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Sunday, 3 February 2008

Style Over Substance? Who Said You Can't Have Both

With the alarm having rudely dragged me back from the land of nod on Saturday, long before I'd enjoyed anything like sufficient rest and recuperation, forcing me to fumble in the half-light of a brass monkey Saturday morning, for the source of the shrill noise at the end of the bed, I was sorely tempted to crawl back under the warmth of the covers and snuggle up for several more hours of much needed kip.

Sitting there contemplating the leisurely pleasure of watching Football Focus and the live coverage from Manchester on the box, without having to move a muscle, I have to admit that I couldn’t help but question my quasi-religious commitment to the Gooner cause. Not for the first time, I cursed the cruelty of those responsible for lumbering us Londoners with yet another crack of dawn start, to make long schlep up North for a midday start.

Shivering as I donned my long-johns and umpteen layers of clothing, if not utter madness, it felt like the ultimate, masochistic act of devotion to rush out of the door and around to the Arsenal tube station, in an effort to make it to Euston, for a Virgin Express train that would get me to Manchester Picadilly in good time to get to the ground before KO. My workmates at the ballet have been in Shanghai this past week, where they might’ve experienced the Maglev train, which regularly travels at speeds approaching 270mph. Whereas, with the almost constant weekend engineering works, I paid the princely sum of 62 quid (which probably amounts to the equivalent of an average monthly wage in much of Asia!), to travel on a train that must appear to be going backwards by comparison to the Chinese equivalent.

Thus even with my blinkered reasoning, it was a massive struggle to justify a round-trip journey taking the best part of nine hours, merely for the dubious pleasure of freezing my cods off, on the Eastlands’ terraces for ninety minutes.

Then again, the easiest option is rarely the most gratifying. I might’ve been so ‘cream-crackered’ by the time I returned back home in the early evening that I flaked out on the bed, with barely enough energy to keep my eyes open long enough to savour a replay of the afternoon’s events on Match of the Day, but I was glad I’d made the considerable effort.

I’m as desperate as every other Gooner to see the Gunners win the Premiership and I don’t think there can be any doubt that, on our day, this Arsenal side are worthy title contenders. However a recurring concern on Saturday was the lack of sufficient a ruthless streak against such patently inferior opposition. Although such a failing could eventually cost us dear, thankfully we rarely looked in danger in the face of City’s feeble firepower.

In all honesty, the Arsenal were so dominant during the first-half that it was hard to comprehend how this same City side had managed to remain undefeated on home turf to date. In fact I can rarely recall another away game where the opposition have afforded our midfield so much time and space to be able to pull the strings.

When our Brazilian born, Croatian fox-in-the-box, Eduardo, swivelled, to clinically hook the ball over his shoulder for our second, I don’t think any of us could quite believe what an easy job we were making, of a fixture that had appeared to be a much stiffer test on paper.

I guess it was almost inevitable that we’d take the foot off the gas after the break and with Gael Clichy having gifted the homes side a glimmer of hope, as they conjured a goal from the young full-back’s extremely uncharacteristic mistake, we spent much of the remaining hour of the match fretting about the possibility of the single breakaway attack that might result in an utterly undeserved equaliser.

Mercifully the ever-reliable Togonator eventually alleviated any such stress by finally finishing the Sky Blues off, with a marvellously manufactured third goal. Yet I couldn’t help but think that with a somewhat more incisive front line, the likes of Man Utd’s (or even Chelsea!) might’ve put this result to bed a lot sooner.

It was an encounter which exposed the obvious failings of our disciplinary system. Bizarrely I spent much of the match hoping the likes of Dunne and Richards might avoid the booking that would see them suspended for their trip across town to Old Trafford. Without the defensive solidity provided by City’s staunch centre-back double act, doubtless they’d have have ended up on the wrong end of a cricket score against Man U next week. They might still, unless the arrival of Benjani acts like a dose of Viagra for Sven’s decidedly impotent attack Although having afforded us far too much respect, hopefully the high-octane Derby Day environment will enable Sven to eradicate this sort of inferiority complex, so that City might deny Utd the time and space to do too much damage?

On reflection, for much of this match, the Gunners reminded me of our long since departed tabby cat. Liffey was in the habit of turning up in the kitchen, proffering us her latest prey, in the form of a mouse or a small bird, which to our horror was rarely dead but often mortally wounded. Unless I was able to steel myself to intervene in nature’s cycle of life and death (why is it that women’s lib has never quite extended to any such squeamish tasks, involving small creatures and creepy crawlies?), the cat would proceed to treat the poor thing like one of her toys, pawing it around the kitchen floor, until she’d battered the last breath out of the lifeless animal.

