A Saturday Afternoon On The Premiership Hard Shoulder

Last updated : 27 November 2002 By Bernard Azulay

I never stop counting my blessings when it comes to being able to secure the occasional extra ticket at Highbury for the missus' nearest & dearest (and to preempt a postbag full of heart-rending pleas, weekly requests from around the world became so ridiculous that I had no choice but to completely curtail my samaritan services for fear of sterilizing this golden Gooner goose). There's a growing gaggle of Gooners for whom the Arsenal religion is so deep-rooted that they are certain signatories on the away ticket-scheme. Less resolute others also commit to tickets to every single away game (with the exception of matches abroad) even though they rarely roam beyond the M25 boundary because it is their only guarantee of getting tickets to the glamour games (and so spend the season searching for recipients for the remainder!).

Consequently my half-hearted enquiry at the box office on Friday was more likely to result in a ticket for the Olympic Stadium, Rome than the miracle of a seat at St. Mary's. Much to everyone's surprise my mate Nell came up trumps with a ticket from his increasingly fair-weather flat-mate. With Grainne's talismanic trait of having never seen the Arsenal lose live, the four of us set off optimistically expecting the Arsenal to continue on where they left off against Spurs. Apparently I failed to take into account the inevitable influence of the law of averages and the fact that Grainne might not be such a force further afield, having previously only favoured us at Highbury. Moreover on the evidence of the season so far, it would seem that if the Arsenal have an achilles heel it is these confounded adjournments for International matches that are a major factor in our fallibility - you see it is possible to discuss the Arsenal's undoing without referring to Dave Seaman...doh! Although Richard Wright's role in the Everton revival has left me struggling to stifle the 'told you so's'.

It is not surprising that Arsène gets upset when the likes of Gilberto virtually circumnavigated the globe for Brazil to play the entire 90 mins of a meaningless friendly in Korea between the last two matches. I have also always had cause to question whether there was any animosity felt towards Arsène by the coaches of the French team. 3-0 up and cruising against the Yugoslavians, the sidelines seemed more like a basketball bench with Santini's several substitutions. Yet Henry, who wouldn't know how to take it easy if he was told, was left to play his heart out for 70 minutes.

There were several contributing factors to the debacle at St. Mary's on Saturday. Durkin the gherkin will be most Gooners choice for a blind date with Madame Guillotine. His sending off of Sol certainly didn't help matters. I suppose he brandishes his red and yellow cards with similar relish in other matches, but some paranoia is inevitable after such an innocuous indiscretion as Campbell's was deemed worthy of Durkin's first sending off this season. With Xmas around the corner, perhaps he was saving his first red card for his favourite red team! Others might highlight Seaman's hand, or lack thereof, in matters. These are attached to three feet of arm, giving every goalie a massive advantage in the air. I can only imagine Dave's reluctance to dominate his area is a direct result of frequently damaging his ribs over the years, but then he has spent the majority of his career leaving such menial tasks to the best defence in the country. Whereas Cygan hardly covered himself in glory in this game. The most articulate account described poor Pascal turning like ³an oil tanker². Just like the ill-fated Prestige we were split in two, facing the catastrophic consequences of Sol's attempt to clean up his mess. It was a noble effort but in hindsight I would rather he had not bothered because now we are faced with the terrifying prospect of Pascal and Stepanovs as our centre-back pairing at Old Trafford. And with Ruud apparently on a roll, should Stepanovs suffer any repetition of his 6-1 slap in the face, his career and our challenge could both be left as dead in the water as the rust bucket breaking up on the ocean floor off the 'Costa del Muerte'.

At half-time on the terraces it was Freddie Ljungberg who was most Gooners favourite guilty party. I have to admit that twenty minutes of the match had passed before I even realized he was on the pitch. However I prefer to apportion blame collectively because the entire team appeared jaded after an international interruption which resulted in another lacklustre performance. Although I would much rather believe this was the cause than the complacency of a cocksure team under the misconception that they only have to turn up to earn all three points. Besides having not lost at home all season and with James Beattie currently on fire, to belittle Southampton's achievement would be doing Gordon Strachan's side an injustice. The national flags beside player's names on the back of the programme caught my eye. It was a cosmopolitan kaleidoscope of twenty different nationalities and I was somewhat surprised to see that Strachan's multinational medley makes up two thirds of his squad. It is testament to the ambitions of the South Coast club and how far Strachan has been forced to cast his net in his attempt to haul his side up from relegation fodder to mid-table security.

Perhaps with his ripening years the fiery Scot has become a reformed character, but personally I prefer the old howling banshee who was unable to hide the halogen heart on his sleeve. Recently he has come across on the box as someone who is fed up of being fined by the FA merely for his forthright nature and it would be criminal if these persistent punishments have turned one of the games few remaining characters into yet another platitude prattler.

We should have seen our setback in Southampton writ large upon the walls of Twickenham as we found ourselves crawling through the traffic, fighting it out with all the four-wheel drives. I'd completely forgotten about the rugby, which was a ricket that ensured our exit from the capital took twice as long as the sprint to the South Coast. If the Philistine lovers of the pointy ball hadn't made us late enough, halfway down the motorway the heavens opened up with a hailstorm so heavy, it could have been Rocky Rocastle himself recommending that if we weren't going to return home, there certainly was no point hurrying. An equally tortuous departure from Southampton capped a dismal afternoon, as the police closed the main exit road due to an accident (doubtless Gooners in a dangerous hurry to get the day done with!).

With the Champs League looming large, we certainly won't be entering the Eternal City for our potentially crucial encounter on the high we were hoping for. As a reflection of my miserable mood, apart from Bergkamp's goal the best result on Saturday was a blinding parking pitch. Two right-on asian blokes admitted me without a permit and rescued me from missing any more of the match driving to the dreaded park and ride. But they point blank refused my persistent attempts to bung them a few quid in thanks. Admittedly a tortoise burger would have tasted good having eaten nothing as a result of our ritualistic mad rush that morning and it might not impress the prawn cocktail corporate liggers, but the catering at Southampton's impressive new ground (I never made it there last season) is the best I've tasted at a match. Despite feeling somewhat nostalgic for the tight confines of the ramshackle old Dell, their new facility would be fabulous if it wasn't for the smoking ban that spoilt my sight lines since I spent so much time ducking down for a suck on a sneaky cigarette.

In the words of Monty Python we must 'always look on the bright side'. It might be damp inside and the dog might have dirtied the seats but my battered old Jag cost only £800 quid and carried five of us there and back quite comfortably. We picked up an additional hitchhiking pal on the hard shoulder of the motorway who had jumped at the opportunity for a jaunt in a Ferrari purchased only a few days earlier for a few pounds short of one hundred grand! I imagine it was his mate doing the John Cleese impersonations when all that horsepower spluttered to a halt a few miles into this first ever chance to put his foot down on this ridiculously priced piece of machinery. I didn't appreciate until later that this beautiful silver beast of an auto, standing impotent on the motorway was an accurate allegory of the Arsenal's afternoon The irony of the roadside rescue of my prancing horse loving pal was incredibly amusing, but providence prevented me from cracking a smile about his mate's misfortune until I was steering my own trusty steed back down our street that night.