Still Walking In A Wenger Wonderland

Last updated : 30 September 2002 By Bernard Azulay

For the rain or shine travelling Gooner regiment, the road and rail rituals on matchday manoeuvres away from the capital are such an integral part of the faithful's entire football experience that in the minds of many, the season began very belatedly at an ungodly hour on Saturday morning. Moreover, as we all stood at Kings Cross station, staring up at the huge noticeboard, waiting for the platform announcement that signalled the start of a peculiar 100 yard dash, when beer bellies, Burberrys and carrier bags full of newspapers and beverages wobble their way towards the best seats on the train, expressions on faces everywhere spoke of other football related reasons why this particular match seemed like the start of the season proper.

The team might have been floating sky-high with confidence after our somewhat flattering 0-4 thrashing of PSV in Eindhoven midweek, but I could hear understandable apprehension tripping off the tongues of Arsenal fans all around me, as they reeled off a list of lamentations. Our terrific triumph in Holland was certainly no walkover and the team had a tortuous return trip after Wednesday night's workout. Whereas Leeds might have been beaten at Blackburn the previous Sunday, but they'd had a whole week's rest since and were coming off the back of being buoyed by a War of the Roses victory in a home win against their auld enemy.

If beating United is no big thing any more (might Leeds, Newcastle, West Ham or even Scunthorpe force us to qualify which, sometime soon? - no chance perhaps but if Gary Neville has no qualms about getting his foot stuck in his gob, why should I?), then there were the facts that Leeds had only conceded one goal at home and that the Arsenal were without the influential likes of the injured Keown and Bergkamp from a fairly consistent line-up, as well as all the other long term absentees.

Myself I was amazed that I had actually made the 08.10 departure North. I was wondering if I might have been better off cutting my trip a little finer on a later train, for fear that if I managed to arrive before the match kicked-off it could be another bad omen. We had schlepped all the way to Holland, only to miss out on the Arsenal beating yet another record when Gilberto banged home the fastest ever Champions League goal. Still struggling up an eternal staircase to the gods in the Phillips Stadium, long after the twenty odd seconds it took for our Brazilian World Cup star to strike gold, I made an optimistic oath that despite my tardy tendencies, I wasn't going to be deprived of the delight of witnessing any more Arsenal goals all season

It was nevertheless an unusual sensation to be able to sit down in a carriage bathed in bright autumnal sunlight, surrounded by fans of various persuasions and relax. A more typical scene would see me sitting there panicking about a delay which meant I was in danger of missing a tight connection at Darlington and instead of arriving with a couple of minutes to spare, I would be lucky to make the second half. It appeared that this particular train company had yet to have a train trashed this season, by fighting drunk football fans in a foul temper due to their team letting them down. Throughout the rail network it is customary to reserve the ropiest of all the rolling stock on routes which often result in a clash of different sets of supporters on a Saturday. Yet there we were in a newly refurbished, state of the art carriage with such high-tech facilities in the loo that it took me ten minutes before I found out how to flush (I would have been in Glasgow before I got the gist of the gadgets for washing ones hands!).

Having settled into the comfort of our plush surroundings, I began ferreting through the forest of supplements accompanying the slim news section of the ever increasing outrageous waste of resources that have become of the weekend newspapers. I turned to the thin twigs of the sports pages relative to an entire trees worth of paper in order to digest the latest headlines with my 'latté' and there was our Lurch lookalike leering out from a feature on our latest addition to the Arsenal squad. Doubtless Cygan is a diamond geezer but I wouldn't fancy bumping into this gorgon of a Gunner down a dark alley. Pascal rightly received plenty of plaudits for his impromptu midweek performance. He slipped in seamlessly when Keown hobbled off with a hamstring after only ten minutes and by keeping it simple he managed to avoid putting a foot wrong for the remaining eighty.

Since Holland is the home of the coffee shop, there might be some advantage to handing out a spliff with every pack of fags, instead of a free cigarette lighter. It would not only mean that the supporters wouldn't have spare lighters to throw at the opposition, but they would all be far too stoned to spoil the evening with the sort of racist rumpus which was given an irresponsible amount of attention in the red-top rags. I deplore this incident but think there is little to be gained by giving these imbeciles the attention they delight in. What's more the vast majority of incredibly decent Dutch fans do not deserve to be punished for a problem which is endemic in society general.

And I have to laugh at the hypocritical, high-minded pontificating in the same papers that so often participate in stirring the racial pot, when it suits sales purposes. The number of black players in every team may mean that the bigots are no longer so blatant in British football grounds but as worthy as the 'Kick It Out' campaign is, the eejits in this country haven't evaporated. While I appreciate the need for a fairly impotent football authority to be seen to be playing their part, any punitive reaction is no remedy for a problem which requires treatment at the root cause, with education and massive amounts of money to cure the poverty stricken circumstances which enable racist principles to flourish. However this is supposed to be terrace talk, not a socialist soapbox!

I can't picture the barmy PSV fans bombarding the bellicose looking Pascal at a corner, for fear he might leap over the fence to personally bring back their lighters. There would have been hundreds of these in my pockets if I'd accepted one with every pack of fags that I'm in the habit of buying on European awaydays as my insurance against our trip being a total loss. The irony was that there probably wouldn't have been any problems if the PSV fans were caged behind the nets and clear plastic partitions, through which the general consensus was that we were condemned to a 'worse view than Chelsea!'

