The day didn’t begin well.
As well as being Cup Final day, 17th May is also my girlfriend’s birthday. I’d successfully negotiated my attendance at the game but it required me to cook a 3-course meal for her and some friends the night before. This, I’d managed without (much of) a hitch and a good time was had by all. After the now-traditional period of dancing to Soca music, we called it a night around 2.30am.
Having been informed that the small child of the couple that were staying with us overnight would be up and about by 6.30am, I’d thoughtfully placed some ear plugs by my bed. I wasn’t starting the biggest day in the last 8 years of Arsenal history without a proper night’s sleep.
Five minutes later, the adorable Orrin was tickling my feet and giggling. He calls me “The Man” but I felt like more like “The Vegetable”, having been asleep for barely 4 hours.
Lunch with the birthday girl and her mother was pleasant enough but it seemed strange to be sitting at a fancy restaurant at 1pm on the day Arsenal would, once again, visit Wembley just one win away from a trophy. Still, I exchanged pleasant conversation as best I could, sipping water carefully, so as to avoid revealing – to myself as much as anyone – the extent of my hangover. Today was going to be hard.
The train journey from Farringdon to Wembley took more than an hour and I was late for my arranged meeting with my Dad – the official Provider Of Ticket for the game. I scampered up Wembley Way with increasing urgency, my body beginning to shake with nerves.
Dad wasn’t there.
I panicked – phoned him – no answer.
I phoned my mate Elric – the most optimistic man I know – at least he would get the positivity flowing. He’d had a personal emergency and wasn’t coming to the game at all.
Dad did eventually turn up and in we went. 10 minutes into the game and I wished he hadn’t bothered.
I’m a big one for superstition. Only in football, I might add, but it really does affect me, especially on these big days. The two soft goals that Hull’s centre backs scored early on, right down in front of us, left me in no doubt. The heavens weren’t aligned, someone’s chakra was out of place in their aura or whatever and we were going to blow our chance of silverware again. At least, I told myself, it wasn’t the last minute agony we had in the League Cup against Birmingham. We had plenty of time to get back into the game but one more mistake and we were done for. One more.
Kieran Gibbs saved us. A floated header from the near side looped up, over most of the defence and was dropping in at the far post, until it was calmly headed away by our lovely left back.
I’ve seen Arsenal play a lot this season and one thing has always been clear to me about the way they play. Once the pattern has been established, it doesn’t change – it can’t change. There are not enough leaders on the pitch to change it. But it did change. Not quickly – or indeed, very convincingly – but we began to play better.
I was unconvinced by the choice of Santi Cazorla to take the free kick. It just didn’t seem like the right angle for him. When he struck the ball over the wall and into the top right hand corner, I found myself making that noise that fans from other countries make. Not “Yes” or “Yeah” as is the ecstatic cry of the English football fan but “Gol” or, in this case, “OHHHHH” to signify the quality and sheer brilliance of the strike. Maybe I was a little surprised but it was a great goal and the response was one of relief. It was still the first half and the difference was now only a goal.
Half time brought a return for a familiar pursuit of mine that day. Water, I must have water. The hangover was one thing but commentating – on a pulsating first half – was quite another. Trudging around the Wembley concourse in search of the expertly-hidden free drinking water supply, I overheard many conversations. There wasn’t much in the way of happiness.
Arsenal are the only football club in England for whom the media maintain a publically available running count of the amount of time since they have won a trophy of note. No-one knows why, but the man in the street just doesn’t seem to care when Aston Villa last won the League or when West Bromwich Albion previously lifted the Cup. It’s a mysterious obsession, especially given the fact that footballing success in the modern era is more about bank balances than anything else but every man, woman and child in this country knows that the Mighty Arsenal have gone 9 years without a big bit of metal to take home.
The impact of this public shaming is that a lot of Arsenal fans are more than a little anxious and it often seems to have the effect of causing mass apoplexy. Everywhere I went, I heard people raging about “what we should do” or how “Arsene Wenger has to go this time, surely?”. I was feeling rather better when the half time whistle went than I was 35 minutes before but the sound of these expert complainers was bringing me back down. Did they not realise it was only half time? Could they not conceive of a way in which we might score another goal and maybe go on to win the FA Cup in around an hour?! Maybe I was the deluded one?
The second half began in a similar vein to the way the first had ended. We looked to be playing a little too slowly and carefully – the players, Ozil in particular, unwilling to take any risks in getting the ball forward for fear of further mistakes. A change was needed. All I could hear around me were the names of Rosicky and Wilshere being muttered to friends. Everyone, it seemed, knew exactly what was required. Then, the manager acted. He brought on Yaya Sanogo.
I wouldn’t say the reaction of the fans was negative – it was just silence. Plain, stunned, disbelieving silence. Surely the man who makes the decisions knew what we all knew? That Sanogo isn’t good enough? That 4-4-2 is dead? That what we needed was more drive from midfield, not another striker? I feared the worst, but Yaya changed the game. Not by being the most accomplished player on the pitch but by causing the Hull defence problems and by giving Olivier Giroud someone to work with. For too long, our lone striker had struggled to control the ball up front and make it stick – now, he had help.
When Laurent Koscielny turned and swept the loose ball into the net from a corner, we all thought we’d win it. The doubters had vanished, replaced by believers – their faith earned by a bundled goal from a dubious corner. Good old football.
But we failed to get the winner and we would have to watch another half an hour.
The first period of extra time was similar to the semi-final against Wigan – cagey, careful, a few tired legs on both sides. Giroud’s header against the bar aside, this game had penalties written all over it. But then.
I only really found out what actually happened when I saw the highlights the next day. My commentary dissolved into a morass of “ooh”s and “aah”s, finished off with something like “a shot” and then I don’t know what. All I can tell you is that I couldn’t feel my fingers. The celebrations were explosive around me. In me. I couldn’t breathe. All of my blood was in my head at the same time and wouldn’t budge. I leaned against the railing in front of me, desperately trying to calm down. It was too much. In. Out.
When I eventually came around, we had 10 minutes to hang on. A few moments of sensible defending against Hull City and we had won the Cup. Our goalkeeper had other ideas. Per Mertesacker – the imperious German who we’ve all come to love so much – slipped and fell in several, agonising instalments and the ball ran free down the Hull left. Then I saw him – a man dressed all in green was running, way out of the penalty area towards the ball. I’d have thought that a fan had invaded the pitch if I wasn’t acutely aware that that was the kit worn by our hero-villain with the gloves, Lukasz Fabianski. The crazed man in green missed the ball and it was surely all over. Another moment of lunacy – probably his last, and most certainly his finest – had cost us the game and the Cup.
But the shot missed. I turned to my Dad and realised that every single Arsenal fan had their hands on their head in disbelief. “How the hell are you still alive?”, I said to my father. “I’m close to having a heart attack and you’re nearly 70!”.
A few more moments ticked by and the whistle went. We won the Cup.
The trophy was presented and celebrations were had. Those fans that had been at the game and were travelling back into town on the train were stunned into virtual silence. Physically and emotionally exhausted, we dragged ourselves to Holloway Road where the cars were sounding their horns, flags were waving and songs were being sung.
When I returned home, I could barely make a sound, my voice having given up on the idea due to the stress.
Nine years may not seem like a very long time to go without a trophy for most football fans but for us Arsenal fans, it felt like an eternity.