2003: In Safe Hands
Following the Double win of 2001-02, the Gunners began the 2002-03 season like an express train. This was despite Messrs Pires and Ljungberg beginning the season in the treatment room and with Lee Dixon and club captain Tony Adams having now retired. Patrick Vieira was named captain. By November, the Title was being talked up as a procession for the rampant Gunners. But the league campaign trailed off. In early March, the Gunners beat Charlton at home to go eight points clear at the top of the table on the same day Manchester United were losing the Carling Cup Final to Liverpool. But complacency took over and United roared in to take Arsenal`s league title away.
But the Gunners found consolation in the shape of the 2003 F.A. Cup, retaining the other trophy they picked up in 2002. It was a cup run that took in many picture book moments and incidents to trouble club trivia for decades to come. A milestone for Bergkamp, an away tie played at Highbury, an open goal miss and the death knell of Beckham`s United career as well as possibly the greatest goalkeeping save the competition has ever seen and a Final played under a closed roof. This is how Arsenal won their 9th F.A. Cup.
When Oxford came to Highbury for the F.A. Cup 3rd Round, they arrived with Arsenal top of the Premier League table. Third Division Oxford, managed by Ian Atkins, had just completed their move to the Kassam Stadium and were still reeling from the controversy of having to sack previous manager Mark Wright for allegedly making a racist remark to a match official. The game did not present too stiff a challenge for Arsenal, though Oxford put up a brave defensive resistance. The Gunners giving a debut to Sebastien Svard in midfield. However, Oxford were unable to prevent a significant milestone for one of the club`s great legends. Dennis Bergkamp played a cute pass to Jeffers on the edge of the area; Jeffers returned the ball into Bergkamp`s path first time. The Dutchman touched the ball delicately past Sam Ricketts before lifting the ball over Oxford keeper Andy Woodman with a wedged right foot finish. It was Bergkamp`s 100th goal for Arsenal. One week later, Thierry Henry would join him on that milestone.
Oxford weren`t to be embarrassed but never looked likely to threaten Stuart Taylor`s goal. On 67 minutes, the tie was decided when Giovanni van Bronckhost`s corner was helped into his own net by Scott McNiven. The 4th Round would give the Gunners even less illustrious opponents. They were drawn to play Conference side Farnborough Town away from home. Farnborough`s 4,000 capacity Cherrywood Road ground had only 627 seats and aroused security fears. Farnborough opted to have the game switched to Highbury, with the £500,000 payday a large factor in their decision. It was the final time the F.A would facilitate such a decision, ruling shortly after that F.A. Cup venues could no longer be switched to the away side`s lodgings. Farnborough would tumble into liquidation in May 2007 and have since been reformed as Farnborough F.C.
Farnborough took the whole of the 6,000 Clock End- a stand that dwarfed their own ground. Arsenal took the peculiar step of having to play at Highbury in their away strip. The Gunners made easy work of Boro, Sol Campbell headed in van Bronckhorst`s right wing free kick after 19 minutes. Just four minutes later Francis Jeffers, who would finish up as Arsenal`s top scorer in the F.A. Cup for 2002-03, doubled the Gunners` lead when Pires carved Boro open with a fine pass to Toure on the right, Kolo put a low cross into the six yard area where Jeffers was on hand to live up to his 'Fox in the Box` nickname. Six minutes after that mission improbable became mission impossible when Jeffers ran onto Campbell`s high ball and Christian Lee tugged Jeffers` shirt on the edge of the area. Despite the protestations of a few Arsenal players and of the 6,000 Boro fans behind the goal, referee Mike Riley stuck to the letter of the law and sent Lee off.
The game rather petered out into an entente cordiale with Farnborough keen not to be embarrassed and Arsenal happy to play out a comfortable victory at a walking pace. But on 68 minutes, Arsenal extended the lead when Franny Jeffers headed in van Bronckhorst`s left wing cross. A touch of the surreal took over on 72 minutes when Ken Charlery`s pass put Rocky Baptiste through on goal. Pascal Cygan tried desperately to get back, but the 'home` crowd willed Baptiste to score, groaning when his original effort was blocked by Stuart Taylor. But the rebound fell to Baptiste who hooked the rebound over Taylor and into the net, sending the 6,000 Boro fans into raptures. The 32,000 Arsenal crowd cheered the goal too and sang, "We all agree, Farnborough`s better than Tottenham" for the rest of the match.
The Gunners added some gloss to the score line when Bergkamp slid van Bronckhorst`s effort in from close range (and quite publicly shunned the unpopular Jeffers in the celebration) and when Lauren skipped past three Boro defenders before lifting the ball into the roof of the North Bank net a 5-1 victory was recorded. The 5th Round wouldn`t be played in anywhere as near as Corinthian a spirit. After the gentle introduction of Third Division and Conference sides respectively at home, Arsenal were handed an away tie at Manchester United in the 5th Round. The game was played in the same week that the Champions League 2nd Group Stage came out of hibernation for the winter. With trips to Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester City and Amsterdam already shoehorned into the fortnight either side, the journey wasn`t exactly welcomed by Arsenal. (Nor those of us that made all five journeys!)
