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Steve E

Real life with the great pretenders

My God, was it only five weeks ago? After the back-to-back battles against the boys from the Bridge and on the same day that United dropped two points at home to relegation favourites Leeds, TV pundit Ally McCoist tried to justify his assertion that United were still in the title race by looking back at the last six Premiership fixtures, beginning with those on January 7th. The Arse were away to Everton, the Mancs down the round at the Reebok in Bolton and Chelsea were playing Liverpool at home.

Regular Arseblog readers will remember that the theme of my last column was about listening to Arsenal results while not at a game and how that has changed over the years. Well, January 7th this year was yet another example of how personal circumstances may alter as the years go by, yet a part of the heart always finds itself tuned into the goings-on at THOF or following the boys out on the road.

That particular evening I was attending a post-Christmas get-together with members of the family at a plush casino in Mayfair. As well as my in-laws and friends of my mother were her cousin – a lifelong Chelsea fan – my brother – whose followed the fortunes of United for over 35 years – and yours truly. Having had meals there a few times over the years, I knew that the well-appointed library and smoking room had a fine, mega-sized TV installed that was perfectly placed (being on route to the loo) for a discreet check on the scores. Discretion, however, rapidly went out the window. Sky were showing the Chelsea game live from Stamford Bridge, and the evening was punctuated with one out of the three of us listening in on the latest twists and turns of the Championship race.

As an Arsenal fan, I’ve grown to love the tension of head-to-head battles for the title, especially the Liverpool years of the late-Eighties and early-Nineties. When results filter across the crowd, or the radio switches to a scoreline at a rival’s game, the tension can sometimes be almost too much to bear. (I hate to be a ponce here, especially with all this talk about suppers at casinos and the like, but do you remember those matches back in ’99 when United and Arsenal could both win the title on the last day of the season? United at home to Tottenham, Arsenal entertaining Villa? I was in an executive box at Highbury with the TV tuned to United’s match and the Arse giving all in front of me. Talk about tension. Trying to watch two title-deciding matches at the same time is too fuckin’ much!!)  

Anyway, I digress. The point here is that this year, certainly as far back as I can remember, is the first time that Arsenal have had a duo of contenders to deal with as they try to bring back the Championship to it’s rightful home. The fact that it’s Chelsea makes it all the sweeter. Leeds, Liverpool and United have all been our rivals for honours over the years but they are not the enemy . No, I’m not talking about the Sp*ds. (when were they last in the title race?) North Londoners have got their own turf wars. Being brought up in the leafy suburbs of the south west meant that choosing Arsenal to support brought me into direct confrontation with the vast majority of football-loving sprogs in the neighbourhood. Yup, it was Chelsea through-and-through, except for three red-loving mavericks (four of us if you count my brother, which I don’t. As should be obvious).

So the fact that Chelsea lost their match to Liverpool added a little enjoyment to that evening down the casino even though the Arse had let a 1-0 lead slip through their fingers at Goodison, and the Mancs had waltzed off with all three points against Allardyces’ men. United were three points clear, with a three-goal advantage in terms of goal difference as well. Thanks Ally for reminding us of those facts now that we’ve won the last five games, the Rio-less United have stuttered and the Great Pretenders from west London have been blown out of both the FA Cup and quite possibly the title race in the space of six, glorious days.  
And, even while life at the moment seems to be getting better and better (the Ashburton announcement has just been made, Paddy may be fit for Vigo, and Silvestre is crocked for the next three weeks) victory over the Blue part of the city is something I never take for granted, their history and mine being far too intertwined for anything like complacency to slip in.

