At the ripe old age of 39, by any goalkeeper’s standards, David Seaman’s best days – and best saves – should have been far behind him. Seaman, though, wasn’t just any goalkeeper, having spent the vast majority of his exceptional career defining his very own standards, and remained acutely capable of producing the sublime when called upon, even as his 40s beckoned. On 13 April 2003, as Arsenal faced Sheffield United in an FA Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, he set a standard with one particular save that, in the eyes of so many, will never be surpassed.
The game ebbed into its closing stages with Arsenal guarding a slender 1-0 lead, gifted to them by Freddie Ljungberg. United forced a corner, to be presided over by Michael Tonge. His out-swinging cross floated just beyond the penalty spot, received by Robert Page, who in turn nodded it goalwards. The ball sat up for Carl Asaba, who fashioned a bicycle-kick of sorts, aiming to trouble Seaman, but his effort skewed wide and instead found the head of Paul Peschisolido, alert and unmarked, barely three yards from the goal line. His instinctive flick sent the ball towards the goal, an action which had no fewer than three of his teammates beginning their celebrations, when suddenly they were halted by the most unlikely of interventions; one of English football’s all-time great saves.
The Arsenal ‘keeper had, in the fraction of a second he could spare before surely conceding, moved backwards, his body contorted, spine arched, extending an outstretched paw to halt the ball’s goal-bound journey, before flicking it up and away, off of the line. Watching on, live from the Match of the Day studio, Seaman’s famed rival and goalkeeping contemporary Peter Schmeichel called the save “the best [he’d] ever seen.” Seaman had made a save that few would have even considered plausible.
Time, in that brief moment, appeared to pause, with Seaman, unmissable in his bright yellow jersey, replete with his characteristic ponytail, suspended in the air. When the play button was finally pressed, and normality resumed once more, the ball, for a moment a certain goal, was somehow travelling away from Seaman and the Sheffield smiles were already morphing into disbelieving grimaces. The clean sheet remained intact and, for its lack of a blemish, it owed a miracle.
On the day, the occasion of Seaman’s 1,000th professional game, Arsenal would hold their advantage over the Blades and march onwards into the final, where ‘keeper and co. would keep their goalline unbreached once more in triumphing over Southampton, by a goal to nil, enough to win another FA Cup.
In the twilight of his career, Seaman seemed to most, if for the duration of that slow-motion save alone, as though he had never been better. Those who had witnessed his heroics long throughout the nineties, however, knew better than to forget the thousands of saves that made up the Rotherham-born stopper’s finest contributions to the English game.
It wasn’t until the eve of the 1990/91 season that David Seaman first pulled on an Arsenal jersey; nine years into a career that had, to that point, seen him represent Leeds United, Peterborough United, Birmingham City, Queens Park Rangers and England. A fee of £1.3m – then a British record sum for a goalkeeper – was required, and gladly sanctioned by Arsenal boss George Graham, to seal the deal.
Seaman had spent more than a handful of years plying his trade in the lower tiers of English football and so, despite manager Graham’s evident confidence in his new signing, fans would surely have escaped judgement of their own should they have feared the capabilities of the incoming goalkeeper and his suitability to the challenges of the top division. The Arsenal faithful, though, would not be made to wait long before discovering just how vital a cog in their trophy-winning machine Seaman would become.
Throughout his debut season in north London, Seaman proved to be an immovable object between the sticks. Functioning as the last line of a near-impeccable defence – behind a four-man back-line routinely comprised of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn – his team conceded just 18 goals in 38 league games and romped to the First Division title, losing just one league fixture all campaign.
The season itself was marred by a procession of fleeting controversies, not least of all the two-month prison spell served by club captain Tony Adams and the 21-man brawl at Old Trafford, for which Arsenal were docked two points, but Seaman’s first taste of life at Arsenal was an addicting one and he, and his teammates alike, longed for more silverware. In the ensuing years, Seaman’s gloved hands would come to know the weight of many a trophy, domestic and otherwise.
Beyond a largely forgettable second season, Seaman’s third campaign brought with it a series of notable peaks and contrasting troughs. In the league, Arsenal proved well off the pace, finishing as low as tenth in the league. In the season’s cup competitions, however, the Gunners flourished and triumphed in both the FA Cup and League Cup, Sheffield Wednesday with the misfortunate of playing the part of losing finalists on both occasions.
Seaman, fast mastering the art of denying from 12 yards, was instrumental in crafting these successes and those subsequent; his most outstanding contribution coming in his saving of three Millwall penalties, in the second round shootout, to ensure his side’s safe passage to the latter rounds. Without Seaman’s heroics, there is good reason to believe no FA Cup victory may have followed his team’s lifting of the League Cup and, as a direct result, there would have been no qualification to the Cup Winners’ Cup the following year, which Seaman once again played an exceptional role in securing. Like the furry band of hair perched atop his upper lip, Seaman’s influence on his team continued to grow.
The winning of Arsenal’s first and, to date, only continental trophy in 1994 failed to provide a foundation for prolonged prosperity and the Arsenal team were made to endure a barren run as George Graham’s tenure chuntered to an uneasy and ultimately anticlimactic halt. On a personal level, however, this particular period of his career would further endorse David Seaman as one of the world’s finest custodians, not least of all on the international stage.
Like his club team of late, Seaman’s country would ultimately experience heartbreak, exiting Euro 96 at the semi-final stage, beaten on penalties by nemeses Germany. But the England stopper would nonetheless make the UEFA Team of the Tournament and be honoured by the competition’s sponsors in their naming of Seaman as the Player of the Tournament.
Back in the country’s capital, after a transient decline, the trophies would soon return to Seaman’s team, following the surprise appointment of soon-to-be-legendary manager Arsène Wenger. After personal success, in the form of a 1997 MBE, awarded for his services to football, historic league and cup doubles in 1998 and 2002, along with the opportunity to captain his team to one last FA Cup victory, at the Millennium Stadium in 2003, afforded Seaman the opportunity to depart the club on a high familiar to he and few others. After trading the red half of London for one final hurrah in the sky blue half of Manchester, Seaman formally hung up his gloves in 2004.
The world came to know many spectacular goalkeepers throughout the 1990s, and spoiled for choice were those with a hipsterish penchant for the men entrusted with keeping the sheets clean. But few goalkeepers could perform the miracles, or collect the deserved spoils, of David Seaman.
Memories of his career are typically sullied in the minds of some by a brace of high-profile lobs – courtesy of Nayim and Ronaldinho, in that order – but, at his best, Seaman boasted a positional nouse, a speed of anticipation and a transmissible stoicism that helped mould himself and so many of his teammates into champions.
What’s more, though ever the focussed professional on the pitch, even fewer of his contemporaries played the game with a smile as wide or a laugh heard as frequently as Seaman’s. He came, he saw, he chuckled – and he did his fair share of conquering, too.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp