Wrexham

Wrexham. The word means only one thing to those of us who were there.

F.A. Cup third round, 4 January 1992.

Wrexham 2 (Thomas 82, Watkin 84)
Arsenal 1 (Smith 43)
Racecourse Ground, Wrexham
Attendance: 13,343

Unpacking memories of attending this game 25 years makes me feel not only old, but like I grew up in another age altogether. In January 1992 Arsenal were League Champions, having cantered to the title in 1990-91. Liverpool may have imploded after Kenny Dalglish’s resignation but we won it in some style, losing only one game in the process. Like the 1991-92 champions (Leeds United. Leeds United!) that season has been lost to the post-Premier League revisionist zeal that for some reason the media are happy to buy into. Bastard media. George Knows.

Wrexham had finished 1990-91 last in the entire Football League. They were spared relegation only by the expansion of the league that season.

And they won. To say this result delighted everyone that wasn’t an Arsenal supporter is something of an understatement. It was, and remains, the perfect FA Cup story. And it has Arsenal losing which always helps the media pick one out of many. They all hate us.

The aftermath begun immediately. Danny Baker, hosting radio phone-in 6-0-6, started his show celebrating the result, along what had been an awkward (as in ‘well, this is awkward’) draw for West Ham at non-league Farnborough Town, as proof that Zigger-Zagger – no, he really said this, more than once – the God of Football is real, and was meting out retribution to clubs who were punishing their own fans with unpopular bond schemes intended to finance the rebuilding of their grounds. The valediction was justified – the bond schemes were hugely unpopular – but he didn’t half go on about it. Or perhaps he didn’t and it just seems that way now, since the drive home which Dad & I knew would lead to at some point having mockery heaped on us by someone just drifted on forever. Memories of a Luton Town-supporting local neighbour leaving celebratory posters outside our house after their victory in the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Final led us to expect that kind of thing. Bastard Luton.

Beyond the scoreline, the journey. From London to Wrexham, north Wales, via a strange route I have been unable to trace exactly since, that seemed to pass through Monmouth. Going via that town makes so little coherent sense that we probably really did go that way. On the way there, of course, this was a jolly outing to a brave minnow who would roll over for the mighty Arsenal. We ate a burger outside the dilapidated stadium that tasted so bad I can still see, smell and taste it. It had ‘cheese’ on it. Our standing ticket admitted us to a paddock terrace in the away end that continued to step down significantly below pitch level. It had presumably been like that quite uncorrected for decades. The floodlights barely penetrated the murk, which in one way is just as well. This is why photos and footage of the game make it look like it’s being played in a dimly-lit stable. All very apt given we were at the Racecourse Ground. Despite this, we had a perfect view of all three goals. Our one was quite a tidy move. Never gets shown on TV.

On leaving the ground we found our way back to the car, parked in the field we had left it in. The field had not liked being used as a car park. Between us leaving and returning it suffered an inglorious breakdown and was now just mud. The wheels spun hopefully but inconclusively and I got out to push. As I shoved, the wheels spun further and coated me in rich Clwyd ooze. This might have been the highlight of the day: the car was released, and we had something to laugh about on the way home. That something was me. The journey back after a stinker of a game is usually more fun than you might think, with gallows humour and a siege mentality saving the day. It’s when you get home, to the shame of all football supporters who have been away from loved ones all day, that the funk really sets in.

I was 15 in January 1992 so was still at school, so must have been fairly mercilessly mocked for this result. If so, I do not recall that trauma in the way I do schoolboy ragging after, for example, losing 6-2 at home to Manchester United the previous season. Perhaps the absence of Wrexham fans in London, N2 meant there was less comment, but I doubt it. I have probably blacked out what cannot have been a pleasant occasion. Keeping the faith as I am helpless but to do the rest of the 1991-92 season, once we escaped a winless January was unforgettable for my Arsenal-mad teenage self. Sheffield Wednesday got beaten 7-1, Liverpool 4-0 and on the last day of the old North Bank Southampton were dispatched 5-1 with Ian Wright claiming the Golden Boot.

I still get a kick out of having been at games like Wrexham. I’ve supported a winning team all my life that have won leagues and cups and played in Europe. What do I know about supporting Wrexham? Plucky Wrexham as they’ll be known forever. Bastard Wrexham. And if you look closely as Mickey Thomas (the Welsh one, not our one) smacks in that free kick as Match of the Day show it for the 2000th time just before Ryan Giggs gets his disgusting hairy chest out in a montage of ‘best-ever’ FA Cup moments, you can see me, trying to digest that burger as the footballing equivalent of a bucket of excrement is tipped over the away end.

