“If someone asked me now, I’d say you need to take your time and make sure you absorb everything – because it all flashes by so quickly.”
Nigel Winterburn readily admits that he can’t remember too much about his testimonial game. Not the match itself, anyway. What sticks in the mind most of all is that fact that, after months of planning, he’d spent the moments before kick-off reconciling himself to the possibility that it might not happen at all.
“We were all set, and then suddenly there was a bomb scare,” he remembers.
“I remember going out onto the Highbury pitch a while before the game, and they started to evacuate areas of the stadium. We were told to stay in the middle of the pitch, and some of the fans were directed there too.
"At that point you start to think that, of all the things that could go wrong, this is pretty serious. When they announced that kick-off would be delayed, in my own mind I thought it wouldn’t happen. You just think it won’t go ahead.”
Fortunately, Winterburn’s worst fears were not realised. Highbury was declared safe, and the match between Arsenal and a Rangers side that featured a few special guests went ahead.
"As far as I remember, my game was pretty well contested but also friendly – just the mix you want"
Testimonials often assume something of a knockabout feel. High-scoring games between select XIs, all taken with a pinch of salt and often featuring at least one opportunity for the subject of the night’s celebrations to put his name on the scoresheet.
It wasn’t quite like that for Winterburn. In a way that, perhaps, reflects his attitude on the pitch during what ended up being 13 years as a Gunner, he explains that his priority was for a ‘proper’, well-contested game of football.
“We were looking at possible opponents, and my feeling was that you need someone different, from a different league to your own, to make it interesting for everyone,” he says.
“Celtic and Rangers always bring huge followings and add to the occasion, and Rangers were very committed to the idea so were were happy to invite them down.
“I can’t recall much about the game – there’s too much going through your head, so many emotions involved. But I know that it was 3-3 and a decent contest. The way I saw it was that the crowd wants to be entertained with goals and skills, but it also wants to see a game what’s competitive without being silly – not 8-7 or anything, because I don’t see the fun in that. As far as I remember, my game was pretty well contested but also friendly – just the mix you want.”
So 3-3 it was, with a certain Paul Gascoigne - still involved in the England set-up back in May 1997 - the catalyst behind the visitors’ revival from 3-1 down. Dennis Bergkamp, who by now had grown into a leading figure for the Gunners, was the home side’s star man with a goal and an assist for Ian Wright.
That was the 19th testimonial (or ‘benefit match’) to take place at Highbury, a remarkable eight of which had taken place during the 1990s. Arsenal had, of course, participated in many at other venues - notable occasions including a testimonial for Pat Jennings at Spurs in 1976 and one for Ted Drake at Fulham three years later - but games at Highbury were a special way of honouring the Club’s beloved.
The old stadium would host four more during its lifetime, all for fellow members of the defensive unit in which Winterburn shone - but the 1990s proved to be the apex for such occasions.
"George Armstrong’s game in 1974 sticks strongly in the mind. Barcelona visited, and I think Johan Cruyff was involved. Because of who George was it was one that you really don’t forget"
Arsenal has hosted just one testimonial since that of Martin Keown in 2004 - a day we all remember, as Dennis Bergkamp was honoured at Emirates Stadium - and the flood of 10-year commemorations appears to have comprehensively dried up.
“They are virtually no longer in existence now,” admits long-serving Arsenal board member Ken Friar, who has seen far more testimonial games than most.
“That’s mainly because it’s rare for players to spend 10 years at a club nowadays. Things have changed. But I remember some fantastic occasions down the years.
"George Armstrong’s game in 1974 sticks strongly in the mind. Barcelona visited, and I think Johan Cruyff was involved. Because of who George was - a very special guy who came here as a boy, gave 100 per cent in absolutely everything and was much loved by everybody - it was one you really don’t forget. Nobody deserved it more.”
It would seem that testimonials are, at least in the form we’ve been accustomed to, a thing of the past. It might owe something, too, to players’ increased wage packets. Much of the time, they no longer require the security of a hefty pay cheque from their testimonial to see them into retirement.
Charitable causes would be the likely beneficiaries of any future such matches, and that’s an area in which Arsenal has some long-standing ‘previous’.
Take, for example, the first recorded example of the Gunners’ participation in such a game. Arsenal faced Spurs at Park Royal on April 29, 1912, with gate receipts from the 5,000-strong crowd going towards the Daily Telegraph Titanic Fund. This was remarkably resourceful given that the ship’s tragic sinking had taken place just two weeks previously, and Arsenal’s 3-0 win was certainly secondary to the cause.
On August 22, 1914, the new north London rivals were at it again - this time at White Hart Lane for the War Relief Fund. The Gunners prevailed 5-1, with the attendance a healthy 13,500 as the country rallied round amid crisis.
Two years later, Highbury hosted its first ever testimonial amid tragic circumstances very close to home. Gunners full back Bob Benson had played little part in wartime football, working instead to work at the Royal Arsenal munitions factory, but offered to deputise in a London Combination match against Reading.
He sadly collapsed during the second half, passing away shortly afterwards and being buried in an Arsenal shirt. His benefit game, held three months later on May 6, 1916, was held against a Rest of London XI, with the proceeds going to his widow. More than 5,000 fans and well-wishers were in attendance that day, an understandably muted occasion being enlivened by four goals in a 2-2 draw.
More commonly, testimonials have been celebrations of a player’s contribution to the Club, usually over a 10-year period. Laughter and bonhomie abound, as well as the occasional slapstick moment - Martin Keown missing a dubiously-awarded spot-kick on his own testimonial in 2004 springs to mind, as does a suitably madcap 8-5 scoreline in the game that honoured Paul Merson in 1996. David O’Leary’s goal in his farewell game, a 4-4 draw with Manchester United in May 1994, also sent fans home with wide smiles and happy memories.
"All kinds of things go through your mind when you come out of the tunnel and see that everyone has turned out to salute the years you’ve had"
The support of Arsenal’s fans was what really made Winterburn’s occasion. “I was just so appreciative of everyone that turned up,” he says - 20,022 in his case.
“It’s a massive thing, a real honour, that so many people turn up to thank you for your career. All kinds of things go through your mind when you come out of the tunnel and see that everyone has turned out to salute the years you’ve had.”
Perhaps that relationship is what characterises testimonials most aptly - Arsenal people celebrating a dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal person. Special moments on collective and very personal levels, they might not go down in history for what happens on the pitch. But as reminders of what a club and its players stand for, they have served a valuable purpose indeed.
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