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Monday
Oct242011

We Won the League at Old Trafford

BY TIM STILLMAN / @LITTLEDUTCHVA

I’ve been around the Arsenal blogging circuit for over five years now. Arsenal’s history and anything vaguely nostalgic about my own Arsenal reminisces are very much my twin muses. So when I was invited to contribute to The Arsenal Collective, I was excited, but then felt a hint of trepidation too. I’ve already written about my first ever game, my favourite ever player, I’ve written extensively about the rhyme and reason behind my Arsenal fandom.

It’s difficult to find a nook or cranny of the club’s 125 year history that I haven’t documented elsewhere. The idea of the memory bank appealed to me beyond words, yet I couldn’t think of anything to add. I couldn’t see that one hint of an opening on the opponent’s chin with which to deliver an uppercut of an article. Or so I thought.

Quite simply, I thought I would write in detail about the greatest memory following Arsenal. Given my emotional attachment to the club and obsessive match attendance, it would probably also qualify as the greatest night of my life to date. The night of May 8, 2002 is an evening I have mentioned on a multitude of occasions, but I don’t believe I’ve ever dedicated an article to the forensics of the night.

On May 8, 2002 I was 18 days away from my 18th birthday. It was really my first ever season of going to every single away game, on top of every single home game. Four days earlier, Arsenal had sealed the F.A. Cup with a 2-0 win over Chelsea in Cardiff. Nine days earlier I had used a phantom orthodontist appointment to obtain an exeat from school to attend a crucial away match at Bolton on a Monday night. Given my reputation at school for being a big Arsenal fan; it didn’t take my teacher’s long to realise I’d duped them.

So when we were due to play a title decider at Old Trafford on a Wednesday night, there was no room for manoeuvre. My head of sixth form at the time would not likely believe any shaggy dog story I would deliver for my absence. To complicate matters, my form tutor was the Head of the English department and had insisted on arranging a mock English A Level exam that day. Given that I had already been accepted into four universities to undertake an English Literature degree, to say I was expected to attend would be an understatement.

Nevertheless, missing a game of this import (or any sort of game in truth) just wasn’t an option. So I took the renegade option and bailed on school. I awoke with a rather life threatening strain of man flu. As we made our way to the Travel Club coaches, we discovered that Tony Adams had lost his race for fitness. By the time we had boarded, we had learned that Henry was also ruled out and that Bergkamp would be fit enough for the bench at most. With Pires already tragically injured, my confidence was shrinking. Our journey to Manchester was horrible. A combination of rush hour traffic and a coach driver who had missed the turning off of the M1 meant we breathlessly arrived in the stadium just minutes before kickoff.

The prevailing feeling myself and my school mate Jim (who had rather demonstrated greater subtlety in not declaring his allegiance to teachers) was that United would never let us take their title in their own lodgings. Together with the abundance of injuries, I was filled more with hope than expectation. But then we learned that van Nistelrooy had, bizarrely, been omitted from Ferguson’s line up in favour of the struggling Diego Forlan. To this day I’m not sure I can reconcile the thinking behind this.

Then as the players emerged from the tunnel, the PA blasted out The Stone Roses lush paean to occasion, ‘This Is the One.’ The Roses were, and probably still are, a band that meant more to me than any other. I’m not a spiritual person by any stretch of the imagination. But the feeling that things were going to come together began to permeate. It wasn’t a feeling of optimism so much as one of correctness. As well as leaving his talisman out; Ferguson erred tactically for a second time. He sent Keane and Scholes out to perform a hatchet job on Vieira and Edu.

The tang of inferiority poured out from such a tactic. It was an enormous error on Ferguson’s part, it was a confirmation of fear and one we all understood. Vieira and Edu were majestic that night and controlled the game. Though the Gunners didn’t look overly threatening in an attacking sense, neither did United. The sofa bound Thierry Henry would later admit, “I wasn’t really scared watching the game, I just knew the team were calm and in control.” Arsenal only needed a draw and never looked unlikely to get it.

On 68 minutes, one could sense United’s frustration growing. Ljungberg dashed onto Wiltord’s pass and into the area. His weak attempt was saved by Barthez but it rolled tantalisingly towards Wiltord. From here, everything went slow motion. I felt Jim’s hand grip my shoulder in anticipation. I suddenly became aware that I was sat next to a metal crash barrier and any goal celebration was likely to be conducted with such vigour that I could end up seriously hurt. Wiltord rolled the ball back towards the goal.

From there I just recall fighting for breath as I was pressed against the barrier, my arms pinned to my sides. I didn’t see Ljungberg wheel towards us, I didn’t see Kanu’s hilarious star jump over Wiltord’s head. I don’t really remember seeing anything. Just a metallic blur. From there on, you just knew there was no chance that Arsenal would let it slip. I should have been nervous, but I wasn’t really. To paraphrase the Fever Pitch movie, on the surface I was nail gnawing, but inside I just knew. We all just knew.

Ferguson grew purpler with every chant. Down to my left, Barry First (he of the infamous vein bulging celebration at Old Trafford in 98) unfurled a banner saying ‘Champions Section.’ One could almost see the steam rising from Ferguson’s head as we tunefully implored, “Hand it over Ferguson!” Gary Neville was treated to a ditty implying that he is a chronic masturbator as he chased a ball forlornly out of play. The final whistle was greeted with an outpouring of emotion. One of those true stranger hugging moments. The PA system announced that Arsenal fans would be kept in by police after the final whistle. I don’t think even one of us had any intention of leaving.

