Amongst the many Gooners we met in the bar were Carsten, Jens and Stefan who had flown over from Germany without tickets - a sure sign of dedication. Top marks also go to Chris Green who provided them a ticket at face value a couple of hours before the game. How they decided who should get to use it I have no idea. It transpired that 73,963 were destined to see the game, and my guess is that at least 3,963 of them had the Freddie red streak in their hair. It didn't matter if you were 8 or 80, or if you were hairy, follicly challenged or whatever, red streaks ruled the day both on and off the pitch. But we somehow all knew they would, didn't we?
A pre-match text message saying Terry was out of the starting line-up caused a couple of gasps until it was pointed out that it was their Terry and not ours. Arsene had some big decisions to make pre-match and went with Sol and Tone as the centre back pairing, Dave in goal, Ray in central midfield with Sylvain wide right. These were probably all tough calls and Martin, Richard and Edu can count themselves unlucky not to have started but as it transpired it was a good shout. Sol, Tone, Dave, Sylvain and Ray all had a big game. The rest of the team picked itself on recent form.
If you're in Wales it's apparently the law that you have to sing in a Rugby Stadium so we rattled off the traditional favourites 'Abide with me' and 'God save our team.' Then we reverted to Freddie's anthem, which had first emerged at Charlton and made up for the lack of a Club official song this season - big time. Sol's anthem was also popular as was our full repertoire were thundered out including very recent additions about Manure not winning very much this season. Chelsea fans could be heard but Blue is the colour gets very boring when it's one of just three songs they know. Di Matteo who led out the Chelsea team, a fine gesture by Claudio Ranieri, and Arsene Wenger who of course led out London's number one team were introduced to Mr Lennart Johansson the President of UEFA. Needless to say the Arsenal mascot holding Arsene's hand had the mandatory red streak.
As for the game, well in retrospect Chelsea made some poor calls playing half fit players, Hasselbaink for example was nether a threat and it seemed apparent from very early in the match that he wouldn't last. Le Saux being the noxious little jerk he is had to live up to his image by putting a full set of studs into Lauren's stomach as early as the second minute. Lauren did a few extra rolls on the grass to make sure but the loony was the first one into the inept book of referee Mike Riley. 'Arsene Wenger's magic he wears a magic hat and when he saw the double he said I'm having that'
The first half saw Chelsea try to squeeze the play, probably because Ranieri, realised that would play the better football so they would be best served trying to prevent us playing rather than trying to match us in a game of total football. The midfield was therefore a seriously crowded place. Vieira had some iffy passes in the opening phase, Ray put himself about and let his fellow English international Lampard know that he was around and up for it. Our first corner came following fine play by Freddie and Sylv and Sol joined Tone in the box but a foul was given against us.
Seaman was out well to catch his first high ball of the day as Chelsea tried out a bit of route one football; Sol also tried the long ball game to Thierry. Bergkamp was caught offside from a Henry ball, Lauren and Sylv combined well down the right. Tone was upset by some nonsense with Gudjohnsen who was perhaps their most effective player other than Desailly who also had a big game. Thierry set up a chance for Wiltord but his shot was well blocked by Desailly. Hasselbaink who was clearly not at the races fouled Pat.
Big move on our left when Freddie found Thierry whose cross, aimed at Dennis was kept out by good covering from Chelsea. Our best chance at this stage came about when a great long ball from Vieira found Dennis whose header cleared the keeper but was just wide of the upright. A great tackle by Campbell showed he was up for it as was Ashley who was pressing as far forward as their corner flag. Jimmy Floyd fouls again. Henry got away but play was called back for handball as the blue end are chanting 'Who's the Gooner in the black.' Wiley however was just inept, but he appeased the baying blues by booking Vieira for a foul on Gronkjaer who didn't seem to understand that football is generally played in an upright position. Gronkjaer would have been a bigger problem if he hadn't perpetually dived.
