Monday 27 May 2019

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...   

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