Swords Drawn & Time To Sort The Challengers From The Also Rans...

Last updated : 14 January 2003 By Bernard Azulay

The somewhat staid Steve Bruce doesn't seem the sort of person to have any truck with such harebrained tenets.

On Sunday afternoon Bruce suggested four more wins would see his Birmingham side safely avoiding the blues by securing their place in the Premiership. They would have the thirty-seven points referred to by many managers as the required watershed to avoid the dreaded drop.

You would have to feel some sympathy for their supporters. Stuffed by the Gunners on Sunday, their side is going to have to dig deep if they are too avoid two long months of suffering at St. Andrews. After our visit their next home games are against Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool. However I bet Bruce did his best to ensure his team set off on this searching test of their Premiership credentials with sufficient belief in their ability. He'll want to prove that Birmingham aren't just making up the Premiership numbers In these four matches.

In attempting to avoid what could turn out to be a confidence shattering drubbing, I bet Bruce would have given plenty of thought to putting Birmingham's best foot forward. I have an image of him breathing fire in the dressing room as he dished out Fergie's favourite teamtalk no.2 to his troops, in a 'fight them on the beaches' stylee straight out of his mentors motivational handbook (because the Blues' manager would be keeping no.1 in the bank to try and make sure his side saves some face against his old boss!). Who knows, with Birmingham positively bristling with the resultant adrenaline, if the game had kicked off on cue they might have gone at us with all guns blazing and given such a good account of themselves that the eventual result might have been drastically different. Sunday's encounter could have been a crucial day in the Championship, when our title challenge might have collapsed with Utd catching up all too quickly.

Instead of which the Blues forgot to pay the 'leccy bill, or were left scrabbling around searching for a bob or two for the meter as some of the floodlights failed. After a while many begun to wonder why they didn't just get on with it. Apparently it was more than bright enough to begin playing. With the TV tail so often wagging the football dog these days, doubtless the St. Andrews dancefloor was too dark for the Sky cameras. Eventually we heard the announcement of a thirty minute delay. With the players heading for the warmth of the dressing room, any full-blooded enthusiasm fostered by Bruce's words would have been on the wane and he could hardly give his side the same spiel for a second time.

The Blues' fans were thrilled to see the Arsenal aristocrats back on their patch for the first time in seventeen years. Yet half an hour later on an afternoon cold enough to freeze the nads off the proverbial brass monkey, their fervent heat had largely dissipated and the St. Andrews' crowd wasn't nearly so intimidating.

Consequently the match finally kicked off with the Arsenal's calm assuredness holding sway over, despite the Blues' best efforts to press the play. Before you knew it we had the ball in the back of the net and it was game over. One-nil to the Arsenal after only six minutes and suddenly we were playing with the sort of swagger we Gooners haven't seen since we trounced the ten man Tottenham in November. Instead of counting our blessings and blowing our own top of the league trumpet, I've been banging on for weeks with all the other far too spoilt, blasé and over-expectant Gooners (who are now capable of an annoyingly accurate impression of the Moaners' 60,000 muppets at our own Home Of Football these days). I've been whinging about the way we amble forward with an excessive number of pretty passes, trying to walk the ball into the net but giving our opposition the opportunity to defend in numbers with their backs to their own goals.

My prayers were answered on Sunday. For the first time in ages we advanced down the pitch in an absolute blur of precise incisive passing. From one end to the other in an instant leaving defenders flailing in our wake, requiring a change of shorts as they were forced to try and keep up (impossible in Henry's breathtaking case), tracking back and attempting tackles while running towards their own goal instead of face on. Playing at such a pace might result in two out of three attacks floundering on the odd wayward pass but our players have earned such kudos that many an opponent is far too petrified to try and intervene.

Giving Brum such a comprehensive beating in the first game of the season was the catalyst for a succession of some of the most marvelous performances it has ever been my privilege to witness (concluding after another calamitous international break and Wayne Rooney's rocket). After watching Sunday's highlights repeated on the box I am still trying to work out if Arsenal were truly wonderful, or whether the Blues are merely unfit to play in the same ballpark. However if we can reproduce the same form against West Ham this weekend, we will discover whether last Sunday's win has the potential for as much influence on our entire season, as the worst case scenario.

