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Behind Enemy Lines


On May 8th 2002 Arsenal went to Old Trafford and won the title for the twelfth time thanks to a solitary goal from Sylvain Wiltord. Three days later the season ended with a home game against Everton, as it had four years earlier on the occasion of the eleventh title.

In 1998 we needed the final day win, but in 2002 the result was only relevant for the statistics. However, the FA had refused to present us with the trophy in front of 65,000 Man Utd fans on the Wednesday, so that was another good reason to turn up at Highbury on Saturday.

Unfortunately the ever-decreasing capacity of our old ground was down to 38,500 by that time, so for non-season ticket holders attendance was certainly not guaranteed. Luckily for me, I had an Everton supporting mate at work who had told me weeks earlier that he'd almost certainly have spares in the away end, as he had a contact in the Everton box office. Count me in, I said.

At the time we weren’t to know that the result was going to be academic, so I started to get a bit worried the week before when the promises of tickets seemed to be fading fast. In the end my mate only managed to get one ticket, but he let me have it anyway – with the title won and the game effectively meaningless for Everton, he didn't really fancy an afternoon with 35,000 celebrating Gooners!

So I arrived at the away entrance of the old ground between the terraced houses of Highbury Hill in what I thought was plenty of time. I don’t think I’d been in the away end at a home Arsenal match since the 1970s, and things had clearly changed a bit. Everyone in the away supporters’ queue was frisked more thoroughly than at Heathrow, and it took an age to get inside the ground. I got to the top of the stand just in time to see Dennis celebrating his fourth minute opening goal. Obviously this annoyed most of the Everton fans, who had travelled for three hours and were already paying to watch someone else get presented with a trophy; the last thing they wanted was a complete stuffing as well! 

I took my seat in the Clock End and had to soak up the atmosphere without joining in with the singing. I was about ten rows back, quite near the dividing line between home and away fans. Immediately to my right, nearer the Arsenal section, was a very vocal Scouser who spent most of the time bellowing aggressively at the Arsenal supporters on the other side of the fence. The bloke on my left was keeping quiet, but the one on the other side of him was another shouter. This was not going to be entirely relaxing for me. There was a lot of aggression in that corner of the ground.

The Arsenal team, on the other hand, relaxed a bit too much and Everton equalised after 20 minutes through Carsley then took the lead on the half-hour through Radzinski. Well, we did have Igors Stepanovs and Oleg Luzhny in central defence. You'd think that going into the lead would have made my neighbours happy, but the aggression continued unabated. What was amusing and puzzling was that the yobs around me, faces contorted with rage, kept shouting about how they were the 'People's Club', as though this strange notion somehow made them better and nicer people. It was honestly one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had at football.

Everton only led for two minutes before Thierry levelled the scores again, and that’s how it stayed until half time. I spent the interval on the concourse minding my own business. The second half then started much as the first finished, with Arsenal playing in fairly relaxed fashion and Everton anxious not to be embarrassed by the new champions. 

After 71 minutes Henry scored his second and put us back into the lead at last. Three Arsenal fans who'd been keeping their heads down in the front row of the away section leapt up to celebrate. Cue 500 Scousers shouting, "Oi, steward! They're not supposed to be in here!" The stewards calmed things down and allowed the three to stay where they were, to the disgust of the supporters of the ‘People’s Club’. Meanwhile David Ginola had come on as a sub, apparently just for a protracted moan at the referee and some handbags with Lee Dixon.

Then, just when the Scouse mob was calming down, Arsène made the decision I'd been dreading: Francis Jeffers, former favourite of Goodison Park, the Fox in the Box himself, on for Ray Parlour. The vitriol around me reached new heights. Franny missed an easy chance and that just made them even more mad! 'Waste of money' is probably the only repeatable phrase that I heard. Unfortunately for me, our players seemed determined to get Jeffers on the scoresheet and set up several chances before, on 82 minutes, he stuck one away at last. The Everton corner erupted in even greater fury. I felt like Gandhi, sitting serenely among a rioting horde of thugs.

Everton pulled another goal back just before the end, but we held on for the win. The most vocal and psychologically disturbed away fans quickly departed, leaving the more generous-natured to clap along politely at the presentation, with the surprisingly large number of Arsenal fans in the away section who had now come out of hiding. I think if we’d all known how many fellow Gooners were among the Scouse we might have made ourselves known a lot earlier. 

The match result may not have mattered, but the statistics speak for themselves: a 13th league win in a row (a Premiership and club record); Arsenal scored in every Premiership match in the season; our 28th domestic game unbeaten; a seventh home league win in a row over Everton, who became the eighth team we'd taken maximum points from in the season. Worthy champions, I think.

Reader Comments (1)

Nice one, Phil!!

December 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStan
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