Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday July 17 2011
The euphoria of the five minute Final win in 1979 was supposed to reannounce Arsenal as a force in English football. In truth, it turned out to be one last geyser of glory as the team`s status as nearly men ushered in a period of mid table decline. In a marathon 70 game season in 1979-80, Arsenal ended up losing another F.A. Cup Final to Second Division West Ham United, as well as losing the 1980 Cup Winners Cup Final to Valencia on penalties. But perhaps more damaging than that, they lost their midfield schemer Liam Brady to Juventus in the summer of 1980. He was never adequately replaced. The summer after, Frank Stapleton left for Manchester United in a transfer only matched for acrimony by Ashley Cole some twenty Five years later. The guts were being ripped out of the Arsenal side under Terry Neill. Following a humiliating League Cup defeat at home to Walsall in December 1983, with the club sitting in 16th place, the axe fell on the genteel Ulsterman.
His successor Don Howe didn`t have a great deal in the way of success either. The nadir of his Arsenal career was to arrive in the 1985 F.A. Cup as Arsenal were knocked out by Third Division York City. Howe resigned in 1986 amidst dwindling, yet audibly unhappy crowds. He was to be replaced by 1971 Double Winner George Graham. Despite having earned the nickname "Stroller" as a player due to his languid style, Graham was a stern disciplinarian as a manager. He swiftly shipped out big names such as Woodcock, Nicholas, Anderson, Samson and Paul Mariner. Graham drafted in an infantry of young Academy recruits such as Adams, Thomas and Rocastle and forged a potent concoction with hungrier, lower division signings such as Winterburn, Dixon, Bould and Groves. Graham made it clear mediocrity was no longer to be tolerated.
The club rebooted its purpose with the 1987 Littlewoods Cup and Graham followed up with two league titles in 1989 and 1991. But the F.A. Cup was to present unfinished business for Graham. Arsenal`s chances of the Double were cruelly dashed at the Semi Final stage in 1991 as Gascoigne and Lineker conspired to knock Arsenal out at Wembley. Graham would find revenge cathartically at the same stage and at the same venue just two years later. But in 1992, Graham`s side would suffer an F.A. Cup exit even more scalding as Fourth Division Wrexham disposed of the Champions of England in the 3rd Round- one of the tournament`s most famous giant killings.
1992-93 was an odd season to be an Arsenal fan. (It was my first as a season ticket holder incidentally). Despite finishing 4th in 1991-92, the team`s storming end to the season saw them installed as favourites for the league title in the summer of 1992. But the European Cup defeat at the hands of Benfica had a profound effect on Graham and he began to totally dismantle the creative element of the side. Many a Gooner heart was broken in the summer of 92 when he sold David Rocastle to Leeds. Limpar was increasingly sidelined (he didn`t make the bench for either Cup Final that year) and Paul Davis was still feeling the chill of being cast to the nether regions of the Arsenal reserves. It seems inconceivable in today`s game that the favourites for the league title could finish the season in 10th place.
On the pitch, Arsenal were still a sturdy, if unimaginative unit. Off the pitch, they were anything but. The 1993 F.A. Cup campaign would show a fascinating hybrid of both. The omens were good for Arsenal when they drew Yeovil Town away in the 3rd Round. Just as they had in their 1971 Double season. However, with the scars of Wrexham still fresh, the eyes of the nation were on Arsenal again. The non league Glovers were on the brink of extinction at the time owing to financial difficulties. Drawing Arsenal gave them a much needed injection of cash that would rescue the club from administration. So the Gunners took to the pitch with 9,000 crammed inside Huish Park- most had experienced the heartbreak at the Racecourse Ground and were in no mood for a repeat.
