A Jolly Green Gooner Jamboree

Last updated : 16 March 2004 By Bernard Azulay

I could have even savoured the coverage of the sensational Six Nations match. Yet after my appetite had been whetted by the hors' d'oeuvres from Old Trafford, the increasingly rapid beat of the red & white heart which belongs to Henry and the lads, finally ruled my befuddled head. So as the Boys in Green kicked off at Twickenham, I begun my mad dash to the south coast. As Nell is my Gooner equivalent of Holmes' Dr Watson, it was logical to meet at Baker Street. By the time we'd crossed the river and scythed through the south London traffic, 75 minutes remained for us to race along the A3 and reach Pompey before the ref's whistle.

It was amusing to hear the sore-loser on the radio this morning moaning about how many of his colleagues have suddenly started shouting about their Irish ancestry. I felt like phoning in to inform him that this is exactly how the Irish feel every time the English media lays claim to anyone from the Emerald Isle who excels in their sport. I consider myself an adopted Irishman but I could have been born in Timbuktu and I would have still been up for the Irish on Saturday. The smug gloating over here ever since the success "down under" of those Philistines who play with their funny shaped balls has really got my goat. As far as I am concerned, considering the number of participating countries and the fact that in this part of the country, this particular code of "rugger" is limited principally to privileged kids at private schools, they have little more right to their World Champions label than the Yank baseball teams.

Moreover my brother-out-of-law was over for Saturday's historic humbling of the jingoistic home team. I guess it was with Con in mind that Nell was forced to endure my "Come on Ireland" ear bashing the entire journey. Even through the gloom of the early evening mizzle, I could still make out the wonderful wooded scenery of some of Hampshire's most picturesque countryside. Yet with England having just eaten 3 points out of the 9 point lead, I was hardly the most appreciative observer, as the radio reception became hostage to the hilly terrain. There was a five minute period when we almost missed the Pompey turn off, as I waited frantically to hear that the home side hadn't scored. Mercifully Irish eyes remained bloomin' exultant.

We were also pretty chuffed to have squeezed into a parking pitch and strolled to the ground with time enough to bolt down a salmonella burger before the game started. In estate agent parlance Pompey's decrepit old ground would be deemed to have "plenty of character". For once this wouldn't be such a fallacious description, as the tight confines of Fratton Park, with its right "in yer face" proximity of the fans, makes it one of the few remaining Premiership grounds that a foreigner might picture as typical of our footie. As opposed to the somewhat soulless concrete structures which have sprung up all over the country ever since the corporate juggernaut set its sights on the jugular of the very culture of "club" football.

I am usually delighted on the rare occasion our games are shown live on terrestrial TV because it means my Ma gets to enjoy the contest in a somewhat more exciting environment than the customary Teletext updates (sod my trepidation about the three trophy "T" word, perhaps the most portentous sign of a truly sensational season will be the possibility that Mum might at long last succumb to desecrating the walls of her precious castle with an unsightly satellite dish!). However having taken a raincheck on our regular Friday night dinner because I wasn't feeling up to it, it didn't sit too well that I was able to schlep all the way to the south coast. I could envisage the frown on her face seeing the pictures of us Gooners, standing on an uncovered terrace in the teeming rain.

Honest Ma I still adore your chicken soup and if I didn't need it prior, a shot of jewish penicillin was probably just what the doctor would have ordered after such a soaking! However I would have to be at death's door to deprive myself of the sort of footballing feast that this Arsenal side are currently serving up. Still I might not have been quite so desperate if this wasn't my first ever Fratton Park parade. With the weather intruding on our pleasures, there was an instant, as I wiped the rain from my specs, when I questioned my sanity.

Yet within seconds of the start, a sensationally slick passing move resulted in a stunning shot from Reyes rebounding off the crossbar. Standing behind Hislop (in the Intercash Stand which would be more aptly named "Outacash"!), almost directly in Reyes' line of fire, there wasn't a more perfect pitch from which to appreciate the Arsenal's first-half party. Any doubt about what I was doing there disappeared with what was a hair's breadth away from being yet another goal of the month contender.

