As in previous years we made a weekend of it, travelling down on the Friday and returning on the Sunday. This gave us ample time to down a few Friday night, laugh at poor Marion's pre-match hangover and spend most of the day itself in our regular haunt less than two-hundred yards from Entrance One of the Millennium Stadium. I was there along with John, Chris, Martin, Val, Ian, Ann, Brian, Tom and countless other up-for-it Gooners. The pre-match atmosphere between two sets of fans who both rejoice in hating Tottenham was very good natured, just as it should be on such a splendid occasion. In fact Sunday morning's radio reported just three arrests, one being the prat who got on the pitch, shamefully from the Arsenal end. The other two arrests were for touting. I've no idea what tickets were fetching prior to kick off but I did see many familiar touts who lurk like leeches around Highbury on match days.
Entering a stadium with the lid on is just a tad surreal, and the feeling of being enclosed watching a match was just a little unsettling at first. Artificial is the best word to describe it. What had been even more surreal was the piss awful Welsh weather. Cup Finals are normally played in sunshine and discussed at length before and after the game in pub gardens. Inside there was a distinct contrast between the two ends. Arsenal fans either wear their normal clobber or an Arsenal shirt of supremely varying vintages in the main and are not overly bothered about flags or banners, which in my opinion is a bit of a shame. The Southampton end contained a mass of yellow and although most of the yellow comprised new tee shirts the effect, enhanced by flags and balloons, was probably one of the best I've witnessed at an F A Cup Final and this was my eleventh with Arsenal. So all due credit to the Saints fans for a superb display and excellent support throughout.
The game itself started with a rush for Arsenal when Thierry broke through inside the first half minute, despite his shirt being heaved off his back, and drew a great save from Antti Niemi. Our first clearance came from Luzhny and the more I look back the bigger the case I can make for him being man of the match. His battle with Beattie was crucial and his contribution immense. I've not watched the game on TV or video yet but cannot recall a single mistake he made. We started the better and were building moves quite well and playing some decent football. Anders Svensson injured himself whist doing Dennis but the Saints hoofed away Rob's free kick.
Henry had a shot that went close while in midfield Gilberto was having a tremendous match. Long throws from Oakley were a threat and his first saw Michael Svensson have a header that was easily dealt with by captain Dave. I wonder what O2 though of Seaman wearing an orange shirt? A brilliant ball by Dennis to Thierry that he couldn't quite take on his left. A Keown slice, a blast from Telfer and Svensson firing over on the turn saw Saints get back in the running but until almost the very end of the match the men in yellow had only half chances or long range efforts that never really threatened. A Lauren cross after good work by Rob won another corner.
Henry was tending to overdo it and our fluidity was only spasmodic before the break. Telfer launched into the back of Gilberto and Gilberto stayed down injured. Keown was then carded for a foul on Ormerod and Southampton won a free kick, despite Martin's challenge actually being made over the touchline when the ball was already out of play, what are assistant refs there for? As the tension livened the proceedings Beattie was very late and high on Oleg which caused Luzhny to tell him how it was and Barber to book the Saints hero. Oleg had obviously upset Beattie by his superior play, which was a very good sign for Gooners.
This was a messy period of too many Arsenal long balls pretty well all of which were aimed at Henry in a rather obvious manner. I wasn't alone in wanting us to get the ball down and play the bloody thing, because it's what we do best. Dave had to come out of his area to head clear, which he did well and then Silva exerted some pressure as the pendulum swung back our way. What proved to be our winner in the thirty-seventh minute wasn't a classic but it was well worked. Ray from deep right arrowed a ball into Thierry's feet, Thierry held it up beautifully before playing it into the path of Dennis who's late run was perfectly timed and took him into a right hand channel. Dennis took it on and then cut it back for Freddie who played it on for Rob via a defender. Pires took the chance well by keeping it both low and close to the keeper from short range. 1-0 to Arsenal and Pires enjoyed his Cup Final goal even more than his recent hat trick against the Saints.
A confident Arsenal spell followed where both Dennis and Ray had shots that kept up some fine pressure play. The build-ups were good and we were in almost total control for the ten minutes, including the two minutes added, before half time. Happy Gooners everywhere at the break because although we hadn't set the place on fire the score line is everything in a Final.
For a top Stadium it has to be said that the facilities provided for half-time relief and refuelling were totally inadequate. Just when will anyone build a Stadium with sufficient toilet facilities and a decent chance to purchase food or drink in the half time break. Queuing for a sink is not on in this day and age, although it still beats the low tide of the good old Wem-ber-lee days.
