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In The Nick Of Time


I feel quite guilty not being able to remember the first time I visited Highbury. I’ve been told by Dad that he took me in the 1987/88 season and that we sat in the East Stand, but all further details have been lost in the passage of time. I was only 4-years-old so I suppose I should cut myself a bit of slack, but it’s still a source of personal frustration given I run a site dedicated to such details.

One thing I know for sure; I was a Gooner from a young age. Family photos evidence a childhood spent almost entirely in Arsenal replica kits. First came an early eighties Umbro home shirt which, when paired with a cape, doubled up on more than one occasion as a Robin (of Batman fame) fancy dress costume. Beautifully simple in design, it lasted a good couple of years until one evening in early August 1990 my Dad returned from work with our new Adidas home kit.

It was love at first sight and I spent the next few days secretly sneaking into my parents’ bedroom just so I could stand in front of their full-length mirror. Perhaps I was incredibly vain at a young age, or maybe, as I’ve come to persuade myself, I was governed by an uncontrollable sense of pride.

When I wasn’t ogling myself like Narcissus or kicking a ball in the back yard, I was staring at the television. I insisted on watching the 1988/89 season review video repeatedly during school holidays until I could recall every result, every scorer and even huge chunks of the accompanying commentary. It doesn’t sound very healthy, and if you’re reading Mum and Dad, what were you thinking letting me do that?

Anyway, that video was my own personal time machine. I was six when Michael Thomas won us the League at Anfield, but in the years that followed I couldn’t resist trying to relive the wave of intense joy which I saw wash over my Dad and his mates on that amazing night. Each time I pressed play I knew what was coming but somehow, no matter how many times I watched the highlights, I never quite let myself believe we scored that second goal.

The players would emerge, Bould would hit the bar, Smith would score, Liverpool would complain, the goal would stand, Mickey would miss, McMahon would do his one minute finger wag, Pleat would talk about ‘poetic justice’, there was a good ball by Dixon, a flick on by Smith and then the ball would nestle in Bruce Grobbelaar’s net, Mickey would be rolling on the turf and that rush of exhilaration would envelope me….again and again and again. I was addicted. It was a drug.

It’s hairs on the back of the neck stuff and even today I still get a lump in my throat when I catch those climactic seconds on YouTube. Only when I was given the ‘Champions’ video, celebrating our title exploits of 1990/91, did I take the big decision to start interchanging tapes. Ultimately both were gobbled and destroyed by a machine that had no doubt grown tired of being subjected to Arsenal triumphs.

Thomas’ goal had a profound effect on me. How could it not? I was young and impressionable. What’s worrying is that I’ve since spent much of my life comparing how I felt in that instant to everything else. I suspect it’s why my mates have thought me a miserable bastard for over two decades. It’s probably why they’re not far off the mark.

It’s also why I cherish the first game of the 1991/92 season. I doubt many of the other 38,098 people in attendance can even remember what happened on that balmy afternoon on 17 August, 1991. But I can. We drew 1-1 with QPR thanks to a very late equaliser by Paul Merson. We’d been shit all afternoon (not language the 8-year-old me would have used), but for the first time in my young life I shared with the North Bank the bliss of a last gasp goal.

The Magic Man’s strike was a long-time coming and not just because it came after the 90-minute mark. Having been crowned First Division champions in May it had been a protracted summer waiting for proper football to return. Dad had taken my brother and I to the Makita Cup where the novelty of European opposition and sight of us wearing our away kit at home had proved entertaining enough (on the Sunday Gianluca Vialli scored an overhead kick for Sampdoria which I still maintain is the best goal I ever saw us concede at Highbury), but having missed the 0-0 Charity Shield draw with Tottenham I was chomping at the bit for the big kick-off.

It was the unusual sight of Tony Adams and Spurs captain Gary Mabbutt both clutching the Charity Shield that greeted me as Dad passed over the QPR match programme outside Arsenal tube station. The notion of sharing a trophy baffled me as much then as it does now. Despite the offbeat cover image, the programme purchase fit snugly into the pre-match routine, which began with an hour-long car journey from Windsor to Caledonian Road, a quick ride on the Piccadilly Line and the inclined walk from the depths of tube into daylight. On this occasion we met my uncle and grandfather before taking the 30-second stroll to the North Bank turnstiles, all the time listening out for the fanzine sellers’ quips, before positioning ourselves in our customary position in the northeast corner of the ground.

The sun was shining, my shirt was still in good nick despite a year of me pretending to be Anders Limpar, the Highbury lawn looked in tip-top condition and as my Dad helped me to my ‘seat’ on the top of a crush barrier, I was fully expecting us to win. What could go wrong? The innocence of youth…

I’m not sure who bagged QPR’s goal, American striker Roy Wegerle always seemed to score against us so maybe him, but I do know that as the game edged closer to full-time the crowd grew increasingly agitated. Naturally, after 21-years the details escape me, but I’m almost certain that as the clock neared 90 minutes I was thinking all the usual thoughts that go through the head of desperate football fans. Then just when I thought the game was up, we earned a corner right in front of us.

“Please, just score. We can’t lose today, please, please, please, please let us score!”

The ball was played into the six-yard box, half-cleared to the edge of the area and there was Merse, in the nick of time, to smash it into the roof of the net. The North Bank erupted! It was mayhem, utter mayhem; the angry joy not just etched on the faces of those around me, but carved deep. Everybody was embracing as far as my eyes could see.

Given the circumstances, Dad did a great job ensuring I didn’t fall from my precarious perch on the crush barrier as I too went ballistic. I wouldn’t have cared if I’d taken a tumble, although on reflection if I’d returned home with war wounds there’s a high chance Mum would have banned me from ever going again. Once order had been restored there were some quick family goodbyes and we ran for the tube. I was ecstatic with a draw.

That game turned out to be a microcosm of the season that ensued. Despite signing Ian Wright Arsenal’s title chances lay in ruins by Christmas. The nadir was saved for my ninth birthday when Fourth Division Wrexham kicked us out of the FA Cup in the third round. That 2-1 defeat has tainted my date of birth so much I sometimes wonder whether I should have it printed in my passport. 

Thankfully that god-awful day in Wales spurred George Graham’s side onto better things and we lost only once in the remaining 20 league games to finish in a creditable fourth place. Who knows, if the season had lasted another month we might even have pinched the most unlikely of championships. Either way it was the year I consolidated my love of Arsenal and I've Paul Merson to thank for ensuring it wasn't sour from the off.

The end of the season also signalled the death knell of standing on the North Bank. While I’m not going to lament the loss of a frighteningly unsafe place for children, I will forever cherish the fact I experienced its atmosphere in the same way as my Dad, uncle and grandfather before me.


While I’m talking about Arsenal-QPR showdowns, I’d like to thank Indesit for inviting me to sit in their corporate box for the most recent clash between the two sides. I think if Mikel Arteta’s goal had come any later I may have celebrated in a manner even less becoming of a guest in such resplendent surroundings. Thankfully, they were polite enough to turn a blind eye to my muffled swearing and hair-tearing nervousness. As one of Arsenal’s sponsors they’ll be running ticket competitions throughout the season, you can learn more by visiting their Facebook Page and following them on Twitter - @IndesitUK

Reader Comments (1)

A moving article.. Thank you.

November 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKay
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