FEBRUARY 16th, 2011
3 hours to go
As I swung my left leg into my dad’s car and pulled the door shut, I had no idea what I would witness in the 90 minutes that I had been building up to for ages.
Dad, my brother and I were about to set off to London – the Emirates Stadium, to be precise – to watch the Arsenal against the best team in the world; FC Barcelona. Some had even called them the greatest side ever. Arguable, yes. But they’re definitely up there.
It was lucky that I was going in the first place. We have two season tickets (immensely lucky too) and normally I take turns with my older brother. However, he usually pulls rank over me when it comes to the big games. For example, last season’s Barcelona game was his as soon as the name was pulled out of the hat.
Dad had said I might be able to go this year, but I was fairly sure that Josh would insist he was the one at the Emirates. But as we approached the tie, the man who sits next to my dad told him he wouldn’t be able to make it, and was wondering if dad would be interested in his ticket. He said yes, and that meant that my brother and I could both go. Just like the old days at Highbury, when we both came to the Champions League games in that remarkable run in 05/06. The Juventus game still stands firmly in my memory as one of my favourite games.
Anyway, back to the events of “that night”. As we began the (almost) 2 hour journey to Arsenal, which consisted of getting the car to Richmond and getting various tube lines until we reached our destination, a million thoughts ran through my mind. Could we do it? Actually, that was pretty much my only thought. I put my earphones in to attempt to calm down and try to stop getting so excited. My mum always tells me to “prepare to be disappointed” whenever we’re about to play a big game, and it was no different this time. But I couldn’t help believing.
2 hours to go
Something like 45 minutes later, we arrived at Richmond. We had left a little early so we could grab some McDonalds. I went upstairs to grab a table, and dad and Josh queued up. I got upstairs to see that there was one table free, and it only had two chairs. It would have to do. As I settled down into my seat, I looked across the room to see a woman sitting on her own, with no food left, on a table for six people, reading a book. I shook my head in disbelief – how could anyone be that selfish? Anyway, one McChicken Sandwich and large fries later and we were back on our way. We headed to the tube station, took a newspaper each and got on.
As I read the preview for that night’s game, my heart began to pump with anticipation once more. How good would it be if we did it, I thought to myself. At the school where I go to, there are barely any Arsenal fans, and every time we lose, I’m absolutely ripped by my friends, so it would be brilliant if we could beat the best team in the world. But then again, given my optimism pre-match, they’d ridicule me for my glass-half-full prediction prior to the game if we lost. Especially if we got thrashed.
But I didn’t want to think about that. We were going to win.
1 hour and 15 minutes to go
After one quick tube journey and another very lengthy one, we pulled into Arsenal tube station. I can still picture the Arsenal fans in the streets, singing songs, buying merchandise, taking pictures. If that atmosphere was good, the one that would greet the players as they came out was unbelievable.
But that was an hour away. We strolled towards the stadium in high spirits, smiling and nodding at any Arsenal fans that glanced towards us. Up the two flights of stairs, and onto what is now known as the “Ken Friar bridge”. We crossed it with a swarm of Gooners, all equally optimistic about our chances of conquering the three-time European champions.
We saw some Barca fans chanting outside the stadium, in confident moods. We walked past them, shaking our heads, but secretly a little impressed with their passion. Of course, we could match it, and then some.
We entered the stadium through the turnstiles, having exchanged some quick greetings with the usual steward. Dad purchased a programme, as Josh and I rushed to the TV screens to check out the team news.
“BREAKING NEWS:” read the Sky Sports News scrolling banner along the bottom of the television, “SAMIR NASRI STARTS FOR ARSENAL”. We clenched our fists in joy, knowing that the side was pretty much full-strength, except for the absence of Thomas Vermaelen. Still, Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou had formed a superb duo at the heart of our defence, and we’d coped without Vermaelen the entire season – we could do it again.
We trotted down the steps to our seats, shaking hands with the usual match-goers who were already in theirs. “Seen the team?” said one. We confirmed that we had, and agreed how good it was that Nasri was starting. After a conversation about our French winger, and the players he’d be facing, someone pointed out the flags on our chairs. “Last time we had these, we got thumped by Man U.”
He was right, but I didn’t see it as a bad omen. I was excited to wave my flag, and couldn’t wait to contribute to the immense atmosphere, just like in the Champions League semi final of a few years ago against United. I hadn’t been at that game, so I was thrilled to be here and to be a part of it. Josh was a little less enthusiastic, but hey ho.
We continued to discuss a number of topics, from the referee to the Barcelona manager. As we spoke, Messi and co. were flooding out of the tunnel, to cheering from the Barca fans, and jeers from us. As our boys came out of the tunnel, they were greeted by huge applause from the home fans, which overcame any booing from the away fans – despite their numbers compared to ours. It was a little strange how they were already all in their seats an hour before, but they probably wanted to witness as much of Arsenal as they could.
