It is funny (peculiar, as opposed to ha-ha), the minute many in the media mistook for arrogance the way the Arsenal appeared to be strutting their way to the title, in a twinkling of an eye the invincible have begun to buckle from the body blows of a crippling injury crisis which has crushed our cerebral cortex. No sooner have we started to fritter away our fragile five point lead than it is us Gooners who are seriously contemplating the almost inconceivable consequence of a ten day countdown to the implosion of our season in all competitions.
I am notoriously pessimistic prior to every Arsenal game but there was far more than the usual foreboding when I turned off the alarm early Saturday morning, before rolling over and going back to sleep. Having heard on Friday of the substitute subordinates standing in for the spine of Seaman, Campbell and Vieira at t'other end, I was struggling to find the motivation for another marathon, five hundred mile round trip trek to Ewood Park. I finally stirred once more only forty-five minutes before my train was due to depart Euston. Having ascertained on the phone that the next departure didn't arrive in Blackburn until long after kick-off, I have to admit that I there was more than a moment's hesitation. before I hauled myself out of bed and into headless chicken mode. If the game had been live on the box, common sense might have got the better of me. Perhaps I would have stopped at home along with several other hard-core travellers who'd decided against this potentially fruitless foray.
However I didn't fancy the alternative of spending the afternoon pounding out my frustration around the pavement in the park, attempting to keep one eye on the pooch and one ear on the radio commentary, while passers by stare at the lunatic F-ing and blinding to himself because of my illogical assumption of personal blame for every bad pass due to my non-attendance. Worse still was the thought of my match tickets lying unused on my bedside table. So as always, I found myself counting the seconds on the tube a mere few minutes later, making a dash as the doors opened, struggling up the escalators two at a time, to arrive on the station concourse gasping for oxygen with five minutes to spare, only to find a huddle of fellow fans waiting below the notice board for details of the almost inevitable delay. According to Murphy's law, the only way this train would have left on time would have been if I had arrived a few seconds late!
I didn't have the legs left (as it turned out, much like our team) for the Grand Prix style sprint for the best seats when the platform number was eventually announced. And if confirmation was needed of the nightmare we were about to embark on, it came moments after we had settled into our seats, as the voice on the tannoy told of a further delay due to a problem with the locomotive. Personally I have become so immune to the pitiful state of the railways, that I had previously enquired as to latest possible connection to Blackburn, in preparation for just such painfully slow progress to Preston. So when the frowns started to appear on the faces of those Gooners around me during the fifteen minutes that it took once they finally decided to swop the dodgy motor for one that might make it, I was able to reassure everyone that we had an hour's leeway on top of the three and a half hour journey time, if we were to catch the last connecting train due to arrive before kick-off.
At least the panic about just getting to the game was something of a panacea for the painful angst about our patched up defence. Yet if Virgin trains wanted to placate the majority of their punters, they should have been handing out complimentary pints instead of cups of tea and coffee. It was only when I went to collect my token recompense and was about to spout off to the staff on the subject of having to pay such outrageous prices to travel with this shower, that I recalled I hadn't actually paid for my ticket. Better still, I had passed the ticket collector on my way to the buffet car. Knowing that the conductors rarely bother checking for tickets on a return train full of boozed up, boisterous footie fans, I arrived in Preston feeling fifty-five quid richer. Sadly this would prove to be the sole result of a very long day.
Our relief at arriving in time for the last suitable connection soon developed into a rush for the taxis, as we realized this train was also running twenty minutes late. After being quoted twenty quid by the cabbie, I collared two familiar faces and the Aussie couple who had sat opposite me on route. The brother was taking his Gooner mad sister to the game and I'd watched with amusement as they had flown the stereotypical flag with both responsible adult and younger sibling slaughtering their way through the entire alcoholic card. Knowing they'd struggle to find the right train even when it eventually turned up and with my karmic counter in need of some credit after being quids in on the train company, I decided to make sure they at least made it to the turnstiles at Ewood Park.
With so many regulars remaining at home, a rare availability of tickets resulted in several Gooners only going to this game for fear they might not have enough away credits to make them eligible for all the glamorous crunch encounters which seemed on the cards only the day before. If this wasn't a guarantee that the game would go against us, I found myself seated inside beside two girls from the local university who had only come to have a gander at pretty-boy Freddie! Nevertheless I was more than ready for a rotten result. The words of comfort of offered to all those consoling themselves as they laid into their crates of lager on a far lengthier, not to mention much more miserable journey home was that we were all paying our dues for all our entertainment to date and hopefully some delights still to come.
What I wasn't prepared for was a defence which was so incompetent that they looked quite capable of conceding every time the opposition approached our penalty area. If poor Pascal Cygan's nerves were apparent against Roma, they were positively shot on Saturday and the lumbering oaf looks in need of a sign on his rear and a klaxon to give fair warning that he's about to turn. And how the Dutch dare to play Van Bronckhorst at left-back when he can't defend for toffee is beyond me. Perhaps there lies a clue to Low Countries' recent qualification failure? What turned this debacle into an unmitigated disaster was the demise of Martin Keown.
Some might wonder about the war in Iraq, myself I thought the end of the world was nigh when first faced with an Arsenal side stuffed with entertainers. Yet this is a poor second on the scale of wonderment when compared to the Arsenal travelling to a showdown in Spain without a central defender in the squad capable of doing the job. Especially when one consider the surfeit of quality centre-backs at Highbury over the years. These days it is fashionable to babble on about ball playing backs, myself at the minute I would gladly settle for one capable of simply sticking the ball in row Z! Having only just burdened my overtaxed credit card to book flights to Spain, you could call me a sucker for punishment. But even if our qualification for the quarterfinal should prove a complete washout, at least I'll be there to see the Champions League out with a mighty big bang at the firework fiesta in Valencia! Besides with our backs to the wall, there is a novelty element to being underdogs once more. It would almost feel like old times, if it wasn't for the fact that we are counting on the free-scoring ability of our forwards, instead of a doughty defensive draw.