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Wednesday 26 April 2006

We Just Sunk The Yellow Submarine

Hi folks

I got a call this afternoon from the Irish Examiner asking for 700 words on yesterday's trip by 6pm, which is bloody marvelous as it should just about pay for my outing. However having not slept since my arrival back at 5am this morning, I'm feeling so mentally frazzled that it was hard for me to feel sufficiently enthusiastic to do such an incredible occasion proper justice. So I am posting this blog entry because I will probably pass out for the next 24 hours, by which time I'll no doubt want to add several thousand words on the entire "joyful" journey (see below!)

Meanwhile it was already 30 miins past my deadline when I came to the last few sentences so you'll have to forgive me if I've had to hurry the ending. What's more, can you imagine, I was literally typing the closing words, when I got a warning on my screen of the sort "you are already using this copy of Microsoft Word and as a result it will now quit"

This threw me into a major panic. If I clicked OK, was it going to quit immediately and I was about to lose the entire piece (I simply couldn't face the prospect of having to start again from scratch), or at best I might lose the last couple of paragraphs, written since Word last did an autosave. I sat here for a few minutes trying to think of something I could do, hitting a few keys in vain, hoping I might find a solution. And then breathed a massive sigh of relief when I finally sucked up the courage to hit "OK", only to be presented with a "Save now" window (thank heavens!!)

Actually I got a similarly gut-wrenching feeling last night, which I forgot to mention below, when with a couple of minutes left on the clock, some Gooners nearby felt sufficiently confident of the outcome, that they sang the "We're on our way to Paris" ditty for the first time all night. To my mind it seemed an incredibly impetuous action, as it was as if they were daring fate to intercede and I was left wishing I'd not just muttered "schhh" under my breath a few seconds later, when I wanted to brain them all as the ref blew up for the pen.

I swear that if we'd ended up going out last night, I'd have felt this bunch of Gooners were exclusively to blame!

According to David Dein (on Sky) there are 23,000 season ticket holders and only 20,500 tickets. Moreover there are all the bond holders and those who have executive boxes (who I believe are guaranteed something like 10 ticket to every away game, so I guess they'd be offered a similar amount for a final?). Not to mention all those extremely affluent Gooners who have signed up for such packages as Diamond Class at the new stadium. Can you imagine stumping up £25k to the Arsenal and then being denied a final ticket? So for the next couple of weeks I will be sitting here with many other season ticket holders, fretting that I might be amongst the extremely disappointed ones who's applications won't be successful.

Actually I am pretty confident that my membership of the Away Ticket Scheme should see me alright but I am worried we won't get a ticket for Rona. Can you imagine, we've both been on the away ticket scheme since it started and we gave Ro's membership up on the very season we make it to a European Cup FInal! Still according to the FAQs on the Arsenal web site, the tickets will be allocated according to the number of away games attended and in this respect they take into account season 2004/05 and 05/06. So we will have everything crossed in the hope that the fact that Ro had a ticket for every away game last season should give her sufficient credits to merit a ticket.

I'll be sitting at my computer virtually 24 hours, constantly checking my e-mail, waiting for the response to having registered my interest. As apparently although a response in the affirmative will guarantee a ticket, it's a free for all, first come, first served after that. And why will I not be the least bit surprised that no matter how quick one is off the mark when this happens, there won't be any tickets left other than those priced £43 because all the best seats will have been creamed off for the "not what you know, but who you knows"!! Above all, most gauling to every fan of the two teams to make it, is that something like 30 odd thousand tickets will be allocated amongst "the football family". I wonder what proportion of these will end up in the hands of those looking forward to the corporate jolly, who have no real interest in either team, or in the hands of the scummy scalpers who will be able to skin us all alive, knowing how desperate we will all be to be present in person. Well at least three, as someone has just told me about three which have been bought already at a cost of £1200 each!!

But I had better his the send button now, before slipping completely into the arms of Morpheus and will wish all those applying for final tickets best of luck (so long as you don't get ours :-)

Big Love

We Just Sunk The Yellow Submarine

Standing on a small corner of foreign terracing that was destined to become forever Arsenal, as dusk fell on a balmy spring evening, there were big fat Gooners taking the wrappers off proportionately sized cigars. Intermingled with the aromatic cigar smoke, one caught the occasional fragrant whiff of ‘whacky baccy’, as many of the travelling faithful found their own individual means of marking such a special occasion. If only I’d set aside my own Cuban corona to celebrate the birth of a child, I’d have definitely tucked it into a pocket to take to Spain. It was that sort of night!

