The anticipation which built throughout December with each candle John Noakes or Peter Purves lit on the Blue Peter Advent Crown inevitably resulted in an anti climactic Queen’s speech and a fight with your sister for which you were bound to be blamed regardless of her having started it. Similarly the warm, flat lemonade sensation of watching Everton huffing and puffing against a lively Watford via a shaky internet stream on a glorious Saturday afternoon seemed scant reward for the days of mounting excitement with which we had looked forward to the return of the football season.
Of all the addicts I cannot have been alone in looking out of the window and thinking that any previous summer Saturday would have seen me out and about enjoying myself in the sunshine instead of sitting and watching such rubbish. I’d had the monkey off my back for two months and I’d actually got stuff done, been places, seen people. What the hell was I doing falling straight back into such ridiculous habits?
But then of course yesterday wasn’t really the start of the football season was it? Yesterday was like going to party on the day before New Year’s Eve where you didn’t know or like any of the other guests. The football season, that lovely big fat syringe full of the hard stuff we’ve been craving ever since John Moss blew the mercy whistle and put Aston Villa out of its misery on May thirtieth, the real deal as it were, begins this lunchtime. So, if you aren’t one of the sixty odd thousand blessed with the outstanding good fortune of being at the Emirates then you’d better ask your Mum if you can have your roast dinner on your lap in the other room today, because at one thirty there is only one place you want to be.
In my impatient expectation of this first act in the annual nine and a half month drama I have been musing on past first fixtures. Not, you understand, in an attempt to extrapolate some statistical significance in the results or from the performances, that would be silly. Win lose or draw this is simply three points out of a possible one hundred and fourteen. Some might even say that if a team has to lose a match then perhaps it’s better to do it on the first day when they have the most time to make up any ground lost on their nearest rivals. To you and I, quite naturally, such silly defeatist gibberish is anathema. We want to win every game don’t we? Glancing back over my shoulder to the twisting path of seasons past has been a simple exercise in nostalgia and an attempt to divert my mind from the build up to another league campaign.
My favourite opener in recent years has to be the trip to Goodison Park. A wonderful sunny afternoon decorated with goals like a overladen Christmas tree hung with too many tacky plastic baubles. We were majestic that day and I missed every goal. I was on holiday in Dorset and had to resort to the old transistor radio, not watching the game until we returned home a week later. It was a season that promised much; free scoring centre halves, Denilson and Cesc outstanding in midfield, the return after a horrible injury of the outrageously talented Eduardo and the sublime skills of one of the very best in the world, the diminutive but splendid Andrey Arshavin. The precipitant hope of that season deserted us in a handful of significant games and we ended up losing three more than the champions and so had to settle for third place and the Barclays Fair Play Award. Not quite the drought ending trophy many yearned for I suppose, but there you go.
Losing our opening fixture two years ago to Anthony Taylor was as horrible a start as I can recall. Not just the defeat but the way in which the game was essentially handed to our opponents in as appalling a display of officiating as you could ever hope not to see. The relevance of that first day débâcle was of course non existent as we ended the season in triumph at Wembley in the first of what would prove to be back to back FA Cup winning seasons. The rather tedious and lame conclusion towards which I’m stumbling being, that regardless of the result on any given day opening or otherwise we will inevitably go on to endure disappointment and enjoy triumphs; today is simply one of thirty eight.
But it doesn’t feel like that does it? Today’s encounter with West Ham doesn’t feel like just another game at all. It isn’t that it’s a London derby. The overwhelming majority of Arsenal fans have never been near the capital never mind being born within the sound of Bow Bells. It isn’t that anything will be won or lost beyond the points on offer. I think it has more to do with this: None of the other games we shall play will have had such a protracted build up with friendly and less than friendly matches both at home and abroad, new players in, some gone for ever, others out on loan, and of course no recent form to help us anticipate the days events. What we have ladies and gentlemen is a blank canvass and some of the most talented artists ever to grace the game standing at the easel, brushes raised. Will they produce a masterpiece or a dogs dinner? A Rembrandt or an eyesore? Only time will tell.
One thing might be worth considering. The fabled winning run. All title winning teams put together a long string of winning or at least unbeaten matches and as Chairman Mao taught us a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. The earlier we can get on with taking that first step the better. So in a way getting off to a good start could indeed prove significant in the long run as well as in the immediate. Let’s face it just another game or not we were all willing Swansea to snatch the winner they deserved yesterday were we not? I wasn’t the only one who left his chair when the disallowed third goal went in was I? Come on, be honest.
So what of our opponents today? There was a poll recently on some West Ham website or other asking if Slaven Bilić, while pondering his team selection, should prioritise his midweek Europa League game or his trip to Ashburton Grove. I along with many other Arsenal fans, working no doubt on the principal so beloved of one of the nation’s leading supermarket chains that every little helps, voted for the Hammers’ boss to focus all of his efforts on last Thursday’s encounter with Astra Giurgiu. Unfortunately he didn’t seem to have read the poll results and quite sensibly sent out his second string to face the mighty Romanian side in a game which therefore will have no significance on the West Ham side we face today.
The fact that Bilić was slaughtered by so called fans on social media for his obvious and sensible decision is yet further proof that not only our great club has a loud and infantile set of online fans who understand nothing and shout about everything. Of course West Ham would love to have a squad with the depth and experience to cope with fighting on several fronts. That however takes more time and money than they posses and a manager adept at rotating a large group of highly talented players. Competing as Arsène does year in year out both at home and abroad is beyond most managers and beyond most clubs. We are truly blessed.
Oh, by the way, before I trot off, don’t try telling me you didn’t waste the day watching the same old rubbish I did yesterday because I know you did. But all is not lost. This tyranny, this addictive behaviour can be moderated. Why not join me and try not to fall straight into the deep end this time around? Start out by pledging to only watch the Arsenal matches this season and not fret too much if you miss one or two of those. After all it’s only a game isn’t it?