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May 17, 2014

Ramsey finds something extra

Aaron Ramsey won Arsenal the FA Cup Final in the most dramatic of circumstances.

A final is always a tense affair; heading into them, there is always so much hope and expectation on both sides. In Arsenal’s case, the expectation was approaching, rather fittingly, fever pitch. Gunners fans have been starved of success in recent years, and had worked up quite the appetite for glory. A nine-year wait for a trophy is too long for a club with Arsenal’s popularity and resources.

Finals always promise polarised outcomes too. You leave as a champion or a choker. For Arsene Wenger, there was even more riding on this game than usual. With his promised new contract still unsigned, failure at Wembley could have provoked doubt in the stands, the board room, and the manager’s own mind. As it is, he can sign on as a winner.

Wenger had some big calls to make in his starting line-up. The main selection issue was over who should play in goal. Lukasz Fabianski had started every round until now, and been the semi-final hero with two saves in the penalty shootout. Some argued that a final is no place for sentiment, and that customary first-choice Wojciech Szczesny should be returned to the starting XI. Nevertheless, Wenger opted to keep faith with Fabianski.

Eight minutes into the game, he might have been questioning his decision. The Gunners defence appeared unsettled from the outset and, after some poor defending at two set-pieces, found themselves two goals down.

First, James Chester diverted Tom Huddlestone’s volley in to the bottom corner and then, just four minutes later, a shell-shocked Arsenal failed to clear a Huddlestone cross and Alex Bruce’s header hit the post before rebounding to Hull skipper, Curtis Davies. The centre-back's finish was unerring. Hull were playing without pressure, and enjoying their day in the Wembley sun.

- Johnson: Three Things -- Arsenal vs. Hull - Arsenal comeback clinches FA Cup

The one consolation to Arsenal would have been that, with 82 minutes still to play, there was plenty of time to recover the game and the Gunners duly gave their fans hope when Santi Cazorla cracked a stunning free-kick into the top corner. In a first-half when the likes of Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud failed to live up to their billing, the Spaniard was consistently excellent, taking the game to the Tigers whenever the opportunity presented itself.

It could have got worse before half-time, however. Matty Fryatt appeared to be clear on goal, but was pulled back for an apparent foul on Laurent Koscielny. In reality, the contact appeared minimal.

The second half took a predictable pattern. Arsenal controlled the majority of the possession, with Hull springing out on the occasional counter-attack. If Arsenal had had a narrow escape on a referring decision in the first-half, they might have felt aggrieved with several decisions after the break. Giroud was tugged back and Cazorla tripped, yet referee Lee Probert remained unmoved.

On the hour mark, Wenger gambled and threw on young French forward Yaya Sanogo. The addition of another striker increased the pressure on Hull and paid dividends with Laurent Koscielny turned in an equaliser in the 71st minute. The French defender has a habit of scoring important goals and once again delivered on the big stage. Arsenal pushed to complete a turnaround inside 90 minutes but a visibly tiring Hull hung on until the end or normal time.

From the outset of the extra 30 minutes, Arsenal played with a renewed sense of purpose. Having fought back from a two-goal deficit, they had all the momentum and Giroud cursed his luck when a headed attempt cannoned off the bar.

When the winner eventually came, it was fitting that it came from the boot of Aaron Ramsey, whose year has typified Arsenal's season: after a strong start, injuries caused him to fade in the spring.

Arsenal needed to win a trophy to make a statement. 2013-14 might not have delivered the Premier League title it briefly promised, but it’s still been a season of significant progress. For almost a decade, Arsenal have had to endure punishing financial restrictions which impinged upon their short-term ambitions. In the past 12 months, voices from inside club have repeatedly insisted that period was coming to a close.

Silverware is validation of that theory; Arsenal have achieved proof of concept. If you’d spoken to a fan 12 months ago, they would have asked for two things: significant investment in the transfer market and a major trophy.

The season began with the club transfer record being shattered to sign Mesut Ozil and has ended with an FA Cup win. Arsenal have been good to their word and fans’ loyalty has been rewarded. If this is the start of a new era, its arrival is being toasted with the FA Cup.