The time had come. The rest of the regulars had found their seats, ready to cheer the players on to what would hopefully be an historic victory. The now-traditional pre-match song of The Wonder of You was boomed out of all the speakers, and as usual I joined in, holding my scarf proudly up in the air, just like thousands of others were. This was an atmosphere.
Then came the fairly-new video as the players lined up in the tunnel. As usual, I softly whispered each commentary as it came; “Brady… oh look at that! Look at that! What a goal by Brady!”, “And it’s Tony Adams, put through by Steve Bould, would you believe it?! That… sums it all up!” and of course “Thomas, charging through midfield, it’s up for grabs now! Thomas, right at the end!”
As the clock on the video ticked towards one, the players were about to enter the stage. The announcer told us to “Get our flags ready,” and then at last, to “Welcome Barcelona, aaaaand the Arsenal!”. And what a welcome we gave them.
Flags in the air, 60,000 all singing in harmony – it was enough to make every hair on your body stand up.
The players got into their positions, and the referee blew his whistle. This was greeted by another roar, then another rendition of “And it’s Arsenal, Arsenal FC, we’re by far the greatest team, the world had ever seen”. And we wanted to prove it.
We were straight out of the blocks, attacking Barcelona with a thrilling “no-fear” attitude. This could, of course, go spectacularly wrong if they caught us on the break, but we seemed willing to take that risk.
Barca nearly caught us out, when Lionel Messi found himself clean through on goal. He waited, and waited… and waited some more… before clipping a shot over the despairing Wojiech Szczesny (on his Champions League debut, mind you). It looked destined for goal… but it rolled inches wide.
Counter-attack seemed to be our best option, and we nearly made a breakthrough using that particular method. Fabregas was set free down the right handside, and clipped a cross towards Robin van Persie, waiting at the back post… and as he was about to nod it home, Abidal got a nick on it – cleared. Just.
It was our best chance so far, but instead of spurring us on, it motivated Barca. Messi weaved his magic in the hole, and played it in for Villa. Surely it was offside? Apparently not, as the linesman’s flag was not raised, and David Villa took advantage, slotting through the ‘keeper’s legs to make it 1-0.
We tried to respond, but Barca came back at us, with wave after wave of attack. Then suddenly, we broke away with Jack Wilshere. Into the other half… towards the goal… Walcott’s free on the right! No, he gave it to van Persie… we rose in expectation of our in-form striker… I clutched the shoulder of my brother’s coat… is it in?! Nope, side netting. It was a good chance, and it had gone begging. No fear – we’d score, we just knew we would. We had to…
But it looked like Barca were the ones who had scored, again, when Messi bundled in a header from a rebound. To our relief, the linesman called this one for offside. Only when the replay was dissected at super-slo-mo on ITV afterwards could they finally conclude that the assistant had indeed got it correct.
We went in at half-time behind by one goal to nil, but it could have been more, so we were in a way lucky. I nervously tucked into my half-time snack, surprised I could eat with the butterflies in my stomach.
Before we knew it, it was time for the second half. As the players struggled to impose themselves, Andrey Arshavin replaced Alex Song. We went close several times before that, but nothing particularly clear cut.
We still couldn’t get past Barcelona’s rearguard though. Wenger took a risk, throwing on Bendtner for Walcott.
Minutes later, we did it.
Gael Clichy dinked a ball perfectly into Robin van Persie, who had a tight angle for a cross inside the area. He went to pull back the trigger, and it looked like he was going for fire it across goal, hoping it got a touch and went in.
But instead, he went for the outrageous. Many players wouldn’t even think of doing what he did. But I’m glad van Persie did. He fired the ball at Valdes’ near post, and the goalkeeper had shifted away from his goal instinctively, thinking to block the cross. He was caught out, and the ball flew in at the far post from an immensely acute angle.
Goal! With twelve minutes left, we had grabbed a goal! We went crazy, absolutely over the moon. High fives were shared, hugs with random people, the usual stuff. Van Persie celebrated jubilantly, embracing Arsene on the touchline as the rest of the players celebrated amongst themselves. I rapidly texted all my friends who had texted me at half-time rubbing in the scoreline. Still, more than ten minutes left.
But if we thought van Persie’s goal was an amazing moment, we would have an even better one five minutes later. My head was already pounding from the immense noise, and Barca laid siege at our goal. “Clear it!” we yelled.
