The day we played the champions

On Saturday we play in the FA Cup 3rd Round for the first time in a decade. Where did the time go? This time out, of course, it’s Sheffield United at home. Last time it was Arsenal; the champions of England away. It proved to be the last flickering light of hope before a long and painful period of darkness.

2003 FA CUP ROUND 3. ARSENAL v OXFORD UNITED (PROGRAMME)It had all gone a bit visceral; the seething caldron of the Kassam Stadium was behind me, I was on the Grenoble Road. Jefferson Louis had just got his head onto a Scott McNiven long throw and somehow, somehow the ball had squeaked in the back post. We’d beaten Swindon Town in the FA Cup. The Kassam Stadium was jumping for the first time in its short history. And, then, as if that wasn’t enough, we drew the champions of England; Arsenal at Highbury in the 3rd Round.

“Hoot your horn if you like that” screamed Jerome Sale on the radio, and, well, I did. Unknown to me, but clearly evident to the rest of the country watching live on TV, Jefferson Louis was showing his excitement by dancing around the Oxford dressing room naked in celebration.

Louis was particularly excited because he was an Arsenal fan, so was Firoz Kassam, or so it was said. It’s also said that Osama bin Laden was an Arsenal fan. Perhaps people were conflating the two, such was the general feeling towards the Oxford owner. But, with us leading the 3rd Division (League 2), having just beaten Swindon and having drawn the champions of England, I though that Kassam was getting it right. He’d always said that he’d get the stadium sorted first before investing in the team. A team to be proud of. It sounded reasonable, and now we were seeing the benefits. Good on that man.

I love Highbury, it’s a majestic stadium; a classic of its type, everything about English football is captured in Highbury for me. I used to go there when I was a child. People talked about its art deco styling, which was beautiful. I loved the dugouts; glass boxy things hugging the touchline. Like Subbuteo ones. They seemed only large enough to fit the manager, coach and one substitute. Like they were deliberately built for another age.

I remember Highbury in a sepia tone with the smell of Woodbines in the air and men in flat caps. This makes no sense, as I first went there in 1979 and nobody dressed like that and everything was in colour. Perhaps Highbury was the stories of my dad from the 50s and 60s along with my own limited childhood experiences of the late 70s and early 80s converged into one. It was soon to be confined to history. Construction on their new Ashburton Grove stadium would begin in the summer of 2003 signalling the end of the old place. I was genuinely sad about that. The draw had given me the perfect opportunity to say goodbye.

On the day I woke early, too early. Like Christmas when you’re a teenager, you know there’s no point in getting up, but your deep muscle memory tells you to. I’d just stopped working in London so took opportunity to first head to Berwick Street to do some record shopping before going to the ground.

The area around Highbury was like I’d remembered. The market stalls selling Arsenal ephemera; badly screen printed t-shirts and scarves, they didn’t have rosettes though, I used to love rosettes. I vaguely remember having one. I headed for the away end; a steward searched my bag looking at me with a sympathetic half smile. “Done a bit of shopping” he said, what he meant was poor me, country bumpkin, naively enjoying the bumptious delights of The Big City. He probably wondered where my smock was and where I’d parked my Combine Harvester.

Under the stand; the Clock End, the place was rammed. We’d sold 6000 tickets; roughly our average home attendance that season. There’s a curious mix of people on days like these. Awayday regulars looking like they’re on a works outing. A smattering of those who only go to home games, and quite a few people who wouldn’t know their Dave Waterman from their Andy Woodman. They’re just there because it’s Arsenal. How did they get tickets? I got mine early as a season ticket holder and then queued up for another one after the Exeter game for a friend. We abandoned after an hour realising that they would be sold out before we’d get to the window.

I came out into the stand; Highbury was as beautiful as I remembered it. The all seater conversion had improved it; now the people were all in straight lines that stretched to infinity, which was much more in keeping with the architecture. It was creaking, you could see that. There were pockets of seats which looked jammed in at funny angles; a giant video screen played classic Gunners clips; the grip of the Premier League was tight. They played Right Here Right Now by Fatboy Slim when the teams came out. If the ground had had a preservation order, they’d have never allowed this. I found my seat; two rows from the front. It was awful, I couldn’t see anything, had they allocated tickets from the front or something?

