Classic Encounters v Sunderland
Speaking of classic encounters, can I be the first to say well played Joe Kinnear! I`m not sure if he`s done his club much good with his sweary rant at the assembled hacks this morning (in case you`re unaware, he held a press conference today in which he raged at the press to the tune of 52 expletive deleteds. His brilliant opening gambit was:
"Which one of you is Simon Bird?"
JK: "You`re a c**t."
Beautiful to see the gutter snipes that pass for journalists spoken to in the exact manner they deserve). Classic matches away at Sunderland have been in scarce supply in recent years, indeed the last three league journeys to the Stadium of Light have been dead rubber, end of season affairs. There was a closely contested 1-1 draw in our 2001-02 double season, a match I`ll always remember as Sunderland had a goal ruled out deep into stoppage time, it took around thirty seconds for the fact that Julio Arca`s 93rd minute header had been chalked off, so the celebrations in the ground rumbled on for a significant length of time before the lineman`s flag was spotted. As we drove away from the ground, a passing Mackem gestured at our coach, his left hand showing one erect digit and his right hand signalling two. He had obviously left the ground early and heard the roar, assuming his side had won the match at the death. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when he got home and discovered his error.
The match I have chosen to recall was not so much a classic match as a game lit up by a moment of inspired genius (I`ll give you one guess who delivered it). In January 1997, Arsenal played out a three game mini series with Sunderland, having drawn them in the F.A. Cup Third Round a week before a league encounter at Roker Park. The Third Round Tie finished all square at Highbury after Kevin Ball cancelled out John Hartson`s tenth minute header. Seven days later, the Gunners went down 1-0 at Roker Park thanks to a Tony Adams own goal, a match in which Dennis Bergkamp saw red for a bad lunge at Paul Stewart. Bergkamp would earn a three match ban for his indiscretion, but back then such bans did not commence until 14 days after the offence, much to Sunderland`s misfortune. This was Sunderland`s last season at Roker Park before moving across the city to the Stadium of Light, so an Arsenal victory would render the encounter the last ever Cup match at the famous old ground.
The first half was dull and listless, the familiarity between the sides leading to a disappointing stalemate. But on 68 minutes, the grim encounter would be illuminated by a moment of genius. Peter Reid`s side attempted to stifle Arsenal by defending in large numbers on the edge of the area, a tactic that was working quite nicely. But Dennis Bergkamp had had quite enough of that, when Kevin Ball attempted to hack a loose ball clear on the edge of the Sunderland box, Bergkamp glided towards it, snatching it away from him with a balletic double dragback (known in my school playground as 'The Maradona moonwalk`), with the Mackems defence baffled, Bergkamp applied a feather touch to get the ball out of his feet, before delivering a delicious curler into the top corner, kissing the netting betwixt stanchion and crossbar. Keeper Lionel Perez could only watch and admire as the artist had delivered his masterpiece with a dismissive stroke of his brush.
Arsenal had incurred a number of disciplinary problems in the preceding weeks, Hartson was sent off against Middlesbrough three weeks earlier for swearing at a referee, Ian Wright was summoned to an F.A. hearing for sporting a tee shirt with the legend, 'I Don`t Love the F.A. Anymore` under his shirt. (Just three months after being charged with disrepute for calling David Pleat "a pervert."), Bergkamp was sent off at Roker Park. Hence the choreographed celebration whereby the players stood with their hands over their mouths, in the manner a shocked schoolchild might at a Joe Kinnear press conference. It was the first sign of a siege mentality at Arsenal that would forge the side into Double Winners in the space of a year. Stephen Hughes (remember him?) perhaps cruelly added to the score with a brave header from a Merson cross, ensuring Bergkamp`s coup de grace would not be the last F.A. Cup goal to be scored at Roker Park. In the end, the match was won 2-0 and Bergkamp was applauded off the pitch by the home support in appreciation of his moment of genius, it was perhaps his first absolutely breath taking strike in an Arsenal shirt (though the ones that preceded it were by no means scrappy). There would be many more to come, but Dennis` cunning ensured brains won over brawn. Bergkamp had arrived, and the Premier League was a much more beautiful place for it.LD