Date: 3rd August 2011 at 8:39am
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The glory of the 1997-98 Double season begat three seasons in which Arsenal were forced to look mournfully on from the sidelines like a fat bridesmaid. 1998-99 saw the Gunners concede the league to Manchester United by a single point, whilst a harrowing F.A. Cup Semi Final defeat to the same opponents helped United on their way to the Treble. Having missed out on his childhood dream of a Wembley Final in 1998, Dennis Bergkamp`s was the largest tale of woe; missing a 90th minute spot kick in that game with the scores at 1-1. In 1999-2000 the Gunners were a distant second in the league and lost the UEFA Cup Final on penalties to Galatasaray. Overmars and Petit parted that summer and Arsene looked to have a rebuilding job on his hands.

His response was to purchase Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord. Both took a little time to settle in, the Gunners again finishing 2nd in 2000-01, some 18 points behind United. But their real heartbreak came in the first ever F.A. Cup Final hosted in Cardiff, in the Millennium Stadium. Freddie Ljungberg`s 78th minute goal in a Final the Gunners dominated against Liverpool looked to have secured the F.A. Cup. But Liverpool`s first two shots on target- in the 82nd and 88th minutes respectively, from Michael Owen once again left Arsenal ham-fisted and empty handed. Close but no cigar was becoming the Arsenal motto, something had to change. From the flames of this wreckage, Arsene formed his second great team and his second side of Double Winners. He swooped for Sol Campbell on a free from Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal took the league title in style in 2001-02, securing the trophy with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. This is the story of the second half of that Double, how Arsenal returned to Cardiff to conquer those demons. It`s a story in which old scores are settled, 23 goals, 3 red cards (all in one game) and a heartbreaking injury to a modern Arsenal great occur. This is how Arsenal won the F.A. Cup in 2002.

By the time the F.A. Cup came around in January 2002, Arsenal were riding the crest of a wave. Arsene Wenger had ended speculation over a new contract and signed a four year extension that December. Two days after that fillip, the club officially gained planning permission from Islington Council for a new 60,000 capacity stadium at nearby Ashburton Grove. An enthralling Champions League victory over Juventus at Highbury was swiftly followed by a morale boosting 2-1 win at Anfield, achieved with ten men. The only air of negativity around a club on a springboard abounded around their vice captain. Shortly after Arsenal`s 3rd Round tie at Watford`s Vicarage Road in January, Vieira used a three day holiday to board a plane to Madrid to surreptitiously discuss a transfer to Real.

But the Gunners were in a rich vein of form when they arrived at a very icy Vicarage Road on the 5th January. Sometime during the warm up in the Rous Stand behind the goal, my good friend Jim turned to me and said, “I can`t explain it, but they just look like Champions to me. Even in the way they run.” Indeed, on that day the Gunners were up and running swiftly with Nwankwo Kanu the architect. Arsenal were 2-0 up inside ten minutes. The first goal coming when Kanu sliced the Watford defence with a slide rule pass to Henry, typically unselfish, Henry squared to Ljungberg to tap into an open goal. His form from January 2002 would be instrumental to the team`s success. The second came just 100 seconds later, Kanu again deceiving Sean Dyche in the Hornets defence with a deceptive flick to the onrushing Henry, who rounded the keeper to score.

However, Arsenal were still far from rock solid at this point. The team were bedding in a new defence, with midfielder Lauren recently converted to full back (though Luzhny played in this tie), Cole had only just taken over from Silvinho on a full time basis and Sol Campbell was coming to terms with new team mates. Three minutes after taking a two goal lead, the First Division side pegged Arsenal back with Gifton Noel Williams` diving header. The Gunners contrived to miss a plethora of chances to bury the tie with Kanu the chief culprit. However, he did eventually extend Arsenal`s lead to 3-1 early in the second half heading in Henry`s cross from close range. Bergkamp put the seal on a comfortable progression five minutes from time, coming off the bench to stroke Ashley Cole`s pull back into an empty net. Marcus Gayle`s thunderous injury time volley was reduced to a mere footnote.

