On August 29th 2021, I went on my first proper footballing adventure in years: to Glasgow for the Old Firm Derby. After years of not being able to watch a game as a fan, I threw off my shackles, hitched a ride up north, and had myself a wonderful time. The game at Ibrox was far from a classic, with Rangers centre-back Filip Helander heading in the only goal of the game, but to experience the atmosphere of the oldest and fiercest derby in world football was something I will always cherish.
The whole thing got me thinking: what are the best matches I’ve ever been to? I’ve experienced quite a few, but unfortunately without much diversity in the grounds – hence why the Old Firm trip happened. I’ve been around such fine stadia as the Camp Nou, the Amsterdam Arena and the Ernst Happel Stadium, but have sadly never taken in a match at any of them. But out of the ones I have seen live, there are some true crackers in there. I’ve seen four 6-0 wins, Goal of the Year nominees, Champions League football under the floodlights, and every footballer under the sun from Kevin de Bruyne to Marouane Chamakh. Hopefully I’ll be able to branch out with some trips spanning far and wide in the not-too-distant future. But for now, here are six of the best of my footballing adventures.
England 6-0 Andorra (10/06/2009)
In a week where England beat Andorra 4-0 at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier, it made me think of the time I went to see this exact fixture twelve years ago, only on that occasion the Three Lions scored two more than they did recently. Clearly we’ve gone backwards under Southgate.
Anyway, this match may not necessarily have been the best I’ve ever seen, but it makes my list for the experience that it was. Basically for some reason unbeknownst to me, one of my school science teachers decided he was going to organize a trip to Wembley to see England play Andorra, but for those of us wanting to go we had to apply (since there was only a limited number of spaces), and hope we got picked. When he put the sheet of names up on the wall of the science corridor and I saw my name was on there, I was so excited I nearly started crying. The thought of going to see my country at Wembley was apparently too much for my 12 year-old brain to comprehend.
The match itself was as straight-forward as you’d expect. Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe both scored twice, with Frank Lampard and Peter Crouch also contributing to a 6-0 win. It was routine, but that won’t take anything away from my experience. It was my first trip to Wembley, it was a dream come true for me. I savoured every moment of it, looking on as Rooney, Lampard, Gerrard, Terry, Beckham, et al walked over the tiny nation from the Pyrenees. I even made it onto the big screen! Remember this was a time when England fans were cautiously optimistic about the leadership of Fabio Capello, as this was the latest in a long line of World Cup qualifiers in which we eased to victory, leaving us hopeful for the World Cup in South Africa.
As well all know, things didn’t quite go to plan that summer. But for what it was, this match will always hold a special place in my heart.
Arsenal 3-0 Ipswich Town (25/01/2011)
Growing up in an Arsenal household, I naturally saw many a thrilling encounter at the Emirates in my early teens. Not getting into football properly until I was about 10, the first ever match I went to see was at the 2008 Emirates Cup, with Hamburg stunning Juventus 3-0, before an Emmanuel Adebayor penalty saw the Gunners overcome Real Madrid 1-0. Shame it was only a friendly, but 11 year-old me was suitably thrilled. The absolute “wow” feeling I got from visiting a stadium like the Emirates persisted with me for years, and I saw some truly great matches there over the next few seasons. The following week I saw the opening game of the 2008/09 season, where Samir Nasri scored four minutes into his debut to beat West Bromwich Albion. From there, I witnessed such classic moments as Nasri’s wonder-goal against Porto in the Champions League last 16, a last-gasp Nicklas Bendtner header to beat Wolves, 6-0 victories over Blackpool and Braga, and the Fulham game were Nasri scored another two majestic goals, the second of which occurred right in front of me.
Out of all the matches I saw in north London, however, this game against Ipswich stands head and shoulders above all else, in my humble opinion. Not just for the occasion, but because it contains the single greatest goal I’ve ever seen live.
For context, this was the second leg of the League Cup semi-final, with Arsenal going into the match trailing 1-0 after inexplicably losing to a Tamás Priskin strike at Portman Road in the first leg. Yup, remember him? In the long line of Hungarian footballing legends such as Zsengellér, Puskás, Hidegkuti and Albert, we also have the mighty Tamás Priskin. Anyway, for a place in the final against either Birmingham City or West Ham United (such was the calibre of competition that year), Arsenal needed to overturn the deficit against the stubborn Tractor Boys, but even with the likes of Jack Wilshere, Cesc Fábregas, and Robin van Persie in the starting XI, they just couldn’t find a way through by half time.
Into the second half, and enter Nicklas Bendtner to score the best goal I’ve ever seen at a live match. I kid you not, this is completely genuine. Wilshere picks the ball up in the Arsenal half and plays a magnificent cross-field ball over the Town defence to find Bendtner on the left wing. Next thing you know, he’s controlled it with the outside of his right foot on the corner of the penalty area, heel-chopped inside Carlos Edwards, and curled the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. I could not believe what I had just seen, especially from Nicklas f*cking Bendtner of all people. That sparked the Gunners into life, and three minutes later Laurent Koscielny beat the late Martón Fülöp to the ball to head in from a corner, and Fábregas sealed the victory with a third goal. Thanks to the majesty of Lord Bendtner, Arsenal were through to Wembley to face Birmingham City, looking to end a six-year trophy drought.
