Mar 11th, 2013 by 'holic
I’m looking on jealously as a number of you prepare to journey to Munich for Wednesday’s Champions League fixture. The grey cells flicker dimly as I recall my first venture into Europe following the Arsenal.
In the sixties and seventies the novelty of European competition was restricted to home legs for me. That all changed when we qualified for the UEFA Cup in 1978. We had not played competitively on the continent since being outgunned by Ajax in the 1971/2 European Cup quarter-final, and so I made the decision to go wherever we were drawn.
These days the prospect of a trip to Germany, as I have said above, leaves me green with envy. Thirty three years ago I ended up green for entirely different reasons. Lokomotive Leipzig had a bit of European pedigree and had knocked both Wolves and Ipswich Town out of the 1974 UEFA Cup. When we were paired with them there was a nervous wait to see if the trip would be possible. Leipzig, you see, was the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.
Thankfully a trip was organised and on the morning of 26th September two coaches departed North London bound for an adventure in Eastern Europe the following night. Never having ventured further than Calais by bus before I wasn’t entirely prepared for the journey that lay ahead through Belgium and West Germany. Fortunately spirits were kept high at the back of the coach by another travelling fan, one Cardew Robinson, an old school comic and actor.
What felt like a circumnavigation of the globe ended with us arriving at the ground just fifteen minutes before kick-off. We were put into a terrace on one side of the ground while directly opposite running battles were taking place between the locals and, it later transpired, the supporters of another local side. Fortunately the hosts were far more hospitable to us than their neighbours.
The match itself had lessened in importance since we had comfortably won the home leg 3-0 a fortnight earlier. A Liam Brady goal in the first half strengthened our hand and we went on to record a 4-1 triumph, hailed by the press on our return as one of the memorable away performances in Europe by an English team to that point. We were also treated to a brief debut glimpse of the sixteen year old Paul Vaessen, who would go on to make history with a late winner in a Turin semi-final nineteen months later. What a shame his story would end in tragedy.
Match over we were taken back to our hotel, one of only two in Leipzig allowed to take in Westerners. “Are the Arsenal team here?”
“Where is the other hotel?” A short and seemingly profitable taxi ride away a handful of us were in the lobby of the team hotel, pockets stuffed with East German marks exchanged at three times the proper rate in the cab. The team descended a flight of stairs and headed for a large function room next to the lobby. “Come on in lads”. Terry Neill didn’t need to ask twice. As the boys tucked into beer and sandwiches an impromptu ceilidh started, and the highlight was Liam Brady and Sammy Nelson turning cockney in attempt to get the starstruck guests to contribute. We returned the favour with a version of the Wild Rover.
The following morning we boarded the coaches to come home. Our guide advised if anybody had any local currency left to spend it in the hotel as it could not be changed back into pounds. Four lads, guess who included, sprinted back into the hotel, but to buy what? Vodka! Brilliant. We reboarded the coach, bottles of the stuff everywhere. Once we were on the way the guide kindly pointed out we could only take one bottle each out of the country.
Trust me there are only so many bottles of vodka you can give away to people who don’t want them. There was only one solution. As Father Jack would have observed in one of his more lucid moments, DRINK. So it came to pass that I turned green. I remember passing a used paper bag to a gun-toting guard on the border, before sharing some of the vodka with him minus the bag. I remember Cardew Robinson praising my comic talents although I suspect he was merely humouring the tedious drunk lads in front of him. Finally I remember the ferry ride home from Ostend, in my own personal cubicle, with an ozone-filled big white telephone. It was of course a choppy crossing.
So as your short flights and comfortable train journeys deliver you into the beautiful modern Bavarian capital for a day or two of bratwurst and lager I would ask you to thank your lucky stars that you are travelling in some comfort to Munich in 2013, not by charabanc to Leipzig in 1978. Have a great time, but most important of all…
…come back having seen us win 4-1.
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