ETCHED IN MEMORY: MAN UNITED 2 – 1 ARSENAL

ETCHED IN MEMORY: MAN UNITED 2 – 1 ARSENAL

There’s a reason why this is the most talked about match in the competition’s history, and despite popular belief it’s not just because of a bare-chested Giggsy…

The FA Cup isn’t what it was. That’s not an original thought. Neither is selecting the semi-final replay between Man United and Arsenal as its most memorable game. But anyone who had the privilege of witnessing it in 1999 - either from home or in Villa Park - saw the world’s oldest national football competition played at a level we may never see again. 

How the executives and sponsors of the FA Cup must lust for another game like this. Just one more. Forgive the cliché, but as far as domestic knock-out football goes this really had everything. World class footballers; a bitter rivalry at its peak; Sensational goals; Late goals; A saved penalty. Even a red card. And all within the context of the eventual winner of the tie - Manchester United - completing The Treble, a feat that remains unequalled in England to this day.

Back then, just the notion of an English club winning all three of those trophies felt hopelessly optimistic. Lest we forget, in 1999 the last English club to win the European Cup was in 1984. In the years since, Alex Ferguson made no secret of his obsession with European football, so I’d speculate the FA Cup was something of an afterthought for him as he progressed deeper than ever into club football’s most prestigious tournament.

However, this replay was perhaps more influential in the legacy of the Treble than just making up the numbers. All the members of the Class of “92 - Beckham; Giggs; Scholes; The Nevilles; Butt - have testified that the outcome of this game (and the way in which they won it) gave the players the final surge of adrenaline and confidence they needed to finish the job in Europe and at home. It’s entirely plausible that without this victory, United could have won nothing at all.

To the game itself, and if you want a snapshot of the tactical fashion at the top of English football in 1999, look no further. This was emotionally-charged and breathlessly intense 4-4-2 Fergie-ball before Geggenpressen existed in German, let alone English. It felt like neither side retained possession for longer than a few seconds, yet the high quality chances just kept coming. Villa Park was like a gilded playground on this night.

That may have had something to do with the weakened - I mean rotated - United team that started the game. Nonetheless the tackles were tastier than Mancunian gravy, which is no surprise given the midfielders who did feature from both sides at kick off. Both Keane and Vieira landed themselves in hot water in this game - albeit different types - but it would be Keane who ultimately won this early battle in what would be a permanently tense war.

A forgotten subplot of this historic season of United’s is that David Beckham was probably their best player, which ostensibly made him the world’s best at the time too. I’d disagree with neither, and his influence in this game was exemplified by his goal, the sort only David Beckham could score. The distance, the angle and the swerve were all trademark Becks, and United had the lead. 

Arsenal replied in the second half through a deflected Dennis Bergkamp goal, and with it momentum swung their way. In a moment of pure theatre soon after, Nicolas Anelka thought he had put Arsenal ahead after Peter Schmeichel spilled a routine shot again from Bergkamp. So did his teammates and their fans as they convened in wild celebration on the far side of the pitch. Unlike those watching from home, they couldn’t hear Andy Gray shout “Flag’s up, he’s offside Maaat’n!” from the commentary box, and this was long before VAR blunted immediate celebrations. It took them a good minute or so before the penny finally dropped, and you wondered if that might be the wake-up call United needed.
Then Roy Keane got himself sent off. With the game now stretched and the players noticeably tiring, the outlook didn’t look good for United, a man down and without their inspirational captain. Making it to extra time became the priority, and no player needed that breather more than Phil Neville.

In the superb documentary “The Class of “92” Phil talks us through the injury time Arsenal penalty like he’s unloading to a psychologist. It’s clear from his words that he still feels guilty for his tackle on Ray Parlour, even if Peter Schmeichel saved the subsequent penalty from Bergkamp. He reveals his total exhaustion when Parlour took him on in the penalty area, the desperation of the tackle and the fatalistic thoughts running through his head as soon as he made it. In his mind, his career was over with that foul.

I doubt Schmeichel actually rescued Phil Neville’s career, but there can be no mistake he rescued United on this occasion. Perhaps the only thing that compares to an injury time winner for your team is an injury time penalty save, and without it we would never have seen Ryan Giggs create the moment that defined him and the FA Cup’s glory years.

 

It feels needless to describe this goal, for it remains the sort of goal that everyone can visualise, frame-for-frame, with their eyes closed. I’m certainly not qualified to describe it sufficiently. “This was Giggsy’s moment” was Phil Neville’s take on it, and you can’t really argue with that. As soon as he collected that infamous, stray pass from Patrick Vieira around the halfway line there was only one thing in Giggs’s mind. 

The rest is history.

 

Words by Dom Kocur

 

 

 

 

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