Offside, 17 February
The end of the Arse-fixation.
When Arsenal thumped Portsmouth 5-1 at Fratton Park in the FA Cup in March 2004, the Pompey fans generously applauded their opponents. The Portsmouth fans were in turn widely praised for their sporting behaviour. Well that’s one way of looking at it. I think they were just a bit starstruck, like simple village children bedazzled by the razzmatazz and bright lights when the circus comes to town.
It wasn’t just the Portsmouth fans who were mesmerised by Arsenal’s passing and movement. An adoring media, then completely in the grip of Arse-fixation, scattered superlatives at the feet of Arsene Wenger’s men. ‘Arsenal don’t so much pass the ball as caress it’, gushed the BBC’s senior commentator John Motson. Arsenal’s name had never been engraved on the European Cup yet football pundits were earnestly debating whether Arsenal were the greatest British team of all time. This nauseating Gooner love-in came to a shuddering halt in October 2004 when Manchester United beat Arsenal at Old Trafford, a bad-tempered match that spilled over into the now legendary ‘Battle of the Buffet’.
Defeat temporarily dented Arsenal’s self-belief and their subsequent poor run of form effectively ended their title hopes and mercifully (for me at any rate) silenced their media sycophants. But then came Monday night’s 5-1 demolition of Crystal Palace. Had Arsenal rediscovered their va-va-voom? Thankfully I was spared the ordeal of watching the game in a pub surrounded by crowing south London Gooners (if you thought Cockney Reds were irritating you should meet these clowns). However, listening on the radio to John Motson creaming himself over Thierry Henry and co rekindled painful memories of last season’s orgy of Arse-licking. Come back Barry Davies, all is forgiven.
There were also echoes of last season’s adulation in some newspaper reports. ‘Arsenal proved that on their day they are the most exciting team in England as they overwhelmed Crystal Palace’, wrote Christopher Davies in the Daily Telegraph. ‘Thierry Henry’s performance was special even by the standards of the French maestro though Palace who never allowed their heads to drop despite being up against an Arsenal team whose movement, passing and finishing were a joy to behold.’ (1)
But despite occasional relapses into Goonerphilia, there was a more critical tone to the post-match reaction. Praise for Arsenal’s attacking panache was tempered by criticism of Arsene Wenger’s failure to include a single English name on Arsenal’s team sheet. Former Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson and celebrity addict branded Wenger’s team selection a ‘joke’. ‘I don’t look at the passport of people but at the quality and attitude’, retorted Wenger.
Last season, when Arsenal imperiously swept aside all domestic opposition, nobody cared a jot about the ethnic composition of the team. Never mind that, apart from Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell, Arsenal’s first team was made anywhere but Britain. So long as they were playing free-flowing, attacking football they were as British as chicken tikka massala. Now that Arsenal’s flaws have become evident even to their one-eyed admirers, everyone has suddenly woken up and smelt the garlic.
Another sign of how reverence towards Arsenal has been eroded is the criticism that they only excel against lesser opponents. ‘They played like champions but, given that so little has gone right at Highbury in recent weeks, this spectacular barrage will probably lead to Arsenal being disparaged as flat-track bullies’, wrote Matt Dickinson in The Times. Arsenal, it would appear, have finally been found out. They can turn on the style against most Premiership opponents but their mental strength in the big games is questionable. Flat-track bullies sounds about right to me.
The Guardian’s Kevin McCarra, in a tirade against the uncompetitive nature of the English Premiership, has belatedly clocked the fact that Arsenal’s ability to remain unbeaten throughout the 2003-4 season reflected more the mediocrity of the opposition than the greatness of the champions. ‘It is the easy life in the Premiership that often leads our sides to have delusions about themselves’, wrote McCarra (2). Arsenal might have had delusions but relentless media flattery was responsible for cultivating those delusions.
Arsenal have so far been unable to translate their domestic superiority on to the European stage. This is partly because European teams tend to be less gung-ho about committing players forward and leaving themselves exposed to Arsenal’s quick counter-attacks. It’s one thing putting five goals past Crystal Palace – the term catennacio is an alien concept in SE25 – but Bayern Munich in the Champions League will be an altogether different proposition.
Personally I’ll be pulling on the lederhosen, pouring myself a weissbier, and cheering for the Bavarians. Failure in Europe will hopefully snuff out any resurgence of the fawning, dewy-eyed, Arse-fixation that blighted our nation last season.
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