Parlour beat Lampard in the air. Cudicini easily caught a Cole cross. This was followed by a brilliant ball from Lauren but Wiltord's cross was poor. Gronkjaer went to ground again and it resulted in a nothing free kick followed by a good cross from Gudjohnsen. Gudjohnsen down again. And Chelsea had a spell in charge. Freddie gets a word from the ref for going down too easily. Henry chases down Desailly. Parlour gave Henry one to chase. Gudjohnsen had a chance from a Le Saux cross but Seaman took it well. Sol tidied up. Petit who had a very good match kicked his ex captain. Arsenal are off again with Wiltord down the right. More fine interplay follows as Arsenal's forwards get on top with some good interchanging, ending with Freddie combining with Sylv who's excellent cross picks out the incoming Lauren whose header is just over the bar.
At the other end Tone cleared after Le Saux gave Sol a none to subtle shove that went unspotted. Gronkjaer had their best chance at this stage, Seaman saved well but it was a chance not taken. Dennis, Sylv and Lauren combined to win a corner following a pressure spell from Chelsea. Dennis shoots just wide but a foul had been given against Arsenal anyway. Pat set up another 'almost' move to Sylv. Our passing was flowing now as Sol joined an attack, which he finished off with a crap left-footed shot that went wide. Sol clears. Lino calls wrong offside as Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen attack in tandem. Another marginal offside against Freddie and the uninspiring first half ended.
It's a strange sensation meeting someone you usually see in a suit and tie with a red and white face but I guess that's what a Cup Final is all about, eh Stuart? I thought we'd get more chances if the game opened out but at this stage it didn't look like happening despite the fact that I thought we'd maybe just edged the half.
The second half and the two teams are now attacking their own fans. Arsenal are out first to find that Terry has replaced Babayaro. Wiltord starts the half well. Vieira picks out Henry with a brilliant ball, Thierry controls well and gets a shot on target that Cudicini read well and saved going down to his left. Gudjohnsen wins a corner that Seaman takes high. A weak shot by Jimmy Floyd following a mistake by Pat. Gronkjaer goes down as if poll-axed from Cole's tackle but miraculously recovered when no foul was given.
Lauren covers well. Seaman takes another high ball as Keown warms up. A ploy we thought to raise the Arsenal fans volume behind the goal. Hasselbaink is down again as Ray flies in with real intent. Henry works back well after losing the ball. Sol clears off Hasselbaink' s toes following a long throw from Melchiot. Parlour in hard on Gronkjaer. Edu and Kanu warm up. Cole sees off Gronkjaer. Henry wins a free kick when he's held, not for the first time, but we play the ball backwards. Freddie wins a corner on the left which Petit headed clear. Campbell wins another good tackle. Henry wins a corner, we've upped the gears but are still not totally bossing the game. Yet.
Seaman brilliantly tips over from a powerful Gudjohnsen shot from their left. The corner is taken but from the wrong one, enabling Hasselbaink to take it. Vieira finds Wiltord again who crosses for Bergkamp who hasn't been at his very best. Le Saux blasts over with his crappy right foot after Chelsea play some good football down their right flank. A good spell for Chelsea but just it's beginning to open up and Lampard is forced to hack clear. A slice away in our box, by Tony I think, is followed by Desailly trying an arm-lock around Tone's neck as the big Frenchman climbs all over him from the corner. Tony let him know what he thought while Cole gets some treatment.
Then the sort of thing happened that some fans wait an entire lifetime for but never get to see. Serves them right, they should have chosen the one true faith - Arsenal. Sixty-nine minutes had elapsed when Tone wins big and gets it to Wiltord who finds Romford 's very own Pele. Parlour was going forward in a central left channel, there were players breaking with him but all to his left. Vieira, Wiltord and Henry are all left side with no obvious ball on, so Ray cuts back moving inside and then he unleashed a brilliant shot that's going top corner past Cudicini. The keeper gets the slightest touch but no more than that, the balls in the net and Ray runs arms outstretched towards the fans. It's was a fabulous goal that made you just wish you could turn around and give a mouthful to any of the many Parlour slaggers who reside at THOF. Well actually that was the second thought - the first was all about going mental alongside over 30,000 Gooners because it's 1-0 to the Arsenal, it's a brilliant goal and it's been scored in the Cup Final.
