Come in Mr. Ferguson - Your Time Is Up

Last updated : 19 October 2004 By Bernard Azulay

Never mind the efforts of the 22 on the pitch, or the 38,000 on the terraces, I was going to be personally culpable by choosing to forego my first home game in yonks, hopefully in favour of catching a week's worth of sunshine to coincide with the Panathinaikos match, before freezing my cods off with the onslaught of winter proper.

Mercifully I couldn't have been more wrong. As I sat savouring six hours of live Premiership footie on Saturday with the warm waters of the Med gently lapping on the beach a mere few feet behind the massive plasma screen in Costa's Cafe, with the sun splitting the palm trees, positively revelling in the thought of seven whole days of 80 degree warmth on a package holiday which has cost about fifty quid less than the Arsenal travel club's official day trip, I realised it wasn't all bad!

Especially when either side of a sublime footballing masterclass by the Gunners I found myself watching an hors d'ouevres from St. Andrews and a desert from the City of Manchester stadium which both suggested that the Arsenal's performances are currently on another plane to those of Man Utd and Chelsea. With all that firepower on the pitch, I was certain Utd were going to grab their almost obligatory last gasp winner. Yet with the moans from the smattering of Man U fans seated around me in the bar as Alan Smith's late volley sailed inches wide, I couldn't help wonder if it wasn't indicative of the turning tide many have been talking about?

In the past we Gooners have grown accustomed to greeting any encounter immediately after an International break with some trepidation. Whereas these days one gets a sense that it is liberating for many of our lot to escape from the frustrations of playing with an unfamiliar bunch of individual stars and the immense pressure of performing for their country, to the magical climate Wenger has concocted at Highbury, where there is an intuitive bond between the Gunners which is guaranteed to bring the best out of them. There was a 3 page spread in L'Equipe pondering the enigma that is Thierry Henry's apparent
failure to produce the goods for Les Bleus, compared to his immense contribution to the Arsenal's success. You only had to witness Jose Reyes' perfectly weighted through ball for Titi's goal on Saturday to realise that there is no great mystery to the instinctive understanding between those who spend all week working on the timing of their team mates' runs, to a point where it is downright obvious on a match day how much they enjoy expressing the fruits of their labours.

I was tempted to stretch out on the beach outside and bathe in the gentle rays of the setting sun because I didn't fancy it was likely that Keegan's leaky City ship could do us any favours. But I lingered for my third successive match in somewhat confusing circumstances, where the Premiership footie had been relegated to a regular TV, so that the locals could take in Panathinaikos' performance on the big screen above, in a game against one of the eight Athenian teams in Greece's top division. As a rule I hate watching football in pubs and the like, as I find the conversations of those around me far too much of a distraction to be able to focus properly. However watching two games at the same time was an interesting proposition. On the assumption that Chelsea were bound to equalise before long and with more than a passing interest in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of our prospective Champions League opponents I began to focus on the local footie.

Our extremely welcoming host wasn't the least bit put out by the fact that I didn't fit the stereotypical bill, as I nursed a couple of lemon Fantas all afternoon instead of quaffing large quantities of alcohol. At least my Ma's toastie made me feel a little less guilty about abusing their hospitality. Ma might be over 70, but she's so hale and hearty that she'll doubtless outlive the lot of us. Nevertheless ever since a Gooner mate's tale of being showered by a hail of coins on his last visit to the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, I've been more than a little concerned about bringing her to the match with us tonight. Contrary to our particularly nasty confrontations with the lunatic fringe of their Turkish neighbours, much of the attraction about travelling to Greece is the fact that in general they are such an incredibly genial race.

After pointing out on the screen the exact location of our seats in the stadium our host went out of his way to reassure me about Ma's safety. The amazing atmosphere and the colourful spectacle at the start of this league game certainly whetted my appetite for tonight's big match and I would love her to experience it in person. According to the TV pictures the local constabulary are none too concerned about the smuggling in of all sorts of incendiary devices (flares, fireworks and the like), but he advised us that our coins might be confiscated. Hopefully at least this suggests I need not fret about another Euro shower.

I soon sussed out from the assortment of appreciative "ooh"s and grimacing "aah"s when to divert my attention to the screen below to ensure I didn't miss anything in either match. Earlier in the afternoon another waiter was tasked with constantly keeping the locals abreast of the scores and the scorers in the other Premiership games from the Teletext on another TV. From the rejoicing which greeted the news of the Scousers remarkable turn around at Craven Cottage, it was evident that their interest wasn't just a matter of partisan pride.

I managed to pick up the odd Greek phrase many years ago in my college days. If the scholastic value of my time spent there was suspect, I certainly learned a few painful life lessons on the rare occasion that I was suckered into a card school which was largely restricted to a bunch of Cypriot lads. It was a big mistake because all these guys had been gambling with one another since nursery school. So while they all merely adjusted long standing debts after every hand, I would be the only one having to dig far too deep into my pockets each time. Consequently my introduction to a few choice Greek curses cost me a small fortune! However the intonation is invariably a dead giveaway to swearing in any language. The raucous cussing around the room confirmed that there was more than a few Euros riding on the outcome of several Premiership games.

Although it wasn't just financial gain which had the Greeks rooting for Man City. It was most interesting to note that it is not just in Britain where we find Abramovich's ostentatious efforts to buy his way to the big prizes so abhorrent. Apparently his Blues are now faced with universal vilification from all footie fans. Other revelations from the locals left me feeling relieved that we won't be going through Athens airport until Friday night. I hadn't realised that in addition to our match, there will be an invasion by both Boro and the Toons for UEFA Cup matches in Athens on Thursday.

To my mind it sounds like a ridiculous recipe for disaster to have two derby sides playing two Athenian derby sides. If UEFA had sufficient sense to flag the situation as a possible source of problems, why on earth could they not have pre-empted this potential powder keg by simply reversing one of the two fixtures. As I explained to my new mates in the bar, with a combination of sun, cheap booze and the almost inevitable confrontation with their fiercest local rivals, if there's no aggro with the Athenians, they'll probably end up bashing each others' brains out! If I didn't know better, it sounds like a scenario engineered to instigate just the sort of kerfuffle which could scupper Britain's hopes of hosting any major sporting events in the near future.

Meanwhile on the topic of Machiavellian machinations, is it just me who finds Fergie's fiendishly contrived efforts to fan the flames of our forthcoming clash somewhat comical? "The worst thing I've seen in this sport" surely Sir Alex is having a larf. Never mind about Cantona's kung-fu kick, what about Keane's malice aforethought in his career ending assault on Haaland. Moreover it was a hypocritical tirade coming from the manager who's more guilty than most of sending his team out to kick us up in the air, intent on making us forget our focus. They sounded like the ravings of a desperate man, who, after Saturday's showing was struggling for some ammunition with which to even out the contest. On paper both sides present a formidable prospect, but even the most biased Red Devil can't ignore the current difference in form on the pitch.

In pandering to Fergie's pontificating the media are no better. I'm reminded how the rat-pack rushed to the press room to catch the replay of the aggressive playground posturing after our infamous last encounter at Old Trafford. The entire room burst into fits of laughter as we were all tickled by the Arsenal's, albeit childish, antics, before they went on to hang, draw and quarter the participants in the Monday papers. I'll warrant we won't have to wait long for the first clattering challenge on Sunday and I'll eat my hat if it isn't the home team making a concerted effort to attempt to encourage the Arsenal to lose their collective rag!