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Arsenal came back from a 1-0 deficit to beat West Ham 3-1 yesterday. It was a match which featured a Podolski brace, a Giroud wondergoal, the return of Aaron Ramsey and Arsenal climbing back into 4th place. And after the match, the fans went into hyperbole overdrive.
Aaron Ramsey limped off injured the last time these two teams met on Boxing Day and has been slowly working his way back to full fitness for three months. He played 112 minutes in the FA Cup win over Wigan and Wenger gave him a rest to start this game but when he did come on in the last 20 minutes Arsenal’s pace quickened, they controlled the midfield, and they created a number of good chances. In just a short 20 minute cameo, Ramsey created two shots for teammates, including a cushioned header assist for Podolski’s second goal, and took two shots himself. He also put in a tackle high up the pitch which resulted in a good chance missed and provided Arsenal’s front line with deadly service throughout. It says a lot about Ramsey that he can miss 3 months of football and still be in contention for our player of the season.
I say that knowing full well the dangers of post-match hyperbole. But Ramsey is simply a tireless worker who is constantly presenting himself for the pass, who demands the ball in pressure situations, who quickens the pace of Arsenal’s midfield, and whose vision for finding teammates and for getting himself into important positions upsets the opposition defenders. And when Arsenal lose the ball he works hard to get the ball back. It’s no coincidence that he leads Arsenal in a number of those stat categories, then, and that his reintroduction to this Arsenal team couldn’t have come at a better time.
Meanwhile, Lukas Podolski scored two goals yesterday and after the match slipped into the role of New Arshavin: the player everyone argues over whether he is being played out of position, whether he needs more playing time, whether he should bother defending, and whether he is not getting the respect he is due.
Podolski is actually a simple player to figure out. He is inconsistent away from home (scored in just 6 of 30 away appearances) and not terribly good against top clubs. He also requires excellent service to score but once he has that service he is deadly. He has a wicked cross on him and has hooked up with Giroud on numerous occasions to great effect. He’s not going to play defense and you almost don’t want him to because when he does it’s usually messy. He is almost certainly a better forward in a two striker system, but you can’t really play him as a number 10 because he’s not creative enough.
Fortunately, he is perfect for the final five game run in. First, Arsenal will be playing all little clubs for the remainder of the season. Second, Arsenal’s 4-3-3 is a fluid formation meaning that Podolski is basically playing as a second striker, albeit a wide striker. And third, while the defenders were yelling at Podolski to drop back against West Ham, Cazorla, Kallstrom, Arteta, and Vermaelen were all able to cover for him. So, Podolski’s good qualities should win out over the bad, I think, for these last 5 games.
Giroud also suffers from post match anti/pro hyperbole and he’s also not really much of a mystery. He’s a hard working player who, because Arsenal didn’t have a viable backup, has basically run himself into the ground — he had a combined 14 lost possessions yesterday (dispossessed, turnovers, offsides) which is high even for him. Even when fully fit he has a tendency to miss gilt edged chances and his record over the last two seasons as the player who has missed more of them than any other proves that. But if he just plays instinctively, he’s able to pull off moments of football so beautiful that you wonder if he’s even the same person! Yesterday was a perfect example of Giroud: playing little chips in to teammates, being harassed off the ball, missing a shot one-v-one with the keeper, and scoring a goal from a long pass which he plucked softly out of the air and simply powered past the keeper.
Every match is critical now in terms of earning a 4th place finish and the team knows it. Podolski was interviewed after the match and his assessment of the end of season run-in was perfect for its simplicity: “The FA Cup is after the season. We’ll leave that for the moment and focus on the Premier League… we must understand that we have hard matches to come – we play away at Hull City and Norwich. It’s not easy but if we win all of our matches we’ll qualify.”
