Making Whoopee In the Mestalla Or Sinking In The Mire?

Last updated : 13 March 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Doubtless this is a sentiment I express every season but the difference is all the more distinct, as annually The Home of Football becomes ever more morgue like, even for the most high-profile of games.

Whether it is the seats, or the prohibitive prices which have resulted in the general gentrification of the average Gooner crowd, Highbury hasn't rocked like it did last weekend since we raised the roof during the Double celebrations back in May. Saturday's game was sensational entertainment for both partisan and neutral alike. Yet we've seen several superior Arsenal performances that were worth shouting about between times. I only know what I hear from the drunken (and from the regular exotic whiff, I assume dope dazed) denizens behind the goal but the supposedly less committed, generally more affluent and certainly far too blasé bods around us in the West Upper seldom broke their silence when we were playing brilliantly back in the Autumn.

We've often spoken about saving ourselves a small fortune and having slightly more fun at home games, by swapping our posh seats to sit with the plebs. Apart from the sentimental attachment associated with being surrounded by our intimate family of Arsenal fans, if it wasn't for the fact that we are so enamoured with our privileged pitch with an almost perfect view of the proceedings, we might have done it donkeys years ago. Thankfully I am able to achieve my fortnightly fix of atmosphere following the Arsenal around everywhere else.

On the odd occasion that the Highbury inhabitants attempt to alleviate the likeness to a library, I often grow quite wistful when I hear those behind the goal burst into a chorus of "We're the Clock End Highbury". The North Bank posse are expected to respond in kind. On the best occasions, this builds to a crescendo, reverberating back and forth. I don't know the decibel level below us in the lower tier but I often feel like serenading those around me with a solo version of "I'm the West Stand Highbury" and shaming some of the stony faced silent saps.

However the ructions from the thousands of rowdy Chelsea fans occupying the Clock End for the quarterfinal, inspired a response which was reminiscent of the Highbury hullabaloo of yesteryear. We might be incredibly fortunate to be so frequently favoured by such first-class footballing entertainment, but it's been some time since we've sat amongst such a spine-tingling uproar. There is a certain satisfying exhaustion that one only achieves having sung ones head off. Despite being somewhat disappointed, sensing that we'd blown our best chance of securing a semifinal birth, I went home happy albeit a little hoarse. I was convinced that I'd led even some of the corporate suits into the chants emanating from the West Upper.

After such a spectacular advertisement for the FA Cup, I was sorry to see the headlines in the Sunday tabloids captured by the antics of a couple of mindless coin throwers. The fact that many fans abroad are forced to watch their football from behind nets and plexiglass is evidence that this particular problem is far from specific to these shores. It is only the CCTV and the commendable crowd control in our stadia which ensures such incidents are so sporadic. We are fortunate to be able to watch some of the most passionate football in the world. With the lagered up larrikins present in every large crowd in this country there is always a propensity for problems on the terraces.

Mercifully Rona and I have managed to follow the Arsenal without finding ourselves caught up in any such fracas during the past decade or so. The only time that we have come close to a disconcerting situation has been on our travels overseas (and on odd overheated occasions when we larged it up at the home of the Lilywhites down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road). If putting up with minor misconduct is the price we have to pay to be able to watch our wonderful game without any sort of fencing then I will willingly accept it, rather than the sterile product that would be required to prevent passions boiling over on the terraces.

The most bitter pill to swallow on Saturday was not that we'd blown our best chance against the Blues but the necessity of a replay. After all our ball was still in the hat for the semis (albeit to be drawn against my least favoured of the three remaining teams!). Some of my most memorable childhood reminiscences include those marvelous FA Cup marathons. On behalf of all the minnows I'd hate to see them done away with entirely. Yet I can understand where Wenger is coming from with his whinging, because the possibility of cumulative fatigue amongst the more essential players could cause us to end up completely empty-handed.

Moreover for us fans, not only will we have to fork out another forty odd quid for the substandard view from a seat at Stamford Bridge, but having accomplished the feat of avoiding London's congestion charges so far, I would be gutted if our trip down the Kings Road forced the curtain to come down on my one-man protest against this outrageous tax (I might have to consult the map to save myself a fiver with a more circuitous route - it's not the principle but the money!). It will also be a high price to pay if Arsène puts out a weakened team due to our other priorities. My pessimistic nature has ensured that I've long since been prepared for the law of averages to put the kibosh on our unbroken cup run against the Blues, but it will be all the more painful should the overbearing Ken Bates get bragging rights as a result.

Still on Saturday evening there was no time to dwell on this draw. Halfway up the steps to the exit and we were already focusing on frying bigger foreign fish. I rushed home to watch the coverage of the Rome derby, convinced that our opponents this week would face an equally, if not more competitive encounter against their local rivals. With little time to recover before their tiresome trip to London, I will expect us to have the edge over Roma. Hopefully by the time you read this, I will be wondering whether to bother with a voyage to Valencia for the final group game, or saving some spondulicks for the quarterfinal. Based on the fact that we couldn't afford one foreign sortie, let alone six and the Arsenal's fancy for not doing anything the easy way, I always believed this group was bound to go down to the wire.

After our brilliant effort on the Italian's turf, we will have nothing to blame but our all too familiar failure to kill off our opponents in the three successive draws, should we be left sweating it out. We Gooners are so desperate to see this Arsenal side do themselves justice on the European stage. Nevertheless you can bet that the atmosphere at the biggest game of the season so far won't have been a patch on the white-hot cauldron last weekend. I am no less keen to cross the Rubicon into the knockout stage of the Champions League and yet compared to what is likely to be a typically tentative encounter with a continental team, in some sense if I am honest, Saturday's battle up at Blackburn is much more likely to pull my chain.

Ewood Park is far from being the easiest stadium to get to, either by road or train. It is highly unlikely that any of Tuesday night's corporate liggers will bother travelling. With no live television cameras there's a peculiar exclusivity in being able to enjoy an afternoon amongst the true hard-core Gooners. We don't dare miss a game for fear of diddling ourselves out of a single sublime instance, amongst an avalanche of amazing moments of footballing genius that are currently the Arsenal's stock in trade. Should we end this season with just some of the success expected of us, it won't bethose who revelled in the contest with Roma sharing a knowing wink between themselves, but the head cases who hope to be making whoopee in the wilds of Lancashire.