Palace and Sunderland provided us with a scintillating appetizer on Friday night, but the Foxes certainly didn't follow their script come Saturday. After Leicester had ad-libbed their way into a one goal lead, Arsenal fans sat there in absolute astonishment. For the first time since we'd clinched the title (at White Hart Lane!) here was a team who had the downright effrontery to actually take advantage of the indolent New Invincibles, as we dragged our weary way towards immortality.
There was a bizarre few minutes before the break, as this so called relegation fodder wound down the clock playing keep ball. The Gunners galloped around on a wild goose chase, while their opponents stroked it around the park to the accompaniment of an ironic chorus of "olés" from their faithful fans. Anyone just tuning in to watch the Champions would have been inclined to think that the colour on their telly had gone completely kaput. After cruising far too comfortably in fifth gear for the last four games, we'd forgotten the foibles of the Arsenal engine and were crunching our way through the gearbox, frantically fumbling for that crucial lower gear in order to up the revs and rolls over the Foxes. Thirty-five thousand sweated out the break, all with the same thought on their minds "Surely we're not going to blow it now?"
Over in the Sky commentary box George Graham might not have been quite so gutted, since his class of '91 could have kept their spot in the record books, having lost only once during an entire league campaign. But outside the ground all the opportunistic fly-pitchers must have been planking it. Their investment in an assorted range of "Undefeated" souvenir t-shirts was in danger of going right up in smoke. I imagined Martin Keown cajoling his colleagues in the dressing room. Not only would he have been desperate to ensure that possibly his last competitive game in red & white didn't end in defeat, but he was still that one all important appearance away from his ten match entitlement to a winners medal.
And if still one nil down towards the end, Wenger would have been wanting to sub a somewhat more likely goal scorer on the right wing than Martin. Mercifully Arsène didn't have to deal with this dilemma, but I guess he might have been forced to throw on an attacking third sub a lot earlier than injury time to try and rescue our astonishing record attempt. Martin Keown's a "big" man and I am sure he would have accepted his fate with good grace, ending his career as a Gunner in the same fashion as he'd always played, putting the club's interests first and foremost, even to the point of sacrificing his winner's medal. Yet I've no doubt in such difficult circumstances, none of us would have fancied wearing Wenger's decidedly uncomfortable shoes.
Still with hindsight Leicester taking the lead was not only a fillip for the Foxes fans, but it also ensured that our last game of the season wasn't a boring procession. It brought home the enormity of our achievement to any of the blasé Gooners who'd begun to take this team for granted. So, when normal service was resumed only two minutes into the second half, after Ashley Cole earned his penalty, the whole of the Highbury Library was truly grateful when Titi tucked his spot kick safely into the corner.
Subsequent to his seven goal glut, including back-to-back home hat-tricks against Houllier's slipshod Scousers and skint Leeds, Thierry has hardly put a foot right in all four games since winning the league (at White Hart Lane!) and earning the recognition of his fellow players for the second successive season - I almost typed "peers" automatically but if there's anyone on this planet who is peerless it is Henry. So it was fitting that he finally broke that 30 goal barrier (only the 4th Premiership player to do so). I was shocked when our neighbourhood stats man in the West Upper informed us that you have to go back 56 years to find Ronnie Rooke (remember him well!), the last Arsenal player to bag more than 30 league goals in a season.
Thankfully Titi's equalizer eased the tension, enabling us to relax a tad and enjoy the occasion but it was only when Paddy put away the 2nd that the party really began. Just like Captain Courageous against Everton back in '98 this was another Tony Adam's moment, as Dennis spotted Vieira's surging run and dissected their defence with an exquisite pass, before our current captain rounded their keeper with consummate poise. Paddy's rare forays into the penalty area make the likes of Lampard and Gerrard look like positively clumsy schoolboys by comparison. He invariably leaves me wishing he'd make
these runs more regularly. Yet we couldn't have wanted for our heroes to sign off on this majestic season in a more marvelous manner.
