One such example for Arsenal fans of a certain age was the visit of Spartak Moscow to Highbury on September 29, 1982. The performance of the visitors on that early autumn evening was both terrific and terrifying, scintillating and shocking, entertaining and eye-opening, as Arsenal's hopes in the UEFA Cup were well and truly crushed.
I started supporting Arsenal in 1983, so the defeat fortunately passed me by, but I was first made aware of the match in the infancy of my addiction. At the time I was only too happy to absorb any historical information about the club, noting our dominance in the 1930s and the fine achievement of winning the double in 1971. But as I was scanning down the results page of the previous season, something stuck out like a sore thumb: Arsenal 2-5 Spartak Moscow.
Despite being young and naive, I was already a realist when it came to Arsenal. I knew that they were inconsistent to say the least; that they were capable of winning at Tottenham in the League Cup, but also likely to lose to Walsall in the next round. Nevertheless, reading the Spartak Moscow result hit me hard. Arsenal conceding five goals at home? Just what had happened on that night?
One thing that is certain was the unknown quantity of the Russians. In this internet and satellite age of ours, there is no longer an air of mystery surrounding European teams or players, with hipsters stumbling over each other to inform us all about the key statistics relating to a new midfield star in Azerbaijan. Not so in 1982. Strewth, we were still a few months away from the launch of the UK's fourth channel when the draw for the UEFA Cup first round was made.
The usual tabloid references to the trip behind the Iron Curtain were evident, but it would need the more highbrow Times to spell out the men to watch out for. Rinat Dasayev had already gained a reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and despite having a disappointing World Cup, midfielder Yuri Gavrilov was seen as the danger man. For an Arsenal team that had lost three out of their first four League matches, the prospect of visiting the high-flying Russian team was daunting.
Arsenal could not be accused of going into the first leg under prepared. Assistant Manager Wilf Dixon and Assistant Coach Steve Burtenshaw spent a week in Russia, watching Spartak twice, and manager Terry Neill was well aware of the threat posed by Spartak. The Russians were third in the Soviet League, had won eight matches on the bounce, and contained four members of the Soviet World Cup squad. Arsenal, on the other hand, were struggling domestically and would end the season finishing tenth in Division One.
Therefore, it was a surprise when Arsenal took a two goal lead after 29 minutes, with European debutants Stewart Robson and Lee Chapman both scoring. But that was as good as it got. A deflected Sergei Shvetsov strike after 38 minutes brought Spartak back into the match, and when Gavrilov lived up to his pre-match billing to score a brace in the second half - the first from a hotly disputed penalty - Arsenal left Moscow defeated, but not unhappy.
Some pointed to the fact that Arsenal took the lead, and were only beaten by two deflections and a dodgy penalty, as an indication that they were easily capable of overturning the deficit. But Neill knew that his team were lucky to still be in the tie. Writing in his Revelations of a Football Manager book, Neill praised keeper George Wood and admitted that "Spartak had pounded us for the final hour and deserved to win the match". Arsenal only needed a 1-0 or 2-1 victory to progress, yet the Russians had shown enough to suggest this would be far from easy.
Prior to the second leg, Neill did hint that the Russians were maybe not the greatest travellers, pointing to a 4-0 loss they had suffered in Kaiserslautern the year before. However, he also noted that Spartak were "quite capable of sneaking the game if we do anything silly". Oh dear.
Arsenal certainly did do some daft things during the second leg, leaving themselves open to having their pants pulled down on their own patch. It probably didn't help that the team sported their disgusting green and blue kit on the night. From 7.30pm onwards it was definitely a case of men against Wimbledon ball boys.
In fairness to the players, the match was a pretty cagey affair for the opening 25 minutes, with Graham Rix keeping Dasayev on his toes. Yet it would be a mistake from Wood that ensured that the evening developed into a harrowing experience. Schvetsov's shot skidded under the keeper after 26 minutes, and from this point on Arsenal were playing a game of Russian roulette, as Joe Melling in the Daily Express described it. "We had to pile into the attack and take risks," Neill admitted. "It was a bold policy, the only one we could adopt with a two-goal deficit, but it led to our undoing."
Neill took the unusually daring decision of changing the team formation at half-time, bringing on both Brian McDermott and Alan Sunderland in place of John Hollins and Paul Davis, and switching from the bog standard English 4-4-2 to a 4-2-4. "The move was brave but disastrous," wrote Melling in is match report. That summed it all up.
