By Michael Keshani
To understand why the game I’m about to talk about holds such significance in my eyes, I must take you back to May 13, 2001 - the day of my first-ever proper match. I had been to testimonials and youth and reserve games, but never a first team match and occasions don’t come much bigger than the FA Cup final.
As a wide-eyed five-year-old, the seven hour drive from north London to Cardiff passed by in a flash, but there are only five things I remember from the game: a woman tying my balloons to my binoculars so I didn’t lose them, Freddie Ljungberg’s goal, Stephane Henchoz’s handball, Michael Owen’s brace and leaving the stadium in tears as my dad promised we’d go back next year if Arsenal made it.
And make it they did. Somehow tickets were sorted and back to Cardiff we went.
My memories of this game as a whole are slightly more sketchy than those of the aforementioned 2001 final, but I do remember the three key facets of the day as vividly as though they were the last game I attended: the two goals and the trophy presentation.
I vaguely remember a number of missed chances (which I’ve since re-watched) and recalling memories of the previous final, when missed chances had been Arsenal’s downfall. I did have a horrible feeling that history would repeat itself. Then Ray Parlour produced a piece of pure magic. Sylvain Wiltord sent a pass through to the Romford Pele midway inside the Chelsea half. He took the ball forward, switched it to his stronger right foot and from 25 yards, gave the ball a right whack. Carlo Cudicini had no chance. As the commentator said, it was a “vintage FA Cup goal for Arsenal”.
Cracking strike though it was, we couldn’t get too excited - we had seen it all last year. Another goal was needed. Thierry Henry came close after a threatening run from Ashley Cole. Chelsea did not threaten but a one-goal lead is not a safe margin at the best of times. (Then again, a four goal lead isn’t exactly safe with the Arsenal...)
When the second goal came it was worth that year of waiting. Freddie Ljungberg, in the form of his life, picked up the ball down the left hand side. He burst through the gap between John Terry and Mario Melchiot and shrugged off the former like he wasn’t even there.
Just over 20 yards from the goal, still slightly to the left, he curled the ball right around Cudicini, who couldn’t even get a hand to it, as with Parlour’s. The Swede had scored in successive FA Cup finals and Arsenal were well on their way to their second Double in four years. Four days later the title would be secured at Old Trafford, and there was no question as to who were the best team in England.
In 2001, we had left before the trophy presentation began. In 2002, we stayed and watched Tony Adams lift the trophy with Patrick Vieira, who had captained the team during the former’s long term-absence through the season.
Finally, we had the FA Cup again, and the pain of the previous season had been absolved.