My second year as an Arsenal Season Ticket Holder draws to a close over the next few weeks, and tomorrow I will take my seat for Arsenal v Manchester United. It is a fixture which is so rich in history and drama from unbelievable joys to paralysing heartache. A couple of years ago I was celebrating my birthday early as Aaron Ramsey slotted home to give us victory with the only goal of the game.
Two decades earlier and a couple of days before my eleventh birthday Alan Smith scored a hat trick hours after we had clinched the league thanks to Nottingham Forest defeating Liverpool earlier that day. Manchester United were simply blown away as the newly crowned European Cup Winners Cup victors fell to a 3-1 defeat at Highbury. The night was also notable for Manchester United performing a “guard of honour” as our players stepped out onto the pitch.
Their manager that night was a certain Sir Alex Ferguson, who was merely five years into a reign that continues to this very day. I will not be a hypocrite and pretend to be Fergie’s biggest fan, but let it never be said that he does not get occasions like this right. It was an act which was repeated when Chelsea were to visit Old Trafford as newly crowned Champions fourteen years later.
It is a custom which I fully agree with. The Premier League is one of the most fiercely contested competitions in the world and during the season tempers will fray and emotions inevitably spill over. But when the curtain falls and the honours are awarded, it is a time to reflect and to show a little dignity in defeat.
For Arsenal fans it is also time to enjoy the now annual feast of St Totteringham Day which as any respectable Gooner will tell you is the day which is marked by fans of Arsenal as the moment when Tottenham can no longer catch Arsenal due to the number of games and remaining points available. The last time the national holiday was postponed was 1995.
It’s a tradition, and as such they should be honoured and respected. Much like the act of the “guard of honour” performed for visiting champions once a title is secured. For all my personal irritation of the club, something further exasperated by their manager, I would have no personal issue following and respecting that act. As a club we pride ourselves on doing things the right way something which has given rise to the phrase the “Arsenal Way.”
However something can stop me from doing that. The potential selection of a certain player, an individual who once graced our club and who we in turn supported through some turbulent times as he struggled with repeated injuries. A former employee who enjoyed the best period of his career in the 18 months directly leading to his departure when for the first time in his career he managed to stay injury free for longer than a few months. Who having discovered the absolute peak of his ability after all of our years of support and faith (not to mention those pesky BUPA medical bills!) decided to leave us rather than to reward our belief in him with a commitment to stay.
Having supported Arsenal for just under three decades, I am not naïve enough to not realise that players do move on. It’s a natural cycle of transition. Once upon a time I didn’t know how Arsenal would go on without Ian Wright. The same could be said for Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas or Robert Pires.
Players can return and be appreciated, as has been shown when Thierry returned with his Red Bulls, or Patrick with Juventus. The norm is not to subject them to ninety minutes of the kind of venom which Ashley Cole, Emmanuel Adebayor or Samir Nasri can relate to. In each of those examples the players concerned have secured notoriety for their conduct in the period leading up to their departure.
Personally, I don’t even see why the issue is even being discussed. Manchester United are the champions of England and have no logical reason to bring Robin Van Persie to London tomorrow.
Some may argue that Arsenal or their fans have no right to make any demands regarding the team selection of another side, and to a certain extent there is a valid point to be made. But when the nature of the anger amongst Arsenal fans is so tangible and so obvious to be revealed in an ugly display of contempt for the arriving champions, it cannot simply be ignored.
On Monday Fergie will assert his position in the media and condemn Arsenal as a club without class, without humility and without dignity due to the reception which will be afforded to Robin Van Persie should he be included in the squad. However I will counter that Fergie has deliberately orchestrated a stand off and placed dignified Arsenal fans like myself in an impossible position. I do not want to be known as one of the 56,000+ Arsenal fans who will welcome the newly crowned winners of the Premier League with boos and jeers. But equally I will not ignore the elephant in the room that will be the case should Robin Van Persie be anywhere near North London tomorrow.
The choice is clear: Manchester United can have their guard of honour with respect or they can have Robin Van Persie in their squad. They cannot have both. The line in the sand has been drawn and should Fergie wish to use this match as some kind of machismo demonstration of authority, then he will only have himself to blame when the guard of honour descends into a tunnel of shame.
We can behave ourselves tomorrow and we can observe the traditions of English football and extend further the aura of the “Arsenal Way.” Tomorrow can be about everything that is wonderful about English football, or it can be a classic example of why Sir Alex Ferguson will never be respected or adored in the same style as Shankly or Clough.
Tomorrow is more than just a fixture between two old rivals. It can go a long way towards formulating the lasting legacy of a manager who is in the twilight of his career. Or it can remind everyone why he is the first to demand respect, despite showing so little himself to anyone else throughout his career.