Classic Encounters v. Aston Villa
Arsenal and Aston Villa are two of the top flight`s proudest, most established clubs. As such, there has been many a meeting down the years, at the dawn of the Premier League, under the guidance of Ron Atkinson, Villa were a hair`s breath from being the inaugural champions of the breakaway league. Indeed, Dalian Atkinson`s sixty yard run and chip over Hans Segers at Selhurst Park gave the league its first iconic moment. Of course, encounters between the clubs go back much further, Villa fans will well remember taking the league title at Highbury in the 1980s, despite losing the final game of the season to us. (They remain the only English side ever to win the league on our ground bar ourselves). A thrilling pendulous 2-2 draw in December 1996 was an absorbing match for the neutral, whilst Villa would again lose 1-0 at Highbury on the final match of the season in 1999, unfortunately it wasn`t enough to give Arsenal the title, though Highbury did experience the very surreal experience of a Tottenham goal at Old Trafford being celebrated wildly by Gooners. Villa were also the last fall guys in our 49 match unbeaten run, surrendering 3-1 at Highbury in October 2004 with Arsenal at their imperious best. The following season saw a crushing 5-0 victory for Arsenal, whilst Villa were the first competitive visitors to Ashburton Grove. (That is the name I will continue to use until a certain airline coughs up the readies and pays me some royalties).
But the game I am going to exert focus on was a pivotal one in our quest for the 2001-02 Premiership title. It was December 2001 and following a morale boosting 3-1 victory over Manchester United the previous month, the Gunners had begun to put some form together which suggested they may mount a serious tilt at title honours. The days leading up to the game were some of the most significant in the club`s history. On the Wednesday, they had coolly despatched Juventus 3-1 at Highbury in an enthralling encounter. The Thursday saw Arsene Wenger quell mischievous speculation and sign a new four year contract at the club, with his deal at the time running down into its final months. Friday, 7th December, 2001 dwarfed them all as one of the most significant days in the club`s history. Despite NINNY resistance from local residents, Arsenal had been given the go ahead by Islington Council to build a new 60,000 seater stadium next to Drayton Park tube station on Ashburton Grove. The buzz that surrounded the club at the time was palpable and all the talk inside the stadium pre kick off was of the three aforementioned events. However, Villa planned to urinate squarely on our bonfire.
After 18 minutes, a long ball from Villa keeper Peter Enckelman saw Matthew Upson, who had temporarily displaced Martin Keown from the starting line up, beaten in the air by Dion Dublin, Stuart Taylor came off his line and was caught out by a cute lob from ex Gunner Paul Merson. It got worse on 35 minutes; Julian Joachim easily beat Matthew Upson to the by-line and pulled the ball back for Steve Stone who whacked the ball past Stuart Taylor, who dived the wrong way for some reason. Both Upson and Taylor ostensibly curtailed their Arsenal careers that day. Both rarely played again and both would be gone within eighteen months. Upson was replaced at half time by Martin Keown; Wenger also threw on Sylvain Wiltord (I forget for whom) at the break in an attempt to reverse Arsenal`s first half decline.
Wiltord had an instant impact, forty seconds into the half, Ray Parlour burst forward in his typical, locomotive style, his attempted cross was deflected by Mellberg and Wiltord was in the right place to smash the loose ball home on the full toss with his left foot. Highbury, which had sagged in lugubrious reflection, was reinvigorated. The Gunners pressed and pressed until the 70th minute when Henry salaciously hunted down a loose ball in the box and calmly slotted past Enckelman. There was little sang froid in the aftermath though, Henry attempted to retrieve the ball from the net, but wily old pro Steve Staunton wrestled the ball from the net first and clung to it steadfastly. Henry punched the ball firmly from Staunton`s grasp, resulting in a brief melee. Both were booked. Arsenal pressed on but when the ball dropped safely to Enckelman in the 93rd minute, the game looked to be over and Arsenal had clawed back a creditable draw. But Enckelman screwed his kick high into the air but without the requisite distance to get it over the halfway line, which would probably have bought about the final whistle. The ball dropped perilously towards George Boateng, Robert Pires` vision went all slow motion as he saw a chance to force an error, snapping at the Dutchman`s heels as he deigned to control. The pressure paid off as Boateng`s nerves deserted him, Henry telepathically read Pires` intentions and made sure he was onside and in on goal, Pires duly delivered the pass putting Thierry clean through on goal. Highbury took a sharp intake of breath as Henry`s nerves would not betray him, slotting the ball past Enckelman with the last kick of the match. Henry skirted the West Stand in celebration, his celebration only stopping when Sol Campbell jumped on his prone body. What better display of gratitude than a 13 stone man falling on you? The bombastic comeback was complete and the Gunners` relentless march towards the title sauntered on unabated.LD.