The 2003 FA Cup final, marking the illustrious 122nd edition of the world's oldest domestic football cup competition, took place amidst great anticipation. On the memorable date of Saturday 17 May 2003, the vibrant atmosphere at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium set the stage for an epic clash, witnessed by an awe-inspiring crowd of 73,726 football enthusiasts. Notably, this momentous occasion marked the third consecutive year that the final graced the splendid stadium, as the iconic Wembley Stadium underwent extensive renovation. A unique twist added intrigue to the event as the 2003 final became the inaugural indoor spectacle, with the imposing roof firmly closed to shield against inclement weather. In this remarkable encounter, Arsenal, the reigning champions, faced off against Southampton, generating an electrifying contest. For Arsenal, this was a remarkable feat as it marked their impressive sixteenth appearance in a final, while Southampton valiantly strove for glory, making their fourth appearance on this grand stage.
With their Premier League stature, both Arsenal and Southampton embarked on their FA Cup journey from the third round, demanding a triumphant march through five enthralling rounds in order to seize a coveted spot in the grand finale.
Arsenal route to the final
Arsenal commenced their FA Cup campaign with an impressive 2-0 triumph over Oxford United in a thrilling home encounter. The match witnessed a momentous milestone as veteran striker Dennis Bergkamp etched his name in Arsenal's history by scoring his 100th goal for the club.
In the following stage, Arsenal faced a challenging test against non-league side Farnborough Town. Due to safety concerns, the match venue was shifted from Farnborough's Cherrywood Road ground to the iconic Highbury stadium. Sky would only show it if it Farnborough stayed at home, and considered an upset to be considerably more likely if the match was played at Cherrywood Road, where the capacity was 4,900, despite the record attendance being only 3,581. If the game went ahead at that venue, the Boro would have received £265,000 in television rights. Alternatively, if the game was staged at Highbury, where the capacity was 38,500, they would have been entitled to 50% of the gate receipts, which were expected to amount to a similar sum.
Despite Farnborough beginning the match as the home team, it was Arsenal who swiftly took the lead in the 19th minute courtesy of a goal from defender Sol Campbell. Farnborough's hopes were further dimmed when they were reduced to ten men after Christian Lee received a red card for a professional foul in the 28th minute. Arsenal's Francis Jeffers showcased his attacking prowess by scoring twice, while Rocky Baptiste of Farnborough managed to find the net, albeit as a consolation. Baptiste displayed impressive speed, eluding Pascal Cygan to slot the ball past goalkeeper Stuart Taylor, following an initial save. In the final 15 minutes of the game, Lauren and Bergkamp added to Arsenal's tally, securing a resounding 5-1 victory.
In a highly anticipated encounter, Arsenal ventured to Old Trafford for their fifth round clash against league rivals Manchester United on 16 February 2003. The match unfolded with a moment of disbelief as Ryan Giggs squandered a golden opportunity to find the back of the net with an open goal beckoning. Seizing the momentum, midfielder Edu swiftly capitalized on the situation, breaking the deadlock with a free kick that fortuitously deflected off David Beckham's shoulder to grant Arsenal the lead. The second goal of the match came in the 52nd minute, courtesy of striker Sylvain Wiltord. Displaying his agility and precision, Wiltord expertly received a pass from Edu, skillfully side-footing the ball beyond the reach of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, further cementing Arsenal's advantage.
In an enthralling turn of events, Arsenal found themselves pitted against Chelsea in a tantalizing sixth-round encounter, reminiscent of the previous season's final. The stage was set for an intense battle as Chelsea's defender John Terry broke the deadlock with a powerful header from a well-executed set piece. However, Arsenal swiftly retaliated, showcasing their attacking prowess through the combined efforts of Jeffers and the legendary Thierry Henry. Just as the match seemed destined for a conclusion, Frank Lampard stepped up for Chelsea, delivering a late equalizer, forcing the match to be replayed at the iconic Stamford Bridge.
The replayed match witnessed a remarkable twist as Arsenal surged ahead in the early stages. A stroke of misfortune befell Chelsea's Terry, who inadvertently scored an own goal, followed by a decisive strike from the talented Sylvain Wiltord, propelling Arsenal into an early lead. Despite a setback when Cygan received a red card and Terry managed to find the back of the net with another impressive header, Arsenal remained undeterred. Their resolve paid off when Lauren netted a crucial third goal, securing their passage into the semi-finals.
The semi-final clash against Sheffield United, held at the hallowed grounds of Old Trafford on 13 April 2003, witnessed another decisive moment. In a testament to Arsenal's relentless pursuit of victory, Freddie Ljungberg emerged as the hero of the day, scoring the winning goal that propelled Arsenal to their third consecutive FA Cup final appearance. Notably, the match will forever be etched in the annals of football history due to David Seaman's heroic late save, thwarting Sheffield United's desperate attempt to equalize and preserving Arsenal's triumph.
Southampton route to Final
In a stunning display of their capabilities, Southampton embarked on their FA Cup journey with an opening match that ended in a resounding 4-0 victory against fellow league club Tottenham Hotspur. The second half saw goals from Jo Tessem, Anders Svensson, and James Beattie, complementing a strike by defender Michael Svensson. Impressively, this triumph marked their second consecutive win against Tottenham, having previously defeated them on New Year's Day in the league.