After our three week wait following the mock presentation of an inflatable replica (in case you hadn't noticed - at White Hart Lane!), all that was left was the pomp and pizzaz of the presentation party for the proper silverware. I couldn't help thinking of our poor pooch desperately digging in vain for a hidey-hole under the carpet in the concrete floors of our flat, as the fireworks resonated round the manor with a supersonic boom. Not to mention the poor groundstaff who had to reproduce the pitch from under a great swathe of tickertape and streamer topsoil before the Arsenal ladies could attempt to clinch their own league and cup double, in a title decider which kicked off a couple of hours later. Then again the groundstaff weren't exactly in need of my sympathy. Considering this was the end of the season the entire pitch was in an unbelievably pristine, snooker baize like state which suggests that they aren't exactly going to be overworked this summer.
We got home just in time to rewind the Sky Plus gadget and savour the post-match hi-jinks for a second time. For me the highlights were the sight of the upper tier of the North Bank flexing and bending a good few feet as its occupants bounced up and down in time to "Volaré" ("Vieira"). We've seen it before on the rare occasions the Library has been at its out of character liveliest. Apparently a certain amount of flexibility is built into the structure, but it certainly wasn't a place for the feint of heart. I was horrified just watching. Instead of 'raising the roof' it was as though the residents were trying to destroy the deck and drive us all into Ashburton Grove a couple of years early!
On TV I saw a bemused Arsène Wenger presented with a "Comical Wenger' t-shirt. These were originally produced as a piss take of the infamous quote which the media elicited out of him last season and were previously for sale on the Man Utd souvenir page of the Football365 web site! As the penny dropped, it was obvious that the irony wasn't lost on Arsène. His face broke into a big broad grin and he proudly held the t-shirt aloft. These appeared to be the actions of a man who was hurt by the way he'd been portrayed as being arrogant for having made such a ridiculous suggestion. When in fact he was only responding to a question as to whether he thought such a feat was possible.
What's more if Wenger actually has any flaws in his character, these are mostly obliterated by his virtues. But to accuse such an unpretentious person of arrogance is outrageous in the extreme. I was left wondering whether it is just an amazing coincidence that we should have achieved this incredible undefeated feat, only the season following all that scorn he suffered for his mere suggestion that it was feasible? Or have we just witnessed evidence of the fact that while the proverb suggests it's a dish best served cold, Wenger prefers his plate of revenge not just warm, but piping hot?
We've grown so accustomed to the stock images from Championship and Cup winning celebrations over the years, that occasionally they appear far too contrived. In certain standard scenes where the players are forced to pose until the snappers are sufficiently satiated, it can often seem that some players who've been there, done it and bought the t-shirt are making heavy weather of having fun for the benefit of the media and their fans. Call me a miserable old cynic, but I sometimes get the feeling from certain players that perhaps their most genuine grin of the day is reserved for when they return to the dressing room for the 'quick draw' of the mobile to check with their agent on the exact amount of their trophy winning bonus.
Yet if there was one thing which was all too apparent from the relaxed atmosphere on the pitch on Saturday and on the open top buses in the parade to the Town Hall, it is the obvious affection between this bunch of players. It is a special kinship which is often only seen between companies of soldiers, ballet dancers and all sorts of collective groups who spend more time travelling and training with their colleagues than with their own family. Yet much like their equivalents in the pop world these days, certain footballers' massive celebrity status ensures that there are equivalent enormous egos within the dressing room which undoubtedly interfere with the group ethic, resulting in underlying petty jealousies about who has the largest pay packet and who can purchase the most lary motor. However there are very few signs of the sort of egos in the Highbury dressing which need just as much massaging as some players bodies.
One might have thought that the best player in the world was entitled to be a bit of an egotistical bugger but Thierry Henry always comes across in interviews as an incredibly humble fella. Like most other groups of artistes who live in a mollycoddled bubble from an early age, their every need is catered for and all decision making is taken out of their hands so that they are entirely free to concentrate on their game. As a result footballers have a deserved reputation for immaturity, It is perhaps not surprising when you consider that like Henry VIII, they could quite easily afford to employ someone solely to wipe their backside (and in fact often do, with many agents operating as the modern day metaphoric equivalent of an arse wipe!).
