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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

2003 - The forgotten (and friendly) FA Cup Final

2003 FA Cup Final

Nobody ever seems to talk about the 2003 FA Cup win. For some reason it’s been almost totally forgotten. Okay, it wasn’t a great game, but it was still Arsenal winning a trophy. I wonder if part of the reason is that we’d blown the Premier League Title in the final few games of the season and the press went on about it being nothing more than a consolation prize. Maybe that was the case for those watching it in a pub. For those of us watching it in the flesh it was nothing other than priceless, as it always is when you win a trophy. There’s nothing like being there.
We took another fun bus to Cardiff for the game. This time we were staying in Cardiff itself the night before the match. We left Dover early afternoon, but not without drama. My future wife had kindly ironed my home shirt, ready for the game, only to iron a bloody great hole straight through the front of it. That meant an emergency trip to JJB in town to purchase another one - £40 worse off, but properly attired for the Cup Final (the burned shirt had “Bergkamp 10” printed on the back and ended up being signed by the Great Man later that year.
On the bus we had a newcomer as Haydn joined me, Dad, Mick, Mark, Frank, Gary, Bill, David and Tony for the journey down, picking up Matthew at Maidstone on the way. Young Haydn was a dead ringer for Ruud Van Nistelrooy and not a huge drinker. He was certainly in the wrong place that day. The beer was cracked early and we were on our way to another FA Cup Final. We hadn’t gone 100 yards from the pub before the bus had brushed a parked car – the owner was known to Bill and he was happy to take a Cup Final programme in lieu of the scuff on his bumper. Thankfully the red and white ribbons weren’t damaged and we moved on down the road.
When we stopped at the services on the M4 we had Haydn’s first incident. The coffees (tea) in my case were purchased and laced (more than just slightly) with the usual brandy. As I said, Haydn wasn’t a drinker. The boy was ashen after taking a massive mouthful of his coffee. He went for a walk. Suffice to say he didn’t finish his coffee. All the more for Gary, as I recall.

Saints fans recreating 1976

We were at the hotel nice and early that afternoon and straight in to the bar. There were a few Arsenal fans already there, and a few Southampton supporters too. The Saints’ fans were determined to enjoy the occasion no matter what and I thought it was a great idea of theirs to wear a replica of their 1976 Cup Final shirt once they were confirmed as the “away” team. I remember us wondering if Peter Rodrigues was skippering them the following day.
We were joined in the early evening by our Highbury “neighbour” Glenn, and by Andy Gibbons and his mate Buster (who lived in Cardiff). The evening wore on and we were getting hungry. There was a Toby Carvery attached to the hotel and that got my vote, hands down. My brother, however, had suggested a curry. Buster knew of a curry house somewhere nearby and so it was settled. As we were finishing our drinks there was a noisy hen party making their presence known in the bar. Haydn went off for a slash and we went out to the taxi. My brother Mick, who always “organised” these trips away, counted the heads and we were off, in two minibuses (including our own driver, Geordie John – the Dad of Scott who’d driven us the year before – and had never been for a ruby in the past). By this time it was peeing down with rain. We were all in Dover Gooners t-shirts or Arsenal attire of some type or another, but Haydn had dressed up for the evening out. When we got to the curry house we realised that young Haydn wasn’t with us. Having nipped off to the toilet, Mick had then miscounted and we’d left the lad at the hotel. We piled back in and headed back to find him. Walking down the road in the pouring rain, with no idea where he was actually going, was a soaked to the skin Haydn. We got him in the bus and he told us he thought it was some sort of initiation we were putting him through! His nice shirt was wrecked and Gary was particularly unhappy that the boy had walked away from a massive hen party to come and eat Indian food with us bunch of drunks! In fact he has never allowed Haydn to forget it.
Now drunk people and curry houses are not a great mix, are they? So imagine drunken Arsenal supporters taking up half the restaurant and noticing, on the wall, a framed picture of St Mary’s Stadium, marking this venue out as the favoured meeting place of the Cardiff branch of the Southampton Supporters Club. Unperturbed, we ordered (with some help for John who knew only of the “mag-maloo” which is apparently the hottest dish you can by in Newcastle). I don’t do spice so I picked the bog standard chicken curry. Those waiters knew what they were doing. Not one of us around that table had ever eaten anything like the nuclear explosions on a plate that were presented to us. John, being a Geordie, loved it. My a**e hated it. And was still hating it 48 hours later (a late recognition of the fact that half the cans of beer we’d been drinking were past their sell-by date might also have exacerbated that situation). I reckon the local Saints’ fans would have enjoyed the story of how the Arsenal supporters were stitched up in their restaurant the night before the game.
Back at the hotel there were a few more beers, and some chat with a few of the locals, and a fine day and night came to an end. The best thing about the booze is that it might just knock you out enough to overcome the excitement that usually prevents a decent kip the night before a Cup Final.

