When four penniless students with no great affection for Arsenal decided to go to Paris for the 1995 Cup-Winners Cup final, they didn’t realise they were going to witness one of the competition’s most famous moments
When you’re totally skint, living in Leicester and don’t support Arsenal, the answer to the question “Where shall we watch the Arsenal v Real Zaragoza Cup-Winners Cup final?” is unlikely to be “In the Parc des Princes”. However, that’s exactly the plan that was hatched by four penniless IT apprentices in 1995, of whom I was one. I have no recollection of how the whole thing came about. What I do know is that we somehow found ourselves – two Ipswich fans, one Aston Villa and a token Arsenal supporter who seemed the least convinced of any of us about the wisdom of the enterprise – in the French capital with tickets for the game.
The Parc des Princes had been at the vanguard of stadium architecture in its 1970s and 1980s heyday, but by 1995 it was an unlovely place. Its grey concrete exterior and oppressive roof seemed to be expressions of foreboding at the knowledge that construction work had just started on the Stade de France, which would usurp it as the national stadium, in readiness for the 1998 World Cup.
Similarly, that Arsenal team had an air of faded glamour about it. George Graham had been sacked in bung-tinged disgrace a few months earlier: some of the component parts of his erstwhile great sides remained (Tony Adams, Martin Keown), and Ian Wright was approaching his pomp, but as a unit it had become less than the sum of its parts. The team finished 12th in the league that season – their lowest position in 19 years. Graham’s one-time deputy Stewart Houston was temporarily (and, it seemed, reluctantly) in charge, which only served to emphasise the air of awkward transition.
The Cup-Winners Cup had some status in its day: the winners would contest the UEFA Super Cup against the European Cup winners, and victory in this tournament was sometimes a precursor to more substantial success. Everton won it in 1985 and were domestic champions in the same year – it was only English clubs’ European ban which prevented them from testing themselves against the continent’s finest. Manchester United’s 1991 triumph was a significant staging post on Alex Ferguson’s path to two decades of dominance.
The 1995 final, by contrast, offered no such glimpses of future excitement. Arsenal looked jaded, like a rock band forced to play yet another farewell tour by a pressing tax bill. Zaragoza were willing but limited: the game was a long way short of being a classic. Juan Esnáider fired past a motionless David Seaman to give Zaragoza a second-half lead (“how unlike Seaman to be caught off-guard!” is probably what lots of people thought at that moment) before John Hartson’s equaliser took the game into extra time.
And it was extra time – the very, very last minute of extra time – which brought about one of the most extraordinary “I was there” moments in European club football. The game had descended into stalemate, with both teams and both sets of supporters conserving their physical and emotional resources for the inevitable penalties. The clock showed 120 minutes when Nayim – an ex-Spurs man, of course – seized on a clearance and, from fully 50 yards, sent a lob over Seaman’s head and into the net.
For a split second, the stadium fell silent. It was only the wild, disbelieving cheers of the Zaragoza fans which brought the reality home. Even when the final whistle went it seemed unreal, as though a fragment of a strange and unsettling dream had somehow interjected the collective consciousness.
Baffled and bemused, the Arsenal fans trooped out of the stadium and into the Parisian night. We found the grubby hostel where we’d sourced the cheapest of cheap accommodation, grabbed some sleep and got up early for the journey home – we’d completely run out of money and wouldn’t eat until we got back to Leicester. “What was it like being there?” asked my flatmate, who’d watched the game on TV, as I scrabbled around the cupboard for a tin of baked beans. “Unbelievable,” I replied with more accuracy than I realised. Twenty years later, thanks to YouTube, I can reassure myself that the goal I witnessed actually happened: I’m not sure I’d believe it otherwise. I still have no idea why I was there, but I’m glad I was.