Inside 15 minutes, Arsenal settled taking a one goal lead through the most conventional of sources. A Limpar corner was lofted to the front post, Steve Bould, as ever, flicked it into the danger area and Ian Wright was on hand to turn home a left footed volley. Wright would score a much more aesthetically impressive goal on the stroke of half time to stretch Arsenal`s advantage. David Hillier hopefully looped a ball forward from the centre circle amidst a mud soaked pitch, Glovers defender Andy Wallace- an accountant- misjudged the flight of the ball and errantly stabbed it into the path of Ian Wright. What followed was typical Wrighty improvisation, as he touched the ball inside Wallace and unleashed a chip from 25 yards which sailed into the top corner. Wright sealed his hat trick in the second half, revealing three fingers to the Yeovil crowd who had taunted him throughout. A national tabloid decided to photoshop out his ring finger and make it appear to be a two fingered salute to the Yeovil fans. I know, a tabloid newspaper indulging dishonest behaviour! Thank crimony we don`t see that sort of thing anymore.....
Andy Wallace grabbed a late consolation for Yeovil, something of a souvenir. It was Premier League Crystal Palace`s turn to be the source of mirth to the nation as they were knocked out by Division 3 Hartlepool United. But the Gunners would have a much tougher task in Round 4 as Champions Leeds United awaited them in a home draw. 1992-93 was of course a landmark season in English football, with the Taylor Report recommendations kicking in, most top flight football grounds resembled building sites. In a typically idiosyncratic move, Arsenal decided to mask the building work at the North Bank End with a painted mural of supporters. (The club made quite the PR gaffe in originally neglecting to include any black faces on the mural). It was also the first year of the breakaway Premier League and the bumper Sky television deal that came with it. As such, the Leeds tie was moved to a Monday night in a sign that the times were indeed a changing. This proved to be particularly galling for me in my first year as a season ticket holder as my Mum would not yet allow me to go to midweek games at the age of 8.
Leeds raced into a two goal lead in the first half, with ex Arsenal striker Lee Chapman and Scottish midfielder Gary McAllister seemingly having steered the champions through. But Arsenal roared back when 20 year old winger Ray Parlour hit a scrappy shot that ricocheted past John Lukic to half the deficit. With Limpar frozen out almost completely by now, Graham had been playing Paul Merson on the left in the hope of him cutting in to unleash his potent right foot. The tactic worked a treat as Merson duly cut inside Mel Sterland before plundering an arrowing right foot shot into the top corner to earn Arsenal a replay. The replay at Elland Road on a wet and windy night in Yorkshire was a nip and tuck affair. Two seasons previously, the clubs had duked it out four times before being separated at the 4th Round stage. This was the first season that the F.A. had abolished multiple replays in favour of introducing penalty shoot outs.
Leeds took an early lead through Gordon Strachan, only for Alan Smith`s header to equalise. With twenty one minutes remaining, Ian Wright`s side footed finish looked to have put Arsenal through. But Gary McAllister`s late free kick defeated David Seaman and pushed the game into extra time. The match was an even handed slugfest, but as the sides tired into extra time, Ian Wright grabbed a scrappy winner, latching onto Merson`s ball over the top of the defence and hitting a half volley which Lukic could only help into his own net. Having defeated struggling Middlesbrough after a replay, relegation strugglers Nottingham Forest awaited at Highbury in the 5th Round, in what turned out to be Brian Clough`s last ever F.A. Cup tie as a manager. Arsenal had already knocked Forest out at the Quarter Final stage of the League Cup and the Gunners mirrored that outcome with a comfortable two goal victory. Ian Wright grabbed both goals, one a sensational dipping volley from thirty yards which sailed over Crossley`s head and into the top corner. By now, Arsenal were a tight, stingy side that relied solely on the likes of Merson for a moment of inspiration, as well as Wright`s goalscoring prowess. But they would find new heroes in later rounds.
