Overcoming old demons

IT FELT like déjà vu at the Britannia on Saturday, as the Gunners stared down the barrel of another “there but for the grace of...” bone crunching, potentially career-wrecking challenge.

Understandably, the grotesque sight of Aaron Ramsey’s distorted limb left the shell-shocked Arsenal players so utterly aghast, that just as it did at St Andrews almost two years to the day, it seemed as if our season was about to implode before our very eyes.

Perhaps we were merely overdue a slice of compensatory good fortune, by way of an inept official’s charitable 90th minute penalty. Or, with the majority having already endured the anguish of Eduardo’s atrocious injury, maybe we refused to entertain the idea of an encore of the Birmingham debacle. Instead of meekly lying down like lambs and inviting Stoke to add insult to Aaron’s harrowing injury, we stood up to be counted.

I’m reminded that Shawcross clattered Adebayor from behind last term, after they and the ball had crossed the touchline. Yet despite any previous, as far as I’m concerned, in this instance the young centre-back’s only crime was that of being fractionally late, in a 50/50 challenge. In fact it was a display of the sort of overenthusiastic commitment to win the ball that I’d usually applaud from one of our own. Judging by the youngster’s distraught reaction to the damage he’d inflicted, I find it hard to believe that there was any malice intended. I’m not even certain he deserved a red card.

Nevertheless, I fully appreciate the frustration that’s given vent to Wenger’s mounting persecution complex, even if there’s nothing more sinister afoot than the law of averages. The more our opponents adopt a physical approach, both in an effort to combat our superior ball-skills and to attempt to get under the skin of a side that’s perceived not to enjoy a robust encounter, obviously the higher the risk of us being on the wrong end of industrial challenges.

You certainly can’t legislate against the sort of committed football, which lends that crucial unpredictability, to even the most inequitable of Premier League encounters.

Not without heart and passion being viewed as a heinous crime, worthy of mandatory punishment and the danger of our domestic contest developing into the same sort of sterile annual procession witnessed on the continent.

This might be easy for me to say, as I’m not in fear of a snapped Achilles, torn cruciate, or broken bone, every time I pull on a pair of football boots. We might well enjoy a short period of immunity, in the immediate aftermath of Ramsey’s misfortune, because on some level, the incident could have a subconscious impact on certain referees. But in the long run, the Arsenal are due the exact same inconsistent levels of protection afforded to every other Premier League side.

The ferocity of modern day football rarely comes across on TV. It’s only up close, in the cheap seats that you truly begin to appreciate the intense, breathtaking thwack of a full-blooded challenge. But from where I sit, the best means of combating an overly physical approach is by giving as good as we get, thereby dissuading opposing sides from focusing on a perceived “don’t like it up ‘em” chink in the Gunners armour. Only then will the odds be evened out, to the point where our players are no more at risk than anyone else.

Meanwhile, after celebrating Bendtner’s equaliser with the Gunners’ gleeful prodigy one moment and then witnessing poor Aaron writhing in agony the next, as the prime target of the oppositions’ bruising attentions, I can’t help but ponder our captain’s continued motivation, when Fabregas could be receiving perhaps twice the remuneration without anything like the same threat to life and limb, while plying his trade on Spain’s far less frenetic plains. Perhaps a climactic conclusion to our campaign will distract the jewel in Wenger’s crown, from the strain of constantly treading a fine line between the burden of carrying this Arsenal side and these terrifying aide-memoires of the perils of a career-threatening injury!

Sadly I fear we still lack the potency up front and the security between the sticks, to maintain the sort of consistency necessary for a really big finish. I also refute this “easiest run-in” claptrap. There are no bankers.

Hopefully Saturday’s show of unity was not just for the cameras and in contrast to St Andrews, having turned tragedy into three points, perhaps this triumph will prove to be a watershed.

Meantime, with Hilario, by name and nature, tending the Blues’ onion bag and United struggling to find their customary groove, so long as fate continues to insist on chucking us such charitable lifelines, it would be awfully rude of us to look this stable full of gift horses in the mouth.

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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