Pressure Drop But Hope Springs Eternal!

Last updated : 30 April 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Two-nil up and delirious after chowing down on my fingernails in frustration during the entire first-half at the Reebok, I am sure I wasn't alone in hoping we might for the first time in months, go for Bolton's throats and achieve the sort of comfortable margin which would insure our goal difference against the drubbing I fully expected Utd to inflict on Spurs the following day. As we trudged away half an hour later, with hearts as heavy as the footsteps echoing around the endless stairwell, trying to comprehend the circumstances of our calamitous cock-up and its title chucking consequences, my pal Nell did his best to cheer me up.

He suggested stranger things have happened and who knows, I could have been going to what might have proved to be the Arsenal's biggest game of the season at White Hart Lane. I'd accepted my Spurs pal's invitation a couple of days prior but with four hours to dissect our downfall during a depressing drive back, by the time I arrived home I was bemoaning my masochistic, sucker for punishment penchant. Let's face it, it is a sad day for the Gunners when a thirty-eight game season comes down to our dependence on a "Get Out of Jail Free" card courtesy of the lily-livered Lilywhites!

I don't think any of us seriously expected those wasters at White Hart Lane to be anywhere near ready, willing or able to assist the Arsenal cause. And if there was the slightest hope lurking somewhere in my subconscious it certainly wasn't why I decided to take this opportunity (to quote mine host) "to see how the other half live". Mind you it didn't take a genius to know that his motives for wanting Gooner company weren't exactly guileless. Considering their lose / lose predicament it was never going to be the most glorious day in the annals of Spurs' history, but in the likelihood of their defeat, at least he'd have the extremely rare opportunity of gloating rights.

We had our noses well and truly bloodied by the debacle at Bolton, but as the derailment of our title defence ensured Sunday's game suddenly soared off the Richter scale of "bum squeaking" significance, I remained the same skeptical disbeliever. I went to White Hart Lane determined to minimize my mate's satisfaction by avoiding the almost inevitable disappointment of self-delusion. Only a front lobal lobotomy could entirely extinguish every single optimistic flicker. Since this "funny old game" is so beautiful because where there's life in an old dog, there's hope that it might bite you on the bum when least expected.

However I'd decided that my brief dalliance with the dark side, down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road would be nothing more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Sadly he's long since shuffled through that final turnstile and can no longer "share" for himself, so I guess according to the twelve step tenets, I should tell you that my old man was Mervyn and he was a football addict. These days it would be tantamount to child abuse and I still blush as I admit my guilty secret. Up until the age of about ten I was often taken on alternate weeks to watch the Arsenal and Tottenham. It might have been common practice once upon a time but imagine the schizo Gooner scars of seeing Spurs play away as well. Mercifully time has erased the majority of my memories, although I still shudder at the sound of the crack around the ground (Maine Road?) as "Nice One" Cyril Knowles' leg snapped!

And whilst blowing all my credibility, I might as well confess all. These days a child's inability to concentrate for ninety minutes would doubtless result in them being labelled with some kooky condition like Attention Deficiency Disorder. But in an era before kids were plied with the likes of Ritalin while still being bottle fed, my preference for the Arsenal was probably based primarily on Highbury's padded seats and the fact that they were far more friendly for my bony bum than the wooden ones at White Hart Lane. Obviously that was until I finally found the right fork on football's road, on that "perfick" night when Ray Kennedy won the league and somehow ended his evening sitting in the passenger seat of my old man's motor. But then that's another story (if there's anyone left whose not had their lugholes bent by my legendary yarn?). The old man might have been a died in the wool, one team Gooner but above all he was a footie fan. They might be somewhat fuzzy more than three decades later, but from memory we would go to Highbury to watch the best of Bertie Mee's Arsenal grind out an infamous 1-0 win, while the remnants of Bill Nick's "glory, glory" boys (and basically the last Tottenham team in this tradition) would provide the light and all too often losing entertainment.

