Thursday 30 May 2019

My ultimate betrayal - confessions of a fan in Europe Part 4

I can't remember whether I met my "mate" in town on the way to the pub, or in the pub, but I do recall feigning anxiety and fear over Parma's quality, while secretly hoping that they would prove one step too far for George Graham's band of dogged resistance.

It was by now official sensitive, top secret information that I wanted my team to lose the European Cup Winners Cup Final. The dread of missing out had poisoned me, bitterness and resentment twisting my soul. I was already missing out, but to be potentially absent from one of the greatest nights in the club's history would be toxic.

Surrounded by Arsenal fans seemingly committed to supporting their team in this intimate public house opposite Wickes, I watched as the ITV build up showed a clip of Parma's genial playmaker, Gianfranco Zola, scoring an unsave-able free kick. I turned to my mate, who smiled ruefully, absorbing the fear, while I took comfort from the thought that not even David Seaman would have kept that out.

Parma's general quality offered me security. Holders of the Cup Winners Cup themselves, they sat 3rd in Serie A, combining traditional Italian defensive solidity with the potent attacking threat of  Zola, Swede Tomas Brolin and the brilliant maverick Faustino Asprilla. In the afternoon, I'd put a bet on Arsenal to win 2-1, almost as a consolation gesture for myself. Although the Cup run had been forged on One Nil To The Arsenal, it was impossible not to see Parma scoring. On the way to the betting shop, I'd seen Tottenham player, Darren Anderton, who lived in the area. I wondered if he'd had a little bet himself.

In addition to Parma's ability, I also had Ian Wright's absence to rely on, the scorer of all our domestic goals suspended after a second yellow card in the semi final at home. John Jensen, the midfield brute, was out injured, too. I really thought he was going to score his first goal for Arsenal in his homeland to win Arsenal the cup - a fairy tale in Copenhagen - but I was beginning to lose faith in happy endings. 

The players emerged on to the pitch to a sea of mostly red flags, the cries of One Nil To The Arsenal, accompanying them. I hoped my mate was taking that in, and was being stung with regret and remorse. I hoped he would feel it too, when he was flicking through the programme next season during a match with Ipswich Town or someone.

Kick off signalled the beginning of the first match that I didn't want Arsenal to win, a sad, tragic turn of events, but one I could barely even acknowledge, finding that I was just going with it.

In the opening few minutes, my eyes secretly lit up as Brolin found space in the box to fire a header at goal. It flew over, but there was the hope. Shortly after, my world was in Brolin's hands again, when a rapid counterattack saw Zola pierce the Arsenal defence with a prodded pass out to Brolin just inside the box. Brolin struck a fierce right footed shot that hit the far post and bounced out.

Surely this was too much, surely it was just a matter of time?

Twenty minutes into the first half, Lee Dixon played a speculative ball in the inside right channel that was hooked clumsily inside by a Parma defender and fell straight to Alan Smith. Smith chested it down and struck the ball on the half volley with his left foot that sailed past Luca Bucci in the Parma goal and went in off the post.

Normally an Arsenal goal would trigger an involuntary act of physical jubilation, but this time I manufactured a 'celebratory' leap in the space in front of me cleared by hugging fans. As my mate joined me, his opened mouthed joy seemed unforgivably genuine.

While One Nil To The Arsenal broke out in the pub, I secretly feared that Parma, like Paris St Germain, would be made to pay for their profligacy or misfortune in the opening minutes. There was another chance for them near the end of the half when Zola created space in the box to smash a left footer towards the top corner but Seaman, playing with pain killing injections for a rib injury, tipped it over brilliantly as he always bloody did.

In the second half, my fears came true. Parma just couldn't break through the peak form of the One Nil To The Arsenal defence who even outstripped the Italians in this area. I realised that throughout the cup run I needn't have agonised over the slender leads being defended. No one was ever going to score against Adams, Bould, Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Seaman. Fatefully it seemed, the Final was decided by two shots agaijnst the post: Brolin's which came back out and Smith's that flew in. Typical, Lucky Arsenal.

Whistle blown on Arsenal's second European title triumph, my mate bought a £12 bottle of champagne and I joined in the celebrations, sang stupid songs and danced around the pub. A Chaka Demus and Pliers song came on, We Don't Need No Drama and the pub landlord, an Arsenal fan, looked at me and started singing "We Don't Need No Parma!" to wide acclaim. I jumped on a table and danced, and the lady collecting the glasses slapped me on the leg and told me to get down, to much merryment. I was like a gay man in a straight relationship impersonating happiness. 

I got home in the early hours with kebab fingers, and woke up with regret. I can't remember if I had a hangover, though I know I felt hollow. In the afternoon Dad was back, uplifted like all the Arsenal fans who'd been out in Copenhagen. In the dining room he played me a cassette of the Arsenal fans singing One Nil To The Arsenal, enthusing about the level of atmosphere they made. Like mum after the York City defeat in 85, he'd expected me to react positively.

