Greatest Game: Arsenal Vs Manchester United 14/4/99

Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.

The original publication date for this piece was January 5th 2012.

I am a Manchester United fan. Everything that follows is written from the perspective of a United fan. This concerns a period of my life when an obsession with that time could be described as a defining part of my personality, before I began to be more interested in the League of Ireland and more local football, as other posts on this site and elsewhere would attest.

Back in 1999, there were only two teams, or so it seemed in my football-addled 11 year old brain. As Manchester United and Arsenal lined out on the 14th of April to play each other for the second time in a week, everyone, from the players to the spectators, were acutely aware that they were watching the two best teams in England, the “irresistible force and the immovable object” as Sky Sports were so fond of putting it.

Things had gone pear shaped for United in 1998. At that start of that year, they were, according to a quote from their official magazine (that causes great pain upon remembrance) “the red flash disappearing over the horizon”, streaks ahead in the league, cruising towards yet another title.

Then, an injury crisis that has never really been replicated threw a spanner in the works. We crashed out of Europe, out of the FA Cup. Seemingly from nowhere, Arsenal, one of the few teams to already have beaten United that season, went on a stunning run, making good use of a number of games-in-hand. United faltered as Arsenal ran rampant, a 1-0 victory for the Gunners at Old Trafford in March the crucial result. That year was Arsenal’s all the way, a league and cup double as United were left in the dust, to rue the missed opportunities, the missing players, the aging defence, the lack of Cantona, but it was all so many excuses. Arsenal’s end-of-season rampage was evidence of an immense team, whose talent and potential had come good under Arsene Wenger.

Things didn’t seem to get much better for the red half of Manchester as time went on. That summer’s World Cup saw Arsenal’s many Dutch and French stars excel, while the most notable contribution of a United player was David Beckham’s acrimonious sending off against Argentina. Roll on a new season, where the Charity Shield curtain raiser saw United well beaten by the buoyant Gunners 3-0, a result repeated only a short while later in the league at Highbury. United just did not seem to be in the same league as the North London club whenever they were on the pitch together. The return fixture in February was a dour 1-1 draw on an Old Trafford pitch that resembled more a pool of mud then a place to play football on, where the home team had barely managed to rectify an early Anelka goal, missing a penalty in the process.

Both clubs frequently stuttered throughout the 98-99 season, with Aston Villa providing a limited challenge to the top two for a while and Chelsea being a constant presence at the top up to the run-in. As the business end of the season approached however, it was just United and Arsenal battling it out. As March turned to April, more and more people began mentioning the word “treble” in relation to United (though few bought into it), who had suddenly gone on a fine unbeaten run in all competitions, and were neck and neck with their London rivals, the lead at the top switching hands constantly.

No one was fully sure just what kind of game they were going to see in Villa Park that night, but both teams had already had plenty of drama in the competition. United had come from behind to beat Middlesbrough, snatched a late dramatic win against Liverpool after being led for over 85 minutes, had inched past Fulham, before knocking out Chelsea after two games. Arsenal had beaten Preston and Wolves, before getting past Sheffield United in bizarre circumstances, with Nwankwo Kanu forgetting to give a ball back to the opposition after an injury, and a replay being the result even though the Gunners had won. Wenger’s men finished off Derby in the last minute of their quarter final, and so the great rivals were drawn out against each other.

The first match between the two is little remembered save for two incidents: a disallowed Roy Keane strike that provoked fury at the ever controversial David Ellery, and the sending off of Arsenal’s Nelson Vivas. 120 minutes of play saw chances for both sides but no goals, and so it went to a replay, the last FA Cup semi-final replay.

I turn aside from fact at this point, just for a moment, so I can talk about what this game meant to me at the time. You must understand (if you’re reading this type of blog, you probably do), for an 11 year old watching, this might as well have been life and death. The big game against your closest rivals. Your whole life revolved around the game of football and who you supported and whether you won or lost, played well or threw it away. Your team winning or losing was the deciding factor in your mood for the coming week, for your behaviour with friends at school, with family at home. It was the difference between happy or sad, pride or shame. It was everything, absolutely everything.

I say all that to try and make clear how I felt at the time, to try and make clear how much it meant, how big the connection was. For me, these men, these teams were titans, giants, inspirations, hated figures, heroes, enemies. They were bigger than life those players, to me anyway, in a way that cannot be replicated today.

And it was more than just a football game to me and many others, it was a potential changing of the guard at the top. United had been supplanted. This was the last game we would play against Arsenal that season, and it felt like the last chance to prove a point, to stop what occasionally seemed like the inevitable, to take back the initiative, to win, to make them feel small and defeated, the way they had done to us, my own little revanchism period.

