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My Favourite Game: Nothing special to either side but it was biggest deal in the world to me

Aidan Fitzmaurice


Arsenal (0) v Sunderland (1) 1983 First Division May 7, Highbury

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David O'Leary in action for Arsenal at Highbury. Photo: Getty Images

David O'Leary in action for Arsenal at Highbury. Photo: Getty Images

Getty Images

David O'Leary in action for Arsenal at Highbury. Photo: Getty Images

Being honest, it's a bit of a stretch to call this my favourite game. Mainly because I only saw half a game.

But it's still a match that's seared into the memory. After almost 25 years of watching football while getting paid to write about it, I have seen hundreds of matches, forgotten hundreds too.

I can't remember who won the FA Cup in any season beyond 1998. I once referred, in print, to an Ireland win at home to Brazil when it had been a draw, so the memory cannot always keep up.

Yet some things get imprinted into the brain. Like this game, Sunderland away to Arsenal in the (old) First Division in May 1983. Nothing special for either club, Arsenal's final home game of a disappointing season which saw them finish 10th.

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But me? I was 10 years old and it was the biggest deal in the world. First time on a plane, first time leaving Ireland, first time seeing a proper crowd at a match, having until then been brought to Dalymount Park on Sunday afternoons to watch Bohemians, the Pisser Dignam's Field a cold and lonely place never troubled by 'sold-out' signs.

Luck was, literally, on my side. My dad loved entering competitions in the newspapers, in a time before 1550-numbers when it cost nothing to enter.

Shock

And though we were used to winning things, it was still a shock to get a letter in the post to say that I had won a competition in the David O'Leary column in the Sunday World, the prize a trip to see Arsenal at Highbury.

It was a trip for two. Two different competition winners, that is, not the winner and a guest. So a 10-year-old boy was brought to Dublin airport, was entrusted into the possession of the other competition winner, a lad in his 20s from Co Meath, someone I'd never met before, and off we headed to London, to be met at Heathrow by another adult male we'd never met, the Sunday World's sports editor Peter O'Neill.

A 10-year-old off to London with a stranger, with no mobile phone, no Family Link app or other piece of technology to check in and let the family know I was still alive. Garda clearance was something that only happened in the high-jump at sports day at Templemore.

A parent doing that now would be publicly shamed if the wider world knew, Liveline-fodder for a couple of days. But the Ireland of 1983 had an innocence about it. Maybe the Sunday World didn't expect a 10-year-old to be winning competitions, maybe they didn't expect a 10-year-old to take up the prize and just be replaced by an older sibling.

The itinerary was that we'd be met by Peter O'Neill in Heathrow, be taken for lunch in London, then off to Highbury for a tour of the stadium, the Sunderland match and a chance to meet O'Leary and other players after. That didn't account for fog.

Flights from Dublin were delayed and so were we. It meant that the plane only landed in London as the game was preparing to kick off so we arrived at Highbury just as the second half was about to start.

The game was a blur. I do know that Sunderland scored late, and won 1-0. I need to use Google to recall who scored for Ireland in games I attended two years ago, but without resorting to Wikipedia I know that Colin West scored the only goal of the game.

For Arsenal, it was a grim end to the home games in a forgettable campaign. Manager Terry Neill seemed to predict what would happen in the game with some depressing words in the match programme.

"What a disappointing time it has been for all of us, especially you supporters, this was not good enough and changes will be made," he said.

Arsenal had also warned fans of a price hike in the basic match ticket: up to £2.20 from £2, back when a season ticket to see Arsenal cost £44.

Post-match events were more memorable than the 45 minutes I saw. David O'Leary took the Sunday World party for a mini-tour of the stadium, dressing-rooms, those marble halls of Highbury and the players' lounge.

I got to meet Graham Rix, who seemed huge. I shook the hand of Pat Jennings, who was giant-like. Vladimir Petrovic, a very rare eastern European player in English football, signed my match programme. Peter Nicholas said hello.

Sunderland took home their win, Arsenal closed the (home) curtain on a dismal season and a 10-year-old headed back to his family in Dublin. And, I imagine, the Sunday World changed the rules about competition winners needing to be over 18.

Irish Independent