Money Can't Buy Blues Love

Last updated : 21 February 2004 By Bernard Azulay

I can still recall the positively astounding thrill of the thought that one of the most cultured player's on this planet was actually coming to Highbury. Bergkamp's signature on his contract was a volley of cannon fire from the marble halls which first signalled the Arsenal's serious appetite for a highly prized seat at European football's top table.

However if I was over the proverbial moon at the sight of Dennis playing in a red & white shirt, then Titi Henry's absolutely astounding accomplishments have me avoiding all the other spacejunk currently orbiting around Mars. Titi's electrifying pace might have been immediately apparent, but I don't think any of us could have possibly imagined (apart from le Prof perhaps?) that this fleet-footed Frenchman would go on to stake such a cogent claim to a laurel crown at the very summit of an illustrious list of the Arsenal's greatest ever strikers.

His debut goal at St. Mary's was a memorable occasion, mainly because I found myself featured in the following week's matchday programme. We were clearly visible in a picture of the cavorting "Va-Va-Voom", standing in the front row saluting the first of his many sensational strikes. The fact that this was the one and only time I've seen myself in the background of one of these pictures, in all the years I've been following the Arsenal, suggests that it is not exactly an everyday occurrence. Accordingly my adjacent pal Nell has a framed print proudly displayed in his living room which has me gnashing my teeth every time I go round to his gaff. You see I had no cause to create such a precious keepsake of Titi and me glorifying his first goal, because unfortunately Nell's outstretched hand completely obscured my ugly mush. Our friendship might have survived this source of such great resentment but I've never let him forget it!

It was somehow fitting that Henry also scored his 100th (and 101st) goal against the Saints at Highbury last week. In between times I have completely exhausted the vast array of superlatives listed in my well thumbed Thesaurus, in my humble efforts to try and do justice to the description of the prodigious entertainment we Gooners have since been so privileged to witness. Yet in truth even the most evocative words are woefully inadequate when trying to portray the sort of pure athletic grace of a player who has this effortless ability to turn football into a higher art form which so frequently leaves even the most sardonic amongst forty thousand spectators totally dumbstruck.

Thierry's ever burgeoning reputation as perhaps the best player on the planet has resulted in several performances this season where he has struggled to escape defenders' undivided attentions and make an impact. Nevertheless, even at his quietest, or perhaps especially at his quietest, he manages to pull miracles out of the bag with such regularity, that "what on earth would we do without him" has become a Gooner mantra in recent months. So it was with a heavy heart that I headed to Highbury on Sunday to find out, having heard only a few hours earlier about the bruised foot which ruled him out of our FA Cup clash with the free spending Russian's Blues side.

Many might contend that the Arsenal's success so far this season wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't for the fact that Henry has been an almost permanent fixture in the side. Hopefully some confidence will have been gained from the tonking we gave Boro in the previous round without his talismanic presence. Yet without Kanu, Wiltord, Aliadière and Ljungberg at the weekend, our problems were compounded by the absence of virtually every other established goal scorer in our squad bar Dennis Bergkamp!

After four successive seasons as the nemesis of the Kings Rd massive in this competition, any concerns I had that the law of averages might prevail were confirmed by the news of Henry's injury. There were whispers that perhaps it was a ruse by Wenger, in order that he wouldn't have to release Henry for the midweek International friendly? Yet he needn't have risked our FA Cup ambitions to achieve this objective. Henry could have merely followed the lead of Ruud Van Sh*t Himself and Harry Kewell, who very conveniently limped off a few minutes before the final whistle.

Any genuine footie fan who feigns indifference about the FA Cup is either trying to kid others, or console themselves as a result of their exit. For the majority, both knockout competitions remain their last real hope of any glory. So while I will gladly give up an expensive day out in Cardiff for the Carling Cup Final, as a token of my gratitude to the folks on Teeside for the midweek favour at Old Trafford, our continued good prospects in the Premiership and the Champions League wouldn't make me any less gutted to go out of the FA Cup.

Moreover my black mood before Sunday's game was magnified by the significance of the result in a wider context. Some were suggesting that all the pressure was on Ranieiri's ragbag bunch of mercenaries and that the charming Italian's tenuous tenure at the club might hinge on the outcome of our two encounters. This was evident in a first-half where there was little in the Gunners efforts to alleviate the gloom. They hadn't quite matched Chelsea's hunger and having been needlessly booked just before the break, Vieira was still haranguing Durkin as they departed, no doubt trying to off-load his guilt on the tubby gherkin.

I opined that Patrick's second-half performance would be pivotal. Either he would dominate the midfield and in so doing, diminish the threat of Lampard and Parker, or a paranoid persecution binge would result in yet another early bath. Obviously all the plaudits were piled upon our young Spanish prodigy. Johnny Jensen is the only player I can recall who has scored quite such a spectacular debut goal at Highbury (although with my dreadful memory, I stand to be corrected - in fact I even had to be reminded of the day "I was there when JJ scored" but then that is another very shaggy dog story which I'll no doubt impose on you one day in the future on a more mundane week!). Hopefully Reyes' name will appear on the score sheet in future somewhat more frequently than the Dane! Yet up until Jose let fly with his left foot, he was having an abject afternoon that suggested he was weeks, if not months away from adjusting to the pace of the Premiership.

I wouldn't know the words in Spanish but if I'd screamed at Reyes to "pull his finger out", it might have reminded the Spaniard of a reason for leaving Seville. According to the Times his defensive team mate there was guilty of sticking his finger in an opponents rectum in a cup game. If that is what he got up to in public, heaven only knows what fun he must have been as a man marker in training!

Those Blues fans who parked their cars around where we live must have wondered who they'd wronged in a former life. If getting beat (again!) by the Arsenal wasn't bad enough, several will have returned to their cars to find them clamped, unable to head home without paying a hundred quid followed by a couple of hours wait. I'll have to remember to be more careful than these poor sods when looking for parking down the Fulham Palace Rd next weekend. I will be a helluva lot more optimistic. Hopefully Henry will be back and I won't be heading there wondering about the consequences of Chelsea finally cancelling their Arsenal hoodoo.

If there is one enduring image from Sunday's game, it was the sight of our lot gathering for a group hug after the final whistle. It was confirmation that the Arsenal spirit is alive and well and willing to take on all-comers. It was an open demonstration of the sort of affection that even Abramovich's millions cannot buy

We're off to Spain next Tuesday to resume our Champions League conquest. It is some coincidence that David Pleat's best pal and the person tipped to take over the managerial reins at Tottenham is currently attempting to rescue Celta Vigo from relegation. I've been looking forward to the trip for weeks and was very relieved when our match tickets finally turned up in the post the other day. After travelling to four or five away games this season with the worry of not having tickets in my grubby little hands and having the problem of picking up duplicates making me even tardier than usual, I certainly didn't fancy flying to Spain without them and having to collect replacements with my limited knowledge of the lingo. I might be conversant with French but sadly my Spanish stretches only so far as "Espanol es un pays encantador"!

I certainly hope it continues to be as enchanting next Tuesday. At this stage in the most illustrious club tournament in the world there should be no easy games but we certainly couldn't have pulled a more plum draw out of the hat. But based on the dreadful season Celta are having, if we can't beat them (or at least achieve a draw away from home) then in all honesty we won't deserve our seat at Europe's top table.