We Won the League in Manchester
If any Gooner is to recount classic victories over Manchester United at Old Trafford, then this one has to top an illustrious list. In fact, when recounting the history of Arsenal Football Club, this fixture is hugely significant in the annals of Arsenaldom. I would also count it as one of the most significant days of my life. It was of course May 8th, 2002. With Arsenal having qualified for the Semi Finals of the F.A. Cup (ironically, a fixture we played at Old Trafford), the league fixture away at Manchester United was moved to the penultimate game of the season. (Is it a tad cynical to suggest that the fixture computer might have placed this fixture on Semi-Final weekend, knowing full well that United and/ or Arsenal were likely to be involved? Thus setting up a potential league decider? In fact, have you noticed how Chelsea v United fixtures have been played in May for all of the last three seasons?)
The match fell eighteen days before my eighteenth birthday; the symmetry is beguiling, Arsenal F.C. coming of age at almost exactly the same time as me. The match was of course played on a Wednesday evening, while I was in the thick of my 'A` Levels. Given that one of my 'A` Level English teachers was an Arsenal season ticket holder, my "I need to go to the orthodontist" excuse did not exactly wash with the faculty. But I cared little as I boarded the coach with Jim (a fellow truant from my school). What I remember most about the journey to the ground was that everything went wrong. First we received the news that Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Tony Adams had all pulled out injured on the day of the game. Myself and Jim were very ill and the coach driver took a wrong turn en route, meaning we had no stop over and made kick off by a matter of minutes. Obviously, the apprehension over getting to the ground, multiplied by the nerves surrounding the fixture to the power of 'flu related nausea made for a very edgy feeling as we approached the East Stand. We arrived in the ground just as the teams were announced, the injured Bergkamp sat on the bench such was the decimation of our team, while Ferguson played the surprise card of selecting Diego Forlan ahead of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
United`s intentions were clear from the start, with Scholes and Keane considering the laws of the game and the rules of common decency a minor irritation in their quest for the shinbones of Edu and Vieira. Arsenal looked fairly blunt going forward, shorn of Bergkamp, Henry and Pires, whilst the in form Freddie Ljungberg was closely attended to by Gary Neville. However, United offered little threat going forward themselves; both goalkeepers were under deployed in the first half. Referee Paul Durkin was not as he failed to administer justice for a series of cynical United fouls. Jim and I watched the clock tick on the scoreboard more than we watched the game itself. In fact, the match cannot have been more than five minutes old when I affirmed through clenched teeth, "if it stays like this we`re Champions." In fact, at times it must have mimicked the scene from 'Fever Pitch` when Paul and his mate Pete are watching the legendary Anfield title decider (For a good few months after this game we would answer the phone to one another with "would you please, please, please, please just f****g f**k off, you have arrived during the worst sixty seconds of my life and I really don`t want to speak to you!" in acknowledgement of that scene). Me, ever the pessimist, muttering, "here it comes 1-0 United" every time they received the ball. But thanks largely to the expert marshalling of Edu and Vieira, the Gunners were in control.
Then on 58 minutes, Kanu slipped a ball through to the largely anonymous Ljungberg; the Swede scampered past Neville with the aid of a "Mickey Thomas bounce", the away end edged forward in anticipation as the United fans watched through their hands. Ljungberg`s tame shot was saved by Barthez, but the rebound fell to Sylvain Wiltord who calmly slotted the ball between Barthez`s legs. I had the misfortune of sitting next to a steel barrier and was immediately pressed tightly up against it in amidst a sea of baying bodies. Utter pandemonium ensued; Wiltord and Kanu ran off to celebrate in the other corner of the ground (I would later see on television Kanu`s amusing frog leap over Wiltord`s head) but Freddie and the rest came to our ecstatic colony. United needed two and the game was up, they were utterly deflated. The cry of, "Hand it over Ferguson" (to the tune of 'Bread of Heaven`) echoed around Manchester. Ruud van Nistelrooy arrived from the bench. But his instructions obviously did not centre on saving United`s embarrassment, immediately he thrust his fist into the guts of Freddie Ljungberg. To this day, if you watch a television replay, you can see referee Paul Durkin glaring directly at the incident, but he chose not to act. The F.A. could not retrospectively punish van Nistelrooy as the match official had clearly seen the offence.
Minutes before the final whistle, the Old Trafford P.A. system announced that Arsenal fans would be kept in after the final whistle. A suggestion mocked by the travelling support that, evidently, had no plans to leave anytime soon anyway! "We`re not going home, we`re not going home." Down to the front of the away enclosure, to my left, I saw a banner unfurled. I would later learn that this would be the infamous "Champions Section" banner which would be aired at Old Trafford again. The final whistle sounded and the celebrations could really start, people shuffled around from their seats to stand with their friends as the players cavorted below us. For the likes of Dixon and Seaman, their careers entering their twilight, they knew this was to be one of their last great stands. The sight of Sol Campbell careering towards the travelling fans kissing the Arsenal badge gave the evening an extra triumphant air. Patrick Vieira formalised a similar gesture, with rumours of his imminent departure persisting. We came back onto the coach and the corks were popped, I distinctly remember the song "One More Time" by Daft Punk being played and that song will forever remind me of that night. The coach arrived back at Highbury at about 3am, and a sea of champagne and beer bottles greeted us underfoot on Avenell Road. Though by this point, the police had long since moved on revelling Islington bound Gooners. (Incidentally, my English teacher numbered amongst the N5 party goers). School did not even bother giving me short shrift; the size of the smile on my face convinced them that it would be an exercise in futility. Plus, having a very hungover English teacher in a similar state of delirium played into my hands. I would suggest most of you felt the same at work or school on May, 9th 2002.LD.