Date: 20th December 2007 at 2:08pm
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This match will conclude this little series. Some of my criteria has varied within the series, I have picked matches of huge historical significance to our football club; the away matches at Inter and Real Madrid for instance. Some have been seemingly run of the mill matches illuminated by moments of brilliance; Middlesbrough and Southampton spring to mind. Others have been oft ignored matches of symbolic import, emphasising a shift in Arsenal’s footballing landscape (Torino and Manchester United). But this one is included for reasons of more personal resonance.

Having been privileged to spend my life to this point following a truly successful team, I have been fortunate enough to witness moments that other football fans can dream of. But I have often wondered what it would be like to support a less glamorous, considerably less decorated side. Travelling to the likes of Rochdale and Grimsby on a Tuesday night in the hope that, by winning our last seventeen games and hoping that every single other match in the Division finishes a draw, we might just bag a play off spot. Growing up where I did I could easily have been taken in by the solicitous gaze of Millwall, Crystal Palace or Charlton Athletic. About 90% of my football loving social entourage support Millwall and I quite often go to the Den with them on occasions when my beloved Arsenal are not playing. (In fact, I went along to watch their game with Oldham this weekend, and if you think Cashley got some stick, you should have seen what Lee Hughes got. At one point, someone ran onto the pitch to try and punch him!) It’s a curious fascination to see life on the other side as it were, and the reason I choose this match against Doncaster is that I got a small sample of the other side of the fence in the context of an Arsenal fixture, without running off to a lower league side for a bit of extra marital slap and tickle!

Days after being drawn against Real Madrid in the Champions’ League, the Gunners’ were drawn to play away at Doncaster Rovers on a Tuesday night, four days before Christmas in the League Cup. The draw represented my first chance to stand on terracing to watch Arsenal in a first team game, the Taylor Report having come into effect the very year I would begin to go to live matches. The tie was awkwardly timed and to be played in a ramshackle stadium on a cold Tuesday evening. The very disenchanting nature of it what was excited me so, a chance to do some pretentious football tourism was most welcome. In fact, it was a little bit like one of those vulgar reality shows! With the home support crammed in tightly, the travelling support took the chance to remove their monacles and titter dismissivley at the facilities, ‘I say Giles, look at their director’s boxes. They look like Public School P.E changing rooms, chortle, chortle.’ I arrived outside the ground and, to my horror, the mobile refreshment facility stationed outside the away turnstile had run out of avocado and rocket baguettes!

The home fans did not take long to taunt the aristocrats penned behind the North goal, ‘who the fookin’ hell are you?’ they implored. To which the reply came, ‘where the f**k were you last week?’ in immacluate grammar. But on four minutes, Belle Vue went stir crazy when Michael McIndoe squeezed in Shaun Thornton’s left wing cross. Arsenal’s young guns, including the likes of Seba Larsson, Alex Song, Nicklas Bendtner and Quincy Owusu Abeyie struggled to get to grips with Donny’s rustic approach. Rovers could have had a two goal lead but for an heroic double save by Almunia from Lewis Guy. Time and again, Arsenal moves would break down amongst a littany of passes (culminating in the chant, ‘all we want’s a fucking shot!’- amazing how one can be contaminated when forced to socialise with the great unhosed. But after an hour of struggle and strife, Quincy Owusu Abeyie drove a shot from the edge of the box which flew in via a massive deflection from Thornton. ‘We’ve only had one shot!’ came the mocking taunt of travelling Gooners.

The match moved into extra time, and with Donny flat out on their feet and probably satisfied with how far they had pushed the mighty Gunners, they were ours for the taking. But one minute before the end of the first period of extra time, Almunia saved Guy’s effort, Senderos hesitated with a clearance inside his own six yard box and Paul Green stole in to give the Vikings a shock lead. The young Arsenal side looked shell shocked, with the goal renewing Donny’s desire and draining the lactic acid from their legs, Arsenal simply could not break them down. ‘Are you watching Real Madrid?’ came the chant from a travelling support resigned to loss. In the last minute of extra time, Emmanuel Eboue sprinted down the right touchline and sent in a low cross which the marauding Gilberto ghosted onto to equalise. The feeling of relief was only momentary, as the prospect of the great leveller, the penalty shoot out beckoned.

Donny won the toss and the shoot took place in front of their fans amassed in the South Stand. The Arsenal players formed a beeline in the centre circle, blocking the view of half of the away section! With no response to, ‘Arsenal, out the way, Arsenal. Arsenal out the way’ forthcoming, hundreds of us scuttled around the terrace, craning our necks for a semblance of a view. Yours truly drastically over estimated his athlecticism and threshold for pain by scaling the steel fence at the back of the stand and clinging on to the metal railings for dear life. Up stepped Pascal Cygan first, much to the bemusement of the Arsenal fans, but he tucked his effort away neatly to make it 1-0 in the shoot out. Donny replied in kind. Gilberto Silva restored the lead, before Michael McIndoe smashed his effort against Almunia’s legs. Seba Larsson gave Arsenal a 3-1 lead and when Paul Green put his penalty wide, Alex Hleb had the chance to apply the finishing touch. But being the socially conscious aristocrats we are, Hleb simply passed the ball back to their keeper to give the little ones a chance. Ahhhh. But Lewis Guy spurned the millionaire’s scraps and hit the bottom of the post to give Arsenal a frankly undeserved victory. On our coach home we clebrated with a glass of sherry and some nibbles. So there you have it, an awful performance, in a dour match in a ramshackle ‘arena’ (now replaced by the state of the art Keepmoat Stadium), on a freezing night. The reason I recall it with such fervour is that, for about two hours, I got an all too real insight into an alternative reality, and you know what? There was a real perverse charm to it. But I wouldn’t swap what we have now with anyone in the world.LD