William Blake

After Christmas and before New Year, London hides away in a lull. The tubes and roads are quiet, shops and services for the busy city in partial hibernation. It is the ideal day for a raid on a less-explored corner. We pile downtown to Old Street and walk to the Geffrye Museum, with plenty of other people who have had the same idea, then walk back down Kingsland Road in search of lunch. After that, but before heading home I suggest a detour to Bunhill Fields, and on the way explain to the boys that it’s named after the pile of bones that lies beneath, a burial ground for Londoners who for centuries would not do what they’re told.

 The big wow here is William and Catherine Blake’s memorial stone, not marking the exact spot of their burial but close enough, next to another, larger marker for Daniel Defoe and across the courtyard from John Bunyan. Plenty of others pass this way in search of the greatest ever English artists, who mastered art and prose. Offerings of twigs and stones sit atop Blake’s stone. We add ours, then walk away talking about Jerusalem and The Tyger – I find I can recite and explain all of the former and some of the latter two.

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Later that night George asks me to sing Jerusalem, which I do. ‘That poem is a series of questions to which the answer is no.’ says Harry. I think it is not a bad thing for Blake to still be asking questions 200 years after his death.

Three swims

An enforced absence from swimming on the Heath coincided with a startling and prolonged plunge in temperature. While riding down Highgate West Hill day after day for a fortnight, often in chilly-lovely dawn sunshine I fretted about the effect this would have on the temperature of the water. It would be getting colder, and I would not be in it, so that when I got back into it I’d find it tough going.

So once the stitches were out the first thing I did was drive down to the pond and dive in. I knew it would hurt. It hurt. The water, which according to notices had gone down five degrees, bit hard. I must have looked like I was floundering, for the lifeguards came out for a closer look, then decided I’d make it back to the jetty in one piece even if my bodily extremities would be forever compromised. But it was done, and winter was back on, and I was free to keep going.

Four days later I returned, keen to reprise Friday mornings in the water. The run from Highgate tube up the hill to the village and then back again is sharp, and warms you just enough. This time the sun was just climbing over the trees leading down to the dog pond. The shock was less, but the raw feeling the same, and the odd sensation of being marooned in the far corner that strikes on cold days lingered. But getting out this time felt like the mental rebirth i had been looking for at the start of the week.

The following day I was back again, and feeling very much in the swing of things. The door, with MEN ONLY written on it, once again had the aura of a portal to another world, a gateway past which normal rules don’t apply. The conversation sounded like the 1950s, all quiet murmurs about literature and politics, all have-you-heard and don’t-you-think. And then in the water I was wonderfully alone, the sun higher and brighter, setting my path bright yellow, and offering fractions of warmth.

And this felt right and terrific, because from here I ran along to the cafe, to meet Imogen and Winnie, and we talked with smiles and red faces and felt fantastic, because we were here and Saturday’s should be here, and because it’s not mad if you do it because you love it and for that time you can see and hear and shout more than anyone who doesn’t.

Özil in Sofia

Sofia is the Hellenistic word and concept of wisdom. A beautiful word, it graces the embodiment of the divine on earth, Hagia Sophia in old Constantinople, and names the capital of Bulgaria. I’d never visited before, but this week was in town to watch Arsenal. That means a slightly different trip to a regular exploration: a day trip, with an early start at each end, limited time to explore, and a focus on football as well ferreting out Ottoman and Cold War era things to see and do.

I doubt Mesut Özil concerned himself much with Alexander Levsky Cathedral and Icon Exhibition in the crypt, nor pined for the forest stew cuisine and live beer on offer in a side-street mehane. But that evening in the National Stadium he pulled off something no-one there will ever forget.

A few years ago I was spellbound by Tomas Rosicky’s goal to settle a North London derby. Six seconds of sprinting from the halfway line to beat the advancing keeper. It’s my favourite Arsenal goal of recent years. But Özil eclipsed that in ten seconds of mesmerising skill, grace and magic on this night in Sofia.

The game had been exciting and still low-key in the first half. Ludogorets Razgrad, not exactly one of the great names in European football and shoed 6-0 in the reverse fixture in London had raced into a two-goal lead. Happy drunkards in the away section turned alternately angry and and then placated, yet rapidly getting cold and tired as Arsenal pulled back to 2-2 at half time.

The second half was pretty tepid, the falling temperature and mist rolling off Balkan hillsides not doing much to inspire, and we seemed to be heading for a draw.

In a flash everything changed. Mohammed Elneny’s instant pass sent Özil , not usually the player furthest forward, sprinting in on goal. The keeper came out, Özil stabbed an awkwardly bouncing ball upwards and over him, and as it spun to the ground he dropped his shoulder and nudged the ball to his left. He then feinted, accomplishing all of this in a second or two and sending two defenders to the floor, but flying in different directions. Now in space, after one more touch he swept the ball into the goal.

