Classic Encounter: Bolton Wanderers
Well I`ve made it back from Kyiv safe and sound. I will try and post something about the trip later tonight with a few photos thrown in if I can sufficiently cool my temperament enough to negotiate the pitfalls of imageshack. But for now I`m revisiting a promised Friday series. Classic encounters at Bolton is something of an oxymoron for Arsenal in recent seasons. Dating back from a difficult cup tie at Burnden Park in the early 90s, the Gunners have struggled with Bolton`s tactics, succumbing to a series of insipid defeats, the starkest and forgettable of which was a 2-2 draw back in April 2003 which effectively curtailed Arsenal`s title hopes. A defeat made worse as Bolton`s strong arm tactics saw Cygan, Lauren and Ljungberg all leave the pitch injured as a result of heavy tackles. There have of course been happier memories in Lancashire for Arsenal. Who could forget the stirring comeback in March when Arsenal, two goals down and a man down at half time, rallied to a delightful 3-2 victory? The bizarre F.A. Cup Fourth Round replay the season before which saw Arsenal win 3-1 in extra time, two players missing penalties in the process, Bolton having a man sent off and Adebayor missing an open goal before helping himself to two goals? Or the incredibly tight 1-0 victory in March 1998 that constituted part of Arsenal`s awesome 10 match winning run to the title, Christopher Wreh making the difference with a thirty yard exorset after Martin Keown had been sent off.
But on this occasion, my fancy is taken by my first visit to the Reebok Stadium in April 2002. Given that the match was on a Monday night in the midst of my A Levels, a fabricated Orthodontist appointment granted me the exeat I needed to make my way to the match with my school mate Jim (who recently became a Father for the first time), who was slightly less cautious/ conniving than me and simply played truant. Bolton had been ensured Premiership survival the previous weekend with a 5-0 win over someone or other, Derby I think and there was nothing riding on the match for them. The same could not be said for the visitors Arsenal, who were four points away from securing a first Premiership title for four years, avoiding defeat would provide Arsenal with the tantalising prospect of snatching the title at Old Trafford, whilst the F.A. Cup Final was five days away. The atmosphere proved to be utterly surreal, as the home fans also cheered on Arsenal, there distaste for Manchester United together with their own survival having been cemented saw them join the Arsenal fans in choruses of "come on Arsenal!" as well as a rendition of, "you`re gonna beat Man United." However, Arsenal looked nervous early on and Allardyce, close ally of Ferguson no less, sent his side out all guns blazing as the Gunners rocked back on their heels, an injury to inspirational skipper Tony Adams seemingly adding to their lethargy. Ricardo Gardner forced a fine save from David Seaman, whilst Michael Ricketts missed a sitter inside fifteen minutes.
Despite looking blunt upfront in the face of Bolton`s resolute defending, a moment of inspiration unlocked the door to give Arsenal an early lead and it would be an increasingly familiar double act that would unlock the door. Parlour won a fifty-fifty ball with Nolan, before releasing the ball to the pass master himself. Dennis Bergkamp surveyed the scene with the ball at his feet, unperturbed by the wall of white shirts that crowded his peerless vision; Bergkamp accessed his infra red homing device for the chip he had placed in Ljungberg`s boots. With his target locked, Bergkamp weaved a laser guided through ball to Ljungberg for the Swede to continue his incredibly rich scoring vein and smash a low finish past Jaaseklainen via his right hand post. Bolton had been sucker punched as Ipswich, West Ham and Tottenham had been before by a Bergkamp through ball finished ably by the red headed Swede. The home side looked deflated as Arsenal`s already supreme confidence was embellished further. On 41 minutes, Bergkamp was plain showing off, proving that it was not only Freddie Ljungberg that benefited from his cyborg vision. Patrick Vieira it was this time that, in typical fashion, won the ball in the centre circle, striding forwards a few steps before finding Bergkamp between Bolton`s defence and midfield. Again he raised his head and laid out a red carpet behind Bolton`s defence, inviting Sylvain Wiltord to run onto his slide rule pass to beat Jaaskelainen and make it 2-0. The Bolton fans again cheered the goal.
I always thought that it was as if Bergkamp had a radar in his head, much like the one you`ll find at the bottom of the screen on a computer game. This game really magnified that and just how much Ljungberg`s scoring form was aided and abetted by Dennis` craft. The second half was played in cruise control, with Arsenal looking to save themselves for the impending Cup Final with Chelsea and Bolton resigned to their fate. Kanu and Henry went close late on, but the final whistle was greeted with the sight of Bolton fans applauding the Gunners from the pitch. Our coaches were greeted with widespread thumbs up from passing Bolton fans as we headed for the M1 and Arsenal were in the enviable position of beating Chelsea to win the F.A. Cup and following up with the league title at Old Trafford. The smile on my face the next morning at school was a subtle giveaway that no such Orthodontist work had been done.LD.