Getting A Semi On: A Look Back
Tomorrow sees Arsenal line up in an F.A. Cup Semi Final for the 26th time in their illustrious history. Thus far we have been victorious in 17 of those semi finals and have lost eight of them. Since our maiden involvement in the 2-1 defeat to Newcastle in 1907, our encounters have produced moments of nerve shredding tension (Storey`s penalty in 1971, the last ten minutes of the win over Spurs in 1993 when a man down, the marathon encounters against Liverpool in 1980, which required 4 games to separate the sides- meaning Arsenal had to play 11 times in 28 days that month). Moments of elation (Wreh`s goal against Wolves in 1998, Pires` winner versus Tottenham), scenes of heartbreak (Spurs in 1991, Schmeichel`s penalty save) and moments of absolute genius (Giggs, Gascoigne and Seaman`s gravity defying stop against Sheffield United). Two of those 25 preceding semi finals have been against tomorrow`s opponents Chelsea- the Gunners running out winners against the Pensioners in both 1950 and 1952. Whatever happens tomorrow, we`re in for a hell of a ride, for better or worse. So let us consider some of Arsenal`s most heart stopping semi final encounters to date.
1971- Stoke City 2 Arsenal 2- Every epoch has its defining image. For the 1971 Double side, the sight of Charlie George on his back in the Wembley sunshine and the grainy television images of Kennedy`s net busting header at White Hart Lane are those- particularly to those of us who were not alive at the time. But similarly, every era defining side has its moments of doubt and defiance. For the 2002 Double side, read Lauren`s pea roller penalty against Spurs, for the Double side of 1998, Shearer`s shot that cannoned off the inside of the post in the Cup Final. Serendipity has its part to play, for the 1971 Double Side; Stoke City at Hillsborough was their moment of truth. The Gunners went into the game red hot favourites, but the occasion appeared to hold them hostage as Stoke raced into a two goal first half lead. The first arrived in comical fashion as Wilson palmed away a Stoke corner; Storey turned and leathered the ball away from danger. Well, he attempted to anyway, his clearance hit the back of Stoke`s Denis Smith and flew into the net. There was further calamity in store too, after twenty nine minutes when Charlie George`s woefully under hit back pass was gratefully lapped up by Ritchie to score. The Arsenal journeyed to the dressing rooms reeling from two killer blows at half time, staggering like drunken boxers. But this Arsenal side had made their name as gritty street fighters and nobody better epitomised that steely determination than Peter 'Old Dead Eyes` Storey. (Why do footballers never have inventive nicknames like that anymore?) Early in the second half a chipped cross from Ray Kennedy was not cleared effectively by the Potters and Storey hit a searing shot in anger from twenty yards which flew into the Stoke net. Stoke had chances on the counter attack as the side in yellow poured forward, but it was the second minute of injury time in which the drama happened. McLintock headed Kennedy`s corner goalwards and Alan Mahoney handled on the line. A penalty in the final minute. Storey has since opined, "the others were all hugging each other and celebrating, I was the one who had to stick the penalty away. And past Gordon Banks too." Storey did just that, living up to his nickname with an ice cool spot kick which he rolled inside Banks` right hand post. Banks, arguably England`s finest ever custodian, did not twitch a nerve. Arsenal escaped and won the replay 2-0 at Villa Park with goals from Graham and Kennedy. The other twist of fate? The fixture away at Tottenham had originally been scheduled for semi final day. Arsenal`s involvement meant that game was to be rearranged until the final match of the season.
