Today was the day. I suppose I had waited for this day all my life. Sure I’ve attended other football matches, a European Championship Group match and an international friendly, featuring the mighty Brazil. Yet, this topped them all. Why? Perhaps because I was forfilling a life long childhood dream. Going to a final (of questionable sorts) with my Dad. My Dad is not the biggest football fan, but he does try and for this he deserves great credit. When I got offered these tickets, there was little doubt in my mind, on who I would be taking along. Going somewhere new and explored also added a sense of intrigued to this adventure.
I crawled out of bed just after 6am, on a Sunday morning, this was early. Suddenly it dawn on me the full prospect of the day, yet I had little time to reflect on this moment. I had things to do. Rushing upstairs, I went to wake up my Dad. Then, I quickly had some cereal, constantly watching the clock, to make sure we left the house as early as humanly possible. After a quick shower, I was surprised by the lack of noise and movement from my Dad’s room, so went to his room, to wake him up again. Talk about role reversal, it should be the parent dragging the child out of bed! Thankfully we left the house at 7.20am and were on the M4 by 7.30am. Already the signs were there of a beautiful day. The sun shone brightly, across a clear bright blue sky. Magical. An Escort drove past, with Arsenal flags waving in the air, from both rear windows. I tried my best to catch up and just flash my headlights at them, but they were in a hurry and I did not have the patience for the chase. Driving at a steady, 70 miles an hour, I was listening to Spoony on BBC Radio One. My Dad had drifted off to sleep, leaving me to concentrate on the road and take in the picturesque views of this green and pleasant land. Being a town boy, I think I have come to lack an appreciation for the countryside. It is only when you are out on the road that you truly understand that this country is rural.
This has to be one of best drives, ever. The traffic was light, the views were breathtaking and at the end of the road, was a dream. Watching my team play football for the first time in six years. There was the waving and thumbs up, given to other Arsenal fans. There was the sneering glances exchanged with Chelsea fans, most of whom appeared to be driving nearly new BMW. Perhaps the big man, is spreading some of his wealth far and wide in the football club. This was to be my first time in Cardiff, although not my first time across the border to Wales. While I am sure many people have their views on this country, I think it is beautiful.
As we approached the border, we took the Severn Bridge, which has a toll charge of £4.80 for cars. Thankfully I had some cash on me (rare for me, as I’m predominately a card person these days!) I was hoping my Dad would have taken some photos, but he was sound asleep and while I would have managed a quick snap with my phone camera, it would have done little justice to the view. After the bridge, we were in Welsh country. Noticeable by the dual language signage. We were making excellent time and I was glad that we had, correction, I had taken the decision to leave at such an ungodly hour. We pulled into the Arsenal Park & Ride car park, just before 9.30am, and had a prime spot. All this for £5, not bad! As we got out of the car, my body came to the sudden shock that it had driven around 140 miles, none stop. Looking at the clock on my mobile (I had left my watch back home for obvious reasons) I commented to my Dad how we had made perfect time. Getting onto the bus, we were shocked at how close the city centre was, from the school we had just parked at. In the distance, I could see the towering arches of the stadium. We had arrived.
A handful of other fans had followed our lead, to get here early. As we walked down the main shopping street. Merchandise sellers were selecting prime slots for their stalls. The shops were closed and most would not open until 11am. We needed a quick light breakfast. While I was looking for a local café, nothing suitable was available or open. So, there was no option, we walked back to the bigger Star Bucks. While I could go into detail about chasing the corporate, or should that be corporate pound, I will refrain. This sort of discussion is more suited to the politically motivated blogs, such as Xercs. Unlike my Dad, a coffee drinker, I just had a medium cup of Earl Grey Tea. While my Dad opted for a jazzy named, wake me up potion, under the banner of some wild bean cappuccino. I was not really that hungry, but opted for an Apple & Cinnamon muffin, while my Dad had some carrot cake. Sitting outside, we planned what we were to do with our day. Taking charge, I proposed the following. A walk across to the stadium, to find our Gate. Then, a quick ride on the sightseeing tour bus, then lunch, then a few drinks in the pub before the big kick off.
