When Aaron Ramsey scored the winner against Hull City last May, he didn't just end Arsenal's nine-year wait for a new trophy to decorate the Emirates. He also secured Arsenal's 11th FA Cup, drawing them level in the all-time table with Manchester United. Who, by happy coincidence, they play on Monday night.
Over their 14 previous meetings in this most venerable of footballing competitions, it's United that have the edge, having won seven to Arsenal's five. More to the point, they've managed between the pair of them to contrive some outstanding football matches and football moments. We've picked four that we think were interesting, or fun, or important; if Monday night gets anywhere close to this lot, it should be good.
Arsenal 5-0 United, 4th round, Jan. 30, 1937
The teams go into Monday's game in third and fourth in the Premier League, separated by just one point; as cup match-ups go, it literally couldn't be closer, Clive. Go back 78 years, however, and there could hardly have been more space between the sides. The Times preview of the game ran, back in the days before football journalism swallowed the universe, as follows:
It will indeed be a sensation if Arsenal fail to win.
They were right. Arsenal, though the great Herbert Chapman had died 1934, were still W-M-ing and Cliff Bastin-ing the rest of the country into submission. They were the FA Cup holders, they were second in Division One, and the following season they would win their fifth title of the decade.
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United, on the other hand, were rubbish. Since the end of the first World War they'd spent their time bouncing between the lower half of Division One and Division Two: relegated in 1922, promoted in 1925, down again in 1931, then back up in 1936. But they were making heavy work of the top flight, were bottom of the table when January rolled around, and would eventually find themselves immediately relegated back from whence they came.
In short, all the ingredients were in place for a proper, magical cup shock: formerly great, now down-on-their-luck United trooping off to the aristocrats and giving them a proper nose-bloodying. Exactly the kind of thing that the FA Cup is meant to deliver, and the fact that United had managed a 2-0 league win at Old Trafford earlier in the season also boded well. Except nobody told the Arsenal, and the home team were three goals up in seven minutes.
This result still stands as as Arsenal's largest home victory over United, and by all accounts it was as comprehensive as it looks. Bastin opened the scoring from distance before Jimmy Brown put the ball into his own net under pressure from Ted Drake. The third went to Alfred Kirchin, and before half-time the rampant home team added a fourth when Robert Trimming Davidson — an outstandingly Arsenal name, that — sent a cross-shot past Thomas Breen.
With regard to the spirit of the competition, United tried a bit of attacking in the second half, but were unable to dig out anything tangible. Drake nodded home a deserved fifth, and the Times waxed lyrical about the home side's performance:
If they can retain the form shown in this match Arsenal must have a good chance of winning the Cup for the second year in succession. Indeed, so brilliantly did Arsenal play that it would be almost impossible to criticize adversely any member of the side. [...] The ground was an unpleasant mixture of melting snow and mud, and its surface was very treacherous. The accuracy and speed with which Arsenal carried out their movements was therefore all the more remarkable.
As for United? A journalistic ruffling of the hair, pinching of the cheek, and patting of the head.
Manchester United were outplayed from the start of the game, but they must be given every credit for the way in which they stuck to a hopeless task, and for the spectators and players alike the game was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that never once did the Man- chester players attempt to stoop to the employment of questionable tactics.
United 2-3 Arsenal, final, May 12, 1979
Between the two of them, United and Arsenal have played in 34 of the 133 FA Cup finals. But they've only run into each other twice. The most recent was in 2004-05, a peculiar nil-nil that United dominated, only to see Arsenal snatch it on penalties. Amusing for the Gunners, no doubt, but not particularly memorable.
Fortunately, the other final stands as a bit of a classic, albeit a highly compressed one. For 85 minutes of the 1979 final, Arsenal strolled around, Liam Brady pinging the ball hither and yon. Brian Talbot scored the first goal after 12 minutes, Frank Stapleton added the second just before half time, and as the clocked ticked around to five o'clock, the contest looked done.
Then everything went bonkers. In the 86th minute Steve Coppell slung a free-kick across the Arsenal penalty area, Joe Jordan sent it back into the middle, and Gordon McQueen poked the ball home. And just a few hundred seconds later, Sammy McIlroy danced past two stumbling defenders and slipped the ball underneath Pat Jennings. Even before United doing a United became a thing, they were doing a United.
Except they weren't. Arsenal were doing a United. From kick-off, Brady — who later claimed that he was just trying to get the ball out of the Arsenal half and away from his knackered defenders — bustled his way to the edge of the United penalty area, then poked the ball wide to Graham Rix. He chipped the ball to the far post; United's keeper Gary Bailey, perhaps anticipating a low cross, could only flap at the passing back. And arriving at the far post was Alan Sunderland, who tucked the ball home before running off screaming and clenching his fists. Doing a Tardelli, before that was a thing.
The general feeling among the United players was that Arsenal would not have survived extra time; Jimmy Nicholl even claimed that Brady had said as much when swapping shirts. United's manager Dave Sexton had, by way of a team talk, plonked a bottle of whisky in front of his team and demanded that they show 'bottle'. "He must have thought we'd drunk it," Lou Macari said later.
But it turns out that darker forces were at work. In his much-lauded memoir Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby confessed that he had made a pact with himself: if Arsenal were to be allowed to win this game, and lift the Cup, then young Conservative upstart Margaret Thatcher would be allowed to win the general election, which was to be held the preceding Thursday. She did, and they did. So, people of Britain, if you're looking for somebody to blame ...
(This final, incidentally, also lives on as part of a famous pub quiz question, which is down at the end of this piece for anybody who's interested.)
