Coming Down To The Wire? The Water's Luvverly!

Last updated : 31 March 2003 By Bernard Azulay

With time only to catch ones breath between trips to Blackburn, Valencia and matches at Highbury and Stamford Bridge, Saturday was my first opportunity to return my West Ham supporting work colleague's computer. It had been cluttering up our pad ever since I had it repaired a couple of weeks back.

Prior to the Hammers' genuine attempts to get out of relegation threatened jail in recent outings, I'd spent much of this season tactfully avoiding football talk. When we drew at their place way back in August West Ham were so impressive that one could be forgiven for wondering which of the two teams were the reigning champions. I am convinced that our somewhat fortunate fightback from a two goal deficit on that sunny day was a contributing factor in knocking the ore out of the Irons for several weeks to come. Combined with the transformation of their terracing, which sadly seems to have torn the heart out of what was once one of the most intimate and intimidating arenas in the country for visiting teams and the guileless Glenn Roeder's efforts to glean a gaffer's career, gaffe by costly gaffe, the Hammers have been left battling for their Premiership existence because fortress Upton Park became every visitors away banker.

At least Dave is guaranteed to see his season out with a heart stopping bang, one way or another. Unlike the whimper they'll be watching at White Hart Lane. I for one hope West Ham hang on to their Premiership status in favour of one less outfit further afield. Yet if I've had a tendency to commiserate, rather than tease him about his team's troubles, the same cannot be said about his decision to forsake his home on this side of the River Thames for the darkest depths of Dulwich.

As always the sorry excuse for my late arrival was that I neglected to leave home with the passport necessary for a sortie across the river into the wilds of South London. Crawling along a congested Woolwich Road, choking on the toxic fumes of the traffic, I must have cut a daft figure to all the pedestrians as I punched the air with my fist and emitted a hearty, head turning hurrah on hearing the commentator tell of Ireland taking the lead in Tbilisi. I'd set out in the belief that I might be back home with my feet up in time to watch England's feeble efforts. But such is the sorry state of circulation in the capital that Ireland had just been pegged back as I pulled up at Dave's front door some forty minutes later.

Dual purpose Gary Doherty might have given Irish eyes something to smile about by grabbing the winner in Georgia five minutes before the final whistle. However he certainly hasn't endeared himself to half of London (of the Lilywhite and Claret & Blue persuasion) by gifting the points to Bolton last week, with his rash last minute challenge at the Reebok. On the return journey after delivering the computer there was just time to listen to a few phone calls on the radio from disaffected Spurs fans before tuning into the live coverage from Liechtenstein. None of them can believe that this big galoot from Donegal is part of the Hodmeister's crackpot plans for world domination. Meanwhile the radio host castigated each caller in turn for not giving credit to the wholehearted centre forward/back who'd just rekindled his country's hopes of qualification for Euro 2004.

In all honesty playing spot the white man amongst the comings and goings, as I crawled my way back along one of the capital's most cosmopolitan thoroughfares was far more of a fun filled distraction than the subsequent commentary, on a match from a country where the amount of limited companies outnumbers the inhabitants. I was back home before the half-time break had ended, but based on the lack of entertainment and the ennui level in the first-half, a walk with the dog in the early evening sunshine was far more enticing.

Still if I was suffering from soccer withdrawals, I didn't have to wait long. Later that evening I must have strained my index finger with all the channel hopping, On one channel their was a display of delicate skills in a contest between the Dutch v the Czechs. I was amazed to find Gio Van Bronckhorst still playing left-back for Holland, despite the fact that every Arsenal opponent has targeted our potential weakness on this flank during Ashley Cole's absence. I only hope talk of Cole's comeback back this weekend at Villa Park is not premature because I was almost glad to see any Arsenal interest in this match cut short as Gio limped off. Only because there was a far more seductive offering over on Sky in the scintillating not so friendly encounter between Portugal and Brazil (with the added bonus of the involvement of the Arsenal's Gilberto).

