And What Is More, You'll Be A Stark Raving Madman, My Son!

Last updated : 17 March 2005 By Bernard Azulay

Having not heard from me on Friday, I'm sure my partner in awayday crimes was hoping he'd got away without going. Nell wasn't exactly enraptured to be roused at 6am Saturday morning. In fact I could have sworn I detected a hint of disappointment as my call disturbed his plans for a leisurely day spent vegetating in front of the box.

However, although he wouldn't have done anything to initiate our outing, much like myself Nell recognised his Gooner duty. The appetites which had been aroused by the dramatic climax to the replay in the last round, had been severly supressed by our prosaic midweek departure from the European party. It was hardly eternal, but hope sprung forth for the last half hour against Bayern, after Henry broke the Huns rugged resistance with a beauty, even from Titi's bulging top drawer. But in truth we were never totally unshackled from the sense that we'd already blown it big time in Bayern's spacious backyard.

Nevertheless the ephemeral line between success and failure in the form of the slightest of glancing touches on Dennis Bergkamp's shot (which would've directed it goalward), ensured that when the floodlights finally failed on yet another Champions League let-down, our annual dose of unfulfilled European expectation was as depressing as ever - actually even more acute than usual amidst all the brouhaha surrounding the admittedly sensational slaying of the Spanish giants by that braggart's Blues!

Perhaps our captain is a disciple of Kipling and familiarity with triumph and (sadly) disaster has taught him to treat these two imposters just the same. Or perhaps Paddy is merely more adept at hiding his pain subcutaneously. Still I'd have expected him to have sufficient savoir-faire to at least have looked a little sheepish after last Wednesday's hollow win.

Instead of which he left me feeling mad as hell as I sat in a local eaterie with my head in my hands watching our captain at an adjacent table, deep in conversation with a pretty damsel, apparently without a care in the world. She certainly wasn't debating with him on the question of why his side were incapable of applying the sort of intensity we saw at the death, any earlier in the evening. Or on the subject of imposters, who's the half-hearted blaggard who's invaded the body of someone who was once one of the greatest midfield generals on the planet?

The shameful chicanery which is fast becoming an insidious ingredient in Vieira's and the Arsenal's game are certainly not amongst the chivalrous principles espoused in Kipling's famous poem. Paddy was never party to this incessant nagging at the ref previously because his feet and the fabulous football was all the conversation that was necessary. Most assume it's a lack of motivation, as it's hard to believe a player who was once so peerless could be prone to the same loss of confidence suffered by mere mortals.

However where once a spidery leg would pick an opponents pocket, or a turn of pace would leave a swarm from the other team feeling foolish, as if they'd been turned over by a "Find The Lady" street trickster, on those infrequent occasions when Paddy rolls up his sleeves these days that effortless ease appears to have evaporated and he has to struggle to impose himself. And those increasingly rare instances when he gets it absolutely right, like against Bayern when he pulled the ball out of the air in the penalty box and conjured up a cracking shot, only serve as poignant reminders of the cavernous hole in our hearts that our captain once filled.

I found myself scoffing at Paddy's programme notes that night. If I didn't know better I'd wonder if they'd been written tongue in cheek, as he detailed his reasons for doing "less running". I think I speak for all Gooners when I say that we preferred the inexperienced youngster who was prone to running "everywhere and nowhere" than the current incarnation who has gleaned the knowledge that he no longer has to run anywhere!

It's almost inconceivable that our captain couldn't find inspiration in his team mate's commitment to the cause. As our frantic forays for that crucial 2nd goal bounced off the Bayern bulwark, it was positively humbling to see a superstar of Henry's status hare almost the length of the pitch to regain possession on the edge of our own area. How fortunate we've been that Henry has played in every league and European game this season. The fact that his finely tuned body eventuallly succumbed to an injury on Saturday didn't make it any easier to get out of bed.

As the impressive spaceship like structure of the Reebok loomed into view on the motorway, we heard Sam Allardyce commenting that if they couldn't fill the gaff for this particular game, then they might as well pack it in. The smattering of unsold seats were not fat Sam's fault. With wall-to-wall TV coverage and "big" games live on the box almost every other day, you'd have to be bonkers to fork out nigh on 40 quid for an inferior view from behind the goal. If Nell needed some encouragement to accompany me on Saturday, there's absolutely no way of convincing him that he can't afford to miss a repeat performance of another midday kick-off (with absolutely no consideration for travelling fans) at Blackburn this weekend.

I guess I'll be going with my imaginary Gooner mates, since I must be a candidate for the men in the white coats after going all the way to Bolton merely to miss the only goal of the game. It's the perfect definition of a dilemma, not knowing whether to be vexed at Freddie for scoring just as we were clambering up the stairs to our seat, or to jump for joy, having got one foot in the semi even without Titi.

Unlike poor Spurs, I am delighted that our season isn't over and we still have some silverware to play for. But I am pissed off at the nincompoops who've managed to dilute that special May day final by playing the semis at Cardiff. It's an awkward and expensive outing that is only justifiable when there's a trophy on offer. However there is little more painful a prospect than the losers long schlep home from the semis, inching ones way out of Wales to the haunting tune of the victors car horns. Roll on April, I can't wait!