#FlashbackFriday – Arsenal’s FA Cup Semi Finals: 1998 to 2015

By Robert Exley

Part two of a History Lesson in preparation for Sunday’s trip to Wembley

Arsene Wenger’s first venture into the FA Cup came in 1997. Arsenal got past Sunderland in the third round after a replay, before meeting George Graham’s Leeds United at Highbury in the fourth round. GG put Wenger to the sword with a 0-1 defeat from a Rod Wallace goal after twelve minutes to end Wenger’s first FA Cup run. The following year, Wenger had more success and reached his first FA Cup Semi Final in April 1998. Double chasing Arsenal stood second in the Premiership just three points behind Premiership leaders Man United with two games in hand on the back of four straight wins.

Wonder save from Seaman v Sheffield Utd in 2003

The Gunners were drawn against a Wolves side standing eighth in the second tier with hopes of bagging a play-off place. Arsenal took the lead on the back of a poor clearance by former Forest and Wimbledon Dutch keeper Hans Segers. A storming run from the imperious Patrick Vieira led to the Frenchman putting George Weah’s cousin Christopher Wreh through on goal. The Liberian converted to put Arsenal ahead and secure an FA Cup Final appearance with a 1-0 win. After bagging the title, Arsenal secured their second League and FA Cup Double with a 2-0 win over Newcastle at Wembley.

It was around this time when a Wenger-Ferguson duopoly on English football sprung up. Twelve months on, Arsenal had been drawn against Man United in the FA Cup Semi Final. At the time, Man United topped the Premiership by one point and had a game in hand over Arsenal. The historically much less spoke of first game passed off as a 0-0 draw, one of the main talking points being a Nelson Vivas red card in extra time. Three days later came the replay – what turned out to be the very last ever FA Cup Semi Final replay, as ever since each Semi had been decided on the day by penalties if necessary.

Man United took the lead with an excellent twenty five yard strike. With just over twenty minutes left to go, from roughly the same distance Dennis Bergkamp struck Arsenal’s equaliser. As normal time drew to a close, Arsenal began to look the team more likely to win it. Nicolas Anelka put the ball in the United net, only to be disallowed for offside. Within seconds of that, Roy Keane committed a second bookable offence and was red carded by referee David Elleray. In stoppage time, Phil Neville brought down Ray Parlour in the box for a penalty against Man United. Dennis Bergamp stepped up, but Peter Schmeichel saved. With eleven minutes left to play, a misplaced Patrick Vieira pass ended up with an incredible run and solo goal by Ryan Giggs. Man United inflicted a 1-2 defeat on Arsenal.

A terrific game, but Arsenal came out second best. Man United won the treble, but I’d argue with anyone that Arsenal in 1998/99 – conceding just seventeen goals, losing one game from Christmas onwards and missing the title by just one point - are arguably the greatest English domestic side to finish a season trophy-less. In 1999/2000, a fourth round exit to Leicester City on penalties would be the only time during this eight year period when Arsenal would fail to reach the Semis. In 2000/01, Arsenal would again by drawn against Man United. With Wembley out of action due to the seven year-long rebuild of the national stadium, the nation’s next biggest football venue would host the Semi Final. This meant that the two sides who play their home games just four miles apart, would be dragged two hundred miles to face each other at Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium.

Not long after the two sides were drawn against each other, Spurs sacked George Graham for comments about the Tottenham transfer budget. GG would be replaced by Spurs icon Glenn Hoddle. Eight days prior to the tie, Arsenal beat Spurs in the League at Highbury 2-0 on the same day as David Rocastle’s untimely passing at the age of just thirty three. At the time, Arsenal stood second in the table, but thirteen points off of Man United at the summit of the Premiership. Spurs meanwhile were twelfth in the table. In the Semi Final, Spurs took the lead on fourteen minutes with a goal from Gary Doherty.

Twelve minutes before half time, Patrick Vieira equalised for the Gunners. Sixteen minutes from the end, Robert Pires scored his second goal against the Auld enemy in eight days, for a 2-1 win for Arsenal. Some thought that with the year ending in one, this time it might be Spurs’s year. Robert Pires’s winner however meant that the year for Spurs would simply end in tears. Twelve months on, Arsenal were back at Old Trafford in the Semi Final against Middlesbrough. The difference this year was that the chant doing the rounds aimed at Tottenham was to the chorus of Bruce Channel’s ‘Hey Baby’(reprised around the time by DJ Otzi), of ‘I Wanna Know Where Your Captain’s Gone’.

