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.”