In Arsène Wenger's first full season, his transitional team weren't quite so burdened by the weight of expectation. He was more than a little fortunate to find the perfect chemistry, which was the catalyst in creating a pack of hungry hounds. The Arsenal were the underdogs with little to lose, as they stalked a quarry whose name was already supposedly on the title. We played with the belief that gave all a licence to express themselves and virtually everyone took their turn at banging in beautiful goals.
Sadly we slipped up the following year. The Mancunian prey escaped our clutches, as the hunt was eventually held up at an Elland Road hedgerow. In the two successive terms, our dogs hardly saw the Red Devil rabbit, before it disappeared in the distance, leaving us sniffing fresh air with something of an inferiority complex. This season we've had the scent of victory, ever since the indignity of our pre-Xmas slip up against the Toons (which if you remember was mostly of ref Graham Poll's making!). We've played some of the most entertaining football it has even been my pleasure to witness. Nevertheless having finally battled our way into sight of the booty, becoming in the process, dead cert favourites in the opinion of most pundits, the scintillating football seems to have stuttered, in the face of a fear of failure. In the space of the last two matches the thought of having everything to lose seems to have dawned on the lads and a tension has developed, which just doesn't allow for our delicate skills.
Naturally the loss of the inspirational wing play of Robert Pires and a permanently rammed treatment room, hasn't helped. Albeit that we are far from alone in having to cope with the curse of a calamitous casualty list. From a core of twenty four central combatants (excluding the peripheral players), who have combined in various configurations to make up the vast majority of the Arsenal line-ups, nineteen have sat out parts of this season, suffering from serious injury setbacks. The cause of an apparent increase in injuries is obvious to me. Squad rotation and the demise of replays means that modern players might not play as many matches as their counterparts of yesteryear, but they are trained to a peak of fitness which would have frightened the life out of their flabby forebears. Yet there is a fine line between ultimate fitness and physical failure. The game is now played at such an incredible pace, that many are often playing on the point of exhaustion, just one tired tackle away from harming a hamstring, or a lacerated ligament.
One of the most gratifying sides to such a great season so far, has been the evidence of Gooner grit. No matter which member of Wenger's multinational multitude has bricked up the Arsenal wall, each time it has been about to buckle under another broken bone, or every subsequent strained sinew, they have all performed admirably, with no adverse effect on our famous Arsenal spirit. In fact it seems to have only encouraged us to endure, no matter what fickle misfortunes fate throws at us.
On Saturday I was bellowing at the box, bemused by Chelsea's lack of bottle, only one goal down in such a big game (doubtless any bottle has been banked in the hope of earning interest for a 4th May withdrawal!). And I retained some vain hope that Derby might resist certain relegation, by recording an upset at Anfield that afternoon. I should have known better. To see their demise expressed in the tears on the faces of the distraught Derby fans, I cannot imagine there being a conscience amongst the criminals in that squad, who in Gregory's words :²couldn't give a monkeys!² However in truth I was happy that the two contenders continued to snap at our heels.
Ipswich proved to be such obdurate opponents on Sunday, that it is a wonder their Jekyll and Hyde extremes haven't driven George Burley to distraction. Without the pressure applied by Liverpool and Utd. playing leapfrog, a win wouldn't have been nearly so vital. We might have relaxed and not been able to muster the enduring intensity required to eventually triumph over the Tractor Boys. It might have been our Achilles Heel in the past, but that is successive games where weŒve ground out a result. Even more significant perhaps is fortune's favours. I might be such a pessimist that I won't put it in writing until the battle is beyond all doubt, but if there is one thing that gives me an inkling of the outcome, it is the fact that we can count on the force of fate in our corner this season. Success via a last minute penalty against Spurs, an own goal in the semi, such are the fickle fine details which haven't been our destiny in the recent past.
When Reuser hung in the air, for an eternity, hoping to head home a sitter, from about Ipswich's only threatening first-half attack, thirty thousand people sat there aghast. It felt like a pivotal moment, as we all fatalistically feared he was about to bury our Premiership trophy with the ball. Bouncing propitiously off the goalpost, it was as though we had the protection of a goal-proof forcefield. Mind it wasn't as if Ipswich weren't on the receiving end of the rub of the green (or the goal!). In the past as our opponent's crossbar rocked from our fourth flirtation with the woodwork, one could have guaranteed a huge groan of resignation, in recognition that it just wasn't going to be our day. Whereas on Sunday, suddenly the Highbury library found its voice, urging the Arsenal on at a volume not heard all season (even the West Upper wimps were warbling!).
The epitome of this "we ain't gonna take it no more" as also-rans attitude was Tony Adams. Leading by his inspirational example, he took it upon himself to lumber forward with the undiminished desire of a captain, who was going to demonstrate how to conquer. We last had the reassuring presence of both Adams and Keown in the same side, in a single game at the start of the season. With the soon to return Sol Campbell the third of this staunch triumvirate, our prospects of success seem a whole lot safer, at the feet of such "never say die" stalwarts. I wouldn't be aggrieved if the likes of Keown and Cole had a break this summer, instead of busting their balls for the Bulldog cause. While the ever present Eriksson considered their progress, come the final whistle it was his compatriot with the go faster stripe who deservedly received all the plaudits. But by then Sven had shown his own turn of pace, managing to tiptoe out of the stadium to avoid the media melée!