So here we are. About to bully off for the final chukka. The stage has been swept, the lights lit and the fat lady is preparing to gargle with her honey and lemon throat soother before the ultimate performance. Here we stand at the edge of the unknown about to witness the dénouement of what has surely been the most exciting season finale for many a year. Nothing, of course, can possibly match the Mickey Thomas moment (frankly I fail to see how anything ever will) but for sheer bloody determination to drag themselves back into contention this Arsenal squad has cemented its place in our hearts. They have given us thrills and spills and many a weak willed fan has bellyached but here they are in a three way fight, hoping for third but desperate to cement at least fourth.
Warren (a Liverpool supporting friend of mine) and I were chatting the other day about how massive and important an achievement a top four finish has become. We all remember not that long ago of course when his beloved side were breezily mentioned in the same breath as Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City as one of the big four. This despite the glaring fact that Arsenal generally finished above them and they were actually in the kind of situation that pundits and our own alleged supporters seem to think we are in. Wazza would love to see ‘pool fighting for a fourth place finish right now, and if they were he happily admitted all and sundry would see it as a major accomplishment. Remember Harry for Engerland? Remember the media furore surrounding the Spuds elevation to a team challenging for a top four placing? We both agreed it was funny how this target of a Champions League place is an enormously big deal, truly the mark of a fantastic manager and a great set of players. Oh, unless of course you happen to be Arsène Wenger and have done it every year for ever spending a mere fraction of that blown by all the others in the race. Warren could see it, you and I can see it but the football world that describes this as a remarkable feat for everyone else seems to see it as a failure for us.
Well yar boo sucks to the lot of them. It was a target, one of many, at the start of the season and it’s the last one left. Curiously it is a target which comes with a consolation prize. Unlike a runners up medal in a cup final the team to miss out today receives the opportunity to slum it in the Europa League, or Fairs Cup or whatever the hell they’re calling it these days. However, as Chris Tarrant has grown so fond of saying in his post Tiswas days, ” we don’t want to give you that!”. Because we cannot go into this game thinking of booby prizes or a season without the celebration of St Totts. Negative thinking will spoil your morning and ruin your enjoyment of the fun and games this afternoon. On that subject I’m intrigued to know how you all will play this one. I’m considering the split screen approach on my desktop pc with Arsenal v Barcodes full screen on one monitor and the Spuds match in a small window on the other. I could then keep half an eye on the Chavs game on my laptop. Or maybe I should just follow whoever the Chavs and Spuds are playing on Twitter for the day and thus keep up with their scores. The dilemma of the twenty first century armchair fan.
Reading that back, and thinking of Mickey Thomas and Liverpool, I realise just how long ago it was that I watched the remarkable scenes at Anfield that fateful year. Along with a group of like minded artistic friends (and a posse of more practical types we’d corralled for the purpose) we were organising a music festival in the small North Somerset town of Midsomer Norton. Yes they named that show after it, before you ask. Anyway on the Friday night with marquees erected and stages half built we had agreed to camp on the festival site as a kind of security detail and also as an outstanding opportunity to get utterly shitfaced in a field. But this particular bank holiday weekend of course was a little different from most. Not just because we were running an all day music and arts extravaganza on the Sunday but because the football season’s finale was, unusually, being broadcast live on television that very Friday evening. I watched it on a black and white portable , powered by a 12 volt car battery with a metal coat hanger as an aerial. In the middle of a field. Pretty spectacularly stoned and very much the worse for drink. As I said, how times have changed.
And so to today’s opponents. It’s probably a good plan to at least mention the match as this is a match-day preview. Newcastle have had an up-down time of late. Last year they were managed by the greatest manager who has ever lived as they briefly threatened to disturb the top four status quo. This year they are under the control of a sad hapless character, lying in thirteenth place and hoping to finish above the likes of Norwich and Stoke City. So goes the popular narrative. Actually as with all premier league sides (with the notable exception of Queens Park Rangers) they are a team highly motivated by vociferous partisan support, eager to impress in their last home game of the season and featuring some genuinely talented players. They’ve won two drawn two and lost two of their last six scoring four and conceding about a hundred and twenty goals. Roughly. So I think the best way to describe them right now is unpredictable. They can ship goals like a bow legged man trying to stop a pig in a passageway or they can grind out a result. I suppose we’ll know which Newcastle turned up by about six o’clock tonight.
When I hear Newcastle versus Arsenal only one name leaps immediately to mind. Supermac. Malcolm MacDonald. OK so that’s two names but you get my drift. Back when I was young enough and not driven to cynical despair by the transfer circus of these so called enlightened times, I would become genuinely excited by the arrivals of the likes of Alan Ball and Malcolm MacDonald. Exotic new faces from far away come to swell the ranks of my sticker collection. Malcolm came doon from the land of coal blackened faces, shipyards, Jimmy Nail and Lindisfarne in 1976, which was officially recorded as the year of the last ever British summer. He loved his time with us and when interviewed for Arsenal TVO was still visibly moved as he recalled the day the doctors informed him his Arsenal playing days were over. However, despite being a Londoner by birth, Supermac writes as if he’s a Geordie so maybe those were crocodile tears I saw welling in the corners of his eyes. Either way he has a timely warning for any complacent Gooners predicting an easy victory to match the six goal thumping Warren’s lot handed out on their recent visit to Tyneside. Writing in something called Chronicle Live he poo-poohs the idea that Newcastle have nothing to play for. In fact he comes up with the kind of stirring guff I might well be inclined to spew when describing our own glorious team. He says “My hope, the hope of every Geordie, is that, freed from pressure and worry, Newcastle go out and play football because, if they do, it will be a terrific match. Arsenal always play that way so we would have a spectacle on our hands.” and when asked if it’s true, as Pardew suggests that it doesn’t matter if Newcastle lose four nil because they now have nothing to play for, Macdonald nearly spits his false teeth into his Vimto crying “I’m not having it. Nothing at stake for United? Just their pride, their reputation. Just the need to repair the damage they have already done.” Well said Malcolm, now sit back down before you do yourself a mischief.
I am probably the only Arsenal supporter hoping that he is right. I don’t want them to play with one eye on the flip flops and the Timothy White’s sun cream. I want them to come out and make a game of it. I want open spaces for Theo to sprint into and if it means we have a few scares at the wrong end then so be it. We can take it. The nervous, nail biting buttock clenching is all part of the fun. Not, you understand, that I’d say no to the four nil of course. I just want the season to end on a fittingly exciting note.
How ever and wherever you are watching, it’s been a hell of a ride and I hope you enjoy this final go round before the roller coaster closes down for the summer. I’ve loved sharing the games here on Positively Arsenal in a properly passionate, supportive and intelligent environment, so thank you, and I hope you all enjoy the close season, whatever this afternoon may bring.