Thursday, April 25, 2024

The night we sunk the Yellow Submarine

When Arsenal drew Villarreal in the 2006 Champions League semi-final, there wasn’t much time between the quarter-final and semi-final draw- certainly not enough to drag our feet over accommodation and travel options. Having travelled to every other Champions League game that season- not expecting that our European odyssey would take us this far, we were happy to settle for the least resource intensive option.

We booked on to one of the Arsenal Travel Club’s chartered flights, flying out on the morning of the game, include a coach transfer from Valencia airport and then we’d be ferried back to the airport and flown home immediately after the game. Usually, we prefer to make more of a trip of our European away excursions; but time was of the essence and, well, there was a potential trip to Paris to plan yet and we knew that would not be cheap.

One of the reasons I hate to fly on the day of the game is because it makes your margin for error smaller. Arsenal held a narrow 1-0 advantage from the first leg at Highbury, this particular evening was going to be tense enough without added travel anxiety. Transport anxiety is exactly what we got, however. Our plane had been due to depart at around 8.30am. By 11am, we still hadn’t taken off due to a fault with the plane doors.

Eventually we took off at 11.30am and arrived in Valencia- about an hour’s drive from El Madrigal- at around 3pm local time. The plan had been the spend the day on the beach front at Valencia before taking a coach transfer to the ground. We still got to spend an hour or so on the beachfront but we arrived just as the shutters on the bars and cafes were coming up for mid-afternoon siesta.

The day wasn’t really going to plan but nobody cared so long as Arsenal got the result they needed to qualify for their first ever Champions League Final. We took the coach transfer to the stadium but became embroiled in dreadful traffic- the wisdom of leaving Valencia at the height of the rush hour exposed. It soon became clear that we might not arrive in time for kickoff.

It was an additional anxiety I really could have done without- my nerves already frayed about the evening that lay ahead. On the coach journey to the stadium, while I fretfully checked the time every 30 seconds, one of our party, Kenny, was irritatingly bullish. Sensing my stony-faced torpor, he slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t look so nervous, we’re 90 minutes away from the final!”

To say I am an anxious person is an exceptional understatement. Anxiety is a paradoxical coping strategy for the worst-case scenario by imagining it over and over. When I feel anxious, I don’t want my bubble of apprehension to be pricked by jocularity. Kenny’s upbeat demeanour would prove to be a constant annoyance to me all evening.

The coach parked up near the stadium approximately 20 minutes before kickoff. The tension was broken a little by the carnival in the surrounding streets, thousands of Villarreal fans decked in yellow stopped to applaud our coach. Inflatable yellow submarines lined the streets. We leapt off the coach and I broke into a jog towards the turnstile.

“Just think, in two hours’ time, we’ll be celebrating!” Kenny exclaimed. “FUCK. OFF.” I responded, inwardly and silently. You will recall by now that the game was absolute torture as Villarreal laid siege on the Arsenal goal, which seemed to be protected by some kind of gypsy’s curse. Arsenal froze on the evening and quickly made a conscious decision to just try to defend.

Villarreal attacked again and again and again and I stood dancing from foot to foot, chewing my nails and checking off just about every physical manifestation of severe anxiety that you can think of. A Villarreal fan in the stand opposite ours had hung a Manchester United flag- presumably as a jibe- drastically overestimating the extent to which any of us gave a shit.

The atmosphere in the cramped away enclosure in the corner of El Madrigal soon fell silent, too pensive for anything other than the occasional bellow of “ARSENAL! ARSENAL! ARSENAL!” Like our team, we froze and just looked on helplessly as Villarreal camped in Arsenal’s final third. With each Villarreal miss, Kenny, stood immediately behind me, would chirp, “see! It’s our night!”

“FUCK. OFF.” I replied, this time very, very quietly, through gritted teeth so that he would not hear it but so I could just feel satisfied enough that I had allowed the words to pass my lips. With around five minutes to go, Jose Mari rose to meet a cross completely unmarked and it sailed towards the top corner. I instantly froze, my guts dropped as though they had been tossed from the top of a skyscraper.