We had seen the sight seeing open tour bus, parked up next to the castle, but thought nothing of it at the time. We were too busy trying to track down the stadium entrance. It was later in the morning, when we realised that we had so much time to ourselves that my Dad insisted we pop on the bus for a ride. There was no other way were going to see the sights of this great city. On foot our options were limited, and the heavy police presence meant we were under constant close scrutiny and for good reason. We headed onto the top deck of the bus and like a school kid, my Dad headed right to the back. We sat on the right hand side, as a Arsenal fan ahead of us commented that Chelsea fans were sitting on the other side, to the left!
You all know how I loved the return of Dr. Who to our television screens this spring.(Oh how I miss the Time Lord on Saturday evenings!) So my trip to Cardiff was also a minor pilgrimage. The episode Boom Town was filmed entirely on location in Cardiff. With the TARDIS arriving, outside the majestic Millennium Centre. This is sight that can only be given true justice by being seen in real life. My photographs do little to capture the power of the building and the beautiful inscription, in both English and Welsh.
Cardiff is beautiful, and it is amazing to learn that the bay has been completely redeveloped from derelict marsh land, to a buzzing residential, business and entertainment centre, in recent years. So much so, that one acre of land sold for £2 million recently, in a plan to build luxury flats. As we drove across this part of time, we came up to one of two five star hotels in the city. Chelsea were using this as their base for the afternoon game. In the car park, there was a shiny silver Mercedes, with the number plate 2 ROW. No idea to whom it may belong, if you have any ideas, please let me know.
It is only in the past eight months that I have been exposed to such a cocktail of people. The nature of the job means, on a daily basis I speak to representatives from Ireland, Scotland, all across England and last but not least Wales. There are a few clients whom I have got to know well, and you pick up their “talking” style. For the Welsh, it is the customary, ‘is it’, which they seem to add to the end of every sentence, that deserves a question. Funnily enough, after our sightseeing tour of the city, my Dad and I had earned quite an appetite. We hunted around for a nice eating establishment to have a drink, and quick bite to eat. In the end, we strolled into a quite bar towards the back of the main street of bars and pubs. It was quite, with only a handful of fans in. As I walked in, I was stopped in my tracks by the doorman. My camera case had come to his attention and he asked to take a look inside. I had no problem with this, but he took the time to look me in the eye and explain, that in the current climate it was a necessary precaution. I understood, and opened my bag, to reveal my digital camera. We went upstairs and found a seat and ordered our food.
After lunch, we headed for the bar that my colleague at work had recommended. The Albert had now become the Yard. I called him and explained where we were. In the end, we gave up waiting, got a drink, while we soaked up the beautiful summer shine in the courtyard at the back of the bar. A large contingent of Chelsea fans had gathered. They must have been drinking for some time, for they had become quite animated, yet the atmosphere was quite friendly. A handful of diehard fans, started chanting various songs, to get themselves and the rest of us into the mood. It was approaching 3pm fast and we had to get a move on now.
The moment we had been waiting for, as we came across to Gate 7, I quickly purchased a programme and then followed my Dad to the stalls. My bag was searched again, but that was to be excepted. There were quite a few fans still making their way to their seats, but I presumed that most of the Chelsea contingent, had already taken their seats. As we stepped out into the stadium, I was amazed by the view and the atmosphere. Words can never truly describe what my eyes could see, and what my ears could hear. Taking our seats, just in time to watch the teams to come out. When we stood up to sing our national anthem, I felt a great sense of pride, if what somewhat misplaced. Here were are, the English singing our song, in the backyard of our Welsh cousins. As my players, took the FIFA handshake of friendship, my Dad offered his to shake my hand, in the deepest grated, for asking him along to share in this day. He was proud of me and for a split second, among those 58 thousand people, I felt like I should give my Dad a hug. Instead, there was no time for such father son bonding. The kick off was seconds away and the moment, the spilt second we had waited for, the referee blew his whistle and the football, all 90 minutes was slowly ticking away.
