Our Favourite Match (#18), Arsenal v Rotherham United, 28th October 2003
by Miami Arsenal
This post was originally part of the series, Arsenal in the USA, published in 2014 to commemorate the club’s first US tour.
I’m a 42 year old Kiwi/American citizen that was fortunate enough as a child to correctly select Arsenal as my team of choice. I have been an Arsenal supporter for the better part of 37 years, having experienced the highs and lows over those years with an undiminished passion for my team.
I had to think hard about my favourite game. In fact it was harder than I would have thought but I did at least come to pick one, whether it is my favorite is debatable I guess. Having watched in person the great names to have blessed the pitch in our colors, those such as the Romford Pele, Wright, Bergkamp, Henry, Pires, it was always going to be a challenge.
Instead I decided to focus on the evening I watched the first senior appearance of Francesc Fabregas.
It was October 28th, 2003 a Tuesday night and very chilly in London. I remember sitting in the main stand and looking down as the players began to emerge. This wasn’t my first visit to Highbury but it was my first evening game and I was eager for a goal fest as we took on Rotherham in the third round of the Carling Cup.
As the announcer called each name, I was fascinated by the tiny lad that stood seemingly amongst giants. He was announced as Francesc Fabregas.
The team: Graham Stack (GK), Pascal Cygan (CB), Stathis Taylardis (CB), Justin Hoyte (RB), Gael Clichy (LB), Edu (MC), Cesc Fabregas (MC), Jerome Thomas (MC), Sylvain Wiltord (FW), Jeremie Aliadiere (FW) and Nwankwo Kanu (FW).
The side looked every bit an Arsène incarnation, with a blend of youth and experience being played in a Cup he considered less attractive than other competitions. I remember clearly how surprised I was when it was confirmed that 27,000 people were in attendance. The fans simply love Arsenal and the tickets were reasonable. As the first half whistle blew, I held my breath. My nerves were/are always fraught when Arsenal play.
From the opening whistle Arsenal took the game to Rotherham, Aliadiere particularly impressive in the opening exchanges. In fact come the 11th minute, he had his name on the score sheet. An impressive Arsenal build up culminated with Aliadiere finding the back of the net. Clichy’s pass in to the area was collected by Wiltord, who then feed Kanu on the edge of the six-yard area. Kanu having looked up feed the ball back across the goal to Aliadiere who fired home and wheeled away to bask in his moment. The cheers and chanting rose in to the air, as the nerves in the stands seemed to dissipate. The four-man flowing move that created the goal was a testament to the footballing style Arsene had brought to Highbury. As it turned out that was pretty much it for the excitement of the first forty-five minutes; Arsenal were the better side but were just unable to add to their lead. Hurst and Byfield were the best for Rotherham in the opening half, both having efforts repelled by sharp saves from Stack.
Half-time: Pie time.
The second half had barely begun when Aliadiere raced clear of the defense and rounded the keeper… his shot however drifted inches wide of the far post. An agonizing moment. This moment seemed to spur Rotherham in to the match, Byfield missing by centimeters a cross from his teammate. Five or six minutes of possession however failed to produce a leveller and Rotherham seemed to slink back in their shell. The second half then seemed destined for a final score of 1-0, only for Rotherham’s keeper Mike Pollitt to be sent off for handling outside the area and a levelling strike from Darren Byfield in the first minute of two in injury time. From five yards out, the striker rose and nodded home a cross that had sailed in from the right. Arsenal just don’t do games easy.
So began the two halves of extra time. Aliadiere, Wiltord, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie were all guilty of spurning chances to ensure the game did not go to penalties. Mike Pollitt in reaching to save a goal bound shot from Owusu-Abeyie was correctly adjusted to have handle outside the area and the referee duly raised the red card in to the air. The game was there for Arsenal to take, but we were simply unable to put the ball in to the net. It was the story of the game, stout defense by the visitors and inferior finishing by the hosts.
