Immortality Beckons?

Last updated : 04 May 2004 By Bernard Azulay

Yet as our immediate competitors shipped points in a manner that suggested they were far more concerned about what protection factor sun cream they were going to need on their summer holyers, than putting up a committed fight for the consolation prizes, as the day drew nigh the delicious dream of '71 revisited became a reality.

The media coverage of that magical night 34 years back made for a nostalgic week. I delved into the darkest recesses of my somewhat befuddled brain to add my own reminiscences to the words and pictures in all the papers. Every time I read another tale about the unlucky tens of thousands locked out that night (many with tickets!), I marvel at how my old man managed to shepherd two ten year olds into the ground, through all that mayhem.

Myself and a Spurs supporting neighbour whose dad was working were collected from school. His memory must have borne the ravages of time far better than mine because it wasn¹t until I met him again after my old man's funeral for the first time in many moons and we were wallowing in this much loved anecdote that I was reminded of the facts. Pop had more "chutzpah" than Harrods and arriving at the ground to find the queue for the unreserved tickets stretching right around the ground, apparently he went up to the copper closest to the front and spun him a yarn about leaving his place to pick up us kids. I can't believe that those who'd been queueing for hours didn't kick up a fuss when we were promptly placed a mere few yards from the turnstiles!

What I do recall is the rush when the gates eventually opened and I've no doubt we would have never got in otherwise. I can still picture the old man herding the two of towards this heaven, his reassuring hands on our shoulders, holding us together as a trident with two tiny prongs. Oh for those innocent days of unreserved seating, when taking the kids to football wasn't an operation requiring military planning. Even without a ticket invariably one could bowl up and bung the turnstile operator a few bob.

How times have changed. On TV the other night comedian Frank Skinner proudly displayed his own innovative season ticket. In this 'chips with everything' era apparently he gains entry to the Hawthorns by holding up his West Brom wristwatch against a gadget on the door!

For me nothing highlighted the contrast between the ball game of yesteryear and modern footie better than a wonderful photo reproduced in some of the press. The highly toned physiques of today's superfit professionals bears little resemblance to a somewhat pasty looking John Radford and Ray Kennedy, celebrating in the dressing room after their title winning performance, Radford with a well earned glass of champers and a fag in hand only four days before the Cup Final.

Unfortunately the Arsenal are involved in no such encore this season. However as bothered as I might be by any regrets that this side could have blown away their opponents in both FA Cup and Champions League finals, I have an inkling that our painful European exit might actually prove a blessing. If we'd managed to sweep the board this season, we'd be lumbered with such a supremely dominant disposition, that we would have been left facing the anticlimactic fact that there would be nowhere to go but down next term. Whereas at least now hopefully any complacent tendencies are less likely, because this side still has a big point to prove by validating their peerless pedigree on the European stage. Instead of wondering where do we go from here, we Gooner have all this to look forward to.

What's more, we couldn't have wanted for a more palliative poultice for any European headaches than the opportunity to wave our incredible Championship winning exploits in the faces of forlorn Spurs fans at White Hart Lane. As Sunday approached, Gooners grew more desperate for a ticket to this once in a lifetime (twice even, for the luckier ones amongst us) occasion. In an effort to make the very best of a bad situation, one Spurs pal phoned to let me know his tickets were for sale at 300 quid a pop. He joked that the money wasn't his motivation, but the prospect that his extortion might be reported to the club and they'd do him the favour of banning him for life!

A couple of days later he told me that he'd been taking flak from another mutual Spurs mate for trying to fleece footie fans. Yet when the call came from no less than the offspring of one of the Arsenal directors with an offer of a grand for four tickets, apparently the self same pseud couldn't pipe up quick enough to participate in this particularly profitable party. Traditionally it is the form book which goes out of the window when it comes to local derbies, but in this instance it was the morals of many Spurs fans, where so much money was concerned!