At the heart of Utd's apparent return to form appears to be the resurgent team spirit shown by the group hug goal celebrations at the Hawthorns. I found this disconcerting due to the fact it was so reminiscent of the Arsenal's togetherness last term. Whether or not our lot are also becoming a little too blasé like us fans, we would without doubt benefit from an "against all odds" encounter similar to the amazing manner in which our ten men emerged triumphant at Anfield last season. It was the "all for one, one for all" atmosphere awakened by this triumph that took us all the way to the title. It so happens that to date the inconsistencies of others have enabled us to bestride the summit on mere ability and more than a little luck. Having retained her favour for so long the pessimist in me has been expecting Lady Luck to abandon us any day now. Absolute unity will be essential, especially if certain players are to maintain their commitment while having lumps kicked out of them with such regularity.

Meanwhile in the synchronicity stakes, after a summer when I rarely needed either, the heater and wipers on my old Jag chose the week of the worst weather this winter to give out on me. I left only a couple of hours for us to cover the 116 mile journey to St. Andrews in the ropey old vehicle hired from our local rent-a-wreck and was quite impressed to find ourselves only two miles from our objective ten minutes before kick-off. Unfortunately I was overly cautious and in fear of missing our exit I turned off the route half a mile too early, fully expecting a roundabout that would lead me back on to the same road if necessary. To our horror we ended up stuck in the very worst section of the second city's spaghetti junction and a couple of panic stricken choices later, we were crawling out of Birmingham on another motorway without an exit lane in sight.

Nell and I sweated for the next ten miles before the blue sign indicating an exit eventually loomed into view to our immense relief. Neither of us would have been too bothered if it wasn't for the bloke waiting at the ground for the three tickets in Nell's pocket. Poor Nell made the mistake of phoning when we thought we were seconds away from our destination and this lunatic subsequently drove us both completely dotty with a call almost every 30 seconds to ascertain our whereabouts, while we got more and more lost trying to find our way back. We both exhaled a huge sigh of relief on hearing of the floodlights hassle, although our assurances to the madman at the ground that he wasn't missing a kick didn't stop his incessant calls.

At least there was no hassle finding him when our tortuous tour of Brum ended at long last because they were the only supporters still standing at the gates. Nell dived out to take care of him while I went to try and find a legal pitch to ditch the motor. Apart from missing out on much of the traffic, my tardiness meant that I was able to convince the steward in charge of the directors car park that no-one else would arrive after me. It took two attempts to convince him to pocket a fiver for slipping me into the empty pitch right beside the exit. Still unsure whether the game was going to take place, I had plenty of time for once to queue for refreshments. Yet after getting served 15 minutes later, just in time to grab the very last hot dog, I realized I was on far too much of a fortunate roll for a postponement of the footie.

I may no longer be anything like as preoccupied by the whole programme palaver. Previously I'd be dashing round grounds long after kick-off, convinced that I'd be personally responsible for a bad result if I failed to find one. Although this one of my many neuroses hasn't been nixed completely. With a lukewarm pup (there wasn't an entire sausage in this last lonely dog) and a couple of cups of comforting Bovril in hand I spied Nell and my seat just as the game started. Minutes later a man down on the track between us and the pitch caught my eye. With a cardboard box in one hand and waving something in the air with the other, he confirmed himself as a programme seller. By the time I scampered down to pitch level he had reached the block directly behind the goal. I had to persuade another steward to let me pursue him along the track, crouching as I scuttled along so as not to obscure the view of the disabled and others seated at the front.

Thierry Henry scored his and our first right in front of me and I was perfectly placed to join in the celebrations. My only regret is that it is such a rarity to find myself in such close proximity, I am gutted I didn't get to give Henry a little hug. Yet it was his second, Arsenal's fourth and Henry's hundredth for the club which was pure poetry in football motion. Comprising a party-piece from Pires, Wiltord's interplay and the sensational simplicity of precision passing that lead up to a perfect finish. If the first was deserving of a hug, we should have been queueing up after his second offering to have his children! I've had the rolling sports news channel on all day, so I can sit here salivating over the hourly replays. Sunday can't come soon enough.