Sunday 5.30 am, wake up with Montezuma’s revenge. This is not a good start to the biggest day of the season thus far. I manage a couple of hours of dozing before I am ‘evacuating’ again. The omens aren’t good.
Arse finally settled I am in a taxi at ten heading for the station where I meet up with Darren. We discuss the imminent return of Arsenal-Land on the train, and I persuade him to join me as I look around Highbury for the first time since May 2006. I’m impressed. They haven’t ruined the feel of the old girl. I feel good again.
A few pints are in order and slowly but surely the gang assembles in the pub. There is a slight tension in the air. Nervousness if you like. Some are wondering if ‘only a draw’ will be good enough today and next Sunday. At 3 o’clock I would have taken the draw. At 5 o’clock I would kill for it.
I am extremely fortunate to have a friend’s ticket in Block 32, right behind the visitors’ bench. He is worried I will overdo my greeting to that nice Mr Ferguson and pleads with me not to lose him one of the best seats in the house. He needn’t have worried.
To rip into the purple-nosed one I would have to come from a position of strength. I need to know we will humiliate him on the pitch as I intend to humiliate him off it. From early doors it is clear that won’t happen.
From pretty much bench level I share a perception, a view of the game, with the coaches and managers. It is a bit two dimensional compared to my usual vantage point, and it is clear from the start that our much-vaunted 4-3-3 is in fact reverting to a 4-5-1 today. Arshavin is exposed. Even worse, the five doesn’t seem to think they need to put in a shift because there are so many of them.
The fact that United have started much the better is forgotten a couple of times when Nani hits the deck all too dramatically. The second time Song is booked, and we can replace disappointment with faux fury. No surprise then that the obnoxious one provides the classy cross that Manuel chucks into his own net.
Four minutes later he frees Rooney, to this point magnificently shackled by Gallas, and the visitors are two up, and well worth the comfortable interval advantage. The half-time whisky raises the spirits. We convince ourselves a comeback is possible, until the whistle blows and again we look second best in every respect.
In the second-half I tire of waiting to bait Fergie and exchange pleasantries with the fourth official instead. Clattenburg seems to have had a spurt of growth over what was once clearly a bald patch, or as Del Trotter would have put it, ‘a hell of a parting’. It is only a temporary distraction.
United are three to the good when Park crowns a dogged performance with a far post finish. Those around me are astounded when our response is to add Theo to our lightweight attack. I’m being harsh, I know, but this is a poor call on the day.
Thomas Vermaelen shines a miniscule glimmer of light into our day when he lashes one home with his broken leg, and briefly we wonder if we could nick something if we could add to that strike. After all, United pinched the points off us at Old Trafford when we were by far the better side. But no, it is not to be.
At the final whistle it is back to the pub, and the unusual spectacle of everybody pretty much singing from the same hymn sheet, and accepting we were clearly second best on the day. Nobody thinks it is the end of the title challenge yet, but in seven days time we have to show a degree of determination and effort that was not evident today.
The bus stop in Fulham has suddenly acquired a degree of importance in our season. They will stretch their advantage at Hull in the week. We cannot afford to put in another lifeless display next Sunday. After we have achieved so much over the course of the first six months of the season it seems churlish to be putting so much importance on this one game. Everybody knows though, if we do not produce a performance at the Bridge next week, the title will probably be gone for another year.
Oh, and Arsene, I did play in goal a fair bit in my youth. If you can’t get anybody else before 5pm on Monday, I am available, and cheap.
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