The nerves jangled as the penalties commenced. I could list the penalties I guess, but simply the one that comes to mind was when Graham Stack walked up to the spot and placed the ball. Our young keeper, the debutant as it turned out, was about to take his spot kick. Bang. Well done son! Swailes then set his spot kick, with Stack now in goal… saved! 120 minutes plus of entertaining football and two moments from Graham Stack turned the tie in our favor. If Wiltord scores, Arsenal wins. Perfect. Arsenal win 9-8 on penalties. Joy or relief, not sure which now probably both but I was screaming for the lads in the most epic (in length) game I had ever attended.
It was as stated an important night for Cesc, a debut in the senior set up and his emergence as a future star player. I remember clearly his vision with the ball, his ability to ping passes with sublime accuracy up the field. Cesc had even then a calmness in his play, not hurried or harried just caressed the ball about to his team mates. My abiding thought as I stood to leave was he had something, but he was so tiny I worried about his physicality. He proved an inspired signings as the years passed. It was also a night where Stack, Thomas, Hoyte and of course Clichy were also making their first appearances. Clichy’s pace posed problems all evening.
Remains one of the most vivid games in my mind that I ever attended at Highbury, and whilst it may not have had all of the world class names I was use to witnessing, it was a superb evening of Arsenal football.
Our Favourite Match (#17), Udinese v Arsenal, 24th August 2011
by Tim Stillman
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.
Our Favourite Match (#16) – Arsenal v Spurs, 31st October 2009
There are games which live long in the memory for the fullness of the spectacle, the consistency of a performance, or because of the reward at the end. Even as time goes by, and those brain cells tasked with memory, that seem to be fading and diminishing in day to life, can draw on reserves and the entirety of the 90 minutes comes easily to mind.
There are others in which only moments are recalled. This could because nothing much happened, maybe because you’ve chosen not to remember, or, because the game itself was so forgettable it’s just not worth taking up valuable brain space.
But once in a while there comes a moment in a game which is so powerful it embeds itself into your consciousness and blurs the rest all around it. Sat October 31st, 2009 was one of those days. I’m sure I flew into Stansted that morning, I’m sure I had my first pint of the day for breakfast in The Tollington, and I’m sure lots of enjoyable stuff happened as Arsenal beat Sp*rs 3-0, but I only remember that bit.
You know the one I mean. Close to half-time. The scores level. Bacary Sagna with the ball on the right hand side, having taken a throw-in back from Cesc. He whips in a cross and Robin van Persie pokes Arsenal ahead. Beautiful. Celebrations. Who doesn’t love a goal against that lot?
It’s come at just the right time for us, minutes before the break; the wrong time for them, it’s the most demoralising time to let one in. Instead of refocusing and readying for the second half, they have to trudge slowly into the dressing room knowing they’re a goal behind and think of some way to …
Oh … what’s this? We’re still celebrating, it’s settling down … but …
… they’ve cocked up the kick-off. Cesc has it. He nicks it past a midfielder, probably someone like Palacios. Is it Ledley King who steps up and sees the skipper poke it past him? It doesn’t matter who it is, because he’s through on goal.
Those wonderful little legs scampering as fast as they can, which isn’t that fast, but it’s fast enough. The defender is closing in from the right hand side but there’s one more touch then he drills it into the bottom corner and it’s 2-0. We discover later that those watching on TV only caught the finish, not the run, but I think that’s also true of many people in the stadium.
One up and we’re still enjoying that, but then you become aware that something else is happening. A collective rise in excitement, 60,000 people take that breath of anticipation. You turn around, look back to the pitch and there’s Cesc spanking it past that excuse for a keeper they had back then. It is a footballing multiple orgasm.
And with this the celebrations reach a new intensity, because this is amazing. They haven’t even got their breath back – WE haven’t even got our breath back – and a 1-0 lead is doubled. Two goals in 60 seconds. There’s jumping and slapping and cheering and high fiving strangers.