Spurs’s Captain of a year prior - Sol Campbell - was now lining up for Arsenal after moving down the other end of the Seven Sisters Road on a free transfer under the Bosman rule during the summer of 2001. Arsenal at the time topped the table by one point over second place Liverpool. Middlesbrough in contrast were ninth. Boro’s Gianluca Festa, under pressure from Sol Campbell in the box, ended up putting the ball into his own net, as Arsenal ran out 1-0 winners, Arsenal finished the season with their third League and FA Cup Double, secured with a win over Chelsea in the FA Cup Final at Cardiff and defeating Man United at Old Trafford.

It would pan out to be a hat-trick of FA Cup Semis for Arsenal at Old Trafford, this time against Sheffield United. At the time, Arsenal were three points behind Premiership leaders Man United. Sheffield United on the other hand were third in the second tier. Arsenal took the lead in controversial circumstances after the referee broke up a Blades attack by accidently bumping into a Sheffield United player. Arsenal then went up the other end of the field and took the lead with a goal from Freddie Ljungberg. Another noteworthy element of this game would be a superb David Seaman save which prevented a Sheffield United equaliser. Arsenal progressed to the final with a 1-0 victory. The Premiership may have been missed out on, but Arsenal went on to win the FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Southampton.

Arsenal reached a fourth straight FA Cup Semi Final in 2003/04 – this time not at Villa Park and not Old Trafford, by virtue of the fact that the opposition this time were Man United. At the time, Arsenal held a seven point lead at the top of the table and were unbeaten in the league from the very start of the season. A week prior, Man United had disrupted a run of nine straight wins for the Gunners by holding Arsenal to a 1-1 draw at Highbury. Man United were to frustrate Arsenal further, as a goal for Paul Scholes just past the half hour with no further scoring meant that a 0-1 defeat for Arsenal and no FA Cup Final for the first time in four years, though did go on to win the Premiership unbeaten.

Arsenal however would reach a fifth straight FA Cup Semi Final in 2004/05, this time against Blackburn Rovers. In what was anticipated to be the very last year in which the FA Cup Final would be played in Cardiff (with New Wembley due to be finished in 2006), the FA decided that both Semis would also be played at the Millennium Stadium. Robert Pires gave Arsenal the lead three minutes before half time. There would be no further scoring until the introduction of Robin Van Persie as sub eight minutes from time. RVP would double Arsenal’s lead on eighty six minutes and then bag a second in time added on, in the process of which he would be physically assaulted by Blackburn’s Andy Todd. Arsenal however ran out 3-0 winners.

A 0-1 away defeat to Bolton Wanderers in the fourth round of the FA Cup in January 2006, with a goal from Stelios Giannakopoulos six minutes from time, brought to an end Arsenal’s most successful ever period in the FA Cup. It would be nine years before another trophy was won, though Arsenal did reach the FA Cup Semis again in 2008/09. This led to Arsenal’s first appearance at the new Wembley to meet Chelsea. At the time, Arsenal were in fourth place in the Premiership and six points behind Chelsea who were third. Arsenal took the lead on eighteen minutes through a Theo Walcott shot via Ashley Cole’s hand. Chelsea equalised with ten minutes to go until half time with a shot from Florent Malouda.

The match would be settled by a defensive mix up between Mikael Silvestre and Lukasz Fabianski for Didier Drogba to pounce for Chelsea’s winner six minutes from time to inflict a 1-2 defeat on Arsenal. Chelsea went on to win the 2009 FA Cup Final with a victory over Everton in the Final. Arsenal then had to wait another five years to reach the FA Cup Semi Final again. This time it would against reigning FA Cup holders Wigan Athletic. In the Premiership, Arsenal had won just one of their last six games and had sunk from being top of the table in late February to just one point ahead of Everton in fifth having played one game more. Wigan in contrast were in fifth place within the second tier.

