Alan Smith – a super strike for the Gunners

Arsenal’s entry into the 1993-94 Cup Winners Cup began the disrobing of my footballing innocence. I was in a state of tabula rasa where European football was concerned, due to a mixture of youthful ignorance (I was 9) and a lack of coverage. The migration of several England internationals to Italy, along with James Richardson’s seminal Gazetta Football Italia on Channel 4 afforded me vague literacy with Serie A. I recall Arsenal’s crushing European Cup defeat to Benfica in 1991, but other than that, the concept of football on the continent was, well, foreign to me.

I did not know what to expect from Arsenal in the tournament, but I certainly did not expect them to win it. In 1993-94, Real Madrid, Benfica and Ajax Amsterdam thickened up the tournament’s bouillabaisse. 1993 tournament winners Parma, with a squad fattened by the largesse of Parmalat, were present and correct. Paris Saint Germain, themselves the beneficiaries of heavy corporate backing via the millions of Canal Plus, also stood between the Gunners and glory. Had Arsenal been eliminated by Danish side Odense at the first hurdle, I’m not sure I would even have regarded it as a shock.

The topographical context of the Cup Winners’ Cup win partially explains my nostalgia. Though I had become a season ticket holder during the previous campaign, I still wasn’t allowed to go to Highbury for evening matches at that age. So I watched almost all of our matches in that cup run on television, via the gravelly voiced conduit of the great Brian Moore. Some of his more lyrical descriptions remain etched onto my frontal lobes to this day. From memory, Moore commentated on Arsenal in each round that was televised.

In any case, my memory has airbrushed any other dominant voice, save for the occasional asides of Keegan, Pleat or Atkinson in co-comms. Moore was a master of the commentary craft and a fine avatar through which to experience the team’s triumphant campaign. At times, he was quite literally avuncular. I recall his authority during the closing stages of the final, as he reassured watching Arsenal fans that Gabriele Pin’s 85th minute strike for Parma had been chalked off for offside. “Don’t worry Arsenal fans!” Moore roared and with his guttural bellow, my heart obediently sank back into my chest.

This was a season in which Highbury was undergoing metamorphosis. The construction sites behind the North Bank and Clock End goals were gradually becoming flecked with colour. The new all seater North Bank was officially opened in January 1994. From inside the stadium, I don’t recall the slow mutation of Highbury especially holding my attention. After a season under the watchful gaze of the North Bank mural in 1992-93, the site of scaffolding seemed scarcely remarkable. But on television, under the lights, the increase of red seats from round to round seem to analogise the momentum the team were building as the competition progressed.

Due to an anomalous quirk in competition rules, Arsenal also wore their beautifully eye catching yellow away kit for the quarter-final home tie with Torino. The hue of those bright yellow shirts under Highbury’s beaming lights made for an intoxicating television filter. This was also the first season of names and squad numbers on shirts, furthering the sense of exoticism. Arsenal’s away tie with Torino kicked off at 5.30pm on a Wednesday evening. At that time, I spent weekday afternoons at my Godmother’s house until my mother returned from work. She used to collect me every evening at about 6.30pm.

On this particular evening, that timeslot presented me with a problem. Though it was only a ten minute drive home, I knew the journey time would cause me to miss the beginning of the second half. I literally could not bear to be separated from the game for even that small portion of time. I had a fairly primitive television adapter for my Game Gear (the clunkier, slightly less glamorous precursor to the Gameboy). I rarely used it, its ineffectiveness rendering it a redundant piece of technology.

But on this occasion, I was willing to persevere. I cradled this awkward piece of kit in the back seat of the car, frantically waving it hither and thither in order to maintain some semblance of reception. I played fast and loose with traffic etiquette, the long adapter aerial pointing out of the car window, inviting precious electromagnetic waves to infuse the archaic device with life. Like an orchid swaying gently in the wind, begging to be pollinated by an errant insect.

