As the second north London derby of the 1990/91 season entered its final 90 seconds, Paul Walsh stabbed a pass into Gary Lineker’s stride. With all the venom he could muster, Tottenham Hotspur’s number ten ripped an effort bound for the top corner.
That is until David Seaman somehow pawed the ball over the bar.
It was the final save of a hard-fought 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane and as Seaman trotted behind the goal to retrieve the ball, he sent the travelling Arsenal fans into raptures with a sly wink to the crowd.
If he hadn’t already, this cheeky interaction – perhaps even more so than the string of fine saves he had made throughout that match – was the final act to win over any hesitant Arsenal fans following Seaman’s arrival in the summer of 1990, of which there were many.
Seaman turned 27 shortly after joining Arsenal having spent his formative years rising through the footballing pyramid and impressing with Queens Park Rangers in the top tier. The former Leeds United youth team player was replacing a goalkeeper he had played second fiddle to at Elland Road, John Lukic.
By 1990, Lukic was a firm fan favourite at Arsenal, playing every game as the Gunners won their first league title in 18 years in 1989. And there were murmurings of discontent from the stands as Seaman took to the field for his debut.
The man who would be known as ‘Safe Hands’ effectively took a wage cut when signing for Arsenal from QPR but made the move to Highbury because – as Seaman put it – ‘I wanted to see how good I was.’
Very good was the emphatic answer.
In his first campaign as Arsenal’s number one, Seaman helped the Gunners to the 1991 league title as they lost only one game. Seaman played every minute and conceded just 18 goals while keeping a mammoth 24 clean sheets (which, for some reason, sounds more impressive).
While 1992 marks the beginning of the Premier League, the back-pass rule was also introduced that summer. Seaman coped better than most goalkeepers in England’s top flight following the rule change, largely thanks to his experience of sweeping behind the aggressively high back-line George Graham instilled at Arsenal.
However, towards the end of Graham’s tenure, Arsenal were becoming less of a title contender, though still collecting their fair share of silverware. In the first three seasons of the Premier League era, the Gunners twice finished tenth or lower in the league but reach four domestic and continental cup finals – winning three of them.
The third of the those triumphs formed the setting for some of Seaman’s most impressive heroics.
Seven days before Arsenal’s European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Parma, Seaman broke three of his ribs in an innocuous clash against QPR. Having been dosed with a handful of painkilling injections before the game – followed by another batch at half-time – Seaman was as resolute as ever throughout the showpiece.
On the rare occasions Parma’s glittering forward talents – including Gianfranco Zola and Faustino Asprilla – were not caught offside by Arsenal’s famed back four, Seaman proved an impenetrable last line of defence as the Gunners claimed the title with a 1-0 win.
In the same competition the following season, Seaman’s trio of penalty saves in the semi-final shootout victory against Sampdoria saw him earn rave reviews both home and abroad with Barcelona‘s Johan Cruyff supposedly interested.
Seaman wasn’t tempted away from Highbury but didn’t have to wait long before his talents were again displayed on a continental stage. Having been capped as early as 1988, Seaman was England’s undisputed number one for the 1996 Euros held on home soil.
After an underwhelming draw in the tournament’s opening match, England faced their oldest foe Scotland. As the game neared the final ten minutes, Gary McAllister had the chance from 12 yards to cancel out Alan Shearer’s opener. But Seaman was able to beat the penalty way with his elbow (and a little help from spoon-bender Uri Geller).
England ultimately prevailed 2-0 and reached the semi-finals, bowing out to Germany via an unsuccessful penalty shootout.
Arsène Wenger’s arrival in north London in September 1996 prompted a myriad of changes both on and off the field. However, the Frenchman left Arsenal’s resolute defensive setup intact. Under Wenger, Seaman became just the second Arsenal goalkeeper to ever win the double of the league title and FA Cup in 1998 – matching the accomplishment of long-time coach and friend Bob Wilson – before repeating the feat in 2002.
England’s quarter-final exit in that summer’s World Cup to Brazil – compounded by the spectacular and less than flattering nature of Ronaldinho’s long-range winner – saw Seaman come under intense criticism, not helped by the fact he turned 39 the following season.
Yet, the keen angler rolled back the years one more time with a ridiculous, elastic stop in the 2003 FA Cup semi-final win over Sheffield United. No fewer than three Blades players had already begun to celebrate when the ball flicked off Paul Peschisolido’s head three yards out only to be denied by an instinctive lunge from Seaman.
Arsenal’s triumph in that year’s tournament is one of the more forgettable victories among the club’s 14 – a 38th-minute Robert Pires goal was enough to overcome Southampton – other than the fact it was the scene of Seaman’s last professional game for the Gunners.
Seaman may be more readily associated with a moustache and (brief) ponytail but after more than a decade dutifully and reliably spent between the sticks, the man often simply known as ‘the Goalie’ is perhaps the greatest to have ever donned a pair of gloves for Arsenal.