Arsene Wenger invited the ire of the tabloid press when he confirmed he would play an under strength side. Pires and Henry were left on the bench with Sol Campbell and Gilberto Silva. But it was Wenger who would have the last laugh. Ruud van Nistelrooy set the tone for a bruising encounter with two x rated challenges in the opening eight minutes which could easily have broken the legs of Lauren and Martin Keown. Yet the nation went mad seven months later when Lauren and Keown jumped on van Nistelrooy`s back. People are very odd. But hilarity was to prevail beneath the veneer of hatred between the sides. Keown got caught underneath a long ball, Ryan Giggs seized on his uncertainty, rounded Seaman leaving himself with an open goal. But amazingly Giggs turned the ball over the bar.
The Gunners took hold of that serendipity as it carried them into a one goal lead. Edu`s free kick took a giant deflection off of Rio Ferdinand`s head, wrong footing Barthez and creeping into the net in front of the travelling 9,000 Arsenal contingent. With Vieira and Edu positively running the match from central midfield, Arsenal took a two goal lead seven minutes into the second half. Jeffers and Wiltord linked up in United`s area before Sylvain Wiltord steered a cool finish past his compatriot Barthez. A majestic victory was given tabloid fuel when Beckham and Ferguson became embroiled in a row in the dressing room at full time. Ferguson hurled a boot which caught Beckham above the eye, besmirching his boyish good looks with an unsightly gash. Rumours abound that the source of the row emerged when Ferguson told Beckham, "Ashley Cole made you look a right **** today." Beckham`s alleged response? "Wenger made you look an even bigger ****!" I`ve no idea how true that exchange was, but let`s just say over the last eight years I`ve convinced myself of its authenticity.
The Quarter Final draw didn`t treat Arsenal much better, as their victims from the 2002 Final Chelsea came to Highbury looking for revenge. As was custom for F.A. Cup ties, Clock Enders were moved from their normal seats into the North Bank. The week before this tie was played; the increasing rivalry between the two sides was illuminated as we were handed stickers bearing the legend "1955 OH DEAR" on them as a welcome to our temporary visitors. But Chelsea made themselves feel well at home after just 17 minutes when John Terry rose to head home Gronjkaer`s corner. Arsenal passed up a perfect chance to equalise when Desailly hauled down Jeffers in the area. Henry`s penalty cannoned away off the post.
But eight minutes before half time a scrappy equaliser from Jeffers made amends, before Henry graced Highbury with a master class. Campbell`s ball over the top had left Desailly and Terry in all sorts of trouble. With Cudicini rushing out to intercept, Henry turned his back, pirouetted past the committed Italian keeper and rolled the ball into the empty net. A quite delightful piece of improvisation from a player increasingly becoming considered the world`s finest. But with seven minutes remaining, a goalmouth scramble saw Frank Lampard toe poke a loose ball past David Seaman to earn Chelsea a replay. The replay would take place at Stamford Bridge a week before a make or break Champions League tie away at Valencia.
Arsene left out Bergkamp, Gilberto, Campbell, Henry and Pires for the rematch. Patrick Vieira played with a heavily strapped knee. He would run the show on one leg. Vieira was at the fulcrum of the first goal when he powered through Chelsea`s midfield and put Wiltord through on goal. Wiltord was clinical with his finish. The second arrived nine minutes later as Vieira again bustled his way into the Chelsea area, he sent in a low cross aimed at Jeffers, only for John Terry to divert the ball into his own net. Vieira controlled the game almost single handedly at times, but Chelsea found a fillip when Pascal Cygan was sent off for a professional foul on Hasselbaink. Seconds later, Terry headed home Zenden`s free kick to set up what was sure to be a nerve shredding finale. Kolo Toure had to play the final twenty minutes at centre half. That was to be his first ever game in that position.
But Arsenal hit back to restore their two goal lead almost instantly. Lauren sauntered in from the right, but found little companionship inside Chelsea`s half. He manoeuvred himself in field to the edge of the Chelsea area, hitting a low left foot shot that squirmed past Cudicini, leaving the 5,000 of us gathered behind that goal in the Matthew Harding Stand to convulse with delight. It was one of Arsenal`s great performances of the season and one of Vieira`s greatest for the club. Unfortunately, the knee injury became terminal and he was lost for the season. Suspension and injury began to take hold at a time in which United were rising to the boil in the title race. The Gunners would need to call upon all of their energy reserves to negotiate the remaining rounds of the F.A. Cup.
