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Sunday, 23 September 2007

Sing When You're Winning...

Saturday 22nd Sepetember, 2007: Arsenal 5 (Diaby, Adebayor 3 [1 pen], Fabregas), Derby County 0.

I'm queuing for a beer in the Auld Triangle, trying to ride the wave of bodies to the bar, when something on the dark wood dresser at its rear catches my eye. There, stood side on amongst the old Guinness bottles, period toucan statuettes and Irish nick-nackery, is a 12 inch vinyl album; Natty Dread by Bob Marley & the Wailers. As I edge closer, I can see that its sleeve has been covered in silver scrawl by a variety of hands. I get within elbow resting reach of the pumps and catch the young barmaid's eye to order up my Stella. As she's pouring it, I ask her if the signatures on the album cover are those of Bob and the Wailers themselves. She doesn't reply, just gives a private, knowing smile, so I'm left none the wiser. But something is welling up inside me as I pocket my change and take my pint outside; as if I've been let in on an in-joke, made privvy to the craik. It's as if her silence is saying, 'believe whatever you want to, love'. And I suppose I already do, imagining as I am those languid Caribbean signatories obliging a request made in this dark, north London pub in '77 when Bob and the band lived over here and probably popped up this way to see a game. It's a nice feeling, so why let an inconvenient truth spoil it? Better, surely, to be like this; soothed, uplifted and feeling as warm inside as the day.

And what a glorious day it is. The sun bears down upon my forehead as I squat to read my programme. The sky above the tidy terraces oppposite the pub is mediterranean, any clouds that interupt its Victoria line blue are fluffy, white, high and friendly. The sunny street is a carnival of red and white, yellow and blue. The ladies are out in force in their summery, feminised replica tops; the white sleeves of the male variety all but dispensed with in favour of armpit hugging isosceles, the whole cut is more petite. No handbags at their feet, instead they slow dance around the odd unnecessary fleece and a triangle of empty bottles and a half drunk Smirnoff Ice. It feels more like an August Bank Holiday than a late September day, as the heat sets tiny trickles of sweat rolling down my sunscreened neck. All in all, the perfect day to buy myself a woolly Arsenal scarf.

Bob's 'lucky' woolly Arsenal scarf; or Gerald, as its more usually known...

I'd seen them being twirled and twizzled by the Red Action wedge on the opposite side of the ground from me during the Sevilla game and had to have one. Red Action are trying to get a bit more atmosphere going at the new ground but the problem with the lack of noise predates the Emirates. They didn't call our old ground the Highbury Library for nothing. But today there seems to be a different buzz. Perhaps it's just the afterglow of the win at Tottenham or down to the encouraging display in midweek. It could be the effect of Matt Lucas's comic guide to defending the Arsenal way that has us chortling when they show it on the big screen. Or maybe the crowd knows with a certainty deep down in their bones that we'll beat Derby today, and that it's just a matter of by how many. Regardless of the whys and wherefores, there's a newly appreciative response to 'The Wonder of You' that makes me think it might eventually catch on; I hope so, but I still can't imagine too many people singing along. I sing along anyway, spirit and voice bouyed by two quickly-downed beers and the cheesey grandiosity of the King.

So the day starts well and just keeps getting better. First Diaby scores - that's right, the same tall framed Diaby who blasted against the bar at the Lane last weekend and haplessly missed a sitter at Cardiff that might have won us the Carling Cup earlier this year. He jinks past two defenders before unwinding a curling shot of such certainty that it comes as more of a surprise to the Arsenal fans than the petrified Derby defence. Then Adebayor breaks through the centre from a clipped Fabregas ball, rounds the keeper and slots home. Fabregas puts Walcott through on goal with an unbelievably astute first time pass out of nowhere that deserves a goal that the youngster can't supply.

