As the lights went out on another Champions League campaign, the uncertainty as to when Arsenal will switch them back on again sent me back to being thirteen minutes away from completing football.
I still contemplate lodging an appeal with UEFA to justly award the 2004 Champions League to its rightful winners. FC Porto standing on the podium in place of the Invincibles still rankles, but not like that night in Paris, or, for me, that morning in Las Vegas, in May 2006.
The boys had booked our holiday the previous September. I jumped in with disregard for the football calendar, and certainly without consideration for the date of Champions League Final. We'd upgraded from the fish-bowl, shit pits of Faliraki and Malia. Five days in New York City was to be followed by the same in Las Vegas.
The realisation of what I was to mss crept up on me with each passing round. I went to the Bernabeu and marvelled at one of the great away days. I witnessed the most exciting of goalless draw in the return leg and was in Turin for the Quarter Final with Juventus, after Cesc Fabregas dethroned Patrick Vieira under a gloriously floodlit Highbury.
"We're going to Paris, we're on our way", sang the travelling Gooners to an empty stadium shared only with small, scattered fires left by the home support. I couldn't join in. What should have been a moment filled only with joy was mixed with a happy regret. There was still the semi-final and Villarreal to overcome, but it was now inevitable. There, on the ageing terraces of the Stadio delle Alpi, with The Old Lady frustrated and dismissed, I accepted Sod's Law.
A late penalty for the yellow submarines was not going to stop me missing Arsenal in the Champions League Final.
If this sounds a little selfish, it's probably because it is. The thought of Arsenal winning the Champions League without me was horrible. It didn't mean I didn't want us to beat Barcelona in Paris. Of course I did, it meant the world. I just knew that a part of me would always carry the ache of not being there.
I reconciled with this regret by ensuring Dad had my ticket for the Final. It was around the time of his 50th birthday. If I couldn't be there, I was somewhat proud that he would be. He'd been waiting longer and gave me Arsenal in the first place, taking me to Highbury since I was four or five. He'd sit me on (and through) the curved top railings of the old Junior Gunners section in the West Stand, a flask of hot Ribena warming the winter. He deserved it.
After five days falling in love with NYC, our first morning in Las Vegas was that of a day belonging to the European Cup Final. Kick off converted to 11.45am Neveda time. The previous night hadn't ended much before, but I awoke sprightly, opening the curtains from a room high in the Mandalay Bay. Looking out towards the strip, hangovers banished with insignificance.
I'd identified a pub in which to watch the game, The Crown and Anchor, three miles off the strip on East Tropicana Avenue. The wobbler that I am, we were in a cab and in the pub far earlier than needed. By kick off time the pub was packed full of Arsenal, save for one Barcelona fan who thought a British pub the ideal place to watch his team. We'll call him 'Stupid'.
Lehman is sent off, the worse possible start in the biggest of games. Sod was applying his law once more. We've no chance now. Pires bows out centre stage, a cruel goodbye, but a change that seems to work. The ten men in yellow hold strong, and f*** me we've nicked a goal. The pub erupts, hearts burst. Dad's welling up in Paris, but there's too long to go. No chance. Blow the f***ing whistle. The referee does, but only for half time. The game restarts, but not the clock. The grains of sand refused to drain. Its agony. Henry has chances to make it two nil. Seemingly empty, he misses both. It's p***ing down in Paris. It's f***ing boiling here. The clock is now moving, slowly. "Stop looking at your f***ing watch." Two hours after Lehman saw red, time displays 75:00. If we can get here, keeping a clean sheet for three hours with ten men, why not hold out a bit longer?
Almunia in the rain forgets he has a near post. Twice. 'Stupid' is enjoying the turnaround a little too much for a man on his own, his feelings so conflicting with everyone else around him.
I remember immediately thinking that we might never come so close again.
We slope out of the pub into the afternoon heat of the Desert, drained. There are no cabs available. My Dad and cousin walk away from the dream in the heaviest of dark rains over Paris, as fireworks explode into the sky above the utopia left behind.
We take a dry, long, walk of 'what if' back to the strip. We pause for grief at a bus stop and take a seat in reflection. I put forward that losing in such a late manner makes it worse. If we're going to lose a European Cup Final, I'd rather do so by conceding two goals early on and being outplayed. Plenty of time to accept the result before it's confirmed. The fall isn't so hard having not reached the heady heights of desperate hope.
"But then you wouldn't have had those seconds after Sol scored. We lost, but we'll always have that moment. Would you want to be without that?".
Years later, it's easier to split the contrasting feelings of that Vegas morning. By diluting their relation to each other I can look back fondly on Arsenal going one up in the European Cup Final, and deal with the lament of the closing moments as if was an entirely different game.
I've tried to avoid all footage of the game since, it pulls it all back together, twists the knife and shits on your day with that picture of Henry walking past the trophy.
Is it better to have hoped, or is the hope which kills you?