Under the roof

After a decent breakfast the following morning it was quickly in to the city where we, again, found ourselves outside Cardiff Castle. This year, however, the weather was abysmal. As a result we were all crowded in to a bus stop with our beer for the day, sheltering from the downpours. The FA had already announced that the game would be played under a closed roof for the first (and only) time. The last person to join the party was my colleague Wes who had booked late on to the Travel Club coaches, but would return in celebration with us on the minibus after the game. One last can and it was off in to the ground.
Our seats for this Final were on the opposite side of the pitch to where we were for the Chelsea game a year earlier, but with a similar view. The roof being closed made for a really odd kind of feeling. There was a weird sort of echo to everything and it was a bit like being in a massive 5-a-side hall.
I think that years “Abide With Me” was the most emotional one I’ve yet experienced. The presence of the massed ranks of Southampton supporters meant there were large numbers there determined to lap up the whole thing. I remember a middle-aged Saints fan appearing on the big screen in tears at the end of the hymn with tears rolling down his cheeks. If that doesn’t underline the importance of the FA Cup to the fans then nothing can. It also underlines what it means to be there in person – nobody watching in a pub or anywhere else can get that feeling, and that’s why we go to games.

Bobby scores the winner

I remember us getting off to a fine start and Lundekvam should have been sent-off in the very first minute for a professional foul, I think on Thierry Henry. We continued to dominate without creating too much clear cut, but we made the breakthrough just before half-time. Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg combined, unsurprisingly, to get in and shoot. Freddie’s effort was blocked, but it fell to Bobby who poked it in. There’s nothing like a goal in the FA Cup Final and the Arsenal end (and much of the other end if truth be told) erupted in noise that echoed around the closed in stadium.

Luzhny - the real Man of the Match

We had a slightly weakened side out, to be fair. Sol Campbell was suspended after being ridiculously sent-off after Solskjaer’s play acting a few weeks earlier, Patrick Vieira was injured and also absent. As a result we had Ray Parlour playing a rare game in the middle alongside Gilberto, while a half-fit Martin Keown was slotted in alongside Oleg Luzhny at centre-back. The Horse was playing his final game for Arsenal along with David Seaman, who was Captain in Vieira’s absence. Luzhny was absolutely immense that day. Without a doubt it was his best performance in an Arsenal shirt and it was an injustice that Thierry Henry was made Man of the Match ahead of the Ukrainian. By the end of the game Martin Keown was basically playing on one leg and Luzhny was standing firm against the Southampton onslaught. We were trying to hit them on the break and maybe could have had a goal or two more, but with a few minutes to go Henry and Pires were already playing out time in the corners of the pitch. This was making us all very anxious as you just felt Southampton would get a chance at some point.

Big Dave goes out on a high

With a minute or two left Southampton gave it everything and started to threaten. Brett Ormerod got the drop on our defence for the only time all day and hit a stunning volley towards the roof of the net. David Seaman made one final contribution with an outstanding save (he’d already got us to Wembley with “that” stop in the semi-final against Sheffield United) to tip the shot over the bar. I’d seen Seaman duck under similar near-post shots from Giggs and Batistuta in recent years, so to see him stand up and make that save was fantastic. Our greatest goalkeeper was going out on a high at Cardiff. We cleared the resulting corner and the final whistle went. The celebrating began.

Bobby with the FA Cup

Haydn was sat to my left and he was in tears at the final whistle. He told us that he never thought he’d get to see something like this in the flesh. The roar that greeted Seaman and Vieira lifting the Cup together was as big as any other I’ve heard down the years. The Southampton fans were the first losing supporters I’d ever known to stay en masse for the trophy presentation, but such was their determination to take in everything and to give their players thanks for the experience. 

Dodgy conga

Our players set off on the usual lap of honour, with the music blaring and the supporters singing, though I’m not sure what the conga they did was all about. Kolo Toure was doing somersaults and getting cheered in the process. For all the media who had gone on about us getting some sort of “consolation prize” they couldn’t have been further from the truth. Winning the FA Cup in 2003 was every bit as special as the other times I’ve been through it. Magnificent.
Walking back to the buses with the Gooners was great as usual. There was singing and celebrating on the streets of Cardiff. I remember us seeing Jerry (Gunnersaurus) and Daniel Quy and serenading Jerry with the Freddie Ljungberg song, changing red hair for grey in his case, as they waited to pack people off on the Travel Club coaches that they organised. We boarded the fun bus and headed back East.

I have to apologise to the others on the bus for the state of my guts that evening. I’m sure that what was being created wasn’t natural in any way. Matthew owned a pub just outside Maidstone and we piled in there when dropping him off for some more beers and a bit of pizza to finish the day. One of the pizzas was spicy. That wasn’t good for me. As a result Haydn wasn’t the only one to get home that night with a sense of relief that he’d survived the trip. Another great day of Arsenal glory was at an end.

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