In the away end, a mixture of astonishment and delirium, and the moment was instantly shared with Özil who ran over to our section of the ground. A flare was set off, somehow, given the three searches carried out before coming in. I found myself yelling ‘you ***** beauty!’, standing on the back of two seats. I’m reading a book about the early history of football at the moment, which talks a lot about how football was not a passing game at first, with great skill in dribbling valued above all else. Those founding fathers, fond as they were of hacking away at each others shins, would surely have looked on in wonder that their basic game had reached the point where such a moment was possible.

Since then that goal and the moments before and after it have lodged themselves in the happy part of my brain, where they will long remain. Remembering it when getting up at 4am to catch the flight home puts as much of a spring in your step as is humanly possibly at 2am UK time.

Football, wisdom, wonder all in one moment. Simply wonderful.

Seaburn Beach

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I wanted to call this Roker Beach, but I didn’t go there. I liked the name and the connection with the old Roker Park, scene of a classic away trip in 1991. My friend Paul and I had taken the coach from London, a truly awful experience with hours of Roy Chubby Brown videos and flatulent fellow football fans, hoping to see Arsenal win the title. The match was drawn 0-0. We had stood in the tipping rain for two hours as Sunderland fans promised to tear us limb from limb outside the stadium. On the final whistle they performed a remarkable volte-face and decided instead they were our best friends. Six years later Dennis Bergkamp scored an incredible goal to settle an FA Cup replay. That rocking old ground is gone now but the name remains special.

Roker Beach wasn’t quite what I was after though. Continuing on to Seaburn I found it. A broad curve of sand reached out into a gentle sea, set on fire by the Saturday morning sun, huge and low in late October. Before arriving I’d half fretted about my bag and clothes while swimming, but the beach was so huge with only a few dog-walkers that distant fears, as usual, melt away in the moment. I strode past one walker into the sea, swam for a few minutes, mostly swimming into the golden water lit up by the sunshine, then retreated. The water was cold, but cold always passes. In fact, a couple of hours later the thermostat came on around my internal organs and I was boiling, high up in the away end at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland that morning, a town with such a beautiful name, something else for the soul.

The strange spell of the River Tweed

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Just another river the Tweed may be, but to me it has come to mean a few things. Regular visits to Northumberland mean I’ve been close to the Tweed on numerous occasions, and have even swum in it more than once. But this deep blue-green ribbon of water is enigmatic, and on each bi-annual trip I have tried to solve the puzzle only to end up more dazed by its evergreen banks, that are always close at hand, and always hard to reach.

On one day of our holiday we chased the Tweed for miles upstream, passing through Cornhill, Coldstream, Kelso and Melrose, criss-crossing from England into Scotland in the process. At Abbotsford Sir Walter Scott built his house overlooking the river, with a path leading to it. In a funk about something I couldn’t quite define, I took my children down onto the banks and skimmed some stones. Some of the stones were scaly and fishy, some flew creating growing circles an rainbows in the spray they kicked up. While driving back the Tweed kept appearing in the sunshine of a perfect afternoon, curving round shallow hills and behind trees, then disappearing.

Another day we stopped at Paxton House, another grand mansion facing the river. This one had much wilder and less perfect gardens, and a path which led down to the river’s edge which, with the top of the tide helping out, was deeper than our previous meeting. ‘No swimming’ signs were evident, and we had a glorious stroll alongside the water, an hour or so of complete perfection.

And from there we went on the the Chain Bridge, where a path leads down from the Scottish side o the bank, and then a small muddy beach offers a good way in. No anti-swimming signage here. After a few steps it made sense to flop in and swim a few strokes into midstream, quietly breast-stroking behind the backs of salmon fishers. Now in international waters, I retreated back to the bank, exhilarated by being back in fresh, cold water. Imogen swam next, and could have done more. We were both going carefully.

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Once in it, the Tweed feels more raw, soft and real. So why the mystery? The river guards the border for much of its length, hiding the subtle differences between nations in plain sight, and crossing it offers some visible change, but in some ways no change at all. It feels set apart from view unless you go out of your way to get close to it, and also seems in many places reserved for those who can afford to fish in it. But this is a beautiful ribbon of water right the way to the Berwick Amateur Rowing Club boathouse and Tweedmouth, and its meanders ask quiet questions of the visitor to north Northumberland and the Borders.

More exploration is needed.

Somewhere else

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This field is a little piece of somewhere else. The evening wind blows through grass warmed and dancing in the evening sun. Children run round, laughing. Later the stars come out as we warm up by the fire, fresh from sea-swimming earlier in the day.

The outside world is close, but not too close.

Kentish Downs, Saturday 6 August.