Instead of an audible expression of anguish at such a fabulous failure to find the net, we are now in a position merely to purr in awesome admiration of such a tantalizing example of technique. There is now an innate sense amongst us Gooners that much like London buses (as the saying goes) "there will be another one along in a minute". Even the elements offered their seal of approval as the rain ceased completely (who knows perhaps the miracle working Wenger had a word?). It might have been a full 25 minutes before Henry finally made his mark, but it seemed almost inevitable right from those magical opening moments. As with Wenger's class of '98 and our early season exploits last term, the confidence coursing through this side is the catalyst in a chemical reaction which has liberated all eleven from any technical limitations and taken this team on to another level.

Don't get me wrong, despite Harry Redknapp's world beating eulogy, I refuse to be drawn with all the tabloid sheep into media bandwagon's "best ever" debate. At least not until we've actually got some trophies to throw on the table. Avid Arsenal watchers cannot fail to accept the obvious chinks in our armour, especially those who delighted in a decade of perhaps the most dour defensive unit on the planet. As was said about Dennis Wise, our bargain basement keeper could start a row in an empty room. He appears to attempt to intimidate the opposition rather than dominating his box. As a converted midfielder, Lauren is still learning his defensive duties. Edu's impressive efforts might at long last have demanded Gilberto's displacement as captain Paddy's partner in the middle, but such is Arsène's somewhat unfathomable faith in the Brazilian word cup winner that he's found him a home out on the wing, where I very much doubt he's played before. You'll have to forgive those of us who know not what he does but Gilberto's so bleedin' indispensable to Arsène that, legitimate or otherwise, he must be someone's son! I believe Wenger sees him as a similarly vital cog in the Arsenal's cannons, as Makalele was for Madrid.

Nevertheless, while I remain convinced that we might pay a hefty price for Lehmann's antics at some point, any such weaknesses are not nearly so likely to be exposed, when their conviction has unleashed a level of composure which has them all performing with the chutzpah of eleven Pélés. The first-half of the season saw the flowering of Kolo Touré but recent performances have seen Edu positively blossom. Some of the media pundits mistakenly waxed lyrical about the disguise on the Brazilian's lay off to Ljungberg for our 2nd. In truth Edu's hit such a rich vein of form that he's rightly been going for goal any time he gets within range, with his bludgeon of a left foot. He was in the process of doing likewise on Saturday, when he looked up and seeing Freddie more suitably placed, he selflessly put it on a plate for our Swedish sex god.

It was the sort of move which sums up the clarity of thought, in the heat of battle, which has me confident to take on all comers. I'm hoping that we've already done the hard work against the Spaniards and that both the battle and the war were won in Vigo. I'm desperate to draw their illustrious compatriots sooner rather than later, not just to rubber stamp our spiraling reputation but because I'm dying to have our day in the Bernabeu. I'd feel a little cheated if we end up meeting Madrid in Germany. Will you listen to me, getting way ahead of myself when we've not yet secured a quarterfinal birth. I hope the Gunners aren't guilty of such dangerous daydreaming and are still bursting with the vital Oone game at a time' blinkered focus because Blackburn on Saturday has loomed large for some time as our most likely banana skin.

Newcastle, Liverpool and Utd all present potential stumbling blocks to our record breaking bonanza. But I worry that after our midweek exertions the less glamorous surroundings of a half-empty Ewood Park are the most likely surroundings for complacency to raise its ugly head. Its been a bit of a Gooner graveyard in recent seasons and you can be certain Souness will have his troops primed to take the utmost advantage if there is any suggestion that our success is simply a matter of turning up.

Meanwhile I am over the proverbial moon with the FA Cup draw. All the very worst denizens from the old Den would have wormed their way out of the woodwork if we'd encountered Millwall and according to my "devil you know" deductions, Sunderland or even Tranmere could have both proved a trickier proposition. The synchronicity is astonishing because the circumstances are an almost exact repeat of four years ago except that the boots are now on opposite feet. This time it should be our opportunity to snuff out Utd's season and any last scent of silverware, while our success could be a similar springboard in surmounting club football's highest crest.

According to my strong belief in the law of averages, that first defeat should be drawing ever closer. Should it come, I will be ducking for cover to avoid drowning in a tidal wave of tabloid tales of "the wheels coming off Wenger's Treble wagon". However I have every faith in the lessons learnt at the school of hard knocks and have no fear of us blowing our nine point lead in last season's profligate manner.