The ball whistled wide. Mari grabbed it as it tumbled back towards him via the advertising hoarding and screamed towards the sky. I nearly fainted. Kenny grabbed me on the shoulder, “Nearly there! Their luck is out, it’s our night.” I couldn’t take his chipper mood any longer. “Please stop!” I pleaded. We all know what happened next as the clock ticked towards the 89th minute.

Villarreal were shooting towards the other end and our view was partially obstructed by a Perspex screen. But I saw a blur of yellow collapse in the area under the slightest duress from Gael Clichy. I watched the referee point to the spot and I just sat down in my seat for the first time that evening. The effort of standing was beyond me any longer. I began to contemplate extra time, the idea that Riquelme would miss literally never entered my mind.

Only later did I see the television highlights of the incident. Only later did I see Riquelme’s face, the face of a man locked in his own inner battle with anxiety, the voices in his head chanting the worst case scenario back at him over and over as he contemplated his run up.

As Riquelme spotted up, his brow mopped with sweat, Kenny put his hands under my armpits and lifted me to my feet. “He’s gonna save it, don’t worry.” “FUCK. OFF!” I answered, this time very outwardly and not at all silently. I didn’t want to hear it. Then. Suddenly, the whistle blew, Riquelme picked his side. FUCK! He’s saved it! I edged forwards, aware that the ball had rebounded out into the penalty area. Kolo Toure shepherded it towards Lehmann via Sol Campbell’s studs and the danger passed.

I scarcely recall a moment of such pandemonium inside a football stadium. I fell on top of the guys to my left (sorry, whoever you are) as my row tumbled like dominos. We were still leaping up and down when Henry missed a simple chance down in front of us seconds later. That few minutes was a total blur until the final whistle sounded and mayhem once again ensued.

I grabbed the guys to my left (sorry, whoever you are) and we shook each other with all of our strength. Jens Lehmann initially headed straight for the tunnel, until Kolo Toure grabbed him by the shirt and marched him towards the Arsenal enclosure, where he bashfully raised a hand as the travelling fans chanted his name with fervour.

As the initial chaos subsided, I turned around to find Kenny crumpled into his seat, weeping. “What the fuck are you crying about? You said this would happen!” I yelled, part incredulously and partly because I was still a little irritated by his persistent optimism. “I know,” he blubbed, “but I didn’t really believe it!”

I realised then that his sunny disposition was his cloak, the same way that my gnawing anxiety was mine. We were both trying to protect ourselves from our own anguish. The four of us who has travelled together, myself, Jon and Trevor (with whom I still sit to this day) and Kenny (who I have seen only once or twice since that evening) initiated the sort of group hug reserved for moments that define your entire life.

We literally danced into the streets outside the stadium, singing the soundtrack tune of our Champions League run. “We’re on our waaaaaaaaaay, we’re on our waaaaaaaaay, we’re going to Paris, we’re on our waaaaaaaaaay, how we get there we don’t know, how we get there we don’t care, all we know is we are on our waaaaaaaaaaaaaay!”

To their credit, the Villarreal fans maintained the sporting spirit that had seen them applaud us into the stadium, by applauding us out again on the narrow Castellón side streets. The hours of anxiety, the tears of celebration all gave way to the sort of shit eating grin you develop involuntarily in such moments as we made our way to the bus back to the airport.

I have been lucky in my Arsenal supporting life. I was there when Arsenal won the league at White Hart Lane (the second time) and Old Trafford, I have seen us win (and lose) many a cup final, I was there when we beat Inter 5-1 in the San Siro and when we beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. For pure euphoria nothing matches those closing moments of Villarreal 0 – 0 Arsenal and when I see that Jens Lehmann penalty save it’s not just a memory, I experience that joy again.

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