Forty-one years. Say it quickly and it doesn’t sound long. We went to Stoke in the 1970-71 season and took a proper beating. 5-0 it was. A bright young home side outplayed us from start to finish. Frank Mclintock got the side together in the dingy ‘halfway house’ at Highbury on the Monday and the ‘no-holds-barred’ team meeting that followed forged a determination and a togetherness that brought the first Arsenal double the following spring.
Stoke were managed by a respected thinker, Tony Waddington and played an expansive game with a team of cut-price signings and homegrown lads. Arsenal were more direct, and boasted in Peter Storey one of the hardest ‘enforcers’ in an era when no team won anything without a nasty bastard in the side. Times have changed. Pitches are better, boots and balls are lighter, the tackle from behind has been outlawed, spectators paying small fortunes for tickets demand something more than those of us who followed the team round for a few quid a week back in the day.
So this week is the latest instalment in the meeting that epitomises more than any other just how much football has changed in those aforementioned forty-one years. Arsenal have grasped progress warmly, embraced it in a way that has frustrated a few, and are the somewhat typecast ‘frail entertainers’ of the modern era. Sadly the visitors on Sunday have regressed to a degree that irritates anyone other than their rabid following.
An extreme assessment of where the two clubs sit today? Possibly, but for some reason since we joined in the applause for their performance all those years ago, Arsenal and Stoke have rarely seen eye to eye. The fractious recent encounters have hardened attitudes and mutual dislike that seems to extend to the benches where things have also gone full cycle. As Arsene attempts to weld together a fourth version of his vision of the beautiful game, his counterpart develops his love of hoof and the long throw, of ‘getting amongst them’, not so much the new Jerusalem as the new Wimbledon.
And yet, whisper it, there is now a feeling amongst many at the Grove that perhaps we have abandoned the physical side of the game to our cost. Arsene’s first two wonderful creations incorporated players who were more than willing to win the physical battle, if that is what was required. If there is one fact that unites those who are otherwise parted in their views of the current Arsenal, it is that we lack the steel underbelly required by winners. This Sunday will be another test of that generalisation.
I’ve departed from the usual format of my preview because this game is one that will be decided not necessarily by skill, flair, technique. It will probably be decided by the team that displays what Arsene all-too-often describes as ‘mental strength’, a quality we lack on the bad days. There is something different about this Wenger incarnation as it tries to escape infancy. There are signs that what we lack in technique since the departures of the summer, we make up for with sheer effort. (OK, not you Andrey, but exception proving the rule, and all that).
We have ground out five wins in six matches without hitting anything like the free-flowing beauty that we had come to be associated with. That is the sort of attitude that will stand us in good stead on Sunday. I’m thinking it will be another grim, dour struggle this weekend. The curse of the ‘holic pound, as unsuccessful this season as it was profitable last, is on a 2-1 home win. Shop around and you may do slightly better than the widely available 7/1 for that outcome.
Don’t forget if you are going that there is no Victoria Line service, so you will be sharing packed Piccadilly Line services to Holloway Road, Arsenal and Finsbury Park. There is an under-18 meeting with Chelsea straight after the main match so stay seated and watch some of the stars of the future in order that journeys home are staggered. Or do what eighty percent of us will be doing and hit the pub for a couple of hours!
Have a great one ‘holics.
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