Classic Encounters: v Everton
Home games against Everton have been of a very high vintage over the years. Three years ago there was the 7-0 destruction at Highbury, a night on which a 36 year old Dennis Bergkamp composed a master class that stunned an awestruck audience. There was also a 4-3 victory in 2002, the immediate aftermath of our glorious coronation at Old Trafford, a game in which Thierry Henry sealed the Golden Boot and even had time to break his neck ensuring Francis Jeffers scored against his old club. There was also one in a series of Carling Cup maulings by the Arsenal kids, Quincy Owusu Abeyie and Arturo Lupoli leading the charge in a 3-1 victory over Everton`s first team. But really, there was nowhere else I could go for a classic encounter than May 1998. Would You Believe It?
3rd May, 1998. Arsenal have won nine games in a row and a victory against Everton at Highbury would hand them their first title in seven years. Everton were on a dreadful run and nose diving down the table. The atmosphere was as expectant as it was tense, having watched Alex Ferguson`s men sweep all before them in the seven years since the Highbury faithful had invited the F.A. to "stick your fucking two points up your arse (sideways)." Inflatable trophies were tentatively tucked away in rucksacks amongst the Highbury crowd; Sky reported that there had even been a rehearsal for the cup presentation. Four minutes in, all nerves exploded into a frenzy of joy. Ray Parlour marauded down the right flank and was crudely fouled by Michael Ball. Emmanuel Petit swung in a delightful free kick, under pressure from Tony Adams; Slaven Bilic headed the ball ceremoniously into his own net. Adams wheeled away, his fist clenched in celebration, but replays confirmed the own goal. Adams era defining moment would come later. It was just the fillip Arsenal needed as they played with confidence and purpose. Ray Parlour flipped a teasing through to Christopher Wreh, who was keeping Ian Wright on the bench, but Thomas Mhyre pushed the ball wide. After 24 minutes, Manu Petit went down injured following a collision, the Arsenal fans booed as Everton did not return the ball to touch, but Peter Beagrie`s attempted pass was cut out by Vieira who freed Overmars. Overmars roared forwards with the ball, leaving opponents and team mates lagging behind in his wake, he shifted the ball onto his left foot and hit a low gliding shot which Mhyre could only help into the net. Arsenal were licking their lips and rubbing their hands, staring the Premiership trophy in the face.
Overmars would again accelerate the Gunners progress towards the podium seven minutes into the second half. Anelka eased the ball into the speedy Dutchman`s voracious stride, then stood back and admired as Overmars again motored through the heart of the Toffees` defence before delivering another low finish past Thomas Mhyre. Overmars and Anelka had perfectly encapsulated Wenger`s dressage of speed on the counter attack. The crowd shed their collective skins of pensiveness and the carnival was in town. Inflatable trophies were steadfastly removed from rucksacks and displayed to the watching world. The chant of "Champions" rang erstwhilely around N5; Ian Wright entered the pitch to an uproarious reception. The game played out with Everton accepting of their fate and looking doomed to the First Division and Arsenal in carnival mode. But the coup de grace arrived in injury time with a moment of such poetic beauty, it is the Arsenal fans equivalent to Johnny Rotten`s sneer on 'Anarchy in the UK` or Paul McCartney`s "yeah, yeah, yeah" refrain on 'She Loves You.` It represented a seismic shift in our history and chrystalised the ushering in of a new era. Things would never quite be the same again. If Mickey Thomas at Anfield was tension and ecstasy exploded into a single moment, Tony Adams` volley was a therapeutic moment of redemption. If Mickey Thomas was orgasm, Tony Adams was love.
Much had been made of how Arsene Wenger had transformed Arsenal`s style, he had morphed the stoic caterpillar into an offensive butterfly, encouraging his defenders to attack and become liberated. One moment was to iconographise that fact forever. Steve Bould hovered over the ball in the centre circle, Tony Adams decided to release the leash and roar forward. Bould and Adams, the very symbols of Arsenal`s miserly reputation were about to create something beautiful. Bould chipped a ball perfectly into Adams` path, Adams chested down on the edge of the box, "Tony Adams put through by Steve Bould….." The skipper lined up on his left foot, blasting home a sensational volley. "Would you believe it?!" screamed Martin Tyler, barely disguising his Goonerdom. "THAT, sums it all up." It really did. Adams, who eighteen months earlier faced up to his demons and admitted his alcoholism to the world. Six months earlier, he had offered to retire after a poor performance at home to Blackburn on the basis that he was letting his team down. Before the game he confessed that he could not remember his two previous title wins with Arsenal due to alcohol. As the ball hit the net, he spread his arms wide before the North Bank, shut his eyes and breathed in deeply. This was a moment he clung onto and strangled the life out of, before releasing it back into the North London air. It was a moment so cathartic as to be almost mythical. A fantastic picture exists of this moment of Adams spreading his arms in front of a baying North Bank, surveying his kingdom. This moment of mimesis is captured in a framed picture that hangs proudly outside my bedroom, sometimes I catch myself looking at it trying desperately to recapture the moment and the emotions that everyone felt. There was a true instance of symbiosis, Arsenal fans everywhere just get that goal and what it meant. It`s almost useless trying to capture it in words, but if you hear the words "Would You Believe It?" roared out of your speakers and into your living room, you just know exactly what it symbolises and how significant it all was. If Mickey Thomas was our JFK, then Tony Adams was our Berlin Wall, the barriers came crashing down in that moment, and suddenly the world would never be the same again.LD.