Like I said, it was a big deal.

Off they went, United in their away white. With the exception of an injured Andy Cole for United, both teams had mostly full strength squads to choose from. In-between the sticks, England’s best, David Seaman at one end, Peter Schmeichel, in his last ever season at the club, in the other. In defence, playing in white, the ever-reliable Gary Neville, the multi-tasking Phil Neville, Mr Quiet Denis Irwin and the rocks in the centre, Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen. For Arsenal, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn, the hardest of the hard. Midfield, the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Jesper Blomqvist, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes faced what at times seemed like a mirror image: Ray Parlour, Marc Overmars, Patrick Viera, Steve Bould and Emanuel Petit. And up front, Ole Gunner Solskjaer, Teddy Sheringham, Dwight Yorke, with the Gunner’s offence coming from Dennis Bergkamp, Nicholas Anelka and Nwankwo Kanu. The best squads of the top flight, without a doubt.

The first 15 minutes flew by, as the teams felt each other out and tested the other. After 17 minutes, a wayward Viera effort trickled into the hands of Schmeichel whose massive Garryowen kick found its way to Teddy Sheringham, on the edge of the Arsenal box. He was soon surrounded by three Arsenal defenders.

Many may have been wondering just why Arsenal were devoting so many resources to Sheringham whose time at United had been forgettable so far. With the purchase of Dwight Yorke, Sheringham’s place in the starting line-up had been supplanted. But there Sheringham was, injury, suspension and fatigue thrusting him back into the limelight.

Here, all he did was bring the ball down and, with a coolness that belied the threat of the Arsenal defence forming around, laid the ball off simply.

The man approaching the ball was David Beckham. Turned into the scapegoat for England’s failures in France 98, some had wondered whether Beckham would even return to United for the new season, and if he did, would he be able to deal with the pressure, the vitriol, the hate? Beckham not only dealt with it, but played better than ever that season.

Here, the ball was barely moving on the Villa Park pitch. It might as well have been a free kick that Beckham had taken five minutes to prepare for.

He struck the ball perfectly, giving it a delicious spinning curl that caught Seamen totally off guard, the Arsenal keeper clearing expecting it to go to his left. It didn’t. Seaman dived right too late, and Beckham had United ahead of Arsenal for the first time in over five meetings. The United fans behind Seaman’s goal went ballistic. I went ballistic. As far as I was concerned, we’d just seen the goal of the season. Hard to believe that Beckham’s peach of a shot has been largely pushed aside in memories of that game.

Arsenal were not a team to sit back, and soon Bergkamp had the United defence torn open, his shot just flicking wide of the United goal, Schmeichel beaten. The Arsenal midfield began to exert more dominance, drawing the fouls from United, with Roy Keane booked. Sheringham had two great chances in the first, a shot and a header, both wide. Petit’s narrow angled strike from the right was saved at the near post, before Anelka hit the side-netting. Half-time came, the game back and forth, on a knife edge.

Solskjaer shot wide early in the second, before getting an even better opportunity later, clean through at first, before Keown put the pressure on, the Norwegian’s resulting shot straight at Seaman. Parlour set up Anelka in the United box, but the Frenchman blasted over. Cue the introduction of the saved Overmars and Giggs, who immediately started making an impact.

As the second half began wore on, United fans might have been forgiven for thinking it was finally their night, as the boys in white and black were certainly the better team so far, bossing the midfield again and still threatening for more goals. Up stepped Dennis Bergkamp, the Arsenal talisman, who had started playing from the left flank and running the ball into the centre. Out came fellow Dutchman Stam, who had been munching lesser attackers all season with ease.

Bergkamp shot from distance, perhaps out of desperation more than anything. The deflection off Stam came. And off the ball went in a different direction, bouncing, moving almost in slow motion to my eyes as Schmeichel, caught out as Seaman had been in the first, scrambled back in the opposite direction, stretched out, couldn’t get there, it was going wide surely, no it wasn’t, and there it was in the back of the net. 1-1, and now we had a game. The initiative had swung decisively, as United’s cohesion simply fell apart for the next few minutes.

“Never write them off” screamed Martin Tyler, and you never, ever should.

United were reeling, the midfield disjointed, the defence stunned. Bergkamp got the ball on the left again, charged into the centre with space, and let fly. It was a poor shot, but Schmeichel failed to deal with it the right way, the ball slipping from his grasp and bouncing in front. There was Anelka, not quite yet with the reputation of petulance and restlessness, who had scored against United several times that season. He took the ball, rounded Schmeichel with ease and tapped it home.

