There is a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) characterised by a deep depression that affects sufferers deprived of sunlight during the winter months. It explains the elevated levels of depression and suicide in the far north of the northern hemisphere every winter. There is a physiological explanation – a reduction in exposure to sunlight causes an increase in melatonin (a hormone related to circadian rhythms – otherwise known as your body-clock), which makes people feel depressed. Bright light suppresses melatonin production. There are even documented cases of addiction to UV light bulbs amongst sufferers. And there is a corresponding socio-psychological effect. What some call the “winter blues” are a symptom of the passing of the summer and the reduction in daylight hours. As the days get shorter, colder and darker there is less time to achieve things, more discomfort in performing tasks, less light to do things by, mistakes and errors creep in, visibility drops, frustration abounds, energy levels depreciate.
This morning North London was under a cloud (as was Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and most of Buckinghamshire). Despite the fact that the Hemel explosion cost no loss of life (praise the Lord), it is a deeply disturbing event. 60 million gallons of oil have been written off; or enough oil at current prices to buy Didier Drogba AND Shaun Wright-Phillips with enough change left to buy 9 Porsche Cayennes. When you see that monstrous inferno, information like that adds perspective, I think.
The big black cloud would have greeted Thierry et al as they awoke on Sunday morning (in the various mansions they occupy north of the nations capital). Who knows… maybe they were even awoken by the stupendous explosion. (Some lying bastard in the Netherlands reckons it woke him up. I slept soundly and I was a damn sight nearer that Utrecht, or wherever). Anyway, they cannot fail to have appreciated the magnitude of the event when the Sun rose unnoticed this morning. What also might be sinking in, is that Arsenal themselves have hit a new low.
First of all, I will try not to get carried away by our 5th defeat on the road – the third straight game without scoring – and the 17-point deficit we will take (along with our injured pride) into next week’s meeting with The Champions. An Arsenal low reaches only to the midriff on the limbo scale and there is no risk of suffering a back spasm or treading on your own hair. We’ve never been relegated for a start. And many fans wait longer than Hornby’s 18 years for the league trophy (some fans have only ever seen a league trophy of any sort on the telly). We have a nice new home being built for us and some very fine young players on our roster who will grace that new theatre, and probably a handful of even grander stages, in the very near future. And everyone is suffering in comparison with Chelsea – we’re not alone. There is a big blue cloud over the country and we’re not the only ones choking.
Nevertheless, this is the first time I can remember in quite a while looking at the fixture list and not thinking there are banker games on the road. I also fear for one or two home games. This is supposed to be a gala season. I had it down, during those sunny summer months of the Amsterdam tournament, as a year in which Arsenal would be feted and congratulated by all and sundry, a year brimming with potential. Our 93 years at Highbury have contributed immeasurably to the legacy of English football – certainly more than many rivals. Arsenal is a very famous name and club with a renowned reputation. There are scores of football neutrals who hail our recent teams as some of the finest ever to grace the game. Sunderland fans may sing collectively that their garden shed is bigger. But they will tell you privately that playing against Arsenal at THOF is one of the major highlights of their return to the top flight. This is also the last full season for Dennis Bergkamp, a season in Which Thierry Henry has at last ascended into Valhalla with his scoring record and a season in which every home game has had a theme evoking all the great memories and moments of the last century and 6 mostly successful and stylish years in the present one.
But it has turned out that one topic of conversation in the managers office, the first team dressing room, in the North bank, the Clock End and the West and East stands, on the coach, in the pub, in the staff canteen and in the papers, has put all of that glory under it’s own black cloud. That topic is Patrick Vieira. As a player his influence did actually wane in the last few years. But everyone feels his absence so keenly now that there is a distinct danger that we might not ever fully recover from the present melancholia. As it is with players who suffer a serious injury and never recover their form in quite the same way; so it is with a team that lose their fulcrum and driving force and have no way to replace what they have lost. We may have all been relieved to have the matter settled (after consecutive summers where everyone but Arsenal talked about Paddy’s future not being at Highbury). But could we…could anyone…look around the modern game and see a like-for-like replacement?
If there is one and we can afford him, the last couple of overcast winter days have shown us that - when the chink of light that is the January transfer window opens up - we have to gamble on glory in the transcendental glow of a stellar midfield talent, or write off 2005/6 as a wasted year.
Of course the supreme irony in all this is that the Champions League – a tournament played perpetually (and the only tournament, by the way, played exclusively) under floodlights – has, for once, not deepened our disappointment, but provided a twinkly glimmer of hope. If you were about to point out to me that what I’ve said so far isn’t all that ironic, just wait. The CL is the one competition that the great Patrick Vieira never won whilst he was at Arsenal. And it was cited by him as the biggest reason for seeking employment elsewhere … he never believed “we” could do it.
Actually, without a delve into the mire of the transfer market for a shiny trinket to sparkle centre stage, I still can’t see us holding football’s heaviest urn aloft next summer either. The winter window is the wrong one to use to find a top player with the experience for a serious European campaign. Almost anyone who’s available will be cup tied.
What disappoints me at the moment is that we still seem to be seeking more 19-year-old wunderkind. At this rate Arsenal is going to become the worlds most exclusive nursery school. Do we really not have enough teen geniuses in our ranks? Both of our last two games were wrested from us by nous, not just by graft, closing down tactics and a few snide tackles. Bolton is the home of mercenaries whose collective spans about 20 nationalities, 10 different world leagues and over two centuries of playing experience. Newcastle have, in Alan Shearer, the most combative player after Roy Keane that the Premiership has ever produced, backed by such charming shy coquettes as Scott Parker, Lee Bowyer, Robbie Elliott and Amdy Faye. Michael Owen is an old stager, despite his young age, with whom we have a painful bit of history. Souness may think tactics are breath mints (I know you’ve heard that before, but it more aptly applies to Souey than it ever did to Beckham), but I think, if I had him waiting for me in the dressing room, I would have no hesitation in ankle-tapping Freddie Ljungberg into submission; I dare not disobey. And if Souey knows one thing (believe me he has no room for two things, even if you showed him another thing and it was really nice) it’s that cynical nastiness can comprise 90% of a winning game plan, with the remaining 10% left down to luck. Newcastle deserve better, of course, but he will probably keep them up.
What we have been doing, whilst the rest of the Premiership has been deciding that they’re sick of Arsenal running rings around them in their own gardens, is trying to nurture some gentle flowers. But what young plant can blossom without the light? Henry shines his beam on each of them very occasionally, of course. But he can also grimace in frustration at their failed discipleship. You can tell that playing alongside the man is clearly one of the highlights of their career so far. But they will all have to emerge from his shadow, and soon. And, if we aren’t to have a leader from the outside, will one or two of them take the bit between their own teeth? Henry is not a leader of men. He is not even a good example to them, since most of what he does would make a fool of anyone who tired to copy him.
And a team of 11 Henry’s wouldn’t have beaten Newcastle on Saturday. Wenger must risk upsetting Henry by setting him the task of simply being the greatest footballer to ever play for Arsenal (that ought to be enough). Asking him to match the achievements of even one of our top 15 captains is beyond him. But Henry is right to ask his companions to stand up and be counted. In fact, there is a flaming torch that’s been discarded by a French-Senegalese colossus and it’s burning a hole in the turf right now.
It’ll take a big man to pick it up and hold it aloft. But that’s the only way we’re going to see our way clear.