What Goes Around Comes Around

Taking Treacle our pooch out to do her business at such an ungodly hour was a surefire way of warning her that she was about to be abandoned. I struggled to remain patient as her procrastinating bowels protested about the deception we were about to perpetrate. I had to print out the same spurious directions that have seen us circling the Manchester suburbs searching the skyline for signs of the stadium for several seasons (for such a big club, it is strange how I always struggle to find Old Trafford!) and prepare my bag full of all the essential awayday accoutrements in my attempts to cover every meteorological eventuality. By the time I had satisfied all my superstitious neuroses, it was after eight before we rolled out of Highbury Quadrant in a rent-a-wreck Astra Estate hired from Chief Ayo, the Nigerian nobleman who doubles as a dodgy car rental agent whilst running the cab office around the corner.

It may always rain in Manchester but on Saturday sod's law virtually guaranteed good weather by nature of the fact that I'd not dared risk the unreliable windscreen wipers and wonky heater switch on my worn out old Jag. It was a gorgeous day with not a cloud in the sky as we headed up the motorway, scanning every vehicle on the horizon for signs of other Gooners. I wanted reassurance that we weren't really that late and I began to calm down as we barreled towards a convoy of coaches. Until we overtook them and observed the Watford flags hanging in the windows, which indicated they were bound for a 3pm kick-off on Wearside. Thankfully the weekend traffic was very light. I assume the occupants of many cars were intending to take part in the other big event of the day, as they were driving in the opposite direction towards the anti-war demo in London.

We made such good time that if it wasn't for an extremely inconvenient collision of a couple of artics outside Manchester and the tailbacks from the resultant rubbernecking, along with the almost obligatory panic-stricken failure to find the approach road recommended by my directions, we would have for once made kick-off comfortably. At least with plenty of cars still parking and so many people scurrying towards the Theatre of Dreams, there wasn't that deserted feeling of being desperately late. In my haste to dump the car, I had to return to fetch my scarf from my bag because I didn't fancy losing as a result of forgetting it. Despite similar concerns about my binoculars, we had walked too far to go back again for these and I left Róna sucking on her inhaler as hastened on ahead (I smoke sixty a day and she has asthma, go figure!).

I hadn't seen the morning papers, but I'd got the gist of the news from the noises being made on the radio on our way up, about Arsene's disrespect for the FA Cup. Most of us thought that it might be the sort of roughhouse encounter that would perfectly suit Ray Parlour and even before he'd schlepped halfway round the planet to play a friendly in China, Gilberto had looked in need of some serious R & R. However I never dreamt that the piffle in the papers would be anything more than the usual pre-match posturing, or that Wenger would dare to put out anything other than his strongest side. Not tarrying to untangle my headphone, it wasn't until I reached the top of the bulkhead and heard the disconcerted buzz, that I joined the other gobsmacked Gooners staring in disbelief at the protagonists on the pitch. Mentally I ticked off the members of our team, all fingers and thumbs as I tried to tune the tranny hoping to hear some refutation of what my eyes refused to believe. The frown on my face must have registered my concern when I beckoned Ro a couple of minutes later as she clambered up the steps. On swallowing the bitter pill that Henry was on the bench and Bergkamp back in London she said "So why did we bother coming?"

To be bereft of perhaps the best player on the planet on current form (definitely the most entertaining) and possibly the most beautiful footballing brain, on an occasion that had such great potential was bad enough. But what bothered me most was the thought that our manager's mind was firmly focused on resting these two for Tuesday's game against Ajax. I couldn't help wondering if he had bottled it, by giving us the perfect excuse to blow this game and our defence of the trophy before the whistle had even blown. Monsieur Wenger, you have my hearty apologies. As always, you were right and I was wrong, for yours was a psychological masterstroke. Moreover, mulling over Fergie's tactics I think he made a fatal mistake.

As a tackler, Ruud Van 'Won F*** All' makes a great striker. By sending him and his team mates out under strict instructions to get stuck in straight away (obvious from their immediate attempts to inflict 'actual bodily harm', doubtless because they'd been told the Arsenal 'don't like it up 'em' !), Fergie sent out the wrong signals. I don't recall the last time the Arsenal were so utterly dominant at the Theatre of Dreams. I believe this might well have been due to the fact that Fergie had put the suggestion in his players heads that their footballing abilities alone weren't sufficient. It was necessary for them to secure some sort of underhanded advantage by distracting us from out playing them and drawing us into fractious individual battles. Fergie's plan backfired even further as a result of Wenger's team selection, because any sense of inferiority would have intensified as it appeared the Arsenal were happy to contest this clash of the titans with one hand tied behind our backs.