The summer passed and there was still no new perspective on my part. I went to the first game of the season (we didn't get season tickets in the end) and I was back to normal, sincerely joyful as we put three past a less wealthy but authentic Manchester City, and got excited about a title challenge. On the Tuesday, I was out for my cousin's 18th when Dad told me that Arsenal had just lost in the last minute at Leeds. Four of five beers down me, I mimed "F**k" in response, the first time I'd said that word in my Dad's company, or at least the first time he'd heard me. But at least I was a fully functioning fan again.                       

Tuesday 28 May 2019

My ultimate betrayal - confessions of a fan in Europe Part 3

The day before the West Ham game, when we'd arranged to sell our tickets, I was responsible for nearly killing our dog.

This was Black Friday, years before it was coined for commercial gain. All my options had run out, and I had to try and face up to the fact that I wasn't going to be in Copenhagen next week singing One Nil To The Arsenal, where I was destined to be. If there was any justice in the world, that's where I would be. I deserved it, I needed it, I so wanted it. There would be a huge, gaping hole in my life without Copenhagen. It felt like there was no meaning to any of this without it.

Clearly an emphatic shift had occurred in my life as a fan. My whereabouts hadn't been a factor in the outpouring of emotion after York City say, and equally when Arsenal won the title in the last minute at Anfield, I screamed and jumped around like a maniac all alone in my bedroom. This was all before I started going to matches regularly, when live games home and away had me on edge as ever.

At least when I was in the pub for the Final, I would only be grieving over one thing. When I took our cocker spaniel, Sam, over the fields, I was gloom-laden and resigned to my dark fate. I let Sam off the lead and sat looking into the distance like some broken hearted character in Home and Away except not on a beach, brooding over what had once been but now wasn't. 

Next thing I knew, I was looking up from my sorrows to see Sam  across the other side of the field, plodding along the same road we'd entered the field from, blissfully ignorant to the cars either side of him that had mercifully slowed down. I suddenly jumped into life and caught up with him on the other side of the road. It was unusual of him to volunteer his return home. Perhaps it was the company. Would a dead family pet at the hands of me put Copenhagen into perspective, or would it simply have added to the misery?  

I'll never know, although I am certain a Part 4 to this never-ending journey is coming.                    

Monday 27 May 2019

My ultimate betrayal - confessions of a fan in Europe Part 2

Playing in goal for Paris St Germain the night they lost to Arsenal in the Cup Winners Cup semi final was Bernard Lama (who later went on to play for West Ham United).

Nearly ten years later, the similarly sounding artist, Lemar, came third in BBC's Fame Academy, which led to the talent show's winner, David Sneddon, breaking apart Avid Merrion's poo with a coat hanger on Channel 4's Bo Selecta!

Lemar went on to produce some of his own solo creations, such as If There's Any Justice in November 2004, which inexplicably reached No.3, not quite a number two, in the charts. While the justice in that song (written by Lee Greenwood) scaling such heights is debatable, the justice in me being at the 1994 European Cup Winners Cup Final was clear enough.

After that fateful phone call with my mate which seemed to end my European dream, I couldn't accept that it was all over. By the end of the conversation, my mate was under the impression that we would sell our tickets on Saturday, at the last home game of the season against West Ham. Though stripped of morale,  and questioning the point of existence, I explored other options, first tentatively asking more casual match-goers of our Arsenal group if they could take my mate's ticket and go with me. Bitterly, I found with them that my time wasn't their time, at least financially.

With general time running out, I asked my mum, a fan for World Cups only, if she would come with me. She scoffed at the idea, not seeming to understand my desperation. I shouldn't have been surprised. In January 1985, when Arsenal lost 1-0 in the last minute of a 4th Round FA Cup tie at Third Division York City, she asked my tortured 9 year old self "What's an Arsenal fan's least favourite chocolate bar?" Answer: "A yorkie". She expected I would laugh. Didn't see the next bout of uncontrollable sobbing coming.

I hadn't cried for Arsenal since then, but was beginning to feel as mournful. 

My ultimate betrayal - confessions of a fan in Europe Part 1

In 1994, when my team, Arsenal, were in a European Final, I wanted them to lose.

The realisation of this back then, at kick off on Wednesday May 4th 1994 as I stood in a packed pub about to show the Cup Winners Cup Final between Parma of Italy and the club that I'd loved unconditionally, traumatically, for 14 intense years, was numbing. I don't think our relationship as club and fan has ever quite been the same. Copenhagen is the great unsaid.