With every distraught tale from a ticket less Gooner I grew increasingly guilty at our good fortune, feeling the need almost daily to dig our own two bits of gold-dust out of my bag, to make sure they hadn't disappeared. I actually spent most of the week in bed with a nasty bug, worrying whether I would be able to make it. Although even if at death's door, there was no way I was going to be denied such a delectable dream! It felt as though I was suffering from a surfeit of bad vibes sent by all those hoping to go in my stead.

As Spurs sunk ever deeper into the relegation mire with Saturday's results, my mate with the full wallet must have taken my 'bad karma' warnings to heart. He was grafting Sunday morning and somehow managed to conjure up a ticket for one particularly good cause. However as a single female, this Gooner gal didn't fancy her chances in the ultimate exercise in self-restraint, standing amidst Spurs' most horrible Park Lane heartland having to keep a lid on the emotions which have built up over the course of an entire season, for fear of seriously injurious consequences from a single imprudent smile.

Mercifully there was no such need to keep a check on our emotions in the Arsenal seats. As the sun shined, we made plenty of hay by rubbing salt in Spurs silverware starved wounds. The competition didn't end when the final whistle blew. It was though both sets of supporters were trying to see who could celebrate more vociferously. The Spurs fans were more than happy with their point and the fact that we hadn't actually won, especially when on the evidence of the first half it looked like they might be overrun. While we certainly weren't going to let out party be pooped because of the relatively meaningless matter of having gifted them a virtual guarantee of Premiership salvation.

All I heard at half-time was the sound of Gooners positively purring over our imperious display. The gulf in class was embarrassingly obvious but invariably the frenetic pace of most North London derbies leaves little time for the pretty stuff and so few could believe our brilliance was being made to look quite so effortless. As a result it wasn't surprising that we switched off for the second half and attempted to see out the remainder of the match playing on auto-pilot. After losing five of the last six I suppose I can't blame Spurs fans for clutching at suspect straws. Yet I found myself laughing out loud listening to the radio on route home and the deluded Lilywhites who phoned in to express their delight at this display

Necessity might be the mother of invention, but it appears that our neighbours' perennial failures have forced Spurs fans to forge their own parralel universe. To my mind it should have been patently clear to even the most biased Spurs bonehead that the Arsenal could have produced a cricket score if they hadn't pulledstumps at the break. And if they truly believed that they'd at long last witnessed proof that they could compete with the Premiership's very best, personally in their place I would have been outraged that I'd paid good money to watch this bunch of mercenaries, when for weeks now their minds were off with those of Man U, Chelsea and the majority of others, at the sun cream counter!

Winning the title with two games to spare in '98, we succumbed to a severe case of "after the Lord Mayor's show" syndrome. No-one was too concerned on the terraces. We were too busy celebrating our way to the first of four Cardiff Cup Finals. But in the future it will be forgotten that we shipped our last six points and so the final table gave a false illusion of a close run affair. We¹ll have to wait until Saturday to see if we are to suffer a similar fate. Whether a White Hart Lane hangover is set to ruin an incredible undefeated record.

The marvelous ranks of this Arsenal squad are not made up of insensible robots. As a result it would be downright ridiculous not to expect some slight relaxation, after nine long months of nuclear fuelled tension. Who knows? Having been relieved of the burden of bringing home the championship bacon this just might be the unencumbered climate for a beautiful bout of fantasy football. No matter whether they stroll to the finishing line in fine style, or we muddle our way to immortality, it would seem that the lads are more than aware that they are on the verge of an extraordinarily immaculate achievement which might never again be repeated in our lifetimes (although apparently that¹s what they said about Spurs¹ double in '61!). Never mind what Preston did over a hundred years ago. Their undefeated season involved almost half the amount of matches and while it seems likely that we might get a crack at the Champions League most every season, we might never again find ourselves having not been beaten with only four games left to play.

