A Taste Of Spring On Tyneside

We shouldn't have been because after all the hype leading up to the weekend with the other United breathing down our necks and a revenge mission on their minds in the Manchester derby, earlier that day most of us would have bitten the hand off that offered the opportunity to maintain the current status quo at the top come Monday morning, having disposed of one of our most daunting away trips.

The Arsenal's loyal band of awayday brethren have had it relatively easy so far this season, as a lop sided fixture list has left us with most of our long distance sorties still to come. With the utter chaos that has afflicted the railways in this country in recent (and not so recent!) times, it was a novelty for us to risk letting the train take the strain on what turned out to be a trouble free three hour trip to the North-East. The railways always seem to save their worst disruption for Sundays and so in a rare break from my tardy traditions, I'd decided I would rather be safe arriving into Toon town on an earlier train with plenty of time on our hands, than sorry about the possibility of the engineering works at York which might have left us bouncing off the walls of the carriage as kick-off time approached.

Not wanting to disappoint my mate Nell, I managed to arrive on the platform panting for breath just as the guard blew his whistle. I would have been there in plenty of time if it wasn't for this perennial Euro-rail terminal project which has turned the area around Kings Cross into a kaleidoscopic landscape that changes from one week to the next. Cursing the fact that I was caught up in another new diversion and the disappearance of the entire street behind St. Pancras, where I've been parking my car for several seasons, I was halfway home again before I found somewhere to abandon the motor that wouldn't see it towed away in my absence. As I started to leg it back towards the station in the pouring rain, I knew that the two foot puddle in the gutter which obscured any potential road markings, entitled me to an entire day's worth of worrying about yet another parking ticket.

Once I had stopped sweating and settled down in my seat to soak up the pearls of wisdom splashed across the sports pages of the Sunday newspapers, I suggested to Nell that sod's law guaranteed there would be only two possible outcomes to our Tyneside odyssey. Man City would manage a minor miracle at Old Trafford and after we'd mullahed the Geordies, we would be back in our slippers with our feet up in time to savour our unassailable assault on the title replayed on Sky. In keeping with my pessimistic mien, it was the more funereal alternative which was far more likely as far as I was concerned. The free scoring Red Devils would reestablish the Mancunian hierarchy before half-time at the Theatre of Dreams and if we went on to drop all three points at St. James Park we would worryingly find ourselves with one United coming up on the rails and the other might have not only done away with our points advantage, but our goal difference as well. Then to be sure our day was well and truly rounded off, we'd find ourselves returning at some ungodly hour after the train ride from hell and I'd get back to my car to find another forty quid parking ticket to bitch about, on top of the eighty quid train ride, match ticket and all additional incidentals of an expensive, bankrupt bad day out. (it's lucky I'm not a West Ham supporter, or they'd have to stick me in a straitjacket).

All thoughts of such a depressing denouement all but disappeared the moment we stepped off the train to find we'd escaped the dreary drizzle of the capital, for the bright sunshine, blue skies and decidedly mild climes of Newcastle. The scent in the air was almost Spring like. Having attempted to cover all possible meteorological eventualities, it didn't look like I'd have much use for my hat, gloves and scarf and I was glad to have left my longjohns back in London. I couldn't figure out why there were so few Gooners on our train. Perhaps they had all travelled earlier in order to be able to watch the live coverage of the other match. I'd managed to keep abreast of events at Old Trafford via the odd moments when the reception on my tranny managed to exceed the electrical interference. Yet as a result of what happened next, I wouldn't have wanted to experience it any other way.

There were mere minutes left on the clock in Manchester when I spied the hordes crowding round the TV screens in the pub on the station platform. We hurried over and hearing in my ear that City had been awarded a free kick as we reached the door, I turned to Nell and said that we were just in time to see them score. To my astonishment my prophecy proved true and in the next instant the entire pub erupted as the Blues buried their equalizer, simultaneously sticking a rather large spoke in the wheel that is their rivals assault on the title. Naturally this pub was teeming with the Toon Army, along with a liberal sprinkling of the early arrivals amongst us Gooners. It might just be jealousy over the Mancunian's many seasons of unmitigated success which was the common bond but as passengers dreaming of nothing more than their Sunday lunch stood stoically on the platform, staring in at lunatic celebrations in this pub, it was just brilliant to be part of all the high-fives, stranger hugging and euphoric bonhomie between two sets of supporters who didn't t let the fact that they were about to contest one of the most crucial clashes of the season interfere with their enmity for the other mob.

Believe it or not, but we walked out of there minutes later a little miffed. The gaff had erupted again after another goal, but amongst all that mayhem it was some moments before it dawned that the goal had been disallowed. Despite the anticlimax of being denied the carrot of Utd's defeat, as Nell and I strolled to the stadium we were both aware that we had better appreciate the moment, in case that was as good as it was going to get. It did get better.

Unlike the Gooners who looked like they urgently needed oxygen after their assault on the stairs, we ascended to our perch via an elevator. I used asthma as my excuse, thankfully remembering to put my fag out first (only half a lie because the least all those stairs would have induced was a heart attack!). There followed 45 minutes of such fabulous entertainment, which flew by so fast that neither of us could quite believe there were only minutes to the break when Henry hit the back of the net. Having totally dominated for the last 20 of the first half, it was annoying that we once again failed to capitalize by killing off our opponents. I felt that with the aid Sir Bobby's inspiration the Toons were bound to put us under the cosh at some point after the break. It was unlikely that we were going to survive the afternoon without conceding.

If only we could have held them at bay for a little longer, until frustration might have got the better of what is, with a few obvious exceptions, a fairly inexperienced side. When the equalizer came I thought that there might at least be the silver lining of livening up the contest. That was until for the umpteenth time in recent months, the ref and his ruling to the letter of the law managed to ruin the game for all the millions concerned, both players and spectators alike. I will say it until I am blue in the face, until referees are allowed to use their discretion and apply some common sense to such situations, as they say "the law gentlemen, is an ass" when used merely for its own sake rather than for the benefit of all those for whom these rules were designed in the first place.

The ref certainly did us no favours because as is customary, our best chance was to hit the Toons on the counterattack, but down to ten men they were less likely to come out of their shell. The sending off also seemed to give both teams the perfect excuse to settle for the draw, destroying totally the marvelous rhythm of a hotly contested encounter. I can't help but wonder if our approach would have been any different if our immediate rivals hadn't already blown a couple of points earlier? Moreover I will reserve judgement on the significance of the outcome until we see whether the Toons manage to do likewise when the Moaners visit St. James Park in two months time.

We travel to Old Trafford this weekend for a cup game that could have a far wider significance on the season as a whole. With a further two trips to Lancashire to play City and Blackburn and a date with Villa in the Midlands before United visit St. James Park and Highbury in the same week, we've many miles to travel in the coming months. Yet I have a feeling that the title will come down to a short walk round the corner, to be rather suitably settled at The Home Of Football. Oh and by the way, in case you were worried not only were my predictions wide of the mark, mercifully I missed out on the parking ticket as well!