Hopefully the Arsenal's Cup Will Continue To Runneth Over

Last updated : 31 January 2005 By Bernard Azulay

If this change was introduced at the start of next season, I'd have no choice but to accept it and at least I'd be a little more prepared. However I am sure I can't be alone in thinking that Róna and I didn't pay over three grand for our season tickets, only to be told halfway through that we can't have a fag at home games. What's more it must have been one of Highbury's more sadistic suits who's inflicted this incredibly annoying change on us immediately prior to what often proves to be one of our most nerve wracking games.

So I guess in this respect, as far as I was concerned last weekend's match against Wolves was a warm up for the real thing. Walking around to Highbury on Saturday I found myself nervously sucking away on several fags, in an effort to raise my nicotine level for the ensuing 90 minutes. I stopped off at the sweet shop to stuff my pockets full of tooth rotting chews as a substitute for the cigs. I'm not sure about preventing lung cancer, or the potential dangers of passive smoking, but without being able to reach for a stress relieving cigarette, there's no doubt your reluctant correspondent is going to end up being dragged kicking and screaming to the dentist's chair!

Both the media and Glenn Hoddle seemed oblivious to the fact that the ref had ignored three decent penalty shouts before awarding us the most debatable of the lot, early in the second half. Hoddle's feeling that we benefited from a Premiership ref's familiarity with our players was typically deluded. Having returned to management, Hoddle merely confirmed that we'll be forced to endure the continued ravings of a crackpot who suffers from the rarefied air of his cloud cuckoo land home.

After instinctively reaching for a calming cancer stick for the past 25 years, every time inconsistent refs like Mike Riley insist on raising my blood pressure, it's a tad unrealistic, if not a little reckless to expect me to stop so suddenly. It's fortunate we sit in the upper tier, or I might've found myself leaping towards the touchline to ensure the lino was a little more focused on events taking place in front of him, by lamping him on the nose!

Having furiously chewed my way through a pack of pastilles, I lasted about 30 minutes before suffering a relapse. A few sarcy comments didn't stop me savouring my first illicit cigarette. And when a feller in front sparked one up a few minutes later, I thought I might've started a revolution. Then it was the fourth official's turn to upset me. I've rarely been quite so bothered by three minutes of injury time. With a fag already in my mouth, I couldn't last that long and had already lit up long before the whistle blew. It would seem that all the regular stewards were far too interested in the match to have spotted the smoke signals which suggested I was flouting the new regulations.

Sadly there's a busybody who sits several seats away in the row behind, with whom I've had more than one run-in in the past. On being moved from our regular seats for European matches, I've had the misfortune to find myself allocated a pitch directly in front of him. He's what I call a 'backseat commentator' who always drives me absolutely barmy, running our own players down with a never-ending stream of nonsensical suggestions of the "you don't wanna do that" nature from one of Harry Enfield's more annoying characters. When he began whinging at the break about me persistently puffing away on the fags, he took offence at my suggestion of a compromise, whereby I would give the fags a rest, if he'd do likewise with his over active gob.

As a result I'm assuming that the overly officious 'redcoat' (one of the 'customer care' type stewardesses who's charged with rounding up and herding the corporate punters) who came running down the stairs to confront me, was acting on information received from this snitch. I was annoyed at myself when I automatically deferred to her authoritative tone and stubbed out my ciggie. Seconds later I was back up the stairs, having borrowed a programme, in order that I could point out that the ban only applied "during the game". I couldn't deny her observation that I'd already broken this rule earlier, but I managed to argue that I was entitled to smoke my head off during half-time.

I believe Thierry Henry is no great fan of penalty taking and would rather not take responsibility when a spot-kick is awarded as a result of his efforts. In the absence of any other eager volunteers on Saturday, I suppose as captain, Vieira probably felt obliged to step up. I'm not sure whether it's a positive sign that Paddy displayed such confidence, or a problem that far more regular goal scorers like Van Persie or Reyes didn't grab the ball out of his hands. Patrick isn't exactly amongst the Gunners' most prolific goalscorers and there were more than a few raised eyebrows when it dawned on us that Paddy was about to attempt to beat the redoubtable Michael Oakes - we've witnessed truly remarkable performances by English/Irish keepers in successive matches at Highbury, both of which had me wondering why we remain lumbered with our two indecisive lummoxes!

