I suppose I was looking for the faces of true dedication, of the sort that had driven these dedicated masochists to schlep fifteen hundred miles, travelling to Highbury three times in two weeks. Mercifully our Middlesbrough marathon includes only one outing to Teeside. With the imminent arctic snap and the guarantee that Arsène will be sticking to his guns with his Carling Cup selection policy, we Gooners won't exactly be flocking north in droves this week. I haven't been able to find anyone fool enough to want to brave the brass monkey climate and accompany me to Boro. That's assuming the match doesn't end up being postponed due to bad weather,
Considering that Boro's barmy brigade could have coughed up around 250 quid in train fares on their hat-trick travels to Highbury, they brought quite a healthy contingent. By comparison, I will be surprised if we take more than a couple of hundred to the Cellnet. There might be much debate about the finer, first eleven details amongst the hardy souls who endure the second longest trek in the Premiership, but at least we won't have any false pretensions about our prospects for another Cardiff final. In hindsight on our way home from Highbury after Boro's 4-1 hiding, my lugubrious lunchtime mood seemed laughable. It might only have been the first leg of the Worthless Cup semi, but after finally conceding our unbeaten domestic streak, one defeat could be deemed careless. However in this age of tabloid hyperbole, two bad results and they'd be wailing about the wheels coming off, in an Arsenal crisis.
Perhaps I should shoulder some of the blame for getting beat by Boro. With the Carling Cup not included in our season tickets, I'd taken the opportunity of an alternative perspective, by purchasing front row seats just to one side of the goal. It was a revelation for Róna, as it is only when you are so up close and personal that you can literally reach out and touch the players, when you begin to fully appreciate the ferocity of the beautiful game. Ro couldn't believe there could be any pleasure for the players in making any contact with the sort of wayward cruise missiles that we spent much of the evening trying to avoid. Ever since I'd bought our tickets, I'd been looking forward to the rare chance of some euphoric interaction with one of the goal scorers and perhaps getting our ugly phizogs in the frame for all the folks watching back in Dublin. Sadly the nearest I came was when Edu very kindly put my fag out with a grass cutter a couple of yards wide of the goal!
Come Saturday I was most concerned about keeping fresh legs for the end of the season, if the net result was premature capitulation and no games left to use them in. I needn't have worried. Dennis Bergkamp's return to fitness was most encouraging. Along with every Gooner present, Dennis will have derived immense pleasure from one of his trademark chips, executed exquisitely by homegrown prodigy David Bentley, with his 'weaker' left foot (as good an argument as you can get for the positive influence of foreign players). It's about time he began to fulfill so much promise and if the proof in Bentley's pudding wasn't perfect enough, hopefully the other three strikes might put a sock in the mouths of all the doom mongers (including myself), who've previously touted Titi Henry as totally indispensable.
Mercifully for those of us travelling, the semi remains finely balanced, with only one goal separating the two sides. But our midfield will be bolstered by our captain's talismanic presence on Teeside because of his suspension against City next Sunday. After progressing in the more prestigious tournament on Saturday, a suitably satisfied Wenger humorously suggested that the team for the Worthless Cup on Wednesday might be decided by a show of hands in the dressing room. Personally I am pleased that our manager has made public his intentions to stick by some of the kids and will resist the temptation to resort to old war horses, who might not find this assault on the last hurdle quite so nerve wracking. For me and the youngsters themselves, it would be extremely disappointing if Arsène didn't continue to show faith in those who have got us thus far and at whose feet the Arsenal's future is beginning to look very bright.
While we know full well that Henry and his white charger have been given a well deserved night off this week, I wonder how the Boro fans felt when they arrived at Highbury at the weekend to discover that despite Don King's best efforts on the Beeb, Steve McClaren had decided to downgrade the tournament. It's perfectly understandable, with Boro being a goal to the good and only 90 minutes away from the final and 180 away from the European qualification which could earn his club a crucial load of filthy lucre. Yet I very much doubt their fans were feeling quite so pragmatic, having spent a small fortune to support a side deprived of the diminutive Brazilian who'd almost singlefootedly defeated us with a dazzling display earlier in the week.
If Boro end up beating Bolton in the final, McClaren's decision to bench his best in favour of fresh legs midweek, might eventually be appreciated as a bit of a masterstroke. But such logic will have few admirers if we manage to administer a knockout punch on Wednesday and bring their season to a swift conclusion. Moreover it seemed to defeat the object as McClaren's heart held sway over his head when throwing his three subs into the fray at 3-1 down on Saturday. They had no need of stable doors since Boro's FA Cup hopes had long since bolted. Following the announcement of the subs names "Nemeth, Juninho and Maccarone", with 15 to go most of the Highbury faithful were deliberating over what was for desert! Call me greedy, but this Gooner gourmet is heading north for a fourth helping of Boro, hopefully with another four goal garnish!
You'll have to forgive me if I take a moment to wallow in Fergie's misery, as it makes a pleasant change for our 'friends' from the North to be the target of a media witch hunt. After seething with indignation for so many years that he was the sole scapegoat brought to 'the bung' book, I imagine this saga must have brought a smile to George Graham's face. Unlikely as it is, there would be much merriment in these here parts, if like Graham, Fergie ended up entirely expunged from the Old Trafford record books, his name removed from all the plaques on the walls as if Sir Red Nose never existed. It is indeed a funny ol' game!