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Monday 17 December 2007

The Gooner Ghosts of Xmas Past, Present....and Future?

Obviously I would’ve enjoyed Sunday’s aperitif from Anfield a little more if Man Utd had shipped some points, as this was one of the few fixtures where one might’ve expected them to slip up. Nevertheless as they picked Liverpool’s lock, by means of the sort of canny tactics that left the losers marking fresh air and exposed, once again, what are to my mind the patently obvious limitations of a zonal defensive system, in truth Fergie’s side probably did us a favour. With Utd having leapfrogged us briefly, it meant that when we kicked off against the Blues half an hour later, there were no ifs and buts, we simply had to win, if we weren’t going to gift our rivals a massive psychological advantage.

In the past couple of seasons we’ve suffered from a slight inferiority complex in our encounters with Mourinho’s mob, whereby we’ve been far too happy to settle for merely avoiding defeat. Consequently perhaps the most pleasing aspect to Sunday’s triumph was that even though Almunia might have been the busier of the two keepers and despite the fact that I spent much of the second half cutting off the circulation in Rona’s hand, as my grip intensified in direct proportion to the blind panic that gripped me, every time the Blues poured forward in search of an equaliser, there was no mistaking the distinct sense of a role reversal.

Who knows whether the presence of Drogba and Essien might’ve made a difference? What’s more if John Terry had remained on the pitch to mark Gallas, it might not have proved quite so easy to muscle the Chelsea captain out of the way, in the way Willie did with Ben Haim, before heading home on the stroke of half-time. Certainly with Terry’s prowess in the air, I would’ve been more worried with him on the pitch, taking up a position in and around our penalty area, as Chelsea desperately tried to salvage something during the last twenty minutes.

Yet setting aside all the various minutiae of the match itself, from the moment the Arsenal line-up flashed across the bottom of my screen during the later stages of Part 1 of “Grand Slam Sunday”, showing us to be at full strength with the welcome return of our Arsène’s first-choice midfield trio of Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini, as far as I was concerned there was absolutely no mistaking who was the hunter and who was the prey in this crucial contest. I’m told that this news inspired the loudest cheer of the afternoon in assorted Gooner hostelries.

In recent encounters we’ve believed that at our best we could beat the Blues but there’s been an obvious air of fragility that an in-form Drogba or most recently Michael Essien was able to capitalise on. The heart of our defence might not yet be the impenetrable bulwark that Utd are blessed with, in the Ferdinand/Vidic partnership, but there’s a mental toughness about this Arsenal team now, which wasn’t present previously.

Additionally, although Avram Grant has overseen a run of relatively successful results since he succeeded Mourinho, Chelsea’s air of invincibility has still been eroded, to the extent that their fans would’ve been relatively satisfied to have “achieved” a draw against us. Where in the recent past such a result might’ve been perceived as two points dropped. As a result, instead of the nervous hush that might’ve fallen on the home crowd who might’s spent much of the second-half fearing an imminent equaliser, we Gooners were “giving it large” on Sunday, enjoying our new found dominant role in this fractious relationship.

Then again the animosity felt towards Cashley Hole also helped to stoke the fires of a fervent atmosphere, on a brass-monkey afternoon. Cashley was well wide of the mark if he thought the passing of time might have healed this gaping wound. Having been denied the opportunity to fully express our ire by the left-back’s absence from the corresponding fixture last season, terrace wags dusted off their inflatable mobile phones and the fake Ruski bank notes, to ensure Cole bore the full brunt of Gooner disapprobation on such a global Premiership stage.

Under normal circumstances I don’t hold with giving stick to returning ex-Gunners. I would rather show my gratitude for services rendered than provide them with added inspiration to prove a point with an influential performance. But I made an exception in Cashley’s case and I was up on my feet with the worst of them on Sunday, spitting venom, every time he ventured anywhere near our sideline.

A hearty chorus of“I’d rather have a Willie than a c**t” echoed around the concourse at half-time for the benefit of the Blues fans in earshot. With Gallas’ goal being tangible evidence that we got the better end of this particular deal and with Gael Clichy proving himself to be a younger, fitter, hungrier replacement, perhaps we should be patting Cashley on the back for his act of betrayal. However it was a stab in the heart that hurt so badly because we were left without a single homegrown local lad in our squad, to whom we could all relate. I used to belittle Spurs fans for their inability to get over Sol Campbell’s treachery and while I still think them a sad bunch in every other respect, I can at least appreciate their point blank refusal to let this issue slide.

Obviously it wouldn’t nearly so likely without success on the pitch, but little by little, I seem to be recapturing that sense of belonging, which has been so eroded over time. Cesc Fabregas need do little more to prove he’s one of us, after he sent the ghost of Xmas past packing with one more bruise to remember him by, as he clattered Cole at the death. And the ghost of Xmas present brought tidings of comfort and joy on the terraces, leaving me with less cause to complain about the sense of anonymity amidst the crowd of sixty thousand in our new stadium. The mate who sat next to us at Highbury tells me that a lady in front of him was handing the mince pies out at halftime on Sunday and with Rona having slipped out prematurely to get the teas in at the break, without someone to celebrate Gallas’ goal with, I turned to find myself high-fiving it for the first time ever with my previously unresponsive neighbour. Perhaps there’s hope yet for our new ‘home’ of football?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a unique perspective inside the Grove. I'm forced to watch every match at a pub in San Francisco at some or other ungodly hour (so I feel a shred of your pain getting up early for away games).
Keep writing, cheers.

Bern said...

My pleasure Mondo.

Being able to bring a little flavour from the terraces to geographically challenged Gooners such as yourself is all the gratification I require.

Keep up those early morning alarm calls :-)
Come on you Reds