No Sleep Till The Bernabeu!

Last updated : 24 September 2002 By Bernard Azulay
Nor are some of the capital's chief sports writers willing to wander much outside the confines of the M25 motorway, preferring to leave the laborious legwork to their newspaper's lesser lights. If they were paying to watch the Arsenal play, week in, week out, they would know that it is a familiar sight to see Dave Seaman strolling over to celebrate with the Gooners at the end of a game as he did on Saturday.

His reaction wasn't one of relief, that Kanu had buried Spunky's beleaguered blushes along with the ball as he toe-poked a timely winner. It was merely more evidence of the spirit surging throughout our squad, a sign of a player taking great pleasure in the achievements of a team mate, in a side where the confidence and camaraderie stand as testimony to the Œsuccess breeds success' theory. These days the heartless members of the Highbury jury sit in judgement over Seaman at every game. In truth we've been playing so solidly that there aren't many opportunities to slaughter old ŒSafehands' about the senses which might not be as sharp as they were when he was a callow youth. Dealing with the freakish cross that flew in the net for Bolton's equalizer might have been almost the only defending Dave had to do on a particularly passive afternoon, but few decent Gooners would dream of dragging him over the coals for such an aberrant incident.

There might be little that bothers this bluff Yorkshireman, yet he's such a perfectionist that we know there will be punishment a plenty in the hard time he gives himself over his supposed gaff. I can envisage Seaman's most recent understudy the poor Egyptian/Swedish import, being tortured for the rest of the season on the training ground, trying to test his mentor by attempting to repeat Saturday's peculiar circumstances. Spunky has such a good rapport with the Gooners behind the goal that there may be whispers about his reluctance to dominate his domain and do battle with some rampaging strikers and their rampant elbows for fear of damaging his delicate ribs, but it would take a whole bevy of botch-ups before we'd begin to bay for his blood.

With such beefy bouncers as Keown and Campbell providing a virtually unbreachable bulwark, Saturday was just another underemployed day at the office for Seaman. Perhaps it was a thirty-ninth birthday present, or simply his seniority but with the enforced break for Vieira's aching bones, Wenger gave our goalie the armband, when many thought it an opportunity to see how Campbell copes as captain. It is natural with the current team's Œjoie de jouer' that the spotlight has fallen on our free scoring strikers and majestic midfield. Yet old habits die hard and Highbury's old school have been hugely impressed with the great strides made by Sol. While Rio torments the Old Trafford faithful with his regular rickets, Sol is rapidly reaching the Superman status he once had at Spurs and seems to grow in stature with every game. In the eyes of many Gooners he has already assumed most of a captain's responsibilities. Campbell can be heard castigating anyone whose intensity might have dropped when they dare linger on the same patch of grass for more than a moment and encouraging them should their shoulders begin to sag. Meanwhile the measure of our success on the pitch is in direct proportion to the amount of time Seaman has on his hands to delight the Gooners behind him by doing the twist to order, or surreptitiously sticking two fingers up at the habitual hecklers who holler about his need for a haircut.

Our triumvirate of Keown, Campbell and Seaman certainly won't be taking their slippers to the Phillips Stadium tonight. Whoever we drew out of the hat, our first match away in Europe was always going to be a big test. With Guus Hiddink bringing his golden touch back with him from Korea to inspire a PSV team to the top of the Dutch league with five straight wins and fourteen goals (with only one conceded), they won't come much bigger (until we get to the Bernabeu!). Our back-line are bound to be busier than they've been as to date, domestically we have managed to maintain an aura of invincibility. Moreover we might soon be inheriting Man Utd's mantle if we continue scoring 92nd minute winners.

Without the imposing presence of Patrick in the centre of the park on Saturday and against Sam Allardyce's Bolton side, instilled with admirable "never know we're beaten" qualities, we came the closest so far to coming a cropper. Our comebacks against West Ham and Chelsea, meant that these were both draws which felt like psychological victories. Whereas if Bolton had nicked a point it might have been the slight knock to our confidence that just wasn't needed, as Wenger tries to erase all memory of our abysmal away record in Europe with the bravado and bluster of his midweek banter with the media about remaining unbeaten and aiming for the treble. Arsène argued "I'm not tempting fate by saying what I believe". With expectations running so incredibly high there were plenty of Gooners ready to disagree with him as we agonizingly awaited the final whistle. If Kanu got anyone of the hook with his injury time points stealer it was our head honcho.

