EXORCISING THE GHOSTS OF MAY?
It’s 1980, a world as far away from today as the 1920s were to us then.
Yet all the same things existed just in different forms. 79/80 was my second full season, and every player was a hero, my best friend, and Mr Brady was the friend of friends. To me in those days, nearly everything in life was about Arsenal FC.
Arsenal that season played a phenomenal amount of games (70) and going into April and May the fixture list was so congested it seemed like we were always playing. And always one sub per game. We played four outstanding games (and torturous they were to listen to on the radio – especially game three) in our FA cup semi final v Liverpool, and we were burnt out and sterile in the final, against an equally boring and sterile West Ham side, on a dog-tired boiling day in May.
Watching Liam and the lads walking off dejected at the end said it all: everyone there was saying goodbye him (like Mr Ramsey, he was off to Juve) and despite the final league games to come against Wolves (we won 2-1), Boro (we lost 5-0) but we still had a game in mid-week, against Valencia and Mario Kempes, the king of the world cup in ’78. The Cup Winners Cup final.
Getting to the final had been special to me, seeing the 5-1 win against Gothenburg, discovering the strange names of places on the way to the final, Fenerbahce, Magdeburg (going past the city on the train sixteen years later brought back instant Arsenal CWC memories), the semi against Juve (I still have the ticket from the home leg), and recall the sinking feeling that 1-1 was not enough and asking how would Arsenal beat the incredible Juve line-up, in fortress Torino?
It was 0-0 for most of the game, and we were going out, and up stepped in minute 88 Mr Paul Vaessen and headed in a Rix cross and the stadium went silent (which was spooky on the radio). Juve fans started lighting fires on the terraces.
And that was it, we won.
What a feeling to be in the final. Four finals in my opening years. Then I thought this is what it would always be like (“How wrong you are” said the Years that followed). And the moment of jubilation was captured in the Arsenal handbook for the next season, with a photo of Terry Neill hugging Paul Vaessen.
Trouble was I had to go on a school trip to the Gower in Wales; London overspill kids wandering around in what was then a then small paradise. We departed on the Monday following the final v West Ham. Still smarting from the loss, but still hopeful with the Valencia game looming.
It came to the big night (14th of May) and this was even worse than listening to the radio, it was on the tv but we weren’t allowed to watch (why?), and they made no exception for me (cheers). I was so nervous it was horrible.We had to go to our bunks in the creepy dorm and mine was on the top, at the end. I was lying there with my mind flying in all sorts of directions. The teacher came in and came over and said it was still 0-0. Unfortunately a few bunks along, was a Spud. And the rancid potato had a radio. He kept it too himself so that only he could hear and would relay one or two things every now and then. It was late on at this point and it had gone to penalties. And you know what happened next, Rix missed, we lost and the Spud gloated and couldn’t stop going on about it. Big laughs.
I was so gutted I had tears in my eyes, and turned over and pulled the covers over my head and wept silently. What a lonely moment. To lose two finals in a week was such a soul-destroying feeling. I wished I could have just got up and bogged off somewhere else. Later I met one guy who was at the game and he confessed he sat down and fully cried at the end, so I wasn’t the only one with the waterworks. I heard it kicked off pretty badly after the game. Football’s that kind of weird game though, in that it brings emotions up which are always intense, probably because most of the game is ‘play’ rather than goals (frustration rather than relief)?
My brother sent me a bit of a match report later on a postcard, how O’Leary had crossed it to Alan Sunderland who scored but it was offside; how Liam had missed a penalty, Kempes too and Rix failed with the last one and how their goalkeeper moved around when the rules said it wasn’t allowed.
I can still remember most of the wording of that postcard, trying to change the words as if he had made a mistake and that really we had won. I did that a lot in those days. Denial doesn’t work though. Later, about thirty years later I saw the highlights on YouTube. Even then I watched it as if we would win.
Alas, we still lost.
That was the end of that opening Arsenal chapter for me. Arsenal seemed to fall apart for a few years, Brady was gone and the rest of the team soon broke up. But the Valencia game was always there, lingering like a ghost, for years I couldn’t even read the word ‘Valencia’ without feeling a kind of pain and frustration and the haunting of the Spud and his radio. A game I didn’t see live, but one that burnt into my mind as if I was there.
However, this week’s game isn’t the final, and neither team are the same; different stadiums, different type of athlete and a different world. It’s been a long, tough run in the EL – and somehow the season as a whole – and to speculate on any outcome is a bit futile on my part. And we know it depends on team selection and from there how we go in, or that seems the case of how AFC are operating at the moment? Plus are all comparisons a kind of wrong perspective? Arsenal is one big stream (but not in isolation) but it’s always changing …? What was, is, but is not?
I could ask myself what have I learnt by all this?
All is just an idea, when we pull it apart, it isn’t really there, so what is there to be uptight or angry about? Yet to hold onto that is nearly impossible; as always, theory and practise, two very different forms, connected but different, as any smart manager knows.
Desire is an odd thing. We are rarely satisfied, and it is an important driver, no matter the pain it seems to give us. Sometimes it seems that hope is linked to desire despite it often leading to suffering.
In truth I desire a victory for us, 4-0 in the first game, 0-2 in the second.
And a 4-0 win in the final – lets hope so.
Cheers and enjoy the game.