I’m a Catalan, get me out of here

CESC Fabregas can consider himself very fortunate to have been born on May 4, 1987 rather than, say, May 4, 1967.

By virtue of his delayed arrival on the planet, Fabregas has timed his football flowering to coincide with that of his national team Spain, having finally shaken off the perennial losers tag to rule first Europe and then the world.

How different it would have been had the boy come of age at the end of the 80s, when he might well have found himself joining his Spanish team mates for a famous World Cup date in Dublin.

You’ll remember the occasion well, of course; April 26, 1989. The grass at Lansdowne Road was long, the crowd maddened with a lust for victory and Jack Charlton’s Ireland not much less ferocious down on the field of play, as they sought to cut the Iberian sophisticates down to size and take a giant step towards an historic first-ever World Cup qualification.

Spain had already easily dispensed with a weakened Irish side 2-0 in Seville — a scoreline that failed to disguise what even Charlton conceded at the time was “one of the heaviest drubbings we’ve ever had” — and came to Dublin with five wins in succession under their belts.

The game was also played in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, as a result of which that one-time Koppite John Aldridge was granted compassionate leave. But once a minute’s silence for the victims had been scrupulously observed, the 50,000-strong crowd raised a bellicose racket which didn’t let up from first whistle until last.

The Irish team followed suit, getting stuck straight into the opposition in textbook ‘put-’em-under-pressure’ style – although style itself was not hugely in evidence in the quality of the Irish play. No matter; the shell-shocked aristocrats took only 16 minutes to crack, Michel turning a Ray Houghton cross into his own net under pressure from Frank Stapleton.

By the way, how we know-alls in the press box chuckled afterwards when Big Jack insisted on pronouncing the luckless Spaniard’s name as ‘Mitchell’, whereas we all referred to him as ‘Michele’. But then it turned out that he was indeed known as ‘Mitchell’ back in Spain, not that Jack had any idea, of course. It was just further confirmation of the Geordie’s midas touch back then, proof that even when he was wrong, he was right.

That the game was decided by an own goal was fitting. If the Irish were never going to carve up the Spanish with the intricate fluency of their play, they were always likely to terrorise the opposition into at least one costly act of self-destruction.

History regards the match as the pivotal result on the road to Italia ‘90 but, at the time, the wild celebrations of the home side and supporters contrasted sharply with the huffy reaction of the Spanish, in particular legendary striker Emile Butragueno.

“This was not a football match, it was not even close,” protested the man they called ‘The Vulture’, his wings freshly clipped, for want of a better phrase, by one Michael McCarthy. “The Irish players were too harsh, it was very difficult to play in such circumstances.”

Wee Francesc Fabregas would have been only two at the time but perhaps some form of race memory of that terrible day for Spanish football lodged in his fragile, eggshell mind. That might just explain his fantastically petulant response this week to Arsenal’s League Cup defeat against Ipswich.

Much has been made in recent years of the lack of grace displayed in defeat by Arsenal under Arsene Wenger but the captain took sour grapes to a prize-winning level with his whining about the home side’s tactics.

“I don’t know if it is long ball or if it is rugby kick but it worked for them,” he whinged. “Arsenal made the football, the other team refused to play football. They were lucky to score in a long ball.”

Let us not forget that this was an Ipswich team which had just lost a manager, had just lost a match 7-0 and are still in considerable danger of losing their Championship status. That Cesc Fabregas, or anyone else, should be surprised that the strugglers would go into a League Cup match against Premier League title contenders with anything other than damage limitation on their minds, almost beggars belief.

Of course, sledging Ipswich is a convenient way of trying to distract attention from the fact that, for all their dominance of possession, Arsenal simply couldn’t find a way to goal at Portman Road. Seductive though their football invariably is, when watching Arsenal I’m sometimes reminded of the acerbic comment of an esteemed English journalist who once turned to me in a press box and summed up a similar performance by another team as (divert your eyes, mother), “all foreplay and no f***ing”.

Quite. Doubtless, Arsenal will exact suitable revenge on the agriculturalists when they park their tractors at the Emirates for the second leg. But what, you wonder, will Cesc say when the Gooners are put to the sword by Barcelona in the Champions League? “I’m a Catalan, get me out of here,” perhaps.

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