Porthcawl Portents

I had a call last week from someone whose mate was willing to pay three hundred quid, for a seat amongst the limited number of Arsenal fans making the trip to Manchester, in the hope of seeing our side secure the title in the Theatre Of Dreams (hopefully our dream, Utd's nightmare!). Personally I see this occasion as our reward, after a long, arduous season spent schlepping all over the country, in support of my team and I can't bear the idea that such a precious prize can now be snapped up, by the highest bidder amongst the Gooner glory boys!

Not having the foggiest where we're going to find around three grand to renew our two season tickets, I would be a liar if I said the thought didn't cross my mind. Yet in truth, if some calamity should prevent us going, I would prefer to give our tickets away to a deserving cause, rather than go against my strict principles of never selling a ticket for over the odds. Assuming a draw or better, I imagine that like Anfield '89, it'll be the sort of historic occasion that will go down in Highbury folklore. No doubt in years to come, one could fill Old Trafford four times over, with the number of Gooners who will lay claim to having been there on the night. Only an earthquake or a flood will force me to include myself among such fibbers.

Obviously I will expect Utd. to do their utmost to poop our party. I am counting on the prospect that they might find it hard to lift themselves to provide the kind of potent force that ran riot against us last year, without the proposition of playing for their places in an upcoming European Cup Final (I don't mean to rub it in, honestly!). Some might suggest the Arsenal's strength will be sapped after Saturday's Cardiff carnival. I am convinced that to the contrary, our FA Cup victory will ensure that we won't be troubled by tiredness. They will trot out at Old Trafford charged on pure adrenaline.

And should the fates decide not to favour us with such a luscious layer of icing on our Double deckered Cup cake, it won't exactly be a disaster to have to delay further celebrations for four days. As desperate as I am to complete the Double on Utd's doorstep, we have a delightful double-edged sword, with thirty thousand Gooners waiting to savour sure-fire success at Highbury on Saturday.

I was standing in those hallowed marble halls last week, collecting our cup final tickets, when it dawned on me that I was dreaming of doing the Double for the third time since my indoctrination as a child. It feels almost greedy being a Gooner, when there are some supporters who suffer a whole lifetime, longing for the sight of a single piece of silverware. Believe me success looses none of its shine, since I feel the same hair raising tingle of excitement now, as I did as a ten year old. I joined a queue of people waiting to see my pal in the box office and marvelled at his patience, as he listened sympathetically to all the highly plausible pleas for the gold-dust of tickets to the remaining momentous matches. He must have no shortage of best mates at the moment and he certainly proved to be mine, when he not only produced our tickets, but the splendiferous surprise of a cheque for £79.

I bounded out of there with a smile broader than Broadway, with our weekend in Cardiff paid for courtesy of a refund from the club. Apparently this was because we'd been forced to vacate our usual seats for the last three matches in the Champions League. I only hope the club doesn't cotton on to the fact that they could save a fortune in future by sitting their corporate guests a few seats further away, instead of us! Despite feeling so unexpectedly flush, we weren't tempted to join all the "Gucci" Gooners, in their various lavish attempts to leave the Bank Holiday motorway madness behind (which included more affluent mates who made their way to the Millennium Stadium by the Orient Express, helicopter and chauffeur driven stretch limos). We tried to avoid the traffic jams by staying the night before and after the match, in a humble B&B, on the beach in Porthcawl, twenty odd miles past Cardiff. We were fortunate to have found any accommodation, since on Saturday morning I overheard a local proclaim that there had been fans prepared to pay four hundred quid, for somewhere to lay their head the previous night. Heaven only knows what price they were offering for tickets?

Amongst all the cars we'd passed on our way down, gaily adorned in their club colours, was the occasional unfortunate traveller, with "ticket wanted" signs sprayed across their windows. Wembley has a unique aura and is a helluva lot more convenient, but Cardiff and the marvellous Millennium Stadium is a wonderful day out for any footie fan. There is a lesson or two to be taken from the Welsh in staging such a sporting occasion, by anyone who eventually takes on the task of redeveloping the Twin Towers. Nevertheless I cannot condone the corporate takeover of our fans day out. Ian Wright and Mark Bright were both bemoaning this fact on their radio roadshow that morning. After a steady stream of people came up to the mic and told how they were the invited guests of one company or another, with little or no knowledge about the club they claimed allegiance to, Wrightie bawled out "are there no real fans out there?" Like myself, he felt for the frustrations of the genuine fan, sitting at home without a ticket, being forced to suffer the asinine remarks of those, whose loyalty was limited to the lunch and free booze on offer on the big day out.

Perhaps my slight disappointment with the singing from our end of the ground was in some part due to the presence of so many fair weather fans. More likely everyone's early arrival and a warm afternoon caused the quaffing of such copious amounts of alcohol by kick-off time, that just getting to their seats was as much as many could manage! Mind you, after the cacophonous choir of only a couple of thousand at Bolton a few days prior, this was bound to be a bit of an anticlimax. Nerves might have meant that the football was a bit frantic, but for atmosphere, this was the best game of this and many a season. It was evident to us all during the opening minutes, that a bout of the heebie-jeebies was preventing our lot from passing the ball to one another. It resulted in a twenty minute spell of singing which sounded like a Buddhist mantra. I haven't heard the like from the Arsenal fans for many a moon. If we were left speaking in tongues on the terraces, it certainly seemed to temper the tension on the pitch and I swear we can take some of the credit for the first goal!

Don't get me wrong Saturday was indeed a magical Arsenal moment, making up for last year's mammoth disappointment, when we sat for an hour outside the Millennium Stadium, waiting for our minibus, suffering the friendly "You waz robbed" jibes of the celebrating Scousers. Yet as such favourites this time around, knowing how unlikely it was that the team would let us and themselves down two years on the trot and what with winning the toss for the lucky North side and all, there seemed to be a certain inevitability to the whole occasion. Even when Chelsea appeared to have the upper hand, with Desailly dominating supreme, it occurred to me that since we had entertained, but eventually lost last season, the reverse would be true this time around. And so having removed the element of risk, in my mind at least, it wasn't quite such a religious experience.

However we are guaranteed all the nerve jangling excitement anyone could need at Old Trafford tonight. Before Saturday's game we had a gorgeous stroll in the sunshine on a beautiful sandy beach. Where someone had scrawled with a stick in the virgin sand "Chelsea," I inscribed underneath "0 - Arsenal 2" Perhaps we'll have to leave extra early today, to pass through Porthcawl for another portentous prediction?