Laurent Koscielny, absolutely marvellous all night, picked Lionel Messi’s pocket once more. He looked for options, and concluded that Bendtner was his best bet. He slid the ball into the Dane, who came infield into a swarm of players. As Xavi ambled away from goal, a gap opened up, and Bendtner managed to find Wilshere. Encouraging applause and cheers. Wilshere found Fabregas first time. More encouragement. In one fluid movement, Fabregas pirouetted and spotted Nasri in space. He sent a ball spinning into the Frenchman’s path.
Nasri hared down the right, in the empty space left by Barcelona as they pressed for a winner. Only a few Barca players were back, but we didn’t have many players forward. Van Persie jogged into a good position, but Nasri seemed to be going for goal. He cut back, assessed his options for a millisecond. Van Persie was being marked too tightly, what could Nasri do?
Then he, and the 60,000 fans in the ground, saw him.
He sped into the box, screaming for the ball. We all screamed for Nasri to give it to him, and give it to him Nasri did.
Would he shank it miles over like he did recently vs Leeds? Would the goalkeeper save it? Would he miss it completely?
Within a second, we had our answer. And we had our hero.
As Arshavin curled the ball perfectly into the corner of the net, the Emirates Stadium exploded. It was a feeling of pure euphoria, and disbelief. Had we really just gone 2-1 up against Barcelona? The announcer confirmed that we had, as Arshavin, Bendtner and the rest of the team raced into the opposite corner to celebrate. I wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening on the pitch, instead celebrating with those around me. Somehow, I found myself and my brother switching places as we jumped around like crazy.
In my ecstatic state, I managed to notice that the guy next to me wasn’t celebrating. He wasn’t, but I was, and for 5 full seconds I went crazy in his face, not caring what his reaction was.
After a while we settled down, my heart still beating furiously, and my head pounding even more. I took a moment to rest, with my brain going crazy. The pain in my head was easily bearable thanks to the enormous supplies of adrenaline pumping through my veins. As I tried to relax, I checked my phone. Something like 4 new messages, saying things like “Fair play” and so on. I replied to all of them, telling them what a feeling it was, and how buzzing I was. To others, who weren’t aware, I bragged that I was there. They were jealous, and I felt so lucky.
The seven minutes remaining, plus the four of added time, seemed to take forever. As we urged the referee to blow up, regardless of how long should still be played, the players were equally nervous, but managed to clear every attack that came our way. Barcelona threw everything at us that they had, but they’d tired. A late scare in the form of Dani Alves was rejected by Szczesny, who had celebrated the second goal as vigorously as any of us. Clichy booted the ball into touch, and it seemed like the storm we were weathering wasn’t over. But apparently it had taken a nick off a Barcelona player, and we had the throw in. Taking as long as he could, Clichy launched it into the centre circle. It fell to a Barcelona player, and they tried piling forward again.
The referee had looked at his watch. The whistle was in his mouth. You could barely hear him blow, but I could tell from the reactions of the players and the fans alike that it was over – for now. There was the second leg to come, but for the time being I just wanted to bask in the incredible glory of the victory.
Overcome with joy, all of the Arsenal fans exited the stadium in good voice. Singing many songs about van Persie, Arshavin and of course the Arsenal, I joined in with each one. I got a frown from my dad when I joined in with the “We’ve got Arshavin” song, but at the time I wasn’t too concerned.
On the journey back, we saw many other Gooners, including on the tube. Already in our seats, some lads a little older than me settled into theirs, huge grins on their faces, just like us. My dad said “I guess your team won then?” and they nodded, still grinning like mad.
The events that had just gone on made the journey completely bearable – in fact, as I reminisced the night’s goings-on, I was nudged by my dad; we were already at our stop. Once we got on the next tube, which was outdoors for most of the journey, I checked my phone again. I replied to all my messages, and went about updating my Facebook status. I couldn’t respond to the comments, but I was aware of them, and showed my dad some.
We got into the car, and turned the radio on. For once, we decided to brave listening to TalkSport – even they were complimentary of our side’s efforts. We grinned as they gushed over that moment when Arshavin curled in the winner, picturing the moment in our minds’ eyes.
We got home at something like 12, but I wasn’t going to bed. Instead, I watched Sky Sports News with dad, to see what they said. After they exhausted the topic, we went onto the recording of the game to experience that amazing moment once again. We watched van Persie’s goal first, then waited until Arshavin’s goal came on. Having watched until the end of the game, we rewound, and watched the goals again. And again.
I must have got to bed at about 1am, and I decided to wear my Arsenal shirt as I slept – so immensely proud of my team. I soon drifted off to dreams of Arsenal, satisfied with the night’s events.
I know I’ll never forget that night. Since I wasn’t around when Micky Thomas slotted home the winner at Anfield, the Arshavin winner is currently the greatest moment of my Arsenal supporting life. It’s my Anfield ’89.