Prior to the match, I was confident of an Arsenal victory. Perhaps even by the margin of two goals. From what I had seen of the team in pre-season, they looked like they were slowly getting their game together. Looking like a team difficult to beat, and deadly on the counter attack. Chelsea fans now seem to have an arrogance, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. The chants, which over the course of the match, became accustom to included, “Your Not Champions Any More!!” For them, it was going to script. Drogba scored within 8 minutes, which caught us on the back foot. Our end erupted the moment, took the ball, controlled the ball and smashed the ball passed Lenhamm. They deserved the lead, but I knew Arsenal had the character to return. Following the goal, Arsenal finally woke up, that while this game did not matter, pride was at stake. An early defeat to Chelsea would put us on the back foot for the visit to Stamford Bridge, in two weeks time. We pressured, but Chelsea were alert to all our attacking ideas. If I am honest, we did not having anything new to offer. It was at half time, with three substitutions that the Arsenal of old came back onto the field. Gilberto, providing the solid rock ahead our defence, and Hleb, on for his home debut (well as close as we can get) who was now able to pull the strings in midfield and pass the ball over to Reyes over on the weeks. We looked like a more exciting attacking force, with much more potential up front. Yet, our eagerness to push forward left us exposed at the back. Watching Didier score his second, was amazing. He looked like he had completely hashed it, as we pushed back in numbers to defend the goal mouth. Yet, he was still able to control the ball and place it into the net. Sometimes, you have to whole up your hands to talent. That was a quality goal, taken with skill and ability. As the saying goes, a great striker always keeps his composure in front of goal. Perhaps this is the second chance, he was hoping for. Let us hope that this is not the sign of things to come.
Then, after a spell of heavy pressure, Arsenal put together some moves that are so easy on the eye and we found the back of the net. A rather scrappy goal, but they all count. Our end of the ground fell silent and my Dad and I just looked at each other with a knowing smile. Looking across the pitch, we saw the thousands of Arsenal fans in red, yellow, blue and white cheering! It was a great sight, even if I wish I could have been over on that side of the stadium. We were back in the game, but did we have enough to push for an equaliser. There were doubts in my mind. We did not appear like the well old machine, whereas Chelsea seemed gelled, even with some many new players on display. The Blues seem ready for the season ahead, whereas we looked still tired, trying to get our games together. Never mind, this is just an over glorified pre-season friendly. The real football starts next weekend.
After the game, there was the next hurdle. The journey home. We got out as quickly as possible, opting not to wait for the shield presentation. We caught the second bus back to the car park and got into our cat at 5.30pm, pulling out of the school, I estimated with my Dad that we would be back in Wycombe by 8.30pm. Three hours, was an over estimate. The traffic heading back was heavy. Stop start. Yet, I had BBC Radio One to keep me company all the way home. My Dad drifted off to sleep again. I couldn’t blame him, it had been a long tiring day. We scrolled off the M4 at 9pm and did not get home until 10pm. My Dad insisting we stop for a takeaway, to take home. Overall, the perfect weekend. Sure, the score was not what I had wanted, but everything else fell perfectly into place. The weather was great, a warm hot summer’s day, a friendly atmosphere, with both rival fans on quite jovial terms, knowing this was more an exhibition match than anything else. My memory from the day, will be driving on the M4, past a car of Arsenal fans, and young guy around 16 in the back of the car, shaking his Arsenal scarf at me and giving a fist up for our team. I returned a knowing nod. We were down but not out! Let me end with my own twist on the phrase, enscribed on the Millennium Centre. In These Bones, Horizons Win.