Some Months Still Before Bums Start Squeaking And I Start Bragging

Last updated : 20 January 2004 By Bernard Azulay

According to Kevin, he was first attracted to English football as a result of "the emotion that was in the stadium that day". If this was at an Arsenal home game, I shall be writing to him to enquire exactly when and where? Could it have been hiding under the seats at our Highbury library, since sadly I've witnessed little, or no evidence of such emotion amongst Gooners at home games these past couple of seasons.

It's a different story away from home but perhaps someone should explain to Kevin that while his whirlybird might have been very convenient, it's hardly the best way to participate in an Arsenal awayday. I'm sure he'll know all about suffering for his art. Yet to truly appreciate the entire beautiful game experience, courtesy of an afternoon at Villa Park one must endure at least a modicum of 1 mph torture in the ever present traffic, on the excuse for a motorway which is the M6.

I'm not sure whether it's because they've been struggling to sell seats for some of the more dour displays at Villa Park. But I don't recall us ever being given half of the lower tier of the Doug Ellis stand along the side, as well as all the lower tier behind the goal. The Arsenal dominated the opening exchanges, producing our best spell of football in the opening half an hour. Nevertheless in the knowledge that Villa were bound to exert a little pressure at some point during the course of the 90, I was growing increasingly concerned that we might have nothing to show for our endeavours.

That was until the quick-witted Titi Henry conjured up a goal from the free-kick, where he demonstrated a speed of thought which was on a par with his amazing pace. There followed a strange few seconds of silent stupefaction, as we stood there expecting the ref to request a retake. But as the players ran towards us, dancing their jigs of joy, it eventually sunk in that the goal would stand. Amidst the eruption of euphoric celebrations on our two terraces, the tantalizing pleasure of taking top spot from our 'friends' from the North was all the more sweet for those who had been exasperated earlier when crawling up the M6 slip road, contemplating the madness of leaving the comfort of our cozy beds on a freezing cold Sunday, when we could have been curled up at home watching the live transmission courtesy of Sky.

Our outing was all the more tortuous. Although I made light of it to my two passengers, there was an added tension because of the outside possibility that we might break down on route. It might be a semi-permanent state for many Gooners and a particularly tired old joke but sadly a 'piston broke' on my poor old Jag on our previous sortie to Leeds. With my AA card close to hand just in case, mercifully five of my six cylinders carried us to Brum and back. With foreign trips to Vigo and hopefully further European forays still to pay for, a new engine comes pretty low down on my priorities.

I am just hoping that as far as the broken cylinder is concerned, there's more of an Edu like dependence to the operation of my old engine than the essential Henry and that the remaining five continue to function with similar fortitude and team spirit. My car must carry us on the remaining trips to Wolves, Blackburn, Portsmouth and Newcastle. Thank heavens our date in the northeast is our last long journey and if the motor survives all 1500 miles it will deserve its own medal!

If the precarious state of the car was no cause for pleasure, it is the continued unpredictable quality of our game which remains its defining beauty. It may be an increasingly rare feat in an age when clubs are separated by £100 million pounds worth of players and ever more points. Yet the fascination of both neutral and partisan alike will endure. so long as the Premiership throws up shocks like Saturday's triumph of bottom over top (good over evil, according to some!). Man Utd have taken one point from six, ever since I sat in the car on the way back from Everton, fretting over their fixtures and my conviction that they could survive until the end of February without sacrificing a single point (let alone 5!). All credit for once to the red top rabble from the Mirror, whose back page spread on Sunday featured the hangdog faces of Ferdinand sitting behind Fergie on the bench, under the banner "Glum and Glummer"!

Our weekend was rounded off nicely listening to the radio commentary on our way back, as Birmingham brought Ranieri's mercenary millionaires down a peg or two, by battling out a bore draw at the Bridge. I felt most pleased for all those geographically challenged Gooners in far flung locations like Singapore and Malaysia, whose minority status means their lives are often made a misery by Man Utd's glory-hunting millions. I imagined them all with a spring in their stride on Monday morning, eager to get to work to make the most of a day when they could give all their mates some right royal stick.

I could be accused of nit-picking but personally I would have preferred if Henry had achieved a hat-trick with an uncontroversial goal from open play. It would have been good to score one goal which David O'Leary couldn't gripe about. For a firm favourite who couldn't put a foot wrong during his long career within the marble halls, the softly spoken Dubliner couldn't have fallen further from Gooner grace since his departure. Booby Robson's 'sore loser' snipe was writ large across the back pages when we were beaten by his Toons. Indeed I'd be concerned if I supported a team who didn't lose their heads a little, in disgust over a defeat which turned on some dodgy decisions.

Arsène was also up in arms when we were on the wrong end of Ian Harte's equally opportunist strike, which has since resulted in one of ours religiously standing in front of the ball to prevent a repeat performance. However with O'Leary having had no qualms about profiting from such a 'dirty trick' performed by a disciple at his previous club, his diatribe sounded decidedly hypocritical.

Mind you just as a dog tends to reflect similar characteristics to its owner (although I'm sure I don't appear quite so terrifying, nor am I nearly so soppy as our Treacle!). it's not surprising the Villa manager has become such a curmudgeon when, as we informed their fans on Sunday, "all you ever do is moan!" I could appreciate their ire. I'm pretty sure Kanu played for our penalty having already lost control of the ball. Yet in our 'swings and roundabouts' sport there have been plenty of occasions in the past (and doubtless many more in the future) when we've had good cause to complain "2-0 to the referee". Of the 10,000 more who turned up on Sunday than their previous home game, I presume many (as we teased) had "only come to see the Arsenal". I despair over the disappearance of such sporting traditions as applauding the opposition. When Henry's mouth was accidentally bloodied, he was accused of time wasting and subsequently the Villains were on his back all afternoon. Whereas in truth they should be worshipping the ground walked on by currently the best player in the world!

Henry has certainly earned his two week break until the end of our mini-marathon with Boro. I only hope familiarity with the Teesiders doesn't breed too much contempt in Wenger's team selection. You can't overestimate the importance of maintaining the sort of winning feeling which sees any side we put out strutting on to pitch full of self-belief and our opponents quaking in their boots. No matter how rosy our prospects at the present, the eternal pessimist in me can't help pointing out that there are no prizes awarded in January. As Man Utd have just demonstrated, the margins between success and failure are so slim that we Gooners must guard against giving it too much of "the big 'un" because even the very best are always only a couple of defeats away from disaster!