There are many games throughout Arsenal’s history which are special to all of us, many of which have been recounted in the ‘Our Favourite Match’ series. But occasionally, footballing memories can be more esoteric than that. Some games are special to you that aren’t really special to anyone else. Some games however, are special to you because they weren’t really special to anybody else.
The away legs of Champions League preliminary games are typically unpopular with travelling Arsenal fans (apart from the occasion that we drew Celtic). The draw happens at quite short notice, everyone expects us to qualify and therefore keeps their powder (their wallets) nice and dry (closed) in anticipation of the group stages. August isn’t the most fiscally agreeable month to book a flight at short notice either.
I was at the Great British Beer Festival at Earl’s Court when the draw for the 2011 Qualifying Round was made. Myself, Terry and Tim had already resolved to travel regardless of whom we were drawn against. (Rubin Kazan were a possibility at that stage). The word was quick to arrive via mobile technology. “Udinese. Still interested?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Over a pretzel and a half pint of bitter travel plans were put in place to fly to Venice (Udine doesn’t have an airport) and then take the train along the Northeast coast to Udine. Arriving to record temperatures of 37 degrees, our train provided little in the way of ventilation and we had to peel ourselves from our seats as it pulled into Udine. It was a tumultuous time; the fallout of the Fabregas and Nasri transfers still vibrated ominously around the fan base. We were beset with injuries on the back of a 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool. Little did we know that worse was to come at Old Trafford a few days later.
Our squad was stretched to the point that Carl Jenkinson was deployed at left back. Following the Carling Cup Final and the subsequent collapse at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, attending Arsenal games had become a fractious pursuit. Chants of “6%, You’re having a laugh” and “spend some f****** money!” were always brimming at the surface. Tension between a set of supporters increasingly divided always threatened to manifest itself.
Yet in this charming outpost of North-eastern Italy, that tension evaporated in the oppressive heat. Arsenal would be represented by less than 250 supporters in the Stadio Friuli. I spoke to a member of staff at the Arsenal Travel club and he gave the official number that had travelled from London as being less than 70 people. There weren’t enough Arsenal fans in Udine for any tension to exist! It was liberating. As we arrived at our hotel the evening before the game, I realised I made something of a potential contretemps by booking us into a hotel named “Hotel Europa.” Given what defeat in this tie would have meant, it would have been a sombre reminder of diminished status.
Udine is a sleepy town that snuggles up with the border of Slovenia. Consequently, it has more of a Slavic feel than other Italian towns and cities I have visited. Myself, Terry and Tim took to the town in search of liquid refreshment. For a good half an hour, our search was utterly fruitless. (beerless). Even by 9pm, most of the town’s few bars were closing up for the night. After some pouting and trudging, we stumbled across a quiet backstreet tapas bar and resolved that if we just got our arses in the door and ordered a couple of rounds, they might be prepared to stay open and slake our thirst.
As we settled, we noticed a group of lively young Italians on a table on the other side of the restaurant. I think all of our hearts were in our mouths when a man approached our table and asked, “You are Arsenal fans?” Given that I was wearing an Arsenal polo shirt and we were clearly very British, it would have been foolhardy to deny. In broken English the gentleman scanned our nervous nods and replied, “My name is Pippo. Would you like to join us for a drink?” We nervously acquiesced and followed him to his table. It soon became clear that Pippo was the only one of his group who could speak any English.
Nevertheless, he told us that the beer in Udine was “crap” and that we really ought to be perusing the cocktail menu. As a demonstration of his faith in his recommendation, he immediately ordered us two rounds of his chosen poison. The fact that the name of the cocktail escapes me is indicative of the night that followed. Despite his three friends not speaking a word of English, we sat with our new Italian friends until the wee small hours communicating through a mutual love of football. Pippo and his friends were Udinese fans, all of whom would be at the game the following evening.
As the tapas restaurant wearily ushered us out onto the street so that the bar staff could make for home, we thanked our new friends for their hospitality and asked them if there was likely to be any further nightlife in the town. They pointed us in the direction of the town centre; we shook hands and went on our way. About 50 yards further on, Pippo yelled “Hey!” and motioned us back. We noticed that his collegiate had swelled in size. Terry, Tim and I glanced at one another nervously. Were we being honey trapped? We cautiously made our way back down the street.
Pippo was a local entrepreneur well acquainted with the restaurateurs of the town. He had persuaded one to remain open for a private party. So for the next two hours, we had the run of the place. Free drinks, free food and a seemingly endless supply of Grappa. At around 4am we parted company with our new friends, all of whom had to report for work the next morning. I’ve travelled to Italy to watch Arsenal many times before. Whilst British coverage of the fan experience for Englishmen in Italy is typically hyperbolised, it’s fair to say it’s not usually the most welcoming place. We had been totally taken aback by the spontaneous hospitality we’d received.
It soon became apparent that Pippo and his friends were by no means an exception to accepted norms. The Udinese fans were faultlessly friendly as a general rule. As we looked forlornly for the Stadio Friuli, a group of policemen approached us and pointed us in the right direction without prompt. I’ve attended a few European away games in the far-flung corners of Eastern Europe and one of the most interesting things about these games is the cultural make up of the Arsenal contingent. I recall being in Kyiv a few years ago when the tones emanating from the Arsenal hymnsheet had an overwhelmingly Baltic tang.
Udinese was much the same. As London-based Arsenal fans, we were hugely outnumbered by supporters clubs from Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Russia. The bottle of white wine consumed shortly before kickoff was instrumental in myself, Tim and Terry’s mutual decision to become the conductors of the Arsenal choir. Results were mixed. We’d had a conversation earlier in the afternoon reflecting on the origins of seemingly random chants. Why and when did Liverpool adopt Ring of Fire? How and why did Delilah ‘stick’ with Stoke fans? Who was the first person to decide and why did people go along with it?
We made a decision, largely informed by alcohol, that this would be the evening that the Thomas the Tank engine theme tune would become an Arsenal standard. Since you’re reading this in 2013, you can tell that our attempts failed. We mistakenly believed that the willing groups of Slavic and Baltic supporters around us might have just gone along with it, presuming it to be a new Arsenal terrace anthem.
You’ll know what happened in the game and that Arsenal got the result they so needed.
A certain comedy was added to proceedings with Wojciech Szczesny’s penalty save. At around 4.30 on the morning of the game, we’d had a debate about what constitutes a good penalty, statistically speaking. (Led Zeppelin’s tour misdemeanours aren’t a patch on ours). Tim’s “no goalkeeper ever saves a high penalty” conclusion was laid bare by Szczesny’s admittedly anomalous save. The lack of domestic based Arsenal fans made the game a much more pleasant environment to watch it in, despite the importance of the game. The same tensions did not surface and everybody just seemed to have a really good time. It was like a gently lapping wave in a hitherto choppy sea.
The conviviality of the locals continued even in defeat. Once it had become clear that the last bus had left the stadium for the town centre, a group of Udinese fans insisted on calling us a cab back to our hotel, even waving away the offer of one of our phones so that they wouldn’t bear the charge of the call. There’s a certain charm to the Champions League preliminary games. The lack of sheen and the opportunity to visit somewhere slightly more remote are an attractive proposition for the travelling supporter. But no European trip has ever been quite so charming as Udinese. LD.