2007 and all that! When Arsenal conquered Europe
13 years on, a look back at how the Gunners made history by winning the UEFA Cup
01 May, 2020 — By Catherine Etoe
Arsenal stars celebrate winning the UEFA Cup in 2007. PHOTOS: CATHERINE ETOE
WHEN Vic Akers first came face to face with the trophy he had chased for five long years, the superstitious Arsenal Ladies boss refused to touch it.
He would leave that for the day his team made history by winning the thing.
Akers would not have long to wait. Ten more days after that April 2007 press conference in chilly Sweden, in fact, but for the time being he only had eyes for the job in hand: the first leg of a double-header UEFA Cup Final lay in store and his team faced a formidable foe.
Arsenal had never gone beyond the semi-final stage of this competition before, no British team had. Their rivals for the title, professional outfit Umea IK, had form.
The Swedish champions were twice past winners and the roster they would field in the tree-lined Gamliavallen stadium, 300 kilometres from the Arctic Circle, was peppered with superstars.
Marta, the FIFA World Player of the Year, and Swedish striking sensation Hanna Ljungberg were in the starting XI, while Swiss wunderkind Ramona Bachmann and Ma Xiaoxu, the first female Asian Young Footballer of the Year, made the bench.
Yet when I boarded the plane with the team at Heathrow, it was clear that Arsenal were on the cusp of something special.
Here was a squad littered with England internationals, boldly led by Wales captain Jayne Ludlow, with the skipper of Scotland, Julie Fleeting, firing on all cylinders up front, and Republic of Ireland captain Ciara Grant unflappable in defence.
Rachel Yankey with the trophy
Bolstered by a backroom staff that included former Parliament Hill School pupil and current Chelsea boss Emma Hayes, the League Cup had been delivered, the League title was in the bag, and an FA Cup final date was in the diary.
Arsenal had been imperious in Europe too, but they would have to overcome this final hurdle without the talismanic Kelly Smith, who was suspended. Even so, they were not in Sweden to make up the numbers and “good luck” texts from Akers’ golf partner Dennis Bergkamp and other Arsenal stars before kick-off would become messages of congratulation by full-time.
The opening exchanges were tough, and captain Ludlow would later tell the New Journal: “Marta did me like a kipper once or twice.”
Yet Brazilian maestro Marta and her teammates would travel to Hertfordshire for the second leg on the back foot after being undone by a late, long-distance, speculative, but nonetheless superlative winner from Alex Scott.
Almost 3,500 Gooners would roar Arsenal on in the return at Boreham Wood FC. That breathless, goalless match saw Umea hit the post, crossbar and keeper Emma Byrne’s face, but ultimately fail to overcome dogged defending, immense goalkeeping and a team spirit that simply would not be beaten.
Months earlier, Hampstead School old girl Rachel Yankey had driven a minibus of pupils to the semi-final against Brondby before scoring the opening goal in a 3-0 win.
And speaking to the New Journal this week, Yankey recalled one of Byrne’s home-leg saves being “as good as a goal”, how a passionate pre-match speech by midfield general and current Wales head coach Ludlow was “the best team talk we’d ever had” – and the effort that had gone into a UEFA Cup campaign few believed they could win.
As befitted their 20th anniversary year, Arsenal ended the season with a quadruple haul of major trophies. It is a feat that no British side has yet matched.
“The achievement of that team was unbelievable, really,” added Yankey. “It was probably the best I’ve played for.”