Ah, the halcyon days of youth. I almost remember them well…
It was Summer 1994, and myself and my younger brother had just watched our first full World Cup (my parents’ dislike of football meant that Italia 90 went under our radar until the semi-final stage, when, at my grandparents’ house – my dear Northern Nan being a devout Leeds United fan – we discovered football, aged eight and six) and I had fallen madly in love with Sweden. A Sweden, whose Adonis-strewn football team had swash-buckled their way to a superb third place finish in USA 94. Kennet Andersson, Tomas Brolin , Martin Dahlin and a young Henrik Larsson had fired Sweden to the semi’s for a face-off with Brazil. And only an 80th minute, typically predatory Romario goal beat the dogged Swedes.
As a fledgling Arsenal fan, who was in the process of collecting all the team’s stickers for his latest sticker album (funded by my Nan…), and one who had taken to swapping football cards in the playground like a Wall Street trader to find all the Arsenal ones (pissing off his second cousin in a long drawn out negotiating process to find Perry Groves a few years before), it was thrilling to read in the paper’s (I know, I was not yet Teletext savvy) that Arsenal, the team I had been supporting since getting into football during the season that followed Italia 90, were to be signing a Swedish World Cup star, a player who I remember watching during their epic run to the Semi’s; Stefan Schwarz, a player billed as a tough, set-piece specialist with a good eye for a pass. I was delighted. I had never seen his selling club play; Benfica, but they sounded important. They sounded exotic. As exotic as the teams that I had seen for the first time in the first European Cup Final I ever watched the year before in 1993; Marseille and AC Milan. As exotic as a team called Ajax; a team I had heard and read so much about, but had yet to see on TV. Benfica…exotic Benfica…have sold Arsenal…London’s Arsenal…London just up the A23…a World Cup star…called Schwarz. I was utterly delighted.
It is fair to say that Schwarz had an underwhelming season, a season that transpired would be first and only one in Arsenal colours. As luck would have it, in April 1995, my best friend (who was one of two mates that ‘converted’ from Manchester United to Arsenal in that year) got hold of some Arsenal tickets…and had one for me. So on April 12th, 1995, I went to my first ever football game, to watch an Arsenal that had sacked their legendary Scottish manager George Graham two months earlier…I remember walking down the North London streets, part of a sea of red and white and feeling like I had left home that afternoon for another home (I recall talk in the car being one of speculation as to whom would be taking over as manager, I think Bruce Rioch’s name came up…). So there I was, one of 38,036 at Highbury that day, standing for most of the match in the back, top right corner of the glorious Highbury North Stand, watching a Stewart Houston led, Eddie McGoldrick starring Arsenal side toil away against a spirited Liverpool team that boasted Ian Rush, John Barnes and a young Robbie Fowler.
There were, I believe, rumours already that Schwarz was going to leave after one season, I couldn’t believe it and didn’t want to either, but on that day, in that match, there he was, like a blond terrier, patrolling the Arsenal midfield, pinging passes, making us stand up every-time a free-kick was awarded, wearing the number 15, on Nike’s first Arsenal home kit, was my current hero, a player, a player who had starred in the first World Cup I had ever watched from start to finish, and who had (slightly) replaced Ian Wright in my affections; Stefan Schwarz. He looked the part; young, clean cut, athletic, fresh, different, new…exciting!
I will admit, the last minute, poached effort by the young Robbie Fowler, at the North end of Highbury in front of where I was seated, did somewhat deflate my enjoyment of my first ever Gunners game!
It was but few months later, when Schwarz scored the very goal which gives him this ‘Unsung Heroes’ column:
The 1994/1995 season was an utterly bizarre season. Graham, as mentioned before, had been sacked for accepting payments related to two Scandinavian transfers; Pal Lyderson, John Jenson and all of that unseemly malarkey. Arsenal struggled in the league that season, John Hartson and Chris Kiwomya were headline signings and the team looked stagnant and thoroughly unremarkable. Yet, their season in Europe, defending the European Cup Winner’s Cup won so brilliantly the season before against Parma, was the polar opposite: Arsenal squeezed past Auxerre 2-1 on aggregate in the quarter finals, with Ian Wright scoring two vital goals, and this teed up a tricky semi-final against a star-studded Sampdoria side, who had squeaked past FC Porto on penalties themselves.
The first leg at Highbury, under those famous floodlights, was a classic. Steve Bould scored two identical goals from well-worked corners and Wright netting again. However, two away goals from the dangerous midfielder Vladimir Jugovic gave Sampdoria a strong hold on the tie, with the return leg to take place in Genoa in two weeks time.
Real Zaragoza, in their first leg with Chelsea, convincingly beat the West London side 3-0 at La Romareda.
The second leg of the Arsenal semi-final easily matched the first in intensity, excitement and contracted ring-pieces. Roberto Mancini gave Samp’ an early lead with a glorious chipped goal over the incoming David Seaman after breaking free from the Arsenal backline, to set them on their way to the final in Parc de Princes, Paris. Wright equalised with a scrappy tap-in from a left-sided corner – Advantage Arsenal. However, with five minutes to play, two quick fire goals from the nippy Italian striker Claudio Bellucci in three minutes looked to have sealed the Italian’s passage to Paris.
On eighty-eight minutes, Arsenal were awarded a free-kick about twenty-five yards out, slightly to the left of the ‘D’. Stefan Schwarz stood alone and spanked the ball after a sturdy run-up. The ball zipped low from left to right, underneath the jumping light-blue wall and past the despairing dive of legendary ‘keeper Walter Zenga. This tied the leg at an unlikely 5-5, with both sides winning their home legs 3-2. Penalties and an early example of choking Italians from 12 yards. Of course, it could only have been a 2-3 penalty score! Arsenal were through.
It really was a great free-kick. Schwarz struck the ball cleanly with his left foot and the ball flew like a guided missile to that opposite bottom corner. It was a ‘shit-or-bust’ moment in the game, as my dear old man would call it.
Real Zaragoza weathered a determined Chelsea fight-back in their second leg at Stamford Bridge to also progress, losing 3-1 but winning 4-3 on aggregate.
But it was that goal by Schwarz which sealed Arsenal’s pathway into a second successive defunct European Cup Winner’s Cup Final (yes, yes, that one, the final that starred a certain ex-Tottenham player, Nayim, scoring against Arsenal in extra time…), it was a vital goal which had helped Arsenal back into a match after being put on the canvas by those two neat Bellucci strikes. The Gunners penalties were slightly better than those from Samp’ and Seaman won the battle of the legendary goalies that night.
However, barely a month later, Schwarz was on his way back to Italy, to the beautiful city of Florence. On his way to wear la viola of Fiorentina. Fiorentina; an exotic team. An exotic team that I would soon be able to watch on Channel 4…on their much missed, never bettered football show, Gazzetta Football Italia. I was gutted, utterly bewildered that an almost ever-present midfielder, with a lethal free kick and good vision for a decent pass would be allowed to leave the club. Suffice to say, the arrival soon after of a certain Mr D. Bergkamp from Internazionale for a then record transfer fee (£7.5m) reduced my misery a touch. The following arrival of the then England captain David Platt from Sampdoria as well that summer, was also a big help in getting me over the loss of my first Arsenal hero. At least Schwarz’s place on the pitch had been filled…
Stefan Schwarz. 49 Arsenal appearances. 4 goals. Much missed by Greg Cross. Aged 13.