Seven minutes. 420 seconds from a semi-final exit against Championship Wigan Athletic. We hadn’t been playing well for weeks and this game was no exception. 1-0 down after an uncharacteristic penalty-conceding lunge by Per Mertesacker, and little surprise.
The FA Cup represented our last realistic chance of silverware after another mini-collapse in the league, dispiriting 5-1 and 6-0 capitulations at Anfield and Stamford Bridge killing off the promise of an inspiring first half of the season. But what a chance to banish that nine-year trophyless hoodoo. Wigan were Cup holders, granted, but conquerors of champions-elect Manchester City though they were, all thought that with Hull and Sheffield United the only other remaining contenders this trophy was ours to throw away.
Wenger had never been under more pressure. Fans and media speculated that cup failure would represent the coup de grâce for him after 18 years. The crowd was restive, discontented, quiet, terrified even.
Arsenal became increasingly desperate. Two near-misses were followed by a corner. Merte’s own header was half-cleared and the ball ultimately fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose shot serendipitously found the BFG on the right-hand side of the box. He headed downwards and scruffily into the net. In the end we would, of course, need penalties – but we were alive again.
Mertesacker celebrated as if we’d won the cup. His relief was understandable – he knew he owed us one. I make no apology for such a scrappy, as well as recent choice. In that 83rd minute at Wembley we stood at a crossroads: the big German may well have saved not only his own blushes, but his boss’s career – and pointed the way towards greater things to come.