Parma defeated Ajax in the quarter-finals, while PSG swatted Benfica and Real Madrid aside. In the age of the Gazprom Mastercard Champions League, it is easy to forget just how formidable the opposition was in this particular tournament. The 1994 World Cup was edging ever closer and the Cup Winners Cup served as a kind of induction to the world game for this primary school age Arsenal fan. These ties proved to be invaluable seminars, slowly building my knowledge for that summer’s soiree in the US of A.

When the semi-final against PSG arrived, my mother finally relented in the face of my bellyaching, as I once again begged her to let me attend the match. It was my first ever game under the lights at Highbury. I ought to have been intoxicated by this new experience, of watching Arsenal in a semi-final under the glare of the Highbury floodlights. But in truth, much of it totally passed me by.

Famously, the ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ chant had been born in the away leg against PSG, as the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of ‘Go West’ was blasted over the public address system at half time in the Parc des Princes. The 1994 Cup Winners Cup saw the very peak of Graham’s metronomic back five (David Seaman was as much a part of that unit as anybody else), as some of the globe’s foremost attacking talent toiled in front of this red and white clad Maginot Line. ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ was a haughty song of tuneful defiance.

But I associate the latter rounds of that competition with bladder crushing tension. Arsenal took an early lead against PSG in the semi-final second leg (the first leg had finished 1-1). I recall Kevin Campbell’s goal providing a temporary release valve for what was otherwise, 89 minutes of torture, as Arsenal repelled the likes of Valdo, Raí and Ginola. Celebrations were slightly tempered by a mindless yellow card picked up by Ian Wright, meaning that he would be suspended for the final.

I vividly recall the stadium taking a collective breath in as he lunged into the Achilles of Alain Roche. There was an inhalation domino effect, the force of the collective sigh almost sucking the air from your lungs. When I watch the footage back of the referee brandishing the card, I am struck by the audible expressions of disbelief. The word “NO!” seems to echo and tumble from the stands, but it’s not a “NO!” of dissension or protest, it’s one of incredulity. Yet I also remember the fist pumping, stranger hugging delight of the final whistle. I hadn’t seen a game of this importance or tension at Highbury before.

I watched the final against Parma through my fingers. It was the most stomach knotting, nerve shredding 90 minutes of football I have ever witnessed. The sense of relief once it was all over overwhelmed me, the happiness didn’t really sink in until my mum showed me the back pages the next morning. Manchester United endured a difficult European Cup campaign and Norwich City’s giant killing of Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup had been the fairytale du jour for the British press. Nobody really paid Arsenal much mind against the might of Parma and PSG.

At least that was how it felt- football fans are conditioned into thinking that “the media” take a deliberate and studied dislike to their team. Yet I distinctly remember feeling as though being routinely ignored by the rest of the country made the victory that much sweeter. The British press still had a troubled relationship with Graham’s Arsenal, which had become increasingly dour and one dimensional since the European Cup exit to Benfica in 1991. The feeling, however authentic, of being the country’s unwanted stepson redoubled the significance of the victory for me in the playground.

It felt uniquely and uniformly ours. Nobody else had the right to claim it as a British triumph in Europe. Whilst the chant (and subsequent season review VHS title) ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ encapsulated the victory rather nicely, Arsenal showed more dimensions than critics, both contemporary and modern, realised. Graham implemented a formation in that moved effortlessly between a 4-3-3 and a 4-5-1, which differed greatly from their meat and potatoes 4-4-2 setup on the domestic scene. Arsenal scored 17 goals in the competition, only four of which were scored by talisman Ian Wright (a total matched by Kevin Campbell).

In hindsight, it was George Graham’s last hurrah at the club. Thereafter the scales tipped too heavily towards workmanlike midfielders, a stifling back four, with only the goals of Ian Wright to arouse the senses. It also proved to be Alan Smith’s final contribution of significance in an Arsenal shirt. One of the club’s most underrated sons earning one last day in the sun. Smith and Graham’s associations with the club would end during the proceeding twelve months, but the bonds of the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup win remain unbreakable- for me at least.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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