Mercifully Paddy found the bottom left-hand corner of the net, or else Oakes would've probably saved it. If Vieira was relieved, I was bloody ecstatic. Since getting the better of the redcoat at the break, I knew my card was marked. I could subsequently sense her eyes burning a hole in the back of my neck. So I didn't dare light up for fear of being ejected. Deprived of the comfort of my Camels, at least going a goal up eased the nerves somewhat and I didn't need to spend the remaining 35 minutes drawing blood, biting the flesh beside my nails (any surplus nail having long since been demolished!). Yet it wasn't until Freddie's goal 5 minutes before the final whistle when I could relax entirely.

Along with a previous scything passing move which also left Paul Ince's combative Wolves side looking like statues, there was a simplicity and a sense of supremacy about our second strike which, similar to our triumph over the Toon, suggested a return to something like our scintillating best. In spite of the lukewarm reception of the Library's blasé 'audience' (prompting Wanderers' supporters to serenade us with a chorus of "2-0 and you still don't sing!"), young Manny Eboué's extremely impressive efforts contributed to a renewed sense of optimism. I assume Arsène will opt for experience on Tuesday night. But personally I'd much prefer to see the more positive threat of Eboué at centre back, instead of the limited defensive skills of Pascal Cygan.

After waiting for months, if we are indeed witnessing the turnaround, then the timing is most ironic considering it coincides with our return encounter with Man U. Although many consider them to be the architects of our recent misfortune, in fact it was the psychological and physical repercussions of our first defeat in fifty games which were responsible (with particular regard to its effect on the approach of all our other opponents).

No matter what the result on Tuesday, in truth I can only imagine Mourinho and his Kings Road cohorts rubbing their hands together with glee as they gloat over the meltdown of one, maybe both team's Premiership challenge. If the Arsenal are to poop Chelsea's party and prevent any possibility of a clean sweep by the bumptious Blues, we must come out of our midweek encounter with our pride intact. Best case scenario would see us riding high come Wednesday, surfing on the crest of a confident wave, all the way to the shores of the Champions League promised land come May.

As a potential play-off for second spot, Tuesday's game might have lost some of its former glamour. Yet in the greater scheme of things it remains a sufficiently crucial encounter as far as both teams' season is concerned that I can't help but suspect an unsatisfactory draw will ensue. In the past I've mercilessly teased the 'part-timers', unable to comprehend how they could possibly depart a match before the final whistle. On Saturday we moved back towards the bulkhead so as to make our usual swift exit on the final whistle. But with the onset of nicotine withdrawals, I'm embarrassed to admit I suggested to Ro that we slip out and watch the remaining minutes of injury time on the screens in the North Bank as we headed home. Not only was I desperate for a fag after 45 minutes but I also imagine much like our players, my mind was already wandering from Wolves, on to the matter of the bigger fish we have to fry.

If I've been kidding myself up until now about how far Chelsea have come, there was no escaping the evidence of Monday's FA Cup draw. There were about about eight balls left in the hat when I hollered out to my missus my panic stricken premonition that we were about to pull the Blues at the Bridge out of the hat (in hope, I guess, of being proved wrong!). When Mark Lawrenson plucked out the Toon as the first of the last four balls, I certainly didn't fancy another schlep North. But there's no denying Chelsea's threat, when the long haul to Tyneside is preferable to a London derby.

It wasn't long ago when there was no-one to fear in the FA Cup draw. Whereas on Monday I was whooping with delight when we avoided the prospect of either Premiership side putting the kibosh on our FA Cup dream. After all, at this precise point in time, the FA Cup is perhaps our best chance of having some silverware to show, for what might ultimately prove to be a frustrating season, if we should end up with a points total which would've proved title winning form in most any previous Premiership term.