Funnily enough: after seeing the first Arseblog Google Hangout, a chap on Twitter (whose name I can’t remember now), said he was sure that he celebrated that goal with me at that game. I don’t know how he remembers what I looked like, but I don’t doubt him. It was one of those moments that sticks in your head. The goals, the celebrations, the elation, watching Senderos and some of the subs leap of the bench and punching the air.
I know later in the second half van Persie scored again and we won 3-0 but that game, for me, will be those couple of minutes. The rest doesn’t really matter. We won, great. We beat Sp*rs, fantastic. The first 42 minutes, unnecessary. The second half, routine.
But those two minutes, those two goals, that feeling of joyous exhilaration … epic. Which is why, despite the years without a trophy and all the rest of it, we keep coming back. Because those moments are worth their weight in gold – the ones that stick in your head and no matter how much time passes, won’t ever fade.
Our Favourite Match (#15), Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal, 23rd December 1978
We Won 5-0 At The Lane!
I make no apology for looking back at a fixture that won us nothing other than local bragging rights. Those who were at White Hart Lane on December 23rd 1978 will happily talk to you about one of the best Christmas presents the club ever gave us. For me personally it provided a huge boost at a difficult time.
A little scene setting is in order. We had not faced the neighbours competitively since Malcolm Macdonald had contributed hugely to their relegation with the only goal of an end of season game at Highbury some twenty months earlier. Their stay in the second division was short-lived and after bouncing back at the first attempt they had signed a pair of World Cup winners in the shape of the Argentines, Ardiles and Villa.
The hosts were recovering form after a shaky start to the season and as usual the “power shift in North London” gene had been triggered. I don’t know that medical science will ever find a cure for their hopeless condition. The day itself was unremarkable, cold and grey as we spilled out of Seven Sisters and made the walk up the High Road. In truth I think we were uncertain about how the day would pan out.
In the opening minute we had our answer. Spurs aptly named midfielder Pratt steered a back-pass from his own half into the path of Alan Sunderland and the permed striker lashed home the first of eight goals he would score in competitive fixtures against our nearest and dearest. I was out of my seat in the tumbledown stand at the back of the Park Lane end, turned over in its entirety to the Gunners in one of the first all-ticket meetings between the old rivals.
The aforementioned Pratt was the first to test former Spurs ‘keeper Pat Jennings with a tame effort from the edge of the box, and Lee fired wide after skipping past another former Spur, Willie Young. We survived a minor scare when the ball brushed Liam Brady’s hand as he helped out the defence, but seven minutes before the break Sunderland, and Arsenal, had two. Liam Brady set up the chance with a raking cross-field pass and Sunderland cut inside to lash it into the top corner via Spurs stopper Kendall’s left hand.
At half-time the players left the field to a raucous chorus of “Alan, Alan Sunderland” from the Park Lane. The chat at the break was a mixture of delight at the way things were going, and just a little nagging doubt about whether we could finish the job off. We needn’t have worried.
Sunderland almost made it three but his header bounced down and clear off the crossbar, then Kendall had to be at his best to deny David Price from a Graham Rix cross. It was one-way traffic with the masterful Brady pulling the strings in midfield. On the hour the match was all but over. Rix forced an error from Hoddle and freed Brady in the Arsenal half. Brady carried the ball to the Tottenham goal line before crossing for Frank Stapleton to power in a diving header.
“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, jingle all the way, oh what fun it is to see the Arsenal win away-ay”. We were in full voice and making the most of what was clearly turning into a demolition job.
There come moments in your life when something makes an imprint on the rest of your days. Little did I know that at around 4.20 pm on this particular day a few thousand fortunate Gooners would experience exactly that. The mercurial Brady had already driven two efforts just over the bar when he advanced to unload the ball from Taylor and hit a curler with the outside of his magic wand into the far top corner of the net. It was a moment of spine-tingling splendour. We were not alone in our wild celebrations. Cue John Motson’s Match of the Day commentary.
