Monthly Archives: June 2016

FA Cup Final 2014

Arsenal, as everyone had become very fond of saying, had gone a long time without a trophy. Nine years, it seemed, if every boring journalist was to be believed.

Had it really been that long? It didn’t seem it. Then again, I missed the 2005 FA Cup Final to attend a wedding, and listened to Patrick Vieira whacking home the winning penalty with his last kick as an Arsenal player down a phone line in the garden of the sort of Yorkshire country house many of Imogen’s friends got married. In the following decade we’d got married ourselves, had two children and had another on the way. Life had changed in dozens of other ways, some tiny, some vast in their significance.

In the foreground and the background throughout all this turbulence had been going to the football. Weekends and evenings through autumn, winter and spring roll round as they always have done with the rhythm of the season, some good, some bad. Always fun and always there. But for those years not much of significance: a couple of swings and misses at the title, an agonizing Champions League final, two League Cup Final defeats. The second of these, to Birmingham, was on a bleak and frigid February afternoon which felt wrong right from the outset and ended dismally.

So during the winter of 2014 I’d learnt to not have high expectations from Arsenal. We were so obviously inferior to Chelsea and Manchester City that when we met these teams we’d go out of whatever competition we were in. Despite this, disposing of Spurs and Liverpool in the third and fifth rounds was, as you might expect, very enjoyable. But once we’d beaten Everton in the quarter final we found that every other ‘big’ team was out, thanks to Wigan knocking out Manchester City at the Etihad. The field, it appeared, was clear for us. From being no hopers who couldn’t win anything the papers suddenly declared there was no way we could fail to win the Cup.

As ever, it was not that easy. Wigan’s stubbornness exposed the short tempers among Arsenal fans and the semi-final was an ugly affair. Groups of drunken men who’d turned up for a party got nasty with each other when we struggled. Mertescacker’s equalizer and subsequent penalties were greeted by relief, not unbridled delight. I remember feeling like losing that game would have brought about the end of Wenger’s time in charge. Perhaps it would have. Kim Kallstrom’s penalty was one of several strange cameos that have an unreal air to them now. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why was he there? And where did he go?

On then to the final. Dad and I were back behind the goal in the lower tier, this time with old friends, randomly, for company. At a game like this who you sit with is a lottery, but I was relieved we didn’t have the drunken groups of men who were nearby at the semi. That said, our pals were pretty trollied. Perhaps the scarcity of tickets weeded out the day-trippers, but the people around us were (mostly) a bit older, more mixed and able to hold it together, I thought, if things went wrong.

All season Arsenal had fallen apart in big games, going down 6-0 at Chelsea, 5-1 at Liverpool and 6-3 at Manchester City. Again, here, Arsenal started like a legless greyhound. Before we had time to blink, we were 2-0 down to a Hull City team that probably could scarcely believe their luck. It could have been 3-0 as the mood went from dark to black, with a goal-line clearance saving the day. But it was early in the game, and I said either out loud or to myself that we were going to have to do it the hard way. I thought of George and Harry at home and fretted. No-one said much.

With almost 20 minutes gone we were awarded a free kick, a long way out. In 1991 Paul Gascoigne scored an improbable free kick for Spurs against Arsenal. I can still recall the sinking feeling, the delirium in the Spurs end, the instant sense that we’d lost the game. This time things went our way. Santi Cazorla bent and thumped the ball high over the keeper and into the goal. GOAL.

In some ways, the game was won at that point. Hull were looking at 70 minutes of defending a lead they suddenly seemed unlikely to extend. Arsenal didn’t quite throw everything at them, but kept knocking at the door. In the crowd, the drunk among us veered from swaying to angry to optimistic. Though missed chances were greeted with howls, the crowd mostly stuck with the players.

After one chance, a man in front of me produced the memorable line ‘people these days want everything now’. His words have stuck with me since and become a mantra for understanding modern times. Was he a kind of shaman, appearing on this important day to deliver a life lesson? I believe, on the whole, that yes he was.

Still, the minutes ticked by and our colony of hopeful supporters watched the ball come closer and closer to the goal without actually going in. The ultimate enigma, Yaya Sanogo came on and had his best game in an Arsenal shirt, still managing to miss a few good if not quite clear-cut chances. Then, with 20 minutes left, Laurent Koscielny spun and poked home a half-chance. Another eruption of relief. After this goal I fell over and pulled a load of others with me. What had been a terrible day was suddenly producing larks galore.

There was a long time in extra time to get the winner but it didn’t seem to be coming. Giroud hit the bar with a flying header from miles out. Sanogo continued to miss. Extra time came along, and suddenly we were in the lead. Ramsey’s goal was a beauty, though it wasn’t clear how good until later. For now, we cheered and hoped and prayed it would be enough. Even then Arsenal tried to blow it, with a kamikaze piece of goalkeeping nearly adding to the long catalogue of self-destructs that make up the latter years of the Wenger Era.

But hold on we did, and it was wonderful. The players, ascending those very long stairs, hoisted the trophy into the air. I felt some validation for Arsene Wenger, who must have carried the trophyless years around with him like a heavy weight, even more than we all had, and looked especially pleased. I remember Tomas Rosicky, on as a sub, charging along with the cup, something to show for his time with us beyond loads of injuries.

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Wembley as ever took forever to leave, and it was 10pm by the time I got back to Finsbury Park for a drink. A  very drunk man cycling down Stroud Green Road fell off his bike and crashed. I ran to his aide. He didn’t seem able to speak. I got home after midnight to hear how the boys had stuck with Arsenal too, and been brave. Just an FA Cup? Don’t believe it for a minute.

There’s a million tiny moments in what survives as in video clips, getting older by the year.

After the glow

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Iceland notes

Grundarfjordur, Saturday, 9pm, light

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Light, light, light. Iceland in June and there is no darkness. When you choose to stop and take a moment here there is no wind, no rain, and no noise either. The tapping of the keyboard and the background noise of another guest making a call is all there is.

This town is a sort of point of nothing further, and the end of the road after a frantic and spectacular 30 hours or so in Iceland. At numerous points on this quick-fire raid on the west of the country I have had cause to note how lucky I am, and how this is quite the most spectacular landscape of any place that I have ever visited.

Tonight, as the cloud wafts over Kirkjufell, standing sentinel over the north of the town, both those thoughts are coming into my head again.

I had meant to hit the ground running in Iceland, and take in Pingvellir on my way to my bed at Borgarnes, north of Rejkyavik . The road leading up to the Ping from Reykjavik, up through the Mosfell valley was an immediate thud to the senses, green hills and ribbons of river poking through the cloud and light, persistent rain.

Pingvellir was interesting and the first place I found a smattering of other tourists completing an afternoon golden circle. Two groups of divers kitted up for a plunge in the Silfra streams that fill in the rifts in the valley floor stood apart, the mooched off towards unseen depths.

It is very lovely. Even so, Magnus Magnusson makes it sound better than it is, playing up the huge historical significance of the site.

I drove straight on, north onto route 550, past a sign warning anyone with a rental car not to drive off the road. the road was gravel, but still a road. I drove on. And after ten rattly miles or so of gritted teeth I found myself in what looked like Tibet, or what I thought Tibet would look like. Land stripped of vegetation, blue rivers cutting over bleached rock, and glacial lakes. At one point I reached a junction and turned left. It felt like the remotest place on earth.

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There had been coaches of people at Pingvellir. I saw no-one for the best part of two hours. After what felt more like a lifetime, with Felt and Cocteau Twins, wild and strange on soundtrack I arrived, a little frazzled and elated, into Borgarnes, sweet in its own way, for a dip in the B&Bs hot-pot, a garage dinner and an attempt to sleep.

I was up early, early enough to have breakfast and sneak out before the Finnish couple I was sharing the B&B got up. As they were Finnish, I reckon they’d have cowered in their room until midday had I continued to clatter round. Either way I was on my way across the flat, Lewis-like scenery that led to Snaefellsnes what felt like early, early, early.

The first few miles slipped by in the excitement of the new day, and looking back at the map there is nothing until a waterfall that I scrambled up a steep track to get as close to as I could.

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That set the tone for the day, driving a little, seeing something interesting, strolling over to it, or up it, eat a jelly baby, repeat.

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Volcanic cones, odd rock outcrops, waves crashing on rocks. And then there was the turning to Ondvandarnes, and the strip of golden sand where the buried Viking was found, and a swim in the Greenland Sea. As I like annoying my father by telling him every time I swim somewhere cold or unusual or indeed any time I swim outdoors as he seems unable to do it I quickly told him I’d done that, too. ‘Most morbid swim’ he suggested on account of the cadaver who spent a few centuries under the sand.

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Given the intensely beautiful scenery all around me, I initially regretted taking a few hours out of it to go whale spotting. I shouldn’t have. Three hours gazing at the water ended up being nearly five in the company of so many orcas and sperm whales the crew were laughing. Top ocean predators. Top everything.

Sunday in brief

I woke up in Grundarfjordur, with Kirkjufell glowering behind cloud and hurried to use the shared bathroom before anyone slowed me down, then similarly gobbled breakfast, made up the last of my rolls and fled.

On the road by half past seven and at the Stikkisholmur turn-off at just after eight. I decided against heading here, Iceland’s towns not holding much allure. The ferry to the Westfjords would have to wait for another time.

After an hour of more incredible views I had driven back to Borgarnes, where I summoned the nerve to go for a swim in the local pool. First you must follow signs telling you which parts of your body to wash before getting in. Bollocks, armpits, ears. It makes sense really. Other people’s filth should not be a bathing companion.

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The pool was warm enough to feel welcoming, and after 20 lengths I headed for the hot pots where aged locals were swapping gossip. Never one to wallow for too long I was soon off again, resolving to see Reykjavik with the remainder of what remained. The only people up in the capital on Sunday mornings, however, were other tourists, and I was only really keen on seeing the Íslendingabók, the chronicle of the settlement of Iceland, and the spot where Ingólfur Arnarson had thrown his high seat pillars , deciding where to settle on being the first person to arrive in Iceland. The book was hugely understated, and the museum it was in underwhelming, while the statue was very fine, if a most unlikely place for some rods to have washed up on the shore, being as it is on top of a hill.

And that was all there was to the capital, I think. Possibly a bit harsh but I wouldn’t bother next time apart from to try a few of the swimming pools.

In fact i decided to spend my last hour looking round Reykjanes peninsula, which was flatter and more like Lewis (lots of Iceland looks like Lewis) than other bits, but interesting nonetheless. At one point I happened upon a family rushing to watch the local football team kick off and I wished I had longer, maybe forever, to be in Iceland.

Back in the real world and somehow still outside of it I flew on to Washington for the usual undignified schlepp through US immigration to catch my onward flight. I put having tried to leave my passport at immigration down to being mentally still on a road in rural Iceland. After what seemed like a dozen more hurdles I arrived in Franklin, Tennessee. I can’t think of a great contrast involving travel in the western hemisphere.

When I read these words back I have done a disservice to the excitement and wonder of those few hours in Iceland. Take these words and pump them up with breathtaking Icelandic air and views.