Respek To Rooney As He Rocks Our Record Breaking World

Last updated : 21 October 2002 By Bernard Azulay

The huge chasm between the Premiership's haves and have nots might have limited the ambitions of many clubs, but football in this country remains a sufficiently unpredictable product that any club on their day is capable of giving their more illustrious rivals a lesson in humility. In many respects Saturday's match was a reaffirmation of this fact.

I've had several conversations in recent weeks where people have wondered whether our tremendous unbeaten run wasn't becoming somewhat tedious for me. I've been forced to admit that the matches where we've rolled over yet another team within moments of the opening whistle, have lacked the dramatic tension of ninety minutes of nerve wracking footie. However after years of watching Arsenal sides that seemed to take a perverse pleasure in keeping us on the edge of our seats for the duration, unwilling or unable to accomplish the two goal cushion which would allow us to relax for the remainder of the match, watching a team of titans who are able to walk over many opponents without even working up much of a sweat, was a novelty that wasn't going to wear off in a hurry!

Myself I had my heart set on remaining unbeaten all the way until New Year's Day, when a result at home to Chelsea would have meant the Arsenal had finally surpassed Forest's incredible 42 game run, a record which has stood for nearly a quarter of a century. It was one of only a few feats left for this Arsenal side to aim for. Although we were still twelve games away from achieving it, we were as close as any side has come since and I can't imagine another team troubling this record in the near future. Not only would it have been wonderful to have such incontrovertible proof of the quality of this Arsenal team to throw in the face of the cantankerous old Cloughie, who is forever moaning about the modern game's failings, its lack of mettle and moral fibre, but it was a sort of Holy Grail that I was hoping might at last allow me to swallow the hype surrounding our current side.

I can't talk about those teams before my time, like Herbert Chapman's championship winning sides of the thirties, but this is without doubt the best Arsenal team I have ever witnessed since my old man first started bringing me to Highbury in the late sixties. For nostalgic reasons, Bertie Mee's 1971 Double winners might be closest to my heart but they were the epitome of the whole being far greater than the sum of its individual parts. Arsène's first class of '98 would bear a closer comparison to the current squad. Yet when Wenger grafted what turned out to be such an amazing midfield partnership of Petit and Vieira, plus Marc Overmars and Anelka, on to a team that already contained the likes of Ian Wright and one of the greatest ever defences designed in the image of George Graham, he couldn't have possibly foretold how fortunate he'd be in finding the formulae for such instantaneous success.

The important difference between Arsène's two Double winning teams was that the first was a volatile chemical compound which couldn't survive the subtraction of any crucial components (not to mention the fact that after enduring for a decade, the dinosaurs of our famous back five were on their last legs). If there were elements of fate and fortune in the fantasy football of '98, nothing has been left to chance in Wenger's construction of the current squad. Some might suggest we are as dependent as any other side, on certain star players, like Sol Campbell or Thierry Henry, but on the evidence of the ten months since our last defeat, we've seen our squad develop into a collection of completely interchangeable elements.

Nevertheless as much as this Arsenal side's potential for greatness is almost too exciting to contemplate, for fear that fate might just be waiting for me to mention a Champions League triumph to throw a terrible spanner in the works, I have found the obsequious tosh in the tabloids to be a little over the top. After all, as we contemplated in the car during our three and a half hour drive north on Saturday, if we were so far ahead of our rivals, why weren't we running away with the league title? It was bad enough to find ourselves going nowhere in the gridlock around Birmingham, with roadworks de rigueur on the M6 motorway. But as we began to panic about making Goodison before kick-off, insult was added to this injury by a Liverpool side that ain't exactly setting the world alight, beating Leeds and leapfrogging us at the top of the table.

Virgin are currently spending a fortune advertising their fabulous new rolling stock. They are less forthcoming about the fact that they don't have the rails to carry this high-tech transport. Until December a train journey to Liverpool requires a tortuous bus ride between Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes and as a result Saturday was our first road trip of the season (out of London). Poor Nell has missed more kick-offs than I care to remember due to my tardy tendencies and after oversleeping as usual, I couldn't bear the guilt of getting to Goodison late. By putting the pedal to the metal, whilst praying any passing police cars would be on the other side of the motorway, mercifully we made it to Liverpool with a few minutes to spare. My intention was to drop Nell off near to the ground before trying to dump the car, so at least he might make the start of the game. As we approached the stadium the absence of a single burger stall, programme seller or even a solitary Scouse scally soon suggested we were on the wrong side of Stanley Park. Indeed I'd managed to drive Nell almost right to the door, but I was more than a little bit embarrassed to be at Anfield instead of Goodison!

Thankfully Nell was sitting comfortably before the whistle, while I legged it with all the other latecomers across the well-known park separating the two grounds, which was awash with all the shades of green, brown and gold in its autumnal glory. Having left London so late, we hadn't stopped on route and during the last half an hour of our journey I had grown increasingly desperate for a pee. After climbing the stairs to the upper tier, I was relieved to find a toilet. In fate's typically sadistic, twisted fashion, I was midstream of a leisurely lash which was all the more enjoyable for the wait, when my surroundings reverberated to the eruptions above. With the walls of the stall positively vibrating and the volume of the jubilation, it was obvious which team had just scored. I wasn't too distraught, as I'd passed a line of screens relaying live pictures of the match. So doing my best to avoid a dreadful damp mess and a charge of indecent exposure, I dashed out of the karsey expecting to at least catch the replay on the telly.

