FA Cup Trail:
FA Cup Quarter Final, 08/03/03
Team: 1. David Seaman 12. Lauren 5. Martin Keown 23. Sol Campbell 16. Gionvanni van Bronkhorst 8. Frederik Ljunberg 4. Patrick Viera 15. Ray Parlour 17. Edu 9. Francis Jeffers 14. Thierry Henry
Scorers: Jeffers 37, Henry 45
Team: 23. Carlo Cudicini 15. Mario Melchiot 13. William Gallas 26. John Terry 3. Celestine Babayaro 30. Jesper Gronkjaer 8. Frank Lampard 17. Emmanuel Petit 20. Jody Morris 9. Jimmy Floyd Hasslebank 25. Gianfranco Zola
Scorers: Terry 3, Lampard 84
Referee: P. Durkin
Crowd: 38,104 (official)
Conditions: Grey, damp, windy
Entry: (£29.00 adults) £40.00 from a tout
Programme: £2.50 for 68 pages in full colour with 2 staples with A3 poster insert of Jeffers
Refreshments: Hot Chocolate and Coffee £1.20, Crisps 70p, Huge Lion Bar 80p
Distance travelled: 87 miles to Oakwood and then Tube (8 stops, £3.70 return)
"The library at High Wycombe"
By Baz Barry
Just when we think we've experienced most aspects of being a fan of football, along comes this FA Cup Trail to give us a new episode in our footballing education. Actually, until Saturday afternoon I hadn't really got down to working through all those experiences, but standing outside Highbury before kick-off feeling as conspicuous as a Brussel sprout on a lemon soufflé I had plenty of time to realise I hadn't encountered this at a football match before. Have you ever loitered outside a stadium asking strangers if they had any spare tickets with a typically British mix of apology and reservedness? It's not normal and I felt thoroughly uncomfortable.
I also had a heavy feeling of foreboding that without tickets the Trail would end. All our efforts over the previous weeks to secure tickets through fair means and sometimes foul had met with a wall of complete indifference. Perhaps I am too close to our escapade but we had hoped our unusual journey might appeal to the better nature of those who we contacted but, no, apart from one message from a lady at Arsenal whose Granddad lives in Long Buckby, we didn't get one reply.
I'd even made a flying visit to Highbury on a weekday afternoon to see if I could meet someone in person but all I found was a dinosaur of an operation being run by bored-looking, unfriendly employees seemingly wanting to be somewhere else. I even went into the famed marble halls, which are small and pokey and little different from the library at High Wycombe. Except at the library you are greeted politely and attentively rather than finding a lady in shell suit who eventually and begrudgingly paused her telephone conversation before bluntly stating she couldn't help. It was quite an eye opener. Here is the world famous Arsenal Football Club at the pinnacle of our national game with its high profile image and multi-million pound superstars, when in reality it's underpinned by uninspired staff constrained by an aura of grime, darkness and decay.
It was pretty much the same outside the ground on Saturday, dealing with touts for the first time in our lives. It was another new footballing experience with a steep learning curve on how to interact with some characteristically dodgy geezers. For a start, we soon learnt not to expect any eye contact or being spoken to directly, just quiet words out of the corner of their mouths. As the buyer, we felt we were treated with the apparent suspicion of being undercover policemen and, regardless of any proof, all the touts were always on the move and looking over our shoulders, presumably for the nearest copper. Otherwise it was a game of bluff and barter to gauge what was on sale and at what price but always with the shortest of shifty conversations.
A work colleague of Dave's had paid £200 for a ticket from an agency the day before, so it was encouraging to learn the prices were down to £100 or so when we arrived outside Arsenal station. Still too much for us but a move in the right direction. We then spent the next fifty minutes wandering around the ground checking at the ticket office, with stewards, the police and even other punters trying to get tickets directly but it was a fruitless task. With half an hour to go we found a touted pair of seats for £100 but Dave had heard one tout complaining that trade was bad so we gambled that if we held our nerve, the price might come down a tad more.
