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Wednesday 1 March 2006

Does It Get Any Better?

Sorry folks, you'll have to forgive me but I ended up having to finish writing my piece for the Examiner in such a rush and was left with so much more to tell of our momentous trip to Madrid, that I've only just managed to finish re-writing it.

I will also have to apologise for its rambling style, but it occurred to me that if I didn't get it posted before tomorrow night's second leg, it might not be worth sending it out at all

Peace & Love

The stallholder in the pub forecourt opposite Ewood Park on Saturday was doing a brisk trade flogging bright yellow “1-0 in the Bernabeu” t-shirts. Arsenal fans were arriving in Blackburn absolutely buzzing, still floating on a wave of world-beating euphoria, some 4 days after savouring our marvellous achievement, as the first league side to silence the Galacticos big guns in their own backyard.

It’s not surprising we went a little overboard with our celebrations (you’d have thought we’d won the Champions League itself), as aside from an equalising goal against the old enemy, the penalty shoot-out party up at bloomin’ Belleview of all places and the 7-0 slaughter of Boro, the Madrid match was without doubt the most refulgent star, in an otherwise murky firmament of our miserable season so far.

Unfortunately, unlike when we mullahed Inter Milan 5-1 in Italy, this match won’t prove to be a springboard for more Premiership success. Yet it was the same sort of historic European encounter, which will go down in Arsenal legend, as another triumph for Highbury’s humble advocate of the beautiful game, over corporate behemoths like Real, who with the unlimited financial backing of such wealthy sugar daddies as the King of Spain, assume that success should be theirs by right.

A tour of Madrid’s sporting cathedral and a stroll through their impressive museum seems designed to inflict an inferiority complex on all visiting supporters. There’s an absolutely dazzling array of prizes to reinforce Real’s success filled pedigree, along with some of the most outrageously ornate silverware I’ve ever seen, including a incredible Taj Mahal type monstrosity that lends weight to the theory which suggests the more ridiculous the trophy, the more Mickey Mouse the tournament.

However along with this incredible collection and all the interesting artefacts from Real’s prodigious past, perhaps the most impressive and somewhat intimidating installation, is the relatively simple gallery of Los Blancos player’s past and present. The imposing faces of Roberto Carlos, Zizou, Ronaldo etc. stared down at me from the walls, a couple of days after such star names, with their own museum’s worth of medals, had been undone by the inexperienced likes of Flamini, Eboué and Fabregas. It was a poignant testament to the fickle unpredictability that can make a mere football match so flaming magical!

And to think we nearly didn’t make it to Madrid at all. With the sort of typical military planning which makes my pal Kev the perfect travelling companion for someone so totally useless as myself, we were hussled out of the door at 4.45am on Tuesday morning. Well actually Kev was waiting in the car, having already issued his standard threat that if I wasn’t down in a couple of minutes, he would leave us with the number of a local cab firm. It’s the knowledge that he’s 100 per cent serious which appears to be the only means of getting me to pull my finger out.

With my shambolic lifestyle and my perennial tardiness naturally it’s all my own fault but as ever, obviously I have to blame someone else. I threw the last couple of essentials, the toothbrush, the mobile charger, into my rucksack and flew out the door to the car, where Kev and Ro were waiting impatiently. We had loads of time as we headed through the empty East London streets and as Kev stopped at an all-nighter for some grub and water, I sat in the car, running through a check list of all the things I’d managed to forget in my haste.

There were some DVDs which we hadn’t watched yet that I’d left out to take with but this wasn’t a big deal as we could buy a couple aborad. Leaving my sunglasses behind might be no bad thing, I thought, as if I’d taken them it would’ve virtually guaranteed that the sun’s disappearing act for the duration.

Only the absence from my rucksack of my red woolen Arsenal scarf felt like a bit of a ricket. But I managed to reassure myself that of all the 76,000 odd footie fans packed into the Bernabeu and with a collection of some of the best players on this planet out on the pitch, surely the fates couldn’t possibly be quite so fickle as to leave the outcome of undoubtedly the most important match of the season for both teams, down to the fact that one dumb Gooner had neglected to wear his red wooly scarf?

