Since being ever so slightly pushed towards supporting Arsenal by my dad in the summer of 1983, the FA Cup had not been very kind to me. Embarrassment at Middlesbrough; total humiliation at York; rolling over at Luton; and anger against Watford. Not the smoothest introduction to the greatest cup competition in the world.
For a while it looked as if 1988 would be different. Leading Manchester United 2-1 at Highbury with the minutes ticking away, Arsenal had one foot in the sixth round. But no sooner had my thoughts turned to possible opponents in the last eight, than that sinking feeling returned once more.
When the draw was made for the FA Cup fifth round, there were two outstanding ties - Everton v Liverpool, and Arsenal v Manchester United - the former a local affair between the reigning league champions and the last great Liverpool side, a match steeped in tradition and rivalry. Yet there was enough recent history involving Arsenal and Manchester United, to ensure that this match would be just as keenly contested.
Barely a year had elapsed since the very first Battle of Old Trafford, a match that saw Norman Whiteside fly into numerous challenges, including one on David O'Leary that really should have seen him dismissed. Arsenal's youngsters, unbeaten in 22 matches, became so riled that it became only a matter of time before one of them retaliated. David Rocastle obliged, kicking Whiteside after yet another incident involving the Northern Ireland international. George Tyson immediately sent the Arsenal man off, United won 2-0, but Arsenal were far from happy. With heated exchanges in the tunnel afterwards, the modern Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry had commenced.
United were in a confident frame of mind at the time of the February 20 FA Cup date. Four straight league wins, including a 2-1 win at Highbury in January, put them in second place in the table, admittedly 12 points behind Liverpool, but there was no disgrace in that. Indeed, Ferguson looked to be steadily turning the ship around, with only two league defeats from January to May, and eight wins from their last ten cementing their position as the best of the rest. With close season signing Brian McClair in fine form, United went to Highbury optimistic, although they did suffer a blow when Bryan Robson withdrew due to a thigh injury picked up on England duty.
Arsenal on the other hand were wobbling slightly. Ten straight wins between September and November, had seen them top the table, yet a slump of just two wins in twelve pushed them to fifth. Scoring goals had become a massive issue. Unlike McClair, Arsenal's new striker Alan Smith was suffering, his last goal coming in a shocking 1-1 draw at Portsmouth on New Years Day, and with Niall Quinn and Perry Groves also struggling, and Paul Merson not quite seen as ready for the first team, the recent departure of Charlie Nicholas to Aberdeen looked a questionable decision by George Graham.
Such was the lack of goals in the Arsenal team that Graham was linked with a number of centre forwards, including Kerry Dixon, Tony Cottee, and John Fashanu, but as if to spite everyone, the Scot strengthened the squad after the United defeat by signing Stoke City's full back Lee Dixon. As always seemed the case in the 1980s, George knew, yet at the time the frustration building up in Arsenal fans was understandable. Cup football did at least provide a distraction from the stuttering league campaign, Highbury well and truly throbbing in tension for the United game and the second leg of the Littlewoods Cup semi-final against Everton four days later.
If you wanted to try and convince someone of just how important the FA Cup was back in the not so distant past, then you would do well to show them highlights of this fifth round clash. 54,161 fans packed into Highbury - some of those unable to gain access taking to the top of flats behind the Clock End - and would witness a Cup tie played in an electric atmosphere, with both teams busting a gut to try and make it through to the next round. Sometimes an eagerly awaited match can be a bit of a let down, but this was not one of those occasions.
Arsenal tore into United during a first half in which the home team appeared to have rediscovered their mojo. Kevin Richardson had already tested Chris Turner from distance before Smith ended his personal drought to put Arsenal in front after 21 minutes. Nigel Winterburn, surely the most left-footed player to have ever played as a right back, provided the cross for Smith's header, as United's defence was caught square.
"I was relieved as much as anything when that goal went in," Smith later revealed. "Although I haven't been scoring I felt I had been contributing to the team's pattern of play. But when the goals don't come you question yourself, but I've always had confidence in my ability. I knew I would score goals eventually." Smith's worth to Arsenal would be proved the following season, the signing of winger Brian Marwood key in providing the striker with the ammo he needed to win the Golden Boot and the title.
