AROUND THE WORLD IN 8 (OR SO) GAMES

Hark now hear the Arsenal sing, the Tottenham run away.
And we will fight forever more because of Boxing Day.”

Wasn’t quite like that this year, now was it? Even though I enjoyed humming along to that old tune on arriving at Highbury on the 26th, the atmosphere against Wolves was definitely more post-Seasonal casual than confrontational, a top v bottom clash that proved utterly predictable and all over as a contest in less than twenty minutes. While the North Bank scratched it’s collective arse and waited for Thierry to finally round-off the victory, the Clock End reminded the travelling supporters from the Midlands to make the most of their visit to THOF as it could well be many a year before they can once again anticipate such a journey. Bile, in other words, was in short supply as Highbury’s 2003 came to a close.

If news of Chelsea’s defeat at Charlton provoked the most intense buzz around the ground, Tottenham’s slide into the relegation zone two days later has provided the holiday season’s highlight. Four London teams in the Premiership top five, and the other lot becoming one of the bottom three. As Christmas presents go, that has to be the cracker. Still, the fixture computer’s rather benign selection of Wolverhampton at home and Highbury’s reaction to it has got me thinking about some other occasions during my Arsenal-supporting days, when, for one reason or another, I’ve found myself miles from London as games are in progress.

In recent years, these occasions tend to correspond with holidays abroad. For instance, I was in Rome during that intense week in late-September just over a year ago when Arsene’s charges went goal crazy at PSV and then at Elland Road. The apartment where we were staying had no TV, so for the Eindhoven game it was a question of hooking up a laptop to the BBC football web site and waiting for the results as the evening wore on. That Saturday’s destruction of Leeds was even better for it took place as we were strolling around the Capitoline museum. Then back to the apartment to check out the scores. Another four goals away from home! A spot of culture then crapping all over Leeds – what could be better?
Well, enjoying the game while supping a cocktail by the side of a pool comes to mind. Unfortunately, my only experience of watching the Arse at play while languishing by the side of a narrow cool blue set against an azure sky was for one of those collective nervous breakdowns that the team seems to reserve for the latter stages of the Champions League. In this instance, Juventus away, nearly three years ago.

We were in Havana in Cuba, and had found a rooftop pool on top of one of the bigger hotels whose management were not too sniffy about us hanging around for a good share of the day as long as we bought a bit of food and some drinks every now and again. One day we strolled in for some lunch and the waiters in the bar were watching a game of footie. On closer inspection it turned out to be one of the last qualifying matches of the second Champions League Group stage. Juve v Arsenal from Turin. Lovely! Drinks in, up by the bar. The Caribbean sun stroking my shoulders, the ever-present sound of street salsa rising up from below. And what did our eleven brave boys do to add to the mood? Nada. Zilch. Fuck all. That 1-0 defeat was one of the most insipid away results that Wenger’s teams have produced in recent years. As I supped my ice-cold majito in silence, the Gunners slid lamely out of Europe once again.

Still, not so long ago, any kind of result in UEFA’s premier competition would have been greeted with near hysterical adulation by a Highbury crowd starved of success. From 1985 to 1986 I found myself working some thirty miles west of Port Stanley in the Falklands. (No, don’t ask. It really is too complicated for explanation.) My fellow work mates came from all over the UK, so Saturdays were an intense cauldron of regional passions and barely-concealed resentments. As I remember it, the time differences with Greenwich Mean Time meant that it was sometime around noon that the World Service began transmitting commentary on the day’s featured game. Amazingly, an Arsenal team managed by Don Howe secured a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford which was featured on the Beeb while I was there. One small success in a south Atlantic sea of mediocrity that was the Arse during the mid-Eighties.

Which brings me back to Tottenham away, Boxing Day 1978. As a twenty-one year-old, I had travelled out to California in search of… well, if not fame and fortune then certainly sex and sinsemilla. Time, as ever, has somewhat clouded the issue. One thing that does remain fresh in my mind, however, was my reaction on finding out THE sensational seasonal result of my lifetime, a game that remains forever in Goonerville’s collective folklore.

Younger readers may find this concept hard to swallow, but there was a time when the world was NOT a global village. Indeed, before the internet, teletext, satellite television coverage and reliable radio transmissions, sporting news travelled around from one continent to another not much faster than in my father’s day. Sure, if you had the nous, no doubt one could have heard the result direct from White Hart Lane that December the 26th. Get someone to phone you up, perhaps. In my case, it was at least a day or two later. However long it took in those days to ship over a copy of The Sunday Times to L.A.

I used to wander down to a street vendors on the corner of Hollywood and Vine and wile away a minute or two perusing the British news. Whether or not I turned to the sports section straight away is doubtful. Football, even the result of Arsenal away at Shite Hart Lane, was not at the top of my priorities in those days. It was more of a dormant internal lava. Prone, however, to sporadic and violent eruptions. That day I spewed my joy all along Hollywood Boulevard.

5-0 to the Arsenal! Away to Tottenham!! On Boxing Day!!!

That glorious afternoon will always be linked to the skills of Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Alan Sunderland and their team-mates. A solitary FA Cup win the next May hardly did justice to their collective memory. But again, it provides a salutary reminder of just how far this club has come under the stewardship of Wenger and Dein. The past may have seen some great players and some great results, but just think about Ashburton and Henry, King Kolo and Cesc, Aliadiere and Bentley. Whatever the results of games as 2003 fades into memory, surely the future of Arsenal Football Club has never seemed more secure. Here’s to Boxing Day next year, wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing.

Hark now hear!!

 


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