Saturday 29th September, 2007: West Ham 0, Arsenal 1 (van Persie)
It's sometime between 1990 and 1998. Jumpers for goalposts on Twickenham Green. The Skins are three goals up against the Shirts. Or maybe the Shirts are leading the Skins 2-1. No matter, there's a game going on; or at least, there would be if it wasn't for some idiot who has decided to walk his dog diagonally across our (admittedly unmarked) pitch. The game stops while we wait for Skip or Sandy or Towser the labrador to finish doing its business and continue on its way, the field motionless except for hound and owner until eventually, canine bowels voided, poop duly scooped, they are at last trotting across our (admittedly imaginary) touchline and have left the field of play.
The disruption over, Steve, the Skins goalie and the drummer in our band, takes it upon himself to run full pelt across the pitch, shaking a small, goalkeeping-gloved fist at the hapless dog and its anti-social owner as they head to towards the pavement. "Oi, you", he yells out after the thoughtless dog handler, "how would you like it if I came 'round your house, barged into your living room and dumped on your chess board?" A bit harsh, you might think. You can see his point though, can't you? Because that, in effect, is what this bloke's dog has just done. This is, after all, the equivalent of our chess board. We don't just play football, you see; this is chess on grass.
Steve's a West Ham fan, as is Marky Mark. Mark is the tall, lanky one - a taller, more slender Peter Crouch - Steve's about half his height, balding and small handed due to having a set of finger joints missing from both hands. Not exactly ideal for a goalkeeper, but he makes up for this shortcoming through enthusiasm; when he isn't chasing after his wind tossed goalie's cap when he should be keeping goal. Not exactly ideal for a drummer either, but that's another story... That figure ambling along the touchline will be Marky Mark arriving thirty minutes into the game, as insouciant off the pitch as on, a silk cut ultra in one hand and a small bottle of beer in the other. He's a languid player, a joy to watch even though he has no pace. Not much power either, just a good footballing brain. He makes it look easy when he's in the groove.
He and Squeaky Paul exemplify the Twickenham Green ethos; keep the ball on the deck, pass your way out of trouble, play it out from the back. It's not football, you see, it's chess on grass and that's the way we play. We even have a motto, in Latin, like a proper football club; Nonus Shittus Defencus. Roughly translated, it means; stay calm and pass the ball at all times. They'll both be there at what passes for the half time teamtalk, less a talk than an exhausted, extended fag break which may or may not encompass a swig of beer. Marky Mark and Squeaky Paul will spend it bent double, hands on knees, Mark like a construction site crane that has been lowered to half mast, coughing a cough that uproots half a lung. Then it's back on to the board with the all the other knights and pawns and rooks and kings. Set the timer for another 45, another gambit, a few more moves, another game of chess.
Chess on grass. It's a football aesthetic closely identified with today's opponents, West Ham. The club holds a special place in the hearts of many fans of English football and the higher pursuits of the game; if only because of its triumverate of homegrown World Cup winners and famous and longstanding "Academy". West Ham is a club that many followers of the game find hard to dislike. Until, of course they start beating you with any regularity, as they now do Arsenal; home and away in the last campaign and at Highbury the season before as well. The first of last season's wins was at Upton Park (or, as I prefer to call it, The Boleyn Ground). The club's then manager, Alan Pardew celebrated the Hammers' last minute goal as if his side has once again, as its fans will tell you with a smile that they did in 1966, won the World Cup, not just a Premier League game, at home. Fist clenched provocatively under the nose of our French coach, it was as if their earlier verbal jousting about Arsenal's lack of English players had spilled out into the more explicit expression of a familiar form of footballing xenophobia. That of the English football hooligan; not without shirts, these 'skins' have no hair and wear DMs.
But another Irons fan, Russell Brand, is hopefully more representative of his ilk. In today's Guardian, he praises Wenger, 'a mystic, a shaman, an alchemist', 'whose beautiful, more "royal" than ever, Arsenal' are he says, their undoubtedly foreign make up notwithstanding, closer to the spirit of English football than many of their more obviously indigenous opponents. With the sort of magnanimity you can only have when you've won your last three head to heads, Brand says [Wenger] 'could field a team of ravens and be closer to the game's essence than most, and I hope for West Ham's sake that ... he does'.
Sadly for Russell and other fans of the Irons, Wenger resists the obvious temptation to test out the strength of his experimental Corvid XI and makes only two changes from the team that started against Derby; Hleb returning from injury to replace Walcott on the right side of midfield; van Persie back for the injured Eduardo. Alex is on just long enough to provide the cross from which van Persie heads the only goal of the game before limping off, having only just returned from injury for the visit to the East End. He's down injured for what seems from the tortuously protracted radio commentary to be most of the first half. He is replaced by Eboue and almost immediately John Murray and Steve Claridge start to complain that the game has become fractured and fragmented.
They really ought to listen to their own shows a bit more before they start making outrageous judgements like that. The attention of the poor West Ham or Arsenal supporting listener is whisked this way and that, here there and everywhere; from Nantes to Ascot by way of pretty much every football league ground in the country. Anywhere else, it seems, is preferable to staying with the events of the 'featured commentary game' and recounting them as they unfold at the Boleyn Ground. You could get a clearer picture of what was happening on the field of play by reconstructing the action in a game of blindfold shove ha'penny with twenty two identical coins. We get a furlong by furlong account of the closing stages of the Fillies Stake (Listen edges out favourite Proviso to win by a short head), minute by minute updates of Australia's romp against Canada (a game even the most optimistic Canuck will presumably have written off as a likely defeat), although there is, I have to admit, much mirth to be had as Wales fall 25-10 behind Fiji in the Rugby World Cup and Chelsea have Drogba sent off on their way to a dismal 0-0 draw in the West London derby with Fulham.
In the end, as far as I can gather from the stuttering volley of sentences interupted by protracted cutaways to anywhere but Upton Park that passes for 5 Live's coverage, Arsenal hang on to win. That Nonus Shittus Defencus seems to be catching on. The young Arsenal side goes into October on top of the pile on the back of eight straight wins across the board.
If we're looking for an early story to shape the season, it could well be this; it's not about whether you win, so much as it is about how. This argument has already seen off 'The Special One', whose name is sung out by the disenchanted Blues at Stamford Bridge. Aside from the fact that all the fancied teams have already ground out one nil wins, you wonder, if something higher than winning or losing were not perceived to be at stake, might not Mourinho still be there, in his black overcoat, doing just that at the Bridge? Russell Brand frames it nicely, quoting Arsene Wenger's comments about the fans being the soul of the game:
He spoke of fans as "the keepers of the game" which is a further nod to the civic, if not sacred nature of the sport... Amidst the swirl of the scandals, the rumours, the ignoble chatter and limitless tainted money, something chaste and sacred remains and it belongs to us, the fans, and cannot be be bought, sold or branded.
Perhaps he's right. I hope so. But then, it's like we've always said; it's not football. This is chess on grass.
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