“LOOK AT THAT, OHHHHH, LOOK AT THAT!”
Look at that we most certainly did, and joined in the fun as ‘Chippy’ celebrated first with us, then turned to taunt the occupants of the Shelf. That minute remains etched in my memory, from the strike, to the celebration, to the near mass evacuation of three sides of the Lane midway through the second-half. It was a JFK moment. Where were you the day Liam scored THAT goal? Not surprisingly it won the MotD goal of the season competition.
In the final ten minutes there remained one last humiliation for the home team. Stapleton’s headed flick sent Sunderland clear to complete his hat-trick with a superbly placed left foot finish across Kendall and into the far corner. Deliriously we unleashed all the songs we could think of. “Pride of London” and “Five nil, Five Nil” were followed by another Christmas adaptation, “Silent Spurs”. There was still time for Stapleton to all but add to Tottenham’s discomfort, but released by another inch-perfect Brady pass he struck the woodwork and the chance was gone.
Alan Sunderland ended the season with a dramatic last-minute FA Cup winner against Manchester United, but ask any Arsenal supporter of the day what the former Wolves striker would be remembered for and I suspect most would mention the goals he scored against Spurs. He loved winning at the Lane, but so clearly did Liam Brady and those of us bewitched by their performances that day.
Our Favourite Match (#14), Grimsby Town v Arsenal, 4th January 1986
by Andy Wood
Trying to tie down a favourite Arsenal match is very hard, but I`m going to recount the time I first saw The Arsenal play in the flesh. I was two weeks shy of my 13th Birthday when my Dad realised my supporting Arsenal wasn’t just a phase I was going through and I pestered him constantly to take me to see them in an FA Cup 3rd round tie at Grimsby Town. Actually technically it was in Cleethorpes as that is where Blundell Park is located.
My good old Dad managed to secure some tickets but they were for the bloody Grimsby end! No matter, safe in the knowledge a dream was close to coming true I soon cheered up, the home end would just have to do. It was with great trepidation and excitement when I woke that morning and saw my Red & White Scarf sat on top of my clothes. I seem to remember a sickening feeling when I heard the game could be called off due to severe frost, thankfully though the ref passed the pitch fit to play on and we set off from Doncaster to the Seaside to watch my beloved Arsenal.
We parked up and made our way to the ground and, having picked up a programme, made our way up to our seats in the Findus Family Stand. To this day, when I see a Findus packet in supermarkets it instantly transports me back to that freezing cold January afternoon. Seeing my heroes coming out of the tunnel in their famous iconic Red & White kit gave me Goosebumps. The colours just seemed so vivid and I was so excited to see the likes of Kenny Sansom right up and close. Also in the team that day were three players just starting out on their Arsenal careers, Niall Quinn – my Dad constantly berating him during the game stands out – Martin Keown and one of the clubs true legends David Rocastle.
The previous year Arsenal had been defeated by minnows York City in a famous cup upset; surely lightning couldn’t strike twice could it? After 9 minutes it seemed as though it could. Arsenal made a hash of defending a corner and Grimsby took the lead. All the Grimsby fans around us were jubilant, jumping up and down. I sat crestfallen in my seat wondering why my Dad thought it was a good time to pat my head and start laughing at me! Thankfully there was another chap hailing from Doncaster who also wanted Arsenal to win that day; Graham Rix managed to bring down a ball on the edge of Grimsby`s area, firing a low left hand shot under the advancing keeper to level the scores. Guess who`s turn it was to jump around cheering now and dig my Dad in his ribs.
Arsenal started to apply some pressure now and Davis was brought down outside the area. Rix and Charlie Nicholas both stood over the ball, Charlie duly belted the ball into the Grimsby net which started a huge chant of, “CHARLIE, CHARLIE”, from the Arsenal end. Rocky drew a save out of Grimsby’s keeper, who tipped an effort onto the bar. Half Time arrived with us maintaining our one-goal cushion. My Dad treated me to a Bovril and a pie that was hotter than the surface of the Sun.
