Similarly watching the Arsenal play on television used to be a rare treat, whereas nowadays it is more of a shock when our matches are not screened live on Sky. Even on these odd occasions, one can usually find an establishment with a suitable satellite setup, to watch the match being broadcast by Scandinavian television The armchair fan and all those millions who are unable to secure themselves a highly prized (priced!) seat at The Home Of Football have never had it so good.
Perhaps factors such as flexi-time employment have ensured it is no longer quite such a burning issue. But it wasn't so long ago when many bought their season tickets knowing that they would miss the occasional midweek fixture, yet able to depend on the rigid reliability of the fixture list, because the vast majority of games took place at the same time every Saturday. Whereas these days it is impossible to make any plans too far in advance because a week doesn't go by without our matchday programmes advising us of some change or other being forced upon us by the television schedules.
On Sunday some sadist at Sky lumbered us with a noon kick-off. No doubt so they could squeeze in a performance by the Premiership's current champions (and many - but not me! - would now say champions elect!) as an entertaining appetizer to the main dish of the day. I only live around the corner and I struggled to make kick-off. I can't imagine the labours of those Gooners living in far flung corners of the country getting to Highbury in good time. Mind you I was up most of the night waiting to watch the consummate pay-per-view proof that Roy Jones Jnr. is the best pound for pound puncher in the world. And then I was kicking myself that instead of spending the morning dozing, I stayed awake to watch events from South Africa. I was suckered once again into deluding myself that England might actually have an opportunity of beating Australia in the cricket. We should all know better by now!
However things must be great, if irregular kick-off times are all I have to gripe about. Yet considering the amount of time Arsenal fans spend salivating over the sumptuous entertainment on offer in our encounters these days, it is indicative of the amount of effort that goes into loyally following ones team around this country and Europe that I spent half-time on Sunday chatting with my neighbour about the next round of international fixtures, in terms of Ohaving a week off'.
After schlepping all the way to the Amsterdam ArenA to see a mind-numbingly negative but ultimately pragmatic Ajax and a somewhat uncommitted Arsenal performance produce a boring scoreless draw, Sunday's game was very easy on the eye. Sure it was a bit of a shame because 2-0 up at the break, we should really have ended up with a high-scoring hat full of goals considering some of the sensational approach play in a supremely dominant performance.
Most notable was the marked difference between Sunday's game and the corresponding 2-4 defeat which was a decided low point of last season. On that occasion we were undone by a feisty Charlton side, battling to establish their Premiership rights, with absolutely no respect for the haughty reputations of the home team. Whereas on Sunday they arrived at Highbury on the back of a brilliant run that has brought them to heady heights in the league, on the brink of a top six finish, battling for European qualification, to face a team that was hardly Arsenal's best XI with six changes to the side which started against Ajax on Wednesday.
Perhaps it is because we now have the aura of champions, or more likely it is a result of all the media hype. But with both sides selected from squads which are substantially the same as last season and in spite of Alan Curbishley's admirable efforts to instill the belief in his team's capability of beating any opponent, Charlton didn't appear to offer anywhere near the threat of last term. Just as when we tore City apart in a scintillating ten minute spell last week, we witnessed several more cameo performances which were proof of this squad's indisputably deft skills. Since our swashbuckling start to the season, most Gooners will confirm that for the past few months we certainly haven't been firing on all cylinders as an entire team for 90 minutes (heaven help our opponents when we do!) but in almost every game there are instances of such spellbinding pace and precision that I often find myself leaping to my feet, with openmouthed admiration.
When you consider the sort of dour brand of this ball game we Arsenal fans have been bred on, I often feel the need to pinch myself to verify the privilege of being present to regularly watch such wonderment as the team that has been created in Wenger's image. Without sufficient room to go down on my knees to give thanks, a standing ovation is the least expression of my gratitude.
Charlton were no less energetic in their endeavours to thwart us, closing down in twos and threes, attempting to make up for any deficiency in ability with the distraction of individual brawny battles. Yet as hard asCurbishley might have tried to dispel his side's doubts, just as the previous weekend every time we broke with the likes of Pires or Henry on the ball, you could almost smell our opponent's fear. Moreover in defence, Keown and Campbell's partnership has developed to the point where they now carry themselves with this perceptible Othey shall not pass' attitude which must influence the opposition's approach. Even Seaman seems to have gained a couple of inches in stature compared to the deflated keeper who was looking to disappear into a hole in the ground after his humiliation in Japan. Like the Spunky we've known and loved for years, he is again confidently sprinting out to sweep up at the back (doubtless Dave will now be due a major ricket in our next match and I will be the miscreant who's just put the mockers on him!).
