The night I gave away my flag to Arsenal’s number eight

I felt lucky to be going to the Arsenal-Barcelona game with one of Arsenal's young stars. She lives in the next street; she's known the family for ages; she's a member of the Arsenal Centre of Excellence and, in a few weeks, she'll be off to Germany to play for Arsenal against FC Duisburg and Bayer Leverkusen. It's always good to have a real expert at a big game.

Her family had a spare ticket so naturally I jumped, despite my allegiances to a certain other north London team. I did think twice when I sat down and found that all 60,000 seats came with a free Arsenal flag. Should I take mine home and tear it up? Then I thought: how petty. I gave it to the young star. She had one for each hand to wave.

The first half was some of the most memorable, high-class football I have ever witnessed - and it was all down to Barça. They were like dragonflies, moving so quickly and almost invisibly, as if they were above the ground; they darted in all directions yet never lost the ball. And what a work rate. There were always two Barça players pressing whenever an Arsenal player had the ball.

In the flesh, they looked smaller and weedier than they do on TV. The wee Messi seemed slower when he wasn't on the ball. He took short, shuffling baby steps when he was moving back to his position, waiting or pausing. Then, wow, he was off like a deer, his stride long, his speed a blur.

Yet, at half-time, Barça were only one goal up - and that looked offside, from where I was sitting in the east stand, so high up that it was hard to make out all the players. For the first time, I thought the unthinkable - telly can be better than real life.

Blanket coverage

I pride myself on knowing every Arsenal player and every Barça player, having lived with them close-up at home for so long. I'd know their outline and the cut of their jib from 50 yards away; I can recognise them lying injured and I'd like to think that I could pick them out under a blanket. But, looking down from so far away, I was constantly mistaking Fàbregas for Nasri. Do I need new specs?

Arsenal's big screen didn't help. I got a crick in my neck trying to see it and they didn't replay the Barça goal at all, the rotten sods. Still, the atmosphere was incredible. I don't think I have known the Emirates so noisy, so excited or so emotional. You don't get that on the telly.

So how did Arsenal win? I dunno. And who knows why they were so boring and laboured a few days later against Leyton Orient? It was the second eleven but, even so, they should have thumped them.

Later, at home, I watched the Arsenal-Barça highlights on TV and they gave the impression that Arsenal had been in the game all the way through and that they'd had lots of possession, which just wasn't true.

On the other hand, Arsenal's two late goals were stunning, beautifully created and cleanly struck. Barça were unlucky: they wasted their numerous chances and they probably did relax or tire, thinking they had it all sewn up.

Are they the best team in the history of football or just the best at present? It did feel a privilege to be there and see them in the flesh. I sensed that most Arsenal fans, even when their team was being outclassed, were silent and reverential rather than silent and sullen.

But the world's best team would have taken its chances and wouldn't have conceded two goals. So there is still hope for Arsenal. And my young friend.

Outside, amid the mad cheering throng, she clambered up on top of the giant stone letters at the entrance so that her dad, a barrister, could take
a photo of her astride the R of Arsenal, wildly waving her two flags.

She is only nine years old, after all. It's amazing that, at such a young age, young Bells (as we call her) should be going off abroad on a three-day tour, playing for the under-tens. Her fave player is Nasri because, like him, she is an Arsenal number eight.

So what did you think of it, Bells? "I thought it was good of you to give me your flag, Hunt. Great having two . . ."

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants