Normal Service Resumed

Last updated : 20 August 2002 By Bernard Azulay
I guess I was expecting a repeat of last year's six goal romp, but then I will willingly settle for this somewhat slovenly hors d'oeuvre so long as we're saving up all the artistry for an appetizing opening day entrée. With our premium priced West Upper perch at The Home of Football, I find myself looking forward to this almost traditional pre-season fare because it presents a rare opportunity to peruse our form, so "up close and personal' that I now know which of our boys will benefit most from a Braun nasal trimmer for Xmas (what else do you get the superstar who has everything?).

Another pleasing aspect at Underhill was how sharp Thierry Henry looked. I am not sure why I should have expected otherwise, but he appears "fit as a fiddler's elbow" and twice as fast. Everyone knows he is quick but there was a magical moment at the bottom of Barnet's slope that night, when our proximity enabled me to fully appreciate for the first time the panther like power of his astounding acceleration. It is a stock party trick performed several times in most matches, where, with the ball at his feet Henry feints to go forward, stops and then scoots past a petrified defender. Yet this one instance induced an audible sharp intake from all of us standing on the touchline, as Thierry took our breath away with a Maurice Green like burst of momentum. Unlike Green, Henry also has this gazelle like grace, but from a familiar position out on the left wing only a few yards from us, we felt the full force of the Henry after-burners, as he left a gust of displaced air and the defender for dead. OK so maybe the breeze is about as believable as scorch marks on the turf but this eyeful of his sprinting prowess certainly left its imprint on me.

It is amazing when you consider it was about this time last year when many of us were coveting Utd's Van man, fearing that we'd been fobbed off with our "fox in the box" (and with some justification since in Jeffers it would appear we've actually been lumbered with a crock on a crutch!). When you compare Henry and Van Notmissedatall, even amongst us Gooners you won't find many arguments about which of the two is the natural goal scorer. And yet it is our Thierry who ended up with the proof of his highly prized Golden Boot. Some might claim that all his competitors faltered as a result of a fallow period. Arsène might be an advocate for them, but I don't set much store by all the Opta stats myself and therefore haven't a clue how the two strikers finished up. However I do recall an astonishing comparison on Sky earlier in the season, when Thierry was ahead on points in all bar one of Opta's multitude of categories. So go figure?

Far more important to me than a plethora of useless points, is last week's wonderful news that Henry is apparently willing to commit himself to our club for the rest of his career, with his signature on a five year contract. Unlike some of his former colleagues, Henry appears incredibly content at Highbury and has the sense to realize that there is no greener grass elsewhere. Or perhaps he just doesn't have an agent constantly bending his ear to convince him otherwise?

Since Richard Wright's move to Arsenal probably cost him his place in the World Cup and with Seaman signing up for another season, I can understand him wanting guaranteed first team football, but I don't think the move was good for anybody, apart from Everton! He may have gone through a dodgy spell at Highbury but I am certain he will yet prove to be a top class keeper. Once again the Arsenal were panicked into finding a replacement and we have ended up with Carini. I am not sure I would fancy his ability to communicate with our multi-national backline.
We were all left ruing the fact that Dudek had slipped through the club's fingers on Sunday, when he made that fabulous triple save, but at least Gilberto our new Brazilian star came good. It was strange that I couldn't find anyone to come with me to Cardiff. Amongst all the regulars, the only person I found who was going was Ray, my neighbour from the West Upper and that was only because he and the lads were making a weekend of it with a day at the cricket at Trent Bridge. Perhaps with the World Cup there hasn't been a long enough break in football for anyone to get sufficiently excited about the prospect of this "friendly" clash.

I probably wouldn't have gone alone and so I was grateful that we had Rona's sister and her two sons over from Dublin to stay for a few days. Rona, Clionna and Rory were all happy to watch the match on the box, but Shane's face positively lit up when I asked if he wanted to come to Cardiff with me. He was blown away by the fact that we were able to walk around to Highbury on Friday and buy a couple of tickets (and I was blown away by the fact that they cost a mere ten quid!). Having only finally found an anstronomic £2870 to renew our season tickets a week earlier (and two months overdue!), I was also much relieved to collect the precious little red booklets that guarantee us another season of our Highbury pleasures.

On the drive west to Wales on Sunday I was concerned that the match might be a bit of an anticlimax with a half-empty stadium, when instead of the stream of cars adorned in Arsenal colours that have been evident on our two previous trips to Cardiff, we had to play "Spot the Gooner" to find the odd likeminded fans on route. Yet I needn't have worried for in response to my question about whether there was anything special Shane wanted to do whilst staying with us in London, he replied "Only to go to this game!"

Moreover it seems everyone must have made alternative travel arrangements for, as we walked into Cardiff after parking the car, I was relieved to see similar scenes from the Cup Final, with the centre of town packed with football fans. I could sense Shane was impressed with vast colourful crowd and the cacophony of horns and whistles. It got even better when we finally found our seats with the other 67,000 who packed out the Millennium stadium, two rows from the front, from where we could almost reach out and touch the corner flag. I was glad that when the goal eventually came, it was right in front of us, rather than at the other end of the stadium (although we would have been able to see it on the huge screen), but it was a pity that the players ran to the other corner to celebrate, as I was hoping we might be seen on the box by his dad back in Dublin.

The worst aspect to playing these matches in Cardiff, is the tortuous traffic problems as everyone tries to exit Wales at the same time. Yet despite a dreadful six hour drive home, I was glad we had gone, for the vicarious pleasure I felt from a fabulous, memorable outing for this fourteen year old lad. What is more, I was pleasantly surprised by the form of an Arsenal side, in the absence of both Ljungberg and Pires, where their apparent hunger and commitment all bodes well for the coming season.