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Wednesday, 21 December 2005

The Belle of The Ball

I'll have to be brief (now that would be a surprise), as I need to rush around and get a few things done in order that I might leave in good time for tonight's match at Belle View, but I wanted to post an entry, as yesterday for the second year, I was invited to this annual Gooner nosh-up upstairs at The Ivy, with around 20 to 30 hard core Arsenal fans all seated around the one huge table.

Wallowing in our 20 point misery (apparently they are installing new "Mind The Gap" signs at the Arsenal tube station!), I wasn't really looking forward to this year's gig so much as the last time - where I was privileged to spend the entire lunch seated adjacent to my hero, ex-Arsenal captain Frank McKlintock and opposite Sammy Nelson, who told some hilarious tales but who didn't drop his trousers!

I imagined it might feel more like a wake than a celebration, with all of us spending the day bemoaning the club's current ills but in the end I was delighted I went, as apart from the fact that it was an extremely enjoyable occasion once again, it also proved to be an incredibly cathartic reality check, reminding me of what really matters and I was left looking forward with great anticipation to tonight's outing.

Genial Northern Irishman Sammy Nelson was the solitary guest on this occasion and he stood up after our meal and got us all cracking up with a couple of hilarious jokes. I was sucked in completely last year, but I've now come to appreciate that Sammy has this marvelous straight-faced habit of telling a funny with such sincerity that right up until the punch line you aren't certain if he's telling a true story. He also took our questions and had us mad Gooners hanging on his every word, as he regaled us with some details, straight from the horse's mouth, of some of the more famous Gunners anecdotes.

I am sure we heard it last year, but it was no less interesting to get the low down once again, on the infamous battle in Rome with the Lazio players, outside the restaurant where both sides went to eat after our 1970 Fairs Cup triumph. Apparently it was like a scene straight out of high-noon, when they were confronted with four of the Lazio players walking towards them and one of them made the mistake of laying into Ray Kennedy (who I assume was more than capable of taking care of himself). Sammy also took the mickey out of "gorgeous" George Graham, holding his hands up pleading "anywhere but in the face".

Obviously the memorable subject of Sammy's moon at the North Bank cropped up. He enquired as to how many Highbury held, to which a few people replied in all seriousness, as he revealed that it must be closer to a 100,000 according to the amount of people who've come up to him over the years and said they were there that night, when he dropped his shorts in front of the North Bank.

He was talking about the repercussions, as he was terrified of being suspended for the Cup Final as a result. Apparently Dennis Hill-Wood, father of current chairman, approached him to advise that things would work out in his favour, as Hill-Wood had apparently spoken to Bert Millichip and promised him his vote for FA Chairman. But when it came to his appearance at the disciplinary meeting, Millichip wasn't having any of it, telling Sammy that he didn't believe a word of his explanation. This was (if I recall correctly) that it hadn't been a particularly entertaining game (believe it or not this was not unusual, but the norm back then) and so Sammy was just trying to provide some amusement for all those paying punters.

The club had automatically fined him two weeks wages, in the hope of preempting any punishment from the FA but I believe this was anulled when he was suspended for two weeks and fined 700 quid by the authorities (which was I imagine a considerable sum relevant to the wages back then).

The subject of the size of the crowds at THOF, raised some amusing reminiscing about the militant times of the early seventies, when during the miner's strikes and the infamous 3-day week, I believe over 60,000 crammed into Highbury for an afternoon midweek kick off against Cloughie's Derby.

Coincidentally, only recently I was going through some of the matchday programmes I have from games my old man took me to as a boy, as I was trying to determine if I'd actually seen Georgie Best perform his magic in the flesh for Man Utd. I am sure some one will correct me if I am wrong but if I am not mistaken, I saw Best play in a couple of occasion, scoring with Brian Kidd in a 2-2 draw in '69 and defeated by a John Radford hat-trick, when we held that magical triumvirate of Best, Law and Charlton to something like a 4-2 triumph the following season. But it was truly amazing to be reminded that I was crammed into Highbury amidst crowds of around 64,000 for these glamorous encounters.

I have fond memories of shuffling through the turnstiles at this early age, hidden between the folds of my old man's huge overcoat. But when he couldn't wangle himself a pitch amongst the posh Upper tier seats and we went into the unreserved seating in the West or East Lower, I still have vague memories of being passed over the heads of the sardine like supporters, to sit in front of the advertising hoarding alongside the St Johns Ambulancemen.

After Sammy sat down, in honour of the fact that we will be bidding farewell to our grand old stadium this season, we were asked to go around the table, taking it in turn to describe our greatest Highbury highs and lows.

Now I thought I was hard core, but I soon discovered I'm a positive lightweight in comparison to some of the Arsenal fans whose company I shared yesterday afternoon. There were at least a couple of Gooner geezers present who must have a good few years on me, as they were actually privileged to be there in person at Highbury in 1958 to witness the remarkable 4-5 defeat against Man Utd. I remember my old man frequently recalling this particularly special match, in absolute awe of the player he described as the greatest footballer he'd ever seen play live, Duncan Edwards.

And for the benefit of any younger Gooners who might not be aware, this match will always be remembered because it was the last time Sir Matt Busby's amazing "Busby Babes" played in this country before flying out for that fateful European encounter which tragically ended up with most of them losing their lives oh so prematurely, in the Munich Air Disaster.

There were other, somewhat long in the tooth, Gooners around the table who spoke in glowing terms about the Fairs Cup triumph against Anderlecht in '71 as one of their favourite Highbury highs. While the majority of us all referred to the more recent magical moment, when Bouldie passed the ball to Tony Adams, for our captain to create an incredibly poignant instant, as TA scored the last goal against Everton to cap our title winning run in '98 with the most perfect finale.

Littered amongst all these special occasions we Gooners all remember, were many more personal memories which folks were good enough to share. Of these, my absolute favourite was a tale from a Gooner who I chatted to afterwards and who swore to me that the end of his time on this earth just had to be Arsenal related. Apparently he and his parents were away on their family holidays, when his grandfather and a work colleague used their season tickets at Highbury. His elderly grandfather had got so excited at the game that he eventually passed away from the resultant heart attack. However the tale he told at the table related to the match against PSG a few years back, when Iam Wright missed an absolute sitter, when one on one with the keeper and it was left to Kevin Campbell to score with a marvelous header.

His own father was dreadfully ill at this time, on his virtual death bed in hospital and after the match he went to be by his dad's side. He told how he sat there, listening to his old man clinging on to this mortal coil, holding his hand, but at a complete loss for words. Eventually he leaned over and said to his dad "I bet you don't feel half as bad as Wrighty" and according to this chap, with his very last breath, his dad whispered "Yeh but I don't feel half as good as Kevin Campbell"!!

Unfortunately I don't have time right now to share any more stories with you but the day itself left me with a warm, fuzzy Gooner feeling, and a timely reminder of what it really means to be an Arsenal fan, sharing a special common bond, which can never be broken by a mere few bad results.

One of the best bits of this special occasion, is that I get a ride there and back in this absolutely beautiful relatively new Ferrari (which has been on a couple of those Gumball rallies) and on the way home we were discussing how sad it is to think that in 30 years timee, I can't exactly imagine any of the current Arsenal squad being the sort of lifelong Gunners, that they'd be prepared to spend an afternoon discussing all things Arsenal with a load of loyal fans (at least not for anything less than an extortionate fee of 30 odd grand!!)

See some of the more hardy amongst you at Doncaster
Come on you Red-currants
Big Love