Besides I hadn’t forgotten my lucky ’71 shirt. No matter what high-tech gobbledigook goes on the label, to my mind the modern replica shirts are, and always will be nylon and so this relatively ancient cotton version is the only replica top I’ll wear. However these days I tend to only get it out for special occasions, perhaps trying to conserve any inherent luck for when it’s really needed.

So we set off again and it wasn’t until about five minutes later when I happened to mention the fact that I was still thinking of what I might have left behind, that Kev happened to mention that all we really needed were our passports and match tickets. While I always carry my passport and usually have my away match tickets in my shoulder bag, it suddenly dawned on me to my horror that after all these years of waiting, our guaranteed entrance to the Bernabeu had been left behind on the bedside table.

I am sure Kev thought I was joking at first, but I eventually persuaded him to turn the car around, only a mile or two from the Blackwall Tunnel. Naturally I was thinking that I wouldn’t have forgotten them if I wasn’t being so pressured to get out the door, while Kev put his foot to the floor, whilst I assume recalling the reason I wasn;t perhaps his first choice of travelling company and Ro was sitting in the back wondering what she was doing living with such a complete schmock.

After all it’s far from the first game where I’ve walked out the door without the tickets – the last occasion I only remembered them at the airport, when it was too late and all the resulting aggravation getting into the ground was the reason I wasn’t going to leave without them on this occasion. So you’d have thought I’d have learnt my lesson by now! You could cut the atmosphere in the car with a knife

Still mercifully Kev’s overly cautious approach had ensured he’d allowed time for a flat tyre, a multiple pile up on the motorway, an earthquake and any other act of G-d which might delay us. So thankfully we made it to the airport in the nick of time and onto the plane, albeit a sight more stressed out than planned.

At least our early departure meant we were able to arrive in Madrid and check into our hotel, with a good few hours to relax before the game. Otherwise I would’ve probably ended up nodding out in the Bernabeu and might’ve been fast akip by the time Titi sent us all into seventh heaven.

We’d had some concerns about reaching our seats in the gods without aggravating Ro’s asthma. Yet it was alright on the night as we rode all the way up on a series of escalators, a literal mechanical ‘stairway to heaven’ so to speak. Stepping out onto the heights of the Bernabeu terracing for the first time is a breathtaking experience for even the most blasé footie fan. It’s the incredibly steep incline that causes you to catch your breath and even without any vertigo issues, I found myself instinctively grabbing on to the metal barriers for grim death.

A full house at the Camp Nou is no less impressive but I can recall feeling frustrated sitting in the gods when we played Barcelona. Without a roof, no matter how loud you holler, the noise of a few thousand Gooners just dissipated into the night air. There’s an additional benefit overhead at the Bernabeu, as they’ve installed a bank of powerful heaters that had sweaty Gooners shedding layers of winter clothing, as we worked up a head of steam, making ourselves heard. Call me deluded but I remain convinced that we had an impact on the game during the 20-minute period after Thierry’s tremendous goal.

I guess the Gooners right at the back were banging on the metal sheeting behind them. It was like the sound of a drum conducting an incessant mantra of “Arséne Wenger’s red & white army”. We might’ve waxed and waned in volume but our chant went on ad infinitum. Despite Real’s control of possession in their efforts to conjure up an equaliser, I got the feeling that we were somehow reaffirming the Arsenal’s desire to stand fast. Doubtless I was dreaming but I got the distinct sense that our song seemed to drain the 70,000 home fans and their side of every last shred of belief, as though success was our destiny that sensational night.

Right from the first whistle of the evening it seemed as if this was a match of such import to the two underachieving titans, that both were too terrified to appear from under their shell. Eventually it was the timidity of our opponents which offered us sufficient encouragement to prevail. Call me greedy, but like most other Gooners I am just a little gutted that we couldn’t capitalise on Real’s feckless efforts to put the outcome beyond doubt

With the home fans hotfooting it away from the scene of their side’s strangely introverted efforts, and our sarcastic chant of “Adios” ringing in their ear, it was great to see the so many pockets of Gooners dotted around the cavernous concourse. For once no one was concerned about being kept in. We were all intent on squeezing every last drop out of this delicious encounter, knowing at the back of our minds that there might not be too many more like it for some time to come, while serenading the stewards and the Spanish coppers with chants of “we’re not going home” and the equally unconvincing assertion that “we’re on our way to Paris”!

