If ever I become a little blasé about the privilege of our permanent pitch at Highbury, providing a rare treat of a trip to the Home of Football for a youngster like Jamal is always the best remedy. It's extremely gratifying to witness the familiar floodlit scene with an innocent youngster's wide-eyed wonderment. I positively revel in this vicarious thrill which is guaranteed to revive many of my own goose-bump memories. It was therefore for this lad that I was most gutted on Sunday, as he missed out on the high-five festivities and the euphoria which would have resulted from a goal by the Gunners.
Few would have blinked if we had drawn up at Birmingham and beaten Fulham 3-0 at home. However obviously after such an amazing week of football, Sunday's game was always likely to be something of an anticlimax. With the other two contenders about to take points off one another it was hard not to be disappointed with this scoreless draw. Poor Jamal! The Arsenal have scored in 46 league encounters at Highbury since the last time we drew a blank at home to Boro all the way back in April 2001. So it was bound to happen again at some point but it was just maddening that it was Jamal's misfortune to fall victim to Murphy's Law.
It's hard to believe that an Arsenal side whose reputation was previously built on their obdurate ability to bore the points off any opponent, have managed a goal in every league game at Highbury for more than two and a half years.
I was originally attracted to the Gooner faith, rather than the doctrine of fancy Dan football espoused by our North London rivals, because there was something about the Gunners irrepressible resolve which rocked my cradle. I therefore grew up on a relatively dour diet of' 'boring, boring' Arsenal's distinctive brand of footie, where the result was the be all and end all and goals (plural!) a rare bonus. To be downhearted that we were deadlocked after such a supremely dominant display was dumbfounding evidence of how far removed Wenger's entertainers are from Bertie Mee's double winners.
Before the match the media queried whether the Fulham manager might adopt similar tactics to those which resulted in their shock triumph at Old Trafford. However Coleman proved he's a cute customer and that the Cottagers 4th place in the table is no fluke. Against Utd he realized that his team had to take the game to the home side if they were going to get any change out of the Champions. Whereas there was little surprise as far as I was concerned when he opted for a policy of containment on our narrow pitch.
The Sky TV execs might have frowned at the negative tactics which left poor Louis Saha ploughing a lonely furrow up front. Such unadventurous football is hardly likely to have their punters rushing to purchase pay-per-view season tickets. Yet having left Highbury with a precious away point, Coleman's ploy certainly proved correct as far as Fulham were concerned.
It's another reason I was flabbergasted to discover our amazing domestic scoring record. Sadly we've seen far too many shut-outs at Highbury in the Champions League but I was surprised that no Premiership sides have achieved the same in the past couple of seasons. Coleman took a leaf out of Ronald Koeman's book, in the way his Ajax team came to Highbury with similarly limited ambitions. I imagine we will be 'treated' to more of the same against Moscow next week. However you have got to figure that if the Arsenal manufacture anywhere near as many as the 22 shots on goal against the Ruskies, the law of averages should ensure that we stick at least one away?
Funnily enough I have been telling anyone who would listen that I always fancied us to get some sort of result in the San Siro. Naturally no-one could have predicted the tantalizing ten minute spell when we completely annihilated the Italian side. But I didn't think Inter were anywhere near as brilliant as Butch Wilkins would have had us believe after they battered us at Highbury. What's more, with our frightening pace, we are perfectly suited to playing away on the wide expanses of pitches like the San Siro, where the home team's obligation to attack leaves them prone to our counterattacking prowess.
I have always been frightened that Champions League qualification would come down to the wire. Locomotiv are guaranteed to get ten men behind the ball. With so little space for us to exploit, they'll make scoring as tricky a business as possible. Should we fail (heaven forfend!), previously it would merely be seen as an ignominious but unsurprising exit - probably through the totally absurd trapdoor into the penny ante UEFA cup, which must seem an outrageously unfair financial fail-safe as far as the existing competitors are concerned. After inflicting the worst defeat on the Eyties in the San Siro for 42 years, the Arsenal have raised European expectations to the point where it would now be an absolute disaster if this Gunners side doesn't go on to do justice to the peerless talents of the likes of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira.
At Highbury the Arsenal are usually at their best against those sides who show some ambition. If Fulham have set an example for all who follow, we are likely to spend the entire second half of the season sitting on the edge of our seats, as our opponents attempt to soak up the pressure. I'll be relying on our awaydays for some heartening relief to such Highbury stress! Still if we had to concede top spot, I am hoping that it was in our favour that it was to Chelsea. If all three are still fighting it out come the run-in, you've got to fancy that it will be the first-timers who are favourites for the collywobbles.
Meanwhile with a fair few false dawns since the days of Brady, Stapleton and O'Leary, I am cautious about tempting fate by forecasting a far too tardy Celtic coming. The cultured football of Stephen Bradley continues to impress in an incredibly competitive reserve/youth team environment. But he appears short of some second helpings if he's to gain the meat on his bones necessary to hold his own in midfield in the men's game. However the Arsenal's FA Youth Cup challenge this season includes a teenage triumvirate, with 17 year old midfielders Patrick Cregg and Stephen O'Donnell supporting the spearhead of 15 year old Anthony Stokes.
Admittedly it was only against Crawley Town but this child star thumped home 4 goals in a 3rd round 9-0 goalfest. Within earshot of the airplanes at Gatwick, those fortunate to be there on Friday night might just have seen the centre-forward's career taking-off. Whatever the future might hold, Stokes' has already inscribed himself into Arsenal folklore having arrived from Man Utd feeder club Shelbourne. Apparently Utd were prepared to part with £500,000 to land this highly prized prodigy. So it was some coup for Liam Brady to bring him to Highbury, when we are led to believe that the Arsenal haven't a brass razzoo.
As for Jamal, he was seduced by the smell of the onions, sizzling away on the grill at one of the stalls on our way home. Sold-out of hot-dogs and bagels, there was little satisfaction in the way of grub or goals at Highbury on Sunday, so I bought him one by way of consolation. Yet when I thought of the miserable scoreless draws I've seen over many years, a sausage in a bun was somewhat superfluous when Jamal had just had his fill of watching the World Footballer of the Year.