Sunday, August 24, 2014

Next Year In Jerusalem....Next Week Would Be Better!

At 2-0 down with only 7 minutes left on the clock at Goodison on Saturday, the travelling Gooner faithful were facing an utterly miserable schlep back home from Merseyside. Perhaps a mere point in this instance, but mercifully, for the second successive week we were extremely fortunate to salvage anything from the ashes of another lamentably lethargic display.

Mainly thanks to the home side knocking off early, Giroud’s glorious 90th minute equalizer resulted in an explosion of redemptive euphoria, over another smash & grab comeback. In typically fickle fashion, we were left unabashedly lauding Monreal’s pinpoint assist and the Spaniard’s doggedly determined retrieval of Ramsey’s infuriatingly wayward cross, where only moments prior we’d been castigating our full-back as a defensive liability and clutching at conciliatory straws, in the feint hope that such a blatant failure in our first big test of this campaign, might at least stir our manager, convincing Arsène of the urgent need for some last-minute transfer action.

Despite the meritorious resilience evident in pulling a potentially crucial iron from the fire of another shoddy performance, this doesn’t disguise the fact that our woeful form leaves all that pre-season optimism looking somewhat misguided at present. Here’s hoping it’s not 13th time unlucky, but perhaps the Gunners are a little too accustomed to cruising through our annual Champions League qualifiers?

There was a frustrating absence of intensity in Istanbul in midweek, aside from the overly zealous endeavours of Alexis and the injection of energy from his replacement, with the Ox producing the single only effort that came anywhere close to fruition. This encounter was more akin to a friendly, than potentially the most significant outing of the season.

Yet as a result, I was quite excited when Saturday’s starting XI was revealed and I realized that Arsène had somehow found a way of including Özil, Alexis and the Ox. That was until it dawned on me that this was to the exclusion of any other strikers. I adore Alexis’ wholehearted attitude and his willingness to graft like a Trojan, but neither he nor Özil are the sort of natural wide-men capable of occupying the likes of Coleman and Baines sufficiently, out on the flanks, to prevent the Everton full-backs from rampaging forward all game long (or to track them whenever they do!).

I was delighted at the prospect of seeing the Chilean get an opportunity to impose himself across the width of the penalty area at Goodison. But sadly, operating on his own, Sanchez was starved of the ball and struggled to make an impact. The consensus seems to believe he’s most effective alongside another striker in the no. 10 role, but sadly, in recent years, the inclusion of a pair of strikers appears to have been completely eradicated from le Prof’s purview.

Following the gut-wrenching disappointment of conceding a second only moments before the break, my unconfined joy at seeing le Gaffer react (instead of waiting until the last fifteen) was soon dampened, upon discovering he was substituting Giroud for Sanchez. Arsène needed to be bolder and with Wilshere watching his third successive game drift by, we’d have been better off if he’d taken Jack off and gone for it, giving the Toffees defence more to think about by playing 4-4-2.

Wenger might feel vindicated by the fact that we managed to rescue a result, but truth be told, with Giroud needing three efforts before finally working Howard in goal, for the vast majority of the second half if felt as if the home side was far more likely to put the match to bed with a third than we were of turning this game on it’s head.

With Koscielny already struggling with an Achilles problem, I fear that our reliance on Chambers will inevitably prove costly at some stage. It’s been suggested to me that Callum’s reading of the game and his timely interventions are reminiscent of Bobby Moore. There’s no doubt about his promise but it’s a massive ask to expect him to produce the necessary level of consistency, over the course of a marathon season and I’d be devastated to see his confidence wrecked by costly errors.

Whether it was due to fitness, or his unfamiliarity on the left, Mertesacker appeared uncomfortable on Saturday. Despite the inclusion of his lanky presence, with Giroud left on the bench, this only highlighted the Gunners physical shortcomings.

