Liverpool v Arsenal
Might destiny drop a hint this lunchtime? Don’t Arsenal champions leave a clue to their intentions at Anfield? Thomas didn’t allow much scope for argument in ’89; Merson deepened the gloom after Dalglish’s exit in ’91; Ljungberg staged a mugging in 2001-02; Pires caressed The Invincibles towards history.
Only Arsene Wenger’s breakthrough achievers of ’98 were spared the trip until after the main job was already done — and they promptly lost 4-0.
Ray Parlour has boxed more memories from Anfield than most away grounds. He easily walks through that heist from December ’01 — achieved despite Giovanni Van Bronckhorst’s red card after half an hour — and recalls its impact on the doubts that had begun to pile about Arsenal’s fortitude.
“That was a really good game. It’s one of those stadiums where you always remember the game very well. My brother goes to a lot of the games and he always picks that one out as a turning point. We were under a lot of pressure for long periods. When they attack in front of the Kop, they always find that little bit extra. So we really had to dig in that day.”
It was at Anfield too, a decade earlier, that a blond mane first billowed with the charging, dashing energy that would become Parlour’s trademark.
“I think it was a Wednesday night. Obviously playing at Liverpool in your first game is going to be a bit daunting. I did ok. I ran around a lot. I was marking people like Jan Molby who was a very good passer of the ball. I played alongside the late Dave Rocastle, who was a great player and really helpful for you as a youngster. And you had people like Dave O’Leary behind and Tony Adams so you had lots of experience in the side, to help you. I enjoyed every minute.”
Nearly every one. “Yeah, I gave away a penalty. It wasn’t ideal really.”
He paid the penalty, too, when he returned a year later. Not among the named 14, he trudged upstairs to the Anfield lounge with Andy Linighan. Five pints later — as Parlour tells it — George Graham’s assistant Stewart Houston burst through the door. Injury in the warm-up.
It was Parlour who collected the fine but he allows Linighan the punchline. “At least let him finish his pint.”
His time at Arsenal straddled regimes. He must have embraced steamed fish as readily as the drinking culture, because when Wenger’s unbeaten champions won 2-1 at Anfield, Parlour was captain in Patrick Vieira’s absence; by now he was the reliable old head guiding Jérémie Aliadiere through his full debut.
“It was always a special game for us. We always had a lot of belief and winners on our side so we knew we could go to places like Anfield and get a result.”
Special, but no special plans. In a week when Jose Mourinho devised a tactical masterpiece, could Parlour ever see a Wenger team head northwest programmed to decommission their opponents’ strengths? “No, it was more about going out and playing the way we can. The only difference was when we played in Europe — we used to watch the opposition a bit more on video.”
There might, in weeks like this, be a rummage around to make sure they could easily locate what Wenger likes to call “the handbrake.”
“Maybe we did a little bit more defensive play during the week. To get the organisation right. Especially in the midfield. It was always a very important position in these types of games; trying to shield the back four.
“But Arsene Wenger doesn’t really change his system. I think he’ll go there and try to attack. But with players like Gerrard, Suarez, Sturridge in great form, it’s going to be a very tricky game for Arsenal.”
There certainly won’t be any attempt, on Wenger’s part, to lean on good vibes that might lurk in the old corridors — there will be no trading on intangibles like the ‘spirit of ’89’.
“What an amazing night that was. But no, I don’t think he’s that sort of manager. Half the players probably wouldn’t know about it. Half of them weren’t born.”
This bunch have grown up though, in Parlour’s mind — and some of the resolve that brought his teams prizes has resurfaced. He could happily have charged around in front of Koscielny and Mertesacker without looking over his shoulder.
“Defensively, they’ve been brilliant. If you can pick me two better centre halves as a partnership — maybe Terry and Cahill, but other than that. They are better and more solid at the back. A little bit harder to beat. ”
He is certain an old colleague has played a big part in focussing minds. “I’m sure that’s down to Steve Bould. He was a great centre half himself. Very underrated as a player. I’d always put him in my best teams. He’s been working with them on the training ground and I think they believe they complement each other.”
If stability has shut Arsenal’s back door, Parlour believes variety has spiced up the protection in front.
“The competition for midfield places has helped — everyone has upped their game a little bit. Flamini in front of the back four does a great job. Arteta has done well when he plays. It’s made it more competitive and they are a little bit stronger down the middle now.”
Parlour could be excused a misread of the pace on debut night at Anfield, when he lunged and clattered Ronnie Rosenthal to let Molby score from the spot. But he affords older heads the same excuse.
“Certain players; it might have just taken time to get used to the Premier League. Mertesacker may have been that type of player. You see it with Ozil. I think there’s a lot more to come from him. He’s still getting used to the league. Different pace. Referees are slightly different. You don’t get fouls as much as you would have done in Spain. He’s coming to terms with that.”
Are they almost ready for prizes then? As much as he relishes Anfield dates, Parlour can’t help a glance towards next week’s return at the Emirates — in the FA Cup.
A clearer route to relieving the drought? “It’s important to the fans. I hope Arsene Wenger really looks at the FA Cup as well. If I’m being honest .. the Champions League… he’s never won it… you saw how close he came against Barcelona and he was absolutely distraught after that.
“So it’ll be interesting to see what he does in that FA Cup game. We’ve seen him weaken the side in years gone by but even with Bayern Munich coming up after, I’m hoping he can put a strong side out. Because it’s an opportunity this year. Manchester City are playing Chelsea and if you can get through the Liverpool game, you only need a little bit of luck and you’re near enough in a semi-final at Wembley. And we know how big the pitch is at Wembley, it could suit Arsenal down to the ground.”
He does worry that the lack of January reinforcements, combined with Theo Walcott’s injury, has pedestrianised Arsenal’s threat.
“Pace… It’s the only problem they have. Walcott’s always been that outlet. The way they play; it’s always down the middle. If Cazorla is on the left he tucks in. So sometimes you do need that outlet. Without it, you have to rely on your full-backs getting forward in the wide areas, which sometimes can leave you a little exposed if it breaks down. If it does break down, there are big gaps that people like Suarez and Sturridge can really exploit.”
He’d take a point this lunchtime, then, omens notwithstanding. But there is no criticism for the old gaffer he once christened “Clouseau”, for his clumsy ways around the training ground.
“People don’t realise what’s happened to that club over the last seven, eight years. Moving stadium — the owners straightaway say all the resources are put into the stadium, we want to pay that off as quick as we can, and then in ten years’ time we’ll be in a great position to really compete with the big clubs.
“And that’s what Arsene Wenger’s looking at. He’s not looking at a short-term fix, he’s looking at a bigger picture for Arsenal Football Club come 20 years’ time.”
In that context, might a title this year be the finest achievement since Parlour first played for Arsenal more than 20 years ago? “The Premier League is a lot more competitive now than when I played for Arsenal. We won doubles but it was really only Arsenal and Manchester United then. You didn’t have Man City with the firepower they’ve got now. Chelsea were coming up a little bit on the rails. You didn’t have Liverpool improving like they are. You didn’t have Everton improving. You didn’t have Spurs trying to have a go with the money they’re putting into the club. So I think Arsene would look at it and say, definitely, this would be one of his finest moments for Arsenal.”
Another of those Anfield moments would edge him closer.
Three highly anticipated clashes — today’s Liverpool-Arsenal clash, Arsenal v Man United on Wednesday and Arsenal v Liverpool battle it out in the FA Cup next Sunday, all exclusive to subscribers to the Setanta Sports Pack. Further details on how to subscribe can be found at www.setanta.com