Dinner With Nigel Winterburn
Surreal is possibly the most apt description for my week. Strange premonitory dreams filled my sleeping mind in the run up to the last two games both times showing me flashes of rockets into top corners, scorers and final scores of 4-1 but nothing was more surreal than how I watched the Galatasaray match.
Last Tuesday evening, I and a few friends from The Goonersphere Podcast were invited to Grosvenor Casino in Piccadilly to watch the final game of Arsenal’s Champions League group in the compant of bonafide Arsenal legend, Nigel Winterburn.
Having arrived in London early, James, Jok and I went in search of food. James and I were looking for an independent restaurant where we could sate ourselves on well-cooked food made with care – instead we bowed to the toddler-esque tantrum of Jok who wanted to go to TGI Friday’s and we relented wishing to avoid a scene.
Only one word exists in the English language – it’s more of an involuntary sound – to describe what we were served; “meh”. Despite the overpriced and below average food we were entertained by Jok’s puppy-on-meth style of flirting as he attempted to charm the waitress – no doubt hoping to receive free food – and disgusted by one of his antics which I shall not describe here for the sake of all humanity.
After the, for want of a better word, “food” we took in the local “fun-fair” in Leicester Square where James and I happily made fools of ourselves on the costly and fixed basketball and archery challenges (where I let myself down spectacularly – my inner archer is ashamed of me) to the glee of Jok who was clearly desperate for any ammunition to use against us despite refusing to take part in any of the games himself. It’s the little things. All in all, a pretty fun day so far punctuated with much laughter and badinage – but things were about to get a hundred times better.
Our plush venue, delectable refreshments and friendly hosts (who let us in 2 hours early as we found to our chagrin that the video games hall at Trocadero no longer existed) would have created a sufficiently memorable evening but then entered Nigel.
Grosvenor got it spot on. The event was very informal and allowed us to talk to Nigel like a mate in the pub, nothing was scripted, nothing was pre-approved and nothing was off limits. The perfect way to conduct these sort of things.
Jok required forcible steering towards Nigel as he is easily star-struck and a fair few alcoholic beverages to loosen his tongue. Jok proceeded to declare his love for Nigel, his willingness to write Nigel’s biography in his own blood, persisted to interrupt the great man in his giddy enthusiasm as he did with Ray Parlour a month earlier and decided he was pally enough with Nigel to call him Nige – repeatedly.
To some this might have been embarrassing, to us it was hilarious. We all shared knowing looks and laughed raucously as Jok attempted to insert himself into Nigel’s life with courage you would not have believed he possessed had you seen him melt into a puddle of his own mess when Nigel first entered the bar. Jok is one of the nicest and most genuine people you will ever meet and we all love him for his idiosyncrasies and so it seems did Nigel.
As we have found with our podcast over the past year, few people can march in tune with our brand of humour without sinking beneath the surface and being trampled by the parade of quick wit, alternative comedy and sharp put-downs but Nigel was more than up to the task.
He took our raillery and the eccentricities of Jok in his stride and joined in with the friendly Jok-mocking (as well as ribbing me about my early results as I grow out a moustache – heck yeah!) imperturbably. To the delight of the baying crowd encircling him he deflated Jok with a masterful touch as he informed the swelling mass before him he had not laughed at his jokes but merely tittered or grimaced.
Nigel regaled us with tales of his time at Arsenal, laughing heartily when we asked him about the defensive training methods of Wenger, explaining how that still of him flinching at Di Canio was actually him steeling himself for a punch that never came and how hard it was to play in an unfamiliar position exclaiming along the way that certain players unfairly get short shrift when played out of position. When asked about his favourite goal he mentioned one that drew blanks from most of the crowd and strained looks from others who had hazy recollections of it.
His favourite goal was one he scored against Wimbledon in 1989 and it didn’t take long for someone to get it up on YouTube. Iain Macintosh described it as an absolute Thunderbastard – not the first time he would he use that phrase over the course of the evening. Jok ran around the room hurling expletives, celebrating and exclaiming in wonderment as though it were a live goal. Nigel lifted his eyebrows slightly and grinned at the madness in front of him. Aside from being an affable, engaging and erudite man in the flesh he was also incredibly generous with his time and utterly hilarious.
Soon kick-off was upon us and there I was sat next to Nigel Winterburn as he supped on a glass of red wine with a wary eye trained on Jokman on the other side of him who had earlier that night threatened to follow him home – I think he was afraid Jok would try to wear his skin and he had good reason for his trepidation.
The whistle blew and Arsenal came out of the blocks with aplomb as Nigel ate his bacon cheeseburger (yes I remembered what he ate, there’s nothing creepy about that!). Podolski dashed into the area and smashed one right into the top left corner – it looked like a tight angle at the time – and the room erupted. Iain shouted “that’s what I call a Thunderbastard” for the second time of the evening, Jok hovered somewhere around Nigel’s elbow screaming in ecstasy and the rest of us cheered our appreciation. Nigel did a little fist pump before turning to me as he nonchalantly rose a chip to his mouth and said without emotion “It wasn’t as good as my goal” and fixed his gaze back upon the projector screen.
It was one of those wonderful soundbites you’ll remember forever and made doubly special as it was made directly to me. It was so surreal. Nigel Winterburn has just dropped comedy gold into my ears alone and over the course of the match would often turn to me and ask my opinion on the game. I’m not saying that makes me better than you but well…. (joking)
Soon came the Ramsey goal. I struggle to recall seeing a better goal. Nigel, who had been restrained in his celebrations so far, displaying muted emotion, rose from his chair and celebrated that goal as one of us – a delirious fan – before turning to me once again and saying “Okay, that was better than mine – only just though”.
It was a special goal that capped off a special night. Thanks go to Will O’Hara, Iain Macintosh, and everyone at Grosvenor Casinos for the invite and to James ‘Raul’ Stokes, Jok, Mean Lean, Michael Greene and Sim for excellent company. And of course to Nigel.
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