The Best Matches Ever Part 4
In the last few years, there have been a litter of North London derBies worthy of inclusion in this series. But taking away my pre requisites for this series, no semi finals and no title clinchers, I cannot ignore the symbolic significance of this match in November 1996. Arsene Wenger had made a rather low key arrival, in what has become part of Arsenal folklore, the 'Arsene Who?' brigade dismissed the appointment and, consequently, Arsenal were not really taken seriously. A week prior to this match, Arsenal had narrowly gone down 1-0 at Old Trafford in an excellent performance. But amazing as it sounds nowadays, that game was not televised. Therefore, this North London derby in November was the first occasion in which Wenger's new Arsenal were under the media micoscope. Those outside of the club were barely aware of the transformation that Wenger had implemented, turning Arsenal from dour workhorses into Total Footballing connoiseurs in a matter of weeks. But few were in doubt after this match!
The match began in typical fiersome North London derby fashion, with the torrential rain providing the perfect backdrop for some choice tackling from both sides. After half an hour, Bergkamp shimmied past Clive Wilson in Tottenham's penalty area, only to be unceremoniously pulled back, Wilson clinging desperately to the Dutch master's shirt as he lay prone on the floor, like a man hanging dangling from a cliff edge in sheer desperation. Mike Reed awarded the penalty and up stepped Ian Wright, whose short run up belied the power and precision in his penalty, ramming it past Ian Walker. In his archetypal showman style, he lifted his shirt to reveal a vest with the legend, 'I love the lads.' scrawled on in what looked like black eyeliner. (Is that the campest sentence I've ever written?) The Gunners' went in for the break well in the ascendancy and deserving of their one goal lead.
But things turned sour on 57 minutes. Darren Anderton lay on the sodden turf requiring treatment (hard to picture isn't it?), Patrick Vieira lashed the ball out of play to allow Anderton to renew acquaintances with the Spurs physio. But egged on by the Spurs fans gathered behind him in the South West corner, Stephen Carr refused to give the ball back in time honoured, sporting fashion, electing instead to launch a long throw into the Arsenal box. With the Arsenal defenders stunned by Spurs' Machievelian tactics, the ball was flicked onto Andy Sinton, his low shot hit the post but then squirmed into the net via the diving John Lukic's shoulder. The away fans erupted with delight as the rest of Highbury were apoplectic with rage. Little did we know that Tottenham would repeat the trick a decade later!
Buoyed by the injustice, Arsenal reassumed their dominance and poured forward, Spurs clinging onto the point. A Bergkamp curler was tipped over by Walker and a Merson shot arrowed narrowly wide. Tottenham defended for their lives and it looked as though the game was up for Arsenal, with Bergkamp, Wright and Merson looking out of ideas. But Tottenham had not accounted for Arsenal's newfound attacking edge. Vieira fed the ball into Bergkamp in the box, whose deft flick found none other than Tony Adams(!) in the Spurs box and the man they once called 'donkey' hit a sumptuous left foot volley which deflected past Ian Walker and into the corner with only one minute of normal time remaining. The home fans reacted with the gusto you would expect having witnessed a last minute clincher in a North London derby. We were also quick to recognise the symbolic significance of the goal. Here was Tony Adams given free reign to trundle forward in the dying embers of a tied match and despatch a left foot volley with the penchant of a seasoned striker. 'The Donkey's won the Derby' cried the home crowd in mischievous acclaim. Little did we know that Adams would go on to hit an even sweeter and more poetically perfect volley in front of the North Bank eighteen months later. If you could transport yourself back to that moment, and I could somehow communicate that prophecy to you, 'would you believe iiiiiiiit?!!'
But the Gunners' weren't finished there, their newly found flair would be laid bare for the nation to see just seconds later. Ian Wright carried the ball to the corner flag and twisted past Clive Wilson with a couple of crowd pleasing stepovers, he looked up and delivered an inch perfect cross to Dennis Bergkamp at the back post. A delicious and delicate touch left Stephen Carr skidding off into oblivion on the greasy turf, before Bergkamp curled the ball beyond Ian Walker. His celebration would prove every bit as iconographic as Adams' volley, as the usually reserved Dutchman slid on his knees in the teeming rain by the West Stand. A year earlier, Spuds chairman Alan Sugar had questioned whether Bergkamp would cope with the cruel winter months, and here he was, the rain matting his rapidly receeding hairline, sliding through the mud fists clenched in recognition of his genius.
The transformation was complete, Adams surging forward to hit sweet left foot volleys, Wright out on the wing providing the ammunition, now the nation knew of Arsenal's revolution. Even more significant because, though Arsenal were significantly more successful than Spurs in the five years or so that preceeded that game, Tottenham were still the media darlings, the team whose commitment to purist football drew praise, whilst Arsenal's preference for grinding out trophies had a footballing nation damning us with faint praise. This match projected Arsenal as the new entertainers of North London. Spurs' goal was achieved on a rare breakaway and under questionable pretenses, while Arsenal's riposte was to carve out two works of aesthetic beauty that led to English journeyman battering home a gorgeous volley and the fancy Dan foreigner sliding on his knees in the filthy rain. As Martin Tyler would testify, 'that, sums it all up.'LD.