Watching Chelsea’s powerful performances thus far, it’s hard to imagine us lining up in the tunnel and no longer being intimidated by our London rivals. Although Fabregas wouldn’t have offered us more muscle, he has the sort of world-class aura, which left me fearing that even if it was just to prevent him pulling the strings in Mourinho’s midfield, passing on our option to bring him back might prove the costliest mistake of the summer. I can’t help but wonder if Wenger let his personal feelings take precedence over his customary pragmatism in this instance.

Although the Gunners are still struggling to get bodies in the box, at least our late goals have staved off the mood of despondency that would’ve undoubtedly enshrouded us by now, without them. But never fear, if we can overcome Beksitas tomorrow and add a significant signing (or two) before the week is out, we Gooners will be back on top of the world.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

The Wilshere Enigma

With succinctness hardly being my strong suit, when my nephew, Shane, posed the question about whether I think Jack Wilshere will ever truly fulfil all that potential, it was easier to respond with another post (never fear, such early season enthusiasm is bound to soon evaporate and it'll be a struggle posting once a week :-)

Doubtless the fact that Aaron Ramsey's career has come on, in such significant leaps and bounds since his eventual recovery from Shawcross' GBH, has only highlighted the contrasting way in which Jack Wilshere has seemingly been treading water over the same period. We can only speculate as to whether Jack's failure to influence proceedings and singlehandedly grab games by the scruff of the neck, in the way in which we all know him to be capable of, is related to his own long running injury saga, or some other underlying cause.

But I'm invariably reluctant to single Arsenal players out for criticism, as I've been guilty of giving them a hard time in the past, only to be left feeling somewhat shamefaced, after it's been pointed out to me that any such dip in form has been down to some unfortunate personal crisis. Besides which, by and large, professional footballers are fragile human beings, just like the rest of us and I always feel that it's somewhat crass of us to believe that we're capable of deep insights into their state of being, from watching them kick a ball around for 90 minutes, once or twice a week.

Nevertheless, it was interesting on Saturday to compare Jack's performance, with that of our latest new star signing, Alexis Sanchez. I'm not sure how obvious it will have been to those watching the game against Palace on the box, with the camera's tendency to follow the ball, but as was the case when Mezut Özil first arrived on the scene last season, with my pedantic nature I often find myself focusing on individuals. Their fleeting moments of possession are so few and far between that it's invariably far more revealing to study them through my binoculars, when they're not in the heat of the action and it was particularly noticeable on Saturday how often Alexis was left standing out on the flank, waving his arm in vain, hungry to be given the ball.

Aside from the obligatory YouTube videos (where I've seen Sanchez strike the ball with such pace and power that I'm wondering why Cazorla continues to waft corners harmlessly into the opposition keeper's welcoming arms!) and the stats that I've seen, I've very little knowledge of how Alexis fared while playing for Barca. But from the little that I've seen of the Chilean thus far, I've been extremely impressed. Unlike so many of the mercenary international stars who arrive on the back of a mega-money transfer, believing that they've nothing left to prove, Alexis appears to be revelling in all the attention (presumably after having to endure a bit of a back seat ride at Barca, with Messi at the wheel) and brim full of determination to prove himself worthy of all the attention and his £30m price tag.

Alexis might've failed to produce a suitably brilliant performance on Saturday because so much of what he attempted just didn't come off, but I adore the fact that instead of merely laying the ball off and passing on responsibility, as is so often the case when watching the Gunners endless tikki-takka, whether he was trying to pick the lock with a pinpoint pass, or taking the opposition on, the Chilean attempted to impose himself on the game, pretty much every single time he came into possession. His hunger to have an impact upon the proceedings was also evident in the relatively unusual trait nowadays, wherein he demonstrated a reluctance to hit the deck at the slightest hint of any contact, preferring instead to stumble forward, in his desire to bring the move to fruition.

I rarely trust my increasingly decrepit memory, but I had the distinct impression that Saturday's game was just passing Jack Wilshere by and that we had to wait for him to be shocked from his slumber, by going a goal behind. I don't recall Jack running with the ball, attempting to take the opposition on, until immediately after Hangeland headed the Eagles first corner home and stunned us all into silence in the 35th minute.

