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Monday
Dec052011

Show Us A Sign

BY MICHAEL JEFFARES / @mj_afc

There have been many special games in Arsenal’s fantastic 125 year history, but for me the last game of the 1995/96 season against Bolton Wanderers was particularly memorable. There were no trophies up for grabs, but with a UEFA Cup place on the line it still represented a must win game.

It was of course the culmination of Bruce Rioch’s only season at the club (although he didn’t know it) and in retrospect, following the end of the successful George Graham era, expectations on the terraces were markedly lower.

Qualifying for Europe represented a massive achievement. For a start it would help the club keep new boys Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt happy, while the chance of a continental adventure would also help lure better players to the club in the future.

The real drama was focused on the four-way battle for fifth place. Arsenal started the day level on points with Spurs but had the advantage of a better goal difference. Gerry Francis’ side also had a tricky match with title-challenging Newcastle to contend with. Also in the hunt were Everton and Blackburn, both two points adrift, but given the Toffees’ superior goal difference  (+19 to our +16) they were still a threat.

Arsenal line-up: Seaman, Dixon, Keown, Linighan, Marshall (Shaw), Winterburn, Platt, Parlour, Merson, Bergkamp, Wright (Hartson) / Unused: Bartram

Bolton line-up: Branagan, Bergsson, Small, McAnespie, Coleman (Blake), McGinlay, Stubbs, Sellers, Paatelainen, Curcic (Thompson), Todd / Unused: Green

As the teams took to the pitch for the pre-game warm-up the Highbury faithful were greeted to Ian Wright’s bleach awful blonde hair – a statement as disastrous as the performance he was about to put in. In a largely uneventful first half our best effort came from a brilliant piece of improvisation by Platt whose back heeled flick clipped the top of the bar. The only comfort on the North Bank at half time was the fact we were still clinging to fifth place.

The second half started in much the same vein. Arsenal had plenty of possession in comfortable areas of the field, but lacked fluency in attack. The tension was building and then disaster struck. Somehow Jason Dozzell gave Spurs the lead at St James’ Park and they were now in the coveted fifth place. Frustration grew around Highbury and Rioch decided to take action; Wright was replaced with Hartson.

As you’d expect from Wrighty he wasn’t best pleased about his withdrawal and his relationship with Rioch hit a new low. In fairness he didn’t offer anything on the day and we needed more bite up front to combat Alan Stubb’s performance in the Bolton defence. It wasn’t looking good for Arsenal…until Newcastle equalised against Spurs. The Magpies by this point were basically playing for pride with Manchester United ripping Middlesbrough to shreds on their way to the three points which would win them the title. Just as fans at Highbury got wind of the relatively good news, so the team relaxed to the point where they fell asleep.

Scott Sellars drove the Trotters forward, found Andy Todd with a neat pass and the manager’s son neatly slotted past Seaman in front of a stunned North Bank. Jaws dropped around the ground, how on earth were we managing to ruin our season in one game?

Everton and Blackburn both scored within the next two minutes and with 10 minutes to go we were sitting in eighth place! What was the point? We were a bit rubbish, that’s for sure. But you know what, nobody booed or abused the players. We as fans accepted our limitations and whilst we were all frustrated with the events unfolding before our very eyes, we tried to galvanise the side.

Throwing caution to the wind Rioch sent on Paul Shaw for Scott Marshall as he urged his team forward from the touchline. Expectations were lower than ever, until David Platt popped up in the box to lash home an equaliser from the edge of the six yard box. We had hope with eight minutes remaining. Everton’s goal difference had them in fifth place, but all four sides were locked on 61 points – the atmosphere was white hot and you could tell the team were pumped.

Bolton misplaced a pass in midfield and Platt snapped up the ball and laid it into Dennis Bergkamp’s path. The Dutchman took one touch with his left foot, turned and set himself up to strike. He let fly and like a rocket the ball flew into the top corner. 2-1 Arsenal in the space of a couple of minutes.

The ground erupted, just look at the footage of the Clock End when the ball hits the net. It meant a lot to everyone. Our destiny was in our own hands again – we had what we came for and this time we weren’t going to let it slip. The last six minutews were played out until the final whistle brought confirmation that we were going to be back amongst Europe’s elite.

There is a clip after the game where Lee Dixon and Ian Wright are talking in the changing room after the game. They said they were waiting for Dennis to give them a sign. He did that and then some!

A season of transition made way for an era of success under Arsene Wenger. Who knows what might have happened if our number 10 hadn’t got that goal. It’s just a gentle reminder of how things have changed so much for the better and how we should never take things for granted. 

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Reader Comments (1)

One of my first games. Incredible scenes

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEd
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