The second half started and Grimsby came out applying more pressure. Arsenal managed to repel their renewed efforts. When Charlie Nicholas was tripped on the edge of the area, he only stood up and curled a beauty into the top corner. 3-1 to The Arsenal and I had a smile as wide as the Joker. This is when Arsenal gave me a taste of what to expect from them my whole life. They let Grimsby back into it when yet again the defence didn’t clear properly and their Player-Manager slammed home the ball. The fans around me erupted once again and they must have thought I was a lucky charm as my hair was constantly rubbed, telling me Arsenal were now on the ropes.
It certainly seemed that way as Grimsby seemed to rack up the pressure. Thankfully Sansom teed up Charlie again, his snap shot took an almighty deflection off a defender and hit the back of the Grimsby net. 4-2; Phew! What a relief. A Hat-Trick for Nicholas! It’s strange how memories become clouded as for years I have somehow convinced myself he had scored a Hat-Trick of Free-kicks! I wonder if because the World`s hottest pie was Beef and Ale and I had a sway on?
The game wasn’t over though and Grimsby got yet another goal back when Quinn couldn’t get out-of-the-way of a shot and the Ref pointed to the spot. 4-3. We somehow managed to keep out a final wave of Grimsby pressure and the Ref blew the whistle. It`s often said you never forget your first & I will never forget the absolute joy I had watching The Arsenal for the very first time, I`ve been lucky to go to many games since that Cold January Day but one thing`s for certain I`ll never forget my first time.
Sometimes you just know.
I’ve always struggled when tasked with writing about a game from the past. It’s not that I don’t have fond memories, I probably have more than most but I’m not sure most are ones people would want to read about. Finals, League deciders; obvious choices but that’s why they’ve been covered over and again, from Catford to Kathmandu by more natural and accomplished writers than me, so I’ve always avoided them.
When I’ve tried to write about more obscure or less memorable matches in the past, I’ve ended up deviating so much that I’ve forgotten what game I was writing about & switched over to
porn Radio 4 instead.
Despite being the type who’s always got something to say, I’m don’t like writing about particular games, something maybe to do with my relationship with the club. The Arsenal are supported by almost everyone in my family, it’s something I’ve always done and will probably always do. I’m not obsessed with winning trophies nor am I the type to measure the positive emotional return I think I’m getting for the time and money I’ve invested. I’m just obsessed with Arsenal so for the most part, each game kinda means everything and nothing to me in equal measure.
Of course I love to see us win, I still struggle with nerves before and during games – singlehandedly keeping Polo in business for the last few seasons. I feel sh*t when we lose, on top of the world when circumstance dictates that a particular victory leads to winning the league, lifting a cup, finishing in the Top 4 or simply above the lily-white bottle-jobs at the other end of seven sisters (18 years…) but I’m not going burn ants with a magnifying glass if we don’t win as many games as I’ve decided we should in a season.
I’ve gone off track, haven’t I? Well, I did warn you so if you’ve got this far, you might as well carry on as a match report is coming, though it is likely to be a bit Aaron Lennon; short and, well, you get drift.
The match I’ve chosen to relive in my head and write about is one I think about fairly regularly actually; Highbury against Aston Villa, in the 01/02 season. Some of you will know the game I’m talking about immediately but I guess the most won’t.
I don’t have vivid memories of the entire match and whilst I remembered who’d got them, I did have to run through a 2 min video on YouTube to remember all the goals themselves.
One goal I definitely couldn’t forget was scored by a boyhood hero of mine in front of the North Bank. Sadly, it wasn’t for Arsenal but the returning Paul Merson putting Villa into an early lead. A long kick downfield was knocked on by Dublin to Merse who was clean through, with both the ball on the bounce & Taylor well off his line. He simply clipped the ball over the top of the keeper & into an empty net, it was an awful goal to concede & Route One football at its purest (sound familiar?)