When we were eventually let out to wind our way down one of the two towers at either end of the ground, we were relieved to discover the escalators were operating in the opposite direction. Most amusing was the scene straight out of “March of the Penguins” at the bottom of each level, as the bodies piled off the moving stairway, bumping into one another and we all pigeon stepped our way around onto the next section. All you could hear around you was the last vestiges of croaky voices, with almost every Gooner having sung themselves completely hoarse.

Standing outside the massive stadium at ground level was the gaggle of board waving Travel Club and Flight Options stewards, directing day-trippers to their respective coaches amongst the long fleet lined up in the parking bays. I had some sympathy for those being herded back onto their transport to Madrid airport, followed by a tortuous trip home.Yet I guess that at least they were there on the night. Which is a helluva lot more than can be said for all those other Gooners, who will without doubt be kicking themselves for having missed out on such a marvelous memory.

We joined all those heading down into the Metro to travel the 3 or 4 stops back into the centre of the city. Many headed for a Cuban Bar opposite the ubiquitous Irish Pub, where if you check out some of the photos on Arsenal World, you will see how a small corner of the Spanish capital was turned into a Highbury home from home, as many celebrated on into the very wee hours.

I wish I could say that I joined in the revellry and even as a non-drinker, it seemed fitting to raise a glass or two in honour of such a special occasion. However I have to admit that as the Metro reached the stop for our hotel on route, Róna and I had invested so much of ourselves in the 90 minutes of the match that we were both feeling physically and emotionally spent.

So as a shamefaced, party-pooping, interminably unsociable bugger, I’m embarrassed to inform you that we slipped off back to our little hotel, to breathe that sigh of relief as we slipped our boots off and put our feet up, to catch the highlights on TV, with believe it or not, a celebratory cuppa. To be honest I was half afraid to fall asleep, lest I woke up to find it was all a dream! I only know that a particularly good night was had by all because I was woken at 4am by the bleep of my mobile, with a drunken text message from Kev, our travelling companion, to warn me that he didn’t think he was capable of making it back to the hotel

By the way for anyone planning on going to Madrid in the future, we were fortunate to find this fabulous little hotel. Hotel Abalu is a small family run gaff in the centre of town with only ten rooms, each of which is individually decorated (apparently by the same decorator who did the five times more expensive Hotel Urban), with flat-screen TVs, wi-fi internet all for less than 50 quid a night for a double!

With the wi-fi internet, I was able to settle down the following night to watch the moneybags Blues v Barca on our flash TV, whilst tuning the computer into the live commentary on the internet.The only problem with this was that the audio was lagging about ten minutes behind the pictures, so I soon gave up. So much for the wonders of modern technology, not to mention so much for patriotism, as it seemed ironic to think of all the Madrid fans hollering for Chelsea to win and all the Gooners gagging for the British side to get stuffed.

Obviously Barca’s win was the icing on the cake for our Spanish outing. I only wish one of our teenagers would start producing the sort of influential performance we witnessed from Lionel Messi, who’s rapidly replaced AC Milan’s Kaka as about my favourit foreign star.

Absolutely the worst thing about Thierry’s tremendousgoal in the Bernabeu was the fact that for the following couple of days, both Spain’s sporting papers lead with stories lauding Henry’s talents. To be honest I am not really sure what a “flat-track bully” is, but I think Titi proved last Tuesday night (was it only a week ago, as it already feels like a magical memory from months back) that he’s certainly not guilty of being anything of the sort.