What pleased me most on Sunday was that Arsène was able to make such wholesale changes to the starting line-up. Similar to run-in last season when we were plagued by injuries and suspensions, it doesn't appear to matter how many cogs he substitutes in our engine, the Arsenal machine continues to tick over smoothly. With confidence levels running so high and our opponents having apparently consumed the hype, there doesn't appear to be the same anxiety during the odd instances when we are under the cosh at home. Previously the sense that we were in danger of conceding a goal would have seeped insidiously from the terraces to the pitch, clouding the players judgment. Whereas now I rarely find myself perched on the edge of my seat because I am fairly safe in the knowledge that we are capable of dropping a gear and restoring our advantage by doing damage at the other end.
On Sunday, as has often been the case this season, it has felt like we've been toying with out opponents, rather in the way a cat would paw a mouse before putting its prey out of its misery. And in the respect shown to the panther like Thierry Henry, most appear to make a fundamental error. They seem to fear being embarrassed by his pace should they get too up close and personal, but by allowing themselves the room to react, they merely invite exposure to his incredible acceleration. I often pity the poor defenders left floundering in Henry's wake as he va-va-vooms past.
By putting all his men behind the ball in the Amsterdam ArenA, Ronald Koeman highlighted the paradox of our occasional lacklustre performances in the Champions League. By contrast the sight of Man Utd strutting their stuff against Juve in Turin and the fact that such a dominant performance is so rarely reflected in their recent domestic outings, might lead one to question the current side's appetite for more mundane silverware. The Arsenal's tentative assault on Europe might stem from our failure to date. Like Utd, perhaps all we require is the confidence that comes from putting success behind us. It could be the catalyst for this squad to produce the sort of performances that we all know are within the current side's capabilities, establishing our credentials for a credible claim on the ranking of the likes of Real Madrid.
Meanwhile in all honesty, I was only too happy to be back at Highbury. The Dutch are a truly delightful race and a miserable match aside, Róna and I returned from Amsterdam with a smile on our faces without stepping inside a single Coffee Shop! However one only learns to truly appreciate the sensible crowd control at stadia in this country after travelling all that way, to a magnificent and one of the most modern arenas in the world, only to be faced with the incredibly frustrating and downright dangerous decision to refuse admittance to a few hundred Arsenal fans, until thirty minutes into the match. Following an afternoon sampling the local produce (obviously not the Edam), you couldn't wish for a more chilled out group of Gooners. The Dutch didn't have the wherewithal to cope with our tradition of turning up just before kick-off. Hoping to witness the way in which they honoured Dennis Bergkamp's homecoming, we spent our last few Euros on a taxi and believe it or not, we even managed to arrive early!
Whatever the source of their Dutch courage, in every crowd you can almost guarantee at least one lunatic looking to fight anyone and everyone after having one over the eight. It seems that the second the Dutch stewards were faced with a couple of Arsenal idiots out of their heads, they dealt with the matter by taking the ridiculous decision to close the turnstiles. Stuck outside, going nowhere as the game kicked off, it wasn't long before everyone began to lose their rag. You'd struggle to find a more serene bunch of supporters but as the riot police in full regalia appeared with all the usual subtlety, suddenly the temperature was raised several notches. They were in serious danger of creating an ugly scene of confrontation which was so unnecessary because all anyone wanted was to simply get in the ground to see the game.
Even though the Dutch stewards are regularly forced to deal with fans of Feynoord and PSV, who are apparently so rabid that glass and nets are required to prevent objects being thrown on the pitch, they were for some reason so freaked by the Arsenal fans that they disappeared from our enclosure. As a direct result, after they finally deigned to admit us into the ground and we had accomplished our assault on the SEVEN flights of stairs, there was such total congestion on our area of the terrace, that we were all left trying to concentrate on the last few minutes of the first-half whilst securing a few square inches of concrete on the steps and crammed in the gangways. Thankfully this eased slightly during the break but it was a ridiculous situation that would have been deemed far too dangerous in this country. I dread to think of the disaster which might have ensued in the event of an accident.
After paying a small fortune on the trip and fifty Euros for the ticket only to miss much of the game with the fiasco at the entrance, I could see steam coming out of several ears of those Gooners contemplating their patch of concrete. I don't doubt that there will be an avalanche of angry complaints. Ironically we were all quite grateful for once that the football was nothing to write home about!