'The Real Thing'

Written by Rob Bateman

My earliest memory is the 1971 FA Cup final when I rejoiced in Arsenal’s success amidst a sea of tearful Liverpool-supporting aunts in our front room.

My first live game was Arsenal v Manchester United in January 1973, the last time I ate a steak and kidney pie and the opportunity to watch Bobby Charlton in his swansong season. My son was there at Highbury with us in my eight-month pregnant partner’s womb on the day we completed the ‘invincible’ season, kicking at every huge roar during the game and in the post-match celebrations. And my first game with my son was the 1-2 debacle against Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final.

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This first appeared on The Arsenal Collective

The Arsenal Collective

So many memories of my life have been tied into Arsenal, both good and bad. I missed my nephew’s christening to watch us eek out a 1-0 win over Derby in May 1999, claiming I had to work. I refused to stay in hospital on a drip after a minor operation, to attend a League Cup match against Coventry in 1997.

Obsession barely covered my feelings about Arsenal for a long time.

Things changed for me when we moved from Highbury. My life had changed when confronted by fatherhood - lack of money and weekend work commitments etc. meant leaving Highbury felt like the end of an era.

I’ve been to just three games at the Emirates although the fact I can see all games at work, both home and away, means I haven’t missed the experience of attending live games as much as I thought I would. As a man who works in football statistics [for Opta], people consider me an obsessive already and I probably still am. But what I consider to be my last truly obsessive moment came in the 2005/06 season.

It had always been an ambition to see Arsenal play in the Bernabeu. Indeed in the 2003/04 season I was pretty sure we'd get a semi-final showdown with the Spanish giants. Arsenal had drawn 1-1 in their first leg away against Chelsea, while Madrid were in a strong position after 90 minutes against Monaco in the same side of the draw.

Tempting fate, I agreed with a Chelsea-supporting colleague to buy two plane tickets to Madrid, fully expecting Arsenal and Real to go through, but having the fall back that I'd sell my ticket to him if Chelsea did beat us. As it happened, Monaco came back to beat Real and my colleague had to rearrange the flights to Nice to be able to take advantage of them.

So when Arsenal versus Real came out of the hat in December 2005, I took the gamble of booking flights knowing there was no way I would get match tickets with my limited away credits. A friend and I booked a hotel and then began the quest for tickets.

We searched online, I contacted our sister company in Madrid to see if they could secure some and even tried to blag some in the press box. I contacted a dozen people claiming they had tickets on a website that seemed to advertise all sorts of games on the black market and finally had two sellers lined up.

On arrival in Madrid we spent much of the afternoon trying to ring our contacts and it turned out one source was a bunch of kids who had posted their message as a hoax and as we swore loudly at them down the phone, all we could hear was a cacophony of giggling.

This didn't bode well, but in the evening, the other guy turned up at least. He had four tickets for us, but two were thin paper and two thicker card, completely different sizes and different text printed on them. Extremely suspicious, we questioned him. He claimed some were from the club via post and some were from a “cash-machine” style ticket dispenser they have outside the stadium. Having never heard of this before, we were extremely dubious, but our tout (named Juanjo) said "OK, you take the tickets, I’ll see you outside the stadium, we'll go in together and you can pay me inside."

Somewhat taken aback by his willingness to give us £600 worth of tickets, we accepted and headed off for dinner, believing they were probably fakes and we’d never see him again.

It was around 7pm and we were surprised that no restaurants seemed to be open and seemed to be wandering around for ages trying to find vegetarian food. Eventually we found a bar for a beer and got chatting to some other Arsenal fans and asked to compare tickets. They had different format tickets too and somewhat reassured us that ours would be ok. One of them was a police officer who seemed to be an expert on touts and black-market tickets.

Most of our conversation revolved around how many goals we would get beaten by. Our form at the time was utterly hapless. We’d only won two of the previous seven matches, one victory of which was 2-1 v Wigan in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final which had not been enough and seen us eliminated. We were 25 points off the top of the table and five behind Tottenham in fourth meaning next season’s Champions league participation was under threat.

This was the season where we played eight different left backs, where Freddie Ljungberg had lost his equivalent of 'Billy’s Boots' (one league goal all season) and where we were missing the awesome presence of the departed Patrick Vieira dominating our midfield.

It was also the season we first dallied with the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation we have today, Bergkamp’s powers were waning and Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell (both absent in Madrid) were reportedly angling for summer departures.

The day of the game dawned and I was ill. I freely admit I grumped my way around the sights of Madrid and thoroughly hacked my friend off.  Eventually I gave up sightseeing for an afternoon siesta and a bottle of coke. Slightly refreshed we headed off to the game and met Juanjo outside. Feeling like we’d be stopped at any time and hauled off by machine gun-toting police, we went through the automatic gates (pre-Emirates these were the first we’d seen) and into the stadium.

Having wrapped up for a freezing February night, we had to strip layers off as we were baked under the giant “three-bar-fire” set into the roof of the stand above us. We were seated on the first tier right above the Ultras and enjoyed humming along to all their songs just to avoid being outed as Gooners and ejected. We clapped Real chances (as good Arsenal defending obviously) and Arsenal chances (as hapless misses). Chance after chance was spurned.

Half-time came and we headed off for a sociable beer which my stomach really didn’t want. In the end I couldn’t be arsed to join a queue which would make me miss the start of the second half so I went back to my seat leaving my friend with Juanjo and his buddies. Relegated to the role of fetching my drinks, having to be polite to our host and his friends and already hacked off at my whinging over my aching gut during the day, cross words were exchanged.

Still grouching at each other, we watched as Thierry Henry picked up the ball in midfield, bounced off Ronaldo, drifted past three defenders and fired the ball home. I don’t think I have every cheered so effusively without making a sound. I slapped my friend on the leg (the most naff celebration ever) and then we recovered our composure so as not to give the game away. Other Gooners strewn around the stadium were not so reticent in their celebrations and some were fortunate to be evicted by the stewards before the Madrid fans reacted.

The Arsenal completed a tremendous performance and walked away with a richly-deserved 1-0 win, becoming the first English side to win in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid in the process. We stayed to celebrate by watching the away fans at the other end and took the obligatory picture of the scoreboard.

Final thing to do was to pick up a copy of Marca on the way to the airport for the archive I keep and steal a few ideas about how to display football statistics to boot.

I had fulfilled my ambition of going to the Bernabeu and how.

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