I was sitting in the Holiday Inn, London, one Saturday in May. It was once upon a time and so far away but the memory of that day will live with me for ever.
I was minding my own business except for a few hurried exchanges with Joe my pal sitting opposite. You know him as RockyLives. We were in our late teens, out of our depth in the high ceilinged marbled opulence of probably the swankiest hotel we’d been in up to that point.
I was a bit peeved with Joe because he seemed oblivious to the weight of what was to happen in the next few minutes (ie, meeting a total stranger to receive two football match tickets in exchange for a wad of sterling that I was guarding with my life, petrified I’d lose it and f*** up the whole weekend).
Just then I spied Bob Stokoe (the former Sunderland manager) sitting alone at breakfast – the only other occupant of that huge dining room. He had charmed the nation when his team – then in the Second Division – beat mighty Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup Final and he ran and danced onto the pitch at full time wearing his trademark trilby hat. I did not realise at the time that spotting Mr Stokoe would turn out to be an omen.
We, all three in that room, were planning to go to a match later on that afternoon. The date was May 12th 1979, Arsenal (Joe’s team) v Man Utd (mine). Joe was one of three kids from a London-Irish Mum and Dad in Charlton, South London; I was a snotty nosed Dubliner over for the biggest weekend of my life. We had met on one of his summer trips back to the ‘aul sod’ when we were gangly teens and had remained firm friends notwithstanding the fact he was a ‘Gooner.’
Anyway, the PA announcement came (“Would Mr Fitzgerald please go the reception desk”) and I exchanged money for two black market tickets from a sinister looking guy who said thanks and disappeared into the London crowd. We were excited, so much so that we were literally tongue-tied for a while and waiting for the excitement to settle into something manageable. So off we went, winding our way to Wembley, the sun in our gleaming expectant faces.
The match (premium seats, 12 rows up from the Queen) was dull fare except for those last 10 minutes or so. With Arsenal 2-0 up and time running out I was feeling down, but just before McQueen got one goal back for United in the 86th I looked to the United supporters, a vast bank of red curving endlessly behind the goal Utd were attacking. It took me out of my mood and I sensed hope.
Then, two minutes after McQueen’s goal: “McIllroy must score, he has scored,” and I can still see the ball trickling in surreal slow motion just inside the post. Then delirium. I hopped over the wooden banisters and met a screaming young lad running down the steps who literally leaped on top of me and we hugged. Looking over his shoulder I could see his Mum and Dad with rosettes and wooden clackers and all. Back over the banisters and I had just sat down to still my beating heart when something even more surreal happened.
Arsenal resumed: kick off, one pass, one cross, one almighty lunge and Alan Sunderland is the hero: the match is over and nobody can believe what they’re seeing. How do you process that? You don’t, not then, not for a good while (it’s only now as I write this that I’m thinking: was the fact of seeing Bob Stokoe – a man synonymous with the name Sunderland – in the hotel dining room, looking aloof and alone somehow a weird and prophetic omen, one that only reveals itself in hindsight?).
The journey home was in some kind of trance, I spoke to a stranger on the tube, we couldn’t believe it. I think Joe and I were silent for the most part, each trying, I guess, to make sense, to try and process something that we couldn’t even begin to articulate.
Looking back, it seems like it was a kind of watershed, a moment bridging two eras. The old flat cap and rosettes had all but disappeared, Thatcher was coming on, sweeping the entire country into a new economic and cultural arena. The occasion was closer in time to the moon landing than the fall of communism. The eighties came and a new cold wind was blowing in football: the Heysel disaster came a few years into that decade and then four years later the Hillsborough disaster. Football had lost its innocence. Arsenal v Man Utd ’79 was both an ending and a beginning, bookending the seventies.
Fast forward to the 7th of April 2007 and my elder son, Alex, is a fervent Arsenal supporter, swayed by ‘The Invincibles’ (I was powerless to prevent it!) and he is attending his first game at the Emirates on his tenth birthday (this time Joe got the tickets). Arsenal are entertaining West Ham and Bobby Zamora stabs Alex in the heart that day as Sunderland had done to me all those years ago.
He cried inconsolably. We went to the El Commandante pub near the ground afterwards and he was still sobbing. From amongst the packed crowd a young (twentyish) lad saw my son’s distress, put a consoling arm around him, said “Don’t worry mate, I know you’re real Arsenal, I can see you’re going to to be real Gooner,” and pinned one of his Arsenal badges on his scarf.
