Blackburn or Bust!

Last updated : 13 April 2005 By Bernard Azulay

Levered in between matches against lowly Norwich and Boro, it felt odd to have our faces pressed up against the windows of a big Champions League week, with nothing to get excited about except our forthcoming FA Cup semi against Blackburn. But then I guess we've become a little blasé about reserving our annual seat at Europe's top table. As the object of most other footie fans' jealousy these past few seasons, it's probably a good lesson in humility to know what it feels like for those supporters who habitually spend every season on the outside, looking in at the success of others.

Although I would have much preferred to witness the Arsenal putting it into practice, it was good to see the Scousers prove my theory on how Continental sides struggle to cope with games played at a frenetic Premiership pace. Used to more sedate circumstances, where they've time on the ball to build the play in their own half, for the first 20 minutes of this match Juve looked like scared rabbits, caught in the headlight glare of the Scousers' gung-ho game plan. Despite the Italians' wealth of experience, the pressure of Liverpool's constant pressing left the visitors in fear of being caught in possession of a ball, which soon became like a hot potato.

If it was frustrating for me, gawd only knows how the Scousers must have felt? After their first-half tonking of the Old Lady of Turin, it was as if the enormity of the home team's achievement only began to dawn on them during the 15 minute break. Instead of building on their 2 goal lead to take the tie outright, they appeared to completely choke on their unexpected success. I think Liverpool might have blown it but if I was supporting the Scousers in the hope they'd do their bit to increase this countries (confusing?) European coefficient, the same certainly wasn't true the following night.

As a child, I can distinctly recall my disappointment when my bragging rights disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived, with my dad's announcement that he didn't dare keep the flash new company car he'd just driven home in. He'd come to take me for a ride in the sporty looking BeeMer but his old man, the rabbi, would have a heart-attack at the shame of his son turning up in their street at the wheel of a Bavarian made motor (never mind that most of his old Ford was manufactured in the Fatherland!). Bearing this in mind, it's a reflection of my enmity felt towards Mourinho's mob that I actually found myself supporting Bayern.

Sadly the German champs don't have a lot going for them aside from the typically Teutonic traits of being super fit and frustratingly well organised. So to avoid the agony of watching the Blues batter them in the way we should and could have done if we'd encountered Bayern on current form, I tuned into the Milan derby instead. My closest Gooner mate suffers badly from constant baiting by his Blue supporting pals. I'm always advising him that he can expect nothing less if he continues to keep such low-life company. With the score at 4-1 my phone chirruped with a text to tell me that he was going into hiding

My experience of football's unpredictability is such that I usually avoid prophesy of any sort. I made an exception to assure him that if Chelsea should beat Juve (Liverpool?) in the semis, our joy will be so much sweeter watching Milan win a boring final by a single goal, knowing how much more traumatic it'll be for the Blues to be denied when they are in touching distance of the trophy.

On Friday night I met another Gooner at the Arsenal tube station to hand over 2 spare tickets for Boro. I was relieved they'd taken heed of my advice. Boro is far too long a schlep for these 2 Essex Gooners to be left outside the ground awaiting on my tardy arrival. Perhaps subconsciously I was already preparing not to travel as we lingered just long enough for a brief exchange on how barmy we were, undertaking this marathon trek for a relatively meaningless match. Although we agreed that just such arduous outings were obligatory in order to pay our Gooner dues. Hopefully we'll be able to savour this weekend's semifinal success far more than those who only appear out of the away game woodwork for more glamorous occasions.

Once again I'd been blown out by my regular awayday partners in crime. Unsurprisingly, as the season peters out they are all suffering from 'part-timeritis'. Whereas I must maintain my religious attendance record, if I'm to retain piss-taking rights over these fairweather pals! Moreover this column would hardly count as "Terrace Talk" if I didn't stray out of my armchair!

Since Rona couldn't abandon Treacle, our dog, all day to accompany me to Teeside, I'd have preferred to let the train take the strain. But after shelling out a hundred quid for semi-final tickets and with an expensive weekend in Cardiff to come (if we are to avoid a nightmare of a motorway journey on the day), the further expense of an exorbitant 84 quid train ticket was out of the question. However when Saturday came, I simply couldn't face 8-9 hours on the road for an 800km round trip with just my
radio for company.