Five minutes before kick-off and, with the sound from the ground of the teams coming on to the pitch, we were approached by a tout. Until then we had always made the first contact so we were somewhat taken aback by the role reversal and jumped at the chance of paying £40 each for £30 tickets. On reflection we should have haggled but you live and learn. The three of us quickly ducked behind a van for the exchange of cash away from the gaze of any police before we headed off to the other side of the stadium with the proverbial spring in our step.
Our FA Cup Trail was alive again.
The seats were at the back of the lower tier of the West Stand, close to the half way line and opposite the dugouts. They gave us the strangest perspective on a game I've ever encountered. The angle of the upper tier makes the roof of the lower section slope down resulting in a very slim, abridged view of the pitch. It was like watching from the back row of a darkened bird hide. Shared with seven thousand others. Sitting down, you could just about make out the first row of the Directors' Box opposite but standing up you couldn't even see the top of the goals. There was no glimpse of the sky, or the floodlights, or the rest of the stadium. It was very, very strange.
Having got to our seats just as an unmarked Terry scored with a looping header, we were then able to witness what I read later was a classic cup match. Personally I couldn't get in to the game, presumably because we were sitting with Gooner fans whose reactions to the play were contrary to the way we wanted to behave. Don't forget that Dave is a Chelsea fan and my dark allergy to all things Arsenal has been documented previously.
So it's with a resulting air of detachment that I found having time to watch the Chelsea players for the first time and I am able to report that Babayaro badly messed up for the first Arsenal goal; Jody Morris is a midget and even smaller than Zola; Gronkyaer can't cross; both Gallas and Terry were immense at the heart of the Chelsea defence; and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbank has a huge bottom.
Prior to Saturday I've only ever seen him on television and he looked a normal kind of guy. In the flesh he's got what must surely be the biggest bum in football. It moves like two badgers bonking under a blue blanket and it dominated my attention for most of the match. Maybe that's why I couldn't get into the game.
For Arsenal, the weasel Jeffers took his customary tumble in the area and, as all around us celebrated the penalty, we knew it had to be a dive. The impressive Cudicini ensured justice was done.
And then there is Thierry Henry.
He is the most scintillating of players, when he wants to be, probably the best in the country but there's something missing with his psyche. Afterwards he was quoted as being sorry for letting down his colleagues twice, once for the missed penalty and then when he hit the post. In reality, there was a third time on about sixty minutes, when he gave up playing. He had enough and stopped. Shortly before, he looked at his teammates in disgust after they were unable to react to yet another unbelievable bit of magic. He then went on two amazing pitch-length runs, full of wizardry and sublime skill, but both came to nothing. In fact, for the second sprint he was overtaken by Gronkyaer, which possibly had a bigger influence on his obvious sulk. He immediately signaled to the bench that he wanted to come off, pointing to his chest and then spent the next ten minutes moping around by the half way line. The Arsenal dugout were having none of it and didn't make his substitution for a good ten minutes when they were sure all his teddies were out of the pram. Later, on being asked whether the loss of Henry had changed the game, Wenger pointedly replied that he didn't replace Henry by choice and the Frenchman had injured his calf. Yeah, right. Henry played on Tuesday night against Roma.
We left shortly after Chelsea scored the equaliser and we have our first replay to cover. Hurrah. Without tempting fate, because the tickets haven't arrived yet, it appears we may have secured two seats already from our first port of call - the Chelsea web site where seats were on sale on Monday to non-members.
And talking of avoiding "tempting fate", I am too superstitious to mention it directly but you can guess why I can't help thinking I know this year's FA Cup Finalists? Having been at the Vic on the Sunday, I need to discipline my daydreaming and concentrate on forming elaborate plans involving motorbikes hurtling down the M6 on a Sunday afternoon to transport us in an hour from Old Trafford to Villa Park.
I close with a weird co-incidence that has contributed to this bizarre feeling that this FA Cup Trail, made by a Chelsea fan and a Watford fan, is blessed by fate. Like many clubs nowadays, Arsenal issue their tickets with the purchaser's name printed on the front. The two tickets we bought from our tout were in the name of...Mr. Barry!