Strolling in between the Red Devils and a white & blue sea, on my Ninja mission behind enemy lines on Sunday felt very weird. As away fans at derby games we are confined to the little corner of Park Lane, intent on getting in and out of their miserable manor as incognito as possible, our persons unharmed and our three points intact. Whereas not since the 70s have I walked into their West Stand bold as brass. The building may be different (albeit their plastic bucket seats remain just as uncomfortable by comparison) but the memories of that magical night came flooding back, along with my reminiscences of all those other occasions rushing along to keep up with the old man, my little hand clinging to his for fear of being consumed by the crowd.

I couldn't resist wearing a t-shirt with a discrete cannon crest. Although I've no deathwish, so I didn't walk out the door before I was sure it was well covered up by my jacket. Still I can't tell you the sense of smug satisfaction knowing that I was surrounded by our sworn enemy wearing an Arsenal shirt, with my lucky Gooner "titfer" in my pocket. Mind you considering my mate assured me that this Spurs' performance compared favourably with their fetid Good Friday fare, then there aren't enough lucky charms in North London to appease the footballing gods sufficiently to favour this sorry excuse for a Premiership outfit.

Which is a puzzler really because they've been piss poor most of this season but on paper they've the bones of a bright young side, with the likes of Carr, Keane, King, Gardner, Davies etc. In fact on the day Poyet was the sole player who came anywhere close to pulling off the miracle of rescuing our title challenge. Meanwhile the grumbling Alan Green suggested on the radio that they should have left the deckchairs on the pitch after the break for Sheringham's benefit. I know none of the Spurs supporters wanted their side to save our skin which made for the strangest of atmosphere's. Sitting in a similarly posh seat to our pitch in the West Upper, occasionally someone forget themselves and uttered the odd cry of encouragement. But the strength of feeling was summed up most succinctly when a clamour for someone to have a crack inspired the sarcastic response "I wouldn't go that far!"

In attempting to dismiss my utter disbelief, my mate suggested I put myself in their shoes. Considering the pain of perennially being our neighbours poor relations would I really want us to win and potentially spoil the sole possibility we had of obtaining any pleasure out of the entire season? Sad huh and this was a team who unbelievably according to the radio, still had an outside chance of qualifying for Europe. Perhaps it was this longshot and man of the match, Casey Keller's heroics before the break which inspired some enthusiasm. My mate was sufficiently encouraged to question whether I thought the atmosphere was better than our library. I had to admit that I do occasionally get incredibly frustrated with the Highbury hush.

I assume it is because we've become so blasé that our crowd is primarily reactive, rather than proactive, in as much as it takes a goal to get us going. Aside from a rare intervention of the ref on the Arsenal's behalf, sadly it seems that gone are the days when our lads could count on a twelfth man to inspire them at home when performing below par, because we are all too busy getting on their backs. Sure we are all straight out of our seats to sing their praises as soon as they've put the ball in the back of the net. But we are somewhat superfluous then. It is when we are struggling that our assistance is really required. So I couldn't argue when the Spurs fans finally found their voices in an earnest attempt to inspire their lackadaisical side. Notwithstanding the fact that the poor sods would sit there all season long without raising their voices, if goals were the only green light for exercising Spurs' lungs!

If you are to believe the begrudgers who have the misfortune to sit in front of us in the West Upper, apparently I am capable of damaging the eardrums of those in my immediate vicinity with my vocal efforts,. So since I didn't want this to be the first and last time my pal invited me to White Hart Lane, I was particularly restrained to start with, even when I began to lose my cool because I couldn't bear the fact that Spurs were standing off Utd to such an extent that the end result was inevitable. Even though the red Van Diver seemed to be doing his very best to beat the law of averages. They've recently introduced the most nonsensical smoking restrictions at Spurs. My fingernails bear the brunt on many terraces around the country where smoking has been banned (or at least only when my sneaky attempts to evade detection have been sussed by over enthusiastic stewards). But the ridiculous rules at White Hart Lane have been the apparent cause of open revolt. As a result the punters now have permission to puff away in two of the stands, when the game is not in progress. The upshod appears to be that they've created a fantastic fire hazard on the other two terraces, as all the nicotine addicts congregate down one end at half-time.