Seeing one of my heroes score against us wasn’t something I was used to and sentiment obviously got the better of me because I went absolutely mental at him. To this day, I remember him milking the celebration far more than video suggests he actually did. I think I’m even doubting the footage right now.
Villa’s second came pretty soon after. Poor defending of a wide free kick, swung deep to our far post. Lauren’s poor header flashed across the six yard area to Campbell, who could only clear it as far the edge of the box. The ball was turned straight back in, bounced off a couple of bodies, eventually falling to Steve Stone to control and finish from around the penalty spot to double the lead. It was a bit smash & grab but Villa were a decent side and we’d played midweek, so I don’t think many saw us coming back from being two down at the interval.
Wenger, the man who according to some has never made a substitution before the 70th minute, made two at half-time. Wiltord for Ljungberg – who I thought was unlucky to be replaced – and Keown for Upson. I was disappointed to see Freddie go off; I was in love with him at the time and thought Parlour, who’d had a bad half should’ve made way but never mind that, keep reading.
Wiltord made an immediate impact, scoring after just a minute or so. It gave us real hope that we could get something out of the game. Pires set Parlour free down the right – after me slating him at half time – who did brilliantly to cut back inside before crossing in for Wiltord to volley home left-footed.
We made a couple of chances straight after the goal but the momentum really dropped. Hope of winning the game had all but gone, thoughts now focused on just grabbing an equaliser.
Villa knocked the ball around in their own half, trying to waste time, perhaps even kill the game on the break. We were wise to these tactics. Leading by example, captain Patrick Vieira set the tone by closing everything down and this would eventually pay dividends. With 20 minutess to go, he made up an incredible amount of ground, reading the play before the ball was even switched from the far left over to the Villa right back, Samuel, off whom he snatched the ball. Quick as a flash, the perfect cross found an on-running Henry. With one touch, he managed to lose his marker and sit Enkleman on his arse, before stroking the ball home. It was one of those difficult chances that Henry was able to make look so easy.
After that there was only going to be one winner, though we had to wait until injury time for it to arrive. It felt as if it wasn’t going to come as Villa continued to frustrate us but poor play from them led to our equaliser and the same could be said for our winner. An unchallenged Ashley Cole was able to knock Enkleman’s clearance back into central midfield where Pires won a 50/50 against a half-hearted challenge from Boateng, before sliding a perfect pass through the middle of Villa’s static high defensive line to Henry. In trademark fashion, Thierry ran slightly off the natural line, onto the ball at an angle before opening his body up, passing the ball low and hard to keeper’s left. Cue rapture.
Every hair on my body stood up, the atmosphere was electric, carried through from an amazing win against Juve just a few days earlier. Despite each win having no tangible effect at the time beyond the 3 points in each competition, I’d say it was probably my favourite week at Highbury ever.
Until reading the match report today, I couldn’t even remember the literal implications of the win. There weren’t any really; we were still 3 points off Liverpool who sat top. There was a bloody long way to go from December but sometimes, well, you just know, it’s a feeling I can’t describe. Immediately after Henry scored the winner, I distinctly remember turning to my old man and with no hesitation saying “we’re going to win the league now, you watch. I’m f****** certain.” In truth, there was probably a lot of cheering & swearing prior to my declaration but that’s the bit that stands out.
I know ‘sometimes you just know’ is a bit weak but its hard to look back and properly articulate the feelings I had at that moment beyond that. I wish I’d written about it at the time so I could, but I didn’t so that’ll have to do.
I guess it’s the silver lining of the drunken cloud that most daily and match day bloggers get to enjoy. Their immediate memories & emotions from the time are documented, meaning they can relive them in a way most of us couldn’t before taking to Arsenal online forums & more recently Twitter.
Anyway, that’s me done. Cheers for reading, if you enjoyed it fancy buying me a drink sometime, mine’s a spiced rum & coke.
