Hunger Strikes

Last updated : 07 February 2003 By Bernard Azulay

In fact, after the immense disappointment inflicted on us at Anfield by Emile Heskey's last gasp equalizer and with United off to the Strachan's fortress St.Marys on the South coast, there were many who were optimistically hoping that the weekend's results might see us ending the week where we started, by reestablishing a five point buffer zone at the top.

After Beattie & co. failed to apply the brakes on Fergie's bandwagon, even the most optimistic amongst us are not barmy enough to believe Steve Bruce's Birmingham capable of helping our cause on Tuesday night. They are all crucial encounters at this stage, but with it likely that there will only be a three point gap after Utd. have garnered all three from their game in hand and with a revenge mission in mind for the Manchester derby, while the Arsenal face an arduous jaunt to St.James Park, perhaps matchday 27 of the 38 will prove to be all the more portentous.

Although even as the title challenge of the country's top two teams grinds through the gears into overdrive, don't think I've discounted Bobby Robson and his zestful band of zebras. I was amazed to hear of a crazy clause in the contract that facilitated Jonathan Woodgate's arrival at St. James Park. Apparently the Toons will have to fork out £8 million and are only liable for a further million, if they should become champions of Europe over the course of the next four years! Many of the media pundits are convinced that for this season at least, Champions League qualification is the limit of the ambitions of this wily old adversary Yet with the Arsenal and United focused on each other, facing two titanic clashes at Old Trafford (with points being dropped by one or both in the league game) and with both teams Tyneside bound in the near future, we should be wary of having the wool pulled over our eyes.

Mind you it was their North-Eastern neighbours who were guilty of the weekend's worst bit of monkey business. According to Boro, snow on the terraces and the icy approach roads forced them to abandon Saturday's local derby the day before, without any attempts to clear it or allowing for the possibility that the conditions might improve. Obviously the fact they didn't exactly have a surfeit of strikers to choose from, was as irrelevant as the oil wells are in the Americans' worries over Iraq!

Newcastle are at a disadvantage without the same strength in depth as the other two squads. But with Bellamy, Jenas and Dyer forming a young, British spine which is the envy of many of their competitors and with Woodgate likely to fill some of the holes in their leaky defence, Robson's Toon army are set to become a force to be reckoned with. By contrast the same certainly cannot be said about Gerrard Houllier's charges. He is fortunate to have inherited those such as Gerrard, Murphy and Carragher, a homegrown hub who are the pride of Merseyside. But on the evidence of last Wednesday and his team's lack of progress during his tenure, despite throwing £110 million at the problem, Houllier hasn't got a clue by comparison to some of his contemporaries.

The kids of Anfield and Everton who used to offer to keep an eye on visiting fans motors for a few quid must have grown up. The scousers may no longer be deserving of the sort of infamous reputation that used to have us singing "We've got Silvinho, you've got our stereos!". However whatever your thoughts on the fans occupying the terraces either side of Stanley Park, there are few cannier when it comes to footballing matters. Considering that many must have cut their teeth on the attractive football of the teams of Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for fans and players alike to be played off the park by the Arsenal. I found it painful watching them persistently bypass their midfield by punting long balls over the heads of our defence, to such an incessant extent that we eventually all burst into a spontaneous chorus of "Gerrard Hoof-ier"! Heaven only knows how wound up Michael Owen must get with his role as the hopeful hound, forever legging it after lost causes.

It was gone four when I left London and I'd driven like a lunatic to meet Carsten at the gate with his ticket. Fortunately no sooner had we found better seats than those in back row, where we had to bend down to be able to see the goal at the Kop end of the pitch, than Pires slipped the ball into the empty net. I was exhausted by the effort of negotiating the motorways North during rush hours, knowing that I was cutting it extremely fine to make it by kick-off. I wondered whether I would be able to drum up the usual enthusiasm. We might have watched the scousers graceless long-ball game under sufferance and I might have regretted it, when stopping the night resulted in the nightmare of a return journey from hell, with us stuck in the car for ten hours as three inches of snow brought Greater London to a standstill. Nevertheless all such tribulations are mere trifling matters when measured against the jaw-dropping delight of being present to witness an Arsenal performance that was the epitome of the beautiful game.

Unlike their manager who might try to convince himself that his team were worthy of their point and the muppets who made Heskey the Man of the Match, the plain-speaking scouse fans appeared on the post match radio phone-ins to pronounce that the Arsenal's exquisite football was on another planet. We were gutted with Thierry Henry's uncharacteristically greedy failure to square the ball in front of goal on at least three occasions and we were seething that they had switched off for the last few seconds and squandered the two points that would have eased the pressure at the top. Nevertheless it was impossible to be angry with Henry and his team mates, after they had provided us with the sort of sumptuous entertainment not seen since the start of the season.

Mind you I might not be feeling quite so generous if Pires had not popped up in the penalty area to put us out of our misery in the dying moments on Saturday. With the entire stadium aware of United's imminent victory at Southampton, the tension in the air as the clock ticked down was palpable. It made a pleasant change for the shoe to be on the other foot, as it is all too often our friends in the North who favour us with a kick in the guts of a last gasp goal. Conscious of the psychological cost of slipping up against Fulham, Robbie's tap in resulted in an ecstatic eruption. Highbury's foundations haven't shook with such euphoria for some time. We were celebrating the proof positive that the 'will to win' isn't the sole property of United. The answer we all await now is who wants it most?