Saturday, 27 August 2011

Away Days: An Italian win means Champions League football again

New for 2011/2012 on AshburtonGrove.co.uk is a series of articles about the ups and occasional downs of being a Gooner at an away match. Here Reuben Lewis gives his experiences of Arsenal's 2-1 win in the Champions League qualifier over Udinese.


My trip to Udine will not be forgotten for a long time. Being my first European away game, I was not sure what to expect but the anticipation was immense. My father and I landed in Venice on Monday afternoon, spent the day there, and then hopped on the train to the beautiful north-eastern town of Italy that is Udine. On the platform I saw a man with an Arsenal cap on, so naturally I went and introduced myself. Turns out he is a hardcore Gooner who goes to every single game, home and away, without fail. His name was Adrian and he was a lovely bloke. Adrian, my dad, and I kept each other entertained throughout the two hour or so train journey from the beautiful, perhaps over-crowded Venice to the smaller, quieter, yet equally tranquil Udine.

We discussed all things football, including goal line technology and the idea of gaining an extra point for scoring more than three goals in a match, amongst others. However there was a focus on the Gunners, as you'd expect, and I was glad that the three of us could talk about our current situation in an objective and non-dramatic manner, which at the moment is hard to do with many arsenal 'fans'. I'm not going to go into what we talked about as this article is focusing on my away trip, not the club's current woes - I'll do that on my own blog! When we reached our destination, the three of us went for a drink at a bar opposite the station and then walked to our respective hotels.

My father and I were in Udine from Monday evening, and the sight of a Gooner was a rarity until Wednesday morning. During the day of the match, the only pub where I saw Gooners congregating in was The Savio, on one of Udine's beautiful squares. There were a group of Austrian Arsenal fans who put their 'Tirol Gooners' flag up on the ledge of the square (Tirol is a place in Austria). There was a good ambiance-people socialising, laughing etc, which was obviously helped by the beer and gorgeous weather! Funnily enough, a guy who runs a stand on match days which sells Arsenal memorabilia (particularly old programmes) recognised us as we were passing and said hello.



Before the game, we got talking to various Udinese fans. One was the curator of a museum opposite our hotel- he didn't speak the best of English however it was clear he was wary of the threat we pose. He also seemed slightly intimidated in terms of club stature - he said he was worried about us as we 'win', yes, present tense, leagues and cups in England. I was tempted to object, but it was a pleasant surprise to come across someone who believes we still win things! Maybe it was just his English, and he meant 'won', but I was happy to go along with it! We met another Udinese fan in a different museum. She said essentially that Udinese have absolutely nothing to lose, however Arsenal have everything to lose - wise words - which even furthered our worries regarding the match.

We went to a local bar for a drink and a bite to eat around two hours before kick off and chatted with some Gooners who we'd seen earlier in our hotel. Well, by 'some', I actually mean 'one', as four out of the five were so drunk. Anyway, the man we did get talking to - a really nice guy - provided me and my dad with some inside information. Giles Grimandi, now Arsenal's chief European scout, was also staying in our hotel, and had several chats with our 'inside man', so let's just say I'm reliably informed about the upcoming influx of information: the top dog we want is Yan M'vila from Rennes, he is very highly regarded. I also learned that Eden Hazard is off the menu as he is thought to be overpriced for what he is. Also Wenger would prefer Jagielka over Cahill as he thinks he is a better footballer, however will not pay the inflated price Everton want for him as he is relatively old at 29. Now here's something that'll make you chuckle; apparently Paddy Viera calls Grimandi every week asking 'what the fuck is going on' with The Arsenal. But here is something that'll bemuse many; Viera is not working with AFC as a coach or whatever because the club 'couldn't find a role for him'. What a disgrace. Make a bloody role for him!

We arrived at the stadium an hour before kick off, and three security checks later we were in our seats. The contrast in security between The Emirates and the Stadio Fruili was crazy! Despite being miles away from the pitch and nowhere near the home crowd, lighters were confiscated and so too were bottle lids-which is normal in England I suppose. Once we were in, the away end was pretty empty. We were waiting for it to fill up but it never really did. But to be fair, it was enormous. There were alot of foreign Arsenal fans too-Austrians as mentioned before, Serbians, Croats, and also Italians. I would say only 500 out of the 800 or so crowd were English. But a Gooner's a Gooner!

During the game there was no banter with any Udinese fans as we were simply too far away from them! The Arsenal support was pretty good in relation to it's size, and the team were backed by us throughout the game. Any tasteless 'spend some money' chants were quickly drowned out by positive songs, and 'Gervinho don't like em', a new one, was sung loudly by...erm..me..and @littledutchva...oh and @gooner_1983.
At half-time, I went and introduced myself to the above mentioned duo. I recognized Mr Stillman who was sitting two rows behind me. It was like meeting a celebrity! Although I can't say I got butterflies, it was a pleasure to meet the two of them - lovely guys. When the ref awarded the seemingly dubious penalty, I screamed: 'are you Platini in disguise?', which I thought was quite amusing, however I soon realised I was the only one singing it!

As stoppage time was shown, many Arsenal fans ran to the bottom of the away end hoping to get a shirt if thrown over to us. I followed the crowd and it almost paid off. Djourou's match worn shirt flew over my glistening eyes, like a beautiful bird gracefully flying through the air, and I was ready to pounce until some dude behind me leaped over everyone and caught it! So close, yet so far. After the final whistle went, there was a huge sigh of relief and personally, I was above all delighted for Mr Wenger - what an important victory to relieve the fierce media attention on him - for the time being.


We were kept inside for 20 minutes, although I didn't see why, as the Udinese fans were some of the most welcoming opposition supporters I've ever come across! Coaches took us back to the town centre, where ecstatic Gooners dispersed in search of cheap booze. Me and my dad went to a local cafe and we chatted with a few Italians who made the trip to London for the first leg. They stated the obvious to be honest: Udinese deserved at least one goal at the Emirates but we deserved it over the two games. We then got talking to two Udinese fans outside our hotel who had some interesting things to say. The general consensus from Udinese fans was that their keeper, Handanovic, is without a doubt one of the best keepers in Europe. From what I've seen of him over the two legs, I can't really argue with that. Also mentioned was their number 27, Pablo Armero, who they highly regard. Aside from praising their own players, these Udinese fans were quick to praise our own team. They agreed that Szczesny was magnificent in goal for us and that his penalty save was world class. Another masterful Wenger signing may I add. Manchester United spent £20m on De Gea, but surely Szczesny, bought for virtually nothing, is equal, if not better in terms of ability? Anyway, in general the Udinese fans were very hospitable - I can imagine this away trip was far less intimidating than going to the likes of Roma or Milan. I would compare Udine to somewhere like Fulham; A lovely area with a welcoming set of fans.

My few days in Italy were thoroughly enjoyable thanks to the beautiful weather, great food, and very friendly people - I wish their team well in the Europa League, beating Sp*rs in the final and crocking Adebayor... Result included, it was a 10/10 trip.

Rueben Lewis writes his own blog. You can follow him on Twitter.

AshburtonGrove.co.uk is looking for a fan heading to Borussia Dortmund for the Champions League game on September and also someone heading to Ewood Park for the Premier League game with Blackburn to write about their away day experience. If you'd like to get involved, contact us via Twitter or Email.



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