Arsenal v Manchester United – three of the most meaningful
Ahead of this afternoon’s Arsenal – Manchester United game, we recall three of its finest antecedents. And yes, we know there are plenty we’ve left out. And what?
FA CUP FINAL 1979
I’m probably not the best person to write about the 1979 FA Cup Final given that I slept through it clad in red and white babygro – dare or peccadillo, you decide – but here we are. United’s stumble to Wembley included two games against Fulham and Spurs, and an epic semi-final with the red scouse. The first game was a two-two draw, Liverpool foreshadowing 1985 with a last-minute equaliser, before Jimmy Greenhoff – who’d scored against Liverpool in the ’77 final, would you only believe - grabbed a goal that almost sent Motty hoarse. Now that is noise. And while we’re on the subject, so is this.
Arsenal, on the other hand, enjoyed relatively sedate progress, aside from their third round tie against Division Three’s Sheffield Wednesday, which required five matches to settle. The first game finished one-one, the scores of the draws increasing by a unit each time, until Arsenal eventually got rid of them. Luckily, we can now avoid magnificence of this ilk thanks to the imposition of penalty shoot-outs after a second game; well done, football.
The final itself was a pretty nondescript affair, Arsenal coasting to an easy victory with goals from Talbot and Stapleton, until with four minutes to go, Gordon McQueen pulled one back. As for what happened next, I could write about it, but I’m not going to. Just listen to Peter Jones. JUST FUCKING LISTEN TO PETER JONES (if you don’t you’re a cunt, if it doesn’t make you want to live and die at the same time you’re a cunt, and yes we’re all cunts anyway).
FA CUP SEMI-FINAL, 1999
There’s an argument to be made that the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay represents the zenith of football in this miserable country: a spiraling, thumping, pulsating, coruscating, vaginal orgasm of a game, gushing and thrashing with every aspect that could possibly be desired from twenty-two men booting a pig’s bladder around a field.
Rivalry and enmity had been building between the sides since the arrival of Arsene Wenger just after the start of the 1996/97 season, the Highbury game between the sides ending in particular disagreement after Wright long-jumped at Schmeichel’s shins – definitely not as retaliation for a racist remark made earlier in the season, apparently. But at that point, Arsenal weren’t really considered a threat, nor were they the following season, until they suddenly snatched the title with a murderously aesthetic post-January charge that surprised everyone, setting up a nine-month duel between two proper teams; teams comprising footballers, athletes, hard bastards and non-cunts.
United’s path to the semi was far trickier than Arsenal’s; after coming from behind to Middlesborough in the third round they’d needed a pair of late goals to dispatch Liverpool (ha ha fucking ha, if I may
moralise be parochial for a second), struggled to beat Fulham, runaway leaders of Division Two, and needed a replay to get shot of Chelsea – who were also an excellent side, involved in the title race almost until the denouement.
Arsenal, on the other hand, had only played one Premier League team, winning every game at the first attempt save the fifth-round tie with Sheffield United, which they won at the first attempt. But because the clinching goal came when Kanu was meant to return the ball following an injury, Wenger magnanimously offered to replay the tie, safe in the knowledge that there was no fucking way such a carry-on would be permitted. But in a tremendous piece of bluff-calling, permitted it was – which turned out to be just as well, as otherwise we would’ve been deprived of yet another Dennis Bergkamp masterpiece.
By the time the two sides met at Villa Park, United led the league by a point and had a game in hand, but faced a marginally tougher run-in with the added complication of a European Cup semi-final second leg. In the event, the encounter was boring, miserable and tight, like the worst kind of teenage girlfriend, and almost nothing happened. Nonetheless, David Elleray contrived the opportunity to make a bell of himself, accidentally disallowing a goal by his favourite player – the profound feel for the game that was so endearing deserting him when it came to noticing that Ryan Giggs had passed to himself and was therefore onside, prior to a cross rammed in by Roy Keane.
By the time of the replay, the open goal of a final with Newcastle tantalised as the reward for winning. Outside the ground, Paul Davis
broke my jaw informed me that the score would be three-nil to Arsenal, so I almost went home, but decided to persevere. Incredibly, the match hadn’t sold out, increasing the smuggery of the person with a ten pound restricted view ticket, quickly punctured on seeing United’s team. As he had been in the first game, Scholes was on the bench, but so too were Giggs, Yorke and Cole, which could never work.
Except, of course, that it could. Roy Keane stomped and pistoned around the pitch like Roy Keane in his pomp, arms pumping, head doing that sideways motion thing, and United deservedly went in front on seventeen minutes, Sheringham cleverly teeing up Beckham with a manouevre straight out of his captain’s textbook – working the outside of his foot around the ball to earn some space and setting up an astonishingly magnificent finish, Beckham’s instahit screeching and swerving the wrong way past Seaman.
Things ought really to have been finished soon after, United dominating but missing chances with Solksjaer the principal culprit. The last of these came early in the second half, and then out of nowhere, Arsenal were level, Bergkamp’s shot from distance deflecting off Stam and scuttling past Schmeichel.
Suddenly in the ascendancy, Arsenal thought that they’d taken the lead shortly afterwards, Schmeichel spilling another Bergkamp shot into the path of Anelka, who shuffled around him to tap in. Though the flag was up well in advance, Anelka was well into the crowd parading his magnificence with his friends before the terrible truth came to light, Elleray left with no choice but to accede given his first game antics.
