Date: 18th April 2011 at 10:08am
Written by:

When I was four years old, my grandparents bought me Sooty and Sweep hand puppets. These two artefacts were the most delightful thing in my four year old life, I slept with them on, I ate with them on and I even tried to bathe with them on. One incredibly pleasant summer afternoon, my Grandparents took me to Kelsey Park in Beckenham in Kent. Naturally, the hand puppets were still glued inexonerably to my hands. I rather think that that afternoon might have been the happiest and most halcyon one in my whole existence. What I did next has always been a complete mystery to me, but for some reason, right in front of my Grandparents, I contrived to take both hand puppets off and throw them into the River Beck. It wasn`t an act of petulance or rebellion, but one of complete wanton destruction. I immediately started to cry when I realised the gravity of what I`d done. I pleaded with my Granddad to buy me replacements but, understandably, he was none too keen. I`ve no idea what made me do it, but I think the truth is, it was an act of self destruction. I was afraid of being that happy. The point in this anodyne anecdote is buried in allegory; it reminds me of this Arsenal team. Every time they come close to joy or elation, they become terrified and wantonly self destruct. Emmanuel Eboue effectively took me back to that late 80s summer day yesterday and hurled a most cherished possession into the mouth of a river.

The day started in more positive and slightly hungover mode with a few Guinness`s in the Arsenal Tavern. It was hazy, shirt sleeve weather and with United incurring a dent in their momentum 24 hours previously, you felt Arsenal had a good chance to reignite the title charge for one final toss of the dice. Prior to the game, touching tributes were paid to Danny Fiszman following his untimely death this week, whilst the club showed a touch of class to also acknowledge the recent anniversary of the Hillsbrough disaster. Liverpool set up defensively as one would expect and the Gunners found it tough going breaking them down. When Fabregas and van Persie have simultaneous bad games, you really cannot count on Arsenal to create much at all. Arsenal forged snippets here and there, Fabregas` free kick was headed just wide by Diaby; Walcott`s shot was fumbled by Reina. But we were largely feeding on scraps.

Strangely, set pieces looked to offer our biggest threat and our best chance arrived via that conduit when Koscielny met van Persie`s corner with a firm header and Reina in no man`s land, only for the ball to rebound off the crossbar. Van Persie side footed Fabregas` dinked pass into the corner only to be denied by a correct offside flag, whilst Fabregas played Eboue into the channel and Skrtel deflected his cross towards his own goal but the ball spun wide. That was that for the first half really, Arsenal looked very pedestrian despite having our strongest team offensively. The team that was cruising past teams in January looks shot and one paced in April. The second half offered little in the way of improvement. Suarez did manage t jink his way past Djourou and Koscielny with a neat trick, but conspired to fire a left footed shot wide. Then a stoppage of eight minutes ensued when Jamie Carragher was knocked unconscious following a sickening clash of heads with his own team mate Flanagan.

Van Persie headed a Nasri corner into the side netting, whilst at the other end; Suarez was getting some joy in the wide open spaces left by Arsenal`s midfield. He walked through untracked to receive Carroll`s pass, but his shot was beaten out by Szczesny. Arsene called for reinforcement with Bendtner and Arshavin called into the fray. Bendtner was confusingly left to pitch puff balls from the right wing which reveals a very genuine inflexibility in the approach these days. Bendtner is a good player to bring off the bench when you need a goal, because he`s always capable of one. But a right winger he is not. Arsenal continued to probe but without the sort of urgency and insistence that troubled Liverpool. They did pick their way through once when Fabregas fed Nasri, whose clever flick put van Persie in on goal but his finish was straight at Reina. Meanwhile, Suarez wasted a good opportunity when he snuck in to the left channel of Arsenal`s defence undetected but sliced his shot horribly high and wide.

The game looked to be drifting towards an unsatisfying conclusion and another 0-0 draw at home. It was really all we deserved. But with the clock showing 97 minutes, Fabregas smuggled his way into the penalty area only to be taken by the stray leg of Jay Spearing. A pressure cooker of a penalty was converted by Robin van Persie and the three points looked to have been secured. But Arsenal find new and imaginative ways of shooting themselves in the temple. Liverpool came forward and despite both Nasri and Song having chances to simply boot the ball clear, both displayed their nerves and utter terror by instead taking heavy touches, culminating in Song conceding a free kick on the edge of the area. Suarez`s attempt flicked off the wall and Lucas gave chase. Eboue did not need to do anything at all. Lucas` only route was towards the corner flag. I am certain that one touch in that direction and the final whistle would have sounded. Instead, Lucas saw Eboue coming and allowed himself to be clumsily bundled to the ground. Penalty and no question. Dirk Kuyt slammed the penalty past Szczesny and the final whistle sounded instantly.

We can ask big questions about why 11 minutes of an 8 minute period of stoppage time was played, but the bigger inquisition needs to be why this sort of thing seems to happen so often. It`s not ill fortune because it seems to happen so regularly. I don`t need to reel off the examples of this perpetually suicidal tendency because we all know what they are. It`s a problem that needs to be addressed. The problem is that it`s not a cosmetic issue I don`t think. It goes deeper and more complex than that. The trouble is none of us really know why it happens, despite our best attempts to offer inspired sounding adjectives. On the way up to Blackpool a friend of mine joked that he had seen a foreign newscast of a particularly inarticulate gentleman on an EDL march. Having slurred his way through some tabloid buzz phrases, the news anchor ended the link with, “People are angry and they don`t know why.” We made the link with the Arsenal supporters at the moment. Ultimately, that really spells the end of our title hopes. In the unlikely event that Newcastle beat Manchester United on Tuesday, then a win at White Hart Lane would light the blue touch paper. But after this setback, I rather think this team will wallow in pity for a couple of weeks and feel sorry for themselves. I just can`t see them raising their game and rather think we`ll finish 3rd now. But if the players are struggling for motivation, this harrowing thought should spur them on. If United win their next two games, any points dropped in our next 2 matches, presents United with the chance to win the title on our home ground.LD.

53.SZCZESNY, 27.EBOUE, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 2.DIABY (17.Song `80), 19.WILSHERE (23.Arshavin `74), 4.FABREGAS ©, 14.WALCOTT (52.Bendtner `74), 8.NASRI, 10.v.PERSIE. Unused: 13.Lehmann, 18.Squillaci, 28.Gibbs, 29.Chamakh.

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