Defending a top flight title is no mean feat.
The extraordinary motivation required to come back just months after celebrating what for many would be considered an absolute career pinnacle and do it all over again, and the fine art of not disrupting a squad of winners while simultaneously needing to inject a freshness to ensure things don’t go stale is so rare.
That’s just defending a league title once.
Between 2003 and 2012, Arsenal Women defended their league title eight years on the trot.
The Gunners were crowned top flight champions for nine successive seasons, which is an astonishing achievement in itself. But what is most remarkable is the fact that in that time they barely missed a step.
Arsenal didn’t manage just one Invincibles season. They went years unbeaten.
Between 2003 and 2009, Arsenal went 108 games undefeated. Between December 2006 and May 2008, they won 51 consecutive matches. The Gunners weren’t just winning league titles; they were completely flawless.
Arsenal’s dominance was not restricted to domestic competitions either. Their crowning glory came during the 2006/07 season, as they beat Swedish outfit Umea IK 1-0 over two legs – despite missing the great Kelly Smith through suspension – to become the first British side to win the Women’s Champions League.
The Gunners had not been troubled domestically, but were able to switch from rarely being challenged at the weekend in the top flight to the intensity of competing with the very best in Europe. That season, Arsenal won every single trophy on offer. How could a side possibly remain motivated to go again after achieving such unprecedented success?
The following campaign, they won the league and FA Cup double. Their standards never wavered.
It was Everton who ended Arsenal’s winning run in 2008 followed by their unbeaten run a year later at Boreham Wood with a comprehensive 3-0 victory. After six years, the mask had slipped.
The club had lost Anita Asante and Leanne Sanderson to rivals Chelsea at the start of the season, and were dealt a further blow midway through the campaign, with Alex Scott, Karen Carney and Kelly Smith all tempted to the States following the formation of the Women’s Professional Soccer league – opportunities that were just not afforded to players in the UK at the time.
Were the tides finally turning?
Everton and Arsenal faced each other on the final day of the 2008/09 season, with the Toffees requiring just a draw to bring an end to the Gunners’ unprecedented reign of dominance.
But Arsenal were would run out winners. And between December 2006 and May 2008 they literally did nothing else.
The Gunners snuck a 1-0 victory to claim their sixth successive Women’s Premier League title. Arsenal had never been a team to shy away from the big occasion, but this was a side to this Vic Akers’ Arsenal team that supporters had rarely had to see for the previous six years: an ability to dig their heels in and grind out the result in the face of adversity.
They had been used to having everything their own way for years, but here they demonstrated their resilience – losing five key players and their unbeaten record – to still come out on top. They were quite simply a team incapable of finishing second.
Success continued even when long-term boss Vic Akers departed in 2009, as Arsenal won a further three league titles under new manager Laura Harvey.
This epitomised what made these Arsenal sides so remarkable. They could adapt to any change that was thrown at them. When seemingly irreplaceable players left for pastures new, they just got on with it.
Akers’ had been in charge since 1987. The potential magnitude of his departure could have been comparable to Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 retirement.
When the man responsible for the club’s very existence and all the success that had come with it called time on his managerial career, the team would have been forgiven for suffering a lull.
But they didn’t. They just carried on winning. Because that was all they knew.