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Jack Wilshere Arsenal D.N.A
The Biography of the Gunners' Superstar
By Joe Jacobs
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 Joe Jacobs
All rights reserved.
In which Arsenal are crowned Champions – the Premier League is formed – Ian Wright tries to stop the rot – Andy Wilshere keeps one eye on the football scores – we see something of Hitchin's heritage and the Wilsheres hear the pitter-patter of a very talented left foot!
The penultimate 'old First Division' season, 1990/91, was an enormous success in more ways than one for Arsenal Football Club: along with winning the title and losing only one game throughout the campaign, the Gunners conceded only 18 goals – a statistic put into perspective when compared to second placed Liverpool's 40 goals 'against'. Yet football itself was stuck in a rut: hooliganism was rife throughout the country's stadia and the Heysel disaster of 1985 prevented English clubs from entering European competition. Arsenal's ascent to the top of the Championship elite didn't help either: George Graham's side weren't particularly well-renowned for their attacking style and creative finesse, the chant boring, boring Arsenal becoming the song of choice for any team visiting Highbury stadium.
Just as George Graham's Arsenal were getting their hands on the First Division trophy in the summer of 1991, however, the so-called 'big five' of English football were beginning to hatch a plan. Having held talks with both LWT and cable broadcaster Sky – Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal agreed that English football required some sort of cash injection if it was to bounce back from its lowest ever ebb. With television becoming the modern way to watch the game, the so-called 'Founding Members' signed an agreement to break away from the current Football League and persuaded the remaining 17 clubs to join a brand new league which was to be funded by investment stemming primarily from television. The 'Founding Members' agreed that this investment, in turn, should be divided equally between the league's elite 22 clubs, instead of being divided out between the 92 clubs of the original football league. The formation of the 'Premier League' – as it was known – thus signalled the beginning of the end for the 'old' First Division. With Sky TV owner Rupert Murdoch seeing an opportunity to turn around his loss-making company, the new Premier League was launched as a premium-rate platform for the top clubs of English football, where a new breed of modern, more cosmopolitan football would be played.
Thus Arsenal went into the last season of the old First Division – 1991/92 – as defending Champions, and it wasn't the start George Graham would have hoped for: an opening 1-1 home draw against QPR was followed by successive losses away to Everton and Aston Villa, before the Gunners finally recorded their first win of the season against Luton Town. The shaky start continued throughout the late summer and it wasn't until mid-September that Arsenal recorded more than two consecutive wins. Indeed it was the first of these victories – against south Londoners Crystal Palace – that George Graham saw the talents of a particular striker. Ian Wright, born in Arsenal's original hometown of Woolwich, was Crystal Palace's player of the season in 1989 and Graham had been tracking the young striker for a few years. Indeed, the game against the Eagles on 14th September 1991 confirmed to the Arsenal manager that Wright was the missing ingredient in a very defensive minded side.
Following a fair amount of courting from George Graham and Vice-Chairman David Dein, Ian Wright signed for Arsenal by the end of September and scored on his debut against Leicester City in a League Cup game. This was followed by a hat-trick away to Southampton, before scoring against Chelsea in a 3-2 win against their London rivals. Arsenal's new star striker – who had cost the club a record £2.5 million – couldn't stop the rot, however, and by the end of November the club found itself sixth in the division. A comfortable home win against Spurs in December, in which Wright and Kevin Campbell scored a goal a piece in a 2-0 win, didn't quash the mini-crisis in form and Arsenal – defending champions with the 'best' defence in the country – found themselves in lowly seventh as 1991 drew to a close.
Just over a month later and a New Year's Day victory against London rivals Wimbledon looked like the perfect tonic for a team supremely out of form. The Gunners had barely registered a point in the league since the beginning of December and were in desperate need of something against a team lying 17th in the table. Forty miles up the M1 in Stevenage, meanwhile, Andrew Wilshere was keeping one eye on his wife Kerry, and one eye on the football scores on the telly. The former, after all, was in labour with their third child, whereas West Ham United were on a downward spiral towards the bottom of the First Division. The Hammers were playing Leeds United at home and desperately needed something from the game if they were to keep off the foot of the table. Having conceded back to back losses against Aston Villa and Notts County – and only registering a point since the end of November – West Ham had to start the new year with at least a draw if only to stop the rot. But it wasn't to be: by the end of the afternoon the Hammers were 1-3 down to United and hovering dangerously above the relegation zone. Arsenal drew too, not that it mattered to Kerry or Andrew Wilshere: by the time the first division players trudged off the cold pitches throughout the land, they were holding their newborn son Jack in their arms.