The 4th Round would yield a more tempestuous affair. The Gunners were given the ideal opportunity to exact revenge upon Liverpool, whose smash and grab job in the F.A. Cup Final the previous May had scarred the club so badly. The sides had previously met in the Finals of 1950 and 1971 too, not to mention a marathon four game semi final in 1980, in which the Gunners eventually triumphed. It proved to be a boisterous match. The game was settled by a single goal. Henry probed down the left flank like an owl swooping for stray mice, sent in a devilish left wing cross which Dennis Bergkamp met with a precise header that nestled right into the corner of the Clock End goal. The vigour with which Henry and Bergkamp celebrated demonstrated the extent to which the tang of revenge was in their nostrils. A frenzied ten minute spell in the second half saw three red cards. The first for Martin Keown in the 64th minute when a McAllister ball over the top saw Owen sprinting towards the Arsenal goal with Keown lagging behind. Richard Wright had come to collect the ball but Keown`s cynical tug back gave the referee little recourse but to send him off for a professional foul.

Tempers were beginning to fray and this was an Arsenal team that was liable to get hot under the collar. After a sweeping challenge, Bergkamp angrily stamped down on the prone figure of Jamie Carragher and Arsenal were deservedly down to nine men. A coin was hurled at Carragher by a supporter from the East Stand, Lower tier. Carragher angrily lobbed it back from whence it came, earning himself a red card in the process. The tension enveloped Highbury as an Arsenal side a man down, with Oleg Luzhny by now moved to centre half, with Henry playing the last ten minutes with a hanky to nurse a bloodied lip, held on in vain to a precious 1-0 victory to progress to the 5th Round.

The 5th Round was a rather more genteel, yet no less entertaining affair, as Second Division Gillingham were drawn to play at Highbury. Arsenal had only won 5 of their 12 home league encounters at Highbury to this point. The likes of Cole and Bergkamp were left out, Henry and Pires rested to the bench with a Champions League encounter with Leverkusen on the horizon. Arsenal gave a debut and only ever Arsenal appearance to Brazilian left back Juan- who was greeted with the memorable chant, “There`s only one Juan.” But the Gills, containing ex Arsenal trainees Vince Bartram, Paul Shaw and Ty Gooden, were to give the Gunners a rougher ride than they had bargained for. It took 37 minutes to break the Kent side`s resistance, with 6,000 of their travelling supporters gathered in the Clock End. (Us Clock Enders had to watch all home ties in this competition from the North Bank due to the F.A`s rules on allocations). The fit again Francis Jeffers poked a shot towards goal which was parried by ex Arsenal reserve Bartram, but only as far as Sylvain Wiltord who prodded the rebound into an unguarded net. The result was expected to become a formality from there in the second half, but Andy Hessenthaler`s side sucker punched the home team with an early second half equaliser. Paul Shaw`s dribble and pass put Marlon King into the penalty area, whose cross shot squirmed past Richard Wright. King was on trial at the time on a charge of receiving stolen goods. He would be found guilty and jailed for 18 months that May, of which he served 5 months. Arsenal quickly restored their lead when Bartram again parried a shot- this time Edu`s free kick. Kanu was on hand to scoop the rebound home from an awkward angle.

But the Gills had yet more reserves to call upon and equalised again two minutes later when Ty Gooden skipped past a limp Campbell challenge and hit a dipping volley into the top corner from 25 yards. It was time for Arsenal to show what they had in reserve. Henry and Pires immediately stripped for action. Their impact would be too much for Gillingham. Pires popped up on the right firstly, side footing a precise cross to the back post which Tony Adams was on hand to send into the net with a stooping header in front of the North Bank. It was the last goal he would ever score for the club. By now the Gills were foaming at the gills, Henry played a skipping Pires in on the left, Pires looked up and found a low cross to Wiltord who made it 4-2. It had become a well established triple entente of Gallic ruthlessness in the Arsenal machine. Ray Parlour provided the centre piece in injury time, when Juan`s cross found him on the edge of the box and the Romford Pele demonstrated the technical ability Wenger had encouraged him to show with a deft volley with the outside of his right boot crashing in off the underside of the bar.

