Monaco, ah Monaco. How well I remember your tight twisting turns, your dark tunnel, the difficulty of shaving a half second from my best lap time and the despair as Pete the Greek or The Lizard Man shot past me on the home straight. Our race evenings with the Sega Megadrive were dissolute affairs and towards the end of the night the driving had become more than a little erratic due as much to the thick coiling mist of dope smoke as to the occasional full bodied bottle of red despatched by the drivers. Looking back I can’t help thinking Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczęsny would have fitted rather well into my social circle. These days I am of course chaste and pure and the Formula One games on offer are so ridiculously complex and cluttered with unnecessary petrol head pleasing detail about engines, tyres, pit stops and leaderboards that I have formally retired from the circuit. Monaco will never again thrill to my stoned, mercurial driving performance.
Back in those halcyon hazy days the only other thing Monaco meant to me was Grace Kelly. Oh and there was that time when Bertie cancelled a trip to Monte Carlo preferring to spend Christmas with Bobbie Wickham and her family much, it has to be said, to Jeeves’ chagrin. Little did I know as I adroitly applied the tongue to a heavily laden four skinner and prepared to take my place at the front of the grid that a man called Arsène Wenger, unknown outside of Nancy where he had enjoyed an unremarkable managerial career, had recently taken over the reins at AS Monaco FC. To be fair I probably didn’t know Monaco even had a football team. You know what they say, if you can remember the nineteen eighties you weren’t there man. Anyway this young unknown manager replaced none other than Ștefan Kovács who deserves his own special place in the hearts of all adherents to the beauty of the game for his commitment to the total football of the Ajax teams of the early seventies. Monsieur Wenger revived Monaco’s waning fortunes winning the league in his first season and signing the likes of Weah, Klinsmann, Djorkaeff, Hately and some bloke called Hoddle, oh and while he was at it he oversaw the development of Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit and Lilian Thuram. Not a bad day at the office. Sadly in return, Monaco would treat the man destined to become our glorious leader in a somewhat shoddy fashion. They refused to allow him to discuss the vacant managerial role at Bayern München who were apparently very keen to talk to him, but then dismissed him not long after the Germans had become fed up of waiting and in their impatience gave the job to Giovanni Trapattoni.How they must have rued the day.
If I’m honest I was an international illiterate when it came to football in the eighties and nineties and, unless Arsenal were in a European tournament, paid scant regard to what went on south of Dover. What a parochial little stoner I was. Shameful really. During my period of self imposed exile from the human race Monaco enjoyed success and despair in almost equal measure both winning titles and being booted out of Ligue Une for financial irregularities (although that punishment was commuted on appeal). They endured seven years of the managerial merry go round before being relegated for real this time. In a sadly familiar twist to a modern footballing tale they were ‘rescued’ while languishing at the bottom of Ligue deux by, yep, you guessed it a Russian billionaire. Predictably enough the obscene torrent of spending has seen them rise with the smell of burnt feathers from first in the second division in 2013 to second in the first last year. They are currently fourth after a stop start season not dissimilar to ours in many ways.
Once again Arsène agrees with me (he so often does, great minds and all that, I believe we both gave up smoking at a similar time too) that there are parallels to be drawn between the two clubs saying “Monaco are in a similar position to us. They came back into a good position in the league and their confidence level will be high.” I don’t know if our confidence levels will be high after the amusement at Selhurst Park on Saturday or not. I believe they ought to be as the untidy little scrap at the very end of the game should not cloud the ease with which we had held off a spirited Palace side and the consummate skill with which we had taken such a commanding lead beforehand. To attempt to play proper football on what amounted to little more than a Sunday league pitch against a side set up for kick and rush was always going to be a big ask and I think the players showed huge character to stick at it and get the job done. Those who want to whine and bleat about Palace hitting the post need to include our near misses as well if they are going to play ifs and buts. The simple fact is we scored more than them and played the better football. Our only mistake if it was a mistake was allowing them to put us under too much pressure in the final part of the match. Sometimes though, in football, the other side just dictates the play and you have to grin and bear it. As much as we’d love to put all our opponents to the sword in the way we dispatched Aston Villa you can’t expect it to happen every week. Had Alexis not had a rare off day with his finishing we’d have gone three up and I very much doubt Palace would have had any fight left in them, but then who knows? See I can play ifs and buts just as well as the next man.
Tonight we can put the nightmarish up and under of English mud ball behind us. Tonight is what so many other supporters can only dream of. Tonight they must look on in envy. Yet, incredibly enough, under Arsène Wenger Arsenal fans have come to think of this as the norm. The knock-out stages of the Champions league. So many have spent so much trying to emulate what Arsène achieves, and he has done it while simultaneously building a new stadium, while constricted by such a tight budget that he has been forced to sell his best players. Yet he delivers it every single year. We really are lucky Arsenal aren’t we? Lucky to have such a great man in charge, lucky to have such a fantastic stadium, lucky to be treated to some of the best football ever played. I love the feeling of waking up on the day of a Champions league fixture, let’s face it you are following the wrong sport if you don’t love it. It is the holy grail for every Premiership team and make no mistake if any one else achieved it year in year out while being outspent by nearly all of the competition they would be lauded as the greatest manager in English football.
Well, we don’t need the hideous reptiles of the British sports media to tell us what we already know do we? Monaco were once lucky enough to have him and we’ve been blessed to have had him during the most vital years in our club’s modern history. This is a tournament in which we have come so close, enjoyed some famous victories and suffered some agonising defeats. Tonight and in all future rounds of the competition all I hope is that the fans and players give him the victory he has earned, no man deserves it more. I believe the team are good enough and I believe they are ready.