Ten miles north-east of Luton sits Hitchin, a market town nestled in a corner of Hertfordshire. Once described by historian Nikolas Pevsner as one of the most visually satisfying towns in the country, it has a population of around 30,000 people and is the hometown of many famous alumni: Bob Hope was said to have family in Hitchin, keeping touch with them right up to his death in 2003; technological guru Kane Kramer was born in Hitchin, and went on to be the inventor of the first ever digital audio player (typically referred to as the iPod); former tennis player and the 'Hurricane of Hitchin' Arvind Parmar was also born there, along with golfer Ian Poulter, and footballers Dave Kitson and Kevin Phillips.
An old market town built alongside the River Hiz and in close proximity to London, Hitchin prospered in the wool trade throughout the medieval period and also holds the dubious record for being the town where the biggest hailstones in history landed during a storm in 1697. Idyllic, suburban, with a very strong sense of community, Hitchin is the town where Andy and Kerry Wilshere settled and brought up their three children – Tom, Rosie and newborn Jack.
Despite the presence of Messrs Palmer and Phillips, Hitchin isn't particularly renowned for its sporting prestige or alumni. The town does have a football team, however, and Hitchin Town F.C. is currently based in the Southern League's central division. The original Hitchin F.C., formed relatively early for a football club in 1865, took part in the inaugural FA Cup in 1872, going on to lose to eventual runners-up Royal Engineers (who were one of the most successful FA Cup teams of the latter half of the 19th century, winning it in 1875 and reaching the final in 1872, 1874 and 1878). In fact, in its original guise, Hitchin F.C. is one of only three existing teams to have played in the oldest football competition in the world. In 1905, furthermore, they were the first team to win away in the 'fortress' that is Stamford Bridge!
Reformed in 1928 under the moniker Hitchin Town F.C., the Canaries held their own in London's Spartan and Athenian Leagues through the early part of the 20th Century (amateur leagues run throughout London and its surrounding districts), but it wasn't until 1958 that one of Hitchin's finest represented their country when Peter Hammond proudly played for England's Amateur side.
Hitchin's relationship with The Arsenal unsurprisingly predates Jack Wilshere: in 1958 – the same year Hammond was appearing in an England shirt – Laurie Scott took over management at Hitchin Town F.C., hoping to develop the club and bring it in to line with other slightly more progressive professional sides. The former international initially played for Bradford City, before joining George Allison's Arsenal side in 1937. Following a stint during the Second World War as an RAF pilot, Scott went on to become one of the best full-backs of his generation, and cemented his place in Gunner history, winning the first division title in 1948. The FA Cup followed in 1950 when Arsenal beat George Kay's Liverpool side at Wembley Stadium, and Scott was subsequently selected for England's World Cup squad in Brazil in 1950 (his appearances were limited, however, by the fact he was Alf Ramsey's understudy throughout the tournament). As a player, the Yorkshireman was among the finest of his generation: 'Scott, who served as a physical training instructor in the RAF during the war, was maturing into a fine all-round player,' read the Independent obituary after Scott's death in 1999. 'A crisp and combative tackler, he was quick to recover if a winger had the temerity to give him the slip, his distribution was sensibly safe and he was blessed with a shrewd positional sense.'
Working his way through the various non-leagues of the era, Scott found his way to Hertfordshire, bringing the experience of international tournaments and the class of Highbury to Hitchin: the 1960/61 season saw the Canaries finish in a respectable fifth position in the Athenian League and reach the semi-finals of the FA Amateur Cup. His success was curtailed by behind the scenes wrangling, however, and his departure saw replacement Vince Burgess take the club to second place in 1969 and win the London Senior Cup in 1970. The club meandered in and out of various Southern Division Leagues, right up until 1992/93, when manager Andy Melvin led the club back to the Premier Division by winning the First Division.
Hitchin and its semi-professional football club undoubtedly contributed to Jack's footballing heritage; the local footballing history and enthusiasm for the game can only serve as a strong base for any blossoming talent. The town itself has numerous playing fields and parks, including Windmill Hill with its beautiful views of the surrounding Hertfordshire countryside. Indeed, it was on these very playing fields that Jack Wilshere first kicked a ball; his dad Andy would frequently take his brother Tom and sister Rosie to the local park for a kickabout, and even as a baby who had only just learned to walk, Jack would love to join in with his sporty siblings. His enthusiasm and ability to learn quickly was apparent at a very young age; he would frequently ask his dad to take him out to the local pitch near their semi-detached house on Folly Close in Hitchin for a game of three-and-in or "66'.
It was, of course, very far away from the flood-lit pastures of Highbury football stadium, and just as Jack was finding his feet in the world, Arsenal were finishing the last First Division season fairly strongly, with five wins and two draws from their remaining seven fixtures. They finished the 1991/92 season in fourth position, trailing Sheffield Wednesday, Manchester United and champions Leeds United. Andy Wilshere's team West Ham, meanwhile, were relegated after winning only three games away from home all season.