Arsenal made extremely hard work of the game and conceded a penalty just past the hour mark, when Per Mertesecker brought down Callum McManaman in the box, which was successfully converted by Jordi Gómez. It wasn’t until eight minutes from the end of normal time, when Per Mertesecker made amends for his earlier blunder to head Arsenal’s equaliser to send the game into extra time. With no further scoring the game ended 1-1, end went to a penalty shootout – the very first which Arsenal would face in an FA Cup Semi Final. Arsenal successfully scored all four penalties, while Lukasz Fabianski saved two of Wigan’s. After Santi Carzorla converted his penalty, Arsenal secured their place in the 2014 FA Cup Final. In the final against Hull City, Arsenal were also successful but similarly made hard work of it, as the Gunners won their first trophy in nine years.

Arsenal were back at Wembley in the FA Cup Semi Final twelve months later. The Gunners were again drawn against lower League opposition in Reading, who were eighteenth in the second tier at the time having won just one of their last six games. Arsenal in contrast were actually having a better time of it than usual in recent seasons. Since Christmas, the Gunners had won thirteen games out of fifteen. The crucial thing to remember here however is that even after this run, they stood seven points behind Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in second place and had never been within close touching distance of the Blues throughout the second half of the season, hence not coming into contact with much in the way of pressure.

Arsenal took the lead with a goal from Alexis Sanchez six minutes from half time with an assist from Mesut Ozil. Nine minutes into the second half, Reading equalised with a goal from Garath McCleary. The game went into extra time. Early on in the second period, a shot from Sanchez had been spilled by Reading keeper Adam Fedeici over the line to put Arsenal ahead. With no further scoring, Arsenal progressed to the final with a 2-1 victory. Around this period, the ‘Alexis Sanchez Baby’ chant to the tune of the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ sprung up. However, with two goals in the semi and a cracking goal in the final from Sanchez, if you know your Sheffield-based eighties synth pop it was more a case of Heaven 17. Arsenal secured their record twelfth FA Cup with a 4-0 hammering of an Aston Villa side in freefall who went on to be relegated the following term.

Last year, Arsenal missed out on a hat-trick of FA Cup Semi Final appearances after suffering a hugely disappointing 1-2 home defeat to Watford. And so on to Sunday. It’s fair to say that there probably hasn’t been a more downbeat feel surrounding the club going into an FA Cup Semi Final than the mood which surrounds this game. Leaving aside the long winded argument as to whether the FA Cup is a trophy worth winning anymore, one thing that is certain is that winning it is no longer an end in itself for a club of Arsenal’s stature – in 1993, winning the Cup instantly turned a mediocre season finishing tenth in the League into a memorable one. In 2017, that certainly is no longer the case and as seen from the fate of Louis Van Gaal last year, winning the trophy alone is no longer enough for a manager to keep his job at an ambitious top end side.

Looking on the merits of the game alone, if there’s one thing in Arsenal’s favour it’s that we’ve been drawn against the one side among the top six that Arsenal have had the most amount of success against when they’ve come head to head with them. And from the 2-2 draw against them a few weeks back, City’s performance was also as lacklustre as Arsenal’s, making a spring time battle for a Champions League place look more akin to a pre-season friendly. The optimist within you hopes against hope that Wenger can somehow win the FA Cup (up against a final four much better than that which reached the Semis in 2014 and 2015), somehow grab a fourth place finish in the Premiership and then somehow acquire enough self-realisation that he can’t take the project any further and quit on a relative high (but maybe, that’s probably far too much to ask!).

If Wenger does leave this summer, he will leave behind a legacy so confusing that future observers will be baffled at making head nor tail of it. The cold hard facts are that Wenger is Arsenal’s most successful ever manager in terms of finishing positions and trophies won and yet - looking at the detail behind those facts - during his reign there have been just as much in the way of achievable opportunities that were squandered (even more so over the last decade). To confuse the legacy even further, if Wenger does go on to win the FA Cup this season, he will break the record for winning the most FA Cups as manager – despite being one of the first managers to downgrade the tournament by playing weakened squads in the earlier rounds.

Wenger also openly admits to relegating in it in importance behind a fourth place finish during the nine year trophy famine between 2005 and 2014 – specific examples of which include fielding a weakened side to face Stoke City away in 2010 and the 0-4 drubbing against Man United at Old Trafford in 2008, to which the report of the game in the Independent Newspaper had highlighted: ‘His post-match demeanour suggested that it had been no mental torture for Wenger to accept the fate of his team's FA Cup campaign as he considers Wednesday's Champions League game against Milan’.

