Final Throes, Glows and Woes

Last updated : 22 May 2002 By Bernard Azulay

Arriving back from Manchester in the wee hours, to the residue of all that rapture, it felt like we'd foregone that scene straight out of 'Fever Pitch' in the streets around the Arsenal, a few hours earlier.

Yet far from missing the party, we'd been amongst the fortunate three thousand Gooners who were it's very life and soul. A seat in the "Champions Section" of Old Trafford (according to one cheeky banner), was the hottest ticket of the whole season. My cousin had motored north along most of the "00 miles of motorway, when he was mortified to be told "The bad news is that Tony Adams is injured and there's no ticket for you!" Coughing up a mere £150 outside the ground, he wasn't clobbered quite so badly as the poor bugger who had blown £175 each for his two tickets. Obviously with more money than sense, this particular flibbertigibbet failed to open his envelope until the morning of this momentous match. Whereupon he must have been more than a mite surprised to discover the scalper had sold him tickets for the previous Saturday's FA Cup Final!

The recent red-letter days of these milestone matches have been ruinous to my reputation. The climax to the season had me in such a state of excitation, that even I have managed to set out in good time to get to the last three games. Yet the Arsenal's success was so entwined with my tardy timekeeping, that I was terrified we would come a cropper in the Theatre of Dreams. Nothing to do with the absence of Adams, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry, or Utd's determination to delay the almost inevitable day of retribution, but on account of my early arrival. We managed to miss most of the usual motorway madness, until we finally slowed to a stop around Stoke, surrounded by Scousers and various other supporter's sorties, including the mythical vast majority of Utd fans travelling from all points south of Manchester, apart from the city itself.

This was the contention of a partisan pantechnicon driver, who as a City supporter, couldn't abide the fact that he was left floundering in the traffic, caused by his enemy's southern cohorts, every time Utd played at home. We would've been inching our way along until midnight, if while offering the Arsenal every encouragement, this gregarious good-samaritan hadn't suggested we forsake the main road and follow in his slipstream. His lorry thundered through some of the northern metropolis' most solvent suburbs. The squeals of surprise from our somewhat parochial passenger suggested the sight of so many gargantuan gaffs didn't quite sit with his mental image, of a Manchester entirely made up of "mad for it" house party hobos. No amount of double glazing could guarantee the occupants an early night, as a queue of cars miles long, crawled homeward a few hours later. The whole of Lancashire must have been left wide awake, by a barrage of horn blowing and hollering Gooners, hanging out of their vehicles, having a high old time in the traffic

Our sumptuous success was all the sweeter because it was so unexpected. No team turns up at Old Trafford with such a threadbare front line and sits in their own half, inviting the Red Devils to do their worst, without suffering severe damage. For some time Utd. tried to kick us off the park and it was remarkable that Durkin made it to ninety minutes without producing a single red card. Although after this reckless red rag plan failed to provoke any retaliation from our brave bulls, it was United's impotence in attack that was most amazing. At the back the Arsenal might have matured into an indomitable defence (without a decidedly iffy Igor) but Man Utd were a pale imitation, a complete metamorphosis from the marauding machine which mullahed us so majestically on our last traumatic trip to Manchester.

Mind you, it may be many moons since I last put on a pair of boots, but I do recall being far too focused on ones own game, to have the foggiest how well anyone else performed. Outnumbered on Wednesday night, we Gooners were so totally committed to our twelfth man role, that apart from those scything tackles and the wild eruption with Wiltord's winner, most of the match is a muddled blur, culminating in the multi-orgasm (who said they were the sole preserve of the prettier sex?) of thirty minutes of magical celebrations.

After watching a recording of the highlights the following day, I wallowed in every word of all the wonderful tributes in the papers and on TV. No matter how much pleasure I took from all the sycophants, sucking up to Arsene Wenger, as if his side was the best thing since sliced bread, I couldn't swallow their tall tales of how we had eventually accomplished the toughest task, with such style and panache. Arguably this side is capable of the most attractive football ever seen at Highbury, but the truth of the matter is that we haven't shown this fabulous form since Easter. In his programme notes on Saturday, Arsene was entitled to crow over the fact that prior to playing Everton, we hadn't conceded a goal in fifteen and a half hours of open play. During a run-in where we've battled to break teams down for long periods, struggling to reproduce the guile and craft of earlier conquests, we've had to rely on odd inspirational flashes of Freddie's brilliance. Above all during the last few weeks, our stunning success rate has been a direct result of a cumulative number of clean sheets, which will have even conjured up a smile on George Graham's merciless mush.

I adore the fact that Arsene has accomplished the incredible task of turning "Boring, boring Arsenal" into the country's most exciting entertainers. However it is the terrific team spirit, guts and grit necessary to consistently maintain clean sheets that are the traditional values which first attracted me to the club as a kid. It is thirty one years since I watched Ray Kennedy score at White Hart Lane, in a "1-0 to the Arsenal" to take the title on route to our first double. The reflective glory of giving the goal scorer a lift in my old man's motor rubber stamped a relationship which has been rock solid ever since. Yet in an age when loyalty has a shelf-life of your average club kit and successful teams are a multinational hotchpotch of stars, there have been times when I've wondered if the famous Arsenal spirit was permanently on the wane. It is therefore extremely gratifying to see it's gradual regeneration in recent months. To the point where I am now able to believe in a bond that exists in our squad, which is not so likely to be broken each summer, by the promise of a few more million pesetas in their pay packets.

Similarly of all the countless collection of records clocked up in such a sensational season, it was the undefeated away match record which made the result at Old Trafford so significant for me. Not only has this stood for 113 years (way back when only 11 away games were played), but it could well be a feat that will not be repeated for another century. It is in the enemy's lair where the mettle of our panoply of star players is really tested. They have consistently proved they are "up for it" in the face of adversity away from home and in our own small way, it is wonderful to know that the travelling faithful have played our part.

Moreover, taking the title at Old Trafford confirmed the Arsenal as true champions, as opposed to by default, due to Utd's dodgy season. It enabled us to look forward to a weekend which was one big party, without any of the hair-raising tension that would have remained, if a win was required. Hardly anyone noticed the score against Everton. We were all focused on willing Thierry Henry on to win the Golden Boot. Even more icing on an incredibly sweet cake.

Sunday's parade was an opportunity for hundred's of thousands of Arsenal fans of all ages to catch a rare glimpse of their heroes in the flesh. It must have made for an incredibly colourful, cacophonous scene. If only we could have seen more between big heads and huge flags, or heard something of what each of the players said. Being crushed to death in such a dangerously packed crowd, is perhaps not the best way to celebrate. As my aging bones begin to buckle with all that barging, in future I might well admire such an occasion more comfortably from my couch! Hopefully we'll have an opportunity to express our gratitude to Grimandi, Dixon and Adams at tonight's testimonial, as no one really wanted to put a downer on the day.

Our delight may be beyond all description, but it is tinged with a deal of sadness, to think we might have seen the last of two of our defensive dinosaurs. Accompanied by his loyal lieutenant Dixon, Adams is the only man to captain a Championship winning team in three decades. They certainly don't make them like our Mr Arsenal any more.