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Wednesday
Jan042012

The Miracle of Old Trafford

BY PAUL WILLIAMS / @RockTheCasbah77

Until February 2011, and a couple of matches that will go down in Arsenal history- albeit for very different reasons- the biggest match I had gone to as an Arsenal supporter was an FA Cup semi-final. In Manchester.

The year was 2003 and now that I think about it, the game represented the last time I’d been to Old Trafford before the ‘historic’ showdown we experienced earlier this season…but we don’t need to talk about that one, do we?

Back in 2003 we were defending the Double and despite being a big fan, I was still only on the pre-membership scheme and Season Ticket waiting list, but not the Ticket Registration Scheme (TRS).

The system made getting tickets to Highbury awkward to put it mildly. As such when I was offered the opportunity to buy a ticket for the semi-final at Old Trafford, I grabbed it. It didn't matter to me that the opposition were "only" Sheffield United, in my mind it just made victory all the more probable.

Years later, it's difficult to honestly say I remember much about what was, in all honesty, a very forgettable match. But what I do remember is the following.

I caught a train across the Pennines from my mate Mike's house in Leeds to Manchester and stood on a street corner just up the road from United’s ground, bellowing "Champions! Champions!" over and over and over with hundreds of people that I'd never met or spoken to before, whilst drinking cans of Red Stripe.

I can recollect being impossibly confused by the enormity of Old Trafford and trying to gain entry to the stadium at the wrong exit. I remember that Thierry Henry was on the bench as it was, you know, ‘only’ Sheffield United and that he seemed to spend forever warming up right in front of my seat in the lower tier of whatever stand it was. Francis Jeffers, meanwhile, was running around as if he belonged in the number 9 shirt bestowed on him by Arsene Wenger.

I remember that, in an impossibly dull game, Graeme Poll - so often our antagonist - played a pretty key role in Freddie Ljungberg's goal and subsequently provoked a rant from Neil Warnock (then manager of the Blades) which we've since come to expect from him. I also remember the sight of Patrick Vieira leaving the pitch early in proceedings, his knee knackered. Was this the beginning of the end of the Vieira years? We couldn't have known it then and it's up for debate now, but it looked as though he walked down the tunnel with our title hopes that season.

But what I really remember about this game is what should forever be known as "The Miracle of Old Trafford". David Seaman had given us years of unflinching service, thirteen of them by this point in time. For the majority of that time he had been, as George Graham had once referred to him "a colossus”. He’d won three league titles, held the record for least goals conceded in a season – a feat I’m sure he’d confess was made easier by the excellence of the guys in front of him – and was standing in the twilight of a glittering career.

In truth by this point he was leaking goals for club and country which he’d not done before and had the previous summer apologised to the nation, via an interview with friend and mentor Bob Wilson, for the outrageous/fluke (delete as applicable)goal scored by Ronaldinho for Brazil at the 2002 World Cup against England.

“Safe Hands” didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to be succeeded by Jens Lehmann who would himself write himself into the Arsenal history books by keeping goal during our unbeaten season. Before all that though, Seaman was going to leave us one last something to remember him by.

In the last minutes of the match, as Sheffield United drove forward looking for an equaliser, something few at old Trafford would have begrudged them, Paul Peschisolido headed the ball goalwards in what seemed destined to be an equaliser to send the game into extra-time.

The Blades striker was only yards from goal when he made contact with the ball and, from my view at the other end of the ground, it seemed to have already past Seaman. There was no way it wasn’t in. Big Dave had other ideas though. As the Sheffield United fans behind that goal began to celebrate, he levered every inch of his 6"4 frame down and backwards, reaching out a massive hand to claw the ball up, out and away from danger. He’d saved it!

It won't surprise any of you reading to know that this save was celebrated as if it was a goal. In a way, I suppose it was. It was enough to win us the match, that's for sure.

At the beginning of last season, I was lucky enough to witness the first day of the Emirates Cup from a box in Club Level. Making my way through the corridors towards my seat, I happened across a photo of the moment I have just described. It was taken from an angle that showed Seaman at the moment of the save, it also showed the faces of the Sheffield United fans, faces that I could never have seen in detail eight years before. Some are captured in mid-celebration, some aren’t reacting at all and some have looks of utter disbelief spreading across their faces. They had just witnessed one last, stunning, feat of athleticism, from one of the finest goalkeepers this country has produced.

Seaman would, as we all remember, go onto lift the FA Cup in his final act as the Arsenal's keeper. A fitting end to a brilliant career, with us anyway...

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