1999- Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2 (AET)- In April 1999, English football`s two behemoths came face to face at Villa Park for an F.A. Cup Semi Final showdown, with both sides virtually neck and neck in the league and the Wenger Ferguson rivalry blossoming into full bloom, it promised to be a belter. It flattered to deceive, as the match petered out into a tepid 0-0 draw in the Birmingham sunshine, Nelson Vivas` pointless red card the only event of note. The sides replayed one another three days later in a blow for blow, pendulous back alley slugfest. Beckham`s open faced sand wedge curled an exquisite shot past Seaman in the 14th minute to give United a 1-0 lead. But Arsenal redoubled at half time and emerged the premier force in the second half. Dennis Bergkamp turned 25 yards from goal and hit a hopeful shot which cannoned off of Jaap Stam`s knee and past the bewildered Schmeichel and into the net. The Gunners were in the ascendancy and they scented Mancunian blood on 74 minutes when Roy Keane saw red for a pointless hack on Overmars which earned him a second booking. One minute later, Bergkamp`s low shot was fumbled by Schmeichel and Anelka latched onto the rebound to seemingly put Arsenal in front. The young Frenchman was uncharacteristically exuberant in his celebration and the Arsenal fans cavorted unaware of an errant offside flag from the linesman. United were barely hanging on when Ray Parlour raced into the area only to be hacked down by a ragged Phil Neville in the second minute of injury time. But unlike Storey twenty eight years before, Bergkamp`s penalty was neither the picture of precision or composure as Schmeichel`s imposing frame beat it out with ease. Bergkamp always spoke of his dream to play at Wembley in a Cup Final; injury had cruelly robbed him twelve months earlier, now he was fortune`s fool once more. He never took another spot kick again. With nine minutes left of extra time, Vieira turned a tired pass loose to his right hand side. Giggs picked it up and proceeded to weave and bob past a sea of tiring Arsenal limbs, all over the age of thirty and feeling the strain of 111 minutes of high octane football. Giggs manoeuvred into the area and smashed a shot into the roof of Seaman`s net. We were then treated to the sight of Ryan Giggs chest hair; which would have scarred anyone who saw it, but for Arsenal fans it is seared onto our minds like the underside of a shag pile rug, just before it is pressed mercifully over your face. United won the Treble, Arsenal finished empty handed. This was the night that ensured it.
1993- Arsenal 1 Tottenham Hotspur 0- Any Arsenal fan old enough to remember it will always list the 1991 Semi Final defeat to Spurs as one of their lowest points supporting the Gunners. It was my first crushing disappointment as a Gooner. The sight of Gascoigne`s thirty five yard free kick evading Seaman`s dive and the feint hope of Smith`s goal being extinguished by fellow ex Leicester man Lineker is inked indelibly onto my memory. The 1992-93 season was my first as a season ticket holder at Arsenal, my mother was still a Spurs season ticket holder at the same time. You can imagine the sort of domestics a fixture like this invites. Whilst in 1991 I was still a little young to attend, leaving me at home to watch on the idiot box whilst my Mum sauntered off to Wembley, by 1993, a couple of years older, a foot or so taller and with the Taylor Report now in full effect, I agitated harder to go. As it transpired, my mother took me along. We sat in the Arsenal end together. For Arsenal fans revenge was very much in the air, though Lineker and Gascoigne had by now swanned off to continental pastures, this presented an immediate chance to swat away the bloodshed of two years previous. Tottenham`s win in 1991 had been iconographic of their status at the time, entrenched in the genius of a skilful individual who fitted the mould of Villa, Ardilles, Greaves and Hoddle. The Gunners revenge mission was graven very much in their own Sid Vicious image. It was a dire, scrappy game won by a header from Arsenal`s captain Tony Adams as he ghosted around the back of the Tottenham defence to connect with Merson`s free kick and guide the ball past Thorstvedt. One of my embryonic memories of North London derbies were the ongoing tussles between Lee Dixon and Justin Edinburgh. This occasion saw one of the more combustible encounters between the two and Dixon was sent off with 88 minutes on the clock. The referee added a mammoth eight minutes injury time, which tells you all you need to know about the scrappy, disruptive pattern of the game. It was a gut wrenching few minutes but Arsenal doggedly held on to record their revenge. I missed Merson`s infamous "lager, lager" celebration as my young nine year old bladder had had all it could handle. (A few more years of games like this have done little to strengthen its resolve, though I rather think my mum was glad of the opportunity to escape before the celebrations could begin earnest). Merson`s celebration became a symbol of his own problems at the time, but it was also paradigmatic of these two semi final encounters. They were both won by troubled alcoholics.LD.
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