The Best Matches Ever Part 1
This will be the first in an occasional series (by that I mean, when I've got time/ when I can be ******* bothered)focussing on some of Arsenal's most heart stopping, rumbustuous matches in recent years. Cup Finals and title clinchers will not be included in this series, as there is a 50% chance going into the match that they will end up like that anyway. Whilst most of the matches in this series will most likely be Arsenal victories, that is not necessarily a pre requisite for its inclusion. I'm thinking of the kind of matches that, perhaps unexpectedly, have exploded with drama, controversy, magic and mishaps. The kind that see you leave the stadium short of breath, your larynx constricted to a wheezing wreck and your brow caked with the sweat of nervous exhaust. These do not necessarily have to be huge vital games, for instance, few travelling to watch Arsenal v Norwich in 1990 would have predicted a 4-3 victory with two penalties and a 20 man brawl to mull over. Who would have thought Jimmy Carter would be the apotheosis of a 4-3 win over Southampton in 1993? And who the **** would have predicted a John Jensen wonder goal on New Years' Eve of 1994?!
The first match I will focus on comes more recently in the annals of history than the aofrementioned. It was a game that came to epitomise and punctuate the Invincibles. Arsenal faced Middlesbrough at home on a sweltering August day in 2004, needing only a draw to equal the unbeaten record held by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest of 42 matches. Proceedings began predictably enough with Henry controlling Reyes' raking fifty yard pass to lob Schwarzer for 1-0. Henry ran the length of the pitch to acclaim the assist from the young Andalusian. Just six weeks later, their relationship would crumble under the weight of an Luis 'Garnett' Aragones' disgusting slur. The Gunners' were in fine form, playing the 'Wengerball' football for which they had become renowned (sound familiar?). Henry hit a post, Reyes followed up only to prod the rebound against the post. A dipping Henry free kick rattled the crossbar as Arsenal assumed control. Boro's sole forray forward on the stroke of half time brought an unlikely equaliser, as Joseph Desire Job collected Zenden's pass and smashed the ball past Lehmann.
That wasn't to be Boro's only geyser of glory. Boro pumped a long ball forward, Cole shouted for Cygan to leave it which he did, but Cole had not seen the familiar figure of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink behind him, the Dutchman bore down on goal and smashed the visitors into a shock lead. Adhering to the fashion of the time, Cygan was blamed for the goal when Cole's shout was the source of the problem. Cole never came out to alleviate his team mate of the flack. His relationship with Arsenal would also sour in a matter of months. Few in the crowd were unduly worried, the football we had been playing together with our long unbeaten run gave us all the belief that we would come back. Two minutes later, that belief would evaporate as Franck Queudrue's cheeky long range effort caught Lehmann unawares. Could Arsenal really blow the record at the last hurdle?
With Vieira sidelined, the captaincy fell with Bergkamp and it was he who took responsibility. Receiving the ball straight from kick off, he made a beeline for goal and pulled us back in it with a low, raking drive. Game on. The Gunners' piled on the pressure, the ghosts of Arsenal past (Bergkamp) and future (Fabregas) the chief architects. Robert Pires arrived from the bench and made his mark instantly. Henry received Cesc's pass in the box, turned past Queudrue and hooked in a low cross of vision and selflessness, Pires was on hand to tap in the equaliser. While some Arsenal players ran to the East Stand to acclaim their comeback, Henry steadfastly took the ball from the net, angrily urging his friends to join him. My season ticket at the time was behind that goal in the Clock End and I remember very distinctly Henry running past the flabbergasted Boro fans wagging his finger impertinently, 'we're not finished yet!' he roared. This was no vacuous showboating, 12 seconds later his exclamation became full blown prophecy. Instantly he dispossesed Boro in the centre circle and turned the ball to Bergkamp's through ball found Reyes, a cute feint literally left Reiziger on his backside before the young Spaniard smashed the ball into the top corner. What I remember most about the goal was how little of the build up I actually witnessed. I was literally still facing the Boro fans in celebration of Pires' equaliser, only for a an expectant raw from the crowd to burgle my attention away and back onto the field. I literally glanced up in time to see Reyes' shot heading towards the top corner. It was one of those wonderful slow motion moments.
Looking back at the footage now, two things strike me. Firstly, as Reyes shapes to shoot, the name of the previous goalscorer, Robert Pires, is still clearly visible on the South East corner jumbotron. Secondly, I have an image at home of Reyes' team mates mobbing him with the crowd baying in disbelief. In the distant background, the architect of the comeback, Dennis Bergkamp, is stood alone, his clenched fist posture encapsulating the triumph. Rarely have two such important goals arrived so close together, effectively the crowd enjoyed one ecstatic celebration, an equaliser and a winner amalgamated into the framework of one prolonged moment of joy. Another Pires tap in wrapped up the game in injury time and a collective exhalation greeted the final whistle. English football's proudest record had been equalled. After the match, the brainchild of Nottingham Forest's long standing record Brian Clough said to the press, 'it sticks in the craw because nobody likes the French, but Arsenal deserve this record. They play football the way it should be played.' It was typical Clough, controversial, cutting, terse, a compliment clutched very much in the back of the hand. It would be one of Clough's final soundbites, one month later he would shed this mortal coil. Leaving the ground, all around were wide eyed with disbelief at what they had witnessed. The Invincibles had really made their mark and, in hindsight, it would also bookend a glorious era in our history. Lauren, Cygan, Campbell, Cole, Reyes, Pires, Henry, Ljungberg, Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira, sat in the director's box on this occasion, have all departed. Steve McLaren was simply a plucky manager of a mid table side with low expectations, Brian Clough was alive, kicking and screaming. If a week is a long time in politics, then three years represents a footballing eternity.LD.