With the paranoia that has resulted from Wilshere's woeful injury record, we are constantly moaning about our opponents overly-physical attentions, but with them invariably having been instructed to prevent our fluent passing from gathering any pace and with Jack being placed at the midfield fulcrum of the majority of our moves, it's somewhat inevitable that he attracts so many fouls.

Hypocrite that I am, I'll be the first out of my seat, cheering Jack on, when he goes down on the edge of the area, resulting in the award of a genuine opportunity to score from a set-piece (and better still, much like everyone else, I'm guilty of coming in my pants, if he goes down in the box and secures a spot-kick!). Yet this fast becomes habit-forming and we've grown far too accustomed to the sight of Jack sitting on the deck, legs and arms akimbo, innocently pleading in the direction of the ref, with his "bullied schoolboy" expression.

With Wilshere's low centre of gravity, he should prove a more awkward proposition in the challenge and truth be told, many is the time when I would much prefer for him to produce on the pitch, the same red and white heart that he professes to possess so publicly, by refusing to yield to the attentions of his opponent and instead demonstrates the determination and the hunger to stay on his feet and make his mark.

Moreover, while there might be everything to be gained from the award of free-kicks in the final third, there's nothing to be achieved by going down in the centre-circle, other than securing some advantage by an opponent's name ending up in the ref's notebook. As it turned out, we ended up winning the game immediately after Jason Puncheon was sent off on Saturday, but when ref Moss brandished the red card, after Puncheon slid, studs up, into Monreal, I instinctively moaned, thinking it might well be one of our immediate competitors who could end up being the only ones to profit from facing Palace in the player's absence due to suspension.

Slide tackles were my stock in trade, playing as a left-back as a child many moons back and although I do appreciate the efforts being made to try and minimize the risk of serious injury, I have serious reservations about the rule changes that have completely removed this element from a defender's armoury. Without years of ballet training, it's nigh on impossible to effect a slide tackle with toes sufficiently pointed to conceal ones studs and so with the officials now deprived of room for interpretation of this exciting facet of the beautiful game, playing football wouldn't be nearly so pleasurable for me. And I wouldn't dream of comparing my humble talents with the peerlessly accomplished defensive capabilities of the likes of Winterburn and Dixon, but with the recent rule changes prejudicing football's hard men and swinging too far in the favour of the swallow-diving, theatrical artists, I find myself feeling more than a little melancholy about whether we will see their like again in the modern game.

But as ever, I digress! With Marouanne Chamakh putting himself about, grafting harder in 90 mins for Palace than he did in his entire Arsenal career, perhaps Jack had good cause to go down, each time he was fouled on Saturday. Yet I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with Wilshere accumulating an increasingly frequent tally of free-kicks in the centre-circle, when on each occasion this prevented us from gaining any momentum and afforded Palace the time to track back and regroup, parking the bus with all eleven behind the ball, forming up in the organised and effective fashion, doubtless as dictated by their former mentor.

I was somewhat encouraged, in the brief ten-minute period, between being stirred from his apparent stupor by going a goal behind and the halftime break. Jack took possession on a couple of occasions and drove at the Palace defence, in the terrorising manner that has proved so fruitful in the past, by wreaking panic and mayhem amongst the opposition. However, after being relieved of the ball on the edge of the area, it was as if, having tried and failed, Jack all too rapidly came to the conclusion that he couldn't beat the opposition and went back into his shell.

We've all been waiting for the sufficiently long run in the team that will rebuild his belief and confidence, to the point where Jack is back to being able to ghost past the most competent of defenders and he returns to being capable of making a monkey out of all comers. Moreover, instead of both Ramsey and Wilshere struggling to have the same significant impact on those encounters when the two of them are playing together, I was hoping that all the richly deserved plaudits afforded to Aaron Ramsey in recent times, might inspire his pal to soar to similar heights.