Our Favourite Match (#12): Arsenal v Sunderland, 4th February 1956
The 4th February 1956 was the day my young 8-year-old life changed for ever, it was then I was hooked like a fish to football but most specifically THE Arsenal. I had known for some weeks that I would be going; my Dad had got hold of some tickets through his friend Peter Goring, a hero of the 1950 FA Cup Final win against Liverpool, then as centre-forward, but now skippering the side at right half.
The excitement grew to a crescendo until the day finally arrived. We lived in Southgate, as did a number of the players in those days, just 7 stops on the tube to Arsenal but we went by car, a much easier exercise then than it is now. Our journey took us past the Barratt & Co sweet factory, famous for Sweet Cigarettes, Sherbet Fountains, Refreshers + many other joys of the time. Through the actual Finsbury Park to Monsell Road, less than 200 yards from the ground but there was little trouble parking, despite a crowd of over 38,000 being present, so few cars about by comparison. A local lad not much older than me came out & in the tradition of the time offered to “look after the car Mister..?” “OK” was the answer & we were off on our way to the West Stand Upper Tier Highbury, my first of well over a 1000 visits to the famous old stadium.
Down Gillespie Road, with programme sellers & purveyors of little badges with photos of the likes of Holton, Nutt or Tapscott on them, past the North Bank & Arsenal tube station into Highbury Hill until we got to that strange entrance between the terraced houses, then through the turnstile & up all those stairs, I did count how many once, just before a hernia operation, but that is a fact I have not retained, then as we went between the concrete bulwarks of the block entrance I had that “Fever Pitch” moment & saw the pitch down there before me, in all its glory. Mainly mud but still a fair amount of green but I was awestruck. What did those white lines mean? Didn’t know then but soon learnt. Incidentally there was no roof over the North Bank, the replacement for the war damaged previous cover was due to be erected during the next close season.
I am afraid I cannot remember which block we were in but it was around half way between the centre & the Clock End about halfway up between the front & the entrance, probably about Row L. The ground wasn’t full but filling, I had never seen so many people in one place before. The Metropolitan Police Band was in full flow with perhaps “the Dam Busters” or “Can-Can”. There was a hum that turned to wild shouting & twirling of rattles as the players ran out about 10 minutes before KO. You never saw them before this, none of this warming up & walking out together. Both teams ran out but at separate times. Arsenal in the famous red shirt with white sleeves, white knickers with blue & white ringed stockings; Sunderland in their change colours of white shirts with red collars, black knickers, red & white stockings.
The players kicked some balls to each other for the 10 minutes or so until both captains – Peter Goring & Sunderland’s (perhaps Ray Daniel) shook hands with the referee on the centre spot, the toss of the coin & then the players took their positions in the straight forward 2-3-5 of the time, afraid that is a guess but that was the general tactic then – score more than the other team, quite simple really!
To be honest my memory is more of the occasion than the match itself. What stood out was the positive goalkeeping of Jack Kelsey in his green jersey coming to catch the ball so high & so effortlessly, probably without gloves, despite getting a buffeting from the Sunderland forwards. It was pointed out to me that our former player Ray Daniel, who had recently done a Nasri to money bags of the time Sunderland, wore gloves – apparently not very usual then & not approved of. The middle-aged bloke next to us was forever encouraging the lads “com’n you Gunnneerrrs“, “great ball Jimmy”, “unlucky lad” but no swearing did I hear from anybody.
The hum & racket from the crowd continued, not many if any organised chants in those days but what a noise that reached a climax when David Herd hit a crisp shot past ‘keeper Willie Fraser for his 2nd goal in Arsenal colours. He added a similar goal later in the match, which together with a Jimmy Bloomfield strike, saw my 1st match end in a 3-1 victory.
Before the match Sunderland were 4th in the table, whilst we were a lowly 6th from bottom. This win was the 1st in a run of 10 in the last 15 matches to carry us up to a final place of 5th (yes above the Spuds!).