Spartak had already demonstrated that they were lightning quick on the counter attack, and Neill's gung-ho policy played right into their hands. Pouring forward into the gaps provided, the visitors destroyed Arsenal, playing football on a different technical plain than the 28,455 Highbury crowd were used to witnessing in the cut and thrust of English football.
Sergei Rodionov doubled the lead on the night, and put the tie to bed after 57 minutes, combining brilliantly with Fyodor Cherenkov, and the provider capitalised on Kenny Sansom's weak back pass nine minutes later to compound Arsenal's misery. When the brilliant Cherenkov then set up Sergey Shavlo for a fourth with fifteen minutes remaining, Arsenal fans may well have been forgiven if they had shown some signs of displeasure at the dismantling of their team.
But something strange happened at Highbury that night. At the Emirates, this kind of shellacking would be accompanied with the inevitable gnashing of teeth, protests directed at the manager and board, and confrontation between angry supporters, yet this was not the case back in September 1982. English football fans may have had an unwanted reputation back in the 1980s, but the Corinthian spirit enveloping Highbury that night was commendable.
The excellent blogger Goonerholic revealed that during the second half, Arsenal fans actually started cheering on the Russians, chanting "Come on you reds". Maybe a gallows humour approach was the only way to go. But later, Arsenal fans demonstrated that they could appreciate fine football for what it was. McDermott did pull a goal back, but this only prompted Spartak to go down the other end and score a fifth through Edgar Gess, before Chapman netted a last minute goal that was the very definition of a consolation.
As the final whistle sounded, the Arsenal fans showed their class. Applauding the Russians off the pitch, the show of admiration was so remarkable that the Spartak players reappeared on the centre circle to acknowledge the crowd. "It was to their immense credit that they suffered humiliation with such generosity," stated Peter Bills in The Times, in reference to the Arsenal supporters. All Guns Blazing author Jon Spurling described the evening as surreal. Neill commented that it restored his faith in English crowds. It certainly appears to have been an unusual night to say the least.
The reaction of the Highbury crowd was definitely a throwback to a bygone era. Judging by some of the opinions I gathered from supporters who were at the match, it is evident that the feeling of awe still surrounds the performance of Spartak back in 1982:
@woolwich_boy: "Probably the greatest display of counter attacking football I’ve still ever seen"
@woolwich_boy: "The crowd knew they were seeing something special. They didn’t turn they celebrated"
Ian Hicks (a 10-year-old at the time, who attended the match with his dad):
There was feeling of disgruntlement on the terraces up until half time. This changed in the second half as the Russian goals started rolling in. People stood admired and enjoyed the quality of Spartak play (even my Dad!). By the time the 4th and 5th Spartak goals went in past the stump-like George Wood, people started applauding. The end of the game is something I will always remember clearly, and have never seen repeated at Highbury. The final whistle went, the Russian's lined up on the centre circle and applauded all four stands. Fittingly, Spartak were applauded off the pitch.
And the press were just as gushing in their praise:
The Times: "Highbury is brought to its knees - and its feet"
Joe Melling: "Outstanding individual skill, bewildering movement and scintillating pace would have thrashed the best Britain has to offer — and Arsenal are still some way short of that."
Arsenal and English football started to take a long look inwardly during September 1982. A 2-2 draw for the national team in Denmark kicked off what would be a disappointing Euro 1984 qualification campaign, and Ipswich, Manchester United, and Southampton exited the UEFA Cup along with Arsenal during a period in which many started to question the relative merits of the English game against the more technically gifted European counterparts. Spartak's dismantling of Arsenal just added fuel to the fire of those who believed English football was being played in the dark ages.
Spartak would only make it as far as the third round, in a run that was overshadowed by the tragedy of the Luzhniki disaster; a stadium crush at the end of Spartak's second round first leg match against Haarlem resulted in an official death toll of 66, yet some estimates put the figure at close to 350. A 2-0 aggregate loss to Valencia in the third round proved the end of the road for the Russians. Those present at Highbury may have found Spartak's early exit particularly surprising.
For on that night in late September back in '82, Spartak must have appeared to be world beaters to many. Admittedly, Arsenal's tactics suited the Russians down to the ground, yet this should not take anything away from the display of the visitors. An evening in which Arsenal may have been humiliated on the pitch, but definitely not off it.