Arsenal 2 Middlesbrough 1 – 29th December 2001 - Highbury – Attendance 37,948
For a young lad, there are lots of things that we dream about when growing up. Things like your first day at school, your first holiday, your first car and your first girlfriend (which of course leads to other firsts).
But for any lad that loves football, there is of course one thing that they will look forward to more than anything else and that’s going to a live game. Ideally of course they’d like that game to be a big one involving their team (at whatever level of the game) and that it’ll be a fantastic day for them to look back on.
My first football match came rather embarrassingly at the age of 14. It wasn’t that my dad hadn’t been promising to take me and my brother to a Premiership/England game, it was just that he never got round to actually booking the tickets!
Out of the blue in December 2001, a week or so before the school break for Christmas came up, my mate Jonathan asked me whether I’d be interested in going to see his team Arsenal face the mighty Middlesbrough at Highbury.
Despite wanting to see a Manchester United game first, as after all they’re the team I support, the chance to see guys like Henry, Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and Carlos Marinelli (there’s a blast from the past) play live at one of the best grounds in world football, in Highbury was a chance too good to turn down.
At the time, the 01/02 Premiership was quite tight with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle all challenging. Coming of good wins over Liverpool and Chelsea, Wenger’s Arsenal were the clear favourites to win the game and were just about gearing up going into what would be a double-winning season for them.
Boro on the other hand were being managed by Steve McClaren who was in his first season as manager of the club after leaving Manchester United. Despite having good experienced guys like Southgate, Ehiogu, Ince in their team along with talented foreign enigma’s like Hamilton Ricard and the aforementioned Marinelli, the team were struggling near the bottom of the table.
On match-day itself, I felt like a little kid in a toy shop and I felt really excited as we made our way out of the underground station nearby before starting our journey into the stadium.
It was an incredible rush walking up to the ground and I remember running as fast as I could to get my match programme to remember the day, much to the laughter of Jonathan and his family. We had a cracking view of the game sitting in the West Stand Upper and had a clear view all over the pitch.
The match itself was quite a good one. To the shock of everyone in the ground Boro look the lead through a tidy finish from Noel Whelan in the first half which caught us by surprise, as Whelan was the last person I’d have imagined seeing score a goal!
Arsenal to their credit as they did so often that year turned on the style in the second half and deservedly won the game.
Arsenal’s equaliser was nothing but spectacular as Robert Pires brilliantly fired in a 20-yard volley after I think Ince was nudged of the ball on the edge of the box. Arsenal’s winner came from the then innocent looking Ashley Cole who bravely headed in a deft cross from Bergkamp with around 10 minutes left.
My lasting memories of the day looking back at it just over 7 years later were that it was a hugely enjoyable day for me. The roar of the Highbury crowd was amazing and just like the view I had from my seat, really surprised me just how different a live game is to watching it on the box. It was also great seeing the Highbury Clock in the flesh as well.
I later went back to Highbury with my mate and his family for a second time 2 seasons later when I saw that ‘Invincibles’ side draw 1-1 with Manchester United funnily enough, which was quite an experience for me as a United fan cheering against my beloved team whilst sitting amongst the fans of our then most hated rivals, which my dad wasn’t impressed about!
Looking back I am incredibly proud I saw not 1 but 2 games of football at Highbury, which was a ground that of course generated more than a fair few moments of magic down the years that fans of all clubs will never forget. Shame the same can’t be said for that goal by Noel Whelan!