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Mountains To Climb

BY CHRIS TOWERS /@ChrisTowers_88

In all the times I saw Arsenal at Highbury, I only ever sat in the North Bank. I would have done so again on a special day in the spring of 2004, were it not for an unfortunate clash of dates. I was 15 at the time, and when my Mum found me a ticket for the Liverpool game on Good Friday, April 9th – a higher-profile fixture than any other I’d been to up to that point – I was so blinded by anticipation that it didn’t strike me for days that rather than shouting and cheering in North London, I would instead be on a school-organised Easter Holiday ski-trip far away in the Swiss Alps.

It had all been paid for. So with no backing out, I had to reluctantly hand the ticket over to my brother. I’d be hitting mainland Europe as previously planned, painfully separated from Arsenal for what, as the trip approached, became clear were the most pivotal seven days of that unforgettable season.

Of all the weeks to be away! I boarded the coach (yes, coach) for Switzerland on the evening of Friday, April 2nd, and would still be on the road the following day as Arsenal took on Man United in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. In midweek, the Gunners would host newly-competitive Chelsea in the Champions League, with a place in the last four for the first time in the club’s history at stake. I’d return on Saturday, the day after the Liverpool match. I left England that night with the treble a not entirely unrealistic dream.

Over the Channel via ferry and into the next day, our coach was rolling through eastern France and I’d just about had my fill checking roadsigns for football towns (Lille, Metz, Auxerre...) when the FA Cup game kicked off back home. I was told pre-trip that I’d be able to keep track of the match on the coach by either TV or radio – but this wasn’t the case. Nonetheless, the feeling of invincibility the team had projected since August had affected me and I felt sure Arsenal would win. They were off and running at Villa Park and my Dad texted me early on: “0-1, Scholes”.

Despite that setback, and the pessimism of my Arsenal-supporting best mate sat next to me, I remained confident that, in this of all seasons, we’d turn it around.

The coach rolled on, and my phone stayed silent. I grew anxious. I stared out of the window at the mountain ranges which were growing larger on the horizon, glancing every passing minute at my watch. As we pulled into a service station near Basle, I finally got a message – but by then I knew what it was. Full-time. Arsenal had lost, and would not face be facing Sheffield United or Millwall in the Final in Cardiff. Defeats to Man United hurt more eight years ago than they do today. But munching on some canteen frites, I remembered we still had a double to shoot for. Not bad.

After crossing through France, Luxembourg, Germany, France again, and a good chunk of Switzerland, we arrived in Torgon, set in a valley overlooking Lake Geneva. Halfway up the mountains, we explored our home for the week and soon enough found a games room – with a big television. I quickly asked the staff about the midweek match and learned that yes, we would indeed be able to watch Arsenal v Chelsea live, on Swiss TV! What an unexpected bonus. A niggling gap between me and Arsenal was bridged – I’d see the match in its entirety, as everyone at home would, taking in what would hopefully be one of the great European nights at Highbury.

Tuesday evening came after a hard day of skiing a bit and falling over a lot, and a group of us settled down for the match. The room was split in two halves – Arsenal fans on the left side of the TV, Chelsea fans (most of whom were adults on their own trip) on the right. If there were nerves after the FA Cup defeat, they dissipated slightly when my Art teacher told me with total conviction, Arsenal would be fine. Alright then. Kick-off, and having drawn 1-1 at Stamford Bridge, the Gunners took the lead just before half-time through Jose Antonio Reyes, meaning Chelsea needed two unlikely goals without reply to advance.

Then it all changed. A little bit into the second half, without warning, the match was interrupted by Swiss Richard Keys and Andy Gray equivalents, grinning away in their Champions League studio. And when we returned to a match, it wasn’t Highbury we saw – it was the Stade Louis II, where Monaco were on course to knock out Real Madrid. This wasn’t how Sky did it back home! No one was prepared for this. As the whole room watched the new game uninterested, we –the Chelsea fans included – had effectively been plunged into darkness.

It fell to my Dad once more to provide me with text updates. And within just a few minutes I had to tell the Gooners around me (and worse, the opposing fans next to us) that Frank Lampard had equalised in London. A mini-screen popped up in the corner of the TV to show the goal while Monaco and Real Madrid continued to thrash it out. Now the tension was unbearable. Apparently, Kolo Toure came close with a long-ranger, but in the end it counted for nothing. I got another message: “2-1 Chelsea”. The tiny screen reappeared, showing Wayne Bridge immersed in an eruption of crazed blue fans in the corner of Highbury. Arsenal had no hope of scoring two goals with minutes remaining, and our mach ended, along with the Monaco game.

I left the room to taunts and chants and walked out into the night. I paused to reflect in the cold mountain air, thinking of 36,000 Arsenal fans away in England trudging out onto Avenell Road, before shuffling off to bed.

So from then it was all about Good Friday – the game I was supposed to be at, watching Arsenal play Liverpool from the North Bank upper. Instead, we would be enjoying our last day of skiing during the midday kick-off, so I had to put whatever drama was unfolding back home to the back of my mind and find out what happened later on. Two games down, and two defeats – I was nervous. The match had grown bigger since I left England. If we failed to protect our unbeaten run then, our season could have unravelled completely. I did what I could: it was a bright sunny day in the Alps so I wore my Arsenal shirt under my open jacket on the slopes.

Once back, I headed straight to my phone which was waiting in my room, and read a message which sent my spirits as high as the mountains we’d been trapped up all week. The Gunners had bagged an emphatic 4-2 win to reignite our campaign, a result that meant everything – the two crushing cup exits earlier that week were forgotten in an instant. I stepped out into the Swiss sun to spread the good news before packing for home. Arsenal still had work to do, but it was this game that put one hand on the Premiership trophy, and I knew that day it was coming back to Highbury.

We left the mountains that afternoon, and arrived at a service station near Dover the following morning. I rushed to WHSmiths to be greeted by a roaring Thierry Henry splashed all over the back of the papers. The headlines hinted at a brilliant comeback and glorious victory, and on the remaining drive home I read all about what I’d missed – a pulsating, end-to-end tussle of a match, and one of Thierry Henry’s finest strikes in an Arsenal shirt. He later said that after that goal, the Highbury roar was louder than he’d ever experienced before. I’d have loved to have been there – my brother was quick to tell me what it was like.

I don’t think I would change my experience in the Alps though – a rollercoaster week for Arsenal was made all the more memorable. Even though we drove to Switzerland, the week hadn’t been short of turbulence, but it ended fantastically. After potentially derailing results against Man United and Chelsea, and then the resounding response against Liverpool, it was plain sailing for Arsenal: three matches later, we were champions.

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    The Arsenal Collective - A Home for Memories of The Arsenal - The Memory Bank - Mountains To Climb
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Reader Comments (1)

Just got goosebumps reading that Chris. Amazing what happens when life interrupts following the Arsenal, and how it does just as you say, and adds to the memories. Cheers.

March 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter11cannons
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