The Gunners went on to become a prolific Cup side, winning the FA Cup and League Cup in 1993 and the European Cup Winners Cup in 1994. The first division, meanwhile, became the Premier League, and the Highbury faithful had to wait another six or so years before Arsenal were in a position to make another substantial title challenge. By that time Jack was in primary school and Arsenal were under the management of a certain French 'economist'.CHAPTER 2
1997/98 – 2001
In which Arsène Wenger makes a shrewd investment in more ways than one – Liam Brady takes the reigns at the new 'Academy' – and Jack begins primary school and joins the LGC Eagles
Half-time at Highbury on 13th December 1997 and Arsenal were a goal up against Roy Hodgson's Blackburn Rovers. A decent display before the interval saw the Gunners take the lead after 18 minutes, when Emmanuel Petit spotted the run of Marc Overmars and played in the Dutchman who slotted the ball gratefully past goalkeeper Tim Flowers. The Gunners were in cruise control, and looking to kick-start their campaign after back-to-back losses against Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool had threatened to de-rail their season. They were expected to beat Rovers and begin the slow ascent up the table to threaten the reign of defending champions Manchester United – the Red Devils had won four of the past five titles, and were threatening to run away with their fifth. Former champions Blackburn Rovers, however, hadn't followed the script and this particular result towards the end of 1997 would go on to define Arsenal's season in more ways than one.
Despite a decent start to the second half from the Gunners – in which the industrious Overmars very nearly played in Ian Wright only to be thwarted by Flowers – Blackburn forced their way back in to the game. Tony Adams' awful clearance from a corner resulted in Rovers finding Wilcox on the edge of the box and the midfielder converted with glee. Eight minutes later and Blackburn took control of the game: Tim Flowers' goal-kick was flicked-on by Chris Sutton and the ball was chased down the left by Kevin Gallacher, who hit it first time with his left foot. The shot may have been speculative but Gallacher's strike left the scrambling David Seaman with no chance. A late Tim Sherwood goal in the 89th minute sealed the game for Blackburn – the midfielder benefitting from a dubious offside call and beating the Arsenal goalkeeper – which pushed the Gunners to sixth in the league. George Graham's Leeds United, meanwhile, moved above Arsenal into fifth position after drawing 0-0 against Chelsea, while Liverpool comprehensively beat Crystal Palace 3-0 to also move above the Gunners.
The loss to Blackburn was a real kick in the teeth for this Arsenal side. Hotly tipped to challenge Manchester United for the title – particularly after acquiring Emmanuel Petit, Nicholas Anelka and Marc Overmars – Arsenal were now facing a mid-season struggle to keep up with the leading pack. Indeed, in his first full season in charge of the club, Arsène Wenger was facing his first substantial slump in form; a loss at home to the former Premier League Champions wasn't a disaster, but Wenger knew that to win the Premier League he had to turn Highbury into a fortress – a stadium where teams were afraid to play their own game. The Gunners had already lost at home to Liverpool (0-1) and drawn games against Spurs (0-0) and Aston villa (0-0) – both of which the Gunners really should have won. Following the loss to Blackburn, though, Wenger drew a line in the sand. According to The Independent's Ian Ridley, the previous loss to the Merseysiders triggered a little soul-searching within the Arsenal dressing room, and Wenger had a full and frank discussion with his playing squad. Adams and the all-English back four wanted more protection from the newly assembled French midfield, and Wenger had to remind Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit of their defensive duties – asking them to alternate between supporting attack and defence.
The discussions did the trick. The loss to Blackburn in December 1997 was to be the last home league defeat for the Gunners in 22 months. Their unbeaten run lasted from December 1997 to September 1999, during which they won their first Premier League title (and their 11th First Division title), beating Manchester United to win the league by a solitary point. It was also the start of a very successful period for the Gunners, with Arsène Wenger cementing his place in the history books in more ways than one.
Success in 1998, however, brought its disadvantages. At the end of the 1998/99 season Arsenal's French superstar Nicholas Anelka was angling for a move out of Highbury. Disillusioned with Arsenal's form in the league – despite the Gunners only missing out on regaining their title by a single point to Manchester United in what turned out to be one of the closest title races of all time – the French striker began to feel unsettled and undervalued. His third full season at Highbury had been his best: 17 goals from 35 starts saw a decent return for the talented Frenchman. Signed in 1996 from Paris Saint-Germain for approximately £500,000, Arsène Wenger saw Anelka as one of the key players in Arsenal's quest for glory in many seasons to come.
Excerpted from Jack Wilshere Arsenal D.N.A by Joe Jacobs. Copyright © 2013 Joe Jacobs. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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