Dutchman's Foot Plugs The Arsenal's Dyke

Last updated : 08 November 2004 By Bernard Azulay

Yet on this occasion I am relatively pleased to report that football does indeed remain "a funny old game".

Amongst the throng of presumptuous Gooners gathered in the street outside the Gunners pub before Saturday's game there was a consensus of opinion that it was not a case of if we would bounce back from the upset at Old Trafford, but by how many! It's not just the bookies who must be rubbing their hands with glee, revelling in the beautiful game's fairly consistent ability to confound the form book, but I also find it quite reassuring that the likes of lowly Southampton can come to Highbury and make a mockery of all those purveyors of gloom and doom about the increasing predictability of the Premiership, with the South coast artisans being only a whisker away from bringing the aristocrats of the Arsenal to their knees. My main regret on this particular weekend is that I wish West Brom had managed to do likewise, instead of conceding four goals to the Kings Road mercenaries, so that we might have maintained some breathing room at the summit.

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. Admittedly I only saw our last Highbury appearance on a TV screen in a Grecian bar. At the time I was extremely concerned that we were coming back from an International break and were involved in a contest again the team managed by the person likely to get the most pleasure from bringing down the mighty Arsenal. Although after the Dubliner has appeared to do his level best to turn Arsenal fans against him these past few years, I can't help but wonder if O'Leary's efforts to ingratiate himself have anything to do with the fact that an opportunity to return to the Highbury fold, relatively speaking, might be a little more imminent?

However while TV coverage might fail to convey the work which takes place off the ball, one of the advantages is all the close ups portraying the participants expressions. As a result, my abiding impression from the incredible entertainment on offer in the Villa game were the unmistakable signs of pleasure seen on the Arsenal players' faces. These were multimillion pound superstars playing football for fun, demonstrating the exact same sort of enjoyment levels of a group of lads having a kickabout on Hackney Marshes.

Introduce the slightest element of pressure and the picture suddenly changes. On Saturday I was struck by the dramatic changes in the body language. Previously we were a team playing with the supreme confidence of knowing that to triumph, it was just a matter of turning on the sublime style which puts us on another plane to ordinary footballing mortals. Whereas against Southampton we regularly witnessed the frowns and overt demonstrations of frustration when anything went awry. To my eyes there was a big difference between the fun-filled afternoon which resulted in victory against Villa and a game where they had to graft because a result was paramount.

Personally I tend to avoid gambling as I would the plague, doubtless because much like my team, I am such a dreadful loser. Yet I understand that when involved in a hand of cards, it is a fatal mistake to let slip to those on the other side of the table that you simply can't afford to lose. Well it was as obvious to me as I'm sure it was to Southampton that we couldn't afford a second successive defeat on Saturday. Otherwise the hiccup of a single loss to one of our main competitors would have become a tabloid dream of a Highbury crisis.

It took nearly half a century of games for the Arsenal to develop a swagger on the pitch which sometimes suggests they are toying with their opponents and for the majority of the rest of the Premiership to display the sort of timid respect which only compounds our dominance. Yet although our supremacy has been built on the solid foundations of several seasons worth of success a season, from experience we know that it remains an extremely fragile veneer of self-confidence which can be undermined in an instant. Without Van Persie's last gasp goal it might have been shattered over the course of a couple of games.

Despite Thierry Henry and some of his team mates performing for much of the afternoon with faces like a smacked arse, compared to the smiles which prevailed on the pitch against Villa, it didn't stop them from producing some of the most scintillating football. We might have failed on the all important number of balls in the back of the old onion bag, but I remain in absolute awe of the breathtaking beauty of the amazing artistry on offer each week. During almost every game the abilities of this Arsenal side invariably leave me dumbstruck at some point, marvelling in silence without the words to express how privileged we are to watch these ultimate exponents of the beautiful game perform live. Or occasionally I might scream aloud the single word exclamation that this is "football!" bearing witness to the sort of stylish skills which must have been on someone's mind when they thought of the 'beautiful game' moniker.

If I'm not convinced, Rona assures me that there can be no doubt as to Thierry's intentions, when in the second-half he casually flicked the ball over the head of their left-back. For my money there was a millisecond before he realised he was best placed and engaged the afterburners to receive his own pass. It was one of the many 'worth the price of admission alone' moments. Ironically, in my humble opinion, a contributing factor in our occasional inability to finish weaker teams off is that perhaps we now often have too many options when going forward. In the past, knowing instinctively where he was in relation to the goal Titi wouldn't even have needed to look up before cutting in from the left flank for an attempt on goal. Nowadays he invariably has the choice to pass the goal scoring responsibility on. In this instance, with a narrow angle on goal and Ljungberg and Pires waiting in the box, he chose to put one on a plate for his team mates. Pires was also able to pass on it but sadly Freddie's shot was too close to the keeper, enabling Niemi to pull off a good save.

I am not certain it endures in the current side with quite the same indefatigable resolve of the Arsenal of old but that last minute equaliser was nevertheless testament to the 'never say die' spirit of this squad. Yet it bugs the hell out of me to think that otherwise Highbury's fickle faithful would have probably booed their team off. Not only did Van Persie's goal get Freddie off the hook but without it my Corkonian guests probably wouldn't have ever been invited back. It was there presence that was on my superstitious mind when Southampton took a shock lead, as it wasn't until I was showing them to the correct entrance earlier that they happened to mention that their last pilgrimage to the Home of Football coincided with our loss to Leeds!

Most of all I was delighted for the kid who'd been sitting in the row in front of us. It was evident from the youngster's hollering that he was desperate that a rare outing to Highbury shouldn't result in a defeat. He was almost in tears as he beseeched his heroes to pull something out of the bag. At least we didn't miss all the euphoria of this climactic ending, like many of the 'part-time' Gooners who are in the bemusing habit of leaving before the final whistle. But I was a bit gutted because by that late stage we'd left our seats in the front rows to head for one of the abandoned pitches at the back to be near the bulkhead for a quick exit.

It's a terrible time of year for Treacle, our monster of a mutt, because she's so traumatised by the fireworks. So we don't like to leave her alone any longer than absolutely necessary. Sadly as a result Ro and I could only imagine the ecstatic reaction of this emotional child as I squeezed the very breath out of my missus, celebrating the sort of goal which is worth as much, if not more than any winner. We would have both loved to have been high-fiving it this kid, to see all the anguish evaporate in an instant, as he and everyone else all departed Highbury very jolly Gooners.