The Best Matches Ever Part 3
By way of disclaimer, at the beginning of this series I pledged to leave out Cup Finals and title clinchers. However, if one is to fully articulate on the full spectrum of footballing emotions and seek the conditions I set out at the beginning of this series; passion, despair, dizzying highs and nail chomping tension, one cannot ignore the emotional rollercoaster that is Cup football. The kamikaze, winner takes all conditions simply make cup football fair game for a writer to indulge in some well placed hyperbole. In my lifetime and well before, Arsenal have been the masters of Cup Football (though Wrexham, Walsall and York City fans may afford themseleves a wry snigger here). Never more in Arsenal's history than in the era of George Graham did Cup football come to represent these emotions. George's league campaigns were inconsistent and Arsenal would never really combine a solid Cup campaign with a glorious league season, one would give way to the other more often than not. In the uber spoiled Wenger era, the Cup is considered a consolation prize amidst the spoils of Champions' or domestic league success.
There is an old saying that that which we reap in tears, so shall we sow in joy. In 1991 Arsenal embarked upon their first European assault for close to a generation. After disposing of Austria Vienna in a tidy fashion, the Portuguese heavyweights of Benfica eliminated Arsenal in extra time with a footballing masterclass. The Arsenal of that time was not short of attacking prowess, but Benfica showed us how it was done on our own patch and George knew that night, that his next assault on the continent would see a large change of tack. Two years later, Arsenal began a Cup Winners' Cup campaign, disposing easily of Odense and Standard Liege, the Gunners' were to face the heavyweights once again- and Graham was ready for them. We drew Turin glamour pusses Torino, the first leg being played in the Stadio delle Alpi. Graham deployed Smith as a lone striker and stifled the home side, doggedly bringing home a 0-0 draw. The only notable chance in a dour match fell to Robert Jarni when Seaman fumbled his straightforward shot.
Graham surprised everybody by not changing tack for the home leg. In those days in European competition, the away side rather bizarrely had first choice of kits, so fittingly Arsenal took the field at Highbury in their trademark away colours of yellow and navy. Once again, the Gunners' left Wright to toil alone upfront, with Campbell and Merson deployed as wide midfielders, who forraged back at every opportunity, making a Maginot line like five man midfield for the Italians to break down. Once again, the game was stoic, nervy and largely without incident as the Italians tried in vain to break Arsenal down. But on the rare occasions that they could break past Davis, Jensen and Keown, they were met with the formidable presence of Adams, Bould, Dixon, Winterburn and Seaman. The crowd perched pensively on the edge of their seats the Italians attacked fruitlessly, the home side in no mood to over commit. The match became fraught with Torino struggling to maintain their tempers.
On 61 minutes, Merson's guile won Arsenal a free kick on their right hand side. The creaking limbs of Paul Davis ambled over to survey the options in the box. He delivered a beautifully flighted ball which Tony Adams ghosted in to nod past the stranded Torino keeper. Highbury went ballistic, Arsenal had seen their chance with eagle eye focus and taken it. Adans merely rearranged his side parting in celebration. But once the home crowd had finsihed erupting and dusted themselves off, the enormity of the last half an hour dawned on everybody. A Torino equaliser would be enough to eliminate us, such is two legged football that one goal can effectively act as a twin blow, like the Hammer of Thor waging war on your cranium. Aged just ten at the time, I remember listening to Brian Moore's demonic tones, roaring with caution every time Torino poured forward, the octaves of his vocal chords rising as the tension reached fever pitch. My young imagination was fertive with the inevitability that the Italians would get their goal and leave us stranded in the European quagmire once again.
The Gunners' sat back staunchly, earning free kicks wherever possible and eating up eternal seconds. My heart jumped with anticipation, as every Torino pass seemed destined to be a defence splitter, every cross primed for the long locks of a Latin prowler. The crowd whistled frantically for the final whistle from the 88th minute onwards, the stands visibly teeming with the tension. The final whistle blew and Highbury's art deco stands exploded with relief. The game would set the blueprint for '1-0 to the Arsenal.' What I remember most though was the siege mentality of it all. Not just in Arsenal's bitter resistance to the Torino alamo, but the sense of unity the result forged amonsgt Arsenal fans. At the time, United were forging the foundations of a side that would dominate English football, with the ultra good looking Giggs and Sharpe manning the wings, the suave Cantona and twinkle toed Kanchelskis playing beautiful football. Spurs were managed by footballing adonis and purveyor of the beautiful game Ossie Ardilles, whose forward line consisted of Sheringham, Barmby, Anderton and Dumitrescu. Little Norwich City were mixing it with Inter and Bayern Munchen, Newcastle had Cole and Beardsley wowing the Toon masses, Chris Waddle had returned to England. In the insular confines of my school playground, Arsenal were regarded with cynicism, I am sure that this feeling spread to offices, university digs and building sites the nation over. The morning after the Torino game, nobody at school dared mention Arsenal's triumph, acid tongues stayed bitterly perched in mouths while the Republic of Arsenal lauded their great success. It belonged to us and us only. This match marked a shift in the Graham era that would eventually oversee our downfall as we became over reliant on dour journeymen. But while it worked it was glorious and I think it all started here, the night we blew the bloody doors off, the night Arsenal out Italianed the Italians.LD.