The Best Matches Ever Part 5
For the first time in this series, we will be drifting away from the confines of Highbury and across London to Fulham Broadway. This was possibly Arsenal's last great game of the millennium and the last time Arsenal played at Stamford Bridge without me being in attendance. After this game, I made sure never to miss another. It was around this time, at the age of 15, where I first started taking an interest in attending away games. I ummed and arghed and contemplated getting a ticket for this match, but eventually baulked at Chelsea's astronomical prices. It was a mistake I would never make again!
It was October 1999 and Arsenal came into a London derby in some patchy form. With a crunch Champions' League encounter with Fiorentina arriving four days later, Arsene Wenger decided to rest several players. The decision instantly looked to have backfired when Dan Petrescu gave Chelsea an early lead. The Gunners' clung on until half time, with Chelsea well in the ascendancy. With the likes of Nelson Vivas, Davor Suker and Thierry Henry looking uncohesive and out of sorts, the away side were lucky to go into half time with just a goal's defecit to contend with. With Dennis Bergkamp left out of the sixteen, Wenger had little recourse but to stick with what he had. On 58 minutes it was game over, Graeme Le Saux whipped in a wicked cross from the left and Tore Andre Flo was unmarked to head Chelsea into a two goal lead. Graeme Le Saux erected a gleeful middle finger at the travelling band in the West Stand Lower tier. It was now a case of how many Chelsea would score, with the frustrated figure of Emmanuel Petit looking lost in midfield, his knee heavily strapped. Patrick Vieira was in the midst of a seven match suspension for spitting at Neil Ruddock. (Incidentally, Mustapha Hadji would be sent off later in the season for spitting at a Deby player and receive only a one match ban, not that I'm suggesting the F.A are media puppets or anything!)
Petrescu would go close again, as would Zola as the Chelsea fans mocked a wistful supporting entourage with, 'can we play you every week?!' Arsenal grabbed themselves an undeserved and unlikely lifeline in a rare attack. Suker miscontrolled in the area, but the ball fell to the loping right boot of Kanu and he prodded home a consolation in the howling rain. The goal was greeted with a muted cheer and a half hearted 'c'mon!' from the Gooners. In reality it looked like a damage limitation exercise. With seven minutes remaining, Arsenal played another 'get out of jail free card,' Henry teased Le Saux on Arsenal's right, but scuffed his cross low in hope more than expectation, Kanu took a cushioning touch before lashing it beyond Ed de Goey for a shock equaliser. If you'd have given most Gooners the final whistle then, they would have greedily complied. Chelsea steamed forward, motivated by a sense of injustice, while Arsenal tried in vain to cling on for a scarsely deserved draw. As the game moved into injury time, Chelsea forced four consecutive corners, which were met with desperate clearances.
The fourth and final clearnace saw the ball find Suker just inside the Chelsea half. In keeping with his dire performance, he overcooked a simple pass down the line for Kanu. Petrescu attempted a casual clearance which Kanu charged down, as the ball rolled towards the corner flag Arsenal fans breathed a sigh of relief as the pressure was temporarily alleviated. But as Kanu sprinted towards the corner flag, Ed de Goey inexplicably rushed to his feet to dispossess him and start a last ditch attack. Kanu languidly sauntered around him in the tightest of spaces before curling a delicious shot over Frank Lebouef's head and into the roof of the net from the corner flag. Listening to my radio at the time I could not believe what I was hearing, I didn't greet the goal with the custmoary roar, but I kept listening intently to my radio, unsure of I was victim to some horrible prank. Kanu?......Has scored a hat trick?.......In the last fifteen minutes???? This was pure Roy of the Rovers stuff. Suddenyl images of Le Saux's middle finger, the mocking sneer of the home crowd, the 'olays' at their every pass would metamorphosise into the sweetest eggs smeared on blue faces.
Arsenal fans have been fortunate to bear witness to some virtuouso attacking displays. Henry's four goal haul versus Leeds, Bergkamp's genius against Leicester City at Filbert Street and Barnsley at Highbury, Patrick Vieira's one man midfield side show at Stamford Bridge in 2003, Ray Parlour's hat trick in Bremen, Steve Bould's pair against Sampdoria. But rarely has Arsenal resembled anything close to a one man team as it did on October 23rd, 1999. With all around him surrednering to defeat, Kanu literally single handedly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Even the two assists he received from Henry and Suker were unintentional! After the final whistle, the wide eyed Dennis Bergkamp encroached onto the pitch, dropped to one knee and made a gesture as if to clean Kanu's sizeable boots. In footballing terms, this is probably the biggest compliment one could invite and perfectly encapsulated the grandeur of Kanu's achievement. A bit like Jack Daniels himself pouring you a drink.LD.