Arsenal train ahead of Europa League tie against Sporting Lisbon
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In 1888 bosses from some of the country’s biggest football teams gathered in what would be a monumental moment in sporting history, helping to carve out the Football League and with it a division in which sides could compete. Months later, the first season was underway, coexisting alongside the already-created FA Cup. A long time ago, what some football fans may not realise is in that groundbreaking campaign, one team would write their name into folklore and become known as the “Invincibles”.
Arsenal’s astonishing season in 2003/04 is often considered the greatest in football history. Under the leadership of Arsene Wenger, the Gunners went unbeaten the whole season, winning 26 of their 38 matches.
Speaking when the possibility of going an entire season unbeaten was muted, Wenger noted: “It’s not impossible as A.C. Milan once did it but I can’t see why it’s so shocking to say it.
“Do you think Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea don’t dream that as well? They’re exactly the same.
“They just don’t say it because they’re scared to look ridiculous, but nobody is ridiculous in this job as we know anything can happen.”
But 115 years before, Preston North End became the first ever “Invincibles”, as they clinched the inaugural Football League trophy for the 1888/89 season, while also collecting the FA Cup, seeing them become the first ever ‘Double’ winners.
Of the seven teams to win the double, the league title, and the FA Cup, Preston remains the only side to do it unbeaten.
Their league record stood as 18 wins and four draws, and in the FA Cup, they won all five of their matches without conceding a single goal.
The team was built around a core group of Scottish players, who would go down in history as the Scotch Professors.
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On their way to being crowned FA Cup winners, Preston overcame Bootle, Grimsby Town, Birmingham St George’s and West Bromwich Albion before defeating Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final.
Their efforts were lauded by papers of the time, including the Manchester Guardian, which wrote: “In one season they have not only won the league championship without meeting with a single reverse, but they have actually carried off the cup without allowing a solitary goal be scored against them in any of the ties.
“This is a record that is hardly likely to ever be approached. It certainly cannot be surpassed.”
Meanwhile, the Daily News also lavished the unbeaten side: “It is only right that the trophy should fall to the celebrated North End eleven who for several years have been distinctly the best side in the Kingdom.”
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Their first league defeat came in the second match of the following season when they lost 5-3 to Aston Villa. And so, the spell was broken.
Tom Finney, a Preston stalwart and the club’s record goalscorer, recounted that side in his autobiography, writing: “The championship stayed with North End — by now tagged the Old Invincibles — the following year, but runners-up spot had to suffice for the next three seasons”.
To commemorate the team’s incredible achievements, in 2008 the Lancashire side opened a new 5,000 seater stand at their Deepdale stadium, named Invincibles Pavilion.
Football historian and freelance writer Jack Kevin Portley outlined the main differences between Preston and Arsenal’s achievements in 2016 for These Football Times.
He wrote: “Taking everything into account, they are similar. Neither team maintained their dominance for very long; for Preston North End because the league was created too late, and for Arsenal because competition was fiercer.
“Preston could play four games in five days with no squad rotation, concurrently having to travel with deficient transport. Resources were limited and scientific knowledge was not as extensive.
“It’s coherent to see that these factors would have had a massive impact on the players, and it’s debatable whether the modern day footballer could cope in this era.”
He added: “For those reasons, it’s a rational argument to present that although both teams pulled off remarkable achievements, it’s Preston North End that should be held in higher esteem. They are, after all, the original Invincibles.”
Arsenal’s run of league matches undefeated ran to 49, ending in a controversial 2-0 defeat to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. It eclipsed the previous record of 42 set by Nottingham Forest.
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