Nevertheless there was no rest for the remote control, as I had to keep checking back in order to catch the last knockings of Thierry Henry & co. having a heyday for France as they mullahed the Maltese 6-0. Such are the trials and tribulations of supporting a star-studded multinational team!

Drawn in by all the hype, I did my best to pay due respect to the egg chasing assault on the Grand Slam come Sunday. As an adopted Irishman, I've had my share of homespun history lessons. I therefore would have loved nothing more than to have seen some token retribution rendered to the tyrannical overlords of the famine. Considering it was all downhill so soon after a rousing Lansdowne Road chorus of National and rugby anthems, it doesn't say much for my "what goes around, comes around" theories on karma!

I thought there might be a silver-lining to my sudden loss of interest in the outcome of all that pointless egg chasing, when I chanced upon some proper football on another channel. It might have only been the dying throes of the female version of the League Cup Final, between the Arsenal and Fulham ladies, but for a few wonderful moments I thought my eternal quest for some true Green Gunner heroes, the successors to the mantle of Brady, Stapleton and O'Leary, might at long last be over.

When Fulham ladies scored mere seconds after we'd turned over, following an eighty-nine minute scoreless stalemate, with only moments remaining I shuddered superstitiously at such an ominous sign. The Arsenal's first sniff of silverware snatched from our grasp in the last minute of the game. I was still grappling with this harbinger of doom when Ireland's Ciara Grant gamboled straight down the other end and struck home the last gasp goal which took the match into extra time. I wouldn't normally get so hot under the collar about the ladies equivalent of the Worthless Cup but in this instance you would have thought it was the bleedin' Double itself which had just been won from my whooping and a hollering. The dutiful son had to get on the phone to tell his Ma that our Mother's Day date would be delayed by extra time and perhaps a penalty shoot out.

Thirty uneventful minutes flew past, during which time I discovered that half of the Fulham Ladies had been poached from the Arsenal by the promise of professional terms. We were also told that the Fulham manager's wife had missed a penalty in the shoot-out, when they beat the Arsenal in the Community Shield preseason. I wondered whether she would step-up to the spot for more penalty pressure punishment if it came to it? I sat there scoffing at such schadenfreude, as the sadistic image of conjugal bad vibes over the breakfast table for months on end should Fulham fail as a result of the manager's missus missing another spot-kick.

The Arsenal haven't exactly covered themselves in penalty shoot-out glory in recent times. Yet I honestly thought this lot had the match sewn up when their second Irish hero, goalie Emma Byrne stepped up to the plate and battered away Fulham's first three strikes. Who needs Turkey's Rushtu as a replacement for Seaman, when we have a real Paddy who is tastier in more ways than one (I bet they'd be lining up to scrub her back in the showers!). Sadly with three successive Arsenal misses it was back to bad penalty business as usual. We failed to finish the contest when our fifth spot-kick came back off the post and with sudden death, we looked to have already lost it as the tiniest wee slip of a lass, little bigger than the ball itself, took the long, lonely walk from the centre circle. Her shot and the Arsenal's first pot was swallowed up by the Fulham keeper's arms.

As the lady Cottagers duly clinched the trophy, I took some consolation in there being almost as many Arsenal players in both camps. But it certainly wasn't the silverware winning omen that had seemed on the cards a few minutes earlier. As I'm about to dash around to Highbury to secure my semifinal tickets for another dawn trek to Old Trafford, I have to trust in a team that is too good not to end up cavorting around Cardiff in May.

As for our continued assault on the double Double, we certainly can't afford to falter against Graham Taylor's Aston Villa. They already appear far more focused on rushing down with the towels to reserve their sunbeds than getting stuck in on a Saturday. Hopefully our players will be returning from this International break somewhat refreshed, their appetite to accomplish a unique achievement in the annals of British football renewed. With the spring sunshine revitalizing their bruised and battered limbs, captain fantastic Patrick Vieira pulling the strings and Titi Henry tearing down everyone's house there is no limit to what we are capable of. Let's face it if I've managed to write this entire piece without a single covetous reference to Man Utd v Real Madrid, nothing is impossible!