We Came, We Saw, We Qualified!

So long as it continues to retain a route into Europe for the victors, this competition will remain relevant for the fans of those clubs with few better prospects of achieving the pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow. Whereas, as supporters of the privileged few with genuine Champions League pretensions, we've grown largely indifferent to a tournament which has turned into a traditional proving ground for our up and coming stars and a rare first team outing for many of our reserves.

Ticket prices for tonight's match against Sunderland have been reduced and the box office have taken to issuing warnings, to insure themselves against demands for refunds from those Gooners unhappy with the cost of watching a cast of understudies. Yet if they are at all miffed about the missing stars, there will be few signs of dissatisfaction in the high-pitched shrieks of the local schoolkids, some experiencing their first ever Highbury high, courtesy of classroom ballot for a free allocation of otherwise empty seats. So the Worthless Cup is not without merit but if I am made up for these kids, I have to admit it wasn't the draw I was hoping for.

Sod the San Siro, or the Bernabeu, I look forward to the 3rd round every year, as an opportunity for an outing to exotic places, like Port Vale, or Preston North End. A midweek trip to support a second eleven side at some Northern outpost of our domestic game, on a night cold enough to freeze ones nads off. Now these are the games that really separate the Gooner wheat from the glory hunting chaff. Thousands claim to have danced the Championship winning night away at the Theatre of Dreams and many more were cavorting round Cardiff for the Cup Final but such sensations were several times more intense for those who earned their stripes last season on an abysmal night in Blackburn, watching Inamoto and co.'s embarrassing exit from the aforesaid competition.

Mind you for those of us who endured in Dortmund last week, it felt as if we were paying just such dues. If I didn't feel that the Arsenal's success needs to be earned, I might have rolled over and gone back to sleep last Wednesday morning. Instead of which I leapt out of bed and started running around the flat like a lunatic in a futile attempt to reach the airport in only 45 minutes. Cursing the half-pack of cigarettes I had smoked to calm my nerves as I'd hurtled towards Stansted at a 100mph, I sprinted into the airport, lungs straining to the point where I half expected to heave all over the Air Berlin check-in girl's nice new uniform. It was obvious from the forlorn look on the faces of the four Gooners standing there that I was five minutes too late for the flight. At least I didn't have to get into anymore of a lather trying to persuade the girl to let me on the plane, as it was evident from the contemptible attitude of the others towards the airline that they'd already kicked up a fruitless fuss.

We were commiserating with one another, comparing the number of speed cameras we'd been flashed by on route and the fact that we'd abandoned our cars in the expensive short stay car-park, when the check-in girl gave us a glimmer of hope. For a further 19 quid we could travel stand-by on a flight to Paderborn at lunchtime. Just as I imagine you are wondering now, no-one had heard of this place, but as a fully paid up subscriber to the information technology society, I promptly produced my laptop. A clever piece of software soon calculated that it was only 50 miles from Dortmund. Although it would be a far more arduous outing we calculated that we should make kick-off quite comfortably.

I suggested we hire a car between the five of us and while my new found pals sought an alcoholic remedy for the morning's aggravation, I got busy on the blower organizing our transport (whilst vanity ensured I couldn't resist bothering the the staff in the bookshops). The way our luck was running, I wouldn't have been surprised if gold had been discovered in Paderborn during the five hours we had to kill, but thankfully there was no such rush. In fact as we boarded a half-empty plane I couldn't help wondering what possible reason the fifty odd other flyers had to be travelling to this tiny hamlet? On arrival I headed straight for the Hertz desk to collect a Ford Ka. You should have seen the face on the frumpy looking frau when the other four caught up with me (three burly blokes and one female). Like the elephants and the mini, with two in the front and three in the back, getting us all in might have been a bit of a squeeze but it wasn't much of a conundrum. She looked at us as if we were aliens attempting to get five persons in her precious little motor. I suggested we jump in quick to show her how it was done and drove out of there in haste, before she had time to change her mind.

The previous night I had made at least twenty calls, but from 5 star to B&B I couldn't find a bed for love nor money in Dortmund itself. The nearest vacancy I'd found was about ten miles out of town and the same was true for three of my companions. However the fourth, Carsten had found a room right in the heart of the city and having phoned that morning to confirm, he assured us that they had more beds. At only 21 Euros it sounded too good to be true, but we thought it worth a shot since we had to pass through Dortmund to get to the hotels out of town. Yet despite Carsten's German mother and my 'O' level exam, finding this accommodation proved a major hassle. A quarter of a century later all I can recall is ³when the alarm clock rings you get up² which is hardly the most useful phrase! We'd driven down the same road three times before I realized we were going round a ring road and several U-turns later a severe case of cramp in the back finally saw us resorting to a map.

It was six o'clock before we finally found the place, far too late to consider an alternative option. We were walking towards the building when Carsten announced his suspicion that the 'Jugend Gasthaus' might be the youth hostel. I'd never set foot in such an establishment as a youth, let alone as an OAP and I had visions of dormitory type accommodation. There followed an anxious five minute wait while the receptionist tapped at her keyboard calculating their commitments. After waking at the crack of dawn, hours spent dossing round the airport, followed by the drive to and all around Dortmund, I was desperate to collapse on a bed. I was breathing a long sigh of relief as she confirmed two more rooms in addition to Carsten's when she put the wind up us again with her worries about the safety of Steve's girlfriend Holly, on a floor full of male footie fans sharing one shower and toilet. Holly ended up sharing with her brother Finbar while Steve and I bunked in the room next door, literally, as he chose the top bunk leaving me on the bottom!

In the light of this anomalous adventure and anticlimactic events on the football pitch the match itself proved somewhat peripheral. The Arsenal might have qualified, but we managed it in an extremely unsatisfactory manner. The strange sensation of being surrounded by German Gooners didn't help. In their attempts to compete with the raucous atmosphere created by the home team's fans, they were making up their own chants as they went along and sung the familiar ones either to the wrong tune, or in a weird key. However as bigoted as I may be, I have to admit that just like the match against Bayern last season, with little segregation and beer on tap (although it could have been alcohol free according to UEFA regs.), the German crowd was one of the most genial I've experienced.

Moreover their sausages bear little comparison to the bacteria that pass for hot dogs in this country. As Arsenal fans queued for their Bratwurst at the break, German collectors hovered in the hope of swopping scarves, hats and badges. I am glad we were patient, as the grub proved far tastier than anything on the pitch. The invincible Arsenal seen only a couple of weeks earlier in Eindhoven had given way to the hapless Champions League losers of last season. I've remained one of Seaman's staunchest supporters, but whatever your position in the great goalkeeping debate, it is becoming increasingly evident that the furore of the past few weeks has left him with little confidence in the instincts that have served him for so many years. I can understand Dave's desire to go out on a high, but his indecisiveness could cost us dear in the coming weeks. Whether he touched Koller for the penalty is not the point, as he should never have put himself in that position (especially before a home crowd, against a striker who'd struggle to hit a barn door!). As much as we love you Spunky, there has never been a better time for you to succumb to one of your dodgy ribs for a few weeks rest!

After drowning our sorrows in a tasty 'schnitzel' supper we at least made our flight home the following day. Considering we secured our qualification and I came home with a stock of Camel cigarettes that should see me through to the second stage, not to mention four new Gooner mates and memories to laugh about in years to come, on reflection our Dortmund awayday definitely wasn't a total loss.