So how did this inexplicable madness come to be?  Well, the answer lies in the scene setter above, I stood in a packed pub: I shouldn't have been in the pub, I should have been there, in Copenhagen. My mate and I had had tickets. We'd queued for hours at Highbury to get them, £35 each, but when the £99 club coach trip was sold out, my mate said the cost of the alternative, independent travel solutions to Denmark were beyond his student income.  

I'll never forget the words:

"I just think that what we'll be spending could get us a season ticket instead. Let's just get our money back for the tickets".

A bitter side note to this was that my mate had spent the majority of every home game of the season reading the programme, so disillusioned had he become by the post terrace, post title-challenging, post exciting team of the George Graham years. The only thrilling matches were the Cup Winners Cup ones, particularly from the quarter final onwards, where a 1-0 aggregate win over Italians Torino was sealed in front of a nervous, edgy and simmering home crowd that blew all the tension into a collective release of joy when Tony Adams headed home a Paul Davis free kick. This was the cup journey that bore (no jokes, please) the One Nil To The Arsenal theme tune. 

In the semi final, Graham's team had no right to beat a Paris St Germain of David Ginola, George Weah and Valdo, but they got a 1-1 draw over there (thanks to another header from a free kick, Ian Wright the scorer this time) and survived an early scare to win 1-0 again, when Kevin Campbell headed in a Lee Dixon throw in. As the players celebrated in front of us in the North Bank, the noise took up the slack for all the league games, which bore their own tag, Highbury the Library (After a dispiriting 1-1 home draw with Sheffield United in 1992-93, Graham said it was "like a morgue out there").  

So I was going to a European Final, surely?! The first one Arsenal had got to since the year I'd started supporting them in 1980, when they'd lost on penalties to Valencia of Spain, also in the Cup Winners Cup. I'd seen footage of that game but didn't remember it at the time. Dad had gone out to Brussels (the ill-fated Heysel Stadium) with a mate to see it. I presume I was in bed when the match started. The only other European Final Arsenal had reached was ten years before, in 1970, in the Fairs Cup (later UEFA Cup) when Arsenal beat Anderlecht of Belgium, recovering from a 3-1 first leg deficit to win 3-0 at Highbury and lift the trophy in an apparently wild night which thousands were locked out of.

I now couldn't wait to play my own part in Arsenal's history. I'd been to every home game, league and cup, apart from Manchester United (couldn't get tickets) that 93-94 season, and been to every home one in 92-93, been to the Cup Final and the last-minute win in the replay against Sheffield Wednesday that qualified us for the Cup Winners Cup. All I had to do was stand in line on a Sunday morning and get my ticket. I was going to be in a European Final, in another country (the furthest of my handful of away games I'd been to was Anfield) supporting my team. I was 18 years old, not in full time work, and barely making enough to pay for tickets, but maybe this would change things, being central to an experience that might not come round again, spurring me on (tried to avoid that adjective) to accelerate my life's progress.

My dad had got tickets for the 1987 and 1988 League Cup Finals, but I probably didn't deserve to be there if others missed out, and I was too young to go to Anfield in 89, but I'd been to ten of the 1990-91 title winning team's games independent of Dad, and gone to every home game bar one since. This was my time. Copenhagen was my time.          

What I didn't comprehend, though, at the time of receiving my ticket to The Parken Stadion, was that my ultimate destination for the 1994 European Cup Winners Cup Final was to be The Oddfellows Arms in Apsley. 

And that was just too much to bare...   

Saturday 18 May 2019

Watford to stage a marvel endgame?

Sitting next to the physical colossus, Chris Hemsworth, in a recent episode of the Graham Norton Show, Paul Rudd, who plays Ant Man alongside Hemsworth's Thor in the Marvel Avengers finale Endgame, affected a resigned air when discussing the process of muscle development when appearing in the same film as the the Son of Odin.

"What is the point?"  he asked.

The players of Liverpool Football Club must be contemplating the same at the moment. 97 points, one defeat, and it was still not enough to take Manchester City's Premier League title from them. Rudd tried to reason that he and Hemsworth were "essentially made from the same materials" but while Liverpool - the Captain America of the story, doing the righteous thing and selling to buy to mount a title challenge (Coutinho out, Alisson and Van Dijk in - ), for City, the Thannos hand of unrivalled wealth can be called upon with the click of Guardiola's fingers (within the permitted transfer windows).

So what chance do Watford stand against City in today's Cup Final? Watford have never won a 'major' trophy in their history, and their record signing is £18,500,000. Since City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi ruling state in 2008, they have won the Premier League four times, the League Cup four times and an FA Cup (though never the Champions League). They would find it impossible to spend as little as £18,500,000 of their oil riches. £60,000,000 is their record signing, for Rihad Mahrez, a squad player.