What a difference a goal makes! Without a winner, we would have still achieved yet another record and we wouldn't have lost the match, but it would have left Wenger hopping his way to Holland with one foot stuck firmly in his mouth. Instead of which he can't seem to put a foot wrong at the moment. We were all questioning Arsène's sanity last Tuesday when he decided to throw Freddie Ljungberg straight back into the fray of a Champions League encounter with the Bundesliga big boys, after only 67 mins amongst the innocuous atmosphere of a behind closed doors friendly with Reading. The magic hat we sing about must be a remarkable piece of invisible headgear to contain Le Prof's precious collection of grey matter. Indeed it must be a tall pointed one, since before Gooner eyes Arsène is morphing into Gandalf Wenger the footballing wizard. Ljungberg's return couldn't have come at a better time and we all looked on in astonishment as Freddie not only lasted the match (until we shut shop on 84 mins), but produced the sort of football played at his peak, right from the opening whistle.

The strangest story of the week concerned Freddie's remarkable return which must have been so impressive that according to the radio the Utd physios have been on the phone for rehabilitation advice. Roy Keane is having similar surgery and it's not an injury they are familiar with. I hope we recommended plenty of R & R (say three years!) and perhaps a front lobar lobotomy?

With similar perfect timing Robert Pires is so close to fitness that he won't play, but his presence with the squad will be a boost for the boys in Eindhoven. In Europe we'll be playing sides with equally impressive domestic records who will show us little respect on their home turf. This abundance of quality will be crucial to carve out sufficient openings. We were at the trough in a restaurant after Tuesday's match when Le Bob walked over to say "ca va?" to a French journo at our table. Robert is such a gentleman that he made a point of circling the table to shake hands with all six of us. I have been Œgiving it large' to my Gooner pals ever since, but it's getting so grubby that I might be forced to wash it.

The debate around the table centered on the merits of the Premiership v the Champions League. Tom Watt, the late lamented Lofty, now a London radio reporter asserted that our domestic campaign was paramount in order to establish a genuine Gooner dynasty. I was still beset by the belief that without serious pretensions to be crowned kings of Europe we might continue to be plagued by having our players purloined by teams with more ambition and monetary muscle. "Why would they leave?" Tom responded. I looked over to where Wiltord, Vieira and Pires were sitting in a huddle having a laugh and I suddenly realized how times have changed since we lost the likes of Overmars and Petit to Barca. Our boys would have to be stark raving bonkers to want to break up the chemistry of the current squad, only to be another bauble sitting on the bench for a bankrupt Italian or Spanish club. With the King of Spain's financial clout and the allure of the lily-white shirt, Real Madrid remain as the solitary shark in the dirty deal doldrums of an otherwise tranquil ocean. Forget your Opta index, this is the real reflection of the Gunners growth.

In gratitude for the work they did gratis, I took the designers of my book (available in a shop near you!) to Saturday's game. Mercifully Róna was in Dublin, so I only had to purchase two extra tickets for a paltry £111.00! The main man is a self-confessed Gooner but it was his Canadian assistant's first ever game and I tried to enhance the experience with various tidbits of information. My commentary was of little consequence (it's been a while since I last tried explaining the offside rule!), but a Martian couldn't fail to marvel at the pace, precision and guile of some of the Gunners moves.

I was most relieved when Henry finally put the ball in the net, after hitting the post with his penalty and steering a second sitter wide of the mark. I was beginning to think I might need to find a new team to design my next tome if they turned out to be a bunch of Jonahs! The funniest thing was that I was so focused on the game during the tension of the closing stages that despite my anxiety I had to stop myself from instinctively grabbing Róna's hand as I always do. The shy young designer's assistant sitting in her place would have got a shock if I did and I dread to think how implausible my excuse might have sounded.

I often feel my vocabulary is inadequate when attempting to give voice to the attraction of our sport to the uninitiated. In this instance no words were necessary. After the initial euphoria of breaking the goal scoring record with our first, this damsel witnessed the depression that developed during the 43 minutes after Bolton's equalizer, as it gradually dawned on us that perhaps the fates were conspiring to deny us of all three points. The atmosphere grew increasingly fraught but it guaranteed that the release of ecstatic emotion following our last gasp goal was so overwhelming that it perfectly encapsulated the indescribable pleasure of this game of ours.

It was only left to confirm that she had actually watched foolish Arsenal fans get up and leave their seats in order to beat the traffic. She was dumbfounded that they must have been exiting the stadium when they heard the roar which revealed that their premature departure had just denied them the delirious climax to this contest. However some Arsenal fans are becoming a little blasé and in such a sensational season, brilliant moments are becoming like buses...there will be another one along in a minute.