The words resonate on this flawless spring evening at Highbury, the moon rising like a goal kick in a cobalt sky. The Gunners are hosting the Italian side Sampdoria in the semifinal of the Cup-Winners Cup, of which Arsenal is the defending champion. Fans of La Samp occupy one third of the Clock End stand, which was bombed during the Blitz but is beautiful tonight.
Behind the opposite goal is Wally Honour, a "lifelong fan whose ashes were buried at the North Bank End," according to his death notice, which is also buried—in the match program. He joined dozens of other Gooners-turned-goners who now while away eternity at Highbury.
These are the true die-hard fans. In the other Cup-Winners Cup semifinal tonight, some 200 followers of the London club Chelsea are "clashing" with Spanish police during the match against Real Zaragoza, but at Highbury the atmosphere is festive: The police on horseback outside the stadium simply add a stately presence, and Sampdoria takes the pitch with a preemptive peace gesture. Its players carry an enormous, rippling Union Jack.
When Arsenal striker Ian Wright does a brief pas de deux with the ball, a housewifely woman of about 60 purrs, "Lovely, Wrighty," in the West Stand. When Gunner volleys go awry, she whispers, "Oh, pity." When defender Steve Bould, who has scored seven goals in seven years at Arsenal, scores two in rapid succession, she explodes to her feet with the rest of the crowd and sings, "Are you watching, Tot-ten-ham?" The lyric looks ridiculous on paper but sounds otherworldly when ringing through the N4 postal code, across the night sky and into the Tottenham Hotspur ground four miles away.
By the second half, when the Arse's two-nil lead has dwindled to a precarious 3-2, my matronly seatmate is spitting, "S——, Wright!" And, alas, "Sod off, ref, you——head!" (Block U, Row L: You know who you are.)
The Gunners escape with the first-leg win, but a fortnight later they are losing 3-1 in the return leg in Genoa. In the 89th minute, Arsenal midfielder Stefan Schwarz clubs a free kick into the back of the net, making the aggregate score 5-5 and forcing a penalty-kick shoot-out. Arsenal wins yet again, and its great escape is the most prominent sports story in...Tokyo's Mainichi Daily News. So tout le monde is watching the final in Paris on May 10, when, in the final minute of extra time, a Real Zaragoza player named Nayim scores the Cup-Winners Cup winner: an epic, desperation 40-yard cruise missile of a shot that gives the Spanish team a 2-1 victory and robs Arsenal of a much needed salvation to its season.
It was a season in which beloved manager George Graham was fired in March for allegedly taking "bungs"—under-the-table cuts of transfer fees for players he sold. Star forward Paul Merson missed most of the season after announcing an astounding simultaneous addiction to cocaine, alcohol and gambling.
Arsenal would have owned the back page of the tabloids this season if it hadn't been for Chelsea star Dennis Wise, who was sentenced to three months in jail for assaulting an elderly cabdriver; or for three other high-profile players who were arrested and released in that alleged match-fixing scandal; or for the handful of young players who tested positive for marijuana and were suspended; or for Wimbledon's Neanderthal midfielder Vinnie Jones, who bit the nose of an offending reporter in Dublin the night of the England-Ireland match, (VINNIE JONES BIT MY NOSE, screamed the Minor shortly after its correspondent screamed the same.)
As the Guardian of London summed things up: "From bungs to bongs, goals to gaols, it's been one hell of a season."
And there was more to come. In a First Division match in April, Swindon player-manager Steve McMahon was red-carded, which prompted the Swindon P.A. announcer to intone authoritatively, "I've seen some crap refereeing decisions, but...." He was then drowned out by the lusty cheers of the crowd. (And, within minutes, fired and escorted from the grounds by police.)