From The Valley To Valhalla?

Last updated : 17 September 2002 By Bernard Azulay

There was a time not so long ago when George Graham's "boring, boring" Gunners were the team everybody loved to loathe. We Gooners positively revelled in the fact that we were reviled throughout the land. A team which wasn't exactly teeming with talent had a reputation for squeezing the life out of games, regularly grinding out results as they toughed it out against all the traditional purveyors of entertaining "fancy Dan" football.

So I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that we've gradually gained the respect of all those fans who once gave us so much stick over Graham's boring but effective brand of football. There may be certain "Johnny come lately" Gooners who take the evolution under Arsène Wenger for granted. But for those of us bred on Bertie Mee's dour defensive principles, where keeping a clean sheet to guarantee at least a point was a priority and garnering all three by the odd goal was the occasional bonus, the football under the current regime has become such a revelation with almost every match so moving that it evokes the euphoria of a religious experience.

There will be those enjoying our record breaking run of goals who haven't endured the ennui of a glut of goalless games of the sort that has previously left us pining for a sniff of success after a string soporific games, to the tune of "We'll score again, don't know where, don't know when..." only for, of all people, Perry Groves to put us out of our misery. Having paid such painful dues I find it all the more confounding albeit infinitely enjoyable to hear a Chelsea fan on the radio who'd phoned to chat about his team trouncing the Toons, defer to the Arsenal as football's Harlem Globetrotters.

I have some happy childhood memories of being taken as a special treat to see the Globetrotters traditional annual appearance at Wembley Arena. Few were the slightest bit interested in basketball in those days but everyone wanted to see the famous characters from the cartoon and find out whether they were really capable of the incredible feats seen on celluloid. I always felt sorry for the stooges in the opposition team, trotting out every night to play the fall guys in these exhibition games which were choreographed to maintain a close score. The Globetrotters would turn on the razzle-dazzle in order to keep retaking the lead until eventually they floored the opposition with the flourish of a fabulous finale that had everyone on their feet applauding.

Considering the absolutely breathtaking ball skills seen sporadically on Saturday, one might cast Vieira, Henry or certainly the joker in our pack, Sylvain Wiltord with the Meadowlark Lemon moniker. The similarities with the basketball stars from the Big Apple don't stop there. Charlton's mere mortals managed to make a far closer game of it than was reflected in the 0-3 scoreline, with their honest and extremely energetic endeavours. Yet the Gunners are currently playing with a certain swagger that suggests they are just toying with their prey. It feels as though they are able to turn on the stupendous style at any given moment and cut a swath through any opposition with the sort of incredible pace and incisive passing that appears totally unstoppable.

The Addicks grafted so hard in the first-half, with two and even three men closing down every Gunner on the ball, not giving us any time to settle into a rhythm. It must have been totally demoralizing to have all their hard work undone by a majestic manoeuvre moments before the break. As Curbishley later complained, Charlton were then in the impossible position, struggling to make inroads against an Arsenal side who were able to sit back like a scorpion waiting for sight of the soft underbelly of its prey before striking with the deadly sting in its tail.

It is hard to imagine this is the same team that appeared haunted by the fear of failure, as they stuttered over the last few hurdles before breaking the tape on that beautiful night at the Theatre of our Dreams. They have come back after the close season with the confidence of Champions. A sea change in our composure has created an air of invincibility. This is also reflected in the respect that sees our opponents go about their business with more brio but perhaps less belief. Meanwhile for the likes of Man Utd the reverse might be true as all comers attempt to take advantage of the previously impenetrable trenches at Old Trafford, which are looking more and more like the Maginot line by the match.

Gilberto may be a World Cup winner but it isn't about the introduction of one player. Even with the absence of the influential Pires and Ljungberg there is an obvious spirit in the side which sustains an incredible belief in every squad member's ability to play their part. It is evident in the fraternal football and the fact that our goals are spread throughout the squad. For signs of the Arsenal spirit on Saturday, there was no better example than when Vieira unselfishly stuck the ball on a plate for Wiltord to score the second goal, or when Keown ran some distance back towards Seaman to celebrate with him after his swift throwout to Edu led to our third.

At half-time I had heard news on my radio of Tim Montgomery's world record smashing 100 metre run. There was no need to be disappointed about not seeing it, since we were soon watching a display of Henry's sprinting prowess where he gave the nearest defender a five yard start but still left him for dead, with the sort of acceleration Montgomery himself would of been proud of. These are indeed great times to be a Gooner, as this was far from a fabulous performance overall, but in matches such as this there are more than sufficient moments of marvelous football perfection from almost every Arsenal player which leave one feeling truly privileged to have been present. Even our Lurch lookalike Cygan came on as a sub in midfield and gave us a cameo of a ball playing centre-back and Sol Campbell continues to produce performances that could eventually give rise to the preposterous suggestion of him not only filling, but perhaps even outgrowing Tony Adams' shoes.

We were slapping hands with strangers as we exited the Valley. There's this common bond of having shared such a special occasion and each match feels more momentous than the last. Believe it or not there's remains another sixteen games to go before this team surpasses Forest's all time record of 42 unbeaten. The question to be answered now is whether our voracious appetite for rewriting the record books can carry us all the way to the Valhalla of a victorious Champions League conquest?