Arsenal went crazy, the game overturned in a matter of minutes, the new natural order re-asserting itself. But United were celebrating too, as was I, with the benefit of TV cameras showing that most joyous of sight for me and the most grim for a Gunner: a raised offside flag, the lineman in front of a large group of Manchester fans, already dancing with schadenfreude-tinged glee. “It’s Arsenal’s turn” said Tyler, with the memory of Keane’s first match strike still fresh in all our minds. The Arsenal players and fans mobbing Anelka were wrenched from their celebrations, their joy turning to confusion, anger. But it had been the right call, the Frenchman in an offside position when Bergkamp had made the shot that rebounded to him.

You might have thought this would have changed everything, that the momentum would have been sucked out of Arsenal with the decision, but that was not Arsenal of that season, a team with confidence, sure of themselves, and already attacking again before Sky Sports had finished showing replays of the disallowed goal.

Off Overmars went down the left flank, the streak in red. His fast paced forward runs, Giggs-like in their potential threat, were always enough to make me wince. He was a true quality player. It was his goal the previous season that had sunk United in Old Trafford and if one man on the pitch was determined to stop him repeating that, it was Roy Keane, who scythed in recklessly. Overmars went flying forward, as if his lower legs had hit a brick wall, and Ellery wasted no time in sending the already booked Keane to the dressing room, the Arsenal fans around the tunnel suddenly back in jubilant voice as the Cork native trudged away from the pitch.

An Arsenal equaliser, the defence in bits, the midfield no longer operating, the forwards suddenly anonymous and now the talismanic Captain was gone, with our most deadly rivals running rampant all over the pitch. Now, Arsenal fans must have felt, now is our moment to put them to the sword.

United went into turtle mode, with the strength in the centre of the park no longer available. Arsenal flung themselves forward, but chances were slim, the bus truly parked. A Parlour shot from outside the box forced a save from Schmeichel, but as the game went on, it seemed that extra-time was an inevitability. Defend, defend, defend was the Manchester philosophy, chase then down, give them no room, welly the ball away whenever you have the chance. Push, push, push was the Arsenal reply as desperate defending met skilled attack.

So it went on, as time ticked away, United fans praying now for the final whistle, even for a temporary respite in the relentless pressure from the Londoners.

Out the ball came to Ray Parlour, one of the diehard Gunners. Forward he charged into the box at Phil Neville, the younger brother. The tackle was clumsy. The penalty was well deserved. That horrible numb feeling overcame me, the world lurched, as the Referee pointed to the spot (for what it was worth, I have never had a high opinion of Ellery, but his performance was good that night).

We’ve all been there. Hope leaves you for a moment, as you realise the entire game, perhaps your entire season, rests on one kick and one man’s dive in a certain direction. The kick came from Bergkamp. He was much ridiculed figure from the United faithful at times, his fear of flying foremost, but he stepped up to take that penalty despite having missed a score of his previous attempts in the past while. That takes guts, but his lack of scoring history from the spot was the thread I clung onto as he ran-up.

Schmeichel, in that horrible monstrosity of luminous green that was that seasons goalkeeping jersey, was facing him. His last months at United, the Great Dane was like a wall on the goal line at times. He was a true giant between the sticks, my favourite, my inspiration (I was a goalkeeper in school, if you haven’t guessed). United would take years to replace him.

Bergkamp went right. So did Schmeichel. The ball was pushed away, the tables swung again and the United fans behind the goal celebrated as if we had won. I celebrated as if had won, and the image of Schmeichel screaming in delight, fists clenched, before pushing the players who came to embrace away, getting them to focus back on the game, was one of many seared into my mind from that night. We were still in it as the end of the 90 came, and that was like a victory in itself.

Both teams, both sets of fans, breathed. It had been an utter rollercoaster of a second half, and it seemed like far longer than 45 minutes and change had passed. Now, as United got ready for another 30 minutes of siege and Arsenal for 30 minutes of attack, the supporters braced themselves for more shredded nerves and destroyed fingernails.

Lovely set-up play from Arsenal saw another great Schmeichel save from a rasping outside-the-box shot by Bergkamp, the Dane injuring himself in the process. United’s allocation of substitutes had been used up with the inclusion of Yorke to add an attacking threat, so the big goalie could only receive minimal attention to what turned out to be a muscle strain, before carrying on, stopping a Johnsen ricochet from crossing the line only a few minutes later before Overmars went close again.

Time ticked on. The first half of extra-time concluded, another 15 minutes of relentless pressure from the holders, Yorke dropping further and further back to aid the beleaguered defence. The second half began, and saw no let-up. But they were all starting to tire.

