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Arsenal set to make history

May 13, 2004 15:19 IST
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The last time a team dominated English football as Arsenal have done this season, Jack the Ripper was stalking the streets of London.

On Saturday, Arsenal stand to make history by becoming the first top-flight club since Preston North End in the inaugural season of 1888-89 to finish their campaign unbeaten.

Arsene Wenger's multinational team of millionaires need only a draw with Leicester City to complete a timeline stretching back through two world wars, six monarchs and the advent of the Football League.

Few doubt the champions will succeed at Highbury against a side who are already relegated.

Striker Thierry Henry, captain Patrick Vieira and winger Robert Pires, who will all be playing for France at Euro 2004 next month, have made Arsenal one of the most feared teams in Europe.

Domestically, their 37-match unbeaten run comprising 25 wins and 12 draws has earned the north London club a 13th league championship and a reputation for swashbuckling, attacking football that has won admirers around the world.

Arsenal's achievement is remarkable for such a competitive environment as the premier league, a global business worth more than a billion pounds ($1.76 billion) a year where new Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has had to spend $200 million to be even relatively successful.

Yet in their day, Preston were also a force to make defenders quail and the money creeping into the game was making headlines.

CRICKET CLUB

Preston started life in 1863 as a cricket club, moved to the 'north end' of the town a few years later and turned to football only in 1881 after cricketing interest waned and a brief foray into rugby proved unsuccessful.

Under club president William Sudell, Preston began to build a team drawn from England and Scotland with players, controversially at the time, being paid for their services.

Matters came to a head in 1884 when Preston were kicked out of the FA Cup for paying footballers to play the game, a common enough practice in the north of England but virtually unknown in the south where the amateur game ruled.

Football was at a fork in the road.

One way pointed to the nationwide legalisation of professional football, the other to a professional north and an amateur south. The Football Association chose the former at a special meeting in 1885, while a few years later rugby's leading figures chose the latter, leading to a split in that sport with the creation of two codes:

league and union.

Buoyed up by the FA's decision, Preston steamed ahead, going unbeaten for 64 friendly and cup matches 1885-86 (59 wins and five draws) and then winning a remarkable 42 consecutive matches in 1887-88, the season before competitive league football started.

They also established an FA Cup scoring record that will almost certainly stand for all time when they beat Hyde 26-0 at Deepdale in 1887.

Not surprisingly, no team in the land was as well-prepared for the start of the first English season on September 8 1888 when the newly-formed Football League of 12 northern and midlands clubs kicked off.

Preston beat Burnley 5-2 in their opening match and won 18 and drew four of their 22 league matches. Only one other club, Liverpool, when they won the second division championship in 1893-94, have been unbeaten for a whole season.

LEADING LIGHTS

Preston also made history by becoming the first club to clinch the double after winning the FA Cup without conceding a goal.

Not surprisingly, epithets were soon being penned.

"The Old Invincibles" and "Proud Preston" were the most popular for a team whose leading lights were centre strikers John Goodall (21 goals in 1888-89), defender Nick Ross and his striker brother Jimmy (24 goals in 1889-90), along with winger Jack Gordon, scorer of the first ever league goal.

Naturally, success brought in money.

Although today's premier league top-drawer wages of 90,000 pounds a week are worlds away from the 1880s, life then was anything but a grind for the Invincibles.

Hugh Hornby, head of research and education at the National Football Museum, which is housed at Deepdale, told Reuters: "The aim of most working men at the time was to earn a pound week. Footballers at clubs like Preston earned several times that.

"Though they didn't make enough to never work again, as the likes of David Beckham do today, plenty of players earned enough money to go into business when they retired from the game.

"In fact, some were already in business while they were still playing. Compared to the people watching football, they were well ahead."

Arsenal will certainly be well ahead of those watching from the North Bank when Wenger's side turn out on Saturday to face Leicester.

But they will still have 90 minutes of football to negotiate before they can match Sudell's Invincibles.

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Source: REUTERS
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