When Dave first approached me to write a blog for Gunners Town, I remember asking him for ideas. There seemed to be so many wonderful Arsenal blogs that it felt like almost every discussion point had been covered, 2 or 3 days after a match.
I wanted my blog to be slightly unique in terms of what I wrote about. Obviously my name meant I would at least get some Arsenal fans read my stuff but wanted to bring something different. Back in summer 2013, Dave suggested that I write about my memories of being mascot back in 2001, which was just a few weeks after my Dad died.
I thought what a brilliant idea and got started on it however I soon quickly realised that this blog wasn’t really appropriate for that time. The transfer market was about to end and the season had just started. Nobody was thinking about the FA Cup and whilst I knew it could be an interesting read I thought there would be times where it could have a bigger impact.
A few weeks back when the semi final took place Arsenal drew Reading and Liverpool drew Villa, I thought finally! 14 years later I’ll get the chance to get my revenge on Liverpool and also the right moment to talk about my experiences of a special day in May 2001.
As it happened Arsenal merely got past Reading to make the final but make it we did. I remember texting Dave before the Liverpool Villa match telling him I was torn on who I wanted to win. On the one hand I thought Villa would be the easier opponents (although that’s debatable now considering both teams end of season form) but a part of me wanted Liverpool to go through so I could have the opportunity to take my personal revenge and make this blog even more relevant. It wasn’t to be but I still feel now is the right time to share my memories.
When I first found out that I was going to be mascot at the first FA CUP final at the Millenium stadium in Wales I genuinely just thought I had been selected. It was just a few weeks after my Dad died and obviously now realise it was a very generous thing of the club to do.
I had mixed emotions about being the mascot. Everyone kept telling me how I was going to lead the team out in front of thousands of people and how it would be an unforgettable experience. I couldn’t help but think I didn’t at this time know too much about football or really care for it. I knew my Dad was a footballer and I loved playing but I never really watched it unless it was videos of him. I was only 9 years old.
In the week before the final, my mum, my sisters and I went up to Highbury to talk about the plans for the day and prepare some notes that could go into the programme. That was the first proper time I paid any attention to Higbury. It was empty and I was in the tunnel and just thought back to everyone saying how I would lead the team out and imagined the stadium was full. I was beginning to feel the excitement.
We went to an office, where a man started asking me a few questions. “Who’s your favourite current player?” I looked at him sheepishly before turning to my Mum. I couldn’t admit that I didn’t really know any of the players – that would have been embarrassing! In the end I said Tony Adams. He’s one of the few I could remember, I think the reason was because he was Captain. I also had a good friend called Henry and though maybe I should say him too. They are two of the biggest Arsenal legends ever so I guess in the end they weren’t bad answers.
A couple days later my Mum told me that there was someone coming to take photographs of me and that I would be in the newspaper. I was over the moon with that. I was beginning to feel like I was famous. I could tell my older sister Mel was beginning to get a bit jealous. It just felt that week was all about me. I told everyone! My Aunty said you never take photos with me but are more than happy to for the national press! The day it went out in the paper, I took it to school and remember we had it pinned to the wall for the following weeks. I remember taking the photos very clearly in my garden. The photographer asked me to try and do kick ups but I couldn’t do many so in the end just had to sit on the ball.
We took the train up to Wales the day of the game. My Mum and Sisters had come with me and the previous day I received lots of supportive phone calls including one from ex Vice Chairman David Dein. He told me whatever happens we are all proud of you. He was a massive fan of Dad and always let us know that he was his favourite player. It was all beginning to feel very important and I just hoped I would bring the team luck.
On the way walking to the stadium there was a special moment. It was still a good few hours until kick off so pretty quiet but the atmosphere was building. Then a few minutes from the ground we walked past a pub and all of a sudden the “Ohh Rocky Rocky” song was belted out loudly by what must have been hundreds of fans. There wasn’t much singing before that so I was convinced it was for me but just couldn’t believe how anyone could recognise who I was! I turned and asked my Mum “Are they singing for me or Dad?” to which she replied, “They are singing for you!”
Once we got to the stadium I spent most the day with a lady called Sue who looked after all the mascots and made me feel really relaxed. 14 years on she still works at Arsenal. Going into the changing rooms was pretty surreal. Everyone kept asking me if I was okay including the players. I remember there being a lot of fist clinching and Kanu in particular was going through a very funny pre match routine. My sister also recalls how Freddie Ljungberg wouldn’t take his pants off until she had left!
Before the game I did a few interviews and was standing on the touchline soaking up the atmosphere. It was beginning to get so loud and busy and I was getting nervous. The girls had to leave me and take their seats and suddenly my big moment was almost here.
The time that everyone had been talking about had finally come. The players started to come out of the dressing room and then Tony (Adams) just grabbed my hand and started walking to the front of the tunnel. I remember looking up at him and thinking wow this guy must be the tallest man in the world. He was a giant towering over me; there was no way we could lose with him in our defence!
Another memory that sticks with me was seeing Liverpool’s Michael Owen. I hardly recognised any of the players but he at that time was the golden boy of English football and was probably the only time of the day I felt star struck.
As I lead the team out all I could think of was how big it was, a lot bigger then Highbury and there were just cameras everywhere. There was a flag that said “Let’s win it for Rocky” that caught my attention but I just wanted to concentrate and make sure I didn’t get anything wrong.
Astonishingly that moment on until I left the pitch is now a complete blur to me. I just can’t remember it at all. I’m guessing I shook hands with the Liverpool players, there was the national anthem and I possibly took some penalties at David Seaman. It seems crazy to remember so many other minor details but not the actual five to ten minutes that I was on the pitch. It all happened so quickly and before I knew it I was being guided into my seat.
Once I got there I found my little sister who had fell asleep on my Mum. I asked “Has she really just missed me on the pitch?” She laughed and said “No but she thought that you were going to play the match so when she saw you running off she fell asleep” It’s still something we joke about to this very day.
The game itself went by very quickly but that day I learnt a massive and valuable lesson about football. From the moment I found out I was going to be mascot pretty much everyone I knew including friends, family and especially Lee Dixon kept saying Arsenal were definitely going to win. The theory most people were going with was that I was mascot and Dad would be shining on us –he’ll bring us the luck everyone kept telling me.
So despite not at the time being a massive Arsenal or football fan, I was desperate for us to win. Everyone had me believing we would and therefore when we lost I cried my eyes out. Mum says Lee Dixon could not look me in the eye after. The lesson I learned was that don’t believe that fairytale endings in football makes things certain to happen because they don’t!
That day completely changed my perspective on being an Arsenal supporter. I went from someone who wasn’t too bothered about it to the following season being an absolute massive fan, who went to games and wore the shirts. I didn’t just support Arsenal because my Dad played for them; I supported them because I had lead the team out! When visiting the Players’ Lounge the following season I always asked the players if they remembered me. I think quite a few of them said yes; I certainly remember having a conversation with Patrick Vera about it.
A year later we drew Chelsea in the FA Cup final and this time we managed to get a 2-0 win. In a weird way I think on a personal level winning that game meant more than if we would have one the year before. This way I could really enjoy it knowing I was a proper Gooner!