As we finally poured outside to the empty streets of Sir Matt Busby Way, I chanced across a couple of friends. Hugs were exchanged, profanities yelled at the tops of our voices. It was one of those nights. As we reboarded the coach, I have some recollection that Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’ blasted out from the radio. That song has been embroidered onto my memory of that evening ever since. Our coach arrived back at Avenell Road at about 3.30am on the Thursday morning. The street was absolutely awash with champagne and beer bottles. There was hardly an inch of pavement to be seen.

I arrived at school the next morning having not slept, barely able to conceal my grin. I think my Head of English had originally called me into her office to administer a rollicking. But I think she saw in the smile on my face that any sort of tongue lashing would fall upon unreceptive ears. “Did you enjoy it?” she asked. “More than any other night since I’ve been born,” was my truthful reply. As it happened, one of the English teachers at my school was an Arsenal season ticket holder. “Yes, Mr. Guy is rather hungover this morning,” she said, half smiling, half sneering. Having escaped any sort of punishment, I saw a bleary eyed Mr. Guy a few hours later. We didn’t exchange any words; the effort was probably beyond either of us. Just a furtive glance and a knowing smile.

The night of May 8th, 2002 is something of an untouched recollection in my mind. It is absolutely untainted and can’t be topped until such time that Arsenal achieves the holy grail of the Champions League. Bonds are formed around such evenings that, once bound can never be broken. Many of the people I travelled to that game with don’t go to Arsenal anymore. Some have dropped off the scene gradually. Others put an end to their soirees around the country more abruptly. But even those that I have all but lost contact with stay stitched into my mind as friends. As kin.

But most of all, when I see the playback as Wiltord’s shot roll towards the net- as I have done thousands of times since that night- it’s more than just a memory. I feel that joy again. 

 

(Picture copyright of Stuart Macfarlane)

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Reader Comments (12)

This is great.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersreyan

After watching the game at home I made my way down to Highbury with some mates and my sister and a bottle of Champagne only to drop it and see it smash on the pavement just as we passed the fish bar on the corner, but I couldn't give a toss! What a night, even back in London.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSiKay

I'm so unfortunate that i've not witnessed The Arsenal win any trophies since i became a follower (not a fan). How I wish Mr. Wenger would give me my own moments as this - if not in close proximity to the pitch, some few thousand miles away. Believe me, i will love every moment when Robin/Ramsey sends a low between Jones' or Mata's or Nasir's legs to lift the title!!

In many ways, me living in India, envy some of you guys who get to watch The Arsenal week after week - keep it loud, you Gooners!!

God Bless All!!

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Terrific, well described memory Tim.. Thank you for sharing

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRealityBytes

Tim - great recollection - it brings it all back. Was in the 'champions section' that night as well. Remember ending up a good row away from my seat after we scored !

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Oh what a night, surely never to be surpassed.

I too recall the slow motion nature of Wiltord's goal, which started as soon as Barthez pawed the ball in his direction....time stood still for that split second as we knew a momentous occasion was upon us.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRaymond

Great memory.I pair it with the night Thomas steered the ball into the Liverpool goal to take the titlefrom under the Kop`s nose oh and winning the title at WHL wasnt a bad night either

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTeejay

Great account of a truly fantastic night, only bettered by Anfield '89 for me. I watched the Old Trafford '02 victory from the rather uncomfortable Stretford End having hastily sorted a brief from a tout. I was silent throughout the 90mins even when Wiltord scored for fear of getting a kicking. But on the final whistle my Dad called me and I couldn't hide my joy any longer. Watching the OT Champions Section going nuts as the players danced in front of them I went down to the corner to wait for the jubilant players to trott towards the tunnel. Pat Rice was the first to come towards the mouth of the tunnel and I screamed "Pat, Pat we've f***in done it!". Of course Pat Rice didn't hear me but the dregs of the Stretford End who were still filing out in misery did. After a brief flurry of fists towards me, the fella next to me kindly suggested to the stewards that they take men over to my merry kinsmen over the other end of the pitch. To my amazement I then found myself walking with a steward around the OT pitch towards the heaving mass of mental Gooners! I can feel the happiness of the moment now. What a night.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPetrovic

I remember this night. I was in a bar and I was celebrating before kickoff, plastered. I knew it was a banker.
What a night! Going to Old Cabbage Patch knowing that we were going to win.
Doesn't quite compare with the Michael Thomas moment at Anfield in May 1989. That was my best sporting moment EVER!
South Africa's two Rugby World Cup wins don't even come close

October 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPearson

Just one word: "...WILTORD!!"

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Wiltord! This word sounds so proudly in my lips! I will never forget that night.. It was a magical night, indeed! I remember I haven't prepare my written assignments for the University and I used custom essay writing service instead) but I've watched all the game from the beginning to the end and every minute of the game was filled with mix of feelings I can't describe even now.. But that was just amazing!

December 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles McLendon

Cracking read. Get yourself over to ArsenalArsenal you'll love it

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSharkeySure
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