Instead of which, I can't help but wonder if, like so many of our modern day young stars who've achieved such boundless wealth and attention at such an early age, Jack has become a bit too spoiled, deprived of the motivation to dig sufficiently deep, both in training and in competition, to produce the sort of energetic performances that rocketed him to global recognition in the first place.

While Wilshere is spending his afternoons haunting the tattoo parlour, along with so many of his peers who are seemingly intent on outdoing "the painted lady", I wonder if he continues to daydream of finally fulfilling every Gooners ambition to see him lift the big-eared trophy, or if he's more worried about whether the red ink has run?

When all our wealth of midfield talent is fit and available, it's debatable whether Jack deserves to command automatic selection. And if he should find himself forced to sit out matches on the bench, will his much vaunted Arsenal love motivate him to fight for a place in the starting XI, or will he throw his toys out of the pram and begin angling for a lucrative move to join Cashley supping cappuccinos in a fashionable bar on the Continent?

I was disappointed to see the Corporal exiled to East London after Debuchy's arrival because Carl Jenkinson more than made up for any of his defensive naivety, with his adoration for the Arsenal. It's so unlikely in this day and age, for a common or garden supporter to give us all hope, by stepping straight off the terraces, into the playing staff. But at least Carl has only gone out on loan and has not been sold.

With Wilshere and Jenkinson both being Gooners, amongst that all too rare breed of players who actually grew up to play for the club they supported in childhood, it would be devastating to see them both fall by the wayside in the future. Here's hoping that the Gunners can build on last season's success and as the new campaign begins to gather momentum, at the same time Jack will start to rediscover his mojo and will reacquaint himself with the love and enthusiasm for the beautiful game that first yanked his chain as a kid, to the complete exclusion of all the disadvantageous distractions that are the inevitable associated trappings of fame and fortune nowadays.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

1-0 Down, 2-1 Up. Can We Win More Than The Cup?

I neglected to mention below that the MoM in many of the weekend's matches appeared to be the vanishing spray. I wondered what everyone was laughing about at our place and it wasn't until today that I discovered Santi suffered a faceful! Also, in all the euphoria over Aaron's goal, it seems to have been forgotten that his tap-in resulted from Debuchy coming oh so close to opening his own Arsenal account and all due credit to Kos for contorting his neck so impressively to head home our equaliser. Meanwhile it would appear that the Gunners are only too aware of the frivolous tastes of their target audience and I'm guessing that the cut-out Alexis featured in the matchday programme will be making an appearance on desk tops up and down the country. Further to my comment about no one team running away with the title, here's hoping that Chelsea's result tomorrow night doesn't leave me with my foot in my mouth

Peace & Love

If the weekend’s opening salvoes served one purpose, it was to remind us that we’re slaves to such a fickle, footballing mistress. Although Man Utd might have appeared decidedly lightweight, in Louis Van Gaal’s baptism of fire defeat to the Swans in Saturday’s early encounter and this might well results in a rash of last-minute spending, on the sort of experienced star names that might lend his immature squad a little more Galactico gravitas, it could’ve been an entirely different story, if Wayne Rooney’s wonderful free-kick had curled a couple more inches, into the onion bag, instead of walloping the crossbar.

Moreover, instead of Man U being booed off, at Old Trafford accompanied by the Swans’ fans “sacked in the morning” teasing, much like the disgruntled Irons, with their tantrums over Tottenham’s last gasp winner at Upton Park, it might well have been us Gooners giving Arsène Wenger and our team the bird at the end of Saturday’s late game, if it wasn’t for Aaron Ramsey saving our three-point bacon, by putting a stalwart Palace to the sword right at the death.

I was left reflecting on what would’ve been a completely contrasting mood, if not for this late, late show in North London. As the clock ticked away and the climate of tension rose, during an increasingly frustrating and uncommonly sloppy second half, with far too many casual passes going astray, we were hardly peppering Speroni’s goal and you could feel that our inability to break the Eagles dogged defence down in the final third, was building towards a crescendo of discordant disapproval at the final whistle.