I think we all remember what happened in the final.
Norwich City 3-2 Derby County (25/04/2011)
So for a brief bit of clarity, Norwich City were my second team for as long as I can remember, before moving to the city and a cultivation of my personal beliefs saw them become firmly established as my first team. My East Anglian love affair really began to start when I was around 14, when myself and a couple of friends decided to take a trip up to Carrow Road to “spite” one of our other friends who had decided they were now an Ipswich fan. The game we chose was an Easter Monday tie against Derby County, and little did we know we were about to watch a slice of history unfold before our eyes.
This was the season when Norwich were mounting an unexpected push for Premier League promotion, only a year after romping to the League One title. QPR had the Championship title in the bag, and Norwich were looking to consolidate second spot to secure automatic promotion. The first half couldn’t have gone much better, with Simeon Jackson giving the Canaries a 1-0 advantage at half-time. However, for a club languishing in 19th place in the league, Derby showed remarkable resilience to peg Norwich back twice, and heading into injury time the game looked deadlocked at 2-2, and the Canaries looked as though they might be slipping down into third.
But then, the magic happened. A corner was swung in, a classic goalmouth scramble ensued, and Jackson was on hand to stab in from close range to complete his hat-trick and send Carrow Road wild. The lads in front of me started smooching passionately, people fell out of the stands, it was total bedlam. Neil Adams’ commentary line “The place is going bananas!” has become so iconic that it now serves as the title of City’s official history book. Norwich won the game, and subsequently sealed a second successive promotion back to the Premier League.
We couldn’t have known what would unfold before us on that glorious day, but for my first Norwich match to be a slice of history is a pretty special feeling for me.
Bishop’s Stortford 1-2 Northampton Town (10/11/2013)
In my long list of allegiances, we move on to my hometown club, Bishop’s Stortford. Many a Saturday afternoon was spent down at Woodside Park with the boys, watching future stars such as Dwight Gayle and Moses Odubajo cultivate their craft, but this one undoubtedly comes up trumps.
For a small town like Bishop’s Stortford to get much media attention is almost unheard of, but that’s what happened when they drew Northampton Town at home in the first round of the FA Cup. For context, Stortford were on a six-game winning run in the Conference North (the sixth tier) at the time, whilst Northampton were struggling at the wrong end of League Two. The ITV cameras smelt an upset, and around 4,000 people crammed into Woodside Park to watch Adrian Chiles present the action from the centre circle, and hope the club’s cup run could continue a bit longer.
Sadly, the gulf in class quickly became apparent. Although Northampton were struggling, they were still Football League quality, and totally dominated the first half. It was somehow 0-0 at half-time, with Blues ‘keeper Joe Wright making a string of saves, and matters weren’t helped when star striker Kyle Vassell went off injured mid-way through the half. Things could have been different if Stortford had taken the one chance they had, with centre-back Sean Francis heading against the bar from half a yard out.
Naturally, Stortford began to tire as the second half went on, and Danny Emerton and Luke Norris gave Northampton a deserved 2-0 lead. Stortford captain Reece Prestedge managed to thump one in from the edge of the box to give the Blues hope, but Northampton held on to end Bishop’s Stortford’s cup run.
Despite the result, the game epitomised everything there is to love about non-league football, and the FA Cup in general. Woodside Park only averaged attendances of around 400-500 people at the time, presumably less now since Stortford’s relegation to the seventh tier. For 4,000 people to turn up to support the town was incredible, and I’d say this is the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a football match. I was standing right behind the goal on the right-hand side of the ground (if you spot a grey hoodie behind that goal in the highlights, congratulations, that’s me!), and being so close to the pitch, packed in with hundreds of other fans, every moment felt special. The passion was electric, with the disappointment of the Northampton goals to the euphoria of when Prestedge fired in was felt all around the ground, and the noise you hear on the highlights doesn’t do it justice. And for the club to be FA Cup underdogs, with the majority of neutral football fans probably supporting them from home, was a truly special event.
For a day out in which my hometown was headline news, with Adrian Chiles in the centre circle and me being so close to the goal that I got to have a quick chat with Northampton goalie Matt Duke during the warm-up (lovely guy btw), this is a game I always look back on fondly, regardless of the result, and reminds me of why non-league football is a brilliant thing.
Team Wes 8-4 Team Russ (06/05/2019)
I just want to include this one because it’s arguably the greatest friendly match that’s ever taken place, featuring a series of Norwich “legends” in a big extravaganza of celebrations.
First of all, the match followed Norwich’s promotion parade, celebrating the incredible 2018/19 Championship title win. It was a glorious day, as a sea of yellow and green greeted the heroes of East Anglia, proudly presenting the trophy from an open-top tour bus after the actual celebratory bus had broken down in the morning. Classic Norwich.