For anyone who feels like finishing in the top four isn’t important you only need to take a look at how the media (ironically) play up the fight for fourth between Arsenal and Everton. These same reporters who guffawed at Arsene Wenger’s suggestion that 4th place is an achievement are snapping at the story that plucky upstarts Everton might nip Arsenal to the 4th Place Cup. Finishing 4th is worth 10s of millions of pounds, both in terms of prize money but also in terms of player recruitment in the off season. Everton want to convince Lukaku to stay and they will have a powerful hole card if they can offer Champions League football. Meanwhile, Arsenal need to recruit possibly 4 players this Summer and the cost of doing that kind of business will be doubled if we don’t have Champions League football to offer.
In the end, a good win for Arsenal and puts the Gunners back on track for 4th place. We still have to win every remaining fixture and hope that Everton drop points but given the opposition that they face I’d put the money on Arsenal to finish 4th again. I’d also put money that our three most talked about players from yesterday’s match, Podolski, Giroud, and Ramsey will have a big say in where we end up in the League table at the end of the season.
It was, individual acts of heroism apart, a tragedy without any redeeming feature. It was a professional event, organised by professionals. And it was the most awful, dislocated, deadly botch. If you look for an image to remember it by, think of the inert bodies carried to ambulances on advertising hoardings, because no one had enough stretchers.
The 15th of April 1989 for Arsenal fans started like any other Saturday. I personally was still working in an agricultural merchants in Cornwall. Being a fan of just 10 years standing, the last few years had been very exciting. From 1980 to 1986 we were quite honestly, a piss poor team, who occasionally came to life for the big games. Worst still in the period Spurs had won 3 cups and were often better than us. Under George Graham though things had started to change. After beating Spurs in the semi of the League cup we had beaten Liverpool in the Final:-
The following season we again made the final and lost to Luton Town. By 1988-1989 though Arsenal had begun to look like a championship side (something we hadn’t seen for 18 years).By march we had lost 3-1 at home to Nottingham Forest, but were still ahead of Norwich and Millwall, whilst the previous years champions Liverpool were 13 points behind with 3 games in hand. Surely we were going to win the league this year? George Graham said in the excellent It’s up for grabs now, that we had started to splutter towards the finishing line.
By April 15th Liverpool had gone top on goal difference from us. On the saturday of the 15th Arsenal were playing at home to Newcastle United. If we won, we would go top as Liverpool were playing Nottingham Forest in the F.A cup semi-final. Not only would we go top, but one of Arsenal’s favourite sons would be returning with his new team, Kenny Sansom.
25 years from that date, for younger readers and fans its hard to fathom what football was like. Attendance had been down increasingly during the 1980’s, mainly due to soccer hooliganism. For example, even with Arsenal going for the title, attendances fluctuated from a high of 45,129 against Spurs to a low of 28,449 against Norwich on a Bank Holiday Monday. Also, F.A cup games (excluding the final) were not televised live and played at the same time on a neutral ground (underlining both the importance of the cup back then and the power television over football). Also and very obviously, there was NO internet. No facebook. No twitter. Information on the team was either through Newspapers (usually just a mere 3 or 4 pages on the broadsheets on a Saturday) or some new fangled idea called fanzines such as the Gooner or Highbury high for us fans (though you’d have to be at the stadium to buy them, as buying them via post was at best difficult).
As for fans not at the stadium, forget Sky sports (that was still 3 years away from starting). Forget BBC1 and ITV giving rolling updates. It was horse racing and Wrestling, interspersed some results and half and full time scores. Radio? Lets not forget there was no Talksport [that was a good thing] until 1995. As for Radio 5? That started a year earlier in 1994. So how did you keep up to date with your team’? Well, you’d have to go Radio 2 (693 or 909 medium wave). Radio 2 long wave would maybe have 3 games on a week and report games. No call in or anything like that. It was game, result, good bye. Want to listen to a whole league game on the radio? You’ve got to be kidding. Radio stations would be allowed to report only the 2nd half of league games. No first half. Jon Spurling has described this as the ‘transistor era’ of football. Without a radio you wouldn’t hear results until either the news on one of 4 channels or the Sunday papers the next day (or teletext if you were lucky and had a good television). Time and patience getting 693 or 909 to tune in was painful.
Anyhow, like most Arsenal fans, I had started with high ambitions at the beginning of Christmas and seen them slowly see Arsenal decline into mediocrity. At least some things don’t change then.
