Things That Go Bump In The Park

Last updated : 13 September 2004 By Bernard Azulay

Blighted by back pain, I was bitterly disappointed that I was forced to take a rain-check when we played there previously. At the time it looked like I might have missed out on my first and last visit to the Cottage. Al Fayed appeared to be about to vent his passport frustrations and incur the wrath of the footballing world as he cashed in on his investment in this ancient stadium and its very desirable riverside pitch by turning it into prime residential real-estate. Mercifully Mohammed changed his mind but I'd missed out on a sentimental last opportunity to stand at a Premiership game. Having returned this summer from their two season sojourn at Loftus Road, to a redeveloped 22,000 all seater stadium, nothing was going to prevent me making my first trip to Fulham's 105 year old ground this time. Still an hour or so before Saturday's kick-off it felt as if there was a conspiracy to keep us away.

With Rona accompanying me, we didn't want to leave our energetic pooch on its own without making sure she'd had plenty of exercise first, so she'd sleep in our absence without tearing the flap apart. I was walking her in Clissold Park (the mutt not the missus!) when Treacle spotted two of her mates in the distance and began barreling off in that direction. I knew she only wanted to play, but for the other dog owner, the sight of this ferocious looking heffalump bearing down upon you must be absolutely horrifying. We were about twenty yards apart when she began making a beeline for the other dogs and with her incorrigible "one word from me and she does as she wants" obstinacy, she was oblivious to me hollering for her to halt. I only hope there were some spectators to appreciate what happened because I imagine my subsequent pratfall must have appeared particularly hilarious. As I dashed diagonally in an attempt to cut the dog off, I was trying to fix Treacle's gaze and I galloped at full pelt into a ruddy great big tree.

I felt like such a laughing-stock as I limped straight home with blood dripping from lacerations on my fingers and shoulder. Even the dog seemed to find it funny! As a result we were already running late when I sat down at the computer to check exactly where we were going on one of those wonderful map web sites. I was amazed because I've driven along Fulham Palace Road so many times over the years and never knew I was so close to Craven Cottage. Then as we readied ourselves to walk out the door, I ticked the superstitious essentials off my awayday mental checklist, radio, binoculars etc. until I reached the last which is always the tickets and realised that the two tickets I'd taken out of the envelope moments earlier had now turned into one.

It was one of those baffling situations because I hadn't been anywhere, With the clock ticking down towards kick-off I began to panic, turning the living room upside down. Naturally it was Rona's ticket that was lost and by the time I'd got to lifting the couch up for her to look underneath in case it had somehow grown legs and walked, I was beginning to wonder if I was going bonkers and imagined that there were two. After about fifteen minutes I gave up searching in vain all over the flat. Knowing that there were only a few places that it could logically be, I sat down to try and calmly retrace my steps. It was certainly a hard learned lesson not to leave the dirty dishes. No sooner had I remembered clearing up, than I went to the sink and found it stuck to the underside of a plate!

It was quite some feat making it to Fulham in only 40 minutes, where I dropped Ró off as close as possible before circling to search for a parking pitch. Arriving at my seat ten minutes into the match, I was relieved to discover I'd missed nothing much. Yet my personal little drama wasn't finished. In my haste I'd left my phone in the car and so I spent the first-half in a flap thinking it would be lying on the seat. I might just as well have left a neon sign for some n'er do well to smash my window. The stewards were happy to let me out at half-time. But I spent the first five minutes trying to persuade one who couldn't guarantee he'd still be there on my return, to grant me some assurance of re-admittance. And the next ten hauling my aching body to the car and back before he disappeared. At least this meant I was able to relax and enjoy the second half. For once we even saw ourselves celebrating our eventual triumph on telly later that night.

Before the break the two penalty incidents had cancelled each other out but even as a loyal Gooner, it was hard to argue against the fact that Fulham should have been a goal to the good. My greatest cause for concern now is that with all the media brouhaha about the Arsenal getting the benefit of the doubt (believe me we've had our fair share of dodgy decisions), it is almost inevitable that we're going to end up coming off worse in any controversial circumstances in the immediate future.

The weekend's catalogue of refereeing cock-ups have resulted in renewed calls for the use of a third eye. Yet the debatable decisions are part and parcel of football's charm and the pundits seem to forget, what would they have to pontificate about if there weren't any arguments. Besides in some cases TV replays only add to the uncertainty. Along with all the Gooners gathered behind that goal on Saturday I was convinced it was an amazing tackle by Ashley Cole but with each replay over the weekend, I was less and less sure. I am certain that if the penalty shouts had occurred at opposite ends of the pitch the crowd reaction would have convinced the referee. The ref deserves some credit for coming out and trying to explain afterwards but unfortunately his confused comments have resulted in the uproar about a dangerous precedent.

The objections of the Arsenal players weren't anything out of the ordinary. They certainly weren't so vehement as to inspire Halsey's historic volte-face. Truth be told there must have been some doubt in his mind from the moment he blew the whistle. He wasn't best placed to award the pen and a combination of the spontaneous expressions of utter disbelief from those of us behind the goal (who'd had a better view) and the Gunners' dismay only added to these doubts, to the point where he sought a second opinion from his assistant. With a similar view to us Gooners, the lino was able to confirm "he got the ball". If only Halsey had been able to explain with more clarity there would be no suggestion that he was encouraging players to crowd the ref and try to intimidate them in future.

And whilst I'm having my tu'penny worth on the week's controversies, I can't believe the furore over the England player's protest. When was the last time you heard a footballer say anything worth listening to? Personally I prefer them to let their feet do the talking. Also after Mourinho's song and dance about Drogba's penalty appeal at Villa Park, I'm flabbergasted that the pundits failed to draw attention to the fact perhaps Didier's deserts were not so just because he made such a meal of the fall. His theatrical collapse was more dramatic than my collision with the tree!

In a week when we Gooners are gearing ourselves up for all the stress that goes with the serious business of another Champions League campaign, after 45 games unbeaten and our perfect start to the season, with Reyes scoring six in six and an astonishing average of almost four goals a game, my own elevated expectations are tempered by thoughts of last season's fiasco against Inter and the fact that we might have fallen at the first if not for a last minute strike against Kiev. Personally I feel that our prospects improve every year in direct proportion to the increased respect the Arsenal have earned across the continent. Meanwhile I just pray that the Arsenal aren't brought down to earth against PSV with a similar bump.