10-man Arsenal Under-18s held on to secure the Premier Academy League title at the home of their fiercest rivals despite a late flurry of attacks from Tottenham in a tempestuous North London derby.
Just as he did in the semi-final victory over Manchester City, Rhys Murphy proved the hero again as his goal four minutes after the interval swung the game in the Gunners favour.
In truth it should have been over long before then as Steve Bould’s side enjoyed the majority of possession but failed to turn their countless chances into goals. It seemed as if they were going to pay for their lacklustre finishing as Spurs orchestrated a late onslaught following Luke Ayling’s sending off for two bookable offences, but Arsenal held firm and can now concentrate on securing the second half of the double in the FA Youth Cup against Liverpool.
Bould made two changes from the side which got him to the Final; Henri Lansbury started his first match in an Arsenal shirt since returning from his highly profitable loan spell at Scunthorpe, whilst Murphy’s return to fitness saw Sanchez Watt relegated to the bench.
The game began at a blistering speed, with crunching challenges flying in left, right and centre, with referee Carl Berry struggling to maintain control of a game which really was living up to its billing as a North London derby.
Despite Arsenal’s pretty possession play, it was the hosts who created the first clear-cut goalscoring opportunity, with Daniel Rose beating Francis Coquelin for pace, but struggling to test Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal.
The Gunners’ left-sided defensive partnership of Ayling and Thomas Cruise was given the run-around by the pacy Jon Obika, but, once again, Szczesny had little trouble in stopping the tame shot which followed.
It was soon Arsenal’s turn to attack and they very nearly took the lead when Lansbury’s expert pass found Murphy, who attempted a delicate chip over the on-rushing Oscar Jansson, but couldn’t quite pull it off.
Just moments earlier Jansson had denied Sunu after a well-hit drive from the Frenchman. He was called into action once more to prevent Lansbury from putting Arsenal ahead with an equisite volley.
Tottenham had their moments in the interlude, but, primarily, it was all Arsenal. Coquelin saw his header cleared off the line by an alert Jansson and then Lansbury was left to regret a rather unbelievable miss from just eight yards out.
You were beginning to sense that this could be one of those days when nothing goes right for you, but an inspired team-talk from Bould at the break, not for the first time this season, helped to finally yield that crucial, crucial goal.
And how apt was it that it was Murphy who emerged as the hero. A player whose season has been plagued with injury rose from the dead to secure the perfect finish and ensure that Sunday 17th May 2009 will be a date that this particular group of youngsters will never let escape from their memory.
The goal came after Emmanuel Frimpong, the fulcrum of the midfield, found the lively Sunu, who slipped the ball in to Murphy’s path. The rest, as they say, is history.
There were chances to extend the lead. Lansbury had a free-kick blocked by the wall, Eastmond comically mis-kicked when clean through on goal and Callum Butcher did well to clear Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ header off the line.
Arsenal appeared to be slowly cruising towards victory when events took a turn for the worse. Ayling, who has had such a fantastic season, saw red for a second bookable offence and suddenly that 1-0 scoreline looked a little less secure.
Spurs, naturally, looked to make the most of their numerical advantage but ultimately failed to do so. There was one particularly frightening incident when it appeared as if Emmanuel-Thomas was about to turn the ball into his own net following a teasing cross from Andros Townsend, but Arsenal survived.
In need of fresh impetus, Bould brought on Sanchez Watt from the bench, a player who was perilously close to making the first-team squad for the Premier League game with Portsmouth at Fratton Park recently. His impact was almost instant, forcing Jansson into a save from a 25-yard drive.
Four minutes of injury time ensued and, after Frimpong had smashed the crossbar with a trademark piledriver, Spurs had one last throw of the dice. John Bostock, on as a substitute, floated in a corner, Emmanuel-Thomas cleared and the final whistle was blown.
Cue mass celebrations from everyone connected with the youth setup. But the real party will have to be put on hold until after the FA Youth Cup Final with Liverpool. Now, if that turned out to be a success too, then it really would be something to celebrate.
subs: Shea, Watt, Evina, Boateng, Henderson.