Theatre Of Dreams Revisited, But Whose Dreams and Whose Nightmares?

Last updated : 07 February 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Suddenly all my friggin tittle-tattle about Farnborough seemed totally trivial. So here I am starting again from scratch.

Mind you more than enough has been said and written about Saturday's match. What's more, considering some of the caustic 'crime of the century' coverage in the so called 'quality' press, I'd have felt guilty adding any more grist to this mill than absolutely necessary. That we weren't exactly enraptured by this non-event was evident from the fact that the final whistle left me speculating whether Ian Wright had received a warmer welcome than the streaker. I'd considered a more circuitous route with it being an 'away' match and all and in less of a hurry than usual I was still circumnavigating the ground when Wrightie made his appearance. One of Highbury's all-time favourites made a presentation to the heir presumptives to his hotshot crown, Dennis and Titi, with trinkets marking the milestone of the Gunners' latest ton-up marksmen. Having missed the 'main man', it took the nudey man's arrival on the pitch midway through proceedings, to capture my full attention. Even the officials were reluctant to interrupt this amusing interlude to the footballing formality, leaving the unabashed larrikin larking about on the pitch until he eventually surrendered limply (not unlike his team). The coppers carried him off with both arms in a full-nelson while his winky waved farewell!

No pun intended, but my biggest bone of contention from this 4th round encounter with the fodder from Farnborough concerns the ref (for a change!). It wasn't much of a contest to start with but at 2-0 down any remaining aspirations were promptly extinguished by yet another sending off. I fully appreciate that with an assessor in the stands, the officials are obliged to act according to the letter of the law. Yet the law is indeed an ass when they are prevented from using their discretion, despite every player, all the fans and the millions watching on TV imploring them to do so rather than suffer yet another spoiled match.

As for staging the match at Highbury, no one was more disappointed than me. It is the possibility of a rare outing to footballing outposts such as Farnborough that is the fascination of the early rounds of the FA Cup for me. It is unlikely that I would of availed myself of the option but it is an outrage that the Arsenal neglected to inform us that we were entitled to return our coupons and stop at home instead of having the likely 110 cost added to our renewals next season. According to some of the dirt mongers in the media I am also entitled to some qualms about the destination of this hefty donation. Nevertheless I am not so high and mighty to castigate anyone for being greedy because they refused to look the gift horse in the face of a couple of hundred grand! If anyone is to blame it is those gormless bods at the FA for giving Farnborough the option in the first place.

Yet this water was under the bridge and well out to sea as I sat here staring incredulously at the outcome of the fifth round draw. I was anticipating a good old-fashioned, blood and thunder cup tie against the likes of Stoke or Burnley, a relatively tension free contest which I could have been looking forward to for the next couple of weeks. Instead of which I find myself filled with anxiety at the prospect of putting our entire season on the line with this trip to Old Trafford.. It's taken all of three years for me to suppress the nightmares about the sickening semi-final at Villa Park. No sooner had I heard Robson's ominous announcement of the Arsenal as Utd's opponents, than the revolting images of a galloping Ryan Giggs, scything his way through our defence like a knife through soft butter and Schmeichel saving Bergkamp's penalty all came flooding back.

I thought I'd finally exorcised all these demons at the Theatre of Dreams last May. Even if I had, I am bound to be possessed again by an endless loop of TV replays before we get to Old Trafford. This Arsenal team might prove a different prospect, unencumbered by an inferiority complex, but it is the timing of this clash of the titans which terrifies me.

By some strange coincidence on Sunday night I received an e-mail from the editor of the Gooner inviting all the contributors to participate in a competition. There was an attachment listing the remaining 14 fixtures for the Arsenal and Utd and we had to predict the points each team will have accrued after each encounter. The intractable problem for a pessimist like myself was that I couldn't possibly send back an entry where Utd ended up with more points than us (and therefore OUR title). Yet no matter the number of permutations, Utd's apparent return to form left me feeling that they are only likely to lose points on their travels to Highbury and St James Park. In all honesty I couldn't imagine any of the other 12 opponents nicking any points off them. In the end I managed to manufacture an acceptable outcome but with tonight's trip to Anfield and all three teams in the North-East still to come, my scenario doesn't allow for a single loss if we are to win the league by a single point.

Who was to know that whole shebang might be settled before mid-February. Utd ended up winning the treble on the back of the beginning of our end at Villa Park four years ago. The only way we could repay the compliment would be to bring their season to the swiftest possible conclusion and use the success in a similar fashion, as a springboard for one more trip to the Old Trafford for a Champions League final in May. When invited to the Theatre of Dreams even a pessimist is entitled to a little fantasy.