BY ADENIYI LAWAL / @ABNL1
I have had two near death experiences on account of supporting the Arsenal, and they both stem from goal celebrations. This write-up is the first of two parts…
Wednesday 17th May, 2006 – the day of the Champions League final and Arsenal’s chance to finally win Europe’s top honour. It was a day that was supposedly written in the stars. A team with French blood running through it playing in Paris on the same ground that eight years earlier had seen two Gunners win the World Cup. Surely it had to be our lucky ground?
I started the day with my head hanging off the edge of my bed as I called work to tell them I wouldn’t be making it in on account of how rough I felt. Once I’d sorted myself a day off, I treated myself to a large breakfast and began watching the build-up to the match on Sky.
The wait was killing me. I was impatient to say the least. By noon, I couldn’t contain myself any longer and headed to my local. In a nutshell, I spent the afternoon nursing pint after pint of Guinness nervously anticipating the most glorious night in Arsenal’s history. As kick-off drew closer I was joined by a few of the lads from my five-a-side team – thankfully all Gooners.
The pub was heaving with supporters in red, redcurrant and blue and yellow shirts. Conversations were loud, songs louder and the atmosphere was thick with Gooner solidarity as the six screens in the former Bingo hall flickered.
Every Arsenal fan was aware of the quality side awaiting Arsene Wenger’s men. Boasting strikers Ronaldinho and Eto’o, Barcelona also boasted many of the side that would eventually buttress their superiority in world football. Still, we had reached the final on the merit of our talent, desire, and effective execution of the manager's game plan from the round of sixteen. We were entitled to our optimism, and optimistic we were.
As time wore on, I kept downing the black stuff and by kick-off I was on my eighth pint.
We all know how it started: fast-paced, competitive, both sides seeking a breakthrough quickly. Within the first three minutes, Henry had conjured two goal chances. One tested Valdes from close range; should he have lobbed it over the keeper? The second from distance was easily saved by a keeper I generally rate as a six out of ten. His sharpness on that day was closer to a nine.
Soon after Eto’o went through on goal from a Ronaldinho pass. Big Jens Lehmann reacted swiftly but he wasn’t quick enough as the Cameroon hitman nipped the ball past him before getting clattered. The ball rolled free and was passed into the back of the net only for play to be called back. A free-kick was awarded and our mercurial man between the sticks was sent off. Only 19 minutes had passed.
Wenger had a quick decision to make. An outfield player had to be sacrificed for Manuel Almunia to come on; Robert Pires was that man and he trudged off disgruntled in what turned out to be his final appearance as a Gunner. Our new keeper survived the ensuing set piece.
A tough job had just got even more difficult. The players knew they were going to have to dig deep to achieve the result we all wanted. They rose to the task, buoyed by Henry's relentless harrying of the opposition back four, and we were encouraged by their fortitude.
Attack being the best form of defence, Eboue surged forward on the right flank and was brought down for a free-kick. The ball was played into the box by Henry and Sol Campbell towered high to power the ball home with his head. There was nothing Valdes could do about that one.
I went crazy. I’m sure every Gooner on the planet did in that moment. A shower of alcohol drenched me as pints were thrown in the air. I jumped up and down like a lunatic, and I didn't stop. I carried on in a frenzy until...
…until I could hear my heart pounding in my head. It was racing so fast I dared not tempt fate!
A voice in my head called me to order, urgently telling me to slow down. I stopped for a few seconds, calmed myself down and had a surreal moment where I reflected on how close I’d just come to being wheeled off in an ambulance.
It took a while to refocus, but as the rain poured down in Paris I watched us ride our luck until the end of the first half.
The second half commenced, and 45 minutes to glory beckoned. Barca were as desperate for parity as we were to prevent it. We were soaking up the pressure and relying on the counter attack. Ronaldinho was being frustrated, and whilst Henry was having better success skipping past their back line, Valdes was equal to the task.
There was a poignant moment late in the 73rd minute, when Henry earned a corner and he was so spent that he had to squat and take a breather before playing it. 17 minutes plus added time until glory. Nail-biting stuff...yet we were to be undone by a substitution that saw Henrik Larsson come on and deftly assist Eto'o for a heart-breaking 78th minute equaliser.
We were running out of gas, our optimism was melting away quicker than a dropped ice-lolly on a sunny pavement. I was keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that we would ride the game out 'til extra time.
In my desperation, I remembered my little nephew wearing the Arsenal shirt I bought him on the day we put seven past Everton in the previous season. I found myself ringing my sister and urging her to make him put the shirt on, for luck.
I had barely hung up when Larsson produced another assist for Belletti's near-post strike that gave Barcelona the lead and eventual victory. Our team was deflated. We were crushed.
I was not in a good place and nearly took my anger and frustration out on the solitary Chelsea fan present there and then. How dare he punch the air in celebration at the final whistle.
I rallied departing Gooners and we waited outside the pub for the imposter. I paced back and forth at the exit, drawing hard on a cigarette that someone had offered me as if I were a gang leader; I don't even smoke. The harsh realisation that I was about to instigate an assault suddenly dawned on me. It was totally out of character for me and not something I’d seen at Arsenal – on the whole our fans had a decent track record of good behaviour.
I felt my mobile go off in my pocket and I automatically took the call. It was my girlfriend offering me a shoulder to cry on. Crossing the road as a I spoke to her I took up a vantage point opposite the pub where I could see my huddle of angry mates ready to vent their fury. I knew I had to put a stop to what potentially could unfold.
I crossed back to the front of the pub and addressed ‘my’ troops. “Let’s go home. We let our football do the talking and we live to fight another day.” With those words I walked off, not looking back until I was about 25 yards away.
I turned around to observe that the lads were already dispersing, and I breathed a drunken sigh of relief, finally laughing at the sequence of the day's events and the hollow reality of my disappointment. I walked on for another 45 minutes to my girlfriend's; she was there at the door, and we said little as we embraced for a long moment.
She was my panacea that night, like no-one else on earth could ever be. I finally kicked my shoes and clothes off and blacked out until morning.
Fast forward fourteen months, I am standing at the altar in a small Devonian church, in a grey pinstriped suit, silver satin tie and silver wristwatch. As I pledged myself to my wife-to-be, my pride was in the sterling silver Arsenal cuff links she had bought me.
We have lived together in harmony ever since. This is why for me; Arsenal will always and forever be Victoria Concordia Crescit.