Hopefully Pompey will be sufficiently clear of the drop come our trip to the South Coast and although on the face of itour two away games appear to offer the biigest threat, my feeling is that if the players are sufficiently focused to overcome Birmingham on Saturday, it will suggest that there is likely to be no sleep until sublimity. There was a clue on Sunday night at the PFA awards as to how much Titi and Patrick were prepared to let their hair down. Apparently their night out on the lash was limited to making sure that their meals came with the skin and fat removed from the meat!

I just pray that they aren¹t similarly infected as the majority of other teams appear to be, where the sight of their season¹s finishing post suddenly sees them flagging. To the extent that the faithful fans are being fleeced because of an absolute lack of fervor out on the pitch. It will be interesting to see if Spurs show anywhere near as much enthusiasm in their subsequent outing. I don¹t doubt that it must be incredibly infuriating for those teams dueling to the death with their rivals to beat the drop, when others can evade the Nationwide trap door with a doozie of a game against those overpaid and underworked sides who¹ve been clock watching for weeks now.

I suppose we shouldn¹t be worried if our lot are still concerned about eating cholesterol free food, instead of binging on booze and fags. But Titi's prior engagement on Sunday as the first ever player to pick up back-to-back PFA awards meant that sadly we didn't end up with him sitting in our car, as we did when we gave the winning goal scorer a lift in '71. Still even without a precious souvenir programme like the one signed by Ray Kennedy "To Bernard who I travelled home with", Sunday was every bit as memorable. The splenetic Spurs fans certainly didn't deserve the courtesy of Sol Campbell's swift exit from the scene and I don't think many of us either noticed, nor cared that Lehmann disappeared to hide his shame in the dressing room. Yet when the stewards began to cut our Premiership winning party short as some lunatic home fans began to lose their heads, I think most of us assumed that was our lot for the afternoon.

So when the rest of the stadium had eventually emptied and the stewards began busying themselves, there was a buzz of excitement at the prospect of further festivities. There was a certain illicit pleasure to our own private party at the heart of Tottenham's own (albeit third-rate) temple and as the player's trooped out in sandals and in various states of undress (aided by the pant pulling antics of the jokers in our pack) I don't think I've ever been happier to have been locked inside a stadium, knowing there'd be disconsolate Spurs fans listening from without to the sort of songs they might be unlikely to sing in their entire lifetimes. It was without doubt the highlight of White Hart Lane 2004.

I've seen my fair share of Arsenal celebrations over the years but even to an old lag like myself there was something special about this particular Hootenaney. In certain circumstances the pre-arranged post match merriment with some silverware has seemed a little phoney, the songs somewhat forced, the smiles a little false, as if it was primarily being staged for the press and TV cameras rather than a sincere moment of bonding between players and supporters. Even the most cynical of Gooners must have sensed that special sense of unity present in this squad. There were no fake badge kissing gestures as there were none needed amongst a 'team' genuinely enjoying each other's company as they savoured their moment in the sun.

Unable to parade the original Premiership trophy around the enemies turf, we were all very grateful to the good hearted Spurs steward who brought an inflatable replica on to the pitch. For a moment there I thought Ashley Cole was actually about to relieve himself in the White Hart Lane centre circle, however the scenes of the players otherwise taking the piss on the Tottenham turf will live with me to my dying day. However when we'd all had our fill of fun and paid tribute to the man who's masterminded the greatest ever Arsenal side we were all left hoping that day wasn't going to come far too prematurely. There remained the small matter of making our way back to our end of the Seven Sisters Road without coming to any serious harm so we could join in with the hullabaloo at Highbury,

I never fail to be amazed that their are some Spurs folks who fork out more to park their cars each week than some footie fans pay for their entire season ticket. I usually stump up a tenner to leave the motor in the car park a Spurs mate uses at the top of White Hart Lane (where some pay £15 for a prime pitch near the gate, so they can make a swift exit when they leave the match before the end!). This time I'd spotted a different car park which was half the price for only a few more yards to walk and when I mentioned that we might not be back immediately after the match we were told the gates wouldn't be locked until 7pm.

