This is the week that was. Or will be anyway. Borussia Dortmund arrive at The Emirates tomorrow in what is for me, a personal journey. Not an odyssey although there were oddities along the way but it was the first European ground I visited. In 1987, English football was in the midst of its deserved ban from European football. It was out of control; English football supporters were not the only problem group which UEFA had to deal with, we were certainly the most problematic at the time, culminating in the hideous events at Heysel. Blame can be apportioned on that occasion among several groups, it already has been and I do not intend to retread those tragic events. Watching them unfurl on television was terrible and the match which took place later that same evening was a terrible miscalculation on the governing body’s part; how could football be played against such a backdrop?
Arsenal had beaten Stoke City the previous evening; November 1987 as far as I remember was pleasant, autumnal as it should have been. There was a natural order to things, Stoke quite rightly understood that this was an Arsenal team on the cusp of greatness and dutifully rolled over, relinquishing three goals in front of what was significantly less than a capacity crowd at Highbury. It wasn’t a surprise, it was a home banker as the side from the Potteries were languishing in the then-named Second Division.
It had all started as a day trip to Calais but we decided that leaving on a Thursday gave ample opportunity for a weekend away. I had a season ticket for the North Bank and wasn’t prepared to waste one of the cup vouchers, particularly as we were defending champions that season. Well, OK, defending cup-holders; that just doesn’t sound right in this modern plastic age. It did then, those of a certain age will get my drift. The weekend in France depended on finding a good match to watch; how we could have done with the internet to inform us then. Horizons expanded and ended in the Ruhr, Dusseldorf was a staging post and ultimately Dortmund beckoned.
Enterprisingly, a letter was sent. The first line we cobbled together in schoolboy German; sorry, our command of your language is poor but we wish to learn more. We want to visit your city to improve this, can you send us a map of the area so that we might find our way to the stadium? I am sure we needn’t have bothered; hindsight makes me think that if we had asked for a freebie, we would probably have received them such was the generosity of our hosts. The perfect English of the reply shamed us but it mattered not, an A-Z style book arrived accompanied by three match tickets to the BVB fixture against Hamburger SV. Yes, we were still juvenile enough to laugh at the name whilst also appreciating the recent history; Keegan, Kaltz, John Robertson’s goal.
A marvellous weekend ensued. Street long shop fronts with magical displays of toy monkeys with drums, trains, anything you could think of; kids rapt in awe at the sight in front of them. Adults too, for that matter. Adaptations of Bananarama songs which drove everyone mad through the paper-thin hotel room walls, free beers in our Saturday night hotel for being willing to make fools of ourselves in trying to pour the perfect English pint. The perfect technique; the wrong time, the wrong place. Hamburg fans post-match, singing in dockside English accents, the terrace ditties of the day; English but delivered in an unmistakably clipped accent. The terrace camaraderie of our German hosts, recognising the respective shirts of Arsenal, Chelsea and Southampton. Politely declining swapping our outer wear for the equivalent of a 1971 Dortmund top, long-sleeved and 100% cotton that weighed a tonne in its owners sweat.
Ending just outside of Calais, upsetting someone over a mistranslation of French into English. Who knew that year’s Beaujolais Nouveau was good and bad in the space of five seconds from two different people. United in their disdain for the ignorant Englishmen in their midst. It was overpriced French wine then; it still is.
But more than anything, the lasting memory is of a club which put supporters first. Halcyon days or fond memories? A mix of both, the two intertwined and the same all at once. Does it matter? Such memories are the things of our lives, personal and at the time we could not imagine how ‘regular’ the meetings of the teams would be. Chatting at before, during and after the match with locals, wondering whether we might visit such stadiums in the future. The then-named Westfalenstadion was a sight to behold. Bedecked in yellow and black, the same yet more modern than Highbury; two ends of terracing and two banks of seats. It could have been soulless as many claim the stadiums of today are but it wasn’t. BVB had supporters who made it home.
But home is where Arsenal are tomorrow. The world has changed since those days. As England found at Wembley, the big nights make a stadium feel more like home. I thought that post-Napoli, even with the big nights before, the wins over Barcelona, United, Chelsea, Tottenham; The Emirates is becoming more like home, Highbury a fond memory. Maybe seeing a trophy paraded there that isn’t the creation of our sponsors will help. Maybe a win tomorrow will be another stepping stone in that path.
Maybe that’s what we need at times like these; memories of happier times, of things to draw upon. Moments that give us strength as we build a new future. Starting tomorrow would be good, I think.
And in case you are wondering, it ended 3 – 2 to Hamburg.