I was moved by that warm, big-hearted gesture. It was a reminder that we love our teams, we’re tribal but part of a bigger picture, a bigger family, a worldwide family. And the lesson he learned that day is one we all learn at some point in how to deal with real stomach churning disappointment so we can share the good times all the more.
United in defeat, united in victory. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis: “The pain now is part of the joy after.”
Thank you Liam – first for the ticket to that splendid day back ’79 😀
And second for a terrific read that brings back many, many happy memories.
The ‘goals scored’ stat really tells the story of that afternoon:
Talbot – 12′
Stapleton – 43′
McQUEEN – 86′
McILROY – 88′
SUNDERLAND – 89′
Three goals in three minutes that raised up young Liam and all the ManU fans from the depths of despair to the heights of ecstasy and then slapped them right back down again.
One abiding memory of that day, Liam, is how decent you were afterwards. You must have been raging inside but took it with good grace and allowed me to enjoy a magical day.
Liam. Thank you so much for that excellent read, which reminds us that whatever colours we wear, we all share the emotions of triumph and disaster in much the same way. To your credit, you recognise the value of that over and above narrow tribalism.
Thanks Liam (Great name by the way… and a Dublin boy).
Like you, we on this site are oft moved by tales of the World wide family of football in particular and sport in general.
I attended that memorable Final with our Dad, leaving my one year old daughter with our sister to enjoy a sunny picnic in the garden.
“The boys WILL be happy when they get home, Catherine” said my sister. And we were.
Benneach Leat Liam…..a beautifully nostalgic post and vary salient in today’s climate of fatigue, despair, and doubt. You have said in a few eloquent words what all true Football fans feel after every match. The Beautiful Game is a reflection of life in general.
1979 was my first Cup Final.
It had never occurred to me in 1971 that it was even possible to actually go to a final yourself, so I just watched it on the box.
And I was unable to secure tickets in 1978 and 1980 (a good thing in hindsight).
I missed out on the Sheffield Wednesday final in 1993.
But since then I’ve been lucky enough to attend quite a few:
1998, 2002, 2003, 2005
Missed the 2014 final, then:
That’s seven FA Cup finals I’ve been to, with Arsenal winning six of them (Liverpool in Cardiff being the only defeat – and we were properly Scouse-mugged for that one); what a lucky boy I have been… and it all started with Liam getting me that ticket 42 years ago.
Every League Cup and FA Cup ( except Newcastle) Final since 1968, plus Copenhagen and Paris. You certainly missed only heartache in 78 and 80, Rocky.
That’s impressive LBG.
I also got to the League Cup Final in ‘87 (hooray) and the UEFA Cup Final in Copenhagen in ‘99 (boo).
I feel the need to ask… why did you miss Newcastle ’98?
Right at the end of my teaching career. Had organised a trip for the year group ( 14 year olds) I had responsibility for, in Northern France. The Cup Final coincided with the “preview” weekend for this trip. I was with three women colleagues in a beautiful French chateau where we were to be based. Having dealt with the business details required for the trip, I excused myself ( they had tea and cakes, provided for by the chateau), and sat by their lake ( full of giant carp), and listened to the match on my transistor.
Ant and Duck ( my Bros) went to the Final and we have, as always with the Vines Boys, a fantastic set of photos of their trip. The Geordie Boys were of course great fun on the day.
You did ask.
I remember the Barcode fans being good sports as well.
I think they knew they were on a hiding to nothing.
From memory it was a baking hot day and I was sitting in the front row in full sun for the whole game having had plenty of beer beforehand.
I remember having a mule-kick of a headache but not really caring.
The headache went away at some point during the post-match drinking… it must have been withdrawal symptoms.
A phenomenal Post, written from the heart, and with great memories attached.
Rocky has a well deserved reputation for his astoundingly consistent Posts, and if I may say so, I think you share a similar talent.
Your long standing and close friendship with Rocky touches on the arbitrary nature of how we select a team to support. and it is possible to do so without rancour, as you will know having had a double down on this with your friend, and latterly with your own son. Phenomenal story, thank you.
To all the people who read the article ‘ My Fever Pitch’ and were kind enough to post their appreciation a sincere and heartfelt thanks. I got as much pleasure from the comments as I did writing the article.
Thanks again, and good luck in the Europa. Remember it could be us v youz in which case Rocky( joe) and Me are going to have to do it all over again and were not getting any younger you know.