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More Than Just A Club 

BY BRIAN ROCHE / @brianroche07

I started supporting Arsenal in the 1995/96 season, although it wasn’t through my parents that I caught the football bug, but via a transitional year under the watchful eye of my uncles. As an Irishman you’ll perhaps be unsurprised to hear that the most prominantly supported sport in my family is hurling, with football traditionally playing second fiddle. That started to change though during the eighties when a number of my relatives, including my parents, moved to London in search of work. Football started to take a hold, particularly on my uncles who supported Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal between them.

What followed was a real battle for my affections. My first ever live game was at Upton Park where I watched West Ham take on Liverpool and that was followed by a second helping of the Reds when they played QPR at Loftus Road. I was also handed countless Manchester United jerseys and loads of Red Devil memorabilia, but it was a VHS recording of THAT night at Anfield that stole my heart. My Arsenal uncle let the other two battle it out for a while, until one evening when he was minding me, he threw on the tape – the rest is history!

I moved back to Ireland in 2006, but the one thing I miss is matchdays. I went to countless games at Highbury, and a fair few away games against London opponents, but for me nothing beats Champions League nights. I was lucky enough to be at some amazing games including the win over Juventus, where Dennis produced the greatest assist I’ve ever seen, the victory over Shakhtar Donetsk, when Martin Keown scored twice, and the semi-final win over Villarreal.

I still get to a couple of matches at the Emirates each year, but I’ve yet to taste the European atmosphere at the new stadium in person. I watched last year’s showdown with Barcelona from the comfort of my own sitting-room, but I was proud at the noise I could hear the Arsenal fans making as Van Persie and Arshavin scored the goals. It was so loud, perhaps the loudest I’d heard from Gooners since the Highbury days. We all know what happened on that glorious night and as the final whistle blew I was inspired to start scanning the web for flights to Spain– I was not going to miss the second leg.

I travelled to Barcelona with my best mate who actually happens to be a Manchester United fan. Despite that, he too thought it’d be a great night to taste the atmosphere in Camp Nou so was more than happy to make the trip. We didn’t have tickets for the game and having decided to arrive at 5pm Spanish time and then get a flight back at 7am we’d opted against booking any accommodation either. In truth it was all a bit disorganised, but we were going to get into that monstrous stadium regardless of the the price.

In the end we paid €175 each to sit in the highest tier behind the goal we were playing towards in the second half…right in the middle of 90,000 plus Barca fans and a few blocks from the travelling Gooners. I estimate that although the Arsenal fans only had a small number of seats there must have been 8,000 or so scattered around the ground sitting next to Catalans like I was.

Before the game I was quietly confident, despite shivering like a frozen and nervous wreck; I thought if we could get a goal we would cause an upset. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of minutes before the shit hit the fan. Szczesny was forced off with an injury and on came Manuel Almunia, the man who conceded twice at his near post in the Champions League final five years previously in Paris. It wasn’t long before Messi ran wild making a mockery of our Spaniard.

I’ve tasted the atmosphere created by supporters across a wide range of sports, but I’d never seen any as ignorant and abusive as the Barcelona fans who were around me when they scored. I just kept thinking to myself they were all bastards. Half-time came and went and then, out of nothing, Busquets headed into his own goal and we were back in it. I had a tear in my eye as I celebrated that goal, not just because I could jump up and down surrounded by morons, but also because I had a perfect view to my right of the designated away section in absolute raptures – it was a sight to behold! The more the locals threw their middle fingers up at our boys, the more I jumped around, screamed and shouted. This is what it was all about I thought, a night away in Europe in one of the most historical and biggest grounds with a cup tie well in the balance. What happened next though was an absolute disgrace…

Three minutes after the jubilation of snatching an away goal Van Persie was ludicrously sent-off. I will forever put the result of that night down to a c**t of a referee named Massimo Bussaca. It was followed swiftly by two minutes which quashed any hopes of victory. First Xavi walked the ball into the net and although I felt we were still in the game I realised playing with ten minutes for extra-time would be near impossible. It didn’t matter anyway as two minutes later Koscielny brought down Pedro and Messi stepped up to score from the spot.  I was treated to plenty of abuse from the ignorant bloke next to me before the whole row, and then block, joined in the taunting.

Despite the referee ruining the game, we still had a chance to win the tie. In the 87th minute Nicklas Bendtner was clean through with only Victor Valdes in the Barcelona goal to beat. A goal would have put us into the next round on away goals, but the awkward Dane banjaxed the chance leaving us Arsenal fans to lament another year without a trophy. We were out.

Heartbroken, tired, exhausted, angry, you name it…that’s how I felt. However, with the travelling Arsenal fans being kept in the stadium I decided to hang around as scores of other Gooners also suddenly popped up all over the place. Amazingly Arsenal anthems were being chanted like we’d just conquered the Camp Nou and we all joined in. The moment just reminded me what being a supporter is all about and that Arsenal is more than just a club, it is a way of life. I've been shaped by my life with the Gunners and for me, there is no other religion.

After that it was back to El Prat for the early morning flight...

Reader Comments (1)

Anyone but Bentner and we were through

October 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan O Dwyer!.
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