The FA Cup however accounts for two thirds of the nine trophies which Arsene Wenger has won during his time at Arsenal. He’s spent the best part of his career concentrating on what he himself would term ‘bigger things’ of greater importance than the FA Cup and more often than not failed to achieve them. And that ultimately is a fact more ironic than any of the examples of irony forwarded by Alanis Morrisette in her song ‘Ironic’ – a hit in 1996, all those years back when Arsene Wenger first came to Highbury!

Robert Exley can be found on Twitter and is the editor of Upstart Football

21st April 2017 11:12:02


Comments and Reaction

User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.

Yes its Ron  12:30pm 21st Apr 2017

Robert, i told you to airbrush 1999. Now you've re kindled the thought of it and ruined my week end ha ha!! - Post No. 106528

The Man From UNCLE  12:40pm 21st Apr 2017

Ah memories. We don't tend to play very well in Semis (or Finals for that matter; 2015 excepted). That 2014 semi I was so sure we would win easily that I ordered a Chinese takeaway to be delivered during the match. The poor bloke came round with 15 mins left, us losing 0-1, to tell me that they only accepted cash, not cards, there were a few verbals (I was out of order, he was only doing his job after all) and I had to dash up the road to the nearest cashpoint. Got back with a couple of minutes to spare before the equaliser. Mr Waverley was not best pleased with me that day. - Post No. 106529

Seven Kings Gooner1  17:02pm 21st Apr 2017

Ron : I know you did n't want to see the 1999 semi again but let us get one thing straight, of the 20 odd players on the pitch that night there was not one of them who thought finishing fourth would be an achievement! Fantastic game, proper cup football. - Post No. 106532

Yes its Ron  17:29pm 21st Apr 2017

SKG - Yr so right matey, you usually are. Its just that i can still see (and always will) Giggs on his way and can hear everybody shouting for him to be ripped up, then it was like time stopped for a few secs ................. and the net bulged. I always look back on it and think that was the night when something deep inside me was telling me that Bergy was going to miss and that Dixon and Adams just got old! Oh for the days when Arsenal FC created fire and passion. It was a match as well where Utd selection was compromised and it felt just a bit for so much of the first half that they would have took a loss that night because of what they faced a few days afterwards, yet they still did it, thanks to Giggs magic and lets be honest, his guts and fire he felt for his team. Titanic Cup match as you say. Then 2001 soon followed . Wengers had many such anti climax's in his time hasnt he. We say we were robbed in 2001, but the truth is tht Wengers team wasnt psychologically up to burying Liverpool and v Utd, that night in 99, they wobbled mentally and couldnt see it through. Wengers teams post 1998 in my view have all been permeated with a streak of yellow running through their spines and i inc the unbeaten outfit too. In so many games they would lose the plot and bicker and whine when games were going against them. They just had 2 or 3 who could pull the teams nuts from fires, irrespective of what Wenger was or wasnt doing and there were quite a few iffy times in that 49 game run. - Post No. 106534

Seven Kings Gooner1  18:37pm 21st Apr 2017

Ron : I thought the EUFA cup final was a real bottle job but I think in 2002 they put a lot of things right again, especially winning the league at OT. However Robert's brilliant clips remind us all of how far the FA Cup has fallen because of this pathetic top four placings system. I know you and I agree on this but the sooner only the Champions or at a push the runners up enter the CL the better. The FA have helped ruin the FA Cup (let's be fair they f*ck up most things) semi finals at Wembley, United's opt out and the 4th place chase have made it a nuisance to so many so called big clubs. Wenger himself has thrown many a cup tie in pursuit of his big bonus 3rd & 4th place spot. I hope Arsenal do end up in the Europa League because it will at least be an honest appraisal of where the football club really belongs and it's true position in the pecking order of football will be there for all parties to see. - Post No. 106535

Time for change  22:10pm 21st Apr 2017

If only Arsenal could swap its league record under Wenger for its FA Cup one. - Post No. 106536

Issue #269 - Out Now!

Gooner Editorial

23rd February 2018

It Is Actually Getting Worse

Online Ed: Arsenal’s largely unmotivated players defeated at home