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A slight departure from the usual DoD history posts this time, as I ramble on about my trip to the 2001 FA Cup final.
This is kind of the latest in a multi-part look at the history of Arsenal, but also sort of not.
If I could still caption photos, the caption would say that the photo above is one of the first images that the SBN photo tool produces when searching for "arsenal fa cup".
By 2001, Arsene Wenger's style and tactics revolution was in full swing - Arsenal hadn't won a trophy since 1998 (CLUB IN VERY SMALL CRISIS), but it's safe to say that no English team had played the way Arsenal were playing up to that point; they were starting to combine a fast, sharp attack with a dominant midfield, run by Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Ray Parlour, Patrick Vieira, and Dennis Bergkamp (although Vieira also saw time in defense early in the season). The fact that Arsenal's midfield was able to pass the ball to the likes of Thierry Henry, the aforementioned Bergkamp (when he played a more forward, dropped-back-striker role as he often did), and, uh, Sylvain Wiltord didn't hurt Arsenal's attacking prowess, either.
Despite all that firepower, Arsenal hadn't won a trophy since the 1998 season; the entertainment factor was so high, though, that people didn't really care all that much. Arsenal finished second for three straight seasons after 1998, and also reached the Champions League in each of those years - twice making it into the stupidity that was the two-group-stage UEFA Champions League in 1999-2000 and 2000-01. Yes, TWO group stages. Why two group stages? Money, that's why. Did you really even need to ask? Thankfully UEFA came to its senses and just signed a bunch of fat sponsorship deals to provide money to teams, because TWO GROUP STAGES WAS INTERMINABLE AND POINTLESS AND STUPID. I mean, seriously? TWO? DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP. But I digress.
Fast forward to late April of 2001, when your intrepid writer found himself once again in the great city of London. My two games at Highbury that season were, happily, both wins - a 4-1 over Everton and a 2-1 over those wonderful folk from Leeds. The Leeds game was particularly fun, because that was when David O'Leary was their coach, so most of the crowd spent the first couple minutes of the match applauding him because he was David O'Leary (in those days there was no pre-match lineup of players, so things just sorta...started and there was no chance to boo the introduction of the players or coaching staff), and the rest of the match abusing him because he was the coach of one of the dirtiest, ugliest, nastiest teams of the modern era. It was awesome.
That game was also made awesome because my friend Colin in London, whose family has had Arsenal season tickets since the late 1940's, set me up with a great seat. I was in the North Bank, in the front row by the corner flag. Highbury, as you may or may not remember, was a really tight stadium, so there was maybe six feet between me and the endline. I was so close I could touch Dennis Bergkamp when he came over to take a corner. Instead, when he came over to our corner, I just sorta sat there in awe and swooned like a 1950's schoolgirl at a Bobby Darin concert. my fanboy swooning was even worse when Henry came over for a throwin. I WAS SO CLOSE
Sadly, those were also the days when it was not allowed to take pictures at matches - every time I got my camera out, a steward came over to tell me to put it away (this is also the period during which the Premier League tried to copyright the table, in order to force news outlets to pay royalties everytime a table was printed, so that's the mindset I was up against as I tried to get a few holiday snaps). I got a couple pictures of nothing in particular, but sadly no good game or player pics.
The main impetus for that trip, though, was the FA Cup final. The minute that Arsenal beat Pigeon Badge FC to reach the final (HE SCORED AGAINST THE SCUM, WE BEAT THE SCUM 2-1...), I got on the phone and booked a trip to London, because my aforementioned Arsenal friend said he would put me up and we'd travel to the game together. As the game was in Cardiff that year, thanks to the demolition of Wembley Stadium before its rebuilding, I gladly took him up on that offer. He wasn't able to get me a ticket through official means, but said there'd be no shortage of touts outside Millenium Stadium, so as long as I had cash I'd be fine - and if for some reason I couldn't get a ticket, he pointed out that I would at least have a fistful of cash to spend in one of the dozen or so Arsenal-for-a-day pubs around the stadium.