Instead of which, with Ramsey bagging himself the winner and securing our first opening day triumph in six long seasons, we enjoyed an explosion of relief as we stood there savouring the Gunners ‘win ugly” resolve to get the job done – whilst casting sympathetic glances over to the unwaveringly hearty band of Eagles fans in the corner of the stadium, who’d just endured having their opening day delight snatched from their grasp.

Nevertheless, although Saturday’s performance proved somewhat anti-climatic as Palace failed to be the expected easy prey, to the sort of free-flowing, entertaining football that we were all hoping for, it was probably no bad thing. We’ve managed to get off on the right foot for once, securing the all-important three points and thereby avoiding allowing the competition their habitual head start, while at the same time tempering the buoyant mood of optimism with a dose of reality. In fact, renewed Premiership hostilities around the country have reminded everyone that no one team is about to run away with the title.

Despite the disappointing evidence that Kieran Gibbs remains no less fragile than he’s been in previous seasons, there were plenty of positive signs. The fact that Debuchy appears to lack the same pace of Sagna could prove a problem, but he’s a far better crosser of the ball than his forebear. Callum Chambers appears to grow in confidence with every additional minute on the pitch and in contrast to Jack Wilshere, I adore Alexis’ willingness to stay on his feet and his work-rate.

In fact Sanchez appears to be so hungry and so motivated that I’m certain his influence will grow, as others attune to his sentient wavelength, especially when Özil returns to the fray and begins to take advantage of the Chilean’s unstinting eagerness to get on the ball. We are all too patently aware of the obvious, but pleasant midfield conundrum, when everyone is fit and available and it will be interesting to see how Arsène maximizes all this potential, in particular with Ramsey and Wilshere, who, much like the Lampard/Gerrard England enigma, rarely manage to impose themselves on matches when both are on the pitch.

Still, if the Gunners are to be genuine title contenders, the consensus of opinion appears to believe that we remain a couple of players short. In this respect we might benefit from Man Utd’s demise because it might well result in the sort of big money signings that could provide the necessary momentum to the transfer merry-go-round?

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Strap Yourselves In…..

It would be easy to go overboard on the optimism, after such an encouraging outcome against the current Champions, in last Sunday’s Community Shield curtain-raiser. You wait eight years for a sniff of silverware and as with the proverbial London buses, suddenly two come along in quick succession. Consequently, I must admit that much like the majority of Gooners, I’m far more hopeful about the forthcoming campaign than I have been in many a moon.

For me, perhaps the most promising indicator of an Arsenal side who’s time has finally come, was evident in some of the players' extremely positive post-match remarks, referring to the spirit, unity and the sense of common purpose in the Arsenal camp. Naturally, this is all too easy when everything is hunky-dory and it’s really only in adversity that the Gunners team spirit will be truly tested. Nevertheless, this has left me feeling encouraged that we might, at long last, be about to commence a season buoyed by the sort of resilient firewall of belief that’s been all too easily extinguished in recent times.

The signing of Sanchez was crucial to this regard, in promoting the expectation that we can kick-on from last term’s achievements. I’ve no doubt that with his apparent willingness to work his socks off and with an obvious footballing brain that enables the Chilean to play with his head up and ensure an end result from all our attractive football, Sanchez is destined to terrorize opposing defences.

Albeit that amidst the euphoria surrounding Alexis’ arrival, the irony of adding yet another diminutive midfield maestro seems to have been lost. I appreciate that Sanchez can be used as a striking option, but in his more natural role, he provides le Prof with the pleasant problem of perming the most effective five players across the midfield, from the massed ranks of available talent. This makes a mockery of the argument that we relinquished our option to bring back Fabregas because we’re already blessed with sufficient alternates in his position.

I’m uncertain he’ll be quite so motivated playing for Maureen-ho, as he might’ve been for Arsène. But there are inevitable concerns that if Cesc starts pulling the midfield strings, conducting Chelsea in the influential way in which we know him to be capable of, whatever reasons Wenger had for turning his back on his surrogate son might yet prove to be even more catastrophic than presenting Man Utd with our principal goal-scorer and thereby gifting them the Premiership crown.

