GoonerAndy is today’s Master of Memories
I have been an Arsenal supporter since the age of eight. Not hailing from London, I spent many a Saturday during the mid-eighties sat in front of a teletext screen “refreshing” the page every 90 seconds for a full 90 minutes. Which today seems pretty mental but there you have it. As I entered adulthood, my professional life ensured me a nomadic existence; I have lived all over Europe, moving every three years or so. This has pro’s and con’s much like anything else. But the biggest “con” is that the possibility of attending Arsenal matches depends very much on my current geographical location.
In November 2001, I had lived in Germany for four years. Whilst I managed to make quite a few trips to Highbury, I was getting itchy feet for another fix. Tickets, hotels and ferries were booked; cash saved, essential as my wife was also coming to the Aston Villa match in December. Trip to London+Wife=Expensive. Our season was one to which we are all now accustomed; great promise, capable of the exquisite yet frustrated all too often. The previous season had been so far but yet so close, with a FA Cup final appearance which still scars my soul. I still hate Cardiff for this reason alone.
In Henry, Pires, Bergkamp and Vieira we had four players with a genuine claim to be the best in the world in their respective positions at that time. We also had Sol Campbell at the back who was a rock and a free scoring winger in Freddie Ljungberg who had an almost telepathic understanding with Bergkamp developing. We were undoubtedly, a very good team.
After a horrendously long journey to the UK and a few days kicking about, match day arrived. I loved the walk from Finsbury Park to the ground; the smells, the atmosphere and the way the Arsenal Stadium appeared from the gritty surroundings of the housing. It really couldn’t be beaten. I had tickets for the Clock End, which was nice as after years of going to games I had never actually been in that part of the ground. In 2001 Villa were a half decent side, not the shambles they are now. Apart from Steve Stone of course. It isn’t a name designed for a footballer, more akin to somebody who packs rubber gloves into cardboard boxes for a living, if you ask me
The first half flew by, Villa dealt with us very well. They were organised at the back and unexpectedly took the lead through an exquisite Paul Merson finish after about twenty minutes. The game continued in the same pattern until just before half time when Steve Stone (I know, I know) doubled Villa’s lead. The ground seemed shell shocked as the half-time whistle blew. We were in fourth position in the league going into the game and there was a very real feeling that despite a poor November, we were in with a very good chance of winning the league.
Arsène made some changes at half time, which for him, was (and still is) pretty unusual. Keown came on for Upson and Wiltord came on for the subdued Ljungberg. We were a different beast in the second half. Wiltord reduced the deficit almost immediately after the re-start, and once we had a foothold in the game I don’t think there was one person in the whole ground who thought we would not win the game. The players had the bit between their teeth and there was only going to be one outcome in this game. A large rotund man in front of me spent the whole of the second half goading the Villa keeper “Schmeichel….you ****”. It was constant. When somebody pointed out that Schmeichel was not actual in goal as it was Peter Enkelman, the rotund fella didn’t break stride in continuing “Enkelman, you Schmeichel looking ****”.
After Vieira had robbed J Lloyd Samuel and fed Henry to equalise, it was a matter of when we would score the winner. And we did, in injury time. Henry again, after a delightful ball by Pires and it was one of “those” Henry finishes. Although we would lose a game to Newcastle in the coming weeks, the Villa game is the one that sticks out during the 2001/02 season. It displayed a no nonsense refusal to be beaten and highlighted the almost arrogant mentality that our players knew how good they were. Until Pires’s season was cut short by a crutiate ligament injury, I don’t think I have ever witnessed such a graceful and technically perfect footballer in motion. Apart from Dennis Bergkamp. Henry was on his way to being the most feared striker in Europe and Vieira was dominating midfields with ease. As we all now know, this culminated in us winning the league and FA Cup double. We won every league game we played from February 10th 2002. Amazing.
I returned to Germany and watched the rest of our season in a grubby little bar in Dusseldorf that showed all the Saturday 3pm kick-offs, eating Bratwurst and drinking Pils. My next trip to a live game on UK soil was a return to Cardiff for yet another FA Cup final. Did I tell you how much I like Cardiff…