The game over back to the car, 6d for the boy “thanks Gov“, & off home exhausted, mesmerised & couldn’t wait for more.
Our Favourite Match (#11): Arsenal v Burnley, 1948
I left Guernsey in 1940; war meant evacuation to the England and a path that led to Highbury. German occupation trapped Joyce’s parents in the wretched decision of when and whether to evacuate; events took their choice away from them.
During those years, I worked in London as a temporary civil servant at the Ministry of Supply. The Adelphi Building off John Adam Street, close to The Strand, would be my home initially. Time would see me move to Somerset House. I was not the only one who had to find a new working home. Highbury was used as an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Station and was bombed during the Blitz, the North Bank destroyed. Arsenal had to move across North London, to the Middlesex borders for their wartime home games; into enemy territory, White Hart Lane.
When the war ended, Highbury was restored and Arsenal returned home in 1946, ready for the resumption of League football.
Like Arsenal, I too went home. Returning to Guernsey, Joyce and I became engaged on 20th July 1947 – the third anniversary of the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. The date was set and I had little trouble persuading my bride-to-be to spend our honeymoon in London rather than under the tropical sun. Purely by coincidence, it was during the football season…
Joyce had spent five years under German Occupation and never left her island birthplace; her idea of bliss was centred on London’s shops and the Variety scene. And she wanted to see a live steam train! I, on the other hand, wanted to see a football match and obtained two tickets for the visit of Burnley to Highbury on 14th February 1948. As it was a special occasion, we had seats in the East Stand, costing us 10/6 (52p in today’s money) each.
By happy coincidence, it was a meeting between the top two. Arsenal had picked up where they had off before the War; top of table by six points and before this match, they had lost just twice that season. Whoever won this match was likely to go on and take the title.
In the days leading up to our wedding day, heavy rain fell, threatening to disrupt my well-laid plans. In those days, the airport only had a grass runway and air travel was severely impacted in the inclement weather. Fortunately, I had the sense to hire an aerovan for £3 to take us to Jersey to make sure we got to our honeymoon destination.
We married at our parish church, St Sampson, on 2nd February and began our London adventure. Time passed quickly until match day appeared; you can imagine Joyce’s amazement at everything around her in the City.
We made our way to the Stadium only to be confronted outside the ground by a heaving mass of fans, desperately trying to get in. It was later reported that 62,000 were inside with an estimated 20,000 outside. My new wife being somewhat of a delicate soul, there was no way I could get her through the crowd, so I sought the help of a police officer on a rather large white horse. He ordered us to follow him (but not too close) and we managed to gain admittance into the Stadium.
Joyce didn’t and doesn’t really follow football. However, she enjoyed the occasion, particularly the joy and enthusiasm of the home crowd.
I should perhaps explain that Arsenal’s manager Tom Whittaker, in formulating his post-war team, had taken a group of hungry players, robbed of the twilight of their careers by war. Hardened, experienced pros like Ronnie Rooke of Fulham and Joe Mercer from Everton. Rooke would score 33 goals that season, never to be equalled until Thierry Henry came along.
The team that day was Swindin; Scott and Barnes; MacAulay, Leslie Compton and Mercer (captain); Roper, Logie, Rooke, Bryn Jones and Denis Compton. Match reports described the goals like this:
“Roper crashed in a remarkable goal from an acute angle in the first half and Rooke scored two in the second half. It is reasonably certain that Strong in the Burnley goal did not see any of the three.”
“Rooke’s second goal from more than 20 yards, a head-high annihilator, flashed past the goalkeeper who nearly caught pneumonia from the draught”.
Arsenal’s 3 – 0 victory meant that they ended the day eight points clear (there were only two for a win then). They went on to win the title by seven points, their first post-War title, and my wife and I went on to enjoy 65 years of happy marriage which thankfully continues to this day…