I stood staring in disbelief at a boring in-house ad on the box, until with the return of the live broadcast, it began to dawn on me that not only had I prematurely interrupted my highly pleasurable pee, but after all the stress of my struggle to arrive at Goodison in good time, I was now faced with a similarly arduous return journey if I didn't want to miss the goal again on the Premiership programme, after round trip of over 400 miles! At least Nell hadn't missed it, which would have been the greater disaster as far as I was concerned and he soon comforted me with news that Freddie's opportunistic strike wasn't exactly a contender for the goal of the season. Unfortunately this was to come at the other end of the game and at the wrong end of the ground as far as us Gooners were concerned.

As a prime target for the peculiarly Scouse brand of amusing repartee, some of the papers had suggested Seaman was unfortunate to find himself in Liverpool after England's midweek miscarriage against Macedonia. Personally I don't understand how Spunky can carry the can for this cock-up, when his team mates should have been capable of scoring sufficient goals to give their goalie the night off. Having had the pleasure of working in Liverpool and the privilege of meeting plenty of Everton fans, I believed there wasn't a better ground for our much maligned goalie to appear at. As long-suffering lovers of game, Toffee fans know their onions when it comes to the fickle finger of football fate.

I only heard secondhand about Seaman's reception at the start and I have no doubt he was subjected to the very best of Scouse satire from some of their terrace teasers. Yet the ovation he received at our end of the ground from the entire stand of Toffee fans behind the goal when he appeared after the break truly warmed the cockles of my heart. To my mind it was not merely a mark of respect but an overt display of contempt for the way Spunky has been ridiculed by the red-top tabloids. Football fans on mass are not known for their sentimentality but this generous and genuine gesture to a great servant of the game was confirmation that the vultures in the press box who are always so eager to pick over the bones of our heroes, are much further than the length of the pitch away from the true pulse of our game.

Mind you I doubt this was much solace to Seaman in light of the ridiculing that was to come from Wayne Rooney, not of our goalie but of the mighty Arsenal's inflated reputation. He was on the pitch for only ten minutes, half the time afforded to Franny Jeffers, yet imposing far more than twice the impression of our supposed 'fox in the box'. In response to the Toffees taunts of 'greedy bastard' Jeffers, the Gooners sung 'there's only one rich Scouser'. Little did we know how poignant this would be. Rooney may only be earning an apprentice's wage of ninety quid a week (only until a 10,000 per cent increase when he turns 17 next week which might rankle with a few red firemen!), but with the footballing world at his feet he is rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Jeffers hardly touched the ball and managed nothing with it when he did, whereas Rooney was only in possession on about four occasions, but had us marvelling at every magical touch. In a one on one battle, the wily young Wayne was the first player I've spotted so far this season to beat the incredibly determined Sol Campbell to the ball, managing to prevent himself being muscled out of the picture by means of his aggressive rear-end. Doubtless you will have seen two of his other terrific touches, where he scored Everton's astounding winner with one and almost doubled his tally at the death, displaying the sort of 'chutzpah' of a cheeky kid playing in the park across the road, out to embarrass his less gifted pals rather than the Premiership champions.

If it was hard to take our record smashing run coming to an end against an Everton side that hardly contains a single household name, it was more than appropriate to go down to a goal of such gobsmacking quality. I could point to some below par performances from players whose imperfect preparation involved arriving back from an extended period of exhausting international outings, to a single training session on Friday before packing their bags for the long journey to Liverpool. Yet I prefer to focus on more positive images of Kanu and Henry tracking back to their own penalty area at 1-1, to win the ball back with a tackle. This was a game we shouldn't have lost but despite the arduous journey and an end to our thirty game run, somehow I and all the travelling Gooners didn't appear nearly so devastated as one might have imagined. In fact many appeared more pissed off that there were certain members of our team who trudged off without taking the time to pay their respects to their road weary army of loyal followers.

Possibly it was the feeling that according to the law of averages an eventual failure became more inevitable with every match, but I was more bothered about losing top spot and taking stick from Tottenham fans than by the defeat itself. And if I was miffed at missing Freddie's goal, I can't imagine how much Everton chairman Bill Kenwright must regret leaving his seat before Rooney's winner, perhaps the highlight of his team's season! Most important is the team's reaction to their first defeat. If the Arsenal are not to lose that 'winning feeling' where tiredness and the relentless tide of crucial encounters begin to take their toll, we must bounce back straight away. Hopefully Auxerre and Blackburn will bear the brunt of an Arsenal backlash and with Robert Pires on the point of making a timely reappearance, it is hard even for a pessimist like myself to make anything but rosy red & white predictions. If only the same were true for Rooney's future but sadly I can't see Everton accepting the return of a little used 'fox in the box' with a chronic ankle injury!