I don’t often keep memorabilia such as tickets. Programmes, yes, but a ticket? The match has to have real significance or a memory which brings a smile. This has both; Arsenal’s first away match in Europe following the rescinding of the ban on English clubs and a knowing smile. What happens on the road trip, stays on the road trip. Unless it is harmless of course.
In context the tie was over. Arsenal had been expected to win but not quite at the canter which materialised. Four Alan Smith goals – equalling the feats of Dean Saunders (I think) for Liverpool in the same week – had settled the first leg, 6 – 1 at Highbury.
Understandably we set off from The Arsenal Tavern in good stead and high spirits. Early morning beers and a fried English breakfast had set the mood. The first hint at trouble came when the coach drivers stopped at a petrol station outside of Dover to buy a European Road Atlas. A taster of what was to come. Actually, it was in France that the real picture emerged.
Idle chat gave way to concern as the coach weaved its way through the back streets of Lille, bemused looks from the locals as The Italian Job style coach bedecked in Arsenal flags weaved it way through the twists and turns. Eventually the drivers were coaxed back to the motorway and continued to wreak havoc, attempting to take every exit to ensure that they did not miss the right one.
And then Luxembourg.
The Grand Duchy did not have the most benevolent of feelings toward English football fans, at least the border guards didn’t. Bribes were called for, not monetary but in the universal language of the fan, metal lapel badges. Five.
Luxembourg turned into Belgium, we knew this because tarmac gave way to concrete roads and the awful soundtrack which accompanied seemingly unending harvests of turnips.
Nightfall arrived in the Black Forest and eventually we arrived in Vienna on the day of the game. To be greeted by several battalions of the Viennese riot police and their dogs. Not the yappy types either. At least that was the view from the right side of the coach. Those of us on the left saw trestle tables and small vans, with beer. At a football ground. And locals only too happy to sell it to us as the police were quite happy to contain us around the Praterstadion.
Which was a stadium from another planet as far as this young man was concerned. Those who went to Shrewsbury on a wet Wednesday night in the FA Cup the season before will understand when I say the facilities at Highbury had more in common with Gay Meadow than the Praterstadion. At the time it was an outstanding stadium.
The match? Appalling, a blur to be honest. My recollection is that Arsenal created next to no chances as, according to David O’Leary, George Graham had decided to use the match as practice at defending a lead in european ties. The 0 – 1 defeat was, if I recall correctly, thoroughly deserved.
Afterwards we tried for a beer in the city centre, a patient taxi driver took us here, there and everywhere at no charge before we remembered a row of bars and cafes not far from the stadium. Or knocking shops as we would discover. Welcoming hosts, who minded not that all we wanted was a beer. At discounted prices as well. Never more than a couple in one place so’s as not to outstay our welcome.
And Mark’s carrier bag, his change of clothes that he forgot in the first two or three bars and had to return to retrieve. A shy lad, he almost died as we walked from number four to a proper cafe. A young woman dressed in nothing more than a basque chased him down the street to return it. The Benny Hill-esque scene left the remainder of our quintet a dishevelled heap of hysterical laughter in the street.
He made his way back to join us in conversations about the ties and football in general. Welcomed English fans back, no-one that I could recall offering dissension at Uefa’s decision to overturn their ban.
The journey back was a haze to be honest. Sleep overran most of us, save for those whose job was to ensure that the drivers made it back to Calais. They did. It remains the only trip I have ever been on where the drivers had a whip round and bought several cases of lager to be split between the navigators.
The last I remember of the trip is returning to Waterloo in the early hours of the Friday morning, walking across a deserted concourse ahead of the early bird commuters arrival. I don’t recall getting home to Guildford or anything else that day other than waking up to the theme tune of Thunderbirds some twelve hours later.
A trip to remember. And the last time I ever caught a coach to a football match…