Similarly the likes of Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini seemed to spend much of Saturday’s match toying with City for the punters pleasure (well for ours at least!), almost reluctant to put them to the sword, while they were having so much fun teasing them to death. With City only one shot away from some salvation, it was as though the Gunners were enjoying the fact that their condemned prey was forced to continue chasing shadows.

Any doubts as to the sanity of dragging my aching bones out of bed that morning disappeared during the first-half. Traditionally a seat in the vicinity of the halfway line is accepted as the optimum viewing point, but our pitch high up behind the goal at Eastlands was the perfect position from which to best appreciate the most dazzling moments of this display. At times I was literally entranced, as they wove a magic spell, fizzing the ball from one side of the pitch to the other, drawing pretty patterns on the turf directly in front of us.

Don’t get me wrong, it was far from the Gunners greatest performance. It was just about Gael Clichy’s first ever “bad day at the office”. Yet the fact that we witnessed such a costly act of complacency from a youngster who, up until now, has portrayed ‘a study in concentration’, only tends to confirm quite what a comfort zone the Gunners were playing in. Moreover, “far too clever” was perhaps my most common complaint, as another Abou Diaby backheel found an opponent, instead of a teammate, or Alex Hleb again attempted to mug one defender too many - I was only a small bairn when I saw George Best play and I know I might be accused of sacrilege, but I feel sure that some of the old TV footage might confirm my belief, that from below the waist, Alex bears an uncanny resemblance to Bestie, as Hleb was once again throwing the sort of unreadable body shapes that so remind me of the tousle haired Belfast boy.

It occurs to me that there can’t possibly be a more wonderful whinge for genuine aficionados of the beautiful game, than one which speaks of an intuitiveness amongst a squad, which enables them to have the ‘chutzpah to attempt such audacious football. To date this preference for such flamboyant style has not proved to be to the detriment of any substance, as demonstrated by the fact that we are sitting pretty with a two-point lead at the top of the Premiership.

Man Utd’s late equaliser put a slight dampener on the train ride back to London but at least we weren’t denied the delicious pleasure of knowing what a wind-up it must’ve been for our local rivals, watching Spurs provide us with possibly a crucial leg-up. What’s more earlier in the day we’d have bitten the hand off that offered us three points and the prospect of our two immediate competitors coming a cropper, dropping two points on their travels.

Thus despite the exhaustion of such an arduous awayday, there was a decided spring in my step, as I headed back up the platform on our return, marching along to the unconfined expressions of joy of the weary Gooner hordes shouting the “we are top of the league” odds behind me, for all of Euston to hear.

Some might argue that the manner of the victory is unimportant and that winning is everything. Ultimately it’s true, there’d be much renting of red & white replica shirts, amidst all the North London weeping and a wailing, if the marathon quest of our Wenger-ball disciples should end up floundering on our inability to go for the throat and we should fall short by the merest margins of goal difference.

Yet whether this campaign is destined to conclude in ecstasy, or despair, no matter which way the Premiership cookie crumbles, we’re incredibly privileged to be reminded almost weekly that getting there is perhaps more than half the fun. What’s more I’ve little doubt that compared to the fleeting euphoria of being able to bask in the reflected glory, should the Gunners bag another silver pot, for both fans and players alike, the magic of our rapturous journey is likely to endure in the memory for a lifetime.

My old man could never resist an opportunity to remind me that he witnessed the Busby Babes last game on British soil, an incredible 4-5 defeat of the Gunners five days before the Munich disaster, which many claim to have been the greatest match ever seen at Highbury. From the late 60’s onwards I went through a succession of footballing heroes, yet no matter whether it was Kennedy, Brady or Wrighty, according to him none of them could hold a candle to the late great Duncan Edwards. Having endured all the “boring, boring” Arsenal era, I only wish he was around now to wallow in the fruits of Wenger’s labour, as I feel sure that even he might have to admit that some of the entertainment produced by Fabregas and co. bears comparison with the talents of his favourite all-time footballing hero.

The thought that we might be watching such high-calibre displays for many years to come is quite mind blowing. But if there’s one lesson to be learned from the Munich tragedy, it’s certainly not the need to leave five minutes before the final whistle to beat the rush, but to treat every match like it might be the last, by savouring every last morsel of such magnificent fare.


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arsenalviper said...

my favourite blog by far, keep painting those pictures

Anonymous said...

Once again, you have put into words my thoughts exactly. Keep up the great work.

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