Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday April 25 2007
Earlier today I eulogised at length over the anniversary of an Arsenal landmark, three years ago today of course we won the league at White Hart Lane. I have always noticed anniversaries, don't ask me why, in reality they are not important. Especially in such a rapidly changing and forward thinking world such as football. It was Keirkegaard who said, 'Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.' Maybe the amount of weddings/divorces/grievances in my colourful family history has informed my obsession with these dates, maybe it is human nature to equate dates with pivotal moments in one's life, or maybe it's because I was born on the 26th May!
But anyway, today sees another pivotal landmark, certainly in my life. On the 25th April, 2006, Arsenal took a narrow slither of a first leg lead to Eastern Spain in the Champions' League semi final. With the small proximity between this game and the Quarter Finals, my entourage and I did not have time to arrange the usual cheap flights, so, with ample time off already having been taken for Madrid and Turin, we elected to do an in-out flight with the Arsenal Travel Club. Meeting up at Gatwick the morning of the game, the mood was one of cautious optimism, having not conceded at home, we were supremely confident we could score in El Madrigal. The flight was a nightmare. At first, we endured a small delay as the plane had drastically over fuelled, the decision was taken that the fuel would be burnt off in the air (take that ozone layer), thus extending our flight time. As we boarded, the plane was beset with engine problems, which meant we had to sit on the plane- no air conditioning- on the runway for around two hours.
Of course, this did nothing but excite already frayed nerves as we fretted about making kick off. The original plan had been to fly to Valencia, spend the afternoon there, before boarding a coach transfer for Villarreal. With the delay and the projected flight time, we arrived in Valencia with only around two hours to spare. We alighted the coach to be met with beautiful coast line and a golden sand beach. Only problem was that it was precisely 4pm, all the bars and restaurants on the beach front were just packing away for their siesta. We could not even find a bottle of water to calm tensions. Eventually, myself, Kenny, Lord Lowe and Jon found a backstreet tapas bar and I tucked into the most velumptuous squid ever, the mere thought gets me salivating as I type. As our coach made its way towards the ground, we were met with the sight of a huge carnival outside the ground, Villarreal fans lined the streets, flanked by a huge inflatable submarine, partying and extraordinarily, waving at us with huge beaming smiles. The coach driver obviously was not impressed as he proceeded to drive around three miles away from the ground to park up. We were left to walk briskly towards the ground up the sloping Spanish streets, beyond the ripening orange trees, nervously glancing at watches as we made it into the ground with ten minutes until kick off.
Villarreal's was a small ground and owing to some trouble Rangers fans had kicked up in a previous round, we were given a severely reduced allocation. Only 1,000 of us were shoehorned into the corner of El Madrigal, my view partially blocked by a perspex screen separating us from the Villarreal support. Immediately opposite us, one sad individual had bought a Manchester United Benidorm supporters club flag with him. The players took the pitch and the nerves kicked in, on the terraces and on the pitch. Santos went close with a first half header as Arsenal froze and shrunk into their shells. Half time was spent furiously remonstrating as to why the team were playing so poorly, that is apart from Kenny, who was telling all and sundry how it was in the bag, Villarreal had blown it, they wouldn't score. The second half was unbearable, Arsenal showed no attacking intent, as Forlan missed a sitter some Bolivian striker whose name I forget missed two sitters. (He also amsuingly enquired as to whether God hated him after the game). Villarreal looked sapped, out of ideas and convinced their chance had gone. Then a hystrionic fall from Santos saw the referee unbelievably point to the spot, much to the dismay of Gael Clichy. Even with a perspex divider in the way at my horrible angle at the other end of the pitch, I could see it was no penalty. While mayhem erupted around me, I just did not seem to get angry. Usually I would be raging, foaming at the mouth with incredulous bile. But I guess I just didn't have the energy, it had all been expended on airport runways, and in sloping streets lined with ornage trees.
As I watched Riquelme line up the penalty, I never even entertained the notion that he might miss. The way I saw it, I was willingly and readily watching my dreams being crushed, that very thought crossed my mind with alarming clarity. This was it, it was almost like an outer body experience, watching my own nuts on the guillotine. 'Jens is gonna save it,' came the prediction from Kenny, memory is a selective mistress but I think I audibly told him to f*** off. I was weary of his pessimistic bluster. Didn't he realise what was happening here? There was no way we'd see off Villarreal in extra time, we were blowing our chance, right here, right now as Fatboy Slim put it. Jens sprang to his left and an independent force moved me, I had three blokes of around six foot plus, bulging beer bellies and red noses, I had never seen them at an away game before or since, which suggests they weren't away scheme members. They had royally pissed me off with some borderline racist diabtrites against the Spanish all game. In short, I knocked them all tumbling into each other. Despite my findness for burgers and ale, I cut quite a slight figure (albeit rapidly increasing, when an old uni friend you haven't seen in two years refers to you as 'buff and studly' you know you are swiftly being ushered into fat bastard territory, a bit like when Wenger referred to Sol as 'a big machine'). Such was the ferocious manifestation of my delight, I knocked all three of them over.
Suddenly I caught myself, usually I'm quite an adept observer in the heat of a football arena, eagle eyed for any flag or onrushing full back, a terrible thought gripped me. 'F***, THE REBOUND! WHAT HAPPENED TO THE REBOUND?!!!' I looked up in time to see the ball nestling in Jens' godly grip as he berated Kolo Toure for offering congratulations. The coast was clear, that was it. The final whistle blew and pandemonium ensued amongst our small enclosure, 90 minutes of nervous relief all exploded into one big party. Complete strangers embraced like long lost brothers and sisters, Kenny sank to his knees and wept like a baby, yes, the man full of confident bluster, even at the most heart rendering moment of any Arsenal game since 1989 (what was that date again?). Even Lord Lowe shed a tear as pockets of Arsenal fans who had smuggled themselves into the home end became apparent. 'We just sunk the yellow submarine,' came the delirious chant. After a lengthy celebration inside the ground, the police let us loose into the now deserted Spanish streets. All 1,000 of us literally danced Fat Les style through the streets of Eastern Spain to the tune of 'We're on our waaaaaaaaaaaay.' Cameras were to be found in every crevice as yours truly thoroughly humiliated himself on some continental TV channel or other, not sure whether to clutch the badge or kiss it, I did neither and made a motion like I wanted to eat it. The squid was just lovely thank you.
At that point it was slightly regretful that we could not stay in Spain and celebrate with a few jars. But all were so tired and emotional that getting on the plane home and to the comparitive mercy of our beds was just what the doctor ordered. Strolling through Gatwick that morning, I must have looked simpler than Roman Abramovic. Despite being more knackered than Tomas Rosicky in a Praha hotel room, the smile on my face was wider than the Grand Canyon. Of course we all know what happened in the Final and the irony of Jens being the one to be sent off has never been lost on me, it just shows what a cruel sport football can be. But nothing can sour the memory of that night for me for as long as I live. Whenever I think of or see Jens Lehmann's penalty save, a jolt of electricity surges through me and I am instantly transported back to that six foot plus geezer reeling on the ground. It's not just a memory, I feel that elation again. LD.
Date:Wednesday April 25 2007
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