Gone two and there’s no sleep. A long day, 6 hours driving, in between people needed me, lent on me, drained me more than the queue on the Purley Way or the Blackwall Tunnel. The Tunnel. Please let loose from your grip, just let me through, always the Tunnel, it’s holiday time, people are away for chrissakes, for once let me through. Just want to get there, is all, just once.
The sedative of choice, stress, has no effect. 2am and the adrenalin rushes through my veins like a flash flood through sewers. I stare at the ceiling. When i was a kid and couldn’t sleep, I lay in my parents bed and stared at the ceiling, watching the headlight beams from the busy main road reflected through the prism of our window as they danced across the cracks in the ceiling. Comforting but tonight the memory has lost its soothing powers.
I close my eyes. I feel every splash of blood touch the side of my veins as it pumps onwards and round my body. Listen hard and there’s the sound of my heart, reverberating loud enough to wake the neighbourhood. My fingertips tingling, harness that charge and there’s all the alternative energy the Greens or anyone else requires.
I close my eyes and I’m right there, back in the bearpit, the noise, the glare, the sweat and the passion. This head-spinning swooning tumult, extravagant skill and unstinting commitment thrill that is the finest of derbies. This is football, this is the game, the stuff of hopes and dreams, of legend, of ‘I was there’. Of the game I adore. So why sleep when I have this.
These are the things I said in the car. The car. It’s Bill Nick’s brain, the tactics truck and the Anfield bootroom all rolled into one. A myth some say but it’s real. The car on the way to the ground. One, Harry, be brave, take the game to them so pick Sandro to defend and based upon that platform play Lennon instead of Rafa. They don’t like up’em, Mr Redknapp sir. Love Hud and Rafa, don’t get me wrong, but in the car, I’m master of the universe. Play Pav and Crouch together up front. Two, speculation about Arsenal’s frame of mind may have kept the football media in business this past few days but it’s out the window if they score early. So don’t let them do that. Us? We’ll be up for it, we’re past the stage of taking it easy, of waiting for things to happen rather than making them happen, of sitting back early on.
Three, and I despise myself for saying this, but of all the great strikers in the league, there is one I fear: Van Persie. He’s seldom been fit against us of late, but he’s dangerous. Four, risk Kaboul at right-back? He’ll attack, I like Kaboul. Too much of a gamble? I would have.
We’re off and I confess, my mind or part of it is elsewhere, still processing the day, not quite up for the derby. Most unusual. In the old days, the fans would be packed in early, had to get in, queue and stand, not the maroon bar stuttering across the screen. So we would sing to salute the combatants and pass the time. The atmosphere established way before kick off. None of that now. The whistle is the switch, it’s still there, just have to hang on, it’s a proper derby after all. The analysts bray about league position and next season but we know this is about about white versus red, as it should be, as was ever. Nothing else matters. First tackle, muscle and pain, noise and anger. It’s the whistle that starts it, it’s this first tackle. A proper derby.
We’re off and we can do it. Take the game to them and we can do it. Don’t concede possession and we can do it. We’re self-confident, bright, rested after a week off. Take the game to them. Tonight the streets are ours.
Now hang on, just get hold of it. keep the ball, don’t them get hold of it. You know what they do when they have it, knock it around like they own the place, so keep it. I said keep it, keep it Tom, Tom keep it. Where did he come from, where’s the defence, so much room. Only Walcott, showpony, can’t finish….
All over us. There’s only red, passing around us. This can’t be happening. never mind keep the ball, can’t get it in the first place. There, from nothing, great ball, Charlie was it? Bang, what a shot, Rafa top class player, first time on the run, made for him by an inch perfect pass but so much to do from there. So much for the car.
A relief, we’re back now. But this isn’t right, can’t get it never mind keep it. Ref, oi ref, stop the match, count them, they’ve one extra man. Tom, TOM don’t give it away, pass to a white shirt not the crowd, for goodness sake, Tom, we need you tonight. Close him down, he’s brilliant tonight, christ he has more pressure in a training 5-a-side. Where is everyone? Where’s the midfield, the defence had the best view in the house and for free. This can’t be happening. Come ON.
Harry, Arsene’s mugged you tonight, old son. You’re sitting there, arms folded, maybe Arsene can lend you a water bottle ‘cos the pressure must be building up. Let off a bit of steam for once, he’s done you good and proper there. Nasri and Walcott wide, then they come in so we’re outnumbered. Rafa, get back, Bale, back. Rafa, this is the derby, not a night for strolling, we’ve two up front so you have to come back even if you don’t want to. Fabregas unmarked and untroubled, running things. Luka and the Zeppelin against four or five. Out-thought and outnumbered.
Walcott again. I’m right behind the line of the shot, it’s in until a late curve, like a misread putt at Augusta. Benny – somewhere. Daws looks around in bewilderment and despair. Me too. Bale offers hope, always with Bale, some hope and a chance or two, but Sagna has him more often than not. A cock-up, no danger then it’s three and no hope. never mind the tactics, where the hell was everyone? Van Persie and the car…
It’s getting nasty, the crowd are fractious and appointing blame, Hud especially, Gomes comes out and does little wrong but there is a gasp of anxiety accompanying every sortie from his line. Then some hope with a clean crisp strike from Hud, he’s not had a good one but there’s some redemption, first time and unstoppable.
How did that happen? A Gallas cock-up. Haven’t written that before. I think, wasn’t watching fully to be honest, glanced elsewhere, in my head Gallas, so danger cleared. There, on the scoreboard at half -time, the damning evidence. Like the rest, trooped off, only one down but lucky to be only one. This professional, like the rest of them, knew we had been given a hell of a going-over. Like the fans, they knew. Battered like a Scottish Mars Bar.