The Quarter Final would bring a different challenge in the shape of Premiership high flyers Newcastle United, the team they had met in the Finals of 1932, 1952 and 1998. The Magpies had been the last side to defeat Arsenal to this point in a controversial 3-1 win at Highbury. But seven days before the tie, the Gunners took revenge with a 2-0 win at St. James` Park made memorable as Dennis Bergkamp decorated the occasion with a brushstroke of genius. Though making the trip twice in a week was somewhat trying, mercifully an increased allocation meant our seats were not positioned in the relative gods of the North West Stand, Upper corner. With a Champions League tie against Deportivo La Coruna three days away, Wenger rested Seaman, Pires and Bergkamp, to add to the injured Cole, van Bronckhorst, Henry and Adams. Lauren played at left back, Lee Dixon started for only the second time that season.

But Arsenal`s scratch side looked in good shape on 14 minutes when Wiltord burrowed his way to the by line and sent on a low cross which Edu stretched to meet to divert past Shay Given. However, Arsenal were on the back foot thereafter, as Laurent Robert`s chip hit the crossbar and Dixon cleared Sylvain Distin`s header off the line. The Geordies grabbed a deserved equaliser on 52 minutes when Laurent Robert chested Shearer`s flick down expertly into the path of his left foot, with which he sent a fulminating shot past Richard Wright into the bottom corner. The replay two weeks later would bring pain and pleasure in equal measure. Newcastle brought 6,000 of the most appallingly behaved fans I`ve ever seen at a game to a midday kick off at Highbury. Within 70 seconds, they had witnessed a master class as Bergkamp`s arc of a pass out to the left edge of the penalty area met the gliding stride of Robert Pires, who swept it into Shay Given`s far corner. 9 minutes later the roles were reversed, Pires sailed down the left and sent a low cross into the area, which Bergkamp slid to meet and steered a cool finish past Given. But smiles soon gave way to nervous tension.

In the 24th minute, Pires hurdled a challenge from Nikos Dabizas and landed awkwardly, his knee buckling underneath him. He crumpled to the turf in agony, a stretcher swiftly taking him away from the action as the Newcastle fans behind the goal pelted his stretcher with objects and phlegm. It was an unbecoming way for one of the better seasons ever produced by an Arsenal player to end. Texts filtered through to us in the North Bank that a cruciate ligament injury was immediately suspected and quickly diagnosed. Arsenal had lost their star turn for the run in and a 29 year old man at the peak of his powers was denied the World Cup stage to showcase his library of talents. The Gunners moved into a 3-0 lead early in the second half when Campbell headed home Bergkamp`s right wing free kick. But the news had filtered through of the seriousness of Pires` injury, the atmosphere had gone flat.

His Brazilian team mate Edu said of Pires; “It`s not like we all woke up one day and Pires was a great player. The fans always knew he was good. But it took them a while to see he was top class.” Robson`s sober reflection on the game was, “Some of our fans woke up at 4am to be here. It`s a pity my team didn`t wake up till quarter past twelve.” By the time the Gunners travelled up to Old Trafford for their Semi Final against Middlesbrough, they were leading the way in the race for the Premier League title. The “Arsene Wenger`s Magic” song was becoming a regular anthem. So was a new anthem, set to the tune of ‘I Can`t Take My Eyes off You`, Arsenal fans were serenading a red headed hero who had stepped into Pires` sizeable brief. Coming one week after a pulsating North London derby win at Highbury, the Gunners looked weary against a determined Boro side. It would be a slice of serendipity that would grant them victory. Henry swung in a left wing corner; Gianluca Festa took a wild swing to clear but ended up slicing the ball into his own net.