Oleg started the second half just as he had the first by making a fine clearance as the Saints moved in to set one up. Southampton pressure continued as Keown drove Beattie wide and then Oleg conceded a free kick wide on the Saints right which Martin cleared for a corner. A glancing header from their only forward of note went wide. How poor was it that no ball boys were provided on such a big occasion? Seaman had to collect his own ball for goal kicks and even Ginger kicked one back to keep play going, mind you they were losing at the time, so no real surprise there. Lundekvam was down injured, after attempting to tackle Dennis, so Thierry kicked it out.
Telfer was booked for a foul on Pires, another piece of driving play from Gilberto, followed by more good play by Ray. A rarer Southampton attack saw Dave catch a header made from a wide position. Dennis had a fine run and it was an impressive display from Dennis on the day. Niemi went down after kicking clear in serious pain. The Gooners behind his goal did their best to draw it to the players attention but play went on for quite a while before the ball went out. The unfortunate Niemi was replaced by Jones and you have to wonder if he was pleased to be there having had six stuffed past him by Arsenal not that long ago. Oleg, of all people, and Thierry worked a good move as Henry carried on into the box to be brought down. I have yet to see a replay but I called it as a pen. Barber however yellow carded Henry for a dive, he was in a good position so I'll give him the benefit but I don't think I've ever seen Tel go down in the box with a dive. Seconds later what appeared to be an over the top tackle on Ray went unpunished and the inevitable chorus of 'The referee's a wanker' seemed quite justified.
Good play from Cole and Henry won us another corner. Gilberto once more cut out a Saints play when they looked to be threatening. Anders Svensson was replaced by Tessam. A Lauren block was both required and delivered just before Marsden and Oakley both hacked away at Ray in frustration. Marsden was then late on Pires a couple of seconds later and got a yellow card to go alongside his losers medal. Sylvain came on for Dennis after seventy-six minutes following a good game by our non-flying Dutchman. Wiltord had a chance to break, Cole put Henry in for a nearly but not quite. The Saints slung in another long throw that was headed clear before Baird had a seriously wild shot. Oleg cleared once more as Southampton broke in a second half that was far better than the first footballing wise.
Arsenal were in mega-passing mode, to be followed by lets take it in turns to go and stand by the corner flag mode. This was in what was alleged to be four minutes added time. 73,726 fans were now either pleading for the final whistle or praying for one more chance. Our longest passing move ended with Henry winning a free kick. Svensson, the one still left on, got a yellow card for slagging off the lino, it was the lino who sent off Sol so as far as I was concerned he could call him anything he liked because he was probably right. Parlour went on a solo. A prat got on the pitch. I think it was about now that Seaman made his best save, but you know what the final minutes of a Cup Final are like - it's just one big anxious blur and chewed nails. There was one more heart stopper to come and it happened when Cole cleared off the line with his thigh with a screaming stand of yellow shirts behind him hoping for extra time. Seaman appeared to be fouled, Parlour cleared but it didn't a matter because in the sixth minute of the four that were going to be added Barber blew the final whistle. We achieved the rare feat of retaining the battered old trophy that looks so much better when it has red and white ribbons attached.
A deserved win in a game when the man who so cruelly missed the last final through injury scored the winner in this one. Despite a great performance by Henry and all the plaudits from the press Gilberto or Luzhny for my money could both have been man of the match because they both excelled in the absence of Pat and Sol. It spoke volumes that Sol was one of the first to congratulate Oleg. As for the celebrations? Well we've seen them all before haven't we, but they still manage to bring a tear to my eye. There was Sol, Pascal, Pat and Franny all seemingly enjoying it as much as the team who appeared on the pitch. While waiting for the construction of a podium, due to the lack of any famous Wem-ber-lee steps, we were kept amused by the players. Kolo Toure gave a pretty damn fine gymnastics display. Thierry lay on our huge flag, seemingly kissing it. Freddie ruined some rather natty Hugo Boss suits with champagne. Then we collected our trophy, last year it was Tone and Pat, this year it was Pat and Dave. All the players appearing through out our Cup run get medals these days which is only right. But thinking back to the weeks before the final the Arsenal men who probably most deserve medals are Gary Lewin and his colleagues because they have seemingly worked miracles to get even eleven players onto the pitch. So seriously big thanks to Gary on behalf of appreciative Gooners everywhere.
There is one fabulous statistic resulting from the game that I just have to mention. Our ex-rivals from the wrong end of Seven Sisters Road have always scorned us whenever we took the piss regarding our twelve Championships to their two. They have always previously laid claim to being North Londons traditional F A Cup side. Well b*llocks I say, that was our 16th Final and our 9th F A Cup win. So that's 9-8 to The Arsenal.
A fact that Jenny, our much beloved and recently departed Clock End Gooner would have loved, but she would also have loved the fact that we were there to love it for her.