In the past the best teams in this country have all required men of Fergie like strength of character to rule the roost over all the bolshy bantams traditionally found in footie dressing rooms, to keep a lid on any errant egos and to ensure that only they and their chosen captain are able to bully the young charges. However the times have been a changing, drastically and the balance of power at Premiership football clubs has swung so far in favour of the young professionals that the 'old school' managers have become something of an anathema.
As a child I can recall having a couple of 'old school' teachers who used to patrol their classrooms like a sergeant major, invariably with a metal ruler at hand which they would occasionally smash down on a hard surface if someone was talking out of turn. But I don't think I can recall either of them ever having to resort to any cruel (and now illegal!) punishment because they were able to command total obedience merely by means of the authoritative tone of their voice. While I might have found myself doing almost daily 'detentions' for all my dastardly deeds in other classes and for giving lip to the other teachers, for some reason I wouldn't dare to challenge either of these two teachers authority. Somehow they managed to terrify us.
To this day I can't put my finger on it, but we all came into their class one day having experienced a simultaneous revelation. It was as if it had dawned on us collectively, overnight, that there was absolutely no reason for us to have been in their thrall for so many years. In reality there was nothing to be scared off. En masse we plucked up courage to defy our two despots. Our Latin teacher had this ancient high backed wooden chair set on a plinth, from where he would stare down disdainfully at his students. Prior to his lesson that day we loosened all the screws holding his chair together and as he entered the room the entire class sat with baited breath, exploding into fits of laughter as his seat of authority imploded on contact. We were on a roll after that and nothing was going to stop us! We set up the French teacher by filling his desk draw with scores of wasps later that afternoon but unfortunately our anticipatory giggling and the feint buzzing gave the game away.
If I recall correctly our French lessons were never again quite so lacklustre, but there were no long lasting effects on the teacher. Whereas a handful of unruly larrikins left our tyrannical Latin teacher on the point of a nervous breakdown. He ended up taking early retirement after a bout of narcolepsy left him spark out every time one of us slammed a desk lid. I certainly didn't come across any tutors like le Prof during my schooldays.
Perhaps it is due to the fact that Arsène comes from a background where players weren't quite so renowned for their childlike behaviour but his attitude is at completely the other end of the spectrum to those of the 'old school'. On the face of it, it would appear that it is a simple case of Arsène treating his charges as adults which aids in instilling them with (in the infamous words of Paul Merson) "unbelievable belief". It was a novel approach but one which many of Wenger's associates have been forced to adopt. In an age when our multimillionaire sportsmen earn the sort of sums which mean they can afford to buy and sell most football clubs and still have sufficient change for a Formula 1 racing team and with so many continentals in the dressing room, players won't suffer being spoken to as callow kids.
We Gooners have always been proud of the traditional 'Arsenal spirit'. That 'backs to the wall', 'never say die' quality which has seen us snatch many a momentous, last minute victory from the jaws of a disastrous defeat. However in an age when players are changing clubs as often as their underpants even the most sentimental of us Gooners are being somewhat naive to expect all of our superstars to be able to appreciate a century of the Arsenal's tradition. As far as I am concerned his brief hiatus was a hallucination and the lionheart likes of Martin Keown, with the blood & guts commitment which is a consequence of a one club career, are very nearly extinct at the highest level.
Perhaps we've all been fortunate witnesses as Wenger has brought the modern day equivalent to the party. I don't think there's any weird magic in the way Le Prof promotes an air of mutual respect in his dressing room. The magic is the chemical reaction which results amongst a squad of players where one senses an equality of excellence that fosters this unshakeable belief in theirs and each others ability. Arsène maybe the Don, "il capo di tutti capi" but he's certainly no dictator. Never was this more apparent than the amusing incident the other week when Keown was having his leg pulled by Parlour and pretended to throttle Le Prof on the touchline. Can you imagine Diego Forlan doing likewise with Fergie!
If there are players in this Arsenal squad who can't possibly fully appreciate the amount of history and tradition which has passed through those famous marble halls, no matter, because this squad plays for each other, their manager and although we don't always deserve it, for us the fans. What's more they perform with a passion and commitment which is only possible amongst those who have spent sufficient time in the trenches together, rolling their sleeves up and digging themselves out of a defeat, or propping each other up after a wretched result.
All season long I've maintained my conviction that the multitude of stars at Chelski wouldn't win anything, praying that no matter how many millions Abramovich spent they couldn't dent my faith in the very foundations of this 'team' sport of ours. Certainly not in the marathon of consistency that is the Championship. And even if the Kings Road mercenaries had managed to be the exception which proved the rule over the course of a handful of games necessary to win a cup competition, I might have expected some of the plastic partying referred to above. While the likes of Mutu and Crespo might have enjoyed the individual glory, there's absolutely no way they could have a true appreciation of their team's achievement, without ever knowing the bitter heartache of an unsuccessful campaign in a Chelsea shirt.
It is ironic because prior to the bottomless pockets of their Russian revolution last summer, the media were rightly putting Chelsea's best league finish in donkey's years down to the lack of summer spending and the resulting spirit in a stable dressing room. By contrast our coming season was already being written off because our new stadium project had left us with just a plot to piss in. It was weird that none of the newsmen had the nous to draw any parallels. Because with no wonga for Wenger to spend there wasn't a single outfield Arsenal player who hadn't experienced the previous season's agony, the pain of handing the title to Utd on a plate. After positively strolling to an "unassailable" lead with some of the most wonderful football we'd ever seen, we saw all ten points wafting out of a window which was left gaping with an air of complacent arrogance as the Moaners nicked our momentum. What's more, including subs, ten of this squad suffered the Scousers catastrophic last minute smash and grab at Cardiff three years ago, which was the last time we lost an FA Cup game until Villa Park last month.
It seems the memory of our Owen imposed misery wasn't strong enough to overcome Man Utd. I set out for Villa Park that day certain that our lot would be as desperate as I was to avenge the exact equivalent fixture five years ago that served as the springboard for Utd's treble. Dennis would finally drive away the demons of his missed penalty and there'd be no more nightmares of Ryan Giggs running riot. It wasn't merely fatigue which cost us a fourth successive FA Cup Final (with an undoubted victory over Millwall) and far more importantly, the crucial loss of momentum which saw us crashing out of the Champions League three days later.
Our pitiful support from the Holte End couldn't have helped and who knows what might have happened if we'd sung that name with a little more pride. However according to my own reasoning there were only six squad members remaining from that match in '99 and as a result perhaps we lacked the collective resolve required to inflict revenge on our somewhat hungrier opponents and their fervent fans. But then as my missus would say, "if ifs and ands were pots and pans....." . There's bound to be a few green-eyed pangs watching Porto playing Monaco in Gelsenkirchen but personally I've no room for regrets in a record breaking season which is unlikely ever to be repeated.
On the positive side hopefully youngsters like Kolo, Clichy, Reyes and Aliadière will have found the taste of the two cup defeats sufficiently distasteful that it will fuel their fervor to avoid another for a good few years. It will be devastating to see the last vestige of our dinosaur defence disappear when Keown finally departs the Home of Football in order to play out his career on a slightly less elevated stage. But Dennis Bergkamp is determined to stay on for another swansong of a season. Who can blame him when his incisive bullets are perfectly designed for the brilliance of the rapid fire gunmen around him.
However these two old bods from the current first team are the only players who'll be entitled to a free bus pass anytime soon and so it all bodes very well for a future which looks very bright red & white. If the bond of this squads common experiences to date are so evident now in the amount of fun they've obviously enjoyed in each other's company this past weekend, we can only imagine what is to come with so much of their careers ahead of the majority of them. It is a positively terrifying thought (for our opponents at least) that Titi Henry is not yet twenty-seven and has yet to reach his professional peak.
Regular Gooner game goers this season are only too aware that some of bandwagon jumping press plaudits have been a little OTT, as the most exquisite examples of our very best football has been produced in brief cameos and truly great forty-five minute performances have been few and far between, let alone entire matches. Our historic achievement this season has been founded primarily on our great team spirit, ably assisted by a particularly mediocre Premiership, where fans of virtually every other team have been heard lamenting their players lack of commitment. It also has to be said that if the fates didn't favour us too often last term, we've certainly benefited this season from the occasional leg up from Lady Luck. Having only just tickled the fringes of what this team is truly capable of this season, all I can say to the rest is spend what you will this summer, because heaven help you all when we truly hit our stride.
It seems I was far from the only Gooner caught out as a result of procrastinating about buying tickets for Martin Keown's testimonial. It was downright laziness on my part as I could have walked the dog around to the box office any time over the past few weeks. Although Treacle is none too keen on heading in the opposite direction, when there are squirrels to chase in Clissold Park and it takes a whole heap of muscular determination when our obstinate heffalump decides to dig her heels in. Even when I was told I had better pull my finger out because the box office had nearly sold out, I assumed they were just feeding me a flimsy sales pitch. Then I called again the day after it was announced that Beckham would be playing and the match had sold out.
I tried to kid myself that I wasn't that bothered. It occurred to me that unlike many of those who would have been glad to avail themselves of a rare opportunity to buy tickets on general sale, I'd been present at every single game of consequence this season (apart from rather expensive, long schleps to Russia and the Ukraine). I am also unsure whether testimonials continue to be morally justifiable for the vast majority of Premiership footballers, in an age when they will already have more in their bank accounts that most will earn in an entire lifetime. I love the idea of rewarding ever more rare instances of loyalty in some fashion and being able to express my gratitude for a whole decade's worth of earnest endeavours.
There are examples such as the selfless gentleman Niall Quinn, who donated something like a million pounds from his testimonial to charities in Sunderland, Dublin and Calcutta and Romanian Gica Popescu whose farewell match recently raised £170,000 for a children's hospital in his home town (after he'd already spent £1 mill. of his own money on building a football school for kids there three years ago). Such occasions are great because they allow every football fan to feel good about themselves. Yet I am not so sure about the recent trend for the extremely vague statements like those made by both Seaman and Keown's testimonial committees that "a proportion of the receipts will be donated" to various good causes. Unless we're advised of a specific amount, or percentage, some might perceive that it is merely a cynical method of hushing up those who would otherwise be harping on about greedy players looking for yet another payday.
On Saturday it seemed that every other Gooner had missed out on tickets for the testimonial in a similar fashion to myself. Being on the away ticket scheme we are all far too used to our tickets just turning up in the post. We aren't in the habit of having to queue at the box office, or testing our atience with the tortuous Ticketbastard telephone torture. Many of those I spoke to at Highbury seemed to have the hump with Golden Balls Beckham. They were blaming him because while ticket sales were very healthy prior, it wasn't until Beckham's participation was publicized that overnight the match was a complete sellout. I mean who would ever imagine anyone would be mad enough to bid £200 for match tickets auctioned on eBay for bleedin' testimonial and gawd love him, we're not talking the ever so charismatic Thierry Henry but Martin 'monkey's head' Keown - Spurs fans cruel words not my own, as personally, as far as I am concerned, Keown's inner beauty shines out through his commitment to the Arsenal cause and he has never looked more attractive since his efforts at Old Trafford left the Man Utd striker with his new "Ruud Van Sh*t Himself" moniker!
I only hope there's no substance to the rumours that there might be wider implications to Beckham's appearance at The Home of Football at this precise point in his problematical life (I should have his troubles!). I know Freddie Ljungberg was injured at the time but I found his absence from the White Hart Lane hoe down a little weird. Considering our team are purported to be such close pals, I would have thought Freddie wouldn't have wanted to pass on the possibility of participating in our Premiership winning party (perhaps he had a prior engagement parading around in his Calvins?). Unless looking for one last big payday as the tail end of one's career, you would have thought any player would be mad to leave the Arsenal for the sake of a few thousand quid a week, when they are never going to find a team with the Arsenal's chemistry, which is likely to give them so much professional pride. Yet it is no wonder that his White Hart Lane rain check was grist to the mill of the media's transfer speculation about Ljungberg.
Many might think that Beckham would be more than an adequate replacement out on the right. Myself I can't see the England captain leaving Madrid, unless it is to save his marriage. By Madrid's lofty standards they've had a lousy season and Beckham will want to stay at least another year in order that he won't be perceived as having been unable to cut it on the continent. Even if he was returning to England, he'd have to subsidize his own wages if
he wanted to come to Highbury.
