2004 - Never Again?

Last updated : 11 May 2004 By Bernard Azulay

Admittedly I started to get a bit panicky stuck in traffic on the Marylebone Rd. My tickets had disappeared in the post for the umpteenth time this season. Far be it for me to cast aspersions on the Arsenal Box Office, or I might never again see another ticket. But the lousy state of the British postal service always seems to be a far too convenient an excuse.

So needing to pick up duplicates on the day, I was fretting over whether there would still be anyone there to collect them from, by the time I arrived. I wasn't the only one worrying. With Ro on babysitting duties for her granddaughter, I'd arranged to let a friend of a friend have my spare ticket. When my phone rang ten minutes before KO, I suggested that they might go and pick up the duplicate tickets, to save some time. However I suddenly thought this might have been a big mistake, when I arrived at the ground and found not only could I not get through to their mobile, but I didn't have a clue what this person looked like.

When the bloke at the Box Office told me that my tickets had been collected minutes earlier, I immediately began to think the worst. Perhaps my Good Samaritan act had backfired and this person had thought "sod me" and gone into the ground and switched off their phone. But as usual it turned out that I was panicking for nothing and a few frantic phone calls later we managed to hook up.

After a quick sprint around the ground and the obligatory frisk at the turnstiles, it was as though the our young Spanish starlet had very courteously waited until we were uncomfortably seated before making a monkey out of Van Der Sar. I was grateful that the bars had all been shut, because I would have been gutted to have missed the goal whilst grabbing a slurp of tea on my way in. I was also relieved because I would have felt dead guilty to have taken the 30 quid cost of ths ticket from this girl, only for her to have missed the only goal of the game due to my tardiness (mind you I had warned my mate when offering the ticket and was told that they were prepared to risk my "legendary timekeeping"!)

The Arsenal have been playing on auto-pilot since winning the league at White Hart Lane - just in case anyone remains unsure exactly where the Premiership title was won! I am reminded of another of my old man's cracks about the man who goes into his bank and asks to speak to Mr Williams the bank manager. The teller informs him "I am terribly sorry Mr Williams the manager passed away last week". The same chap returns religiously every day that week, each time receiving the same response to his request. Eventually the teller loses patience "this is the fifth time you've been told that Mr Williams the bank manager passed away last week", to which he replies "Yeh I know, but I love to hear it!"

So going 1-0 up after only ten minutes certainly didn't help as far as the spectacle was concerned but it sure eased the tension on our particular terrace. Ever since we finally secured the Premiership title (did I mention that this was at White Hart Lane?), I've been pessimistically expecting our assault on this remarkable record to fall victim to the law of averages (bearing in mind that in 1888 Preston's feat involved almost 50% less fixtures!). The closer we come to such an incredible achievement, the less anyone gives a stuff about how we actually get there, just that we do. Under normal circumstances we would all be on the edge of our seats with only a one goal lead, fearing we might fall victim to a last minute sucker punch. But on Sunday the comfort of knowing Fulham were two goals away from threatening our undefeated record allowed for a party atmosphere amongst the Gooners behind the goal at Loftus Road.

And all credit to Fulham. Unlike many recent opponents they certainly gave it a go, giving us a much harder ride and displaying a healthy lack of respect. It would have made for a far more nerve wracking ending but personally I wouldn't have minded if their worthy efforts had been rewarded with a goal. What a stunner it would have been if Malbranque's wonderful bicycle kick had been on target and the home fans would have at least been rewarded with something to celebrate in their last home game of the season.

Mind you it was amusing listening to Fulham fans phoning in the chat shows on the way home, to suggest that this Arsenal side is ridiculously overrated. They might be right to some extent because the Arsenal have rarely produced entire performances that are worthy of the sort of lavish praise received from many of the media sheep, who've been falling over themselves in their scrabble for superlatives. I've no doubt it must be galling to fans who've seen their Fulham side aquit themselves so well (although the 0-0 draw at Highbury in November could just as easily have been a cricket score considering the number of shots we had on their goal) and I would hate the sycophants of the tabloid press to promote such a culture of resentment that the ABAs (anyone but Arsenal) replace the ABUs. Yet using Arsene Wenger's analogy, surely Fulham fans aren't quite so deluded as to make comparisons between their South London spouse and our end of season Arsenal wife, who came out on Sunday without wearing any make-up?

For most Gooners these last four games have just been an excuse to continue the party which started at Spurs (after we won the league at White Hart Lane!). As has become traditional for the last away game of the season, our contingent of away fans included a motley assortment of Musketeers, Spiderman, Austin Powers, Fred Flintstone and Tweety Pie (fortunately Sylvester the Cat couldn't get a ticket!). Thankfully our seats were at the front of the Upper Tier because I'd completely forgotten the biggest drawback for away fans at QPR's decrepit stadium. Visitors should be warned that if you have the misfortune to be lumbered with an upper tier seat beyond the front few rows behind the goal, the close proximity to the pitch means that not only is it virtually impossible to see the goal line below, but you are also likely to miss much of the goal mouth action.

Sadly there wasn't much to miss on Sunday. I don't recall us having a shot on target in the entire second half until young Gael Clichy brought some unbridled enthusiasm onto a pitch where many of his team mates minds appeared to already be focused on the forthcoming European Championships. Personally I would prefer if none of our players had International commitments during the summer. I picture myself sweating out the summer praying that the likes of Sol Campbell doesn't aggravate a groin injury which could have doubtless done with a couple of months rest. Since injuring of all things, his eye whilst gaining his first ever International cap in a friendly for Brazil, Edu hasn't been able to kick a competitive ball for his club!

Perhaps Sunday's celebrations were overshadowed somewhat by the annual shock of our season ticket renewals. In real terms the increase is negligible and considering they pay similar prices at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road (where we won the league!), I suppose that by comparison our seats are great value. However this fact is of small comfort when it comes to the task of garnering three and a half grand by June, to secure another season's worth of footballing pleasures for the two of us (perhaps I should have deleted the bank manager joke?).

We've still one more coupon in our precious little red booklets for this season. Leicester are likely to want to go down with some of their pride intact but I pray they don't poop Saturday's party. After 3330 minutes of undefeated league football, it would be absolutely devastating if we faltered against the Foxes in the last ninety. I would settle for a draw now, so that despite being the sixth time I've seen the Arsenal presented with the most prestigious domestic trophy, the celebratory songs and chants from the post-match festivities and Sunday's parade to the town hall will ring out with a unique resonance, knowing that we've witnessed a feat which is unlikely to be repeated again in my lifetime.