Peculiarly in Round 5, all ties were resolved at the first time of asking, with the home sides prevailing in every tie. Champions elect Manchester United were knocked out by Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. With most of the top 6- Aston Villa, Norwich City, Liverpool, United- out, it appeared that Blackburn Rovers and Spurs were Arsenal`s most likely rivals for the trophy. The Gunners were drawn to play away at an Ipswich side that had easily disposed of Grimsby Town 4-0 in the previous round. The day before the tie at Portman Road, Tony Adams attended a day at the Races with friends. It was a day that would end with him, some twenty odd pints to the good, tumbling drunkenly down a flight of stairs in a West End night club just twelve hours before kick-off.
The early signs of an alcoholic`s denial were seeping to the surface. "I just had a few drinks, missed my footing and tumbled. It`s the sort of injury I could get at any time in a football match." Having drunkenly driven his car through a pensioner`s wall two and a half years earlier, you might have thought someone would have a word with the Arsenal captain. "End of story" was Graham`s take on it. The sad truth is, in hindsight, the club were simply cradling his problems. Adams played anyway and seemed to be all at sea as Chris Kiwomya put Ipswich into a 2nd minute lead following a goalmouth scramble from Genchev`s corner. It would bring Kiwomya to Graham`s attention and pave the way for one of the more inauspicious transfers in Arsenal`s recent history when he joined the club two years later. But Adams himself, sporting an unsightly bandage above his eyebrow, would use his new appendage to his advantage, heading Merson`s free kick into the bottom corner with the very part of his body he had been mopping the blood from 13 hours earlier.
Arsenal moved into the lead when John Wark`s desperate lunge at Ian Wright in the area yielded a penalty which Wright himself converted consummately. The away side eased into a 3-1 lead after Dixon`s punt forward was headed on by Smith, Wright ran hungrily onto the flick on, careering into the area with Phil Whelan struggling to catch him. Whelan got a toe to the ball bout could only prod it into the bottom corner of his own net. Ipswich threatened a revival when Mick Stockwell cut in from the right and played a hopeful cross into the area, Boncho Genchev turned and smuggled the ball past Seaman and into the bottom corner with 14 minutes left. But Arsenal reaffirmed their two goal cushion when Paul Davis won a header on the edge of the Town area, putting Kevin Campbell through on goal. Wright, typically, was on hand for an easy tap in, but such was the measure of competition between the two, that Campbell elected to slot the ball past Baker himself.
With Blackburn and Manchester City tumbling out at the Quarter Final stage, the Semi Finals- both to be held at Wembley- represented the rather unique feat of drawing two sets of deadly local rivals against one another. Sheffield United faced Sheffield Wednesday, themselves already due to play Arsenal at Wembley a fortnight later in the Coca Cola Cup Final. But in a quick chance for revenge, the Gunners again drew Tottenham Hotspur. This was to be my first ever trip to Wembley and my overriding memory of the whole experience was the bladder tightening tension of it all. (Indeed, I missed the on-pitch celebrations at the end; such was my desperation for a urinal). In 1991, Arsenal had gone rather gun ho and found themselves two goals down inside ten minutes. They were not to repeat that mistake.
The game was edgy and combustible. In the league game at White Hart Lane, Ian Wright had gotten away with a blatant punch to the face of David Howells. Whilst Lee Dixon and Justin Edinburgh resumed their regular feud down Arsenal`s right. Terry Venables was embroiled in a legal battle with Spurs chairman Alan Sugar which would eventually see him sacked, despite a High Court injunction. "A spoonful of Sugar helps the Venables go down" the Arsenal fans would memorably sing. A nip and tuck affair was decided in the 80th minute. Ray Parlour drove to the edge of the Spurs area, only to be cynically brought down by Edinburgh on the edge of the area. Merson floated the resulting free kick to the far post where Tony Adams arrived to head down past Erik Thorstvedt and into the far corner. Lee Dixon was eventually sent off in the 90th minute of the match for tussling with Edinburgh. Arsenal held on during a mammoth eight minute period of stoppage time to exact sweet revenge over the old enemy. At the final whistle, Paul Merson infamously saluted the Arsenal fans by miming pouring pint after pint of lager down his gullet. Again, the club`s off field problems were being exorcised before an unknowing public.