109 minutes into a game against your biggest rivals, only a few days after playing 120 against the same opposition, in April, the back-end of the season, when the games just pile up and up. Wouldn’t you be tired?

One player who was certainly a bit tired was Patrick Viera, whose cross-field ball at what seemed like the beginning of another Arsenal push was badly miscued, falling directly into the path of Ryan Giggs, who took it forward.

Watching from afar, I remember hoping that he could push forward and waste a bit of time. Only Yorke was ahead of him and only Scholes and Butt went to support him as he began his run.

I should have known by then that wasting time was not Giggs’ style. He was about to earn the moniker my North-London residing Aunt would throw at him ever after: “That Welsh git”.

Viera came in to make a challenge, but Giggs just nudged the ball to the left before doing the same to Dixon, bamboozled by the quick footwork. Then Dixon and Keown combined together to try and out a stop to him, the extra man free from the lack of attackers; Giggs dribbled through the gap past both. Tony Adams was the only player within reach, lunging in to try and block.

And then suddenly there he was. Inside the Arsenal penalty area, having blown past their defence in mere seconds, only Seaman in front of him, Adams a millisecond from being in the way. The angle was tight though, his momentum working against him, the Gunner defence racing after him. He had one touch to do something.

Common sense might have said to try and pass it back to Butt, screaming for the ball, to give him a clear shot at goal with a flat-footed Seaman stranded. Or maybe a cross to Scholes at the far post.

Instead, Giggs did exactly what he had done against Juventus the previous year, in almost the exact same position: powered a devastating left-foot screamer past a stunned Seaman and into the roof of the Arsenal goal. Ten seconds after Viera gave it away, United had the ball in the net.

A deep breath, a moment to wait for a possible Referee’s whistle or a Linesman flag, then an explosion of pure, unadulterated joy. Giggs, with his shirt off, United fans surging onto the pitch, Arsenal fans silent and unmoving, and my 11 year old self close to tears.

The goal of the season had been scored in the game of the season. And from being in a position where United clung to the hope of a penalty shoot-out, now they were defending a lead.

Ten minutes still remained to be played, but it was is if, in my mind anyway, the game was already over. It was as if I just knew we were going to win at that point. Arsenal couldn’t possibly peg us back. Keane’s red and Bergkamp’s goal were banished from my mind. All I could see was a Beckham’s curl, Anelka’s disallowed strike, Schmeichel saving a penalty and “that Welsh git” putting a lightning bolt past Seaman. We were never going to lose that game after Giggs scored. We just couldn’t. The Gods of football wouldn’t let us.

I was 11. We’ve all been there.

In reality, Arsenal, who flung all they had forward, went close twice in their quest to force the game into penalties, through an Adams header and a desperately close Anelka wide in the dying seconds. I’m sure those moments gave me heart-attacks, but the memories of those attempts was lost in the majesty of the game as a whole. The final whistle blew, and it was done. We were into the FA Cup final, the Treble vision had gone from pipe dream to viable aspiration but much, much more importantly then any of that: we had beaten Arsenal. The management teams hugged on the touchline, fans streamed onto the pitch with banners waving. Dixon, a class act, took the time to shake Giggs’ hand despite being he was mobbed by the United faithful. Beckham was jumping up and down on the sidelines like a little kid, actions that I was imitating of my own accord.

Both 23 year old me today and 11 year old me at the time, see’s/saw that game as the defining moment of the 98/99 season, where United beat Arsenal and took the initiative for all that followed. My memories of jumping around hyperactively, as Giggs scored and my bemused Father looked on, are certainly rose-tinged, but they are no less precious to me because of it. It was one of the moments of my young life, being connected in any small way to that victory, the game of the season, the game of the year, the game of the decade. We beat Newcastle in the final, an anti-climactic contest after the semi’s, where Sheringham and Scholes provided the winning strikes.

Gleeful feelings of victory give way to more quiet sentimentality. Arsenal would have future leagues and future FA Cup victories, future wins over United just we would have over them. The rise of Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, have made me think much more fondly and respectfully of that Arsenal team, as if those years of United/Gunner dominance and rivalry was some mythic chivalrous age.

And my love for that United team, that beat the odds to defeat Arsenal, never gave up (a common trait of most Ferguson teams) and went on to beat Juventus in Turin, beat Spurs on the last day of the season, beat Newcastle at Wembley and beat Munich in three glorious minutes in Barcelona, will never be surpassed. You’re never more in love with football, in my opinion, then when you are a kid. That United team was my childhood. Youngsters today have Rooney, Vidic, Fletcher to look up to and worship. But the 1999 squad was my United team.

And that semi-final was their greatest game.

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