Arsenal‘s failure to win a Premier League trophy since that incredible Invincible season has been well-documented but things might have turned out very differently had Arsene Wenger taken a punt on a trialist way back in 2003.
During pre-season ahead of that incredible 2003-04 campaign, a strong Arsenal side took to the field against Barnet looking to gain much-needed match sharpness.
A drab 0-0 draw against a lower league team just weeks before the club’s greatest ever season wouldn’t usually be written about some 14 years later, but the game is notable for the appearance of a player who never pulled on Arsenal’s colours in a competitive fixture.
Starting in midfield and later moving up front, was a lanky 20-year-old Ivorian midfielder named Yaya Toure, who had been brought to North London on trial after impressing at the club’s feeder club in Belgium, K.S.K Beveren.
This excerpt from a match report on Arsenal’s website sums up the youngster’s below-par performance: “Then came the clearest chance of the game. Substitute Quincy Owusu-Abeyie used his pace to scoot clear on the right.
“He reached the byline and clipped an intelligent cross to the far post where Yaya Toure, who was pushed up front in the second half, had taken position. It seemed a simple job to nod the ball home but Yaya sent his header wide.”
In the end, Arsene Wenger opted against signing Toure junior who instead ended up in the footballing backwaters of Metalurg Donetsk in Ukraine, but that decision has come to be seen (in hindsight) as something of a sliding doors moment. Had Arsenal signed Yaya Toure, they would have acquired the perfect Patrick Vieira replacement who could have powered them closer to a league title.
We all know what happened to Toure in ensuing years but what happened to the rest of the Arsenal team that day?
Goalkeeper: Graham Stack
Arsenal apps: 5
Career path: Arsenal, Beveren (loan), Millwall (loan), Reading, Leeds United (loan), Wolves (loan), Plymouth Argyle, Blackpool (loan), Hibernian, Barnet, Kerala Blasters, Eastleigh
All five of Graham Stack’s competitive appearances for the Gunners came during the Invincibles campaign but all were in the League Cup rather than the Premier League.
Ironically, the best period of Stack’s career was spent at Barnet as he was their No.1 ‘keeper for three years and helped the club win the Conference Premier in 2015.
Arsenal apps: 242
Career path: Utrera, Sevilla B, Levante, Mallorca, Arsenal, Portsmouth, Cordoba
A mainstay of the starting XI in the 2003-04 season, Lauren spent six-years at Arsenal in total and was one of the first names on the teamsheet until being usurped by Emmanuel Eboue in his final year at the club.
Upon leaving Arsenal at the end of his contract in 2006, Lauren penned another deal in the Premier League with Portsmouth but he eventually ended his playing days in Spain, where it all began, with Cordoba.
Centre Back: Sol Campbell
Arsenal apps: 211
Career path: Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Portsmouth, Notts County, Arsenal, Newcastle United
Sol Campbell did the unthinkable when he left boyhood club Spurs for their fierce rivals Arsenal in 2001 but his time with the Gunners was a huge success as he won two Premier Leagues and two FA Cups.
A productive three-year stint with Portsmouth followed with Campbell captaining the side to an FA Cup trophy in 2008 before he bizarrely ended up at Notts County (briefly) and then back at Arsenal.
Centre Back: Pascal Cygan
Arsenal apps: 97
Career path: Wasquehal, Lille, Arsenal, Villarreal, Cartagena
Much-maligned during his time with Arsenal, Pascal Cygan was almost exclusively a backup during his time in English football and was allowed to join Villarreal in 2006.
The Frenchman ended his career in the Spanish lower leagues with Cartagena but has remained in football, firstly as a Director of Football at Wasquehal and most recently as first team coach at KSV Roeselare in Belgium.
Left Back: Gael Clichy
Arsenal apps: 264
Career path: Cannes, Arsenal, Manchester City, Istanbul Basaksehir
Incidentally another trialist in the same game, unlike Toure, Gael Clichy did earn a permanent contract with Arsenal and was immediately installed as Ashley Cole’s understudy, becoming the youngest member of Arsenal’s Invincibles squad.
After Cole moved to Chelsea, Clichy was promoted to first-choice but following a few barren years for the club, he moved on to Manchester City where he won two further Premier Leagues and a couple of League Cups.
Right Midfield: Ray Parlour
Arsenal apps: 466
Career path: Arsenal, Middlesbrough, Hull City
The ‘Romford Pele’ as he is affectionately referred to on the terraces at the Emirates, Ray Parlour was Arsenal through and through after coming through their academy and he ended up winning nine major honours with the club.
Parlour moved up north to Middlesbrough in search of more regular first-team football and spent three years at the Riverside with a loan spell at Hull City chucked in for good measure prior to retirement.
Centre Midfield: Yaya Toure
Arsenal apps: 0
Career path: Beveren, Metalurg Donetsk, Olympiacos, Monaco, Barcelona, Manchester City
Yaya Toure bounced back from his Arsenal rejection emphatically, going on to become one of the best midfield players in world football during spells with Barcelona and Manchester City.
Centre Midfield: Edu
Arsenal apps: 128
Career path: Corinthians, Arsenal, Valencia, Corinthians
Arsenal’s bid to sign Edu from Corinthians was a protracted one due to work permit issues but eventually, Wenger got his man as the deep-lying playmaker linked up with the club midway through the 2001-02 campaign.
It took a while for Edu to get going in England but he proved to be an invaluable squad member during the Invincibles season. He left for Valencia in 2005 but injury problems plagued his time in Spain and he ended his career with first club Corinthians.
Left Midfield: Kolo Toure
Arsenal apps: 326
Career path: ASEC Mimosas, Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Celtic
Cast your mind back to the start of Kolo Toure’s career in English football at the turn of the Century and you’ll remember that he actually started out playing, well wherever Arsene Wenger needed him to.
Eventually, Toure pinned down a starting berth in the side in central defence, forming a rock-solid partnership with Sol Campbell at the back.
He went on to play alongside his brother at City as well as Liverpool and Celtic, with whom he was part of an Invincible title-winning side once again.
Striker: Jerome Thomas
Arsenal apps: 3
Career path: Arsenal, QPR (loan), Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth, West Brom, Leeds United (loan), Crystal Palace, Rotherham United, Port Vale
A product of Arsenal’s youth academy, Jerome Thomas was highly-regarded but given the depth and talent of the club’s attacking options, he never looked likely to break into the side.
He spent numerous loan spells away before enjoying permanent stays at both Charlton Athletic and West Brom in the Premier League. Thomas most recently played for Port Vale.
Striker: Jeremie Aliadiere
Arsenal apps: 28
Career path: Arsenal, Celtic (loan), West Ham (loan), Wolves (loan), Middlesbrough, Lorient, Umm Salal, Muaither (loan), Lorient
Highly-regarded by Wenger and given every chance to succeed by his manager, Jeremie Aliadiere never quite made at Arsenal despite getting his hands on a Premier League winners medal in 2003-04.
The Frenchman did feature more regularly in the top-flight for Middlesbrough but enjoyed the best spell of his career in his homeland with FC Lorient, who he rejoined following a spell in Qatari football.