City's only resemblance to a Marvel Avenger is to Captain America in Winter Soldier, prior to his experimental transformation from plucky weakling to an indestructable fighting machine. Only, Captain America was sent out to fight the likes of City's dark forces. With the jailing of raped and beaten women and the disappearance of journalists seeking truth and justice, Abu Dhabi's ruling state seem to be embarking on some kind of warped, Thannos-like cleansing mission of their own.  Perhaps their next step is to eliminate the Liverpools and the Tottenhams who dare to stand in their way of European glory - because they can't quite get that one right, can they?

The Magic of the FA Cup is about as credible now as Jeremy Kyle's remorse, and it's only BBC who get those keywords in, as it's the only thing they have left. I'm writing this at 3pm when the game should be kicking off, following the three hour build up of old that you could base your day around, a spring in your step as you wake to the fantastic reality. I watched the FA Cup Rewind programme the BBC do very well yesterday, showing the best bits of the 1987 Coventry City-Tottenham Hotspur Final build up and then the highlights. The contrast to today is sad, but at least we can cherish the memories.

When the teams lined up in the tunnel in 87, John Motson talked about the "blistering noise" about to happen and, as the teams emerged to the waved flags and tribal songs and chants of the two sets of supporters, even Motson fell silent, giving way to the occasion, respecting the Magic of The FA Cup, which didn't need to be fed down our throats back then because it existed. 

This evening that noise will be censored, unheard over the blaring X Factor type music amid the contrived pyrotechnics so that we can remind ourselves that the players are the Gods and that we are just mere subserviant peasants in club colours, to be seen not heard, accepting the monstrous tickets prices and weedy allocations because we know our place. Even Abide With Me and God Save The Queen has been removed as a fan soundtrack, with some pop singer or wannabee roped in to drown the crowd out. Any other pre-match sounds will be taken care of by the Wembley stadium announcer, a man pumped up full of e numbers believing the supporters he booms over have an even less rang of intelligence. 

Only if Watford somehow win today, will I accept another utterance of the Magic of The FA Cup. 



Wednesday 1 May 2019

Football history dictates revolutionary tactics for European semi finals

Leicester City's 3-0 win over Arsenal on Sunday came 35 years to the day that the two sides met at Highbury, former home of Arsenal, in Football League Division One, former title of the Premier League. It's a shame that the fixture at Filbert Street, former name of Leicester's stadium (now King Power - please bet responsibly...oh no, that's something else) in the same 83-84 season didn't occur then instead, as it was the last time the home side beat the Gunners 3-0, and also featured a sending off for the visitors (Charlie Nicholas the original Ainsley Maitland-Niles), and would have served as a far more compelling narrative for this piece.

Still, I'll work with what I've got, and the point to all this is that 83-84's season's conclusion, mere weeks after the aforementioned unimportant 2-1 Highbury win for Arsenal, points to some ugly omens for an Unai Emery side simply unable to cut ties with their beloved home and deal with the prospect of doing their own washing and ironing and paying rent and bills. At the end of 83-84, Don Howe's Arsenal finished 6th (not good enough for the old UEFA Cup, and not for the Champions League now, although the UEFA Cup's unfortunate offspring, the Europa League, doing a shocking job with the parents' business, would have welcomed them with unwashed arms), while the other team in North London won the UEFA Cup.

That other team in North London I just mentioned are known as Tottenham Hotspur, who are now upgraded into the Champions League, and their pursuit to emulate that penalty shoot out triumph over Anderlecht of Belgium was boosted by their 1-0 first leg home defeat to Ajax Amsterdam of Holland in the semi final. This tactical deficit has proved what many suspected of manager, Mauricio Pochettino/Danny Dyer, that he studies the past thoroughly. While some may recall Pochettino/Dyer's delve into a royal ancestry on BBC's Who Do You Think You Are, greater discovery has taken place in Tottenham's FA Cup semi final and League Cup semi final exits in 2018 and 2019. On both occasions at Wembley, former temporary home of Tottenham, the Hotspurs took 1-0 leads, only to be pegged back and ultimately eliminated.

Explained Pochettino/Dyer, "I ain't havin' it with Ajax (pronouncing the 'J'), I know the bleedin' score by nah...oh, I mean...yes, 'appy for the result, the player, the fan".

As for Emery, his Arsenal side are also in European semi final activity, hosting their manager's old club, Valencia of Spain, and, in unofficial quotes, he reflected on last season's aggregate defeat to Atletico Madrid, also of Spain, at the same point of the competition.

"Mr...ahhh...Wenger managed then, and we, too, like Tott, went up and then lost. But happily, as you will have seen in Leicester's third goal on Sunday, Leeds were not the only team to deliberately give a goal away to the opposition. We are confident to concede the first goal, especially if I play Shkodran Mustafi ".


End of season Premier League review club by club Part 2: 11-20

11th: Brighton & Hove Albion (48 points) Finishing one point behind your made up rivals must sting. A bit. It’s Millwall who hate Crysta...