“Over the last few years, the rivalry between the two sets of fans has become intolerably hateful.”
— Fever Pitch, 1992
A first away day as an Arsenal fan had been long overdue, as indeed had a visit to watch them play in any capacity, and if you are going to make your away debut, what better way than with a North London derby, amongst the home-crowd, like a pilgrim in an unholy land?
The ‘death-by-a-thousand-cuts’ nature of the past 12 years has given rise to a haze of numb apathy. This cloud does occasionally lift to give a glimpse of hope before it is again savagely extinguished by another tame and lame performance that once again reminds you that the Arsenal are still the same three players short that they have been for the past 12 years. All up the middle too.
Much of my notions of away games are framed from reading Fever Pitch and watching ID too many times when I was growing up. The reality of what I’ve seen has been much tamer. Once, a Liverpool friend of mine jumped up in the middle of the North Bank to celebrate a John Arne Riise goal and the world kept spinning. There was no hassle, no menace — much like the game itself.
After another 1-1 draw with Liverpool, at the Emirates this time, we were walking back towards the tube station when an Arsenal fan, who looked anything but vicious, started giving it large to a few Liverpool fans in a Ford Transit. He was quickly exposed for what he was — a normal, fight-fearing human — when said Liverpool fans, more than you could possibly imagine, emerged from the van and left him with no doubt as to who the real tough guys were.
These two instances probably say more about the Arsenal demographic than anything else, but still, I imagined, it would be more bark than bite at Spurs, particularly at Wembley.
For some peculiar reason, there was plenty of optimism on the way over. The transfer window had been strangely productive. The loss of Sanchez was fairly well compensated for by the arrival of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan and removal of some dead wood in the form of Coquelin and Walcott.
The first half wasn’t too bad either and they looked comfortable, apart from a couple of flashes of what Harry Kane is capable of.
The second half then served as one of those chilling reminders as to where Arsenal are really at as they just couldn’t cope when Tottenham really started pressing straight after the break. Cech, while doing well to keep it to just the one goal, was all over the place with his footwork, Bellerin has regressed to a stage where even his pace seems to be gone and Wilshere was pretty much on his own in midfield as he tried, manfully, to deal with Dembele. Xhaka was pitifully anonymous, as were Mkhitaryan and Ozil while Lacazette looked like he didn’t want to be there.
As the chant of ‘stand up if you hate Arsenal’ echoed around Wembley once more towards the end, and our Spurs-supporting Tipp friend revelled in the moment, there was a part of me that found it hard to disagree with them, such was the dismal nature of the second half. Then Lacazette was through and it looked like a point would be stolen but it just went horribly wide and just confirmed that he, like Arsenal, are just nowhere near good enough.
In the end, I realised that it wasn’t optimism on the way over. It was acceptance. The acceptance that Arsenal are still the same three of four players short, that they will remain so for the foreseeable future and that they’re a mediocre team that, much like the Spurs fans’ incessantly monotonous chants of Yid Army, have much more bark than bite.
The trip was liberating in the sense that you could just enjoy supporting them for what they are, instead of obsessing over what they should be.
As we waited in Heathrow, I saw a chance to confirm my opinions when I saw a well-known face who was also on his way home from Wembley. However, it was clear that there was only one thing on his mind. There was sadness in his eyes and his remorse was genuinely touching as he mulled over the nature of his next trip to Cork. Perspective is everything really, isn’t it?
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