I love the way the Spanish sports papers analyze every single aspect of the game, breaking everything down with diagrams and statistics. Not that I can make head nor tail of half of them, with my pigeon Spanish, but it drives me stark raving barmy that the serious footie fan is so well catered for by the written media on the Continent, where all we get is gobby headlines writ large across the Red Tops, with plenty of photos to portray the latest bit of juicy gossip.

Whenever I pore over the dedicated sports dailies in Spain and Italy I get very jealous of the sort of detailed coverage football fans are treated to in such countries and can’t for the life of me understand why none of the media magnates have managed to make a go of one over here. Although I guess these days with everything that is available on the internet, it is all the more unlikely but personally I would love to be able to sit over breakfast the day after every Arsenal match and be able to read this sort of analysis of almost every kick of the game, instead of the collection of tittle-tattle that we usually end up ticking into in our tabloid trash.

It was back down to earth with a bump at Blackburn with our unsuccessful attempts to earn the right to be involved in such glamorous European occasions next season, However I have to be honest and tell you that it was hard to get too upset about another lacklustre effort on the pitch, as it’s not every week that I find myself travelling to an away game at the wheel of a gleaming red 400 bhp Ferrari Spyder.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to Blackburn, as I certainly didn’t fancy driving on my tod and I have a whole heap of trust issues about travelling to footie on a train - you wouldn’t mind the extortionate prices so much if they were guaranteed to get you there and back as stated on the timetables. But when I think of the rail network in this country, I am reminded of yet another of my old man’s favourite jokes about the chap in a restaurant who asks for the maitre d., in order to voice his concerns. “I have two complaints about this restaurant, firstly the food tastes like crap and what’s more the portions aren’t big enough!

So I was over the proverbial moon when a West Upper pal offered to drive me down to Ewood Park in just about the most beautiful car on the planet. And if this wasn’t good enough, my pleasure meter was flickering in a similar range to the speedo, when he pulled over onto the hard shoulder of the M6 toll road and invited me take the wheel for much of the remainder of the journey. With its paddle gear change and stuck to the tarmac like glue, I had some inkling of the sort of fun involved in Michael Schumacher’s “work”. To be honest I was a little relieved to be able to return to just enjoying the ride, as we pulled over for petrol before leaving the motorway. With the roof off and the sun beaming down on our bonces for the last few miles, I was able to savour the experience, without panicking about having to park this beast in front of a large audience at Blackburn.

Having such a gorgeous motor does have its advantages. As we neared the ground and with no obvious parking pitch in sight, my mate Stuart wondered whether he might offer a local householder a few quid to be able to leave the car on their drive. After all, who wouldn’t want a Ferrari parked up in front of their gaff. As it was we managed to find a pitch in a petrol station, where, after the chap organising the parking had given the car the once over, he arranged for the manager to move their humble vehicle slightly, so we could slip in beside it, in prideof place right by the exit and perfectly placed for a fast getaway (with none of the usual worries of being trapped in by the vehicles of those not in any hurry to get home). S’funny, no one offers to move their motor for my Fiesta!

Unbelievably (in these money grabbing times) you can queue up at the Ewood Park on the day and obtain a cash refund for any spare tickets. As a result, not only was I able to give the readies we received for my ticket to the pal I’d travelled North with, so we could sit together in his two seats, but the kindly lady at the counter was happy to do a straight swap for two together in the upper tier. Sadly Mark Hughes’ Blackburn weren’t nearly so charitable as the Rover’s box office and our improved pitch behind the goal turned out to be the last result of a yet another lamentable Premiership awayday.

Once inside we were forced to endure a further repeat episode of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from a team which was totally unrecognisable from the one that triumphed over Real. It’s obvious that this brittle Arsenal side is more suited to European football, without the pressing game that exposes our lack of backbone. Looking up from a lowly 7th, many optimistic Gooners are hoping to have the last laugh on Spurs by winning the Champions League and thereby denying them a highly coveted place in this competition next season.

Even if we should dispose of Madrid, there’ll still be 3 quality teams between us and the big-eared prize. At some stage we’re going to have to prove we can roll our sleeves up with the best of them and demonstrate the sort of spirit that’s been so patently lacking in our woeful Premiership campaign to date.

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