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Monday 3 December 2007

As Fat Sam Sows, So Shall He Reap?

Geographically speaking, Saturday’s trip to Birmingham was the least daunting of the three we face, in a week which is set to test the indefatigability of even the most devout amongst the Gooner faithful. After our weekend jaunt to the Midlands, on the face of it, you’d have to be stark raving bonkers to follow this with a 500-600 mile round trip trek to Tyneside on Wednesday, only to repeat the journey at the crack of dawn for Sunday’s lunchtime KO on Teeside. Especially when all three matches are live on the box!

But football is a compulsive addiction much like any other, whereby eventually free-will goes out of the window and frequent indulgence becomes almost obligatory. As Arsenal fans we're more fortunate than most, as habituation hasn’t made our highs any less intense. To the contrary, we grow more euphoric with each subsequent game, as the Gunners scale increasingly higher peaks of passing perfection. With each 3-point haul prolonging our sojourn at the Premiership summit, we dare to believe.

Perhaps if our football wasn’t quite so pleasing on the eye and I wasn’t so worried about missing out on another special performance, I might be prepared to sacrifice one of the 3 away games to the comparatively trivial aim of appeasing the folk at work. However as our campaign evolves, it’s beginning to acquires the scent of the sort of red-letter season that demands an 100% attendance record. Doubtless come May more than one Gooner will end up with their Arsenal obsession cited as the principal cause of their divorce, or their place in the dole queue!

On route to Villa Park my pal reminded me that we have a mutual friend who’s divorce papers are proudly displayed as a badge of honour, in a frame on the office wall in his home, because they cite the detrimental impact the Arsenal had on his and his former wife’s social life. His response was that at least they had a social life!

I’m fortunate that my missus shares my passion (or at least when matches involve a brief amble around the corner), but considering our own relatively non-existent social life, I’m sure RĂ³na might share such thoughts. I invest so much emotion into watching an Arsenal encounter that I invariably end up far too exhausted after going to a game, to entertain the prospect of doing anything other than putting my feet up and propping my eyelids open long enough to enjoy Match of the Day. I was relieved to make it home on Saturday, in time to savour the incredibly satisfying first-half highlights on the box.

Footballistically speaking (to quote a Wengerism), based on recent form, Villa should’ve been the most formidable of this week’s opposition, with their obvious improvement under O’Neill and with Ashley Young and Agbonlahor seemingly on fire. Yet the home side hardly had a chance to demonstrate their progress during the first-half. Gardener’s opening goal aside, they spent most of the 45 minutes doing a decent impersonation of our dog Treacle’s futile dance as she chases her own tail.

On thinking about it, we’ve probably sat in the Upper Tier of Deadly Doug’s stand along one side of the pitch when Villa Park has hosted Cup semis (in the days before the FA began to milk their cash cow and ruined the specialness of the final, by staging semis at Wembley or the Millennium). Yet I’ve grown so accustomed to our view from behind the goal, or by the corner flag on our annual outing to Villa Park that it felt strange to be taking our seats elsewhere. I’m certainly not complaining, as our new pitch afforded us a far better perspective of the proceedings, from which we were best able to appreciate our silky first-half skills, including several breath-taking periods of prolonged possession which were a wonder to behold.

Not for the first time, we teased the jingoistic home fans with a jaunty chorus of “you need more foreigners” and while out on the park our players made an incontrovertible case for Wenger’s brand of multi-cultural football, we reiterated the point from the terraces, with a rousing rendition of “Have you ever seen England play like this…..have you f**k!”

Our dominance was so imperious that some managers might have been moved to knock on our dressing room door at halftime, to respectfully enquire if they might have their ball back at some stage after the break. Not being one to stand on such ceremony, the Belfast Boy inspired his team to wrestle it back for themselves.

I’ve never liked John Carew, ever since he put the kibosh on a marvellous trip to Valencia, by knocking us out of the Champions League. I don’t know how good his English is but perhaps something was lost in translation and he took O’Neill’s encouragement a little too literally, as he hacked down Alexandre Hleb with a cynical, ‘can’t beat ‘em, batter ‘em” type tackle from behind.

Villa were always bound to come back into the game at some stage and although we’d proved we could cope without Fabregas in the first-half, once Hleb limped off to join the ranks of our walking wounded, his absence proved to be the loss of one midfield maestro too many, enabling the home side to take command, while we struggled to retain possession..

Whatever the combination of contributing factors it was a Jekyl & Hyde type game of two halves, where inevitably we began to rue our all too customary inability to kill off our prey, whilst we had them in our sights, with the additional goals that would’ve been all due reward for our earlier dominance. Considering Villa put us under the cosh for much of the second half, it was pleasing to see us demonstrate such staunch resilience but it should’ve never come to that.

The first-half might have flown by far too quick, but as the temperature continued to drop and the conditions deteriorated, with a torrential downpour, we endured a stressful second 45, gnawing away at our fingernails as at times the Gunners clung on to the three points by theirs. Meanwhile a display of passing perfection which might’ve been a walkover, developed into a griping, harum-scarum duel.

Without the calm at the eye of this storm, where Hleb had been the fulcrum around which our passing moves evolved, no sooner had we won the ball back in defence than we kept gifting it straight back to them. As O’Neill went for broke offensively, Wenger tried to shore us up at the back with Gilberto and by the end we were the ones baying for the respite of the final whistle.

Wrapped up against the cold with padded coat, scarf and silly hat, I’d stared in awe earlier, at two buxom Gooner birds in sleeveless Arsenal shirts. Perhaps they’d hoped their hardy madness would merit them being shown on the box, or perhaps they knew better than me that we’d all be sweating it out at the death.

If, as I suspect, Villa subsequently end up taking points from our rivals, Saturday’s result could prove significant. However it was absolutely crucial that we avoided defeat on the day. With the majority of the media and their obligatory pundits having predicted a dodgy season for the Arsenal, they’ve been forced to wait a long time for us to falter and on the back of our awful display in Seville, a second successive failure would’ve resulted in a blinding flash, as all the hacks whipped their “told you so” knives out.

Instead of which, we head to Toon Town with our tails up. It will be a “no-contest” if we end up facing the same Newcastle side that laid down like lambs against Liverpool. But Allardyce had an annoying habit of raising Bolton’s game against the Gunners and we could’ve well done without the added inspiration of his new job being on the line. I hope the Gunners travel to Tyneside whilst being force fed a non-stop visual diet of a video montage made up of all the flying elbows and assorted old school, sly skulduggery that Fat Sam always encouraged from Davies, Nolan, Campo and co. against us over the years, to remind them of their black & blue debt of gratitude.

It is an utterly preposterous reflection on the ridiculously impatient nature of this results orientated business that a defeat against such an in-form Arsenal team could merit the “tin-tack” after such a brief tenure. However with no love lost between us and Newcastle’s lugubrious gaffer, if it should transpire, nothing would give me more pleasure than to see us gift wrap his zebra coloured gold watch!