On 29th April, 2007, Arsenal won the UEFA Women’s Champions League. The first, and to date only, British side to hoist the trophy. On the 15th anniversary of that historic achievement, Tim Stillman spoke to the man who masterminded it, legendary Gunners boss Vic Akers.
Vic Akers managed Arsenal Ladies for a total of 22 years, winning 11 league titles, nine FA Cups, 10 League Cups and, of course, one Champions League title. However, as well as co-founding and coaching the Ladies team, Akers was also the kit manager for the men’s team and, as extraordinary as it sounds now, that role took priority, meaning he often couldn’t take the Ladies team when there was a clash with a men’s fixture.
At the start of the 2006-07 Champions League campaign, the group stage was played in Russia over a period of five days and Vic couldn’t travel due to his men’s team duties. Emma Hayes took the team for those games in Russia. Akers admits that it was a strange arrangement but one that worked. “It was difficult at times but less so when you have good staff around you and they made it much easier,” he explains.
“It happened a lot where other people would come into the role on match days, Emma Hayes being one, Fred Donnelly being another. That was just the way we managed it and I think we did a good job in the end!” At that time, Emma Hayes was a 30-year-old coach cutting her teeth in the world of women’s football under the tutelage of Akers.
“She came in as the Youth Development Manager, overseeing the academy and she did such a great job,” Vic says matter of factly. “You always felt she would go on to bigger things. She went to the US and really made her name at that level before coming back to Chelsea. She knew what she wanted to do.” Arsenal battled their way through the group stage and sailed past Icelandic side Breiðablik in the quarter-final with a comfortable 10-2 aggregate win.
It was the semi-final, against Danish side Brondby, where Arsenal would need to display their more robust qualities. Arsenal and Brondby had met in the group stage and in the previous season’s competition and that familiarity bred contempt across two very scrappy legs. “You always knew that game was going to be competitive, the Danes were one of the top nations in women’s football at that point.
“We always felt it would be a bit of a dog fight but we had a team full of fighters so that didn’t worry us.” In the first leg, Arsenal were presented with a problem when star player Kelly Smith was sent off for retaliation after a series of unpunished scythes from the home side. “The problem was that every challenge that went on Kelly (Smith) was a dangerous one and the referee was letting it go and we were getting annoyed. Sadly, Kelly lost her head in the end.”
The red card itself would have carried a one-match ban and forced her to miss the second leg after scoring twice in a 2-2 draw in the first leg in Denmark. On her way off the pitch however, she flipped the middle finger at the Brondby fans and then took out her frustration on the referee’s dressing room door. “The referees just weren’t at the level that you would expect,” he shrugs, still determined to defend his player more than 15 years on.
“She was getting no protection and I was moaning at the fourth official and getting myself in trouble as well! It was for a cause and it was my job to stand up for that cause because I thought she was going to get seriously injured or sent off for retaliation and in the end, it was the latter.” UEFA extended her ban to three matches, ruling her out of the second leg and both legs of the final should Arsenal qualify.
Even now, Akers finds the decision difficult to swallow. Then club vice-chairman David Dein wrote a letter to UEFA, pleading with them to review the call but it was to no avail. “I wanted to think that they should have taken some responsibility for what happened to the player. It wasn’t for Kelly to blow her top and do what she did but if people are continually kicking you and the referee does nothing about it, that will happen eventually. I thought it was a poor call from UEFA to increase her ban.”
With Smith suspended, Arsenal needed to rejig tactically for the second leg. Vic brought young Karen Carney into the forward line, switched to a 433 formation with Rachel Yankey as a left central midfielder and played a rotating front line of Carney, Lianne Sanderson and Julie Fleeting. “Yes, it wasn’t an easy call,” Vic admits. “We were missing our best player. A lot of our organisation was around where Kelly was going to be.”
The tactical switch worked a treat in the second leg and Arsenal romped to a 3-0 victory in the second leg at Meadow Park and a 5-2 aggregate win to qualify for the final. Akers had seen enough to convince him to set up that way against Umea in the final. The Swedish side were clearly the best team in Europe at the time and huge favourites for the tie. Boasting talent like Marta and Hanna Ljungberg, Arsenal knew they would have to play in a style to which they were not accustomed.
Arsenal won all 22 league games in 2006-07 and won both domestic cups too. They were utterly dominant on home soil. In Europe, things were different and the Gunners, shorn of their best player in Smith, would have to compromise tactically. “We had to dig deeper to be competitive at the highest level. We had street fighters in that group and that was the side that really came out in the final. We dug in and made sure we didn’t concede.”
