Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent

Last updated : 28 October 2002 By Bernard Azulay

You can be sure if I had purchased our match tickets for this weeks game before we played Auxerre, we would have beaten the French side, qualified for the second stage, with me in possession of flights and tickets to what would have been the formality of a game in Germany. So as I stood at the box office in the somewhat hangdog atmosphere of Highbury, the day after the defeat of the night before, waiting for my tickets for the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund, I realized the blame was all mine.

Pointing the finger of responsibility for Saturday's defeat, our second at Highbury in a week after an unbeaten home run stretching back ten months, is a little harder. Despite meeting some visitors from Cork an hour or so before kick-off to give them their tickets, I managed to arrive late as usual, taking my seat moments after Edu had the misfortune of putting the ball in his own net. I'd followed all the same superstitious rituals that have served so well in recent times, same hat, same programme seller, a stop at the corner shop for a packet of Polos (fruit), some tissues (nothing more disconcerting than a dripping nose during a game) and to make sure I had a ninety minute supply of nicotine. Yet it wouldn't have mattered what I'd done on Saturday, since Lady Luck had well and truly deserted us.

This was obvious in a game we could have still been playing and not beaten that man mountain Brad Friedel. We positively peppered his goal, with 27 shots, half of which were on target and going forward we played the same delightful football that has done for many an opponent. In fact it wasn't so much the football taking place on the pitch, as the criticism coming from the fickle fans in the West Upper that bothered me most. I had been extremely disappointed with the lack of atmosphere earlier in the week, as thirty thousand Gooners sat silently on their hands when their team needed them most. But to hear the same fans who've been slavering over the right royal entertainment we've enjoyed so far this season, getting on the players backs so quickly on Saturday was unbelievable.

Whatever fate throws our way for the remainder of this season as far as success and hopefully some silverware are concerned, there can be no disputing that in terms of football as an art form, Highbury has become the Louvre, the National Gallery and the Guggenheim all rolled into one. Myself I count my blessings at every match, mounting the stairs to the West Upper with every step a reminder of the comparative mediocrity of the football witnessed during the many years spent trudging the same tortuous route without the same anticipation. The unadulterated pleasure awaiting us at the peak is evident in the bounding strides of the middle-aged and the elderly who often pass me in their eager assault on this fabulous footballing fix. I should say that my momentary pause before passing through the bulkhead to the seats is a time for reflection on the wonderment awaiting us, but actually it's just the effect of the cigarettes catching up with me!

It is testament to how spoilt the 'spectators' at the Arsenal have become that they are so much quicker too complain out loud than they are to offer their support. Yet perhaps that's our fault for sitting in the posh seats, where they demand their entertainment served up on a plate and wouldn't dream of helping with the cooking. However to hear them whinge about such wonderful exponents of our sport as Wiltord, Henry, Bergkamp and Pires is laughable, when you consider the years spent yawning through the performances of the lesser Arsenal luminaries, like Hillier, McGoldrick and Carter. If these were just a collection of talented stars who sold themselves to the highest bidder, then perhaps I could understand the Highbury crowd getting their hankies out (or tissues in my case!) as is the custom on the continent. Yet it was evident in the effort expended on Saturday and at every other match, by most of the Arsenal team that we don't have a squad of Hasselbaink like mercenaries, happy to collect their wages whether we win, lose, or draw.

If I have cause for concern about our current squad it centres on our defence. Perhaps it isn't an appropriate metaphor for a Frenchman, but poor Pascal Cygan was like the boy with his finger in the dyke, single-handedly holding back the tide of Blackburn's advances on Saturday. He signed on to become a member of the famous Arsenal rearguard, not a reenactment of the mishaps of the Maginot line! Personally I blame the press as Sol Campbell has been a shadow of the player he was until the papers lauded him as the second coming, in the lead up to England's lamentable liaison with the Macedonians. The out of sorts Sol seen on Saturday bore no comparison with the player who was previously regularly producing leviathan like performances. However it was evident against Blackburn that any defensive frailties are far easier to expose without the protection of the imposing presence of Vieira in front of them. Vieira's fine and suspension is a farce, since our referees would be left playing with themselves (probably the only thing they are good at) if they banished everyone who had a bad word to say about them.

I am relieved that Vieira will be available to play in Germany, since some sort of result in Dortmund is vital, if we are to avoid the tension which might result if qualification should depend on victory in the final group fixture. Hopefully he will benefit from his enforced domestic break and it will be a hungrier, happier Vieira who returns against Newcastle. There should be none of the signs of fatigue which might have been responsible for his failure to dominate the midfield in recent matches in the way we know him to be capable of.

We Gooners have grown accustomed to a dodgy spell in November and I'm confident that like the weekend's winter gales, it has just come sooner than expected this season. Wenger's task is to bring it to an abrupt halt, so that winning feeling returns, before the relentless tide of fixtures has the rest of our squad feeling weary with a snowball effect we can't afford at any time of year.