Graeme Kirkwood, The Sun
The day Sparta Prague came to Broomfield in September 1992 shines in memory more brightly than it probably should for a guy who has to put family birthdays in his mobile phone calendar for fear of being disowned.
Airdrieonians didn’t get to play in Europe often. This was the first time in the 106 years of the club and, as they succumbed to black-hearted mismanagement just eight years later, it was also the last.
The Diamonds had made it to the Cup Winners’ Cup by reaching the previous season’s Scottish Cup final in May, though we lost to Rangers, and the tie with Sparta, who had dumped the Ibrox side out of the previous year’s European Cup, was the reward.
Seeing the UEFA flag – the UEFA flag! – flying above the pavilion brought a lump to the throat. But it was what happened next that took the breath away.
Alex MacDonald’s Airdrieonians, my wee team, pilloried for a playing style best described as basic, excelled themselves. In front of the TV cameras beaming the action to whichever part of the continent that was interested, they played one of the best teams in Europe off the pitch.
Alan Lawrence, Andy Smith and Owen Coyle up front terrorised the illustrious guests, possibly still trying to adjust to the ‘idiosyncracies’ of tiny Broomfield, though the skinny kid making his European debut for them, somebody Nedved, looked quite handy in midfield.
I remember looking around me at the crowd and thinking it should have been bigger. I remember the smell of cigars and how the smoke drifted straight up into the still night. I remember my friend Colin, who died way too early, telling me that we were going to score soon. I remember how the shirts shone when the floodlights came on, Sparta’s an almost metallic maroon, soaked with sweat from chasing the dazzling home side.
I had stood exactly here countless times, yet nothing had ever looked like this. That flag changed everything.
Chances, more than they’d made in a long time, came – and went – with the touch to convert them always just an inch away. Yet there was no grumbling from a crowd who knew the team were playing well above themselves. For all their heritage it seemed that the Czechs had never faced someone like Nipper Lawrence before. His wee legs were a blur as he raced past defenders to cause more panic. I can still see our best chance of the night, Smith lunging for a Lawrence ball in from the right, all six feet whatever of him, only to lie exhausted and deflated for want of the length of a stud.
And then, with a minute left, Jan Sopko lost Evan Balfour from a corner and headed in a winner for the visitors. It was a stabbing: quick and ruthless. Balfour was distraught – but he needn’t have been. Even in defeat, especially in defeat, there was nothing else that could have been done.
It’s almost 20 years later. I can still hear that flag.