In the aftermath of a point we didn’t really merit on the run of play on Merseyside last Wednesday night, is it time for the players to sit down and have a VERY serious word with themselves? I think so.
Famously, our 1971 Double team (which also won the European Fairs Cup in 1970) were extremely self-critical. Sometimes meetings in the so-called “half-way house”, a small room mid-way between the dressing rooms and the pitch, would come near to blows. Frank McLintock, one of two great skippers I’ve seen at Arsenal along with Tony Adams, would get right up in the faces of his team. As would Bob McNab, who belied his baby-faced appearance. Despite having to be in plaster up to the waist between many games to immobilise a persistent pelvic injury, he had a fierce professional pride and would turn on any team-mate whom he felt wasn’t pulling his weight.
Likewise, there was a famous team meeting without the manager and coaches mid-way through the 1997/98 season after a horrible November. Tony Adams challenged the players to perform to the very limit of their ability and desire. He got the desired response. With Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit forming the best engine room in central midfield I’ve seen in any Arsenal team I’ve watched over 41 years, the famous “no goal patrol” of Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and one of either Martin Keown or Steve Bould at the back, Ray Parlour and Marc Overmars bombing down the wings and the Devine Dennis both making and firing the bullets for an increasingly influential and blossoming Nicolas Anelka, we were simply majestic from a wonderful “One-nil to the Arsenal” win at Old Trafford to the end of a season that brought the second Double to the club.
Let’s not forget the important walk-on roles for Alex Menninger in goal (sadly, never to recover his confidence after five went past him in a League Cup tie against Chelsea at Highbury the following season), Gilles Grimandi, Christopher Wreh and David Platt in that season either. All made vital contributions. A banner on the victory parade through Islington to the Town Hall summed it all up for me “ENGLISH GRIT + DUTCH CLASS + FRENCH ÉLAN = ARSENAL”
Likewise the 2002 Double team and 2004 Invincibles all had a togetherness that saw them through the tough games. Indeed, “TOGETHER” was the watch-word, the mantra constantly repeated in the pre kick-off huddle, mainly at the instigation of Sol Campbell.
One particular game in 1997/8 sticks in my mind, the 6th Round FA Cup replay away at Upton Park. With Dennis Bergkamp sent off for an elbow, all our substitutes used and Lee Dixon barely able to walk never mind run due to an injury, somehow we managed to hang on with effectively nine against eleven to go through to the semis. THAT’S what this current team lacks. You can have all the high-priced talent you like. It’s not enough. In a team sport you need players who will die for each other on the park. Players who take pride in their own performance, who leave it all out on the park, who, even when they’re completely finished physically, will find a way to get it done.
I remember Gilberto in the Champions League final in Paris. The bloke was completely out on his feet in the last fifteen minutes, yet still he still gave and gave and gave, even though we were losing. That’s what we need. True, this side is predominantly young and inexperienced. True some of the players aren’t out of the very top drawer. BUT, they’re more than a decent team IF they’re prepared to go that extra yard, that extra inch.
I’ve mentioned it before. I make no apologies for mentioning it again, Al Pacino, playing the embattled coach in the film Any Given Sunday, with his team on a losing streak, riven with factions and mercenary players more interested in their endorsements and advertising deals than playing for the team, addresses the players before a vital match:
“…..the inches we need we need are all around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch! On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch! We claw with our fingernails for that inch! Because we know when we add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the fuckin’ difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying! I’ll tell you this, in any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch. And I know that if I’m gonna have any life anymore, it’s because I’m still willing to fight and die for that inch! Because, that’s what living is! The six inches in front of your face!
Now, I can’t make you do it! You gotta look at the guy next to you, look into his eyes! Now I think you’re gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you. You’re gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team, because he knows when it comes down to it, you’re gonna do the same for him! That’s a team, gentlemen. And either we heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.  That’s football, gentleman, that’s all it is. Now, what are you gonna do?”
Fiction I know. But I think it’s the missing ingredient at the moment. Of course, you can be the best motivated team in the world; you won’t win anything without talent. But talent we’ve got. Certainly enough to be more convincing than we are.
I remember reading about half time in the visitors’ dressing room at the Nou Camp in the Champions League at half time in 1998. We’re one-nil down and it should have been three. We’re in danger of getting a severe hiding. Too many of our players seemed to be overawed by the first game for most of them at Barcelona’s iconic home. Arsčne is his usual cool, calm, collected self. He gives the players ten minutes to rest up. Then he calmly calls for us to close up on Barca all over the park. We’re giving them too much respect, too much room. “Each of you needs to be a metre closer to them all over the field” he says. He talks to a few players individually. The buzzer sounds to go back onto the park. Tony Adams stands up and looks the whole team in the eye, “if you don’t want to go back out there and really play, really give them a game, don’t bother following me out the door.”
Second half, we’re transformed. Kanu gets a great equaliser. We’re good value for a point in a one-all draw. That’s what this team needs at the moment. It needs to weld itself into a unit. To close ranks and battle for everything. Our ability will do the rest.
And with the ‘appy ‘ammers rolling into the Grove tomorrow, it needs to happen now!
We’re unbeaten in eight games. That’s a solid base to build on, one game at a time. With total, complete focus on every match as it comes around. Inch by inch. Fighting every step of the way. With heads never going down no matter what set-backs come along. Knowing that those who’re remembered aren’t those who obtain the biggest rewards but those who conquer the biggest victories.
The Gooner Republic expects every man to do his duty.
Keep the faith!