Melville's Marine Mammals Greet Gutted Goodison Gooners

Last updated : 22 January 2006 By Aidan O'Byrne
In case you noticed, remembered, or cared (in, I recognise, decreasing order of likelihood), on Friday before last I was pessimistic about the prospects for the then coming weekend's football, only to be dissuaded of this view by the results that flowed forth over the pitch (along with Arsenal's irresistible passing game).

Last Friday, by contrast, I was feeling pretty upbeat following the Highbury board's renewed claims on the record transfer fee for an English 16-year-old, and one who seems a lot more likely to fulfil rather than fritter away his potential than Jermaine Pennant, at that, not least because he was mature enough to turn down the glint of Russian gold on offer to prevent the deal going through. I should have known upfront that that would be fatal, I guess. This retrospectively ill-founded optimism accompanied me on my first trip to Goodison Park (I've had many happy trips to the ground just across the way from there, but have never actually sat in the Hall of Toffee before), but did not, for obvious reasons, leave with me.

A non-travelling Highbury season ticket holder and a non-ST-holding member of Arsenal's away match scheme could be forgiven for failing to recognise that they were cheering on the same team this season, so poor has been the gunners' away form, the latest instalment of which it seemed to be my duty rather than my privilege to watch on Saturday. I will have to keep going to the away matches until we finally win one, lest I develop a belief that it's my fault.

It's very apparent to me that the slick passing game which Arsenal somehow manage to impose on visitors to the relatively compact Highbury pitch – Chelsea alone aside – has this season gotten lost in the translation to a more attrition-based attitude which is adopted by opposition teams playing on their own turf, despite the normally more expansive pitches on offer. Everton were the latest team to go straight for the out-muscling approach when faced by the occupants of the Arsenal team coach and the game plan seemed to imply that Moyes would have been happy with a point before the game, on top of which the win garnered through James Beattie's gritty but very worthy first half goal was a distinct bonus.

Arsenal have gone undefeated on the road in 2 of the last five seasons, but this latest cataclysm away from Highbury has sufficiently underperformed expectations that Arsene Wenger's side is now second bottom of the handicap Premiership league table (using the pre-season points handicaps implied by the spread-betting markets during the summer break), ahead only (and only just, at that) of the fantastically dismal Sunderland, who have themselves managed to live down to and below even the worst expectations.

Sadly, the reason for this failing is there for all to see in black and white. The colours of Turin, that is, which the former and much more naturally skipper-like Arsenal captain now wears. Patrick Vieira had not really been playing at his best for some years, perhaps distracted by the calling of Madrid rather than Juve, but even on an off day, I now reckon he'd have added sufficient midfield steel to have improved the Arsenal 2005/06 away statistics dramatically.

Is his possible successor now ready to step up? Well, thanks to events during the Everton match, it seems we are all about to find out. A moment of retaliatory temper from the always committed Fabregas resulted in a somewhat harsh straight red card for the Spaniard (whom people generally tend - and certainly Alan Wiley appeared - to forget has an 18 year-old's emotions to go along with his far more mature footballing brain). The game was effectively beyond retrieval at that late stage.

However, Cesc's consequent three-match suspension will force Wenger's hand in committing new signing Diaby to the fray, probably starting with the FA Cup match next weekend against that notably physical side Bolton. Diaby only got 9 minutes on the pitch at Goodison, not really anything like enough time to make a true impact, but he certainly seems game, and is possibly one of the players we of the Wenger faith can hang some hopes on for the remainder of the run in.

For now, though, there was only the sustaining power of irony to give me solace as we trudged our way back past our sympathetic (rednosed) car park gatekeeper for the drive home.

During the match we had heard a new song in reference to the stranded whale which had been sighted the previous day in the river not far from Stamford Bridge – "we saw Lampard in the Thames", sung to the tune of Rod Stewart's "Sailing". I'd thought at the time that it was an appropriate song given the condition of the Goodison away end, whose archaic cast iron and wooden seating, arranged in tightly packed rows above decaying wooden decking and very close to the ceiling formed by the hulking upper tier, seemed reminiscent of the scene below decks in a pre-steam-era frigate (and packed out with gunners, at that). But as the final whistle went, all this mention of marine mammals conjured up the perfect phrase to describe how we would all feel as we headed back to the capital – Moby Dick.

The situation was improved ever so slightly by results elsewhere and the following day, Spurs and Chelsea both dropping 2 points at home to relatively unfancied opposition, and Manchester United getting maximum points from a superior Liverpool side only due to the anti-scouse combination of Cisse's late rising to snatch the previous match winner chance over the bar, Rio Ferdinand's off the line clearance and the same player's headed winner on the very stroke of 90 officially clocked minutes from a questionable Mike Riley set-piece decision (saved him having to look hard for an injury time penalty, I guess). These slip-ups on the part of most of the teams ahead of Arsenal in the table could in the fullness of time come to be crucial, and thus could come to be the source of future cheer.

For now, though, call me Ishmael.