If the Gunners are to go into this campaign without having to fret about what the competition is up to, there’s little doubt that we could benefit from a couple more additions that might make our squad more complete.

I adore what I’ve seen of Callum Chambers thus far. He has the sort of demonstrative presence and the complete absence of timidity that reminds me a callow Tony Adams. Nevertheless, while I’m all for giving youth its head, I’d hate to see his burgeoning career ruined, by costly, naïve errors in crucial games, due to our dependence on the youngster. Moreover Monreal’s frailties at full-back are cause enough for concern, never mind us being forced to use the Spaniard as cover at centre-half.

Additionally, as our efforts to secure Sporting’s Carvalho, or Khedira have suggested, as much as I admire Arteta’s honest dedication to the cause and for all Flamini’s earnest endeavours, the Gunners remain short of the sort of physical midfield presence, capable of imposing himself for the entire ninety minutes of those matches where we might end up under the cosh.

Meanwhile, it’s marvelous to witness the increasing maturity of Sczczny. Perhaps enlivened by the competition from Ospina, our sweeper-keeper appears increasingly keen to dominate his area. And while we’re whining about the late return to action of our three world cup winners, this could prove a psychological masterstroke, by adding even more impetus to our campaign at just the right time.

Despite the fact that the sullen-faced Mezut Özil appears as if he’s doing us all a favour, every time he steps onto the pitch, I fancy he might benefit from playing somewhat in the shadow, while others steal the limelight. With the pace of Walcott, the Ox and Alexis, I’m certain Özil will enjoy his turbo-charged new toys.

Behind the scenes, the arrival of Shad Forsyth, the Gunners’ new fitness guru, could prove equally significant as any star signing. Hopefully he can achieve the minor miracle of ensuring that Diaby attains the fitness necessary to finally demonstrate his imposing midfield influence. But if Forsyth can enable the likes of Ramsey and Walcott to stay the course this time around, whether there are to be gongs or not at the conclusion, one thing is guaranteed, it’s gonna be one helluva an entertaining ride.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

De facto optimism in advance of a competitive ball being kicked…

...the Gooner's Diary rides again (albeit perhaps a little less energetically than in seasons past!). Pre-season preview for the Observer, in advance of normal service being resumed with my weekly missive for the Irish Examiner:

Monday, May 26, 2014

Silver Anniversary of A Golden Gooner Dawn

I should've known far better than to tune into the depressing election news, with all the ominous portents of the increasing popularity of the far-right extremists across so much of Europe and the UK (fancy the French Front Nationale might give UKIP a run for their money as the new bully boys at the free lunches in Brussels). So for the want of some welcome distraction, I thought I might as well post the piece I've written in response to a last-minute request from the Irish Examiner, for a missive to feature alongside a tribute to Anfield '89 in tomorrow's sports supplement.

As ever, delighted to forsake the comparatively trivial world of politics, for the footie



Its mere coincidence for us Gooners to be basking in the glow of our first trophy in nine long years, as the silver anniversary of that magical Mickey Thomas moment rolls around. Yet with us now existing in an age where superstar footballers seemingly measure their worth to their employers in terms of obscene Bugatti style birthday presents, I find myself unavoidably harking back a quarter of a decade and focusing on the stark differences between then and now.

Doubtless Man City fans will look upon their first title win, after such a depressingly long sojourn in the doldrums as being no less dramatic. Yet there was an extraordinary convergence of such bizarre and tragic circumstances, electrifying the whole atmosphere of Friday, 26th May 1989 that will never again be repeated.

Moreover, with that momentous night subsequently proving to be something of a catalyst for the rampant commercialization of the beautiful game that has transpired since and with the technological revolution that now results in the sort of global interconnectivity, which is responsible for the micro-reportage of everything, occurring everywhere and which has subsequently changed the face of football watching, it’s evident that this monumental encounter eventually proved to be right at the fulcrum of two entirely different eras.

