Spring Has Sprung, And A Young Man's Fancy Turns To....

Last updated : 05 April 2005 By Bernard Azulay
The scent of Spring wafted in through the window as I opened it on Saturday morning (or was it just the smell of new mown grass outside our flat?). Living so close to the ground, with the windows open, one can sense the approaching kick-off of a home game from the sounds outside. The increased traffic as cars search in vain for somewhere legal to park, the footsteps on the pavement and the chatter of eager Gooners heading to Highbury. Finally it is the muffled sound of the tannoy, as the stadium announcer begins his spiel which signals that it's time to pull my finger out.

With almost a month passing since our last home match and with the sun beaming down out of a bright blue sky, the air of anticipation was even greater than usual. Especially with the prospect of facing relative cannon fodder like Norwich and with the Gunners returning to some semblance of the team which is capable of the most scintillating football. In the sunshine, on a surface which is returning to its snooker baize like best, there was a feeling that we were in for a bit of a spectacle.

My pre-match home game rituals had begun the night before. Having had two cars stolen from outside our Highbury home, it works out much more reasonable to have both our cars registered at my Ma's address, since she is one street away from a London postcode (although according to our insurance, her tiny garage must be something of a Tardis to accommodate all three vehicles!). Unfortunately this means we are unable to apply for a free residents match-day parking permit. Up until Friday, this meant that I had to move both cars a couple of hundred yards, across Green Lanes and into the borough of Hackney for every home game. I knew the dreaded day was coming, ever since they painted white lines for parking bays along the streets where I usually leave the cars. However Friday turner out to be D-day as I discovered to my horror that the entire area is now governed by resident parking permit regulations.

Mercifully I managed to find one street right across the other side of Clissold Park, which remains virgin territory. Up until then I'd envisaged an even more bizarre ritual of having to drive both cars all the way to my Ma's in Edgware before every home match. Although I'm relieved we only have three home games left this season, since I'm now faced with the prospect of a couple of mile hike to park both cars on the night prior to each of these home games. Heaven only knows what we'll do next season if Hackney introduces permit restrictions in what appears to be the last remaining unregulated street!

Sitting at home with my feet up on a Friday night, putting off the long trek that is now involved in this two car shuffle is going to feel like more trouble than it's worth. Yet one glimpse of a brief burst of the balletic grace that is Thierry Henry with the ball at his feet and all such problems pale into insignificance. It seems Titi has returned after his enforced absence, with his appetite renewed and with an enthusiasm that is positively infectious.

There were some signs up at Blackburn that Jose Reyes had finally managed to break out of the box that had us Gooners cast him as an entirely hopeless, homesick harridan. According to the 'no smoke without fire' theory, the constant whispers of his contact with Real have most believing that Reyes is intent on returning to Spain. 'Que sera, sera' but it was a relief on Saturday to finally witness the sort of performance we'd originally seen from the incredibly eager young pup who arrived at Highbury. Reyes' industry and artistry should've been rewarded with a goal and in spite of being on a hat-trick and rapidly closing in on Ian Wright's goal scoring record, the selfless Henry still tried to set one up on a plate for his Spanish team mate.

Another foolhardy flap at a cross by our German clown of a keeper might have gifted the visitors a goal, yet despite conceding our first clean sheet in three games, only the East-Anglian supporters who've spent too much time in the company of sheep could've mistaken the semblance of respectability this gave to the half-time scoreline. I spied Delia through my binoculars at the break, sitting at the front of the directors' box, resplendent in her Canary yellow top. Her fellow Norwich fans have developed her infamous "Let's be having you" speech into an amusing chant. Yet all the vocal support in the world wasn't going to alter the fact that this was in truth a 'no contest' affair.

During the second half I found myself breaking into spontaneous outbursts of "Olé". It was the most appropriate form of appreciation as Titi tormented the opposition, throwing matador like shapes that left the lumbering bull stamping the grass in frustration as Titi defied his opponents to make another pointless charge at a ball, which Thierry controlled with the deftness of a matador's red cape. It took him just over an hour to put the opposition to the sword. When our fourth goal finally came, it felt like a mercy killing.

Personally I'd prefer to see Norwich stay up, as I enjoy an annual outing to East-Anglia. Yet I'm afraid it's patently obvious why they are in such a predicament, as I don't think we've faced at team at Highbury who've looked more like relegation fodder. Although it made for an entertaining afternoon, as we were allowed to paint pretty passing patterns around their penalty area, virtually unchallenged, it was this lack of fight that I found surprising.

The likes of West Brom, Soton and even Palace had demonstrated far more mettle but then I guess they didn't have the misfortune to come up against us in such fine form. Not for the first time, on several occasions I found myself muttering under my breath "For gawd's sake somebody shoot" as we attempted to pass our way into the goalmouth. However it was hard to feel angry when they were obviously having so much fun getting there and producing such fine entertainment on the way.

If only we were facing a Champions League quarterfinal this week, I'd fancy us to mullah Bayern Munich. I fear Chelsea might dispose of the German side without hardly raising a sweat, thereby proving quite how poorly we performed against them. It's funny because prior to his long-term injury, most Gooners used to wonder exactly what it was Wenger saw in Gilberto. Whereas now, since his absence has coincided with such a dramatic dip in our form, everyone has begun to believe that the Brazilian's inconspicuous presence is the key to our success, much like the influence Makalele once seemed to wield when playing for Real Madrid.

Although it was only Norwich, there was evidence on Saturday that our Brazilian World Cup winner has been a much-missed barrier in front of a defence that has seemed so much shakier without him. I was chatting to someone who works at the club and he was telling me that they'd been pulling Gilberto's leg. As week by week we've grown ever more certain that our problems might be cured by his presence, I am sure Gilberto won't have realised that he's been subject to this ever increasing weight of expectation. So while in the past no-one was quite sure exactly what he did on the pitch, they were now informing him that he was going to have to be bloody brilliant when he returns!

Apart from the occasional comment about his greed, there was little evidence on Saturday to confirm media suggestions that we Gooners would "have it in" for Ashley Cole. With so few players coming through the ranks these days, I would be very disappointed if we lost Ashley. So long as he continues doing it out on the park, where it matters, I don't think we Gooners will bear a grudge. Besides, from the little I've perceived, for the sake of five grand, the club could have avoided the entire saga. From what I understand the situation only arose after the club attempted to 'schtup' him for this relatively meagre sum when it came to a well-deserved wage increase.

I also find myself getting wound up by the way in which the media take the moral high ground over the fisticuffs at St. James, when they always take advantage of our interest in the fact that passions run so high in football, to flog their bloomin' papers in the first place. There was great interest in the West Upper on Saturday when I informed everyone about this fracas. The consensus of opinion was that it couldn't have happened to two "nicer" blokes!

Having found myself absolutely engrossed in the fabulous 'Contender' series on ITV, I'm convinced there¹s a ratings winner in a reality TV series involving Premiership clubs settling their differences in the boxing ring. You couldn't find a more archetypal brains v brawn, boxer v slugger scenario than Arsène v Alex. We'd be queuing up in our millions to watch this! Similarly I am sure Match Of The Day must have had more viewers than usual on Saturday night. Any disgust expressed towards Dyer and Bowyer hardly comes across as sincere, when so many of us tuned in, turned on by the prospect of seeing these two slieveens attempt to punch each other's lights out!