A Five Minute Life Lesson In Not Larging It Too Lasciviously

Last updated : 22 May 2002 By Bernard Azulay
As I agonized over the TV coverage of a below par performance from Utd, Leicester might have let me down and left our two pets positively petrified. I was constantly springing out of bed, screaming like a banshee at the box, with Leicester's limitless inability to take advantage. Yet all due "respek" to their fans, who rose to their feet for the last few minutes, for a rendition of a rousing chorus to confirm their unfaltering feelings for this football club. It was as if to say that while some of their more calculating stars might have covered themselves for the possible consequences of Premiership ejection, with an escape clause parachute, the fans have a binding contract with their club, a betrothal than can only be broken by death (or bankruptcy!). Perhaps it's the huge gulf between the height of expectations, but I found myself contemplating the likely contrast in the reaction of the Highbury faithful, if our season was drawing to a close in such calamitous circumstances.

Thankfully the opposite is true and us Gooners are gobsmacked with gratitude, struggling for superlatives to do sufficient justice to such a fabulous and fortuitous finale to the domestic football calendar. It might have helped our cause, by taking some pressure off, if Utd had dropped a couple of unexpected points in their midday match. In truth, they probably did us a favour, as the last thing we needed going into that afternoon's Derby duel, was the knowledge that we could afford to take our foot of the pedal. The facts were as clear as the crisp blue sky that greeted me, as I nipped out to give the gold dust of two tickets to a Green Gooner pal and his missus, over from Cork for the match. Against the forces of darkness from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road, we had to win, or wave goodbye to the points advantage and the momentum that has everyone (apart from the most persistent of us pessimists!) believing the title is in the bag.

It was the sort of bracing, bright Saturday afternoon which is just perfect for playing football. I wandered on to Blackstock Road, where crowds outside the Gunners and the other boozers were spilling off the pavement into the road, as the boys (and gals) supped their bevvies in the spring sunshine. There was a blatant big match buzz in the air. Leaving White Hart Lane in November after Spurs' gut wrenching, last gasp equalizer had felt like a defeat for us and a definite victory for the enemy. This was undoubtedly a more decisive Derby date. It was the last opportunity to give their season some "raison d'être" by putting the mockers on our championship merriment, in what might well prove to be a title clinching encounter.

The Corkonian couple profited from the nonappearance of my two closest Spurs pals. I've been fortunate to find them tickets to this fixture for the past few years (I could say it was their fortune, but we have sadistically savoured so much pleasure, from their proximity to our celebrations in recent seasons, that I would gladly have them as our guests, if I could afford it!). However they'd wasted a fortune on a limo, in a vain attempt to make the most of their Worthless Cup experience. And after the Cardiff fiasco, I guess they couldn't face further humiliation and the thought of fronting up fifty quid, in all likelihood of another affront to their club's credibility. Ridiculously generous odds of 7 to 1, in a two horse race, made Spurs a far more propitious punt than any runners at Aintree. Although as far as my mates were concerned, they might as well have the same odds as any of the "Hope in hell's" chance National horses. Derby matches might be the great leveller but they felt that for Spurs to compete, the Arsenal's form would have to go out of a window of Canary Wharf proportions.

And so it proved. The Arsenal may not have blown them away in the manner of the first ten minute massacres, meted out at Highbury recently (a double quick cure for my chronic disease, after years of dawdling at home and missing kick-off!). Nevertheless, in the first-half at least, our football was of such a superior calibre, that I was pleased my pals couldn't make it. I would have probably felt obliged to spend half-time stewing over some slight saving grace, that I might offer as consolation. Doubtless this would have been the fact that at only one-nil, nothing was decided. For all our dominance, I felt we should have saved some of the fancy football, keeping it simple until we'd established a comfort zone.

My neighbour in the West Upper sat down for the start of the second half, unable to hide his delight, as he discovered he was two hundred quid wealthier, having picked the winner of the National. We may have been shivering in our seats, with the biting arctic breeze, but he was radiating a warm glow. The Arsenal were taking the Totts to the cleaners, where he'd taken his bookie, but from the moment the words "it's a wonderful day" left his lips, I feared fate would have its ears on, for such a tempting tease. When Poyet went down in the penalty area, there was an extremely pregnant pause pending clarification from the ref. This was just the sort of decision that would never go against a home side with more fervent, "in yer face" fans. I don't think any of us could grasp the fact that the ref had the gall to give Spurs, of all sides, such a controversial penalty and Teddy Sheringham, of all players, a humdinger of an opportunity to have the last laugh.

Mercifully it was just the gods having a little giggle at our expense, before ref Halsey restored our equilibrium, by evening matters out, with an equally debatable decision in the dying seconds. Thierry Henry didn't take to the turf in pain, it was the weight of the responsibility as the appointed penalty taker that had him rolling around. Having missed two recently, his reluctance was perfectly acceptable. It is not a task that anyone should undertake unless totally confident. After a moment of euphoria, a huggermugger hush fell upon Highbury as the deliberations of 35,000 Gooners drowned out the hullabaloo. Bergkamp's blunder which bequeathed Utd the treble and several other similar "so near, yet so far" moments flashed across the mind.

Though I would have much preferred to have avoided all that unnecessary anxiety, there was a silver lining to this five minute storm cloud. Our victory was so much sweeter for having snatched it from the jaws of a draw, which would have seen the hated enemy full of hubris, having handed our opponents back their title chance. And until his eventual cock-up comes around, at last it looks like we have someone, in the lion-hearted Lauren, with the 'cahones' to take a spot-kick. It was such a momentous, frazzled five minutes in a Machiavellian season, that even I was moved to forsake sobriety for a medicinal snort. My Corkonian guests accompanied me to an Irish owned hostelry where the crack was ninety, as we celebrated D-Day.

It is the partisan passions which make this Derby such an occasion. Unfortunately the fatal mixture of too much alcohol and melancholia, often results in an already intimidating atmosphere, being inflamed past the point of all propriety. In my experience, White Hart Lane is the usual scene of such sorry events. After Saturday's match it was obvious something was afoot in Highbury, when the revellers in the boozer found recreation in the riot police's floorshow outside. With horses, shields and batons, they justified their overtime by doing a can-can across the street. I guess for fear of losing his windows, the landlord lowered his blinds and locked the doors. Now if only I could have earwigged the resultant phone calls and explanations of those trying to excuse their unavoidable absence from home, because they were locked in the pub!