It Won't Just Be Our 'H's That Get Dropped Down In 'ampshire

Last updated : 06 January 2003 By Bernard Azulay

I can't blame anyone because I was late as always, but it didn't help that I had to fiddle about at the turnstile. On the odd occasion that either the missus or I can't make it to a match, our tickets never go unused. So there is rarely any confusion as it is always the next numbered coupon which is to be torn from our season-tickets and handed over. Whereas for Cup games you have to go to the rear of these precious little red booklets to find the alphabetically marked coupons. On Saturday the sign above the entrance to the West Upper indicated that coupon 'G' was required. Fingering past the unused coupons 'A' to 'F' there could be no confusion over the fact that we'd already received tickets for six Champions League fixtures and Saturday's fixture was the last of the seven cup ties included in the astronomic annual cost of our season tickets.

This is quite generous compared to some clubs, where the prohibitive prices includes only a couple, or no cup games at all. As in previous years, we've been advised that if we progress any further in the Champions League, or the FA Cup, the club will avoid administrative chaos by adding the cost of home fixtures to the price of next season's renewal. No one gives up their season tickets at Highbury but I've often wondered what happens if they do. When my time on this mortal coil finally comes to pass, I only hope that we've prospered in the cups the season prior. There would be the slight consolation of finally knocking the club for a few quid. Although with my luck I'll get pulled by an Arsenal angel with an appointment in purgatory, to ensure I've paid in full before I can take my celestial seat beside Bertie Mee!

When Arsène started using the Cup of assorted beverages as an opportunity to break-in some of the Arsenal's budding young talent, I guess the complaints and demands for refunds soon forced the club to let us decide for ourselves whether we wanted to purchase tickets for this tournament. If Wenger should continue to pursue a similar policy in the FA Cup, I wonder how long it will be before the absence of senior squad members causes this competition to be similarly excluded from our season-tickets.

To insure the club against the ire of irascible Gooners, warning signs are posted at the Box Office notifying that a ticket for the Worthless Cup is no guarantee of getting to see our superstars. Since they haven't done likewise for the FA Cup to date, I wonder if Wenger is under any pressure to satisfy the punters? Although he is bound to hold whatever will be most beneficial for the Arsenal at heart, Wenger is only too aware of the important traditions of British football to show any undue respect for the oldest knockout tournament in the World.

The mischievous firestarters in the media suggested that our manager wasn't taking the competition seriously. Yet when the smoke had cleared on Saturday, the young Swede, Sebastian Svard was the only player in the starting line-up who hasn't been a regular in the squad this season. As much as I might share the disappointment of those fans who don't get to see the Arsenal in the flesh so frequently (especially the kids), you won't find me complaining about the absence of favourites like Henry and Vieira. I was angry about falling at the first hurdle in the Worthington. It was bad enough blowing a two goal lead, but what bothered me most was the thought that our most promising youngsters would have little hope of another opportunity to prove themselves this season.

There is a Catch-22 in the modern game, with far too much riding on the outcome of almost every match for Wenger to be able to risk giving any of the reserves a run-out and without throwing our prospective prodigies into the seriously competitive fray on a few occasions they will never get the chance to prove that they can cut the mustard. By grasping his opportunity with both hands and shining from the very start, Ashley Cole managed the miracle of coming through the ranks. Whereas either stage-fright or a shortage of the necessary spunk seems to have prevented Jermaine Pennant from demonstrating his indisputable ability against his elders. If Arsène has an achilles heel, it is the absence of an answer to this brain-teaser of how to bring on the best of Brady's Academy boys. In an age when clubs are far to quick to resort to tried and tested foreign stars, rather than take any risks, it must be frustrating for the kids who find their progress thwarted. The possibility of an FA Cup appearance should be a considerably encouraging carrot for Brady's kids.

They are so few and far between these days that fans of every club have feverish dreams of their own homegrown heroes. With the rapid rise of media darlings Rooney and Milner, the demand at every other club has become all the more desperate. A half-hearted hullabaloo hailed Dennis Bergkamp's hundredth goal from the even quieter than usual Highbury faithful. After entertaining the nation with his exuberant dressing room celebrations at drawing the Arsenal out of the hat, hiding his dangly bits with little more than a handkerchief and with most of us having read about him languishing in jail last Xmas, Oxford sub Jefferson Louis was given a hero's welcome. Yet it was "only one David Bentley" that was the loudest chant of the afternoon when this budding Bergkamp appeared for the last ten minutes. As Bentley did his best to impress with his every touch, we demonstrated our desire for the 18 year old debutante to do the business.

It is fine and dandy when Wenger unearths another foreign gem like Gilberto. But with the Premiership in the poorhouse there is all the more pressure for palpable returns on the millions that the clubs have pumped into their state of the art Academies. Moreover, it might not be helping the hapless Merseysiders, but I remain convinced that a successful Premiership side requires a core of Ashley Cole type players. We Gooners find it easier to relate to these homegrown generals, imbued with the Arsenal spirit, because when the chips are down we can rely on them to rally the remainder by rolling their sleeves up and getting dirty. Especially with a contingent of stars with an apparent penchant for performing at their best with the sun on their backs.

On Saturday the Highbury pitch was at its stickiest. Still it was a pristine surface compared to the quagmire's up and down the country. In disposing of Oxford our goalie didn't even get his knees dirty. Their manager spoke in glowing terms about the Gunners' arrogance on the pitch giving way to the greatest respect for his team in the tunnel afterwards. Yet it looked to me as though his admiration for the Arsenal had badly affected his players because they performed for the most part with little conviction. As a result I was disappointed by a very tame cup tie which was so far removed from some of the other rousing contests elsewhere. Come the contest clinching second goal, we were already considering our opponents in the next round. Many were more interested in hearing details of developments in the other games relayed via my radio.

At least the Shrewsbury shocker ensured 3rd round day retained a little romance. Strangely enough as my neighbour and I gabbled about the grounds we have yet to visit, he suggested a sortie to the Welsh border town whose side were about to stake their claim for a piece of cup-killing folklore. I dwelled on the idea of an excuse to escape the smoke for the wonders of nature and a weekend in Snowdonia. My daydream was interrupted by an update on the radio. It must have been details of Darlington's defeat to Farnborough because I contemplated aloud on the prospect of a far more convenient outing to play the Conference side, in the more southerly climes of Hampshire. Having got my wish I eagerly await the fourth round and Arsène's continued "serious" assault on this wonderful silverware.