A Whirlwind Against The Wilting Wearsiders, Whither Next On This Long And Winding Road?

Last updated : 22 May 2002 By Bernard Azulay
They might have sought solace in the glimmer of hope offered by boyhood Gooner, Kevin Phillips, as he flashed a strike into the side-netting. Yet in truth, any prospects of travelling back up the motorway with points to show for their efforts, were put to the sword, before they'd even got into their stride.

I have a soft spot for Sunderland. Apart from the usual suspects, where my disfavour is too deep rooted (eg. Spurs, Chelsea, Utd.), I have some sympathies for the long-suffering supporters of most sides, that aren't quite so privileged as us Gooners. Occasionally our advantage seems so unfair, that if we were playing in the school playground, to ensure a more even contest, I might offer them the likes of Wiltord or Luzhny (depending how desperate they were!). Still there's little room for sentiment in this barmy business.

Expectations under Arsène Wenger have become so inflated, that after a few silverware starved seasons, many Gooners are far too blasé about our uncompromising consistency. It confirms how brilliantly our club goes about its business. Besides, it is a minor economic miracle given the gate receipts of competing continental and domestic clubs, who can squeeze twenty or thirty thousand more fans through their turnstiles every week. It is no wonder the club are so keen to move to a bigger stadium, as long as Highbury's limited capacity continues to cost us a fortune.

I am long enough in the tooth to recall the last time the Arsenal approached Easter, attempting to rally against a serious risk of relegation, way back in Œ76. Yet during Arsène's era, we've grown so accustomed to challenging for the Championship, that I couldn't possibly imagine the fears, of those fans facing the nemesis of Nationwide anonymity.

There is no shortage of admirers for what is arguably the Arsenal's most entertaining side ever. In a discussion with a Spurs supporting pal, I surprised him by revealing that we continued to gain admittance to the ground for our ninth Cup game (excluding the Worthless Cup), even though only seven are included in our annual subscription. He left himself wide open, when he questioned how the club would go about claiming payment in arrears, if someone gave up their season ticket. With relish I responded that while it may be a regular occurrence at his club, a three year waiting list at the Arsenal, ensures it is extremely rare at ours. Mind you I wonder if we'd be as whimsical as those at White Hart Lane, if like Tottenham's turncoats, our tickets didn't come with a warranty of such wonderful football.

It is another month before May and the end of a sizzling season. Already I am sweating over our season ticket renewals (those Heathrow robbers had to be Gooners, as we are likely to need their cool haul of millions, to cover the cost of a seat at Highbury!). It will be a substantial financial sacrifice, but when you consider how the current squad are breaking all records, with an unbroken run of a goal in every game, going to Highbury is far from a grind. By contrast, my utmost respect is reserved for the trusty Trojans of the relegation candidates. Those who stump up their hard-earned spondulicks every season, buoyed by the sophistry of silly-season speculation. optimistically believing they are about to storm the Bastille of what is now an annual bi-(or at most tri-) partite carve up.

They might happily hold this hallucination close to their hearts, but in their heads, the height of their humble expectations is limited to the distraction of a decent cup run, during their habitual endeavours to hang on to their Premiership status. Don't get me wrong, I'd be a wobbling, whining blancmange, if the boot was on the other foot and I was currently pondering the ignominious prospect of playing the like of Preston and Portsmouth. I'd much rather contemplate our chances of the Championship and Cup and whether we'll cope with the absence of poor Robbie Pires, whose presence might have proved crucial on the wide expanses of Old Trafford. At least season tickets holders at every Premiership club should get good value for their money this term. The top six are chasing European qualification and every club from seventh down is only a couple of calamitous results away from being dragged into the trapdoor dogfight.

It is too little, too late for Leicester, but their surprising success on Saturday shows that they have yet to give up the ghost. It suggests that no team intends to see their season out with a whimper, following the sort of glut of dreary, meaningless matches of yesteryear. Mind you it is not something I should be crowing about, when it leaves mid-table Charlton chomping at the bit against the Arsenal. Previously we might have mown down such a side, because their players were preoccupied, already daydreaming about basking on a Florida beach.

I feel so much for the fans of the relegation rearguard, that I have no desire to see any of them doomed. With an arbitrary yen for the axing of our most arduous away trips, one might have thought I'd be thankful to kick one of three trips to the northeast into touch. It is not just my admiration for Peter Reid's achievements. A whole host of managers regularly attempt heroic Houdini acts at the bottom of the pile. They usually have budgetary restraints that would positively bamboozle the prodigal bunglers who appear hell-bent on blowing their benefactors last million beans. Sunderland are one of the most accessible and family oriented clubs in the league. With a sensible pricing structure, local kids can obtain a season ticket, without having to strip the lead from the roof of the nearest church. Moreover, the Stadium of Light has perhaps the best atmosphere of all the new stadia and is one of my favourite outings. Not forgetting my affection for the Arsenal old boys, Stefan Schwarz and Niall Quinn. Quinny remains the consummate professional on the pitch, not to mention a far better player than many give him credit for. The wily ways which enable him to continue performing at the highest level never fail to impress.

Though his extracurricular equine activities mean he won't exactly have to scratch out a living in retirement, it was a typically generous gesture from this true gent, to donate all the income from his testimonial to charity. It should serve as an example to all our overpaid idols, but I can't quite imagine Matt Le Tiss will do likewise! Having served together for so long early in their careers, it was a fitting coincidence for Niall to be involved in what turned into a celebration of Tony Adams' 500th game in red and white. They are the last of a dying breed, of loyal "do or die" dinosaurs. As a selfish striker, Jeffers was hardly likely to pass up an opportunity in front of goal. Sadly the scally sub couldn't have read the script, as Adams lumbered forward on his arthritic limbs at the death, in the hope of crowning the occasion with his 50th goal for the club. It may have been a black day for the Wearside cats, but confirmation of a cakewalk for the Arsenal came, as our opponents mounted two attacks before Captain Fantastic ambled back from nosebleed territory.

The Arsenal are making a habit of kicking off at a cracking pace. It's been my misfortune to miss a handful of goals, which have hit the net, as I've hurried around Highbury. Consequently I made certain I was sitting comfortably before kick-off on Saturday, but I am beginning to believe it is conspiracy to cure my tardy tendencies!