I'll have to start including those patches in my essential bag of match day accoutrements because the tension combined with nicotine withdrawals cannot be beneficial for my blood pressure (not to mention our incessant inability to hang on to a lead, especially when we blow a two goal lead at Bolton with only three games remaining!). Unable to suck on a fag and simmering nicely with frustration at a Spurs side who were never going to threaten Carroll if they couldn't offer Keane some support, I soon forgot the niceties. I found it most amusing to hear myself hollering with as much if not more enthusiasm than any of those around me.

I had no trouble trying to encourage the Irish lads but if hadn't previously experienced the sensation of something sticking "in my craw" I couldn't have wanted for a better example when I attempted to gee up Sherringham! Steven Carr was about the only outfield player displaying some semblance of commitment to put pressure on Utd Otherwise the Reds each had time to negotiate a new contract whilst contemplating a pass. Apparently it was Carr's most impressive effort for many a moon which immediately inspired cynical accusations of a want away shop window display. Considering the Arsenal aren't exactly best placed financially for a Dutch auction, perhaps he'll be so kind as to wait another season until he's out of contract, so he can follow Sol across the great divide? I suppose you had to cut Spurs some slack since what incentive was there for a player who was hardly likely to win friends and influence Spurs fans by giving us Gooners a leg up.

However this match aside because of the strange circumstances, if I was looking for culpability at a club which should be capable of a little more than a rare Worthless Cup run, I can see no further than Hoddle. Perhaps he possesses the tactical nous of which we've heard tell, but he patently lacks the man management skills to inspire any sweat from this squad. Still I guess at least we've to be grateful for some small mercies. Despite Keller's goalkeeping feats giving us the faintest germ of half-time hope, this only made me all the more certain that if it was just a matter of time. The sadistic finger of fate was bound to toy with us until Utd's obligatory last gasp stamp on Gooner graves.

So I was almost grateful for Scholes' salvation from a further twenty minutes of torture. I honestly assumed they were Spurs fans leaping to their feet around us, but my host assured me otherwise. I soon sussed out the difference as the home fans were all wearing an expression of resignation which must regularly haunt them, despite the sweet solace in this instance that raised some grateful Gooner stuffing smiles. We'd left by the time the home team came as close as they had all afternoon to an assault on Utd's goal. I was a bit gutted hearing Poyet's attempt on my radio because I wondered if I would have been the sole person in that stand leaping to my feet with fruitless anticipation. Considering we were already in the car, I assume most of the 36,000 were well on their way out the exits when Ruud Van Diver rang what might well prove to be the Arsenal's final death knell.

Personally I'd want to permanently squat in my pal's parking pitch on the basis that he pays more for it than the cost of some footie fans entire season tickets. He always leaves ten minutes before the final whistle because he'd rather avoid the wind up of getting caught in traffic, than the risk of missing the occasional possibility of some edge of the seat action in the final few minutes. The only concession I ever make to the final whistle mayhem, is that I might occasionally make my way to a seat near the exit to sweat out the last few seconds. But then I only have a short walk home from Highbury. Needless to say I don't think I could ever leave quite so early under any circumstances. Then again thanks largely to Ray Kennedy, I am not forced to suffer the seasonal tribulations of a Tottenham fan to whom, relatively speaking, the traffic might be tantamount.

As a result he missed the highlight of this season, heading home before their last gasp goal which denied us all three points in December's derby. At the end of the day I enjoyed Sunday's sortie to the other side, if only as an affirmation of the gratitude the Arsenal deserve for the relative delights we Gooners receive so regularly by comparison. It should be an enforced pilgrimage for every Arsenal fan at least once a season. If only to serve as a timely reminder to all the ingrates that we should be down on our knees giving thanks every week.

If we end up blowing the defence of our title, it wasn't down to a demoralized Spurs on Sunday, or specifically the stupefying turnaround at the Reebok. It's the cumulative effect of creeping complacency and the resulting lapses in concentration responsible for gifting away so many points. Perhaps we are no less guilty than some of our stars? It might look like we have as much chance of retaining the title as my mate has of missing a miraculous Spurs winner every week, but it's never over until it's over. And should such incredible fortune fail to smile upon us, there's always next season, when my mate will still be hightailing it to get home early as our hope springs eternal!