Inside the City of Manchester Stadium on a cold October night, spectators just about outnumbered the empty seats.
Those that had made it out sat in mostly quiet observance, and as the warmth inside the ground ebbed away slowly over 90 minutes, so did any spark of atmosphere.
Man City against Arsenal in 2004 was not Man City against Arsenal in 2018. The 2004/05 Carling Cup third-round tie was played without fanfare, a reminder, if one was needed, of the inertia that had washed over both the competition and the home team.
But it’s clear now that the game took place at the beginning of a giant, irreversible shift in English football.
Man City fans were still three years from the mammoth investments that would see their club transformed. But at the other end of the pitch, the country’s dominant team had already started to crack.
Three days earlier, just a few miles across town, Premier League champions Arsenal had lost 2-0 to Man Utd at Old Trafford, a first defeat in 49 league games. It would be a symbolic changing of the guard, the beginning of a sudden and unexpected end to what most had assumed would become a dynasty.
Arsene Wenger, who months earlier had been promised ‘a job for life’ by Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood, had penned a new contract the previous week, and following the United defeat felt confident enough to change his entire XI, bringing in an unrecognized team of young players and academy graduates for the game at City.
Every member of the starting team was under 21 years old. Three were just 17.
Yet City, pre-Abu Dhabi billions, were outclassed, beaten 2-1 on their own patch by a group of players with barely a Premier League appearance between them. Arsenal’s second string played with the same slickness and ease as their senior colleagues, batting City’s elders to one side with confidence and sass.
Not that everyone was impressed. "Embarrassed is the word for it," said City's manager Kevin Keegan afterwards. "Don't take anything away from them, but we've been beaten by a few fringe players and Arsenal's third XI.”
Three weeks later, those same fringe players beat Everton’s seniors 3-1 at Highbury. That this team would go on to inherit the glorious mantle of Arsenal’s Invincibles seemed without doubt.
“We were the best youth team in the country at the time,” says Jermaine Pennant, who started for Arsenal on the right wing at the City of Manchester Stadium. “But in those days, the young players didn’t really get a chance at Arsenal. It wasn’t the club’s kind of thing.”
History tells us that the team failed to become greats. But is Pennant right to blame a rigid culture of clubs pulling up the ladder on young players?
Certainly, some of that Arsenal side failed to make careers in the top flight. Those that were given a chance in the first team mostly floundered. But the former teenage prodigy Pennant believes Wenger’s fabled commitment to young talent is a phenomenon that has been oversold.
“In this era, that team now, I’m sure a lot of them would have made it at other clubs or even broken through at Arsenal,” he says. “You see now teams playing younger players, having more faith in young players. Whereas back in those days, it was much more rigid.”
Pennant, for his part, was one of the ones that made it. Already with a Premier League hat-trick to his name at just 19, notched during a 6-1 thrashing of Southampton in what had been the first game of Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run, he would go on to play in a Champions League final for Liverpool in 2007.
He became part of the furniture of the English top flight, even though his career was seen through the distorted lens of the £2million fee that Arsenal paid Notts County for his signature as a 16-year-old.
“No one really broke through, or certainly not in the way we thought they would at the time. Not many players did come through from the youth team then. It seemed to be frowned upon then, but it’s the norm now.”
Certain names from that side became regulars in the Arsenal team. Robin van Persie made his debut that night and scored, whilst a 17-year-old Cesc Fabregas was already making regular starts in the Arsenal first team. Mathieu Flamini also played in Manchester.
Pascal Cygan had been playing in the first team since the 2002/03 season, albeit making costly mistakes, and Justin Hoyte had, in the early weeks of the season, looked like a possible successor to Lauren, the Invincibles’ first-choice right back.
“Young players are getting their chances now,” says Pennant. “It’s just a shame we didn’t have that team in this era now. Clubs now are having more trust in younger players and are putting them out there. Back in those days, they had their first team and that was it.”
The second goal in Manchester was scored by a young American, Danny Karbassiyoon. The goal was quintessentially Arsenal, Fabregas carrying the ball across midfield and playing the young full-back in with a single ball that took the experienced Danny Mills out of the game.
“I would never have made that run before joining Arsenal,” says Karbassiyoon of what was to be his only goal in an Arsenal shirt. “The things we learnt from being in that environment with players like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires were incredible.
“We’d be told ‘watch Bergkamp, watch the way he checks away and checks to receive the ball inside.’ I learned so much about your initial movement off the ball when I joined Arsenal.”
In the end, injury scuppered the American’s chances of making it in the first-team. But for a time, his head was filled with the promise of what might be possible.
He had first come to Highbury in 2002, for a Champions League game against Valencia. “It was being there and hearing the Champions League anthem,” he says. “Like, it’s one thing to see it on TV when you’re growing up, but being there, you’re just thinking ‘Wow, is this even allowed for humans?’ It was like something from another world.” Two years later, he was scoring for the Arsenal first team.
But whilst some – van Persie, Fabregas, even the error-prone central defensive pair Philippe Senderos and Johan Djourou – went on to inherit stardom, others struggled to adapt when the spotlight was switched off.
“It was difficult having played in front of 75,000 at Old Trafford to go back to playing at Barnet in front of a couple of hundred on a Monday night,” says Karbassiyoon. “Some of those guys did brilliantly though, not just Cesc and Robin. Johan (Djourou) went on to captain Hamburg. Brilliant.”
The American finished his career at Ipswich Town of the Championship, where a knee injury brought a sad and premature end to his playing days.
So was it the weight of expectation that proved too great for such young footballers? Were the shadows cast by Henry, Pires and Bergkamp too long to step out of?
“We weren’t really thinking about it actually,” says Pennant. “At such a young age, you just enjoy playing football. It didn’t get in our heads. We hadn’t made it yet. Some of us hadn’t played any first-team football.”
Sometimes, it doesn’t come down to a matter of talent. A range of attributes make a footballer.
According to Pennant, the most technically gifted footballer he played with at Arsenal was David Noble, a midfielder who left the club aged 22 without having played a first-team game.
“His touch was unlike anyone else’s at the club, certainly that came from the youth team. He was a wizard.”
Noble would make a career in the Championship, almost helping Bristol City achieve promotion to the top flight in 2008. For all his talent, it was the closest the former wonderkid came to escaping back to the Premier League.
Arguably, Arsenal have been in a state of permanent decline ever since losing at Old Trafford in 2004. The Invincibles were moved on, one by one, and a new crop was planted.
Somehow, the seeds failed to yield. A new generation passed in and out of the club without ever proffering the same glories as their ancestors in Arsenal red.
For the kids of 2004/05, a few dozen minutes of playing time and the odd goal is the sum of their legacy. Instead of medals, only memories remain.
“It was back in 2004 so the iPod had only just been released in the US,” recalls Karbassiyoon. “It hadn’t really made it over to the UK.
“Pires and Henry and Bergkamp were just ‘Wow. You can fit 10,000 songs into that thing? In your pocket? No. No way.’
“It was like one sorcerer’s magic in exchange for another.”