As hard as I've tried, I've never had a taste for booze. When I've been out for an evening in the Emerald Isle, I'll usually sit nursing a drink all night as otherwise folks stare at you as if you're an extra-terrestrial. Yet I'm no teetotaler. I'm just a boring sod who'd rather a cup of tea than an alcoholic beverage. Even if I liked a tipple, I wasn't about to head down to one of the many pubs with dodgy live coverage on some Chinese satellite channel. I detest watching footie in such circumstances because I find I can't concentrate with all the distractions. Besides, I'd already dished out loads of stick about being one of the few loyal Gooners actually going to the game. I wouldn't condone lying, but I was tempted to keep my head down for the day and leave all my mates under the misapprehension that I'd been to the match.

At first I was quite looking forward to a rare opportunity to check out an Arsenal match on my computer, via one of the live feeds from Kuwait, Korea or some such distant corner of the globe, which I've often heard others armchair fans gab about. Yet come 3 o'clock I was tearing my hair out, as I couldn't even rustle up radio commentary, let alone live pictures of events at the Riverside. You can find TV channels online showing live coverage of everything from basketball in Bolivia to camel racing in Qatar. I even joined the proverbial three men and a dog who were standing on the touchline, watching a lowly Serie Z match on the idyllic island of Capri.

Travelling around the country, I'm always amazed to hear live commentary from such unlikely outposts as Macclesfield or Doncaster. There was a time when you could almost guarantee a London station would make the logical choice of broadcasting live the local team which was playing furthest afield. I imagine the advent of the clubs' individual web sites, with new income streams from their own online commentary, has encouraged the extortionate price hikes which have put paid to coverage on some local radio stations. By this stage I would've willingly stumped up to listen on AFCi, but sadly their service won't work on my Apple Mac.

I had to make do with the occasional round-ups from around the grounds. But at least all my efforts meant that I ended up neglecting my annual mug punters bet on the Grand National. And as events at Aintree transpired, at least I wasn't the only Gooner having a bad day as I watched with dismay at poor Tony McCoy¹s incredible misfortune. However having seen Boro buried by a 9 goal avalanche in our last two enthralling league encounters, I guess if I was going to miss one game, it was lucky that it turned out to be this lacklustre affair.

Additionally afterwards I was able to sit back and savour coverage of the unlikely shenanigans at Carrow Road (or Letsbe Avenue!). I would've been gutted to have missed the pictures of Fergie's apoplectic reaction to Utd's indolent efforts. What a complete contrast from the absolute lack of fighting spirit we'd witnessed from the Canaries the previous weekend. And if Utd don't look particularly interested in the race for runners up spot right now, just you wait until Rio and co. realise they're required to cut their Caribbean holidays in half to return for pre-season training 2 weeks before everyone else.

Needless to say Saturday was the first time I've been really grateful for Sky's interactive facility. At least I got the gist of the Gunners lame performance (and how lucky we'd been) in the hour-long highlights package that night. Keep it under your hat, but starved of my regular fix of live footie, I sent a text to my Spurs mate who's on his holyers in the States, to see if his ticket was going begging at White Hart Lane. Thankfully his seat was taken, so I didn't turn up at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road on Sunday (I know not if Newcastle had a similar excuse as apparently neither did they!), or else I might have missed one of the best matches I've seen all season long.

My brother-out-of-law, Con Murphy is the Spanish footie aficionado in our family. Yet out of curiosity I tuned into 'El Classico', if only to suss out how Gio Van Bronckhorst continues to fool the rest of the footballing world into thinking he's a left-back. When Zidane flew in to head home Real's first on 7 mins, his commitment was such that he head-butted the goal-post, causing Gerry Armstrong to enquire "What's he on?" But right from the off Real went for Barca's throat with such eagerness that I want to know what their entire team was on. They appeared pumped up with the same sort of explosive fervour which aided Ben Johnson's 100m flight in 9.84secs in Atlanta. Sod the establishment begrudgers, or the risks of atrophied goolies come retirement (how much worse can it be than the hernias they'll suffer walking around with their wedged up wallets?), might I humbly suggest Arsène Wenger bungs a few drops of the same into the Lucozade bottles before we meet Blackburn this Saturday!