Shortly afterwards, United were reduced to ten men, already-booked Keane sliding in on Overmars. Determined not to permit the referee the pleasure of flourishing a second yellow card, he turned on his heel and headed for the tunnel, where, I later discovered, an old friend was one of hundreds of Arsenal climbing over each other to flob at him.
United spent the remaining seventeen minutes penned inside their own half as Arsenal went in search of a winner, but they created little of note until, with seconds remaining, Parlour dragged himself outside Phil Neville who couldn’t help but collapse into a foul, conceding a penalty. Though Peter Schmeichel is, in my biased eyes, the finest goalkeeper ever to have chucked an unnecessary bag into the back of a net (consider his Maradonesque contribution to Denmark’s European Championship win in 1992), his record at saving penalties was dismal. But on this occasion, Bergkamp obliged him with a firm but reachable effort that he pushed away to his left, celebrating with a moment’s elation before shooing away his teammates with furious rage.
If describing this game is trite, to bother to address what happened next is tritest, but we’re here so we are. At half-time in extra time, Arsenal replaced Parlour with Kanu in an effort to find a goal, while United attempted to hang on for penalties, Yorke hanging around upfield and everyone else massed around the box. The cause was not helped by the efforts of R Giggs who, on as a second half substitute for Blomqvist, had contrived a passing performance careless even by his exulted standards. So it was that intercepting “a rather weary one from Vieira”, he ran with it instead, somehow evading various challenges without ever quite appearing in control of the ball or where he was going like a Kick Off 2 player on mescaline, until suddenly he was through on goal. “Pass it, for fuck’s sake pass it, pass it” was hollered from the empty row just in front of the restricted view seats, and presumably from everywhere else in the United section of the ground, Giggs the world expert in ruining brilliant goals via the careless application of easy finishes, until suddenly the ball had spat, roasted and burned into the net and it was all pubic chest hair and swinging shirts.
That was the last FA Cup semi-final replay. Well done, football.
PREMIER LEAGUE, 21st NOVEMBER 2001
“We’ve won the Football League again, this time on New Year’s Day” chorused Old Trafford on – wait for it – New Year’s Day, as United demolished West Ham in the evening game following Arsenal’s defeat at Charlton. Later in the season, the song would change its lyrics to “this time in second gear”, title clinched for the third season in a row and with ridiculous ease for the second. But Europe was proving to be a problem, with Cole and Yorke fading and the fabled midfield facing accusations of predictability – so Fergie bought Veron and van Nistelrooy, leading to the not unreasonable expectation of another domestic procession. Thing was, the plc (remember those glorious days) insisted United sell Jaap Stam to “balance the books” – or Fergie did so as revenge for a mildly critical book, depending on who and what you believe – replacing him with Laurent Blanc.
On that basis, they’d had a tricky start to the season, losing 4-3 at Newcastle in a game that saw Roy Keane dismissed for failing to land one on Alan Shearer, which sounds fair – no doubt he’d have been knighted had he connected. Meanwhile, behind a newly-porous defence and after a superb first season, Fabien Barthez began a depressing descent into dodge, dueting with Wes Brown to inflict a European home defeat to Deportivo and chucking goals in as quickly as the ridiculous Ruud could grab them at the other end.
After a home defeat to newly-promoted Bolton came the November nadir at Anfield, the Kop’s gleeful taunts of “there’s only one Jaap Stam” a moment of intense misery. That same afternoon, Arsenal somehow contrived to lose 4-2 to Charlton, and the teams met the next evening in the League Cup, with both managers expected to field a team of youngsters. Fergie did, with the exception of Yorke, punished for excessive carousing, though Scholes – displaced by Veron – had refused to travel. Wenger, on the other hand, did not, and Arsenal thumped United accordingly.
A few weeks later, the teams met in the league in the pissing Highbury rain with Arsenal seventh in the table, United fifth. The first half was all Arsenal, but United somehow took the lead with their only attack of the first half, breaking down the left through Silvestre and Scholes thumping home his cross.
Just after half-time, I obtained a hot rock hole in my coat trying to snaffle a sneaky burn away from my old fella, and shortly after that, Arsenal were level. Neville carelessly gave the ball away and Pires found Ljunberg, who brilliantly chipped Barthez as brilliantly as it’s possible to chip a shortarse, for the equaliser.
United spent the remainder of the game firmly affixed to the rack, upon which they were mesmerised and brutalised as Arsenal weaved in, around and through them, with only the keeper resisting. But just when it looked as though they might eke out an undeserved draw, Calamity Barthez cunted them over once again, passing straight to Henry for two-one and somehow failing to cope with a routine through-ball to facilitate a third. The wedgie he inflicted on himself was in no way redemptive, unless his pants were made of corrosive barbed wire.
Though United teased themselves with the prospect of four in a row for the rest of the season, that was it, really – they were forced to rely on Gerard Houllier’s ten games from greatness brag for amusement. Arsenal, on the other hand, went on the rampage, Terry, Bob and Fred carving up defences with supersonic, geometric sadism. They would lose only one more game – and that the most heinous one-three thrashing you’ll ever see – en route to another double, the first leg of which they clinched at Old Trafford.