After schlepping all over the Continent this past decade or so, we all deserved to be standing there, sucking on a ‘Romeo y Julieta’, lapping up the semi-final high, awaiting the start of the 90 minutes of football which might at long last affirm the top table status of Arsène Wenger and his team.

Prior to such a pitifully uninspiring performance, the cigar lighting might’ve been somewhat premature. Nevertheless despite several heart-stopping incidents and the dramatic 90th minute denouement, when with Germanic reliability, our crash cart keeper revived this Champions League baby with his enormous paddles, it all came good in the end. It’s a tired cliché but I can’t imagine any other similar deliveries bringing genuine tears to the eyes of so many Gooner grown men.

Earlier in the day the omens had been decidedly dodgy. Initially my Gatwick departure appeared a good choice, when the pilot advised of us of the fog at Stansted, which suggested we might beat many other fans to our destination. That was until our plane was delayed, first because it was too full of fuel and then when it broke down. After being stuck on the ground for 4 hours, awaiting the delivery and fitting of a new hydraulic part, we were less worried about getting one up on Gooner mates and more concerned with actually making it to the game.

All thoughts of leisurely afternoon, laying in the sunshine on a Valencian beach had long since vanished. But while fellow travellers were being nicely toasted down below, even the prospect of a pre-match ‘cerveza’ and a bite to eat began to wane, as we found ourselves circling in a cloudless Spanish sky for a further 30 minutes, with the flaps fully extended, trying to burn sufficient fuel for us to be able to land.

It was 5pm before we finally alighted the coaches on the sea-front and I was gutted when I realised quite what a gorgeous afternoon we’d wasted. Worse still everywhere was shut. The locals’ siesta was only just ending when we set-off for the stadium an hour later. Either our totally cocked-up outing was a portent of worse to come, or the miserably tedious calm before a memorably marvellous storm.

My nightmare trip had seemed like a good idea at the time, as I’d assumed my prospects of securing a precious ticket would be improved by travelling with the official party. Yet in addition to our limited allocation of 1100 tickets, there was at least another 1000 Gooners who’d obtained tickets elsewhere. But if a Champions League semi was a big deal for us visitors, the same was true in spades for the 40,000 Spaniards living in this small town, 70km from Valencia

I was dying to attempt a crack in Spanish about a free Spain since Franco’s demise, as the coppers made a concerted effort to herd us all together as we headed towards the stadium. But I bit my tongue in fear of a bop from an over-zealous baton and limited my protests to the odd sheep-like “baah”.

However with music blaring from a lorry, tied to which was an enormous inflatable yellow submarine, the atmosphere wasn’t the least bit intimidating and so I soon escaped the border-collie attentions of our escort. Mingling with the locals in a bar, as I sought to get some grub into my belly, the mood felt more like some sort of fiesta. In fact they were all so friendly that I felt quite sorry for pooping their party before the night was out.

Cream-crackered even before kick-off, I honestly cannot recall watching a more exhausting match. There was always going to be an instinctive tendency to sit-back and attempt to protect our slim single goal advantage. But considering it was the biggest game in most of the Gunner’s young lives, I couldn’t believe they were quite so passive. As a result, I spent virtually the entire match alternating between imploring the Arsenal to “get out” and watching the clock, as the seconds ticked by agonisingly slowly. It seemed as if there was more chance of willing past the sands of time, than witnessing any sort of test of the home team’s keeper!

Mercifully our own goal minder passed his with flying colours. In light of the huge banner behind Lehmann’s goal, expressing the home fans hopes for a fair referee, the award of a last minute penalty might’ve been recompense for the previous match. The moment Jens pulled of his save, I immediately thought of the Spurs fans back home, who must’ve hit the ceiling when the ref pointed to the spot and how they were floored a few seconds later. The contrasting peaks of euphoria and troughs of despair encapsulate everything that is beautiful about this game of ours. Whilst they continue to endure the sagas of Dot Cotton, we sang our songs of joy, suggesting they can stick 4th place where the sun don’t shine!

Amongst all the celebratory TV pictures of Arsenal fans rightly making fools of themselves, I imagine you won’t have seen the scenes outside the stadium afterwards, where the locals stood serenading the heroics of a home side that’s travelled from non-league obscurity, to the penultimate pinnacle in football, in a few short years.

Considering how the fates seem to have smiled upon us in Europe this season, unfortunately for Villareal they came up against an Arsenal side for whom at long last “the force” appears to be with us. Roll on Paris!