The ‘auld enemy’. It used to be a fixture that brought down the curtain on a season but under a welter of violence and the increasing irrelevance of the British Home International Championship, faded into obscurity. There were some memorable games but beyond the 1975 drubbing at Wembley, I am struggling to remember many matches. God, they were dull affairs. Even 1989 which only stands out but only because it was a double-header, the end destination having stopped off at Anfield en route.
A week ago, Roy Hodgson seemed to feel the same way. England supporters, he deemed, were more interested in the Euro2016 qualifiers. Even though he was trying to drum up trade for the Slovenia match, he does have a point. Friendlies aren’t interesting and as you’ve probably guessed, with my England hat on, I long ago lost any sense of rivalry with the Scots. They are the international equivalent of Tottenham.
In my lifetime, I’ve only seen England lose this fixture seven times and three of them came in four meetings in the mid-70s. They were memorable matches or matches with memorable incidents. Ray Clemence legs were so wide apart that a Routemaster could have got through them; the Wembley turf was exported to many a Glaswegian garden a year later.
England had the last laugh; Ally McLeod believed that the winning the World Cup was possible in 1978 despite the reality check of losing at home to a rank average England team a month before the tournament began. Curiously enough I can recall the ill-fated Argentine fiasco quite well; couldn’t even tell you who scored England’s winner at Hampden in the May. I didn’t even know England had won the Home International until I looked. The goalscorer was Steve Coppell to save you the trouble.
So this evening, well, I’m not bothered although in the unlikely event of a good gubbing being handed out, I am sure that I will be able to find some humour and linkage between that and the failed independence vote.
I lie, of course. I am interested but purely from the Arsenal perspective.
Headlines focussed on United’s injury problems over the past week are looking somewhat premature. A few days ago it seemed they were fielding their Under – 14 side on Saturday; that’s not going to be the case any more. For starters, Mike Dean is referee for the fifth time in this fixture; none of them have been Arsenal victories according to @Orbinho although he did subsequently point out that United have not won their last five he has officiated.
Whilst I am sure this evening will be of benefit to him, playing Theo Walcott is risky in a ‘derby’ match. Although international football is more sedate by nature than domestic football, I am not so sure this one will be. That said, it’s hard to see him playing more than twenty minutes but with the weekend coming, I would rather he was saved for the United game than playing for England. History isn’t on Arsenal’s side and this is the drawback of having a core of English players at the club; the FA have a habit of returning the goods unfit for purpose and a nervous night is sure to ensue.
The question of friendlies vexes many a mind. Brazil and Argentina are the footballing equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, mercenaries for hire; ‘pay and we play‘ ought to become the mottos of their respective Federations. I do think there is a case for friendlies to be played but pre and post-season, not when the fixture list is at its busiest. Football doesn’t understand the concept of less is more, crowds would increase if there was some scarcity value is seeing the two South American nations play in Europe.
In the digital era, television is killing off the novelty of seeing these sides. It was a big occasion when Brazil came to Wembley when I was younger because we didn’t see these players week in, week out and certainly the notion of them playing at Craven Cottage would have brought howls of derision.
That’s before you consider the wear and tear on the players themselves.
Hodgson returned Joe Hart to Manchester City on the grounds of rest, a similar fate could – should – have fallen on Wilshere and Gibbs. It’s typical of the short-termism which besets football. Two players whose injury records in recent years suggest they should be treated with care know only contempt for their health. If either are not available in February, the England manager would do well to remember his part in their downfall.
That’s too far ahead for now though. United occupy Arsenal minds with both Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta noting the weekend could be a pivotal moment in the season. The Spaniard noted that it isn’t just the players whose spirits need lifting, the crowd need it to,
A week ago, after three wins in a row, the place was getting back to normal with everyone looking happy. Then after two disappointing results, [it is down].
The patience he called for is in short supply with the erratic start to this season wearing thin. Some believe the crowd lift the players, others vice versa. Both are right, both wrong in assuming one comes before the other. The crowd feeds off the players, optimism before a match quickly fades if the opening five minutes don’t go to plan.
There is a romanticism attached to the hostile environment, about how Arsenal should be. It never was on a regular basis. It could be at Highbury, don’t get me wrong but The Library wasn’t a nickname of just the closing years; there were plenty of matches in the previous two or three decades where pins dropping were told to be quiet.
All-seater stadia have significantly altered the mindset of the crowd. Whilst tribalism still exists, the removal of terracing made grounds more genteel. They don’t have to be but with significant advances in safe standing made, it’s time for English football to re-embrace the culture of standing in a safer environment. It won’t happen quickly, if it happens at all but must be worth exploring if the ‘product’ is to flourish.