The second half opens with a tug on Eduardo (formerly the striker formerly known as Prince, now Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta) inside the Derby penalty area. Adebayor slots it home. Then, with Denilson warming up on the touchline to replace him, it's almost as if Fabregas realises that if he's going to score today, he'll have to do so pretty damn quick. So, naturally, he does, despatching another blasted shot that perhaps may not have beaten a better keeper, but is venomous enough to have poor Stephen Bywater grasping at thin air. It's then left to Adebayor to seal his hatrick with a marvellously athletic leap to bring a high crossfield ball down on the edge of the area. This initial controlling of the ball is improbable enough without his having been tugged at by the black bandana wearing Leacock, but Ade isn't done yet, regaining his poise then showing icy coolness to wait his moment before slotting the ball home imperiously for five-nil.

The crowd, those of us who stay, are starting to applaud the huddle now; the players expression of their togetherness works in synergy with our appreciation of it to fill the stadium with a proud, expectant hum. The word is spreading, we're all starting to believe a bit now. Especially as we hear the news come through, as the hopeful, faithful throng descends the staircase, that Liverpool can only draw nil-nil at home to Birmingham. "We are top of the league, say we are top of the league" they chant. And we are; three points clear with a game in hand.

I decide to make my way to Block 31 for the Arsenal Extra Time event. Depending upon your degree of cynicism towards the modern game, the extension of the match day schedule beyond the final whistle is either an inspired means of simultaneously spreading the dispersal of over 60,000 fans away from the ground whilst allowing the fans to enjoy a cheap, post match beer or another means of screwing every last penny out of us. I take my £2.50 pint of watery Fosters and stand a few yards back from the stage. Two young lads are doing a karaoke version of that Kaiser Chiefs song about someone called Ruby. Rapt by the autocued lyrics, they begin in a nervous shuffle but grow into increasing show offs, mumbling their way through the verses only to burst into a series of loudly bellowed Ur-rubyrubyrubyrub-ays which, for all their enthusiasm, remain tangential to the actual tune of the song in all aspects aside from its metre. Next up is Bob (Phill Jupitus on the third day of a hunger strike) who implores us to sing "Oh Arsenal" in the whoah-whoh-woah bits of 'The Wonder of You' before proceeding to do a superb impersonation of a completely tone deaf Elvis Presley, gargling.

Bob is followed by Gooner Jim who come on with all the finger pointing, hand shucking confidence of Finsbury Park's own Eminem only for a broken microphone to somewhat reduce the impact of the opening verse of 'Ziggy Stardust'. A real trooper, he soldiers on unheard, at last becoming audible somewhere around the "screwed up eyes and screw down hair-do" mark, before doing something quite clever with the lyrics, changing "became the special man" into a Jose Mourinho, "special one" jibe. Again, I find myself singing along, even going so far as to join in with a despairing, high-pitched "no-oh" after the "when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band" line. All in all, Gooner Jim is bang on the money with his impersonation of Phil Cornwell impersonating David Bowie in Stellar Street.

Then, as if by way of a skewed tribute to The Special One, we get a blast of Bryan Adams' "The Summer of '69". Jose is, by all accounts, a big fan of Mr. Adams, though he is thought to be more of a Phil Collins man if you believe Zoe Williams, whose excellent rise and fall piece in Saturdays Grauniad nicely encapsulates our love-hate relationship with the - these are nice words to be typing - former Chelsea boss. But the song has another significance. That year saw the debut for Arsenal of a very special player. As you'll have guessed, there had to be some very special reason for me staying on through this karaoke/mullet-clad stadium rock hell. And just as I'm about to give up on the whole thing, out comes the man we've all been waiting for; Charlie George.

He's a well chosen Arsenal legend for this fixture (even if the programme is advertising an appearance by, of all people, Perry Groves...) But even though he also played for today's opponents, Derby County, Charlie really is Arsenal through and through. You couldn't really sum up the player I really only recall from that one often replayed strike at Wembley in a million words. But two words will do just nicely for the man on stage before me who, as he is now, could be a fairly anonymous clerical worker after one too many sherbets reluctantly accepting a long-service award at the works' Christmas do; diamond geezer.

