Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's crucial penalty for Arsenal against Chelsea has prompted memories of two previous 'Sliding Doors' spot-kicks - one, good, one bad...PICTURE: Peter Storey in his pomp. CREDIT: OFFSIDE
Sliding Doors - the fine margins in football
Every Gooner in the world would have found their heart pumping rapidly as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stood in front of the penalty spot at Wembley waiting to take that vital spot-kick in last Saturday’s Cup Final.
He looked focused and struck a nerveless kick into the side of the net to equalise. Cue massive relief for many millions of Arsenal supporters.
I’ve relived that moment as I have many others in what turned out to be a wonderful afternoon for those in red and white. If Auba hadn’t been quite so assured, if Caballero had guessed right or anything else had intruded on his concentration as he moved towards the ball and he hadn’t scored what effect would that have had on the match and indeed on the future of Arsenal?
I make that point because I want to look at two fateful penalties in cup semi-finals and the impact they had on the history of the club.Come back with me to Hillsborough on 27th March 1971.
Arsenal are meeting Stoke City in their first FA Cup semi-final for 19 years. Arsenal are favourites because they are enjoying a superb season in the League and while trailing Leeds they are still in contention for a very unlikely Double, ten years after the feat was last performed by deadly rivals Tottenham .However in their only meeting that season Stoke thrashed Arsenal 5-0 at the Victoria Ground in the Potteries.
Those who have perhaps grown up with a negative view of Stoke City because of the sterile long-ball football played under Tony Pulis and his successors might be surprised to know that the Stoke team we met that day were a team of high quality and one of the most entertaining, attack- minded teams in the League.
They had a very tough defensive unit marshalled by their captain Dennis Smith. Behind him in goal they had one of the greatest goalkeepers in English football history, Gordon Banks. Five years after his exploits in helping to win the World Cup he had returned from Mexico in 1970 where he made possibly the greatest save ever seen in international football from a stunning header from Pele. It was an epic moment in an epic match although one that England failed to win.
Up front Stoke had a top-quality strike force with John Ritchie leading the line, backed up by the classy Jimmy Greenhoff who went on to play for Manchester United and a mercurial wide player Terry Conroy, who was known in the language of the day as an Irish will of the wisp.
Pressure was mounting on Arsenal as they progressed in the Cup especially as the consistency of the Leeds side who led the league meant that it was very hard to claw back their lead.
That March afternoon in the tension of a Cup semi-final, things began disastrously for Arsenal. Under pressure from the start they failed to clear a corner and Peter Storey in attempting to hack the ball away crashed it against Dennis Smith. It rebounded past Bob Wilson into the net.
Worse was to come. Arsenal were being overrun by the fast Stoke forwards but conceded an entirely unnecessary second goal. Charlie George, playing in midfield attempted to turn the ball back to Wilson in goal but saw the ball intercepted by Ritchie who coolly slipped it out of Wilson’s reach and turned it into the net.
2-0 down at half-time and vulnerable to the lightning quick breaks of the Stoke forwards things looked bleak but took a turn for the better five minutes after half-time when Storey lashed the ball home from the edge of the area after it had bounced loose following a spell of Arsenal pressure . Increasingly desperate we poured forward and forty five seconds into injury time (which was at the whim of the referee) we earned at corner on the right wing at the Leppings Lane end.
Geordie Armstrong swung it in and Frank McLintock rose above everyone to nod the ball just inside the left- hand post. John Mahoney, Stoke’s Welsh midfielder dived full-length to punch it off the line. It was a clear penalty but there was no other punishment for Mahoney. Life was very different in those days!
In the last minute of the match Storey had to beat the world’s greatest goalkeeper to keep Arsenal in the Cup.
Storey was a nerveless character who had scored a late penalty earlier in the Cup to put out Portsmouth. It was a high tension moment and the tension seemed to affect Banks more than Storey. He stood rooted to the spot as Storey drilled the shot just past his left hand and into the net.
That was effectively the last act of the game. In the replay at Villa Park the following Wednesday Arsenal won comfortably 2-0 and went on to complete a quite magnificent double beating Tottenham on the Monday at White Hart Lane and defeating Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley the following Saturday after extra-time.
But then every Gooner knows that. But it might have been so different.
What if Storey hadn’t scored that penalty? There would have been no double, no serious place in history and would we have recovered psychologically to challenge Leeds for the league ? On that kick so much rested and thankfully we came though to write a rich chapter in Arsenal history.
Compare that with a last minute spot-kick taken twenty eight years later this time at Villa Park in a semi- final replay between Arsenal and Manchester United. The sides were neck and neck in the league and head and shoulders above any others in the country.
After a dull 0-0 draw in the first game the second match was a classic. Beckham gave United a first- half lead but Bergkamp, who was quite brilliant on the night brought Arsenal back level and after Anelka had had what looked like a legitimate goal disallowed (well it was Manchester United) and Roy Keane had been sent off we piled the pressure on United. With time ticking down Ray Parlour swept inside a hapless Phil Neville, who brought him down and David Elleray pointed to the spot.
As Bergkamp put the ball down it was one of those moments when you find it hard to breathe. Tension suffused every pore . Ironically Bergkamp’s penalty was a much better one than Storey hit twenty eight years before but Schmeichel threw himself to his left and pushed the ball aside.
Had Dennis scored (and such was the respect we had for him I have never heard a whisper of criticism from any Arsenal supporter for that miss) we would have, I believe , become the first team to record doubles in successive seasons, ruined United’s treble and saved civilisation the sight of Ryan Giggs’s hairy chest after he careered around the pitch after scoring the winner in extra-time.
Top level sport is decided by fine margins, by mental strength, commitment and something that we can’t control - what I might call serendipity.
Many readers will remember the Gwyneth Paltrow film ‘ Sliding Doors’ where her life is altered because she misses a tube train. Football has many ‘Sliding Doors‘ moments.
It might be argued that the course of a game can be fundamentally altered by a referee’s decision, a missed tackle, a lapse in concentration or just an outrageous piece of luck.
Certainly Arsenal’s history might be immeasurably better or immeasurably worse if those two penalties had resulted in different outcomes. Two Sliding Doors moments that have helped to define the direction of our club.
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