Will The Real Freddie Ljungberg Please Stand Up?

Last updated : 18 December 2002 By Bernard Azulay

On hearing this particular host rubbish the relevance of the North London Derby in the grand scheme of the modern game, as we drove back from White Hart Lane on Sunday afternoon, my goat was very nearly got. They are such masterly wind-up merchants that many is the time I've been sorely tempted to pull over on the hard shoulder of a motorway and give them a piece of my mind. A rare advantage to my eternal tardiness is that I am invariably running too late for Debby Harry impersonations (Hanging On The Telephone).

Mercifully on Sunday I was in far too much of a hurry to get home and gawp at Houllier's melancholy mush. As a bit of a softie I never had myself pegged as the schadenfreude sort and after Houllier had all that hassle with his heart, you'd think him a favourite for the sympathy vote. Yet for some inexplicable reason I derived immense pleasure watching Sunderland steal all three points from the Scousers with an 85th minute sucker punch. Long standing Liverpudlian acquaintances made during weeks spent working on Merseyside might mean I lean towards the blue side, but I bear Gerrard, Owen and co. no particular grudge, nor do I feel any more antipathy for their fans, than those of any other club. So why do I find myself revelling in their worst run in umpteen years, when the Reds no longer appear to present any real threat to our position atop the pile.

Possibly it is because I have always imagined Houllier to be a cheap imitation of Arsène, the original Gallic goat herd. Or maybe it is the fact that on paper he has procured a herd that appears at least as talented as any other team, with a nucleus of hand reared kids most every club would kill for (permanently being berated by Phil Thompson his big nosed, barking Collie). However Houllier has too many players and tinkers with his team so often that he invariably ends up with a jumble who never seem to do themselves justice even when they win.

Could it be their French mannerisms, as our own manager has on occasion been accused of being something of a smart aleck (note not smart Alex, how did those folk at the OED know?). Yet I know Arsène has more than enough humility, whereas I can only surmise with Houllier. Sometimes he has displayed this dogmatic, smartypants demeanour that has ensured I can now delight in his hangdog expression, as his team approach their first derby for donkey years as underdogs, with Houllier's masterplan apparently founded on nothing more than a change in fortune.

I am actually looking forward to this mammoth Merseyside match far more than our own North London dustup. With the delicate state of affairs at the top, there was in fact more riding on the result at the Lane for the Arsenal than has been the case in recent encounters with the enemy. But in response to the matter of the relevance of this match, on the day you only had to look at the fervour writ large across every frantic face in the crowd to know that even if we are talking mere bragging rights, for those 90 minutes the loyal hordes of both varieties enter this vexatious vacuum, where nothing else exists other than what transpires on the pitch. Nevertheless I imagine I am far from alone in anticipating our annual sortie down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road with only slightly more enthusiasm than a date with my dental hygienist.

The problem is that we are on a hiding to nothing. If good should triumph over evil, it is only what is expected of North London's titans. After years of so much practice the enemy are more than prepared to live out the rest of their season through the vicarious exploits of some of our more viable opponents. While anything less, a draw or a defeat sees many of us facing the painful punishment of a piss-taking purgatory, until we get a chance to put things right.

I was very disappointed with our performance on Sunday. Aside from giving Glen Hoddle's tactical deployment of his troops due credit, it was as though he'd watched our defeat in the Theatre of dreams, against a debilitated Utd side and come to the none too complicated conclusion that the Arsenal "don't like it up 'em". Forgive me if the war analogies sound somewhat facetious considering the world's parlous political problems. However as far as I am concerned, Thierry Henry apart, it doesn't take the wisdom of Solomon to work out the connection between those players prepared to put themselves on the line for the Arsenal cause and those who quite frankly bottled it in the heat of such a ferocious battle.

Last season we saw committed performances from the likes of Cole, Parlour, Keown and Campbell inspire the players not from these shores to get stuck in themselves. Thus against teams who refused to give us the time to play our pretty brand of football, we managed to match them, man for man, with equal measures of passion and pride. Whereas it saddens me to say that so far this season, when our backs have been against the wall, we've one too many players in our team who's disposition suggests he's been there, done that and isn't sufficiently inspired to roll his sleeves up and do it again.

We would have been three down if it wasn't for young Ashley Cole, who was the only player to produce a memorable performance (although there was one wonderful moment of déjà vu when I thought Thierry Henry, for want of some support, might dance his way around the entire Spurs defence). Ashley would have inspired me if I'd been on the same pitch but then sitting on the edge of my seat, screaming for all my worth, I and any one who knows what this match means to us, needs no additional motivation. It didn't help that Hoddle's tactics had us outnumbered in midfield and considering Gilberto, Pires (penalty apart) and Freddie were only conspicuous by their anonymity, we were to be frank very fortunate to finagle a point.

Lying in bed, full of cold, thirty minutes before kick-off, I wouldn't have made it to the match if it wasn't for my offer to take Jamel, my neighbour's eleven year old kid to his first derby. As I pulled into a car park a few minutes after kick-off to find all the attendants were off watching the game, the depressingly loud roar which signalled the Spurs goal gave me my first inking that free parking might be the best result of the day. Skipping round the puddles in the pouring rain, hurrying so as not to miss any more excitement and in hope of not getting collared, we passed the sign at the entrance that never fails to shock. This season it indicated parking at a princely sum of £15 or £10. How can you make any sense of a society where some prosperous punters pay more to leave their vehicle than millions of others pay to watch a match (even more outrageous once I discovered there wasn't a soul watching over all these flash motors...in Tottenham!)

Our outing was more than worth it just for his huge smile as Jamel and I shared hugs and high-fives, when Pires put the ball in the back of the net. On reflection we could have paid a tenner to park the car, been humbled 3-0 by the odious enemy and even been beaten up on our way out. As we drove back into Highbury Quadrant a couple of hours later, having escaped without a hair on either of our heads being harmed, still sitting pretty at the top of the league, albeit by only the point we had in our back pocket, it wasn't such a bad day.