And whilst I am passing out the plaudits, a well earned pat on the back for the ref. The sad irony is that Winter will doubtless be admonished by his assessor for failing to administer the red card/s which would have certainly ruined the match for all the watching millions around the world. Instead of punishing commitment, some common sense enabled them all to calm down. It's almost a rare treat to see the 22 remain on the pitch for the entire 90, setting an example that I only wish we would see followed everywhere by all the other automaton administrators of the far too rigid rules of our game.

If ever there was a case of 'what goes around, comes around' it was Ryan Giggs clanger, which resulted in celebrations at our end of the ground that were almost as outrageous as those which greeted the fortuitous goal a few moments later. It is not just the insufferable replays of Ryan's wondergoal which have galled Gooners these past few years. We were already vanquished that dreadful day at Villa Park, when Dennis presented Schmeichel with the ball from the penalty spot in the dying seconds of normal time. So there was no real surprise when Patrick Vieira made a present of the ball and Giggs began to run rings around the aging legs of our dinosaur defence, as they obliged by abstaining from attempting a single tackle worthy of the name. In the context of that game and the fact that it was the precursor to pulling off the Treble it was indeed a great goal.

Perhaps my rose tinted specs need a polish with the passing of so much time but it has always bothered me that Ryan's effort has gone down in footballing folklore as such an amazing feat. I can't tell you how happy I am that I no longer have to harp on about it. After manfully managing all the hard work leading up to his effort on Saturday, Giggs produced a finish which was far more miraculous, subrogating once and for all those searing memories of yesteryear. And don't be fooled into thinking David Beckham was a victim of Fergie's fury in the flying boots fiasco. Based on Ryan's biorhythms, the gash on Beck's eyebrow was probably just poor Giggsy trying to put his boots away!

Funnily enough we spent half-time speculating on whether there would be any paint left on the dressing room walls after Fergie had thrown all the flames stoked by Utd's abysmal failure in the first forty-five. Suspecting Sir Alex to have started fires under the likes of Keane, Scholes and all his other MIAs, I suggested to Ro that it would be vital for us to get through the first 15 minutes after the break, giving them time to burn themselves out and for the crowd to become impatient. But the expected rally never materialized, not until right at the death. By which time we were so certain it was destined to be our day that there was no real anxiety about defensive errors. In fact Utd's sorry performance is best summed up by pointing out that since November the only other clean sheets we've achieved were against the ineffectual likes of Birmingham and Boro.

A great time was had by all 9000 Gooners present. For me the increased allocation of away fans is one of the best things about the FA Cup. I am certain it wasn't so much fun at the Stretford End but personally it was one of the best atmospheres I have experienced at Old Trafford in recent times. It was almost as good as that incredible occasion last May, as the thousands who had not been fortunate enough to be there that day did their level best to make up for it by reminding the home fans that we'd won the league in their backyard. We were also not going to let them forget that we had 'Henry, Henry on the bench' and that 'Bergkamp stayed at home'. Of all our repertoire I am sure the song that caused most consternation amongst Utd fans was the suggestion that 'We'll be back again in May'.

More light will have been shed on such Champions League matters by the time you read this, after our European challenge has been rejoined against Ajax. It is true that this Arsenal side is being talked about using the sort of superlatives that enable us to sing 'By far the greatest team' in all sincerity. Nevertheless there is no escaping the fact that until we've rectified the one glaring omission from the role of honour in the front of our matchday programmes, we won't have staked a genuine claim for a permanent Gunners' nameplate at Europe's top table.

It was Sir Alex who suggested Saturday's game could prove pivotal in respect of the course of the remainder of the season. Hopefully victory will instill the sort of confidence that will enable the Arsenal to conquer all before them in both domestic and European competitions. Yet if there was any doubt as to the significance Saturday's game and the importance of the FA Cup in its own right, you only had to witness the sense of purpose and the spirit present in the squad's jubilation after the final whistle. As for us Gooners, we must have driven the Cockney Reds crazy all the way back down the motorway. Stopping for petrol at Knutsford services I joined in the cacophony of car horns and the general party atmosphere and I haven't stopped celebrating since. Chelsea weren't top of my preferred choices for the quarterfinals, as I quite fancied a nostalgic trip to Wolves or Burnley. Or Watford would have been a nice easy outing but you won't find me complaining about a home draw against Ranieri's Blues. At least we are saved from a trip down the Kings Road and the dreaded Congestion Charges.