The Gunners defeated Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 in the Coca Cola Cup Final at Wembley in April. But there was a hint of farce about the celebrations, as Captain Tony Adams hoisted match winner Steve Morrow onto his shoulders. Only to drop him, leaving Morrow with a broken collarbone that would rule him out of the rest of the season. Arsenal released an F.A. Cup Final song ( 'Shouting For the Gunners` for the first time ever- illuminating the extent to which commercialism was becoming ever more prevalent in the new Premier League. Ian Wright broke his toe in the build up to the final, causing the club some angst. But he made it to the starting line up as the Owls and Arsenal both played their 58th games of the season. Fast approaching my 9th birthday, I recall getting ready for school one morning early that May. My Mum came into my room and handed me an envelope without saying a word. It contained two F.A. Cup Final tickets. It`s impossible to convey that unexpected feeling.
Despite his affliction, Wright was on hand to give Arsenal a 15th minute lead in the Final when Linighan flicked on another Merson set piece and Wright was sniffing around at the back post to head the ball past Chris Woods. But the Owls hit a 61st minute equaliser when Sheridan`s ball was flicked on by John Harkes. Paul Warhurst crept in at the back post to nod the ball into the danger zone and David Hirst was on hand to smash the ball under Seaman- himself suffering a painful double hernia. The replay five days later was an equally cagey affair. A horrific car crash on the M1 meant kick off was delayed by half an hour on a rainy Thursday night at Wembley. Wright again opened the scoring. Smith flicked on Merson`s through ball to put him through on Chris Woods` goal. If you watch the camera angle from behind the goal, you can see that Merson has his arms in the air celebrating well before Wright chipped the advancing Woods. That`s how clinical he was in those situations. It was Wright`s 4th goal in a Wembley F.A. Cup Final.
But with the match moving into the 70th minute, Wednesday found the resources to respond again as Waddle`s volley deflected in off Lee Dixon. Andy Linighan had broken his nose in a clash with Mark Bright, whilst stalwart striker Alan Smith picked up a yellow card. This was notable as it was the only yellow card 'Smudger` ever picked up in his entire professional career. Wright was later replaced by David O`Leary, Arsenal`s record appearance holder playing in his last ever game before moving to Leeds United. It was also the first ever F.A. Cup Final in which the players wore their names and squad numbers on the back of their shirts. The match petered out in extra time, the toil of a 59 game campaign taking its toll on both sets of players. It looked as though the F.A. Cup Final would be decided on penalties for the first time ever. In the 119th minute, Arsenal won a corner. Merson hoisted it into the area and Andy Linighan rose above Mark Bright to head goalwards. Woods got a hand to it but could only claw it towards his own goal line. Graham Hyde attempted to smash it clear from the line, but could only help it in. "Andy Linighan...has won the Cup for Arsenal" an excitable John Motson screeched. The longest F.A. Cup Final in history had been decided after 3 hours and 59 minutes of play.
Just as with the Coca Cola Cup Final, Arsenal had found an unlikely hero. Linighan only played due to an injury to Steve Bould and the fact that new signing Martin Keown was cup-tied. With a broken nose and three broken fingers, Linighan rose in a Wembley penalty area to become one of the most unlikely heroes a Cup Final has ever seen. It meant Arsenal had become the first ever English club to win both domestic cups in the same season. Both of their winning goal scorers in each final would collect their medals with broken bones. Arsenal had soldiered to the 6th F.A. Cup success in their history and their first for 14 years. Graham would seal his reputation as a Cup manager by winning the Cup Winners Cup in 1994. But in 1995, he would be sacked in disgrace as a sludge of an Arsenal team recoiled back into the mid table anonymity from which he had reclaimed them. It would be 5 years before an urbane Frenchman would win the trophy again for Arsenal. LD.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Sunday July 17 2011
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