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.                       

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