I was driving down the A367 yesterday afternoon on the way to a garden centre. A part of the ancient Fosse Way, the A367 once rang to the hob nailed Caligae of the Roman Legions but nowadays is home to a series of pedestrian crossings and a seemingly unending sequence of roadworks. In short it’s an venerable right of way which has evolved into a very ordinary traffic clogged artery between two insignificant west country towns in a north eastern backwater of a quiet west country county.
We passed a recreation ground where three young men were idly tossing a rugby ball to one another. Children spun lazily on a roundabout, their mothers sat chatting while a dog walker skirted the edge of the field his German Shepherd trailing behind him sniffing the perimeter fence, the both of them lost in their own thoughts. The scene was bathed in late spring sunshine and was transferred from my retinas to my brain in a matter of seconds as our Vauxhall Zafira rolled quietly past. Why did this image remain with me as I took the right turn into Charlton Road and slowed in anticipation of the new twenty miles an hour limit? It wasn’t, after all, remarkable in any way and was probably being repeated with minor variations in small parks all the way from Porthleven to Barwick-In-Elmet.
It wasn’t so much what I saw as what I didn’t. It wasn’t what was in the field as what wasn’t. Norton Hill Recreation Ground would, on any given Saturday afternoon for the preceding nine months, have been a scene of bustling, earnest endeavour. Twenty two men of varying ages and encompassing a wide spectrum of physical beauty from youthful muscular elegance to forty something balding lumpen middle age would have been grunting and puffing in pursuit of a regulation size five football. Even on the days when they were absent the goal posts would at least stand in mute indication that here, on this uneven muddy rectangle of grass, football has been played, and come the weekend it shall be played again.
No more. The goal posts have been pulled. The only evidence they were ever there at all, two churned brown potholed semi circles which mark the areas of greatest activity: the goal mouths. I realised as I headed towards the compost and camellias that this would be Saturday from now onwards. After today the league season will have ended. Another league season, the forty fifth league season in fact since I first started paying attention to such things and my forty fourth as an Arsenal fan. And do you know what? The feeling of emptiness is precisely the same today as it was when I was six. The long barren summer stretches off into infinity and the hollow chores with which once my mother and now my wife will hope to fill my time are like ashes in my mouth.
Thank God for the FA Cup final. I was an unaffiliated football watcher for the 1969 – 70 season when this all began. I just enjoyed moving teams up and down the little slotted league ladder that came with my Score magazine. Or was it Scorcher? They eventually merged into Scorcher and Score so it’s all the same really. Anyway, when it all came to an abrupt end I had at least Chelsea and Leeds at Wembley to which I could look forward. When the game went to a replay I was ecstatic. The inevitable had been postponed for one more game, there would be more football.
Obviously being a neutral wasn’t enough of a fix for me and I spent the summer deciding who to support and, well, you win nothing for guessing how that decision went. No matter how many times you experience it, that last game feeling never leaves you. Many are of course dead rubbers. The league positions are decided, neither team has anything to which they can aspire nor from which they wish to escape. In other years the very outcome of the league title itself is decided, sometimes European football is the prize and sometimes it’s finishing above the neighbours that excites us most. The truly climactic last games in our recent history have been the title decider at Anfield in 1989 and the home game against Leicester on May 15th 2004 which sealed the unbeaten season.
There will be no such drama this afternoon. The only hint of spice in an otherwise bland footballing stew is the visit of one of football’s most reviled figures. Tony Pulis used to be a bit of a hero to me. A Bristol Rovers stalwart, he was part of the same golden generation as the mercurial Ian Holloway. Pulis then blotted his copybook by moving to Ashton Gate to manage the loathsome red half of the city. However, his tenure there was so brief that he swiftly faded from memory, only resurfacing as the Gothmog of Stoke, lieutenant of Minas Morgul leader of Orcs and all round destroyer of the beautiful game. He sent his players out to kick the opposition and kick them they did. The most famous assault was of course carried out on our own Welsh wonder and it is something of a footballing miracle that he is still with us and still one of the greatest talents in the game.
Should Aaron, Santi and Mesut be rested today to protect them from getting Pulisterised before our big game in six days time, the biggest of our season? I don’t know what Arsène thinks – I’m no more qualified to second guess the greatest mind in football than any other blogger – but personally I wouldn’t let them within a mile of a Pulis team this close to a season defining encounter. To be fair I don’t know if his West Bromwich side plays like Stoke or not. I haven’t seen much of them this season but a glance at their recent results shows them capable of beating Man United and Chelsea, drawing with Liverpool and yet getting stuffed by an execrable Queens Park Rangers side.
Their captain is none other than Darren Fletcher and that is reason enough to protect our most valuable assets. Darren actually feels much the same about his manager as I do. In a newspaper interview he is alleged to have said “From my point of view he is an infectious manager” and I must confess I’d have thought that as good a reason as any to steer well clear. He apparently went on to suggest that the rationale behind his move away from Old Trafford was all down to Arsène snapping up Danny Wellbeck so maybe his judgement isn’t so badly flawed after all.
I don’t think we should read too much into today’s game. That end of season oddness which has pervaded our recent fixtures may will cling on for another ninety minutes. I certainly hope not because I feel the players deserve some recompense for all the hard work they’ve put in for so little reward lately. Drawing two and losing one is not a fair reflection of the football they’ve produced nor the effort they’ve expended. It has however cemented third place and so far the lads have come through their labours unscathed and that’s probably the most important thing. A nice free flowing game with an avalanche of goals for the home team featuring ninety minutes from Tomáš Rosický would suit me just fine but to be honest I’ll just be glad if everyone survives and the cameraman doesn’t waste any time pointing his equipment towards the visitors technical area.
So here we are. My final paragraph warning light has come on so I suppose it’s once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. May I just say it’s been a heck of a ride. The euphoria of last May might have fizzled a bit during our difficult start but the manager never lost his nerve and the team came good. I hope we can all enjoy our afternoon’s entertainment and wrap things up nicely with our accustomed aplomb. I will return for my final match preview next weekend but as far as the league goes this is, as people are so fond of saying, it.