The day before the final, then, saw me pile into a Citroen with my friend, his wife, and their then-7-year-old son. My friend had a couple good friends in Newport, a short train ride from Cardiff, so we stayed with them the night before the match, and Colin and I boarded the train to Cardiff the next morning ready to watch Arsenal win the Cup. As is often the case on days like this, everyone on the train was in a festive mood - the good folks at then-British Rail had the sense to segregate the train so Liverpool fans traveling from London were in one set of cars and Arsenal fans were on another. After a short train ride to Cardiff, we got off the train and I was greeted with the most amazing sight ever - a vast sea of red, Liverpool on one side of the square and Arsenal on the other. And so, so many pubs.
First order of business, then, was to round up a ticket. I quickly found a guy selling, but he said "you don't want my tickets, mate" and then I noticed that everyone buying from him was wearing a Liverpool shirt (not the same one, though, that'd be uncomfortable), so I quickly moved on and started looking for a line of Arsenal shirt wearing fans. I found one, and by the time I got to the guy selling, he said "I have one ticket left, it's £275. You want it?" I gulped and said sure, and handed the guy £280 because all I had was twenty-pound notes. I told him to consider the £5 a tip (at that point, what's five more pounds?) and went back to my friend, ticket in hand. We found a pub that had a clear path to the bar, ordered two beers each, and headed back outside to drink in the square by the stadium. Did I mention I love the UK?
Then it came time to enter the stadium. Millenium Stadium was fairly new at that point, and it's a really nice stadium - and it turned out my seat was pretty good. I was on the second level, about four rows back, directly above the goal Arsenal was to be attacking in the second half. I spent most of the 20 minutes or so before the match started being very nervous that I had bought a counterfeit ticket, and fearing a tap on the shoulder from a security guard and an escort out of the stadium, but when the game kicked off and that hadn't happened, I figured I was safe.
It's safe to say the game was an amazing experience, even though it was awful. I won't recount the whole match here - there's plenty of places to read about it and watch the "highlights". Suffice it to say that while I am not typically the type of sports fan that holds a grudge about a particular game, to this day, every time I see Michael Owen I want to reach through my TV and punch him in the throat.
My enduring memory of the game itself was the golden chance (chances, really, as he had a couple in one sequence) Thierry Henry missed early in the second half, when the match was still scoreless, that could have put the game away - that happened at the goal right below me, and it was heartbreaking. After the game ended, I decided to stay for the whole post-game thing - the trophy presentation, the lap of honour, the whole thing, because I had no idea if I would ever make it back to a Cup final again (SPOILER ALERT: I haven't yet!).
The second-worst part of the whole thing, behind hearing 25,000 Liverpool fans sing You'll Never Walk Alone over and over and over again (I HATE THAT SONG SO SO MUCH NOW), was seeing Thierry collapse in agony in front of the goal at the final whistle, and watching him lie there sobbing so hard I could see his body heaving even from where I sat. It took both Tony Adams and Freddie Ljungberg to pick him up and get him over to collect his second-place medal, which I'm sure is to this day a treasured part of Thierry Henry's trophy case at home.
One of the other funny things that I will always remember from that game is the people sitting around me. I knew none of them, obviously, but when Ljungberg finally put Arsenal on the scoreboard, in the 72d minute, I, being the American sports fan that I am, wheeled around to high-five the guy sitting next to me. He wheeled around to me and...looked very confused, because he was ready to wrap me in a giant bear hug and jump up and down; somehow, we managed to do both, simultaneously confusing and entertaining both of us. High fivin' white guys!
So that was my trip to the 2001 FA Cup final. It doesn't contain a ton of Arsenal history, but I'll get back on track with all of that in my next post, in which I will use a word that rhymes with Shminbincibles. Stay tuned to find out what it is!