Indeed the first Arsenal/Chelsea game I ever saw we were beaten 3-0 at Highbury, pissed on pure and simple. The next year saw the 70-71 Double-winning campaign and two strikes by Ray Kennedy were enough for to provide me with my first victory, soon followed by the opening game of the next season when Arsenal paraded the League trophy and FA Cup around Highbury in front of an all-ticket match that kicked-off the campaign. In front of a measly 48,000 or so. The rational behind the decision to make the fixture all-ticket was probably hooliganism. Not that it made much difference outside the ground, of course.  
I was still savouring the comprehensive manner of the 3-0 win when I spotted the red-and-white scarves that were hanging from the waists of a group of Arsenal fans waiting by the stalls that used to sell the classified editions of London’s two evening papers on the concourse of Waterloo Station. Just as I reached the top of the escalators, I noticed that their demeanour changed rather rapidly for, just behind me, a gang of Chelsea Skins were bounding up the moving stair, and they weren’t about to wait for any formal introductions. One of them must have grabbed my scarf that was tucked through my belt because the belt snapped in an instant and I found myself trying to keep up my trousers while all around me skinheads were putting boot to Arse in comprehensive fashion. I’ve often wondered if my scarf was the only trophy those erstwhile head-hunters acquired that day. Somehow I doubt it.  

Later that season, I went to Stamford Bridge for the first time. On the way down I noticed that a couple of guys in the carriage were wearing crash helmets (not that difficult to notice, really). Quite where they got their inside information has always been a mystery to me for the rational behind their fashion statement was startlingly obvious as soon as the tube train had pulled into Fulham Broadway. A vicious crack on the roof announced the fact that the train was being bombarded with bricks being hurled from the top of the walkway that traverses both platforms at the station. All the driver could do was lock the doors and wait for the police to arrive and baton-charge the buggers away from the stairwell. They couldn’t get rid of them entirely, indeed they only managed to clear a tiny passage of space onto and through the Broadway itself. Everywhere else was full of thousands of malevolent Chelsea fans with their blood up. Lovely situation. Some souls were brave enough to take them on, one by one, but it was obvious that if you lost your personal bout, you’d be dragged back into that sea of blue and be gone forever. The more chickenshit, myself included, shuffled into the ground suitably terrified. Won the game, of course. But I think I left before the end of the match. Then thought twice before going back to the Bridge any time in the near future.

By this time hooliganism was happening everywhere. I once found myself attending a Man Utd-Arsenal game at Anfield because Old Trafford had been shut because of the level of violence there. Quite what the authorities thought they were doing has always been a bit beyond me. The Kop was full that night. Of Scousers, refusing to let the Mancs onto their sacred piece of concrete. In fact, they were so pissed-off at having United anywhere near their city that thousands more of ’em emerged from the council estates that seemed to surround the ground and chased, harried and beat anyone who took their fancy along the three or so miles it took to get back to Lime Street station. There I saw my first coppers, waiting to wave farewell to the Mancs with their truncheons. Only time I’ve been to Liverpool, thank-you-very-much.

Something had to change, and for me it came in the shape of a little pill that had the power to fundamentally reshape the world. Only for a few hours at a time, of course. And the last few hours of my first-ever trip I spent suffering because I didn’t know the result of a Chelsea-Arsenal fifth-round FA Cup tie. Went to the replay ’tho, a blinding 2-0 home win, smack in the middle of the North Bank with a 63,000 crowd. Then stopped going to football for about four years.  

Now, the world has changed in so many ways that the Seventies are most definitely in another century. For instance, you can buy psychedelics legally in shops in the West End nowadays. I know, because I bought some to take when I was watching satellite coverage of the most recent match at the Bridge. Just to kind of bring things full circle. And maybe approach the game in a neutral frame of mind so that I could accept the inevitable Chelsea victory with good grace and a sense of fair play. Because it really was their turn to win a game one of these days, wasn’t it? Like fuck it was. Mushrooms or not, I was at the back of the pub baying like a Banshee for blue blood to be spilt, howling at every injustice and going beserk as first Vieira then Edu stuck it to those bastards like good ’uns.

Some things may have changed forever, but life at the moment means a 2-1 win over Chelsea, time after time after time…