In my first away-day as an Arsenal fan on my 16th birthday, I was present in Paris for the club's debut Champions League Final. A great experience, but one that ended in tears…
As a teenager and a prescribed ‘Junior Gunner’, I managed to get to Highbury for a couple of Arsenal matches as I was growing up. But those home fixtures – often heavy wins against lesser sides or insignificant League Cup games – pale into comparison with the most poignant memory I have of supporting Arsenal so far. That was making the trip to Paris for Arsenal’s Champions League Final with Barcelona.
It was to be played on my 16th birthday, and my Dad had managed to swindle two tickets from someone he knew at work. I was slap bang in the middle of a tough GCSE schedule, but luckily didn’t have an exam for a few days. Having ignored the teacher’s protestations for me to stay home and ‘revise’, my Mum came round to my Dad’s line of argument and off we went to France for the biggest game of our lives.
Barca of 2006 were a great side, but our Arsenal team was not bad itself, with many players from the Invincibles vintage still in the line up. In terms of influential personnel, Cesc Fabregas had replaced Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp had been left out in favour of a slightly defensive 4-5-1 on route to the final, but we were still enjoying the best of Thierry Henry. It was a big ask, but Arsenal were not huge underdogs. The Blaugrana were favourites, but the travelling fans definitely felt it was possible.
So my old man and I set off at 4am the day before the game, catching a cab to North London before a horrendous coach journey pitched up in suburban Paris at about 10 in the morning. Feeling rough and hungry, we bought our metro passes and tubed it into the city. Whilst I have no doubt many fans started boozing right then, there was nearly 10 hours until kickoff and we were shattered. So we picked up some breakfast and set up camp under the Eiffel Tower, promising each other just a quick nap before pre-game prep started in earnest.
It was to be played on my 16th birthday, and my Dad had managed to swindle two tickets from someone he knew at work.
Several hours later we woke up, dreary but refreshed, and forgetting to actually go up the Eiffel Tower we headed towards the fan park. The more pre-match previews I read, the more I began to believe that winning tonight was Arsenal’s destiny. “We deserve it”, I kept telling my Dad. He was quieter than usual in response.
The fan park at the stadium was pretty good. I guess you usually only see them on TV and never really catch what’s going on, but the one at the Parc de Princes certainly got my approval. We played human-size table football, took part in the Heineken penalty shoot-out and sipped luke-warm beer as we ticked down the clock. But it helped pass the time you spend nervously awaiting kick-off for such a stupendously important game. After pleading with another travelling English father-and-son for two programmes, (the official vendors had sold out by the time we remembered) we entered the ground wishing for success.
Everyone knows what happened from here. Tense start, Jens Lehmann red-card, Robert Pires’ chance in a showpiece final cut short. Manuel Almunia on. The odds had racked up in our opponents favour. But that just made the opening goal even more incredible. When big Sol Campbell headed home Thierry Henry’s free-kick in the 37th minute, we all started to believe. Perhaps against the odds with a man down we could hold out against the best side in Europe.
However, despite fighting valiantly for 75 minutes, it just wasn’t to be. In the second half on came Juliano Belletti and Henrik Larsson to devastating effect. Eventually we lost 2-1, as any simmer of hope evaporated from Red and White eyes. We had lost the Champions League Final, and to make matters worse in the back of our minds we had lost our star player. Henry’s outrage against Barca’s style and tactics in the aftermath of the game did little to convinced hardened fans that he was set for the Nou Camp. Less than 12 months later he had completed his move to Barcelona. Perhaps if we had won he may have never left, but we didn’t and he did leave.
Tense start, Jens Lehmann red-card, Robert Pires’ chance in a showpiece final cut short. Manuel Almunia on. The odds had racked up in our opponents favour.
Little words were exchanged between my old man and myself on the journey home. As my 50-year-old father drifted off to sleep tired and weary, I fired up my PSP in an ill-fated attempt to win the Champions League for my beloved club. Little did I know at the time, we were to repeat the same situation five years later at Wembley after a dismal Carling Cup final, but I am not embarrassed to admit tears rolled down my face as we left the French capital. What made matters worse was that my handheld repeat of the final finished 1-0 to Arsenal with an Alexander Hleb goal. You know it’s a video game when that happens.
We arrived back in London the next morning, awakening to the realisation that our club had not won the most prestigious tournament on earth but had instead faltered at the last stage, with the vocal travelling support wasted upon a runners-up medal. Instead of feeling like a champion, I had woken to the bare fact that I still had half my GCSE’s to sit. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
It was the end of an era. We didn’t know it at the time, but a dark cloud was to arch over our famous club, and we were to live in a seven-year trophy-less shadow that is yet to be broken. In the following years the rest of that winning team from ’04 was dismantled, as Wenger put his faith in youth.
Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie all came to the fore in the years following 2006′s near-success. But Arsenal have suffered such an embarrassing run since that moment of Parisian despair that it like feels light years ago.
With Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and the class of 2013, perhaps such a moment will be realised again, but for now Gunners fans are more worried about van Persie leaving than dreaming of such a far-fetched possibility. That was our chance to show the world what Arsene Wenger had conjured up with his post-Emirates move project. But even in its unfulfilled achievement, I still remember the day I thought we would be European Champions.
Congratulations for this season must go to Chelsea, the team who grabbed the opportunity to become the first Champions League winners from London. In a way I was happy for Blues fans, fully appreciating how great their successful trip to Munich must have been. I only hope to witness the moment Arsenal grasp such grandeur. Well, you can dream can’t you?
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