Grudging rivals

Tottenham fan Martin Cloake begrudgingly accepts that Arsenal are not only winning, but winning in style

Columns of black smoke billowed into the night sky from the wasted shells of burning cars, helicopters clattered overhead and the sound of sirens pierced the air. Arsenal had just completed the Double, and some of their fans were trashing their own manor. A strange way to celebrate, but it was a strange season.

Arsenal used to be the team everyone loved to hate, but that’s all changed. Sure, they’ve got an intelligent and likeable manager, have a creative midfield, the best defensive unit in the country, some great attacking players and play some flowing and exciting football – but come on folks, what have the Arsenal ever done for us?

Many people cite breaking the grip of Manchester United as reason enough to drop their traditional, and entirely natural, dislike of Arsenal. But enduring a few months of crowing from the “lifelong Gooners” who are already pouring out of the woodwork should soon restore some balance – these people make United fans look positively self-effacing.

Yet despite their many unattractive qualities, I feel sorry for Arsenal fans. Rather like the Labour Party, they’ve had to jettison everything they hold dear in order to achieve success. Remember “Lucky Arsenal”, “1-0 to the Arsenal”? The chants of the glory days are but distant memories now. “Skilful, entertaining Arsenal with more than a hint of continental flair” doesn’t quite trip off the tongue in the same way; “4-0 to the Arsenal” doesn’t have the essential twist of irony that made “Boring, Boring Arsenal” such a hit.

Beneath all the bluster, they can’t cope with all this adulation. They’re so traumatised they turn their anger and confusion in on themselves – hence the destruction wreaked around Highbury on the evening of the Cup final. Worst of all must have been the antics of Tottenham Hotspur, the side they pretend not to see as rivals any more. At Highbury early in the season, a full- strength Arsenal failed to defeat an unadventurous Tottenham side reduced to ten men. Despite the airy disregard New Gooners affect when talking of Tottenham, they badly wanted to beat them that day, especially as an Ian Wright goal would have broken the club’s scoring record. And so, as the teams trudged off the pitch, the Highbury faithful used, for the first time, the word “boring” as a term of abuse rather than pride. Boring Boring Tottenham? Where was the mad scientist who had swapped the personalities of the two clubs?

Spurs dogged them all season. Alan Sugar did his bit for social partnership when he brought one of the Double-winning side’s most vital players, Emmanuel Petit, to England, then paid his cab fare to Highbury. This gift came on top of the already generous decision to give Arsenal a free run at Dennis Bergkamp, everyone’s player of the year and a lifelong Spurs fan, because he would have been “a waste of money”. Those who admire Sugar’s business expertise know he wouldn’t have been stupid enough to turn down such a quality player and – modest as ever – Sugar has refused to claim the credit.

Still Tottenham had a few tricks left up their sleeves. By adopting the clever tactic of being complete rubbish for long periods, they started to make Arsenal fans believe the treble was on – the League, the FA Cup, and Tottenham relegated. Spurs played it perfectly. When Arsenal beat Everton to clinch the title, that win also ensured Tottenham’s continued presence in the top flight. This, as Rory McGrath – one supporter at least who has held on to the art of being boring – said in the papers, was extremely irritating.

It’s almost possible to feel sorry for a set of fans who, tortured by success, can’t enjoy a fine footballing side. Credit must go to Newcastle for being so inept that Arsenal didn’t really have to try to beat them in the Cup final – completing the double in style would have been simply too much for them to bear.

From WSC 137 July 1998. What was happening this month