The blue end of the magnificent Millennium Stadium goes quite while our end goes into overdrive. Seventy-one minutes gone and Edu is on for Dennis and gets an early tackle in. Chelsea net but it's well offside. The assistant referees are as inept as the man in charge and fail to give Freddie the throw he so obviously won. Henry wins a free kick and Arsenal slow the pace a tad. Edu does well, he's obviously not frightened of the big stage. Terry and Henry square up and after a bit of forehead rubbing both receive yellow cards. Another duff offside is given after Ray won a big ball in midfield. Melchiot off and replaced by Zenden for Chelsea. More positional changes follow for the blues.
Great break from Cole. Ljungberg chases down Gallas. Edu finds Freddie inside our own half and he goes on a run and continues to run, he stumbles but stays on his feet as Terry tries to haul him down but fails. Freddie was in the left channel and picked his spot as he bent the perfect shot around Cudicini. It's not top corner like Ray's but it's been hit perfectly and the keeper can't get close as the net bulges for Freddie - the seventh time in as many matches. There can't have been a Gooner in the place who wasn't deliriously happy. 2-0 to the Arsenal, ten minutes to go and we were not about to blow this one. This one is ours!
Kanu on for Henry who had a quiet game. Big tackle from Lauren. Edu looks for Wiltord who is now up front. Another save from Gudjohnsen by Dave. Chelsea press, Arsenal hold them off and break, that's how it goes till the final whistle. The full Gooner rock opera is in full flow. You name it we sung it. 'Robert Pires' 'One team in London/England' 'Oh Rocky Rocky' 'United will win feck all' 'We'll win the League in Manchester' Meanwhile back on the pitch Kanu is killing the game off. Zenden breaks but Chelsea are up against an Arsenal brick wall that not about to cave in. Adams ploughs on. Wiltord is still running his rocks off. Ray's curly locks are plastered to his sweaty brow. Kanu is soloing away down the right.
Added time or there about and Martin comes on for Wiltord. Gudjohnsen lost his rag chopped Ray only to receive a yellow card for his trouble. The match is over, the first leg of the Double is ours and the top two tiers of the Chelsea end disappear away to their cars, coaches and trains as we enjoy the celebrations in a crescendo of sound
This was my tenth Final with Arsenal if you count the replay, but it was just as wonderful as my first celebration with Frank McLintock and his team. When Tony and Patrick lifted the famous old trophy that Wiltord had already snogged it was so just too good for mere words. After we received the Cup it was one huge ongoing celebration as the players did their best to drown each other in Champagne. The goals were shown on the big screens on a continual loop and watching them again and again was brilliant. As the second went in there is a great moment when Dixon wheels away in celebration long before the ball hits the net, knowing it was in from the second it left Freddie' right boot. It summed up how we all felt at that millisecond in time.
There were a thousand little cameos going on all through the celebrations but I recall Oleg and Gio being amongst the first to join in with the team. I recall a dance across the
goal from Jeffers with the Cup's lid on his head. I remember some suits disappearing under a big pile of players in the middle of the pitch. I recall hugging everyone within range and looking around to see huge grins and moist eyes everywhere.
One memory stands out well above all the rest though. The old stager Lee Dixon deliberately standing all alone in the middle of the pitch, Champagne bottle in hand surveying the scene of delirium all around him. He was taking it all in and the more Finals you see the more you understand how important it is to do that. Lee was there gently swigging from the bottle, watching the screen and standing centre stage in a wall of red and white sound. I think he wiped away the odd tear but couldn't swear to it. But I do know he was taking it every single last detail to treasure forever. His view of the fans must have been absolutely marvellous and it was complete honour to be in the same place at the same time and be part of it. The big thing about Cup Finals is you never know if or when you'll ever get to see another one, far less take part in one.