Manchester United have provided us with an admirable cast of pantomime villains over the years. Defectors from within our ranks like Persie and Stapleton, outrageous talents who preferred history to remember them as diving, whining cry babies like the lesser Ronaldo, and revolting cheats like Nistelrooy. Despite these and many others and despite Ferguson’s corrupt relationship with officials and the investment the whole football establishment has openly admitted having in United’s success, there are still some people associated with that club who I find impossible to detest. David Beckham is one and Steve Bruce is the other.
Why Steve Bruce? Well, in a world where the doughty English manager is lauded over the sly foreign coach Bruce has never pandered to the media and it’s disgusting hate campaign against Arsène Wenger. Far from it. Bruce recognises, as many alleged Arsenal fans do not, that Arsène Wenger’s achievements since arriving in North London are nothing short of astonishing. Here are some of his more recent comments
“… quite remarkable, he’s had input in the stadium – what a stadium that is. Top four for however long, three Premier Leagues [titles], FA Cups, the final again, but still people question him … How he can get stick is beyond me.”
that’ll do me. Bruce has always been gracious in defeat against us and I for one will be eternally grateful to his players for squandering a two goal lead in the FA Cup final last May.
While I had to watch last week’s match holding my nose and turning away whenever the television cameras showed the visitors bench, tonight’s game ought, in light of the far more palatable opposition players and management, to be a more enjoyable one. I certainly don’t expect it to be an easier one. This is the time of year when teams scrabbling for purchase in the Stygian underworld of the Premier League’s bargain basement often provide tougher opposition than those with their heads in the clouds. Look at West Brom’s refusal to lie down under a veritable battering at Old Trafford on Saturday. Yes they rode a phenomenal wave of luck but they still needed a depth of self belief and will to keep clinging on until the ninety fourth minute. This was similar to the battling bravado Burnley produced against us recently and I don’t doubt that Hull will be similarly determined. It is human nature for competitive people to fight harder when their backs are to the wall. Much more impressive than motivating a squad on the brink of relegation is pushing one for a less tangible goal, say second place in the league. Luckily enough Arsène isn’t just a master tactician his motivational skills are self evident as well.
I don’t know if you watched the recent documentary about the Invincibles, I suspect you did. There was a telling comment repeated by the players that once the title was won it was Arsène alone who not only had the belief that the team could go unbeaten to the end but who single handedly forced the players to believe it as well. They had won the title, they were champions and as all champions should they had won in style with many a flourish and had earned the respect of the footballing world. Then that pesky human nature reared its head once more and whispered into the players ears ‘no one expects you to give a hundred percent from now on – you’ve done your bit, why not put your feet up and relax’. Arsène had other ideas. How he dragged the performances and results out of a carefree, elated bunch of lads who felt they’d already conquered the mountain is the stuff of legend. It is precisely those same motivational powers we need now that the disappointment of missing out on the title will have settled over the club. Like anyone with at least half a brain the manager and his players will not have given up until the title was a factual impossibility. You win nothing by giving up. Now however they must put that behind them, they must forget all about impending trips to Wembley and give every bit as much effort to the conquest of Hull City in the league tonight as they did in overcoming them on that sensational day in May last year.
We all hoped that yesterday would bring us a little joy. West Brom whetted our appetite with their blend of heroism and outrageous good fortune and if Palace could dish out more of the same and Spurs defeat an under strength Man City then we were on course for a fantastic bank holiday. Alas that script was torn up and replaced with one all too familiar. I have to hope and believe that the players aren’t affected by the same sense of anti climax that Sunday’s results have draped over me. I know many people were celebrating St Totteringham’s eve after our so called rivals inept attempt to scrape even a draw yesterday. Indeed it does seem an awfully long time ago that the annual gibberish about a shift in power was being spouted by Spurs’ delusional fans and their friends in the media. I cannot think of a single other instance of complete dominance in sport that has been so consistently misrepresented by so many supposed experts. It represents nothing more than a triumph of blind prejudiced hope over simple truth. But then when the likes of Jamie Carragher are allowed to vomit baseless nonsense about Arsenal spending more than Gazprom Fulham we shouldn’t be surprised. It was just another lie which we all know will soon be repeated by the desperate and the hateful among our fan base.
Supporters may anticipate St Totts with their usual good natured fervour but for the players and manager there is still much work to be done. Finishing above even one of the financially doped clubs is still a hell of an achievement and one well worth fighting for. There would be no shame in finishing beneath both of them, of course not. With their obscene expenditure they ought both to romp home every time. Arsenal shouldn’t really have a prayer of finishing above either of them but if we can do so then along with another cup final appearance we can surely count this season a success. And that’s before we get onto the nature of the mountain we’ve had to climb. I’m not referring just to the sheer volume of injuries we’ve suffered, it is more the way the curse has struck at such inopportune moments. Look at Aaron. Just as an example. We were all saying how he had at last rediscovered his scoring boots and the very next game he was out again. Alex Oxelaide-Chamberlain had just started to show the confidence and skill which suggested he was about to realise his potential when he was injured. Then he recovered and exactly the same thing happened again. We have had, in the past few weeks, a glimpse of an Arsenal side with an unremarkable number of both injured players and of players newly released from the doctors care. Just look at what that side has achieved. Give Arsène one season with no more than the normal level of mishaps that any club might expect and you never know, we may be aiming one place higher than we are this year. For now though let’s focus on testing Steve Bruce’s magnanimity to the full and let’s see if we can’t force him to be gracious in defeat just one more time.