Neither were gloriously achieved victories. Both relied a little on perseverance, serendipity and the last remaining feats of goalkeeping ability of one of Arsenal`s best ever custodians. It was Championship side Sheffield United who lay in wait at Old Trafford- a ground that was becoming Arsenal`s second home. Sheffield United were Arsenal`s victims in the 1936 F.A. Cup Final and also played that surreal Cup tie at Highbury in 1999 in which the original result was voided at Arsenal`s request. The Gunners would win their third consecutive F.A. Cup semi final with a Freddie Ljungberg goal in the 36th minute. But it was laced with controversy as referee Graham Poll unwittingly collided with Blades schemer Michael Tonge and a promising United attack was halted in its tracks. Vieira picked up the loose ball and found Wiltord, his cross from the right was smashed in off the underside of the bar by Ljungberg. The Blades fans howled their discontent. But no rule had been broken.
With a title showdown with United at Highbury on the cards four days later, Arsenal looked to protect their lead as the Blades attacked. Martin Keown had to go off injured, leaving Patrick Vieira playing the final 15 minutes as an emergency centre half. But it was the man behind him that would steal the headlines. Robert Page headed Tonge`s corner towards the danger area, Carl Asaba miscued his volley inside the six yard area, leaving Seaman wrong footed. The ball boomeranged to the back post, where Paul Peschisolido lingered unmarked three yards from goal. Peschisolido connected with a firm header, but somehow, Seaman shifted his balance, threw himself across his line and not only got a hand to the ball, but managed to keep a grip of it for half a second, scooping it from behind him to tip it away from goal. This, in Seaman`s 1,000th professional game at the age of 40. It was enough to carry Arsenal over the line.
However, the battle scars were running deeper. Injury to Vieira and a spectacularly unfair four match ban for Sol Campbell deprived the team of some of its spine. Bolton performed a very nice hatchet job; injuring Ljungberg, Cygan and Lauren in one single match- a match in which Arsenal effectively surrendered the title in a 2-2 draw at Bolton. It was to be Southampton who would contest the Final at the Millennium Stadium, their first final since winning the trophy in 1976. Arsenal were without Campbell, Vieira and Pascal Cygan. Martin Keown had a cortisone injection into his kneecap to play alongside Oleg Luzhny in defence. David Seaman captained the team in his final ever Arsenal match. The rain teemed down in Wales on the day of the Final, meaning the 122nd F.A. Cup Final would be the first one ever played under a closed roof. It made for an eerie, muggy feel inside the stadium as the storm clouds enveloped.
A goal in the 38th minute would be enough to win the Final for Arsenal. Henry`s probing pass found Bergkamp in the area, Bergkamp looked to guide the ball into the path of the onrushing Ljungberg. Lundekvam blocked his shot, but the loose ball fell to Pires, who calmly controlled a bobbling ball and slotted it low past Antti Niemi. Arsenal would require a controlled performance, with Parlour and Gilberto marshalling the midfield and Luzhny quelling most supporters` doubts with a Man of the Match performance at centre half. But the Gunners once again owed a debt of gratitude to their goalkeeper. In the 89th minute, Brett Ormerod chested down Tessem`s pass and volleyed on the turn, sending the ball towards the top corner. Seaman, who had had next to nothing to do for the previous 89 minutes, kept his concentration to turn the ball over with a terrific save.
It was a demonstration of what made Seaman such a valuable goalkeeper. Good goalkeepers have fallen short at Arsenal in the past because the truth is, playing in goal for a side like Arsenal presents a different challenge. You will spend large spells of any game inactive. But when you face that one shot in the entire game, you have to have the concentration to deal with it. That Seaman could still do this at 40- and in a Cup Final no less- showed you everything about his qualities. Ashley Cole cleared a Beattie header off the line from the resulting corner. But the Gunners had just enough puff to get over the line and seal their 9th F.A. Cup- taking them past Tottenham`s total of 8. It was the first time the team had ever retained the trophy too. Captain Seaman said; "We were so determined to win today after the disappointment we had in the league. We knew we`d be under pressure till the final minute."
Wenger rather succinctly summated the mood, "We are pleased because we have played so well this season and we were scared to finish without a trophy." So spoiled were we as supporters at the time, I don`t deny heading back down the M4 viewing the Cup win as merely a consolation prize. Seaman and a suited and booted Patrick Vieira took to the podium to lift the Cup together. Robert Pires became possibly the first Cup Final hero ever not to be able to conduct press interviews due to his limited grasp of the English language. The tournament showed a perfect mixture of Arsenal`s qualities. The majesty of the wins at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, the grit to get past Sheffield United and Southampton, as well as outstanding moments of quality from the likes of Seaman, Vieira, Ljungberg and Pires to carry us over the line. The F.A. Cup was won with determination and style. It would be a Cup win that would set the club up for its greatest season ever. LD.
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