It seems a little odd pitching a game I’ve not seen for this series. I wasn’t at Wembley, I didn’t watch on TV and I didn’t listen to it on the radio. How, then, I hear you say, can the 1998 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Newcastle possibly be my favourite game?
I had always been an Arsenal fan, I didn’t have a choice. I grew up in a council flat in Hackney where if you left the windows open on matchdays you could faintly hear the Highbury goal celebrations. I went to a primary school in Islington. My dad supported Arsenal, so did my grandad.
When George Graham’s Arsenal won the league in 1991, I was four. I cannot remember the Graham era, I have vague memories of Bruce Rioch’s sub-50 games. In reality, the 1997-8 season is where football, beyond the playground, began for me.
A first league title, that I could remember, ensured I was well and truly a child of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal. The chance to do the Double for the first time since 1971, when my dad was 10, felt magical. At 11, it was my turn.
Except I wasn’t even in London for the final. As Arsenal prepared to field a side without an injured Dennis Bergkamp and a not-quite-fit-to-start Ian Wright, I, in my final year of primary school, was on a coach heading for a week-long trip in Devon.
When matchday came, we begged the trio of teachers to let us watch or listen to the game but they refused because it would mess up the day’s schedule. My class of little Gooners had to wait.
One of the group, though, had sneaked out a pocket radio. I have no idea where we were going to, or coming from, or where we stopped off during the course of the two hours from kick-off to final whistle, but as a train of schoolchildren weaved along a narrow pavement in the middle of nowhere a stream of Chinese-whisper match updates would trickle down the line.
When Emmanuel Petit swept the ball into the path of Marc Overmars, who slotted between the legs of an onrushing Shay Given, an excited murmur filtered down the pairs of kids. We felt exhilarated by our small act of rebellion, and stealthy. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the teachers were not very quickly aware of exactly what was going on, a kind blind eye, perhaps, allowing us to keep the magic alive.
When the 19-year-old Nicolas Anelka coolly scored from Ray Parlour’s delightful ball over the top from the halfway line, we believed. On the final whistle all pretence was gone and the small herd of north London kids erupted in celebrations next to a thick hedge on a slip of pavement.
When I ask him, out of the blue, if he remembers that day, a former classmate and fellow Gooner, Paul Jackson, sends me racing back to us being allowed to watch the trophy being lifted on the small TV back where we were staying afterwards.
That game set off a golden few months (and then years) of memories: wobbling precariously on a crowd barrier on the back of a flatbed lorry to catch a look at the Double winners on parade, the women’s team who had completed a League Cup and FA Cup double atop the bus behind; gasping and being convinced, for a split second, that a shattered trophy would be across the back pages when Wrighty threw the FA Cup high into the air from the window of Islington town hall before catching it to mad celebration; falling in love with players that would light up the summer’s World Cup.
More than that, though, the 1998 FA Cup final gave me my first real glimpse of the power of football. I hadn’t watched it, I hadn’t followed it directly, but my god did it matter.