Upon his mention of “street fighters” I tell Vic that I had previously interviewed Jayne Ludlow and Faye White about the game and he interjects, “That’s what I mean, you wouldn’t want those two against you in an argument!” He sounded as though he was speaking from experience. In the first leg, Arsenal defended deep, kept it tight and then took a shock 89th minute lead when Alex Scott sauntered forwards from right back to smash the ball into the top corner from range.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) April 21, 2022
“Alex scoring that goal at the end of the first leg in Sweden was a massive boost for us,” Akers says. When I interviewed Alex Scott upon her retirement in 2018, she told me that her run took her past the Arsenal dugout and Vic, shall we say, made it clear to her that she should shoot. I ask Vic whether Alex’s anecdote is true. “It might be,” he laughs.
I ask Akers whether it was strange for his team to have to play such a defensive game given they were so used to steamrolling teams and I ask whether Kelly’s absence further solidified the need for pragmatism in their minds. “They knew that anyway,” he counters. “Especially after the first leg out there and we brought them back to Boreham Wood with something to protect.” Vic says he knew his players were bought into the game plan when they turned down the chance to play the second leg at Emirates Stadium.
“We were offered the chance to play it at the Emirates but that wouldn’t have helped us. We spoke about it and said we wanted to play at Boreham Wood because it was our home and on a smaller pitch we could be more compact. Everyone was so zoned into that decision and into that game plan. If they had wanted to play it at the Emirates I would have let them but they all said the same thing. I think that helped us and when it came to the game, everyone was willing to do anything to make sure we got no goals against and to pull it off.”
Akers says that, while Smith’s suspension wasn’t necessary to convince his players of the need for pragmatism, her suspension did give them an extra motivation. “We knew what we had to do, we prepared for it. When Kelly got banned, it gave everyone another reason to do it. We were doing it for her as well. We had that sort of feeling around the club, we were all disappointed for her; so we wanted to make sure she got a medal.”
📺 🏆 “To be in the dressing room with the team that has just won a European cup is just incredible.” – @joolzfleeting on @arsenalwfc‘s UEFA Cup win over Umeå.#JulieFleeting, directed by @MargotMcCuaig airs Sunday at 9pm on @bbcalba. pic.twitter.com/NzYHKTstQr
— purpleTV (@purpleTV1) April 5, 2022
I ask Vic whether the second leg were the most nervous 90 minutes of his career. “Absolutely,” he says without missing a beat. “No question.” Arsenal clung on with their fingernails with a heroic defensive display. Goalkeeper Emma Byrne made a string of saves but there was more than an element of serendipity too. At one point, Ljungberg’s shot hit the post, hit Emma Byrne on the head and bounced centimetres wide.
“I said to Emma afterwards. I said ‘I knew then it would be our day,” Vic laughs. “It was really tense and the pressure was there but the girls really responded to it. We battled for every ball, Jayne (Ludlow) and Katie (Chapman) were outstanding, they covered every blade of grass and made tackles for fun. We didn’t let Umea settle but we knew they had quality and they would get chances.
“The one that hit Emma on the head was pure chance, I just had to think, ‘thank God it went that side of the post!’ If they had scored that it would have been very tough for us. But we were able to sit in and say ‘if we score, great but we certainly won’t allow them to.’” The Champions League win was part of a historic quadruple for the club and I ask Akers whether the Champions League win was the finest moment of his illustrious career.
“It was the best achievement of my lifetime at the club and we won a number of trophies during that period but none compared to that one. After that, we had one more final, the FA Cup, to go and win the quadruple and we did it, that was a lovely feeling for everyone.” Arsenal remains the only British club to have won the tournament.
For Akers, the recipe behind the triumph was simple, quality and hard work. “Without masses of money, we accumulated most of the top players in the British Isles. We had the captains of four of those countries in the same team- Jayne Ludlow (Wales), Ciara Grant (Republic of Ireland), Faye White (England) and Julie Fleeting (Scotland). That tells you about the talent in that group.”
On 29th April, 2007, Vic Akers and his players made history yet to be repeated in women’s football in the UK. On that day, they passed into folklore and touched greatness.
Vic Akers was part of the recent BBC Alba documentary on the career of Arsenal forward Julie Fleeting and we will have some more quotes from Vic on Julie and her influence on Arsenal’s 2006-07 success later this morning. The documentary about her career is available on the BBC iPlayer until 9th May and can be viewed here if you are based in the UK.
With thanks to @miedemastuff for the article graphic.