I’m not an Arsenal fan. In fact, at one point my hatred for them was so deep and passionate that it brought me on the verge of tears. Well, not tears but it did get me really, really, really mad. Of course now that they’ve become the punch line to every football joke in the country, I’ve been able to look back on previous events involving the club with a clearer mindset. Did you know that Cesc Fabregas was actually a pretty good player? Go figure.
This Arsenal team boasted some of the best players that would ever grace the Premier League. Viera, Bergkamp, Henry and Co were so elegant and clinical on the pitch that it felt unfair to the opposition, and they played a brand of football so sweet and sexy that you prayed it would one day be bottled up and sold in your local supermarket. It earned them all kind of plaudits, with almost every football fan in the land moist in gratitude and on the 17th March 2002 they visited Villa Park only 4 points behind league leaders Manchester United and with two games in hand.
Lets get this straight; I had no reason to be at Villa Park that gloomy spring afternoon. I supported neither of the teams who were playing and quite frankly Birmingham is as foreign to me as Tehran or Afghanistan. It’s lovely but still foreign. You see, me and a close friend lived 200 miles apart and decided that we should share our mutual love of the game by meeting in the middle of the country and taking in a match together that didn’t involve any of teams we supported. It would give us a chance to act very civilized, act like a pair of grown ups, maybe we would drink a glass of chardonnay and discuss the merits of the four - three - three system. Of course we were both 15 at the time and would do none of these events. The first fart joke was made within two minutes of seeing each other and was warmly received. No pun intended. What am I saying? Pun massively intended.
Of course the fact that his side were in deep in the abyss of mid table obscurity meant that he was just there to watch a jolly game of football, whilst my team were in the midst of a heated championship battle with one of the opposition put my neutrality in doubt.
We sat down and watched Arsenal dominate First Half proceedings, a One Nil lead scant consolation for their efforts. Of course, 15-year-old me only saw a bunch of cheating cockney expletives, but what did that prick know.
Despite being one on one with The Great Dane and having all the time in the world, Pires decided not to take another touch and just nonchalantly lift it over the on coming Schmeichel.
However in the first ten minutes of the second half Villa exploded out onto the field. They over ran the Arsenal defence, with Dion Dublin winning every header and a teenage Thomas Hitzelsperger pinging balls every which way he intended. Then in the 54th Minute Lee Dixon fouled Gareth Barry in the area and Villa had a penalty. Barry stepped up himself and confidently struck the ball towards the top left hand corner. Now despite being a young punk who knew absolutely nothing about the game I had been told that if a penalty was off the ground and still on target, the keeper had no chance, especially if the keeper in goal is basically senile!
Of course David Seaman pulled off a wonder save, not only stopping Barrys thunderbolt with one hand but also catching the falling ball with aplomb before it even threatened to cross the line. Despite this set back Villa seemed to still be in the ascendancy and when Freddie Ljungberg booted the ball out of his half, diagonally towards Robert Pires there seemed little danger.
George Boateng was between him and the goal, as was 30 yards of mud and grass and between the sticks was probably the best goalkeeper of all time. Somehow though Pires got his boot to the ball first, knocking it towards the goal with Boateng now facing the entirely wrong direction, and despite being one on one with The Great Dane and having all the time in the world, Pires decided not to take another touch and just nonchalantly lift it over the on coming Schmeichel.
I could hear Andy Gray’s orgasm from my seat.
Two touches. That’s all he needed. Two lofty touches. He plumped it over two heads and Arsenal now had a two-goal cushion and they would go on to win the game despite the best efforts of Mustapha Hadji and a late Dion Dublin header. What made it worse was that it was a championship winning display and even though I refused to admit it at the time from that moment on they were destined to finish top.
Two months later they would be celebrating the double in front of the Stretford End and their fans would be prematurely envisioning an all encompassing dominance of the Premier League and Europe that Wenger had built single handidly and they believed would last for decades.
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