All We Want For Christmas Is Plenty More Boxing Days

Last updated : 01 January 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Especially this season with the stress-free schedule of a minor sortie to the Midlands followed by three home fixtures.

One of my best mates was on an island in Thailand dipping his toes in the Indian Ocean and my sister was basking on a beach in the Bahamas, but myself I can't recall a better Boxing Day than our brief break in bonny West Bromwich. Considering how much I hate locking horns amidst the madness of so many motorway marathons, taking advantage of the one Bank Holiday a year where the roads are virtually traffic free, save for the occasional Sunday driving speed-limit stickler is indeed a rare treat.

After picking up my pal Nell an almost obligatory hour later than planned, we still managed to make it to the Hawthorns in such good time that I was tempted to turn around and get lost on the Birmingham ring road, lest our early arrival be responsible for an awful result. Even the virgin birth of Christ bears no comparison to the miraculous feat of finding myself plotted up with plenty of time to peruse the programme before the players took to the pitch. There was a piece by a Baggies supporting Radio 5 presenter, sounding off about receiving calls from 'long-suffering' Arsenal supporters. He wrote that it is like somebody moaning that 'it took me years, absolutely years, chasing round after Elle Macpherson before I managed to get her into bed'.

On route I was reminiscing about being taken to Wembley by my old man, to see a WBA side containing such greats as hole-in-the-heart Asa Hartford and the late Jeff Astle. I still possess the programme from this League Cup Final. West Brom were beaten in extra-time by the likes of Colin Bell, Franny Lee and the rest of Joe Mercer's marvelous Man City team. I also recall the rising stars of Ron Atkinson's West Brom, in an age when there were so few black players that it was rumoured Real Madrid thought they were buying Laurie Cunningham when Big Ron sold them Cyril Regis. On studying the honours listed in Thursday's programme I realized that aside from an FA Youth Cup in 1976, that 1970 final was the last time the Baggies had a sniff of any silverware. No wonder the 'Boing, boing boings' were booming around the ground as if the Baggies had just won the cup, when Dichio headed home after only three minutes.

Having endured the epitome of George Graham's 'boring, boring' Arsenal at the bitter end of his reign, I am also guilty of believing myself to be a long-suffering Gooner. Yet considering the ecstasy we have enjoyed and all the euphoria of winning three Doubles, yer man from Radio 5 is way off the mark with his Macpherson analogy. By comparison to the Baggies, we have bedded not only Macpherson, but Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford to boot!

I wouldn't trade any of these experiences, or my Arsenal ancestry for the world. Yet I do feel strangely envious of fans of lowly teams like the Baggies. They are able to prove their loyalty by turning up week in, week out and getting behind their team, knowing that the best they can hope for each season is the thrill of a flirtation with relegation/promotion, or a decent cup run. Whereas the Arsenal might have never seen a large proportion of the glory-hunting Gooners amongst the 38,000 regulars at Highbury if we hadn't won a trophy these past thirty-four years.

In fact the fates smiled so kindly upon us on Boxing Day, that I almost felt sorry for the fervent Baggies. Earlier I'd ridiculed Ranieri for his wholesale squad rotation. It was the sort of disrespect that would have put a smile on Gordon Strachan's face, providing him with all the ammunition he required to motivate his Southampton side. It made for a pleasant journey listening to them not only hold the Blues at bay but coming close to getting the better of them at the Bridge. We will find out at Highbury whether his players benefit from fresh legs. I bet they would rather be coming on the back of six, instead of the one point they've collected over Xmas so far.

It goes against the grain for a team whose fans I have always considered to be, by and large, a load of NF gobshites (obviously with a few friendly exceptions), but hard as I try to hide it, I find their impish Italian manager increasingly endearing. I had to admire the way he came out and admitted the error of his ways after losing at Elland Road. It wasn't long before I was wondering if Wenger was also wrong to have left Pires on the bench at West Brom, as I am a great believer in always turning out the best available team.

Judging by Gerrard Houllier's selection at Highbury and his incessant tinkering with his team, he hasn't the foggiest about his first choice. I was flabbergasted to see the players he has spent £110 million on listed in the paper, as I'd forgotten all about some of them. After pilfering all three points at the Hawthorns and the pleasure of hearing Utd contribute to the five card trick of all our competitors cock-ups on the way home, I was convinced we would slip-up against the Scousers. Having settled for a Satanic pact where I was prepared to drop points against Liverpool, provided we prevail against the Kings Road posse, you might think I'd be pleased with a providential draw. My dissatisfaction doesn't derive from Gilberto's glaring last minute miss. Like most Gooners, once Murphy had dispatched the penalty, I was more than happy with a point.

Liverpool's counterattacking style allowed us the time and space to improve on our worrying win against West Brom. Yet what disturbs me is our failure to do any damage during a supremely dominant first-half. It is ironic that the Scousers have inherited our 'boring, boring' tag with their 'hoof it' tactics, while the Arsenal are beginning to look like the Liverpool of old with an untold number of pretty passes and no end product. Where is the early season incisive Arsenal, who managed to intimidate all their opponents by getting the ball from one goalmouth to another with such terrifying pace.

Truth be told, we've been a shadow of those over-hyped superstars since we tormented a ten man Tottenham and it is only the generous inconsistencies of our opposition that has enabled us to tread water at the top. Although in saying that, while we may not have been the free-scoring scourge of the league of late, our continued ability to collect points is in no small part due to the contribution of Sol Campbell. I cannot berate Campbell for bringing down Baros, even though he wasn't exactly bearing down on goal. A rare penalty is a small price to pay for Sol's 'they shall not pass' single-minded determination. For such a colossus, Campbell has an awe inspiring turn of pace. While Vieira may wear the armband we've watched Sol develop week by week, to the point where he now has the stature and presence of our captain in all but name.

Not forgetting the wholehearted efforts (and goal line clearances) of Ashley Cole, or Vieira whose appetite appears to have returned after his enforced break. As the only player to rise above the mire of our poor performance at the Hawthorns, it was evident Patrick was back to something like his best. In such a frantic, full-blooded affair that's not for the faint hearted, he has this inimitable ability to somehow create time and space on the ball, while the tackles come flying in and the opposition try every trick in the book to get him frazzled. Again on Sunday Vieira produced a virtuoso first-half display that had us positively purring with delight in the West Upper. It is just a pity that for the most part, the rest of our midfield doesn't deserve to play on the same pitch at present.

It may be part of our remit as football fans to moan no matter what team we support. Yet as I've already intimated, with a squad that is the envy of the other nineteen teams we can hardly complain when the competition are craning their necks to look up at us. Exiting the North Bank on Sunday it was maddening to find ourselves in the midst of such a melancholy, brooding bunch. With no flashing lights, tasteless tinsel, or any Santa hats, there wasn't much Xmas cheer to speak of. Nor have we heard the sound of our favourite carols 'We are top of the league' or 'We shall not be moved' resonating around the terraces in recent weeks to remind our opponents of the folly of flogging a defensive dead horse.

I hope it is only our spoilt fans who are far too blasé and the team are totally focused on the task at hand. Those who covet our title are about to kick-on and they will be breathing down our collar if we continue to concede points at the current rate. Arsène has to unearth something approaching our amazing autumnal form, because it will be the first team to rediscover some consistency that takes the title this season.