When Arsenal Were Great: One-Nil In The Bernabeu - 8 Years Ago Today
We set out for the Spanish capital with two tickets between too many of us. Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu was a dream not to be missed, regardless of the form a makeshift Arsenal were in, or the fact that the Galacticos had won ten in a row going into the night.
On the afternoon of the game, we hung around outside the empire to ascertain the ticket situation. An English tout wanted too much, €250 each if I recall, and we weren't yet that desperate. A local man shuffled towards us. Making it clear he had what we needed as best he could through the language barrier, he led us to a cafe in a street just opposite the Bernabéu. Inside, local men filled the stools at the tapas bar, oblivious to the entrance of outsiders.
Our man went behind the counter and unraveled a stream of tickets, he must have had a hundred. The price was agreed at €150.00 each, despite reservations as to the legitimacy of the tickets, given their cheap paper appearance in comparison to the textured briefs sold at Highbury. The risk was worth taking, but none of us were certain we'd get in. None of us, that is, apart from the two who approached the box office an hour or two before kick off to collect their tickets which had been left by them by some chap called Raul. James Ward, now British Tennis No.2, was training with Juan Carlos Ferrero, who had pulled in the remarkable favour for his young pupil.
Arsenal fans gathered outside a corner bar opposite the Bernabéu, drinking in the occasion when a group of Ultras appeared at the end of the road and began raining debris down on the travelling contingent. A glass bottle smashed into the ankle of a friend, which ballooned with swelling as Police dispersed the crowd and we approached the turnstiles.
The electric turnstile accepted our tickets without delay, and we went to find our seat in the home end. As we entered the arena, one tier after another came into view, climbing to the sky majestically, taking our breath with it. We were situated in the lower corner, Ultras to our left behind the goal, our 'friends of Raul' in the first row of the upper tier to our right, royalty for the night.
Warmed by the heaters on the roof above us, our feet crunched through the layer of nut shells disposed on the floor as we tried to find some way of believing that a back four of Flamini, Senderos, Toure and Eboue could contain Zidane, Guti, Ronaldo and Beckham sufficiently enough to ensure the tie wasnt over by the return leg at Highbury. We wondered how long Jonathan Woodgate would last, as a rare start was not surpisingly thwarted by injury within minutes.
Thierry Henry picks up the ball just inside Madrid's half, pass one challenge, then another, at the opposite end we try to suppress our support despite it being obvious we're in the wrong end. Thierry pushes forward still, into the box, finishing clinically with his weaker foot across Casillas into the far corner. He wheels away to salute the away section, high up in the God's, as we rise to our feet in disbelief in the home section, the locals allowing us to enjoy the moment with their own respect for the goal which has just been scored.
Cesc Fabregas was born that night. Inspired by his surroundings to excel against esteemed opponents to such a level that the home crowd applauded the young Catalan as he was substituted. I remember the deafening call for Raul to enter the fray, if ever a set of fans have made a substitution, it was then. It seemed improbable that the defence would hold onto the famous scoreline, surely a Galactico would do something at some point to ruin the fairytale?
With the whistle blown we took to the metro, it felt a little hostile without boiling over. It was impossible not to smile. Arsenal fans gathered in an Irish pub near our hotel, giving countless renditions of 'One-Nil in the Bernabeu' to the tune of U2's 'Vertigo'. We celebrated a famous win, which tasted sweeter due to the bet we'd placed at Gatwick before we departed, predicting the scorer and the scoreline, and all but paying for the trip.
Trophies are missed, but seven years ago today, that night in Madrid maintains its magic as much as any victorious Cup Final I've attended.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @TheArsenal_