How does one do justice to a feat that still seems unimaginable, despite the cold fact of it staring us in the face? That is exactly what Amy Lawrence attempts in her book, Invincible: Inside Arsenal's Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season.
Arsenal's achievement in the 2003-2004 season seems unlikely ever to be repeated, residing as we now do in the era of mammoth expenditure on player recruitment and the added rigors of lucrative pre-season tours and European cups. While Preston North End went undefeated in the 1888-1889 season's league (and, indeed, the FA Cup: the only team to win the double unbeaten), they played only twenty-two games in what was a nascent and unbalanced competition. How, too, does one narrate an story whose teleology is already well known, while maintaining a reader's interest, especially a story so partisan as that of a football club? It is to Amy Lawrence's great credit, and indicative of her skills as a writer, that she manages to do both.
Lawrence is, of course, an Arsenal fan. She covers the club for The Guardian, and so it is no surprise that her access to the club, its players, and the mastermind Arsène Wenger is superlative. There is, perhaps, a lack of journalists' reserve in her encomia on the team, her nostalgia for Highbury, and her palpable excitement, which reverberates through beautifully paced, present tense descriptions the matches that comprised the season. But, so what? The book never strays into fantasy; the statistics are there and irrefutable. Lawrence beautifully blends a fan's affection and awe at her heroes' achievements with an eye for details, engaging interviewing, and a gift for realizing the action of a match that at its best is magical.
Lawrence's lyrical descriptions of football, blending action with an imaginative turn of phrase, stand comparison with Hopcraft, McIlvanney, or Glanville at their best. At times, she approaches the fictive voice of David Peace:
"In a heartbeat [Henry] is sprinting, full pelt. He is so fast, so elegant, he almost appears to be skating across the turf. He is not alone. Bergkamp accelerates just ahead of him to the left, Vieira motors through the middle, Pirès races along the right.
Four prongs of lightening detonate simultaneously from the same source. Henry clips a pass into Bergkamp, whose piercing cross zips across the grass for Vieira. One of those famously long legs extends. His right foot prods the ball home. The goal - in collective speed and execution - is breathtaking."
As a fan of sports writing, but not of Arsenal, it is Lawrence's prose that most engaged me. She writes with rhythm and a style unafraid of moving beyond tired sporting cliché:
"Different roots, diverse personalities, disparate interests. Through football, the incongruous became congruous."
"The team developed its identity over a series of seasons. Characters, and their characteristics, were added to the composition as a painter builds his picture, augments it with detail, gives depth to color, embellishes with impasto."
Her prose breathes life into a story that every football fan knows, augmenting but never overpowering it; in her words, a story of "how a group of players is constructed, how a style is formed, connections created and a spirit fortified" to create "a communal loathing of defeat that became overpowering". The personalities are engaging and bright, Henry, Bergkamp, and Gilberto Silva especially, and Lawrence seamlessly weaves their anecdotes and comments into the wider narrative of the season and its wider context with skill.
This is a book that contains some of the most evocative prose I have encountered in a book about football and without doubt solidifies Lawrence's place in the very top tier of sports writing in English. The story and characters are fascinating enough, but it is how they come to life and dance in Lawrence's writing that makes this book such a wonderful telling of an incredible tale.
Invincible is published Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd.