Perhaps the depth of the low before the high is why the memory is so clear. The end of an already waning title challenge in 1987 came on a damp March afternoon when Wayne Clarke delivered the terminal blow from thirty-five yards or more. It was his first goal for the club, I think and punctured the atmosphere the week before euphoria lifted the roof from the terracing at the old Wembley stadium. Everton went on to claim the title, perhaps this was the first real chip away at Liverpool’s dominance of the English game; Arsenal bulldozed it down in quick succession in 1989 and 1991.
Clarke was the youngest and last of a footballing dynasty of sorts. Allan was the best known of the brothers to play the sport professionally – Frank, Kelvin and Derek the others from memory – and most successful although Wayne didn’t come out of the game too badly either; a League champion, a couple of other promotions with some of the West Midlands sides around which his family seemed to congregate.
Football is heading back toward that time. Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton are in the top five, if only Manchester City and Chelsea would make more of an effort to finish in 21st and 14th as they did in 1986-87. All credit is due to Manchester United, who by contrast are desperate to plummet to the 11th place they so comfortably occupied for any number of years before the Premier League came into existence. The top flight was very different in those days, almost half of the members then are in the lower leagues, some have endured spells of non-league football; Luton still do. A quick flick through the record books shows The Hatters were third at the final whistle following Clarke’s goal. It brings into perspective their fall.
It was another world. A time when huddling around a small transistor brought news of the FA Cup Third Round draw, a day that was once pivotal in the season is now relegated to an afterthought and today takes place ten minutes after kick-off at The Emirates. Little wonder the Football Association struggles with its crown jewel’s reputation; they cannot even make the third round exciting any more.
All that is an aside from today’s main course but you can’t let it pass either. Where do you start? We might have hoped for City to drop points at St Mary’s – they won’t be the first nor the last of the top five or six to do so – but combine that with Chelsea and United losing? Did your lottery numbers come up as well? United stand closer to the bottom three than they do the top of the table. The top four is seven points away; that is beginning to look a tall order with five teams needing to accumulate fewer points over the rest of the season. United won’t retain their title, no matter how much they spend in January but they will feel better about themselves come New Year’s Day; the fixture list is quite kind between then and now.
Arsène is unhappy about televisions influence on the fixtures but has that any merit this week? What is the difference between kicking off at midday next Saturday than 3pm? Surely he is not complaining about a nine-day rest between City and Chelsea? He is laying the foundations for deflecting criticism of the squad in the worst case scenario. The media have been teed up for how much hard work his players have put in but the cycle of football in England is an impediment to success. He has used this tactic before, notably with The Invincibles when Manchester United and Chelsea had ended aspirations of a treble and Liverpool loomed.
A lot has been said recently by Arsenal players about traditions, how they respect the club’s history. Arsène came up with the most traditional of English solutions to his perceived problem; a committee. Very Establishment Club. Nothing will change, traditionalists argue it was not an impediment before, perhaps the quality of players has dropped. Perhaps indeed. Maybe there is a problem and I have long advocated a winter break with a reduction in the top flight to 18 clubs. Fifa wants that, hinted they may enforce the notion but as with everything Blatter, long on words, short on action.
With City and Chelsea their next opponents, a win today will see Arsenal remain top of the Premier League once the final whistle even if they lose both of those fixtures. It isn’t that defeat does not matter, of course it does and it will hurt with a seven point lead reduced to the flimsiest of margins. But the pack will not have overhauled them if they take three points from the next nine; there seems something significant in that end result. We have seen in recent weeks how quickly gaps can open as soon as they have been closed. If indeed they are closed. Imagine a win, seven points ahead and then taking four from the next six. Imagine, dare to dream.
Let’s win this match first.
Roberto Martinez has taken the obduracy of Moyes Everton and added a more ready disposition to attack, the combination of strong defence and attack more reminiscent of the School of Science than before. The rewards have been reaped; Chelsea and United have fallen at Goodison whilst their only defeat came at the Eastlands. Winning at Old Trafford for the first time in two decades was probably the best preparation as they seek to repeat that at Arsenal for the first time in Arsène’s reign. The problem they face is an Arsenal side which is itself in scintillating form; Theo Walcott referred to it as the strongest squad during his seven years at the club to put this season into context.
Whilst Everton put United to the sword, Hull were falling to the same fate at The Emirates. It was a much-changed side that took three points for Arsenal and it will be surprising if today’s starting line-up is not more in step with that which won in South Wales last weekend. Carl Jenkinson retains his place but that would be the only change I imagine for kick-off. Oh, for another early Arsenal goal to settle this game down. If Wenger were to tinker around the edges, respite may come to Aaron Ramsey with Flamini dropping in or Wilshere sitting deeper to allow Theo Walcott to start. I am not sure the latter will happen, with the midweek trip to Naples offering a better opportunity for Walcott’s pace to be exploited on the counter-attack.
It leaves the line-up as:
Szczesny; Jenkinson, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Arteta, Ramsey; Wilshere, Özil, Cazorla; Giroud
And that XI is good enough to beat anyone in the Premier League; a focussed Arsenal will deliver that win.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.