Arsenal 2-1 United, fifth round, Feb. 20, 1988
There is, on the face of it, no logical reason why Brian McClair shouldn't have taken this penalty. He was a decent footballer, he wasn't unlikely to lose his bottle or his legs in the course of his run up and, by the time he stepped up in the last minute of this fifth round tie, he'd already scored four from the spot that season.
It was 2-1 to Arsenal when he did. United came into the game in good spirits; they'd beaten Arsenal at Highbury a couple of weeks previously, and were in generally good away form. Arsenal, for their part, were slumping a touch in the league: apart from two cup games against lower-league opposition, they'd won just twice since the beginning of December.
So naturally, Arsenal started like a proper football team and United started like a rabble. The first goal is remarkable for the defensive chaos in the visitor's ranks: each desperate hack clear only created a greater hole, and by the time Nigel Winterburn clipped a cross onto Alan Smith's head, there were more attacking players in the six-yard box than there were defenders. This was followed by a perfect corner routine: Mike Duxbury rose and flicked the ball on, then his teammate Gordon Strachan crashed the ball into the roof of the net. His own net.
We can, perhaps, assume that the half-time break brought an early deployment of the Alex Ferguson hairdryer, for United steamed into their opponents after the break. McClair nicked one back with a sweet left-footed volley, and a couple of other efforts were hacked from the line. Then, with three minutes left, Norman Whiteside was tripped in the area by Michael Thomas, and up stepped McClair.
"This defeat amounted to a kind of funeral for Manchester United's season," wrote Hugh McIlvanney in the Observer, "and Brian McClair will be remembered as the undertaker." But as United's season died, something else born: in the aftermath of the missed penalty, Winterburn took the opportunity to share some feelings with his dejected opponent. Winterburn has claimed not to remember what precisely he said, though The Sledger's Handbook by Liam McCann records that he delivered the positively Wildean dismissal: "You're shit, you are".
Whatever was said, it stung. Two years later, up at Old Trafford, Winterburn dived into a tackle, McClair dived into Winterburn, and one of English football's most notable 21-man brawls unfolded. (Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman was the conscientious objector.) Both teams were docked points, and a glorious rivalry was born -- one that would rumble through much of the 1990s and 2000s, taking in Martin Keown and Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, before reaching a farcical nadir (or zenith, if you're that way inclined) when Cesc Fabregas allegedly lobbed a slice of pizza at Alex Ferguson.
Semi-final replay, United 2-1 Arsenal, April 14, 1999
Since we're in the mood, let's start with an argument. It is in arguable that this was a great game of football. It is arguable — not certain, for this is not a question that lends itself to certain answers, given the sheer size of the thing, as well as the hopelessly partisan perspective we all bring to the table, in terms of teams, timing, location, personal context, and all the rest — that this was perhaps, the greatest game of football. Ever.
Well, maybe. Daniel Harris, in his book on United's treble season, has a crack at arguing that it's the "zenith of football in England" ...
two of its best ever teams conjuring a spiralling, thumping, coruscating, defibrillating orgasm of a game, gushing and thrashing with everything that could possibly happen when 22 men convene to boot a pig's bladder about a field.
... while Rob Smyth, writing in the Guardian, has been equally effusive:
Only in England would the raucous but monstrously flawed entertainment of Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle be placed above the majesty of this match, which had such gravitas, subtlety, intensity and excellence that it should have been shown on HBO.
Everything that could possibly happen? It certainly felt like it. This game contained, in brute list form: a remarkable opening goal from David Beckham (that has been almost completely forgotten by history, which says a lot about what was to follow); a spawny equaliser; Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira; a (correctly) disallowed Nicolas Anelka goal that was (wonderfully) celebrated for fully a minute and a half; Jaap Stam and Tony Adams; a (deserved) red card that involved the referee actively pursuing Keane, the better to take (onanistic) pleasure in the act of dismissal; extra-time; Arsenal pressure; a (hopelessly abject) foul from Phil Neville to concede a penalty; a surprisingly tepid missed penalty from Dennis Bergkamp; Peter Schmeichel saving; Peter Schmeichel barking; an unusually sleepy pass from Vieira; and then, that run, that finish, that goal, that winner, that completely stupid slalom through a stupified defence.
Then that celebration and a minor pitch invasion.
It had context, too, this game. Context and ripples that went beyond a mere semi-final. United and Arsenal were (along with Chelsea) chasing the title, and while this is if-my-auntie-had-balls-she'd-be-a-juggler territory, it's impossible not to wonder if something breaking the other way — Bergkamp or Schmeichel picking the other side, perhaps — might not have tipped the league in Arsenal's favour. The Londoners would have completed a double-Double, while United would have been denied two of their three trophies. And who knows what might have happened in the Europe campaign; that was a hard-won victory that drew from a deep well of belief.
Monday night's game, given the limpness of both sides in comparison to their 1999 versions, and given the slow, sad decline of the FA Cup, is not going to pulse with the same nervous energy from second to second as this game, and nor is it going to echo with the same import through the months and years to come. The best football matches achieve a synthesis of moment and context: after all, plenty of unimportant games are exciting, and plenty of important ones are deadly dull. The great ones manage to exist both in the abstract as waypoints on the road of football history, and in the moment as bloody, bare-knuckled, totally exhausting scraps. They explode, and then they keep exploding.
So this might not be the greatest football match of all time; that, ultimately, is a matter of taste. But it sits in the history of these two great FA Cup sides as their greatest FA Cup encounter, and that is plenty to be going on with.
Bonus quiz question
This isn't the ideal way of approaching this, since you've already been shown the trick of it, but nevertheless. The question goes as follows: "If Sunderland did it in 1979, and Villa did it in 1981, who did it in 1980, and what did they do?" And the answer is: "Trevor Brooking, who" — like Alan Sunderland before him and Tottenham's Ricky Villa a year later — "scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final." Clever, no? Now, go and tell your friends.