He plays the room with the same cockiness that I remember from those 70s highlights shows, hamming up a feigned impatience as the gooners in the room go through the repertoire of terrace chants he's set them up for, with a put-it-on-a-plate-for-you assist; "there's only one Dennis Bergkamp" ... "Oh Rocky Rocky, Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocky Rocastle" ... "shit club, no history". You can almost believe the myth Nick Hornby crystalised in Fever Pitch that Charlie vaulted over the low white wall that separated his patch on the North Bank directly on to the Highbury pitch.

He goes through his stock Arsenal Legends after dinner speech patter. How did they celebrate the 1971 Cup final? Brandy and champagne, but Charlie - this said with a straightface - never touched a drop, of course. His all-time favourite Arsenal player? Bergkamp, who else? There's a gag about the Chelsea groundsman winning the pitch of the year award; "hardly surprising, it has had all that crap on it all year". Asked about the famous '71 celebration, he still can't exactly tell us why he did it. He'd done the same thing in an earlier round, at Maine Road on a damp Manchester night, lying down in the mud just as he would again on final day at Wembley on that glorious summer day, luxuriating like a prince in a bath made from gold.

He knows the ebbs and the flows of the fans, would still rather, you feel, be here with us, joining in with the singing not signing programmes for the kids and orchestrating our chanting from the elevation of the stage. But in a way, he is with us now, just as he is with us in the cheap seats and not the corporate bores he's asked to turn up and tell his tales for in the swanky corporate zone; he's with us in his heart as he has been since he was a kid; dancing and clapping with us in the rhythm that we found after the fifth. Charlie George is dancing with us and not the money men, clapping along to the same silent groove that makes the young hip blade a few seats down the line from me swing and sway, clapping and swaying in his 70s throwback t-shirt and a scarf the same as mine; we swing and sway; clap and sway, sing and sway and clap and say; "we love you Arsenal, we do ... we love you Arsenal, we do...we love you Arsenal we do - oh Arsenal we love you!"

And then, as the Q & A comes to an end, there's a quiz to win a mobile phone; "who scored the winning goal for Arsenal in the 1970 Fairs Cup?" I don't know the answer but I do notice a beguiling, bob-haired brunette standing aloof at the side of the stage. She has one of those faces that you can't help but stare at; an elfin Colleen who seems somehow to be above and beyond the fray. My gaze returns to Charlie, about to hand over the prize. A bulky blond haired guy in his mid-to-late forties gets the answer right; Jon Sammels scored the goal that won us our first-ever European trophy. Charlie hands over the phone then grabs the winner's hand and holds it up. The guy who won the prize only has three fingers and a thumb on one hand. "I didn't tell you he was me brother, did I?" Charlie laughs and barks, then holds up his own right hand for all to see. He must be double jointed or this is some skilful sleight of hand because Charlie's index finger is missing too. But no, it's true. I looked it up, not believing my own eyes, still rubbing them in disbelief like a shell shocked Ray Clemence, as that ball cannoned down from the back of the Wembley net. And with that, like some Medicine Show charlatan, he's whisked off into the early evening breeze a cordon of stewards around him and a bob-haired Colleen at his side.

"Whatever happened to Charlie George?"

Passing Chelsea Harbour on the train back home, a huge expanse of low, grey cloud covers west London. Its edge is traced out like a border by a line of brilliant gold that hovers just above the horizon, the displaced light of the steady setting sun. Your day is nearly done. You recall the hopeful sunny skies you've not long left behind; the songs and the goals. And Charlie George and his three fingered hand. Make the most of this, you think; sing when you're winning. Because it won't last long. Sing now, because there's another week before you'll sing again; another week to be filled with the usual frustrations, of things you'll do that you do not want to be doing; the ongoing despair. You can only sing when you're winning.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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