The fourth round draw brought Southampton a home fixture against First Division club Millwall on 25 January 2003. Despite Millwall taking the lead through striker Steve Claridge, victory eluded them as Southampton's Kevin Davies scored a crucial goal just 90 seconds before the match's end, resulting in a draw. In the subsequent replay, Southampton's midfielder Matthew Oakley showcased his talent by scoring two goals, one in each half, sandwiched between a Steven Reid equalizer for Millwall.
Southampton's fifth round encounter unfolded on 5 February 2003 at home against Norwich City. A quick succession of goals within three minutes, courtesy of Svensson and Tessem, secured the team's passage into the quarter-finals. Following the match, Southampton defender Claus Lundekvam expressed his satisfaction, stating, "When you get to this stage in the competition, you have to believe you can win it."
The following round presented a home fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers. It was former Wolves player Chris Marsden who broke the deadlock, giving Southampton the lead in the 56th minute. With just nine minutes remaining in regular time, Jo Tessem's shot deflected off Paul Butler's legs, finding the back of the net for a second Southampton goal. This victory marked Southampton's progression to the FA Cup semi-finals, a feat they had not achieved in 17 years.
The semi-final clash took place at Villa Park on 13 April 2003, with Southampton facing First Division team Watford. Brett Ormerod opened the scoring two minutes before halftime and played a crucial role in the second goal, as the ball crossed the line courtesy of Watford defender Paul Robinson. Although Marcus Gayle scored a late header to narrow the scoreline, Southampton emerged victorious, securing their place in the final of the tournament.
Build up to the final
In a display of their rich history in the FA Cup, Arsenal graced the final stage for the sixteenth time. Their illustrious past included lifting the cup on eight occasions, triumphing in 1930, 1936, 1950, 1971, 1979, 1993, 1998, and 2002. However, they also experienced the bitter taste of defeat seven times, with their most recent setback occurring in 2001.
On the other hand, Southampton made their fourth appearance in an FA Cup final, with their crowning achievement being their victorious campaign in 1976 when they overcame formidable opponents Manchester United.
To accommodate the passionate fans, both clubs were allocated approximately 25,000 tickets, while the remaining 25,000 were distributed to other affiliated clubs. Southampton season ticket holders had the privilege of accessing 17,500 of those tickets, ensuring their loyal support was duly recognized. Notably, seat prices for the final soared beyond £80, with the most affordable tickets starting at £25. In terms of the stadium arrangement, Southampton was granted the South Stand, the larger end of the venue, while Arsenal took their place at the opposite end, creating a captivating visual spectacle.
A mere nine days prior to the grand final, the two esteemed clubs locked horns in a highly anticipated league encounter at the iconic Highbury, which served as Arsenal's former fortress. The stakes were slightly diminished for Arsenal, as their title hopes had already been dashed following a defeat to Leeds United. In light of this, manager Arsène Wenger made the prudent decision to rest several key players. Southampton's manager, Gordon Strachan, also opted to give some respite to his squad, fielding a lineup that was without six of their usual first-choice eleven.
In a remarkable turn of events, winger Jermaine Pennant made an indelible mark on his league debut by delivering a scintillating hat-trick. Not to be outdone, the prolific Pires also unleashed his scoring prowess, matching Pennant's feat with an exceptional hat-trick of his own. The match concluded with a resounding 6-1 victory in favor of Arsenal. While the outcome was undeniably impressive, Strachan maintained that it held little influence over their prospects of lifting the coveted cup.
Due to a knee injury sustained during the gripping FA Cup semi-final encounter against Sheffield United, the influential Patrick Vieira found himself unable to partake in the highly anticipated match. As a result, Arsenal's astute manager, Arsène Wenger, made a decisive choice and entrusted the captain's armband to the seasoned goalkeeper, David Seaman. This marked a poignant moment in Seaman's illustrious career, as he took the helm and led the Gunners onto the hallowed turf for what would ultimately be his farewell performance for the club.
Arsenal burst out of the gates with tremendous speed, wasting no time in creating their first scoring opportunity a mere 60 seconds into the game. The relentless pressure continued as Dennis Bergkamp came agonizingly close to finding the back of the net, only to see his effort cleared off the goal line in the eighth minute. However, it was the ever-reliable Robert Pires who seized the moment and shattered the deadlock. With precision and determination, Pires unleashed a powerful strike into the net, capitalizing on the rebound after Anti Niemi had initially blocked Freddie Ljungberg's shot.
As the second half unfolded, a tense atmosphere enveloped the pitch, with both teams vying for supremacy. Opportunities presented themselves on either end, fueling the intensity of the encounter. Arsenal, clinging to their lead, found themselves in a precarious position when Ashley Cole stepped up to heroically clear James Beattie's threatening shot off the goal line during stoppage time. The Gunners displayed unwavering resolve, refusing to be denied their victory.
This triumph in the FA Cup, their ninth conquest in the prestigious competition, served as a strong foundation upon which Arsenal built their ambitions for the forthcoming season in the Premier League. With renewed determination and confidence, the Gunners set their sights on an all-out assault on the league title, eager to etch their name in football glory once again.