Leaving aside the question of his ability Beckham is absolutely the last player I'd want coming into our settled dressing room because all the incidental baggage that he brings is bound to be disruptive. Perhaps Thierry is the exception which proves the rule because usually a large ego is a prerequisite for those who want to reach the very top in their chosen sport. Whether Thierry's is large or small (his ego not his va va voom!), I certainly wouldn't want it overshadowed by the whole media circus which accompanies this country's tabloid royalty
As today drew nigh, I would have been absolutely gutted to have missed out on my first and last match of the season at The Home of Football. As the various edifices of the Ashburton Grove project rise up from nothing, reaching towards the Highbury skyline ever more rapidly, the day will soon come when we start counting down our remaining matches at our beloved old stadium. Without any of Saturday's tension, tonight's event will be one long evening of unmitigated merriment, a celebration of all things Arsenal.
Usually the caterwaul of the stadium announcer's "Welcome to Highbury ladies and gentlemen" as it carries a few hundred yards on the wind through our open windows, is a signal for us to get a wriggle on if we're going to make kick-off. Often I have to tear myself away from the television, the second an interview with Wenger is finished. But with no live coverage tonight, it would have been absolute agony to have sat here trying to work out what was happening from the noise emanating from the stadium.
Aside from being directly responsible for inflicting my weekly missives on unsuspecting Arsenal supporters around the planet and my weekly column in the Irish Examiner, the benefits of the Arsenal mailing list on the internet are many and varied. Not only can it prove a summer sanctuary of Arsenal chin wagging (or more precisely keyboard tapping) for those suffering from severe withdrawals but it is also an invaluable source for those either looking for, or to pass on tickets to genuine Gooners.
Until my box office connection suddenly upped and left the job last summer which I'd assumed he'd adopted for life (leaving me right up kack creek, never mind the missing paddle but in an Arsenal canoe where I might never again find a spare West Upper seat), I was in the habit of coming to the rescue of all sorts of geographically challenged Gooner strangers on a rare pilgrimage to Highbury, simply because I could. Not that the odd carton of Camel didn't come as much welcomed token of their gratitude. Especially if they arrived during a long enough break between Champions League matches for me to have run out of my haul of cartons from continental trips. Suddenly having to scrabble around to find nearly five pounds a packet once again is always a shock to the system.
Having met my good pal, Yee Ming, from Singapore and introduced him to the wonders of the West Upper, I did likewise when a friend of his arrived from the Far East to spend a year here studying law. I couldn't believe my luck when I saw Aileen offering a spare ticket for tonight on the mailing list. Actually she was offering both her tickets, in the hope that someone might swap the two for a single seat at Saturday's game and subsequent Premiership presentation. Unfortunately for Aileen (and fortunately for me) she was about as likely to find someone willing to make this swap as I am to give up smoking and so I am extremely grateful that my good karma came back to me or I would have missed out tonight.
However if there was anyone on Saturday who felt cheated of more footie and celebratory frolics on Monday, after toasting our success in the jam packed hostelries around Highbury, they were able to head back to the ground to watch the women play gratis. I was even led to believe that the U14s were playing on the pitch after the parade on Sunday. It seems that whenever the Arsenal travel to the Town Hall on an open top bus, the weather is guaranteed to be absolutely gorgeous. If there is an omnipotent one overseeing events on this planet, then he/she's got to be a Gooner. They will have been smiling looking down on a scene where Highbury and it's environs became a brightly coloured Goonerville for the day, with everybody dancing in the streets long into the afternoon to the sound of all the pubs pumping out the beats of a nifty Thierry Henry version of 50 Cent's P.I.M.P.
It might sound like a scene straight out of Fever Pitch the movie, except that I don't recall anyone having to avoid obstreperous drunks, or having to tread carefully along streets littered with bottles, beer cans and horse shit. Thank heavens it all passed off peacefully and as a result a wonderful time was had by all. And now I am going to sign off so I can head round to Highbury for one final singsong in honour of Martin Keown, one of the last of the Galahad Gunners before breaking for a summer in which I will be dreaming of the three more games needed to beat Notts Forest record and a mere 19 to eclipse the mighty Milan side.