Remembering Ryan Giggs' Manchester United vs. Arsenal 1999 FA Cup Semi-Final

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2015

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Ryan Giggs' Manchester United career was so long, so trophy-laden and so full of extraordinary peaks that it should be impossible to use one 10-second passage of play against Arsenal in which to embody it.

And yet, it is not. Because among all the drama of Manchester United's 1998/99 season—all of the sublime, transcendent moments of footballing magic that it contained—Ryan Giggs scored the most Ryan Giggs-like goal of all time.

Almost everyone knows the story.

In extra-time of the FA Cup's last-ever semi-final replay, with the score tied at 1-1, the era's two best English sides were going at it hammer and tongs. United were down to 10 men, and Arsenal had missed a penalty, thanks to Denis Bergkamp's tame attempt to beat Peter Schmeichel from the spot.

Patrick Vieira, Arsenal talisman and symbol of their side of the fight between the two clubs, as Roy Keane was for United, wearily attempted a pass across the ground to someone in Arsenal red.

Instead, he found Giggs, fresher than most of the rest, having only entered the fray after an hour, left out of the starting line-up in favour of Jesper Blomqvist. The rest, or at least the next 10 seconds, is history.

Part of the reason the goal can be used to sum up Ryan Giggs lies in its execution. The sway of the hips and the tip-toed running style is vintage Giggs. Rarely was Sir Alex Ferguson's famous quote about seeing him for the first time more appropriate (h/t the Guardian).

"He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper on the wind."

In April of 1999, Giggs was 25, but he still floated over the ground like that.

Thus, the goal would stand as an excellent primer for someone asking the question "what kind of player was Ryan Giggs?" even if it had been scored in a friendly.

However, the game it was scored in was anything but a friendly, and thus as well as summing up the best of his playing style, it also captures what he was like as a sportsman, a competitor and as a conduit for the pre-knighthood Alex Ferguson on the pitch.

LONDON - OCTOBER 01:  Manchester United Manager, Sir Alex Ferguson congratulates Ryan Giggs after he substituted him during the Barclays Premiership match between Fulham and Manchester United at Craven Cottage on October 1, 2005 in London, England.  (Phot
Phil Cole/Getty Images

He served as the latter in a different way to, say, Keane, but almost as effectively, providing the flair and joie de vivre that once defined Ferguson's approach to the game.

The context of the goal is crucial in terms of understanding its importance because 1997/98 had been a difficult season for United. Fergie's side had developed a taste for success by this point as the dominant force in English football in the 1990s. Arsenal were a genuine threat to their supremacy.

Before '98, United had won four of the past five titles and had seen off Blackburn Rovers and Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United as pretenders to the throne. Arsene Wenger's Arsenal were a different proposition. Gary Neville described them as the best English side he faced during his career, per talkSPORT, saying:

"That 1998 Arsenal team had everything pace, power, strength, great defenders, a good goalkeeper and good finishers. That was a complete team."

The following season, Ferguson's side had risen to the challenge of Wenger's men. When they met for the replay, on April 14, 1999, United were, of course, still in the Champions League and sat atop the Premier League, one point ahead of the Gunners, with a seven-better goal difference and with a game in hand.

As an aside, the manner in which they had achieved their goal differences could hardly have been more different. United, at their most free-wheeling, had done it by scoring 69 and conceding 32. Arsenal, at their meanest, had scored 43 but conceded just 13.

The initial semi-final tie had been a 0-0 draw, although United had a goal ruled out that probably should have stood.

14 Apr 1999:  Marc Overmars of Arsenal in action during the FA Cup Semi Final Replay match against Manchester United played at Villa Park in Birmingham, England. Manchester United won the game 2-1 after extra time. \ Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /All
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

By the time Giggs' goal came around, the replay was hardly the clash of attack versus defence that the sides' respective goal difference would have indicated. After Keane's red card, it was Arsenal on the front foot.

As Daniel Harris describes in his book about the 1998/99 season The Promised Land:

Arsenal pushed forward seeking a winner. United attempted to hang on for penalties, [Dwight] Yorke loitering around upfield and everyone else massed around their box.

Harris goes on to point out that Giggs was not having a good game.

The cause was not helped by the efforts of one RJ Giggs, Esq, who, on as a second half substitute for Blomqvist, had contrived a performance careless even by his exulted standards.

The pre-Giggs goals in this game are worthy of a mention at this point. David Beckham's opener is a classic example of a goal that would garner a lot more attention had it not been overshadowed by later events.

Years later, Dimitar Berbatov's artful overhead bicycle kick against Liverpool was superseded in the collective unconscious of United fans by Wayne Rooney's dramatic effort against Manchester City. Similarly, Beckham's magnificent long-range, curled strike was surpassed by Giggs' run.

14 Apr 1999:  Manchester United fans salute David Beckham after victory over Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park in Birmingham, England. United won 2-1 after extra-time. \ Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Beckham's hit was as "Beckham" as Giggs' goal was "Giggs." It looks almost like a free-kick from open play, as Teddy Sheringham gathered the attentions of Arsenal's defenders, then found Beckham in space. There may not have been another player on the pitch who would have found the same finish as United's Cockney red.

Bergkamp's equaliser was another fine long-range strike, but it took a heavy deflection off his compatriot Jaap Stam. That it beat Schmeichel, then, contained an element of good fortune.

After that, Arsenal had a Nicolas Anelka goal correctly ruled out for offside. United missed a number of presentable chances throughout the match, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer having an off day—though he would make up for that later in the season.

14 Apr 1999:  Lee Dixon of Arsenal is closed down by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park in Birmingham, England. United won 2-1 after extra-time. \ Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill /Allsport
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

When Giggs set off on that run, latching on to Viera's exhausted pass, he ran through Arsenal's mean defence like a knife through butter. He blasted the ball into the roof of the net, past the best English goalkeeper of his generation.

He did so in extra-time in an FA Cup semi-final replay, when United were chasing glory on three fronts. Under immense pressure, he summoned the best of his footballing gifts and the best of his will to win, and he let loose the most effective of his footballing instincts. It was pure, unadulterated Giggs.

His celebration is, of course, an iconic image, with joy and chest-hair unconfined, in a manner which was not yet a bookable offence. It is no wonder he celebrated so wildly, given what he had just accomplished.

After the game, Ferguson delivered one of his all-time great post-match interviews to ITV Sport. Gary Newbon began the discussion by saying "this isn't what you needed really, you needed a result but you didn't need extra-time, 10 men, a real battle like that"?

Ferguson replied:

Look, who's to know what's gonna happen in football, Gary. It could all blow up in our face at the end of the day. But can you forget moments like this? Our supporters will be talking about that for years [16 years later he is proved definitively correct about this assertion].

The players will be talking about that for years, that's what football's about. Trying to reach peaks and climaxes to a season, which we are doing at the moment. We're in a final, we've got something in the bank for ourselves, now we go and try and win this league now.

Giggs' goal did not single-handedly fire United to the treble. It was an accomplishment of such magnitude that it needed many similar moments of magic to accomplish.

This moment of magic in particular, though, was one of the sweetest. United's supporters are indeed still talking about it, and those who remember it will probably talk about it for the rest of their days.

14 Apr 1999:  Ryan Giggs of Manchester United beats the despairing lunge of Tony Adams of Arsenal to drive the ball past David Seaman to score the winner in the FA Cup Semi Final match played at Villa Park in Birmingham. Manchester United won the game 2-1
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

A magnificent goal, from a magnificent player, scored in a magnificent game, played in United's most magnificent season.

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