Anyhow, as Arsenal could go top and Liverpool were playing Forests in the semi, I think most Arsenal fans wanted a win at home and Liverpool either to draw and have a replay (no penalty shoot outs back then in the semi) or lose. Let me make this very clear. If you were fan back in the 1970’s or 1980’s Liverpool won everything (though funnily enough not the FA cup having won it a mere 3 times up to 1989). They were arrogant. They were like Manchester United of the last 20 years. Hated. Liverpool were also ‘disliked’ because English clubs were banned from playing football in Europe by UEFA after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985. If you want to see how grim it was in 80’s Liverpool, just watch the trailer below for Away Day (its a crap movie though) which is set in Liverpool:-
As usual, that day I’d need a good 10 minutes to get a signal. As it was cup semi final day, the match chosen was Nottingham Forest versus Liverpool. Although I’d have to listen to the game in the second half, I would be able to keep up with the score from Highbury. If you were a foreign fan you might get the last twenty minutes on world service.
As three o’clock struck though, news came through from Hillsborough where the game was being abandoned. The reporters made it sounded like the Scousers were creating trouble. Then radio two started reporting fatalities:-
Its weird. To be honest, all I cared about was the Arsenal score and looking back on it I must look pretty shallow, but 25 years ago, football disturbances were so frequent you became immune to them.
‘As we went into the game, I was in good spirits, because I felt I was starting to play well again after a series of niggling injuries. There was some good banter with the crowd before the game too. I was with the mascot, who was taking pot shots at John Lukic, and every single one of them was pinging into the back of the net. The crowd gave him a rousing reception. “We all agree, mascot is better than Marwood,” they were singing. The crowd also started going through each player’s name and shouting – in my case – “Marwood, Marwood, do the twist”. And unless you wiggled your bum at the North Bank, you’d get booed. There was no option. I thought that my winner put the icing on the cake that day, and the crowd went bananas. Everyone knows that title winning sides need to win their fair share of games 1–0. But then I sensed that the crowd seemed a bit distracted in the last few minutes. There was a strange buzz, and it was clear something wasn’t quite right.’
Kenny Sansom said of the reception he received at the game:-
My mum was in bits and, for the first time in my entire career, she purposely stayed away from north London. ‘If you think I’m coming to Highbury to hear those lovely fans boo you, Kenny, you’re very mistaken. Not a chance.’ I tried to persuade her, but, typically of Mum, she was having none of it. She didn’t watch it on the television, and didn’t even listen to the radio. She was that afraid of the booing she felt certain was to come my way. Wild horses, on the other hand, couldn’t keep Elaine away. If ever she heard someone slagging me off in the crowd, she’d turn on them: ‘I suppose you think you can do better do you – muppet.’ Her fiery side knows no bounds. And this day was to be no different. I can’t tell you how fast and hard my heart was beating in the tunnel as I waited to emerge into the sunshine for my day of reckoning. With every step, I could feel my legs turning to jelly. My new teammates picked up on my apprehension and were brilliant. My ex-teammates took the piss. Bastards! When I ran out onto the pitch my whole being was on fire. Every emotion possible was running through my veins – but fear was the uppermost. Within seconds these fears dissolved into thin air as I heard the Gooners chanting, ‘King Kenny, King Kenny!’ and clapping. I can’t tell you the relief. And ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you, ‘This was Kenny Sansom’s finest moment at Highbury.’ The fact the fans still loved me meant the world to my family and me. Elaine was jumping for joy and my mum kicked herself for not having come to the match. As for me, I played out of my skin in my old arena. You should have heard the gasp from both crowds of supporters when I shocked them all by blasting a shot against the post. I only bloody scored! But it was disallowed. ‘Offside,’ ruled the referee. ‘Offside my backside!’ I yelled back. But the referee wasn’t listening. Do you realise that, had my goal stood, Arsenal wouldn’t have won the League that season?
But Kenny said he felt the crowd’s discomfort.