The victory had a double significance. Not only had Arsenal qualified for their 13th F.A. Cup Final and their chance to equal local rivals` Tottenham Hotspur`s haul of 8 F.A. Cup wins. But the Middlesbrough semi final had meant that Arsenal`s league engagement with Manchester United at Old Trafford would have to be rearranged for the final week of the season. Sure enough, the Gunners would travel to Old Trafford on May 8th, needing only to avoid defeat to depose the champions on their own ground. But four days prior to that, Arsenal had an engagement with London rivals Chelsea in the F.A. Cup Final in Cardiff- whom they had knocked out at the semi final stage on their way to Cup glory in 1950. Chelsea had beaten Fulham 2-1 in their semi final at Villa Park, but Ranieri went into the Final with an injury crisis. John Terry was suffering an ear infection and was only deemed fit enough for the bench. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was carrying an ankle knock. He was passed fit but played with his sock down, barely able to move.

Arsene Wenger showed no such sentiment in his selection. Despite a policy of having fielded reserve keeper Richard Wright in every previous round, the manager had no hesitation in opting for the experience of David Seaman between the posts. Tony Adams was also reinstated ahead of Keown despite having barely appeared for the Gunners that season. The first half was something of a war of attrition. Lauren went close with a stooping header which whistled just over the bar. Early in the second half, David Seaman was called upon to brilliantly tip over Eidur Gudjohnsen`s curling shot. But sat in the Millennium Stadium`s supposedly “lucky” North End (every winning team at the Millennium Stadium to that point had taken the North End of the ground); we were about to witness two masterpieces worthy of winning any Cup Final. For viewers at home, the first goal had the added sugary bonus of uber-twat Tim Lovejoy choking on his stupid words.

Ray Parlour, producing another man of the match display in a showpiece final, picked up a pass from Wiltord in the centre circle. Parlour drove forward for ten yards, looking for companionship only to find he was alone. (Henry spent the majority of the game trying to stay as far away from the ball as possible). Parlour looked up, “Oh it`s only Ray Parlour” spluttered Lovejoy in the commentary box. Parlour sent a curling shot towards the top corner which had Cudicini beaten all ends up. Parlour would confirm some years later that he disobeyed his manager`s orders by, ahem, “toasting” that goal in a Romford speakeasy that evening. Nine minutes later and the result was sealed. Ljungberg charged at John Terry, his balance off kilter due to his ailment, Ljungberg darted past the prone substitute and sent a delightful chip into the same top corner Parlour had left Cudicini to admire. As the ball sails in, substitute Lee Dixon`s reaction is delightfully caught behind the goal as he sprints off in celebration. When all the other players had gone to the dressing rooms after the on-pitch celebrations, Dixon stood in the centre circle on his own swigging champagne straight from the bottle. He knew he would not get another chance to pick up another F.A. Cup medal.

Tony Adams went to collect the trophy- the third he had lifted in his career and ushered vice captain Patrick Vieira alongside him to share the moment. Arsenal had won the F.A. Cup for the 8th time in their history, equalling the hoist of their neighbours Spurs. It was the first time Arsenal had won the F.A. Cup outside of England, having lost a final in 1927 to the host city of Cardiff. Four days later they went to Old Trafford and won 1-0 to secure a memorable Double. Sol Campbell`s ultimate aim to leave Tottenham for silverware had been borne out. Patrick Vieira`s decision to stay in the summer of 2001 had too reaped dividends. With a stadium move in the pipeline too, it was an exciting time to be an Arsenal fan. A side built around the grace of Henry and Pires, the guile of Bergkamp, the penetration of Ljungberg and the power of Vieira, Keown and Campbell. They wouldn`t wait long for their next F.A. Cup either. LD.


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