Arsenal away. Two words I used to love. I’d retired before the Emirates Stadium became Arsenal’s home, but when they were at Highbury, it was always one of my favourite fixtures of the season. For much of my playing career Arsenal had a cracking team – they weren’t called the Invincibles for nothing – and they were a daunting prospect to play against, but there was something special about Highbury and I used to love going there. It was a proper football ground. There was history and tradition when you walked in with the famous Marble Halls, and when you were on the pitch, the fans were on top of you. You could even hear the fans milling around and talking outside the ground when you were in the dressing room. It was old school, and you won’t find many players who were lucky enough to play there who won’t say the same.
One of my favourite memories of my time at Leeds came at Highbury when we went and defied the odds by beating them on their own patch. Not only did the win keep us in the Premier League (only for one more season as it turned out) but it also denied them the title.
It was May 2003 and we had two games left to save our skin after an awful season. Peter Reid had come in as caretaker manager after Terry Venables got sacked, and he had been really good around the place. He’d put smiles on peoples faces, created a relaxed attitude, and he’d also got some results that had given us a real chance of staying up. We had Arsenal away and Villa at home on the final day. And we needed to win one to stay up. Throw into the mix the fact that Arsenal had to beat us to potentially win the title, and you get the picture…
I was so nervous I was up all night. Eirik Bakke was my room-mate and he was fast asleep while I just lay on my bed watching TV. I was a mix of nerves and adrenaline. When we got to the ground I went for the usual pre-match meeting with both captains, Arsene Wenger, Reidy and the referee. We swapped team-sheets, and theirs was frightening. As we walked back into our dressing room Reidy was waving their team-sheet in his hand and announced to the lads: “These are shite, we’ll batter these.” Everyone laughed. He knew how to take the edge off.
By the time we kicked off, the nerves had gone, we were relaxed, and it was one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in. We went in front after a Harry Kewell worldie and after they equalised, Ian Harte put us 2-1 up. They equalised again, but with two minutes to go, the unbelievable happened and big Mark Viduka put us 3-2 up, and that was that. We’d only gone and bloody won. Everyone went mad went the final whistle went. My emotions were all over the place. I remember celebrating with the fans – including a large number in fancy dress. The scenes were something else. Nobody had given us a hope of getting anything from the game.
Back in the dressing room everyone was buzzing. Reidy took one look at the table full of energy drinks and asked ‘where’s the lager?’ We soon found the lager when we got back on the bus. We literally drove around the corner from Highbury, stopped at the first off licence we saw and emptied its shelves! It was one of hell of a bus trip home and we even had our own version of the X-Factor which saw Reidy joining in with the boys.
It was up there with the most memorable days I had as a player, but there was a downside. Our win at Arsenal meant that lot across the Pennines were crowned champions again.