For all my teenage years and beyond I loathed the Arsenal, principally because they cheated us out of a place in the FA Cup Finals of 1972 and ’73. They robbed us in consecutive semi-finals, on the first occasion by being awarded a penalty in the sixth minute of five minutes of extra time, on the second by scoring an offside goal. Offside goals are routinely given, but this one was unique. Their player was yards off: the linesman failed to flag this fact because he had confused an ice-cream seller on the far touchline with one of our defenders. The ice-cream seller was wearing a white apron; we were playing in a white away strip. This would not happen today, at least: there are no ice cream sellers at football matches. I maintained my grudge until, at some indeterminate point, in a moment probably involving Dennis Bergkamp, I began to admire the philosophy that Arsene Wegner employed in setting up his team to play football. Then one night I went to Highbury. The publishers of my first book about Stoke City were schmoozing book buyers for high street stores, and, by way of corporate hospitality, they had picked up a batch of about a dozen seats for an early round League Cup match between Arsenal and Wolves. Wolves had been promoted that year, so, in theory, it was one Premiership team competing against another. We began as a group of people talking about this, that, and the other, but as the match wore on and took its shape, one by one we fell silent and simply watched. It was some brand of modern ballet that the Arsenal players were executing, there was a scissor action that repeatedly took place up the wings before the ball intricately made its way into the region of opposition penalty area. While Wolves players stood mesmerised, unable to decode the geometry of what was taking place in the spaces around and between them, a goal would be scored. Few of the names on the Arsenal team sheet that night were familiar – Wenger was introducing his policy of playing youngsters in this competition. Some of those unfamiliar names included Aliadiere, Clichy, and Bentley, and in the last minutes a 16-year-old called Cesc Fabregas netted the fifth to make the final score 5-1, and to become the youngest player ever to claim a first team goal for the Gunners. I walked away thinking what a dream it must be to see that every week, how different a life it would be to mine, one whereby going to watch your side play made your hair stand on end and gave you something to look forward to.
Yesterday Wenger’s football was neither particularly pretty nor particularly effective and the Arsenal were destroyed by the most basic but effective weapon in this year’s Premiership, Rory Delap’s long-throw scud missile. Delap is now responsible for seven assists out of our thirteen goals. He has finessed his action to the extent that the ball is hurled in so flat that it might be a paper dart, and at such speed that defenders simply don’t know what to do. The crowd whips up a frenzy of noise as he makes his run up, with many making copy-cat throw-in gestures of their own, and then falls silent as the trajectory takes its course. While the ball is in flight, the opposition defence first panics, then freezes. While they remain frozen and their ‘keeper flaps about knitting air, one of our lads bundles it in at the far post.
It may be one dimensional, but what a fabulous dimension it is.