As for the fans, Jason Cowley in his excellent book The Last Game: Love, Death and Football on Arsenal in the 1980’s with special reference to the season of 1988-89 wrote of the crowd that day:-
Not long into the game at Highbury it was announced over the public address that the match at Hillsborough had been abandoned because of ‘crowd trouble’. The reply from the Highbury crowd was instantaneous ‘we hate Scousers/ We hate Scousers’. A chant which I idiotically joined in. The announcer responded : there had been ‘fatalities’ at the game. This time there was no response from Highbury; only sudden silence then ripples of unease.
I remember just hearing fatalities go up from 3, then 7 and by the end of the day 40. Ironically, even callously I still listened out for the Arsenal score only. By the following Monday 95 had died at Hillsborough.
But Hillsborough had been a tragedy waiting to happen. Many an Arsenal fan will tell you that Hillsborough semi’s were a nightmare. The cup semi final of 1973 against Sunderland for example. Another fan remembers at Highbury the crowding problems saying:-
Chelsea back in 1973, when over 60,000 turned up. They were queuing right down the road to get in. It was so tight on the North Bank. Your arms were pinned to your sides throughout the match, and there were blokes around me who had their coats pulled off by the pressure of rubbing up against others. But because you couldn’t actually raise your arms, you couldn’t get your clothes back. At the Chelsea match, I got into a crush, and through sheer force, my shoes were pulled off. Can you believe that? There was no way of getting them back, so I had to walk home barefoot.’
It seems ironic looking back at the game back then. Being a fan was a rarity and often despised (my step grandparents never talked about football to me as it was an uncouth game, followed by plebs). This was the normal view of football fans. Lets not forget people like Ken Bates wanted electric fences at stadium to keep the ‘animals’ away from the pitch and each other. Bates was reflecting a Tory party he supported [he backed John Major in 1990 for the Tory leadership] that hated the game with Margaret Thatcher’s feelings towards football being:-
Her pet project, driven by the then Luton Town chairman and backbench Tory MP David Evans, to deal with hooliganism by introducing a membership card scheme for all football fans, with draconian penalties for those who were not in possession of one and overseen by a new body with the power effectively to control their movements, was hated by those it threatened to police. It was eventually, reluctantly dropped only when Lord Justice Taylor’s report in the wake of Hillsborough dismissed it as counter-productive.
Politicians back then weren’t playing keepy uppy with a premiership manager:-
Or watching a Chelsea vs Bayern final like in 2012.
Football had yet to be ‘gentrified’ by Gazza’s tears in Italy (that was a year away), football journalism would not be truly regarded as a ‘profession’ until Peter Davies’ All played Out came out the following year and Nick Hornby’s Feverpitch on a Arsenal love of football wouldn’t come out until 1992. Football had been ‘the English problem’. Most importantly, Sky was still 3 years away from taking over television rights for football. The game would no longer belong to the fans (if it ever did) but to the television companies and committee men at your club and F.A.
Hillsborough though changed everything. Mostly for the better, but a lot has come at a price. Obviously, since Hillsborough there never has been a return to those fatalities or violence so that is good.
You can’t imagine how much we (as fans) were hated and therefore that was often the reason it was relatively cheap to go to a match. Ian Castle in his book Arsenal: The Agony & The Ecstasy made an interesting point that up to 1988 you could go to Highbury in the summer, help with the decorating and upkeep of the stadium and get a season ticket for doing that. Imagine that in comparison to £1300 now for a Gold membership?
As I look back now over 25 years and you see the Liverpool fans still fighting for justice, I look back as a 45 year old fan, and realise that 79 of the 96 dead were under 30 and would roughly be my age. They went to a match and never came back. Never had kids. Never had a chance. In many ways, I look back and as a human being think ‘wouldn’t it be great if Liverpool won the title for those 96 people that died’ 25 years ago. But then, as a fan, I remember Jon Spurling words on that season and our after Christmas decline in the league saying of the media:-
This delighted the anti-Arsenal tabloids (that’s all of them, by the way), who as we all know, had their heads shoved far up Liverpool nether region’s.
But to those fans too young to remember, if you get a chance, remember those poor souls that went to a game to cheer their team and never came back. Justice for the 96.