Those Gooners privileged to be present on the convoy of 24 coaches departing Avenell Road for an arduous 8-hour drive to Liverpool, were still bearing tickets printed with the original 23rd April date of the postponed match. This was supposed to have taken place on the weekend following the Hillsborough disaster, but with Merseyside (and all fans of the game) in mourning, Liverpool’s fixtures were cancelled for a couple of weeks, before resuming an increasingly condensed end of season schedule.

Even with a delayed kick-off, the Gooner charabanc was stuck in the congestion outside the ground, listening to the start of the game on the radio. But unlike in the past, where this would’ve undoubtedly resulted in the sort panicked crush to push on through the turnstiles, every travelling footie fan was still painfully aware of how often they’d been only a whisker away from being caught up in the same sort of shambolic mayhem witnessed six weeks prior.

Hence the majority of Gooners missed the wonderfully touching and perfectly choreographed moment after the Gunners took to the field holding bunches of flowers, as they all turned to present them to fans in all parts of the ground. This was symbolic of encounter taking place without any loss of the customary rabid fervor, but amidst an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Nowadays we’ve grown accustomed to the denouement of the season being engineered solely to suit the demands of the TV paymasters. But the Hillsborough repercussions resulted in this top of the table clash taking place on the Friday night, after Liverpool had already vanquished their local rivals in an all Mersyside Cup Final at Wembley the Saturday prior. Thus the entire footballing world was focused on this single top of the table title decider.

However, with the Arsenal having failed to win at Anfield in fifteen years and with the poor form that had seen us let a 19-point lead over our hosts slip through our fingers, the Gunners were intended to take to the stage as mere patsies against a positively rampant Liverpool, in what was expected to be the Scousers perfunctory Double-winning coup de grace.

So while most Gooners watched on, more in hope than expectation, mercifully George Graham was reading from a different script. With O’Leary in as a sweeper, Graham tasked his five staunch defensive lieutenants with stifling Aldridge, Rush and Barnes and silencing the crowd, in the belief that the longer the game remained goal-less, the more our chances of nicking a goal would increase as the tension mounted.

But we needed to win by two clear goals to clinch our first title in 18-years, an unheard of feat at fortress Anfield in those days and it wasn’t until Smudger glanced home Winterburn’s free-kick seven minutes after the break that we truly began to believe it might be on.

The absence of a clock anywhere inside Anfield resulted in Mcmahon’s infamously premature gesticulations to his teammates. Then Lukic tossed the ball out to Dixon, when we were begging him to hump it upfield. Dixon whacked it up the line to Smith, who found Thomas tirelessly surging into the box and Mickey made our decade by slotting it past Grobbelar.

Amidst all the euphoria that followed the unforgettable “it’s up for grabs now” moment, unaware how long was left on the clock, Rocky Rocastle admitted that his legs turned to complete jelly when the ref revealed he was only a minute away from fulfilling every Gooner’s wildest fantasy.

In sympathy with the mood of mutual respect, most of home crowd remained for the trophy presentation. A couple of Scousers sprinted the length of the pitch to unfurl a banner in honour of “Those that died”, while the ecstatic Gooners responded with the only fitting tribute, with a heartwarming rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

It wasn’t until alighting from the coaches on arriving back at Highbury in the wee hours and stepping into the sea of detritus in the street that it began to dawn on the travelling faithful the extent of the gargantuan booze-up that was subsequently portrayed in “Fever Pitch”.

The celebrations of the tenth anniversary in the old Clock End complex were somewhat spoiled by Man Utd, as everyone forsake a screening of the game, to watch the TV tuned to the enthralling climax of the Champions League final in the Nou Camp. But there will be no such dampener on the mood tonight, when I might well stroll around to a shindig at the Gunners Pub and raise a glass or two to Mickey, Rocky and all the other heroes, in what must rank as the most stalwart Arsenal side ever, in gratitude to them for sowing the seeds for the fabulous, trophy-laden entertainment that followed.

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