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Wednesday 7 May 2014

From Russia With Anything But Love

As with the vast majority of my anecdotes, I'm fairly sure I've already used this one, in one of my two books and so if you've a better memory than me (not much of a feat nowadays with my colander-like grey matter), please forgive me if you've previously read this particular tale.

However, with the media constantly bombarding us with disturbing images from the Ukraine and with disconcerting reports of the sort of testosterone-fuelled aggression that appears to be terrifyingly reminiscent of the same sort of lunatic nationalistic fervour that was largely responsible for creating the unstoppable momentum, which resulted in political leaders careering headlong towards the two previous world wars, my thoughts inevitably turn towards the welfare of Vlad, the Gooner pal that I met in Kiev many moons back.

Vlad now resides in the eastern city of Luhansk, where pro-Russian thugs have recently taken over administrative buildings, demanding a referendum, according to reports I've seen on Al Jazeera tonight. Therefore, presumably with the prospect of more violence on his doorstep, I've been worrying about Vlad's safety and recollecting more peaceful times, when the two of us first met.

With Vlad being a member of the Arsenal mailing list, I arranged to hook up with him when I travelled to the away leg of our Champions League encounter with Dynamo Kiev, back in the days when Arsène's teams were accustomed to winning trophies and Dynamo's front line included the impressive likes of Shevchenko & Rebrov (I think there were subsequently several wisecracks about them mistakenly purchasing the wrong striker at White Hart Lane).

I should really refer back to my own book, as my memory has doubtless dimmed with the passing of time and I will otherwise probably be guilty of gilding the lily somewhat, but from what I recall, Vlad and I made our way to the Valeriy Lobanovskyi stadium on the evening before the match itself, in order to watch the Gunners train on the pitch.

You need to bear in mind that despite having supported the Arsenal for many years, Vlad had never actually seen them perform in the flesh and I suppose the same was true for many folk in Kiev, since there was a substantial turnout that night. However with me having the excuse of my weekly column in the Irish Examiner, I was determined to blag my way in as a member of the press, so as to be able to attend the pre-match press conference.

Vlad was understandably nervous but I gave him my piddly little Cannon camera and assured him that he would be able to accompany me as my photographer. However obviously I'd neglected to think this sham through and so when we arrived at the ground and I asked Vlad to explain our circumstances to the local coppers, they told him that I needed to produce some form of accreditation.

The only thing I had on my person with a photo on it was my England Supporters Club membership card (long since lapsed) and so with as much confidence as I could muster, I passed this to the plod, in the hope that their ability to read English was matched by their incomprehension of the spoken word.

I must admit that I was more than a little nervous about the possibility that folks have been shot for far lesser crimes than attempting to pass oneself of as a footie journalist in Kiev (and I'm sure we can all think of more than the odd genuine member of the media rat pack who deserve lining up against a wall!). But while I wouldn't have been that bothered if they'd seen through my farcical guise, I would've been very disappointed for Vlad, as there would likely be many more opportunities for me to hobknob with our players and manager in the future, but for him, this might well prove to be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Mercifully, somehow my England Supporters Club membership card did the trick and after joining the few thousand people freezing their cods off, watching the Gunners train, we not only wangled our way into the press conference but we were also able to rub shoulders with the players as they made their way to and from the dressing room.

If I can find them, I will dig out the evidence to verify this tale, by way of the photos that I took of Vlad, with his arm draped across the shoulder of some of our heroes and decorate this post with them at a later date (yeh sure, as I always attest, if procrastination was an International sport, I would be England captain!) - or if you are that desperate, please feel perfectly free to buy my book as I'm fairly sure that I included one of the photos of Vlad with the Gunners in there.

I distinctly recall the nightmare of having to choose the pictures for my two books, since I presume that printing colour photos is a particularly expensive part of the publication process. I spent an eternity trying to whittle my pics down and squeezing as many as possible into the far too limited number of pages. On the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words, if I'd had my choice, I would've included as many pages of photos, as the far too numerous pages of words!

And by the same token, despite having to discard loads of amazing photos, for example from the many we took of the Town Hall parade at the end of the season (here's hoping we finally have a trophy to merit a long awaited repeat procedure this month?), I simply had to include one of the images of Vlad because his face truly was a picture of incredulity, since he was so blown away to find himself standing side by side with so many of the Arsenal's stars.

Sadly this is not such a common event nowadays, with access to the Gunners so restricted that we must content ourselves with the limited contact via the auspices of Twitter. But back then it was still a fairly regular occurrence (especially with my Irish Examiner credentials). Nevertheless, such was the vicarious thrill of being able to savour this memorable occasion through Vlad's eyes that our evening proved incredibly satisfying and far more memorable than the miserable defeat in the pouring rain the following night.

I still have my obligatory souvenir, by way of my Astrakhan Ushanka (Russian army hat) which gets an outing to keep my ears warm at matches whenever the temperature plummets (and which has probably been feeding an army of moths in our wardrobe for the past decade or so!). Yet while the number of Champions League outings has proved so profuse in recent years that it's become nigh on impossible to distinguish one European jolly from another, I will never forget the trip to the Ukrainian capital, if only for this absolutely wonderful incident and the intense pleasure of being able to provide Vlad with such a marvelous experience.

Be sure to keep the head down that holds these memories Vlad and to ensure that you and your loved ones stay safe during such disturbing times.

Big Love


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