Life Can Be Oh So Kewell

Last updated : 06 May 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Yet in the miserable Monday morning light of the day after the Arsenal's abject demise, our failure to nurse the double Double dream over the first of the three remaining hurdles which we had to negotiate for any hope of a deathbed recovery on the final day, I find myself suffering from a far more depressing football hangover than any of those spent in residence as runners-up in recent seasons.

I am struggling to come to terms with the obsequious standing ovation afforded to Fergie for his side's fabulous sprint down the finishing straight. It wasn't so long ago that Utd supporters themselves were wondering whether this team might be the least worthy title winners to tread the Old Trafford turf. This is what hurts because I know in my heart that Arsene Wenger has achieved a minor miracle. He's managed to assemble a collection of talent the like of which has never been seen within the hallowed marble halls of Highbury and for a fraction of the millions squandered on such mid-table fodder as Glen Hoddle's squad of misfits and malingerers. However talent alone doth not a team make. For all the scintillating entertainment, it has been our habitual struggle to hang on to a lead over ninety minutes, while a Utd side searching for form was nicking customary last minute winners, that speaks volumes as to the hunger and commitment of the ultimate victors.

I can accept that our downfall might have been due to an element of arrogance on the pitch, amongst those either unprepared or unable to roll up their sleeves and use their attacking skills as the best form of defence. Although for every below par performance from the likes of Pires, Ljungberg or Wiltord, there's been a heart warming 100 per cent effort from those such as Henry, Vieira, Cole, Campbell and Keown. It is those who have walked off the pitch every week knowing they'd run their socks off who have my sympathies because they've spent much of the season attempting to pick up some of the slack left by one too many passengers. However if it proves to be the case that we have seen the best of a Robbie Pires who truly believes "that you probably only reach that sort of peak once in your career", we can rest assured that the likes of Titi Henry will come back next season burning with a desire inspired by this disappointment and what from some of the least respected mongrels of the media is nothing short of a racist affront to his tenacity.

I am usually first in line to bemoan a lack of homegrown bulldog spirit in the Arsenal side making it all the more sad to see Jermaine Pennant's measly 15 minute contribution to the Arsenal swansong, losing possession in the build up to Leeds's winner, but we were undone last week by a Bolton side full of so called foreign mercenaries. Moreover the title is heading to Manchester with more than a little help from their own cosmopolitan contingent.

Perhaps there's been some arrogance on the terraces from those who swallowed the media fuelled hype about Highbury's "untouchables". and were counting Championship chickens before Christmas. However I won't accept the malevolent Mancunian inspired accusations about a manager who appeared on TV immediately after Sunday's death knell and accepted the gut wrenching punishment with absolute grace. As always Arsene blindly defended his charges to the hilt, to the very last. Yet as he politely responded to the barrage of questions with his usual "savoir-faire", I couldn't help but wonder what his counterpart's reaction might have been if the situations were reversed (with a red-faced rage methinks that certainly wouldn't befit a knight of the realm!).

Doubtless as I write Wenger will already be scything away with his scalpel conducting his post-mortem in private, surrounded by statistics and video tapes. He might publicly blame our Champions League exit as the beginning of the end but it doesn't require his genius to go back almost a year to the day, to the end of last season's European adventure which was by contrast the very fuel used to fortify his team for their all conquering domestic climax. Whereas this season it has been obvious to us all that we've been running on empty for some time.

I am too embarrassed to speak to my Hammers pal after successive weeks when his team have done all in their power and he will have been fully expecting outright favourites Arsenal to help his cause. Not to mention another mate who has the misfortune to be bringing his boy to their first ever football match in the hope of herding him in the direction of Highbury before he's lost to Utd's ubiquitous clutches along with the majority of his classmates. Instead of a suspense filled end of season encounter under floodlights, the library is likely to be more like a morgue and this meaningless match against Southampton might put him off for life!

I only hope for his and our sake that Arsene can warm up his weary cadavers for one last Highbury hurrah. After hitting the woodwork four times on Sunday, the resulting morose mood makes it most unlikely, but it would be testament to Thierry Henry's inexorable spirit if he could come back to pip Van Diver for the scant consolation of the Golden Boot. The Dutchman may have hit a rich vein of goal scoring form but I don't recall seeing him sprint the length of the pitch in the opposite direction too often, to attempt a tackle outside his own team's area. They both deserve the plaudits as the Premiership's very best, but in my opinion even with his end of season exploits and as a better all round centre forward, Van Diver doesn't quite have the same capacity to regularly take this humble Gooner's breath

The long schlep to the Stadium of Light on Saturday will really sort the hard-core wheat from all the chaff who will chunder down to Cardiff the following week. I must be bonkers but I am almost looking forward to the bittersweet Gooner bonhomie which can only be shared between similarly barmy, masochistic mates. By the way anyone need a ticket?