experience” but also for the passion for Arsenal that they continue to maintain – this alone would “go a long way”.
There’s no doubt the Arsenal Invincibles were an outstanding team, but few can argue with the manner in which English football has progressed over the past decade. Amy, however, believes the side of the 2003/04 season would still compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City today. “I see no reason why the Invincibles wouldn’t be favourites for the Premier League today. They were an amazingly balanced team, whose collective will to win was obvious, and they had the technical qualities that would be difficult to stop in any era.”
She continued by suggesting that, from Wenger’s current playing staff, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny in particular, would have experienced an easy integration into the record-breaking line-up, with the emphasis on heavily weighted towards the squad as a whole rather than individual players.
The current Gunners first-team is known for the individual talent it possesses, particularly in midfield. However, there is one player who, despite being tipped for a highly successful career, has struggled to establish himself as a regular starter at the Emirates. That player is Jack Wilshere. Once seen as the future of English football, the 24-year-old’s career has been hampered by injury.
In terms of his progression, Amy holds the same views as Wenger, “what he needs is two years clear of injury, even one year would be a start. He just needs to have the fitness and the time to play his way into his best form – that’s an addition to any team.” Clearly she holds the England man in high-regard, but like many of us would agree, she feels that he needs to keep himself away from the treatment table if he wishes to fulfil his promise. Perhaps his two goals versus Slovenia last weekend were a sign of things to come?
On the subject of young talent and world-class potential, we continued to quiz Amy about the Arsenal academy system, asking her recommendation on the next top youngsters to come through the Emirates production line. Two players stood-out during this chat: Chuba Akpom and Gedion Zelalem. According to Amy, the former “is a striker with great talent who I would like to see have a chance,” while the latter “is very highly rated as a creative player.”
Akpom, 19, who spent last season on loan at Nottingham Forest – failing to score in seven league fixtures – has made four appearances at senior level for the Gunners, while Zelalem, 18, is yet to feature for the club. However, the USA international has attracted attention following his recent performances at the under-20 World Cup.
Our talk soon turned to summer activity. Less than a month has passed since the end of the season, and the transfer window is yet to open, but this hasn’t prevented the usual rumour mill from reaching a level of overdrive. Among those linked with a move to the Emirates is Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin, as well as Monaco’s Geoffery Kondogbia – with the defensive midfield role a problem factor that seemingly will not go away. Francis Coquelin has experienced an exceptional breakthrough season at the club, but increased speculation suggests he could still be overlooked, as Wenger looks to mount a title challenge throughout the upcoming campaign.
Talking of Coquelin, and potential midfield targets, Amy said, “It would be remiss of Arsenal not to sign another player to share the load. He has had an extraordinary season, and has proved how crucial it is to have an anchor in midfield with intelligence, power and the capacity to intercept, tackle, and interrupt the opposition so manfully. What if he gets injured?” She continued, “It’s a vital role [defensive midfield], which needs two players who can perform it to the highest level. They may have to share the responsibility, and in some games can play together. But leaving it to Coquelin alone would be risky.”
With transfers on the mind, we turned the clock back ten months, to the club’s capture of Chilean international Alexis Sanchez. Unlike his outstanding debut season in England, in which he scored 16 goals in 35 league appearances, the former Barcelona midfielder’s move to the Emirates went somewhat under the radar – a deal that Wenger appeared to conclude with relative ease, despite intense interest from Merseyside. Following an impressive World Cup campaign with his home nation, Sanchez was widely expected to move to Liverpool, before a dramatic U-turn saw pledge his allegiance to the Emirates faithful.
With the world full of social media and noisy agents, completing a transfer in private is close to impossible now. Based on this notion, we asked Amy whether this change had hindered Wenger’s attempts to recruit in recent years? She replied, “It is hard, full stop. I don’t think Wenger has been less active because of agents or transfer noise. It is more down to what he perceives as a lack of the right talent at the right price. If he can find that, he will go for it. But any kind of auction once some of the super rich are involved – as that has such an impact on salary as much as anything else – he tends to back off. “
Clearly Wenger operates a pragmatic transfer policy. As Amy describes, he is willing to stake his claim for a player’s services, as long as the price is right. Prior to the signing of Mesut Ozil – formerly of Real Madrid – two seasons ago, the Frenchman had never been seen splashing the cash for any one individual. This trend has changed since, but still, a similar pretence remains. Some would say that it is this transfer policy that has hampered the club’s chances of challenging for the Premier League title. However, few can argue with the Frenchman’s ability to operate within financial restrictions – Arsenal have never failed to finish in a top four position under Wenger’s reign.
Alexis Sanchez may have finished the season as Arsenal’s top goal-scorer last term, but Olivier Giroud proved the perfect sideman for the Chilean. The former Montpellier weighed in with some fanastic performances throughout the campaign, scoring 14 times in 27 league appearances. However, this was not enough to prevent pundits from questioning his suitability to Arsenal’s title aspirations. Of all people, it was Thierry Henry who pioneered the notion that his compatriot was not up to the challenge of winning the Gunners a league title, with the suggestion that the club must buy a world class forward this summer if they wish to contend next season.
Amy proved reluctant when discussing this topic, which suggests she was not fully convinced by Giroud’s ability. However, she clearly envisages a future role for the Frenchman. She said, “I think I might have to defer that answer until the new season is about to start! There are not that many world-class predators out there. If Wenger can find one, competition between Mr X, Giroud and Walcott could be very interesting. It would be fascinating to see Arsenal pair two strikers sometimes.”
Porto’s Jackson Martinez is a player who finds himself continuously linked with a move to the Emirates. However, it remains to be seen if Wenger holds any genuine interest in the Colombian striker. Elsewhere, Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain has also been touted for a move to the Emirates – the rumours continue to persist. Will Wenger sign a front-man to rival Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, as Amy would like? In truth, only time will tell.
Before concluding our interview we were eager to hear Amy’s thoughts on the future of the Emirates outfit, with particular interest towards her views on Arsene Wenger. The Boot Room asked, ‘Do you think it is time for Wenger to move on, or does he still have something to offer?’ To which she responded, “at the moment it’s not a question worth considering as he has no intention to move on and the board have no intention of moving him on. With the progress of last season he has earned the right to try to push for another big step forwards next season.” Clearly Amy is an Arsenal fan who remains content with the progress the club are making under the French head coach, and why wouldn’t she be? The signs shown last season were certainly promising.
We would like to say a huge thank you to Amy Lawrence for taking the time to answer our questions, while wishing her the best of luck for the future. If you haven’t already, you can buy, Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season (both paper and hardback) here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Invincible-Inside-Arsenals-Unbeaten-2003-2004/dp/024100456X
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