When we were eventually let out of the ground it was already ten to and if I was worried about how we were going to get back to the car, I certainly didn't want to find ourselves having to walk all the way home whilst trying to find a cab. With a police cordon to our right to segregate us from any remaining Spurs fans on the High Rd, I thought we might be easily spotted if we tried to slip through there (not that the Spurs numbskulls would possess the necessary powers of deduction but personally I thought us Gooners were easy to pick out on such a warm afternoon because we were the only ones wearing a second layer of clothing to cover any colours!). I also wasn't going to allow the old bill to direct us towards Northumberland Park station not just because I thought the main body of Gooners would be the most likely target for Spurs' livid lunatics, but because it was in completely the opposite direction to our car.

So we headed left towards the end of the Park Lane stand and then left again, into Worcester Ave, walking along the length of the East Stand. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't sweating as we circumnavigated the ground gripping Ro's hand, trying to avoid direct eye contact with anyone heading in the opposite direction and doing our utmost not to look too pleased with ourselves. The funny thing was (or at least it is now, I was horrified then) that Ro tried to reassure me that we were fine because both sides of this entire road were lined with meatwagons. I didn't want to ruin the illusion and frighten Ro by pointing out that there wasn't a single copper in any of them, as I assume they were all attempting to protect the bulk of the Gooners heading for the station.

I tried to ease the tension by joking with a bloke who was walking along studying a couple of pages of an A to Z. "Planning your escape route?" But at the same time I made sure we headed towards the other side of the road, as he couldn't have been more obvious if he'd had a neon Gooner sign and a red arrow pointing at his lack of local knowledge. A few of the faces heading towards us looked to be those of some of the enemies indignant scum, looking for aggro and I wondered what I'd do if they'd started on this bloke. Would I get involved and come to the assistance of a fellow Gooner, or would I bottle it completely and just be grateful that his troubles meant they weren't bothering us!

Mercifully, after turning left again along the Paxton Rd end, we were able to blend in with folks leaving the bar at this end of the sh*thole and I don't think I have ever been more relieved for the relative sanctuary of a far less deserted Tottenham High Rd and eventually the safety of the car. Even then my paranoia was such that as we headed along White Hart Lane, crawling along a queue of a couple of hundred yards to some traffic lights, with the windows wide open and Ro obliviously reliving the afternoon's event to a pal on her mobile, I had to tell her to pipe down a little so as not to sound quite so delighted with herself, cos I was afraid a flying fist might come sailing through the open window from a particularly peeved pedestrian!

Returning from Tottenham, I never feel guerilla manoeuvres are really over, until we've managed to get over the Green Lanes border, into definite Gooner territory. However as much as I detest the tension involved in this annual outing down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Rd, I still wouldn't miss it for the world. Yet the one common theme coming from those I've spoken to is that the dangers of travelling to and from the Lane has become a risk they can live without. As a result they don't plan on returning which is a shame when you think they shlep all over the country and the continent faithfully following our team, only to be stumped by the shortest trip of the season!

Although I guess it's not surprising and I should really be counting our blessings. Having taken off on our tod fortunately we manged to avoid the straws which broke the backs of many Gooner camels who'd been directed towards the station by the old bill. Apparently they were ambushed and had to take refuge in a school hall from a hail of bottles and bricks. And there these beleaguered Gooners remained, kicking their heels in darkest Tottenham, bereft of all the bedlam at Highbury, extremely relieved to eventually make it back to a red & white boozer at 9pm. Gooners might be swearing off Spurs for life in the aftermath of such a traumatic incident but I wonder if they'll still be of a similar mind when next season rolls around and derby day again draws nigh. Finding ones way to and from Tottenham's 'Forces of Darkness' territory might always be a bit of a nightmare, but being there is bound to be bloody brilliant. I've no doubt all the naysayers will be back, absolutely revelling in the opportunity to remind Spurs fans "61...never again" & "71....2004"!