The pre match 125 year centenary celebrations were among the usual talking points before a game that saw the Arsenal in line for a top four spot for the first time this season.
With the choice of Arsenal legends for the three commemorative statues around Ashburton Grove now already known (Herbert Chapman, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry) I made my way to my seat on a crisp but clear December afternoon after having looked at two of the three legends preserved in iron.
Having been a product of Essex in the early seventies also I have a particularly empathy with TA06 and coincidentally we were also born in the same year. A lot of us can also relate to the personal demons he battled during his time with us. He stood arms outstretched in the “Would you believe it” moment after he scored the fourth goal to seal the League title in our second double winning season in May 1998.
My seat being at the western corner flag at the Clock End(with the away fans at the opposite corner) of record goal scorers statue was at the opposite end of the stadium to Tony Adams, who was fittingly stationed outside the North Bank. It was clear that the majority of the fans around the TA06 statue were old school Arsenal while those around Thierry Henry were more international fans.
This being because the appeal of Arsenal as an international known team was cemented with the likes of talents such as Thierry, Dennis, Bobby and others. As we now all know Arsenal picked another iconic moment to immortalise with Thierry’s statue, namely the memorable goal against the Spuds with the equally memorable celebration.
I defy anyone to look at that statue and not have a lump in their throat while they remember the emotions of that match – I’m not surprised Thierry was moved the way he was on Friday at the unveiling.
Sadly I couldn’t locate Herbert Chapman’s statue in time as the pre match build up was in full swing, but I’ll aim to seek it out next time, Chapman being the manager who paved the way with the first of our 13 League titles.
A long list of Arsenal greats were being led out as I took my seat, the whole event being compered by celebrity, but certainly die hard, gooner Tom Watt.
It was gratifying to see that George Graham’s presence in the legends line up signified the Arsenal hierarchy had forgiven the circumstances of his departure similarly David O’Leary who, in his Leeds managerial days, would regularly lambast Arsenal; O’Leary’s greying sideburns visible even from my seat.
Others I heard being announced were Parlour, Pires (extra cheer), Morrow and another hero of the nineties Ian Wright, Wright Wright who is still loved by the supporters.
Unsurprisingly the biggest cheer was for Thierry when he was introduced.
And even more unsurprisingly the chants of “Sign him up, sign him, sign him up” were there to remind us of our anxiety at the prospect of Robin being unavailable for any period of time.
A nod towards our clubs heritage were the cannons pitch side, a reminder of lucky we are to have them as a symbol, rather than, say, a stringy chicken sitting on a netball.
With the festivities almost over the team were led on, with Red Action and North Bank sections being supplied with red and white cards to spell out “125”.
As the teams were being read out I noticed how our number 8 got a respectful cheer from the Everton fans, no rancour at his departure detected there and later on in the game when Arteta went over to take in front of the away fans he applauded them back.
The match started with Arsenal as usual attacking the Clock End and Everton, as befits a team schooled by Moyes, compact and solid with minimal forward intent with the only forward player who caught my eye being Coleman. Seamus Coleman did seem to have some attacking ability and the Evertonians are right to rate him so highly, however Phil Neville continued to prove why we hate him with his constant niggling of our midfielders, Ramsey in particular, and his constant niggling in the ear of the other villain of the peace, the referee Howard Webb.
Ramsey had another “almost there” type of performance in midfield, with one swivel-turn-chip in the Everton penalty area being all most Bergkamp-esque.
An innocuous nudge by Arteta on the quarter hour mark – which was on an Everton player just outside his own penalty area- earned him a yellow for his first challenge and just to prove Fergie’s rent boy (as the Clock end shouted at Webb) has no concept of consistency then failed to give a yellow for a trip on Theo by Baines as he was about to run through on goal.
Shades of Lee Mason in the same fixture last season sprang to mind in terms of anti-Arsenal incompetent or biased refereeing.
The linesman were also very quick to cooperate with the Everton offside trap as Theo and Gervinho were repeatedly called off side, however the officials were consistent in calling them either way.
Having been shown the yellow Arteta seemed to be a little subdued thereafter and he had a quieter than normal game – no matter, I think he is a vital player for us and one we were fortunate to acquire.
Arsenals superiority began to show with a succession of corners, some taken by Robin and others by Arteta.
The New Jersey born Howard had to be on top form for the various corners that rained in on him and as the half drew to a close one sensed the Everton goal had a charmed life as the Arsenals approach play was decent although Theo and Gervinho’s finishing wayward. Robin had few chances and he seemed to be predominantly carving out opportunities for others.
Half time approached and there was only a minor murmuring of concern amongst the by now frozen gooners –chances were being opened and the goal seemed inevitable.
During the interval a final historic presentation was made on the pitch of Nottingham Forest FC, the team that donated the Arsenal (then known as Dial Square FC) their first red and white kit.
The second half saw Everton begin to slow the play as for them a nil nil draw was a sizeable achievement against the arsenal, the Garden State native being the most guilty of time wasting, taking an eternity to take goal kicks.
Moyes stood on the edge – or slightly outside – the technical area pretty much the whole match, even having to step back to allow the lino to get past so often was he guilty of encroaching.
The Moe Szyslak look alike provided much of the touch line entertainment, for example when Cahill’s boot came off when a free kick was awarded to Arsenal(I think for off side) Cahill’s hissy fit involved him hurling the boot that had come off in Moyes direction; much hilarity ensued.
My suggestion of “Stamp on his foot!” while Cahill’s left boot was off and he continued playing was not taken up by the Arsenal defenders, can’t imagine why.
As the crowd were bracing themselves for a sustained spell of pressure at the Everton goal at the North bank end out of nowhere I saw Song loft a forward pass over Robin’s right shoulder – like the rest of the stadium Tim Howard assumed Robin would take a touch, then shoot.
The volley and net ripple that followed in an instant (with an almost audible gasp) took us all by surprise – a reminder of another two feet in the air volley by Robin, the one against Charlton Athletic from a cross by Eboue.
After that the Everton team seemed to have been given electric shock therapy as the transformation in the speed of goal kicks/throw ins/free kicks being taken was astonishing, again I can’t imagine why.
After the goal Vermaelen was taken off after an earlier collision to be replaced by Miquel who was, understandably, nowhere near as solid as the Belgian had been. I watched him for a five minute spell and I counted five interventions by him, two were solid clearances, one was a good through ball, one miskick into touch and one pass intercepted by an Everton forward.
Before Vermaelen’s injury Arshavin was being readied to come on, presumably to replace Robin, however Gervinho (who had a fairly good game) was replaced by Rosicky as Thomas came off instead.
Two late Everton subs included a Valbuena sized dwarf who was marked by Mertesacker – the worry there being that he would run through the big Germans legs.
There were two late alarms and two shots fizzed towards me behind the Arsenal goal and the crowd whistled for the full time whistle to be blown by Webb, who to be fair had temporarily forgotten his Arsenal hating-ManUre loving tendencies and had a marginally better second half.
At full time Mertesacker made a point of clapping the Clock End, he – like Arteta – seem to be loving the fact they are playing for a big club with a noble tradition. We’ll need him when we come up against the troglodytes of Stoke, Bolton and the like.
What seemed like me to be a scuffle between Chesney and Robin as the players went off was actually Chesney’s bowing down to Robin’s left foot – the producer of that moment of magic that gave us the three points to put us into fourth.