By James Goldman
Amid a poisonous backdrop of anti-Glazer resentment, a dejected Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane stood on the Millennium Stadium pitch unable to compute the injustice that had just played out before them.
Arsenal had stolen the FA Cup from under the noses of their great rivals, confirming their position as the side best placed to derail a Chelsea juggernaut which had just broken up the Premier League’s established order and condemned United to a rare trophyless season in the process.
|Arsenal's near-misses during their nine-year wait for silverware|
Rather than a catalyst for further success, however, the 2005 final instead marked the end game for Arsenal’s 'Invincibles' and the beginning of the club’s nearly years. Back then Arsene Wenger, an innovative, prolific winner, was far removed from the tortured, conflicted soul he has become during this period of inertia that must, for his sake, end with victory against Hull City on Saturday.
Previous meetings with United that season had come to define Arsenal’s Premier League title defence. The Gunners arrived at Old Trafford in October in swashbuckling form having dropped two points from the first nine games of the season, so confident of bringing up a half century of unbeaten games that commemorative t-shirts had already been printed.
The ensuing 2-0 defeat, marred by controversy and flying pizza, rocked the team to such a degree that by the time Ferguson’s side visited Highbury for the return fixture in February Arsenal’s title hopes were over even before Keane and Patrick Vieira squared up to one another in their infamous tunnel bust-up which preceded United’s comprehensive 4-2 victory.
Despite Arsenal’s failure to beat their old foes in any of their previous seven encounters it was United who headed for the Welsh capital with the bigger question marks hanging over them. Their own league campaign had fizzled out tamely, finishing third, six points behind Arsenal and 18 adrift of Chelsea, the newly-crowned champions who were afforded guard of honour at Old Trafford in the penultimate game of the season.
Dissatisfaction at matters on the pitch was nothing, however, compared to the reaction that greeted news of Malcolm Glazer upping his stake in the club to 75 per cent as he closed in on a £790 million takeover.
United fans were encouraged to wear black armbands in protest at the American’s plans and although the final passed off largely without incident, the riots which accompanied Glazer’s first visit to Old Trafford several weeks later gave a true indication at the level or resentment, suspicion and uncertainty that had suddenly engulfed one of English football’s most stable institutions.
By contrast, Arsene Wenger had only the doubt surrounding Thierry Henry’s fitness as cause for concern ahead of his fourth FA Cup final in five seasons. The Frenchman ultimately missed out with a groin injury he picked up during a spellbinding cameo in a 7-0 demolition of Everton and his absence triggered one of the most bizarre team selections in his manager’s reign.
Arsenal, the sultans of style who had outscored their opponents by a massive 29 goals during the league campaign, were sent out agitate, irritate and spoil their way to silverware. Dennis Bergkamp, still a class act but devoid of pace, was selected as a lone forward and hardly got a kick.
It was ugly, out of character and not particularly successful with Manchester United’s domination total. Ferguson’s side hit the woodwork twice, Rio Ferdinand had a goal disallowed for off-side, Jens Lehmann made several telling saves and Ruud van Nistelrooy failed to score from point blank range when even the merest of touches would’ve produced a goal.
Arsenal’s goal threat was non-existent and it took until the second half of extra-time and Robin van Persie’s speculative free-kick before Roy Carroll was called into action.
United fans could’ve been forgiven for fearing the worst as the contest went to a penalty shootout and with ironic chants of “USA, USA” ringing in his ears Paul Scholes sacrificed accuracy for power and struck his spot kick too close to Lehmann.
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Six successful conversions later and Patrick Vieira, with his last act as an Arsenal player, blasted the ball just beyond Carroll’s despairing right hand and sealed the most unlikely - and in truth undeserved - victories in FA Cup final history.
Nine years bad luck, much of Arsenal’s own making, has followed as opportunities to put to an end the most mentioned trophy drought in English football have been passed up, spurned in embarrassing and often chaotic fashion.
Much of that will be forgotten should the form book be upheld at Wembley and Arsenal sweep aside Hull with the minimum of fuss, as they have done twice already this season. It would be folly to suggest an FA Cup triumph will usher in a new glorious period in the club’s history, especially as familiar failings saw their title challenge flounder shortly after the turn of the year.
All teams need to start somewhere though and if the class of 2014 were to adopt one habit their illustrious predecessors specialised in above any other it should be the art of winning by any means possible. As Vieira & Co. proved on a rain-sodden afternoon in Cardiff nine years ago, it really is all that matters.