Another future Graham signing would also pay dividends in 1988/89. Steve Bould slotted into what would become the famous back four, but not only was he a key component at the back, he also contributed greatly from set pieces. Luckily for Arsenal on the day, United's Mike Duxbury would perform the near post flick-on role that Bould would make his own in the future, his header glancing past Turner in the 41st minute to give Arsenal a thoroughly deserved 2-0 lead at half-time.
It was a much needed break for Ferguson, although it might not have been appreciated as much by his players, the Manchester United manager undoubtedly employing the hairdryer after a poor first half. Whatever was said, it got a reaction. Smith went close early in the second half but United scored the crucial next goal. Colin Gibson's cross from the left was volleyed in by McClair, his 20th goal of the season in the 51st minute setting up the sort of nerve wracking finale that probably shaves years (and hair) from the lives of supporters.
McClair's goal changed the mood of the afternoon completely. From being in a position of strength, Arsenal were now under the cosh, the anxiety almost suffocating both players and fans. United swarmed forward, staying firmly on the front foot and coming close on a number of occasions. Kenny Sansom cleared a Clayton Blackmore effort off the line; Viv Anderson almost scored against his former club; Winterburn thwarted a Gibson shot with a fantastic tackle. Listening at home on Radio 2, you got the feeling that it was not a case of if United would equalise, simply when.
But during this pressure, Arsenal did have an opportunity to put the tie to bed. Michael Thomas, the 20-year-old midfielder who was fast developing into a key component of Graham's Arsenal, surged through the centre of United's defence, his run from the halfway line leaving just Turner between him and a place for Arsenal in the next round. But Thomas fluffed his lines, treading on the ball and letting United off. Thomas would not be so charitable on May 26, 1989, but on this February day in 1988 his miss looked like proving costly.
As soon as referee David Hutchinson awarded United a penalty in the 87th minute my heart sank, the same feeling of dread that filled my body during the York match. The situation may have been different, after all even if penalty taker McClair scored then Arsenal would get another chance in a replay, but after leading 2-0 it would have been an opportunity spurned.
It didn't help matters that the man who won the penalty for United was Whiteside, villain of the piece during the still painful defeat at Old Trafford the year before. Subsequent views of the incident involving Whiteside and Thomas in front of the North Bank suggest that the United midfielder was clever, making sure that there was contact between him and the Arsenal man. Five Arsenal men surrounded Hutchinson to make their complaints heard, not that it mattered of course. As McClair placed the ball on the spot, Arsenal's angry players could only watch on with their hopes now dependent on a man who had already scored four penalties that season.
McClair struck the ball viciously but far too high, and as the ball sailed over the bar into a jubilant mass of bodies in the North Bank, the growing anger and tension exploded into celebrations on and off the terraces. Winterburn made his way immediately to the distraught McClair, evidently not wishing to discuss politics or the unexpected recent rise to fame of Eddie The Eagle Edwards. Understandably McClair was not too happy about this, thus starting a not so beautiful relationship between the pair that would go that one stage further during the next Battle of Old Trafford in 1990.
"After missing I felt the loneliest man in the world," McClair said after the match. "It was a difficult situation in which to take a penalty but I've always had the confidence to take them, whatever the circumstances. I have to accept the flak or responsibility because I missed." In a season of missed penalties - Aldridge, and Winterburn himself missing cup final spot kicks - McClair's soaring effort sits uncomfortably in the 1988 hall of shame.
Ultimately the win didn't lead to any silverware for Arsenal - they were dumped out in the next round by Nottingham Forest - yet the win over Manchester United in the 1988 FA Cup fifth round was pure joy for players and supporters. But the match was not only a celebration for Arsenal, merely confirmation of how absorbing the FA Cup was, especially during the period of the European ban for English clubs. It may not have been pleasurable for Manchester United fans, but they have had enough to cheer about since.
Personally I can't see the FA Cup ever returning to the status it once enjoyed, the promise of Premier League and European riches dictating that teams would rather finish fourth, stay up, or win promotion than risk too much on the old competition. But the memories are there. Some good, some bad, yet all playing their part in the rich and famous history of the FA Cup.