Business As Usual

Last updated : 12 November 2002 By Bernard Azulay

Yet in truth we owe him a debt of gratitude because it was the bitter resentment of his iniquitous efforts in this game that gave birth to the backs to the wall, us against the world and all the other tired old clichés which encapsulate the team spirit that took us all the way to the title.

The sense of anticipation in the air around Highbury on Saturday suggested that memories of this match were still fresh in Gooner minds. Combined with our anxiety about whether we had crested our habitual seasonal hiccup a few weeks earlier than usual, with the previous weekend's fluked result against Fulham and our eager expectation that his enforced absence might arouse a renewed appetite in Patrick Vieira on his return, this match was a safe bet for the best atmosphere of the season so far.

The collection of returning crocks and up and coming totts who surrendered to Sunderland in midweek meant that most had discounted our premature cup exit as evidence of a continued crisis. In fact the youngsters showed a lot of promise in the first forty-five, but along with their more senior team mates they seemed to forget it was a game of two halves since they totally failed to turn up for the second! It wasn't nearly so embarrassing for us as for those Premiership sides whose full strength teams fell to lower league opposition. Yet it was nonetheless disappointing both for me and for the likes of Sebastian Svard and Ryan Garry, for whom the Worthless Cup might be their only opportunity all season to prove themselves in really competitive circumstances (compared to the sterile conditions playing with the stiffs).

Doubtless they will have been dreaming of what might have been as Sunderland drew Sheffield Utd away in Saturday's lunchtime draw. I can console them with a tale of the other side of the coin, when we last bowed out of this competition at Bramall Lane and a nightmare for Gavin Mcgowan saw a promising career take a nosedive into the abyss of anonymity. If I was at all morose about missing out on another opportunity to evaluate our supporting cast in Sheffield, this was more than made up for by events in the Mancunian derby.

In expectation of dodgy City defending and the inevitable dubious decision that would hand Utd a decisive winner in the dying minutes of this match, according to Fergie's customary deal with the devil, I decided to walk the dog instead of getting wound up watching it on the box. Other dog walkers in the park must have wondered about the lunatic leaping for joy, serenading our pooch Treacle to the tune of "And the Cockney Reds were going out of their heads" as I listened to Utd's fortunes taking their turn for the worse on the radio. I had intended tiring her out, in the hope that she would spend the afternoon sleeping, instead of turning our flat asunder whilst we were at the match. However the rare sight of a City side playing Utd off the park was certainly worth the risk of another chewed up pair of slippers and I soon headed home to watch the second half.

You have to experience in person the loyalty of the long-suffering City fans to truly appreciate its merit. I never fail to be astounded by the "supporters" who were so quick to castigate the likes of Henry on Saturday. He might struggle to score in a brothel at the minute, but how can you bawl out one of the best in Europe when he's continually sweating blood for the cause. By comparison to the inflated expectations of such fickle fans, I can recall feeling jealous of the unswerving devotion of the Maine Road massive during the 0-4 slaughter that virtually guaranteed their relegation the last time we met. As I recall Joe Royle was subsequently sacked but they weren't moaning about the manager, or berating the board. I was full of admiration for their efforts, their enjoyment even of their twelfth man role, thirty thousand belting out "Blue Moon" in the face of such adversity.

So it wasn't so much for selfish reasons, but for their sake that I was "loving it" along with all the ABUs on Saturday. If their was a spring to my step as I trotted round to Highbury soon after, I positively floated home a few hours later on a high of the full-house of fortunate results (imagine the stick Seaman would have suffered if he'd spilled the ball that lead to Liverpool's defeat?) and the return of the fabulous footie we've grown accustomed to until the last few games. Our total domination of much of this game made it crystal clear quite how dependent we are on our captain.

The Arsenal's return to form and Patrick Vieira's apparent reinvigoration was no coincidence. Nevertheless in spite of the wonderful entertainment, we were left perched on the edge of our seats, sweating out the closing stages knowing we were only one kick and rush, or an 'untouchable' Alan Shearer shove, away from blowing three points. Our failure to capitalize on numerous chances and earn some breathing space with a crucial second goal ensured an increasingly palpable air of anxiety permeated from the terraces to the pitch and back again.

It must be an instinctive response or perhaps evidence of fatigue as the minutes tick away towards the final whistle, but it can be so infuriating to watch the winning side gradually stop playing the game in the opposition's half of the field and sit back simply trying to protect a slender lead. Not to mention nerve wracking, as they invite their opponents to exert the sort of pressure that they've been unable to apply all afternoon. Yet if anyone remained unconvinced that the Arsenal are back in business by quarter to five, reassurance came courtesy of a bemused Sir Bobby (a title that seems to suit this true gent of our game so much more than some ennobled malcontents!) later that night on the box, looked shell-shocked and as battered as his Geordie boys.

He tried to avoid belittling the efforts of his own troops in his admiration of the Arsenal, quoting Gary Speed's comment about Vieira as "the best midfielder he'd ever played against". But it was the emasculation etched into his expression that spoke volumes about the varying ambitions of these two clubs. It might have been a different story if Campbell hadn't been passed fit and we'd been stuck with a centre back pairing of Stepanovs and Cygan, but an injury to Lauren resulted in Luzhny producing perhaps his best ever performance in an Arsenal shirt. Whereas without Robert to rifle home the spot-kicks, or Bellamy snapping at Sol's heels like a Jack Russell, Newcastle didn't carry the same threat as the team that stretched us last term.

When I think of the thing of beauty that was Bergkamp's goal of last season at St. James Park, it is downright criminal that the paying public should be deprived of his talents as punishment for Dennis' petulance, with a foul which didn't involve anything like the malice suggested in the slow motion replays. It was the sort of incident that would have never previously resulted in a charge, because in real time he merely left hs foot in but the freeze frame suggests a stamp. If memory serves, it was nothing compared to the serious crime for which England's Saint Shearer somehow evaded conviction!

The weekend couldn't have finished any better when we ended up with a wonderful four card trick as Tottenham's lofty aspirations were toppled by lowly Sunderland. If Hoddle's army haven't yet abandoned all hope, we Gooners will be only too glad to oblige next Saturday. Mercifully Seaman will be spared a savage mauling from his derby detractors due to the timely injury which I suggested he might incur some weeks back. What a pity all the new demeaning ditties we heard the Spurs fans practicing on Wearside will have been wasted. Now if only Spunky could take a leaf from the book of one of the game's only other true noblemen and retire gracefully with the respect of his army of admirers intact, bowing out with a dignified curtain call like Niall Quinn.