Going Down With Lee Bowyer

Last updated : 26 January 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Yet I imagine that this apparently disproportionate coverage of the Arsenal must drive supporters of other clubs demented. Hardly a week goes by without the Gunners being on the box and though this is great for all those thousands of fans who are unable to lay their hands on one of the 38,000 tickets, it bothers me.

Usually it is not long after we’ve walked in the door, returning from a game, when the phone rings. I have my mobile set so as to distinguish between calls, with the "I love you Freddie" tune for friends and the "Vieira" song for family. Although no such technological aids are necessary to know that it is my Ma on the phone after a match. She knows better than to bother me if the Arsenal have lost, but then thankfully this is a rare occurrence recently. I will try to précis the joke about the Spurs fan watching the Premiership with his pal, showing off how his hound does somersaults when Spurs get beat, as a result of a giving the poor pup a swift kick up the rear. "What does the dog do when you win?" inquires his mate, "I don’t know, I’ve only had him a year!"

For several seasons I have been trying to convince Mum how much better off she would be with the wonders of satellite television. Whether it is the sacrifice of having an unsightly dish stuck on the wall, or the cost of cable, but she has yet to succumb to my powers of persuasion. I am not merely motivated by selfish thoughts of being able to enjoy the Premiership preview when visiting her on a Friday night. I cannot possibly count the number of times she’s been on the phone after a match, relating how she was keeping a close eye on the Arsenal game via teletext on her TV screen and there were no goals until she got up to go to the loo. In fact if I didn’t know better, I’d say that the Arsenal players appear to have a telepathic routine down pat, waiting for the precise time when my Ma goes for a pee before putting the ball in the net. It seems such a common occurrence that many is the time I’ve been at a deadlocked game, getting so desperate for the Arsenal to score that I have often considered calling her to say that it is about time she got off to the karsey!

Telext might have been Gary Lineker’s preferred method of watching Wimbledon play. It might also have served my Mum for many years, as an adequate means of keeping abreast of matters which are so important to her man-child. Yet over time I have seen with my own eyes how matches involving the Arsenal can arouse mum’s avid interest. Even those with little love of the game can’t fail to appreciate the athleticism, grace and skill involved in some of the feats of the current side. We watch in increasing wonderment each week, unable to believe that for a football fan, it can get much better than the breathtaking sight of Thierry Henry in full flow. I grow increasingly frustrated with football’s lingua franca. My humble attempts to convey the calibre of entertainment in mere words each week, leave me feeling verbally bankrupt by the battle for suitable adjectives. Yet it is a far worse torture to think of how little justice is done to the deeds of the Arsenal’s footballing deities, when events on the pitch are portrayed as vulgar yellow digits on a teletext screen.

Still at least my Ma was saved on Sunday. Unlike the thousands at Highbury and millions watching on TV, who all suffered once again, as a result of a referee who refused (or is not permitted) to show some common sense. Last season it was the Arsenal that was invariably the victim (although it was to our advantage on several occasions), whereas this term it appears to be our opponents’ turn, but I get extremely angry whichever team is affected. When Pires went down in the penalty area after only ten minutes, to the letter of the law perhaps the ref was right to send Lomas off because he appeared to prevent an attempt on goal. Nevertheless there was no intent on Lomas’ part to injure Pires. If there was any intent, it was Pires knowing that a penalty might result, when perhaps he could have remained on his feet. Sadly, such is the all pervasive ‘win at all costs’ mentality in the game these days that Robbie would have got a rollicking from his team mates if he hadn’t collapsed, no matter how inconsiderable the contact.

If the ref had only used his discretion. A penalty and a yellow card would have been punishment enough. Instead of which in an instant the bollix in the black put the kibosh on this match for the millions of spectators. West Ham’s demise has been somewhat dumbfounding. They had produced such a pukka performance at Upton Park at the start of the season, that a stranger might have wondered which side was the Champions. Consequently I’d been looking forward all week to the prospect of this encounter between two teams who, at their best, are both capable of quality football. But if the Hammers arrived at Highbury with their ambitions boosted by the addition of Lee Bowyer, these dissipated swiftly seconds after the sending-off.

Not only did the ref spoil this potential spectacle, he did us few favours because by condemning the Irons to getting ten men behind the ball, he ruined our best chance of banging in goals by launching quick counter attacks. 1-1 at the break and I begun to sweat that we might struggle to score again. Despite a hatful of opportunities, there was a sense that West Ham might survive the ensuing second half siege with David James having a ‘they shall not pass’ day.

Contrary to my pessimistic nature, I am quite confident at the moment that the Arsenal remain five points clear at the top because we currently have the best team in the land. But if I have one concern, it is our inability to kill off lesser opponents. Whatever your thoughts about Roy Keane, he cut a decidedly lean, mean figure standing in the tunnel prior to Saturday’s encounter with Chelsea. His face was a picture of concentration. At this point in time perhaps his side are performing at a lesser standard. Yet against a team like West Ham with the worst defence in the Premiership, such is Utd's focus that it is likely they would have pulverized their prey at the first scent of blood.

Sunday’s match might not have lived up to the fantasy football of the 2-2 draw in August, but a full house hat-trick (right foot, left foot and unbelievably his first Premiership goal with his bonce) by Thierry Henry was certainly worth the high price of admission. By a strange coincidence George Graham was singing Henry’s praises on TV as I walked out the door. He suggested that Henry’s heading ability was perhaps the only weakness in the locker of the league’s top scorer. What I love about Henry is that his amazing ability aside, there is selfless modesty about him which is reflected in a work rate that would be remarkable in the dourest of donkeys, let alone the team’s top prima donna. Moreover the headed goal that Shearer himself couldn’t have scored with more style, was one of many indications which suggest it is an area of his game Henry has worked on. He’s up there on another plane compared to most players. Of the few who are blessed with his incredible ability, it is hard to imagine the likes of Vieiri and Ronaldo struggling so hard to better themselves.

It is too bad that it is a flick of Bergkamp's wrist which has hijacked Henry’s hat-trick. As to the question of intent, we might never know what was in Dennis' mind no matter the endless replays inflicted upon us by the media. However what they haven’t shown are the two or three other instances of Lee Bowyer’s time wasting. Down to ten men and clinging to a point, I wouldn’t be complaining about a bit of innocent dawdling. But hitting the deck as if he’d been poleaxed and playing dead in a determined effort to discredit your opponent and have them disciplined is just as low as diving in my book. Obviously I am crediting Bowyer with too much sense because I would have thought he’d be doing everything to avoid the spotlight at this point in time. Now if only he’d suffered a similar reaction when Sarfraz Najeib raised his hands....?