Goalscorers: Ian Wright 63, Alf-Inge Haaland 67, 89
Nottingham Forest: Mark Crossley, Colin Cooper, Steve Chettle, Stuart Pearce, Nikola Jerkan (Des Lyttle 85), Chris Allen, Alf-Inge Haaland, Ian Woan, Kevin Campbell, Bryan Roy (Nigel Clough 65), Dean Saunders
Arsenal: John Lukic, Steve Bould, Martin Keown, Andy Linighan, Nigel Winterburn, Remi Garde (Steve Morrow 78), Gavin McGowan (Ray Parlour 69), David Platt, Paul Merson, Dennis Bergkamp (John Hartson 74), Ian Wright (SENT OFF)
Referee: Stephen Lodge, Attendance: 27,384
Nottingham Forest were in dire straits going into the 1996 Christmas period. With just one victory all season, popular manager Frank Clark had left leading up to this fixture against Arsenal after three and a half years at the helm. England defender Stuart Pearce was given the challenge to try and keep the club in the Premier League in a caretaker capacity.
His first match against Arsenal couldn’t be much harder. The Gunners were firmly in the shake-up for the Premier League title and manager Arsene Wenger had only tasted defeat once since becoming the club’s permanent boss in October. He did arrive at The City Ground with David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira all absent. However, he could welcome Dennis Bergkamp back after he’d missed the last four matches with a hamstring injury.
On a chilly afternoon by the River Trent, goalscoring chances were few and far between in the first 45 minutes. As anticipated pre-match, the visitors had the best of the moments. Martin Keown had the best opportunity after a nice interchange of passes with Bergkamp. However, he scuffed his shot well wide of the post. There was also a tense exchange between Arsenal teammates Ian Wright and Paul Merson which involved some shoving and set the tone for Wright’s troubled afternoon.
Wenger’s side took the lead on 63 minutes. Mark Crossley dropped a cross from Nigel Winterburn. Keown challenged for the loose ball and it broke to Wright who lashed the ball into the unguarded net. However, Forest responded with an equaliser just four minutes later. Fine work on the left-hand side from Dean Saunders saw his cross find Alf-Inge Haaland, who swept home.
The flashpoint moment came on 70 minutes when referee Stephen Lodge sent Wright off for the first time in his Arsenal career. Having won a free-kick for being body checked by Nikola Jerkan, Wright got involved further. Television replays showed him stamping on the foot of the Croatian. There was definitely an overreaction from Jerkan but after consultation from his linesman closest to the incident, Lodge brandished the red card in Wright’s direction.
Forest sensed a winner was there for the taking. The decisive goal came one minute from full-time. Kevin Campbell and Andy Linighan battled for the ball in the penalty area and the ball ricocheted to the feet of Norwegian Haaland. From 10-yards out, he drilled past John Lukic to set Pearce up for a dream start in his caretaker role.
Nottingham Forest were relegated before the season’s end whilst Arsenal finished in third position but this was a day which showed that in the Premier League, nothing is certain until the final whistle.