The teams came out; we looked great; navy blue shirts, yellow shorts, navy blue socks. There was definitely a lot of noise coming from the bank of Oxford fans, and balloons and colour; but it all drifted over my head.

David Seaman trotted towards the fans; he was warmly applauded and returned the greeting by clapping us and smiling. It was as if he was trying to say; ‘Thanks for coming, but we’re going to give you an absolute fucking shellacking this afternoon.” We started OK, though, Ian Atkins had joked after the Swindon game about ‘feeling a 6-3-1 [formation] coming on’ but we had the ball in the back of the net after just 3 minutes. Steve Basham’s effort was ruled out for offside, Rageonline would later report that it wasn’t, but everyone else seemed content it was. I was tired, I was at the front, I couldn’t really see much for sure. It passed me by a little.

There was some football.

Suddenly on 15 minutes, Denis Bergkamp danced through the middle of the Oxford defence to clip the ball over Andy Woodman. It was a classic Bergkamp type goal; where he barely seemed to touch the ball but whilst simultaneously guiding it around lunging defences. Apparently it was his 100th goal for Arsenal, for a player who did what he did, it was probably underwhelming for someone like him, playing for a team like them, scoring a landmark goal against someone like us.

There was some more football. They didn’t break sweat; we didn’t break much past the halfway line. They weren’t going to destroy us, they were going to strangle us slowly. It was clinical. Arsenal fans sat and read their programmes waiting for half-time.

The second half eased into view; Arsenal were attacking the Clock End, which allowed Oxford fans to fend off the cold by giving Francis Jeffers dogs abuse for everything he did. At one point, David Seaman rolled the ball out to Robert Pires in the left back position. He passed it on, there were some more passes, then Pires picked the ball up on the right wing. How did he get there? How do you mark something like that? Afterwards Ian Atkins would praise their ‘phenomenal work rate’, but this was some kind of witchcraft.

We conceded a second; I don’t remember much about it. It was an own goal from Scott McNiven, I vaguely remember the feeling of deflation. Not so much that the game was beyond us, though it was, more that it was so long until full-time. Full-time came, as full-time usually does. 2-0.

Afterwards we shuffled towards Arsenal tube station with 35,000 other people; someone behind me said “They didn’t get any injuries, we weren’t embarrassed” which pretty much summed it up. The kind of dull, underwhelming satisfaction you get from a plate of scampi and chips at your local pub.

For both teams it marked the end of something. I’d see Arsenal again in the cup that season. In the final, my sister-in-law was a Southampton fan and I went along with a suspiciously acquired ticket; I think I was the Treasurer of the Slough FA, or something, for the day. It was, now infamously the last silverware Arsene Wenger won for Arsenal to date. Thereafter they’ve concentrated on losing in the quarter-final of the Champions League and feeding the fat face of the Emirates Stadium with cash.

Ian Atkins and Firoz Kassam would later fall out over who was supposed to be doing the washing up. Atkins left in a huff meaning our faltering promotion charge collapsed. Kassam dragged the club into chaos via Graham Rix and Ramon Diaz and then collapse via Brian Talbot. For a moment, it seemed like he might have nailed it, that game kind of proved he hadn’t.

2 thoughts on “The day we played the champions

  1. The Cup can be a brilliant motive. Sometimes it'll give you the confidence to push-on in the league, other times you get so drawn up in the “fairytale” that the league goes out the window – look at Bradford's mini collapse after beating Arsenal. My question is, what are your thoughts on the coming couple of cup games, more specifically, our chances? Another brilliant story and well told!

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  2. Thanks for the comment.I don't think anyone can afford to turn their form on and off, so you just play what's in front of you. If we get some excitement out of the cups this year, then that's got to be a good thing.Can't read tomorrow. A draw, perhaps. Every chance against Southend, I think.

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