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Wednesday
Oct122011

Vieira masterclass ruins Hoddle's return

BY SEAN MARLAND / @SEANMARLAND

Before eventually signing the famously-average Juan Sebastien Veron, Sir Alex Ferguson, buoyed by Arsenal’s three year trophy drought, spent much of the summer of 2001 trying to persuade Patrick Vieira to move to Manchester United. It was easy to understand why, the Frenchman was a majestic presence in the heart of Arsene Wenger’s midfield despite the lack of silverware and no more so than in the FA Cup run of that year.

Many will remember the way he totally ran the midfield against Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard in the final (I won’t mention the result), but for a number of reasons his performance in the semi-final against Spurs was more memorable for me.

Watching him tear a (mediocre) Tottenham team a new one was a joy to behold and the sight of him ruling Old Trafford might have been the thing that finally tempted Ferguson to test the water.

I remember many Arsenal fans cursing the fact that an all-London tie would be played in Manchester, but as a lowly gold member the large number of tickets meant that I had the chance to attend, so I was delighted. Boarding a coach with my mate at Finsbury Park at stupid-o'clock in the morning we listened to the radio as Prince Naseem suffered a career-ending defeat to Antonio Barreras in Las Vegas before arriving up North inexplicably early.

Innocuous from the outside, Old Trafford seemed monstrous on the inside - especially for a kid who'd been raised on afternoons at Highbury - and I still remember House of Pain bouncing round the stadium as the teams ran out. It certainly seemed apt as the atmosphere was fervent.

Gary Doherty put Spurs in front early, but after that it was all Arsenal. So much so, that at one point I remember the Tottenham fans getting very excited about a throw-in 30 yards from goal because the Gunners had been so amazingly dominant.

Vieira was instrumental throughout and rose brilliantly to head an excellent equaliser beyond Neil Sullivan soon after their rogue opener. I've always thought there was something special about the half-way fan divide at such games. The distant crescendo when you concede followed by the vengeful celebrations when you score. Of course if you lose it's a nightmare, but at Old Trafford that day there was only going to be one outcome after we got ourselves level.

Chance after chance came and went after half-time but as the game went on Vieira's grip on the match tightened and just when it seemed like we might let Spurs off the hook, we got a well-deserved winner. Pires got his name on the scoresheet but for me it was all about Paddy.

He picked up the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and stepped away from a couple of challenges, carried the ball for 60 yards and off-loaded to Wiltord, who crossed low for Pires to slam in the winner. It was just one of many surging runs that afternoon and as someone who played in the middle myself (albeit on a Sunday morning) I was in awe of the way he controlled that game of football.

The fact that we marred Glenn Hoddle's much-feted return to Spurs and put the whole 'year-ends-in-a-one' crap to bed made it all the more sweeter. I've also heard a rumour that this was the game which inspired Campbell to join Arsenal as well. Not a bad day! 

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