After a morning of clamouring to see Norfolk’s finest parading their way down St. Stephens’ Street, a cheeky Nando’s was grabbed before heading to Carrow Road to celebrate the careers of two City legends: Russell Martin and Wes Hoolahan, who had both left the club the year before. They both captained teams of former Norwich players, and I use that term instead of “legends” since that would be a rather generous description of the likes of George Francomb and Owain Tudur Jones. Even Aston Oxborough and Michael McGovern made their way into the squads, and they’re still contracted to Norwich! I guess there weren’t that many people available on the day.
Still, on a truly joyous day, City fans still got to see the likes of Darren Huckerby, Grant Holt, Adam Drury, and my personal favourite-ever Norwich player, Anthony Pilkington, grace the Carrow Road turf once more. I wish I could find a condensed highlights package of the match, as all that appears to exist is a livestream of the event on the City YouTube channel, because the match itself was pure chaos. Not only did the goals fly in left, right, and centre, but everyone on the pitch was clearly there for a good time, and they wanted everyone to know about it. The personal highlight (and there were a lot of them) was a group of players deciding to take part in a spontaneous “bundle” in the penalty area, before quickly dispersing when they saw the lumbering figure of Grant Holt running towards them. I use the term “running” very loosely, but it was hilarious nonetheless.
It was a wonderful day out, reveling in all there is to love about this fine city and its football team. Never change, Norwich, never change.
Norwich City 3-2 Manchester City (14/09/2019)
I didn’t want to make this list too Carrow Road-heavy, but it just turns out that’s where I’ve seen the best matches play out. This last inclusion arguably tops the lot, since I don’t think I’ve ever been to a match where my emotions have fluctuated so much, going from sheer dread, to surprise, to bewilderment, to unbearable nervousness, to euphoria and disbelief come the end of the match.
Going into the game, things could not have looked more against the Canaries. Up against Manchester City, the champions of England, Norwich had eight first-team absentees and looked woefully out of their depth. Where Man City had David Silva, we had Marco Stiepermann. Where they had Rodri and Ilkay Gündogan, we had Kenny McLean and Alex Tettey. Injury-prone Sam Byram had to fill in at right-back, while new loan signing Ibrahim Amadou had to deputise at centre-back, being tasked with keeping a front three of Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, and Sergio Agüero at bay. I even went so far as to predict a 6-0 Man City win, and triple-captained Sterling for my Fantasy Football team. Everything that happened over the next two hours or so defied all logic and belief.
Basked in the glorious early-evening sunshine of Carrow Road, Norwich were brilliant. Man City obviously dominated possession, but the defensive pairing of Godfrey and Amadou looked so assured throughout, and dealt with nearly everything the light blue attack had to offer. But even when McLean headed in from a corner to give Norwich the lead, I still had the sense that this was going to be the “1” in a hefty defeat. So when Todd Cantwell tapped in from a swift counter-attack, it became pretty unbelievable what I was witnessing. You’re always told to expect the unexpected, but even the most optimistic of fans couldn’t have expected Norwich to be 2-0 up against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City within half an hour. It was amazing, incredible, and completely unbelievable. When an unmarked Agüero headed in for 2-1 (the only real defensive lapse from Norwich in the entire game) just before half-time, it did give the impression that things were going to fall apart in the second half.
Instead, things got better. Just after the restart Emi Buendía robbed Nicolás Otamendi of the ball in the Man City penalty area, and squared for Teemu Pukki to flick the ball into the roof of the net. I was just left looking around thinking “What is going on? This should not be happening. Nothing about this makes sense.” It all seemed too good to be true. Norwich never really had another opportunity after the third goal, and were penned back by Man City for the rest of the game. But the defense was unbelievable, and everything the champions threw at the Norwich goal was dealt with, even with players such as Kevin de Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez now on the pitch. Rodri pulled a goal back from the edge of the box to make it 3-2 with five minutes left, and I’ve never known five minutes to go so slowly. Or a second half for that matter. But the final whistle blew, and Norwich had somehow pulled off the victory. It was the most surreal, unbelievable feeling I’ve known to experience at the end of a football match.
As a rousing rendition of Blur’s “Parklife” rang out around the ground, I remember thinking “no matter what happens this season, we will always have this moment.” As it turned out, this was only one of five games the Canaries would win that season, finishing bottom of the league with a measly 21 points. But what I thought still holds up – we will always have this day.
Pep Guardiola infamously said before the game he’d never heard of Norwich until the fixtures were drawn. Something tells me he knows a lot more about them now.
And there you have it, the top six games I have been to see. I know the list of grounds isn’t that expansive, and here’s hoping the future will provide me with plenty of groundhopping opportunities, from Leipzig to Lowestoft, from Madrid to Morecambe, from Dortmund to Droylsden. The world is a pretty big place, to put it mildly, and there’s plenty of football to be watching.
I’m sure you’ll hear about such adventures in due course. But for now, stay safe, and thanks for reading.