Cormac was discussing the match yesterday. He and my daughter’s boyfriend were very dismissive of the team. We may have enjoyed some early dominance they agreed, but somehow we always manage to flatter to deceive, to pull an ignominious defeat out of the hat when ostensibly playing well. I reclined into the unseasonal October sunshine, warm and relaxed, nodding sagely to myself, and fully in accord with the two young men.
As a cloud passes the sun so a shadow of a thought distracted me in my reverie. A frown pleated the otherwise untroubled forehead and it gradually dawned upon me. Neither my son nor my daughter’s boyfriend have the least knowledge of nor interest in football, never mind Arsenal. This is of course a stain on my character.
As a parent we know we will not be able to predict nor overly influence the significant attitudes our offspring will assume as they pass from awkward adolescence into adulthood. They will vote with their consciences, specialise in subjects of their own choosing, dress how they like and make their own friends regardless of what we think. We can make only one guarantee. There is a solitary area of their lives we know we can affect. In fact it is a solemn and traditional duty. To this end I told all of my children, as soon as they were old enough to understand me, there was nothing they could do in their lives to disappoint me. I would be the one to visit them in prison no matter how heinous their crimes, I would always stand by them, always be there for them. Unconditional love meant just that.
Except. Except for just one thing. If they ever, for even one fleeting moment considered supporting any team other than Arsenal then they knew where the door was and any dreams they may have been harbouring about inheriting my debts they could forget then and there.
I need not have bothered, they don’t even like football. None of them. So what were the lads discussing? Enquiries produced the surprising answer. E Sports. Video games, to you and I. It transpires there is a whole world of computer gamers, organised into national and international leagues, with their own hierarchies, supporter groups, sponsors, rivalries, high profile transfers, the lot. These guys take the thing every bit as seriously as we do football and with only a couple of significant differences – the commentators (or shout casters as they are rather splendidly known) are widely respected and play an important role in spectators’ enjoyment, also fans choose which country they support, their own nationality is irrelevant – they follow their sports with just as much fervour as we do ours.
The comment which rang the loudest bell with me came when I asked who had the strongest team. Cormac and George exchanged rueful glances, pursed their lips and muttered “The Koreans”. I detected a certain asperity in their tone and when I asked why my son informed me “They are the best, there’s no doubt about that, the play the best game. But the best team winning all the time just gets boring no matter how good they are.”
I returned to my seat to mull. You’ll find you mull a lot more the older you get. It burns few calories and doesn’t require any complicated equipment. The main thrust of my mulling was today’s encounter with Manchester United. For a very long time I disliked the red Mancunians above all other teams. Before that I can recall not warming to the red half of Liverpool over much and when my interest in football was first kindled it was Leeds United that made my normally benign features sour to a grimace. Nowadays? Chelsea. Without question.
The only poisonous rivalry that never changes is, it seems, that involving local teams. If either daughter brought home a Bristol City fan they had just as well turn in their latch keys without further ado. I suppose this is why the North London contingent of our fan-base still holds Spurs in the lowest esteem and probably always has done. So what lessons can I draw from Cormac’s observation? Did I really detest Man United for all those years simply because they kept winning? Was there nothing in all those hours you and I have spent discussing the refereeing bias, Fergie time, the Old Trafford penalty phenomenon and the rest? Is there a pan sports truth that people will rebel against whoever is successful then find reasons after the fact to support their position?
My antipathy towards United certainly abated during the Moyes era, and even now that they are resurgent under Van Gaal I don’t have the same depth of loathing for them as I used to do. Rooney excepted of course. Perhaps I shouldn’t gaze too closely towards my navel on this one. It wouldn’t do to suggest that my bitterest footballing rivalries are all born of petty jealousy. Hard to maintain the moral high ground under such conditions isn’t it?
So what of our opponents today? This current incarnation of Man United sits at the top of the current form table. We are one place below them. In fact the form table looks a bit like the league table used to look in the good old days. A perusal of the six most recent results tells us both sides have won four, drawn one and lost one. The subtle difference being we have lost one of our last two whilst they are on a three game winning streak. Which neatly sums up the two sides. Both doing well but our recent results suggests a tendency towards the unpredictable.
The form table, while unable to lie, does mask a certain truth. The defeat which we suffered had as much to do with Mike Dean as with our footballing performance. The Champions League may have started in a forgettable way for us but in the league we have been, if not rampant, then steadily improving. This should be a humdinger of a game. Chelsea’s collapse combined with City’s unpredictability has left the door to the top tantalisingly ajar and the sleeping giants of the Premier League must be sniffing the air, scenting weakness in the bloated cash rich beasts who so rudely trampled all over their one time dominance of the landscape.
Today is a test for both sides, the chance for our players to shuck off the disappointment of their midweek Greek théâtre de l’absurde and for United to prove their recent form has not been a flash in the pan. One might assume with the stakes so high and both teams in reasonably good nick that a draw would be the favourite result. I believe this season is shaping up to be the least predictable, most open contest in a long time and the team that can string a run of victories together could well establish a very important lead over the other pretenders to the throne. To that end I’ll be amazed if both sides don’t go for it. LVG may be taken in by the silly idea that we have a suspect defence (says so in the papers ergo it must be true) and if so our lightning counter attacking game will be well suited to capitalise on any misplaced bravado.
We have much to be positive about right now. Theo keeps scoring, Alexis is back to his best and the two of them combined superbly in their last match together. Aaron Ramsey was head and shoulders above every other player when he came on as a second half substitute on Tuesday and with him and Mesut supplying our fast and in form goal scorers United will need to defend very well to stop us.
I don’t watch teams unless they play against us (I confess I’ve made an exception where Chelsea are concerned – that’s a gift that just keeps giving) so I’ve had to dig around to find out who is currently doing the business for our visitors. Juan Mata, so says the Manchester Evening News, has been involved in forty four percent of United’s goals so far and as such has been ‘pivotal’ to their start to 2015/16. Metro thinks Martial is the signing of the season. Which in the first week of October is an hilarious assertion even for a newspaper to make. The moment he was injured, Luke Shaw was immediately promoted by pundits far and wide to Man United’s best player, which smells of cant to me. As reprehensible as he may appear, Rooney has an irritating habit of doing well against us, so we need to hope his goal scoring problems continue for at least another game. What he does in an England shirt is, for me, a matter of complete indifference.
So there you have it. My prediction is for another fast, exciting game much like that between ourselves and Leicester. Plenty of goals and a feast of fun for those fortunate enough to be in attendance. If you’re one of those who shakes a weary head and says ‘Pah’ and confidently anticipates a dour struggle settled by a dubious penalty then perhaps you are following the wrong sport. Optimism and excited expectancy costs precisely the same as pessimism you know. Although come to think of it, given what I discovered yesterday about the hitherto unknown world of Electronic Sports it probably doesn’t matter what game you choose. It isn’t the team, the style or even the format which dictates your response to the roller coaster ride, it’s you.