I might not have discovered who scored until we returned to our hotel. Yet the dreadful view didn't put a dampener on a damned fine party to celebrate a performance which left many praying for the continued prohibition of the pinch that might destroy this enduring dream. In the many similarities between the high-jinks in Holland and Saturdays sensational result at Elland Road, the consanguineous chord linking all our games to date is the intrinsic team ethic coursing throughout the squad. Caution is required to remain the correct side of the fine line, so that our all confident swagger doesn't develop into 'we only have to turn up' cockiness which might have raised its costly head for a moment at Highbury against Bolton. Although you need look no further for the positive evidence of our terrific team spirit than the wonderful sight of strikers like Wiltord and Henry streaking around the pitch at two and three nil up not only striving for more goals but equally, if not more important, the incredible effort they continue to expend defending from the front. in the closing stages of both this week's draining displays.

Considering the ongoing vendetta between Keown and Viduka, Martin's absence might have been a blessing in disguise on Saturday. For Cygan the disconcerting difference could have been that he had more time to think about his appearance in this match, compared to the way he was thrown into the fray without notice three days earlier. I expected a Leeds' vanguard of Viduka and the irascible Alan Smith to provide a sterner test which Pascal passed with flying colours. As we reminisced as always during the two hour train ride I couldn't quell the catastrophic memories of the manner in which Terry Venables totally gazumped George Graham (no mean feat) in the FA Cup semi-final against Spurs at Wembley in '91 - when Seaman suffered the first of many infamous strikes sailing over his head as Gazza's free-kick was indelibly gauged into his and all our nightmares!

Only 'El Tel' knows whether it was more luck than judgement but by putting one over on his old drinking pal he impressed everyone as the master tactician who had found the chink in the Arsenal armour. As a result, it was in my mind that he might be the one manager who could come up trumps with some sort of American football type 'special team' tactic to derail our most incredible footballing ride ever. If I wasn't pained enough by such pessimistic thoughts, my poor mate Nell passed on another nugget of negativity, with his notion that a defeat wouldn't be such a disaster, so long as we scored the 47th consecutive goal to give us the Spireites seventy odd year old record. Once again only nine minutes into this match all our fears proved unfounded as the Leeds' players were left wondering with us all, whether there exists an effective defence against the absolute pace, power and precision of the Arsenal's footballing perfection.

Albeit without Bergkamp, we continue to walk in a none the less mind boggling wonderland. Considering the groundless garbage in the weekend rags it was a coincidence that on our way back to the airport last Thursday, we found ourselves in conversation with a Dutch cab driver concerning Dennis' eventual demise. It has taken the chemistry Wenger has conjured up between this bunch of brilliant players to rekindle the flame of fantasy in Bergkamp's football. Even though his presence might not be so crucial, with several other squad members capable of playing in his position and despite the fact Dennis might have lost a yard of pace these days, as the cabbie and I concurred, he remains irreplaceable as the most beautiful exponent of the art of football it has ever been our privilege to watch.

Having arrived back from Eindhoven on Thursday and after departing at the crack of dawn (relatively speaking for those who treasure a weekend lie-in) for the 400 mile round trip on Saturday, we will have flown off again to France on Tuesday for tonight's match in Auxerre. I don't know about the team, but I'm exhausted just writing about our hectic schedule. Doubtless I'll find flunkey's from both the bank and the credit card companies picketing our doorstep when we come back, baying to inflict plastic surgery before we qualify for the Champions League second stage.

Many of us Gooners are still struggling to fathom our unbelievable fortune, doing our utmost to savour every moment for fear that with every additional encounter we draw nearer to the disastrous day when the inevitability of the law of averages eventually catches up with us. Yet with Gilberto exerting increased influence as he matures into his midfield role amidst the team with every match, Ljungberg bouncing back into the frame as if he'd never been away, Pires prancing on the practice field on the verge of full fitness, impatient to present Arsène with a stupendous selection puzzler and the likes of Pennant popping up with the most incisive pass of the match, putting a strong case for his inclusion, the day of our downfall has never looked more distant.

Of all the cogs in Arsène's masterful exercise in modern football's most precision piece of engineering, in the opinion of many Sol Campbell's constant presence is the most pivotal piece of this jigsaw. The Arsenal might currently be entertaining all with Wenger's own brand of total football but from behind a goal away from home, one tends to spend each of the two halves focusing on those players in close proximity. You have to witness live the irrepressible commitment of Campbell, on the rare occasion an opposing striker gets goal side and Sol stretches every sinew to ensure any part of his being beats his opponent to the ball, before you can truly appreciate the mettle of this man mountain. If my enthusiasm sounds somewhat too effusive, it is because I cannot overstate quite how much Campbell appears to revel in coming out on top in every aspect of competition (I bet he's just as gnarly with a Gameboy!).

Myself I continue to rejoice in the vicarious thrill as we witness the proof of the players unbridled pleasure from the way in which every goal is greeted with team hugs and high-fives all round. Their euphoria is reflected on the terraces in a mood which has its own momentum and which grows increasingly amusing with every game. After taunting the Leeds fans on Saturday with 'We're surprised you stayed so long' all three thousand Gooners zeroed in on one poor roly-poly supporter as he slipped off early 'He's going home for his dinner' (which was an even funnier private joke when heard repeated on the highlights). At this rate we'll all end up hoarse long before the last stop on this euphoric rollercoaster ride.