The story of the second half is about Spurs in the ascendancy, of Lennon flying as if his feet never touched the ground, of Modric driving on in the centre, of Huddlestone finding his range, of Crouch occupying their back four. But I close my eyes, and amidst the bedlam I see William Gallas. I see a face I loathed. I see a man who in the twilight of his career could have taken a pot of cash and an easy life somewhere in Europe, sun on his back, in leagues where players strolled rather than clashed and clattered. I see a man who played the match of his life against Arsenal at the Emirates, yet now makes a potentially catastrophic error, who surely is on the way down.
I see a man, a real footballer, who absolutely refuses to accept defeat. Not only that, who refuses to give of anything less than his best. Where others collapse and feel sorry for themselves, a man spurred on to atone for his error. A man who played most of the half in pain but carried on. Who limped away late in the game after treatment, a man who could have been forgiven for taking it easy at the end of an exhausting match, but who when late danger appeared dashed across at full tilt to cover and tackle. As he had throughout the half, alone almost, stretched at the back as we pressed onwards, he dug out a header facing his goal, two, three, four times a toe in the box and away. One on one, he won them all. Who would not give up. I see a real footballer.
On the left, Cesc probes, searching for a weakness. Luka, alert, comes across, parries and takes the ball. Cesc is having none of that, won’t allow Luka to escape. And so they slug it out, the two masters of midfield head to head, oblivious as others look on, first Luka then Cesc, then Luka. Eventually Spurs scramble it away, but in that moment, Luka stole his powers. From then on, Luka reigned, gimlet-eyed focus against weary hope. From then, energy flowed from red into white. Sure there were times when the balance momentarily tipped the other way, how can there not be with a player like that, but Fabragas and his lieutenant Nasri were drained.
Fabregas versus Modric in the middle. two of the best midiflers in Europe, a deul under the lights. First half, Luka labours while Cesc glides. Second, Luka has it. Luka, born to have the ball at his feet, the picture of Luka incomplete unless the ball is at his feet, spindly frame hunched over the ball, he moves it it on back to me, first touch moves it on, now see I’m here, now back again. watch me now, lost it but get it back all in the mind run but run here, here to where the ball will be, here, where I am, and I’m away again. Watch me, do as I do, watch me play like me play to me and we will be victorious. The boots fly in on the shins, up and over, pick yourself up and take it, take it to them. Bring them on, take it to them.
Rafa’s on the ball now, looking for it higher up the field, not dropping back where he is wasted. This is where he’s dangerous. Defence? Go for it now, this is what you do, this is your game. The reds are pressed back now, minds occupied with other matters. The fouls come in. Cards don’t matter, they’re rattled. Get at them, rattle a few cages. Crowd baying, seeing foul play everywhere, baying for free-kicks. baying for blood. Fans scent weakness better than a tiger on the prowl.
Tom’s found his game, first touch and on, lovely touches. Lennon’s brightened it all up and we don’t miss Bale, injured in a legitimate clash, heavy but the keeper played the ball first. I think. Head’s in a whirl, it;s so fast, frenetic but there’s method here. Pass and move and it’s us now, not them, playing at the tempo that suits us.
Modric releases Rafa, what a chance. perfect ball, so close. Long ball Benny, Lennon has them beat, from nothing, into the box, keeper comes he’s late going to be late too late, lovely late too late. Lennon arms and legs, Rafa outwits the keeper, puts right not left as per usual.
A blur, it’s all a breathless blur. Kaboul on the right, cross and the keeper has it. Someone swept it goalwards, Luka I think, I don’t know it’s all a breathtaking thrilling stomach churning wouldn’t have it any other way blur. Crouch’s header saved, go for the corner Crouchie, the corner not straight ahead. Sandro on, picks up the tempo right away, bursts forward,keeper sits on it, he had little idea. Shot from someone else produces a flying save. Dizzy with exhilaration, can’t remember the precise order, just know these things happened.
Know that now I’m and screaming, deep deep down lungs full of great gusts of air, a roar to carry our team onwards, a roar to exorcise the ghosts of a bad week and bad times, Lungs cleansed, emptied of decades of the detritus of city living. Missed and I twist backwards, contorted in the despair that only being so close that close can bring. Acclaiming every last challenge, howling in rage at every foul. This is the game, this is football, this is my Spurs.
Know that Arsenal pumped it forward, know that Dawson would win everything, and he did, for the whole of the second half. Benny, much maligned Benny. 5live saying we had a problem with our full backs. Dixon has said this before. Benny’s problem is that sometimes he is isolated from his centre halves. Part of this is because of the way we play, not his fault. We attack and he’s left isolated, no midfield cover, so he has to come out. Last night he let Walcott get inside him, hence the goal and the chance. Then, he altered his positioning, tucking in so Walcott had to go wide. Second half, Benny was left one on one, and he came out on top every time. He was everywhere down that left, passing superb, long and short, twice late on he ran back and did enough to stop the shot. Brilliant Benny, just brilliant.
Arshavin and Bentdner on, on the ropes but the enemy won’t lie down. Wenger’s shrewd – going for the win. I’m worried but I know this is in keeping with this bedlam harem scarem hold it give it run have it back game. Arshavin in front of me, tousled hair and reddened cheeks, like a 5 year old rushing out to play after a bad day at the barber,. but there’s danger here. Kaboul galloping down our left, there are gaps. Wenger knows, he knows. First tackle Kaboul pinches it. It’s on its way, it’s first time or no time now and Younis is on his game. First touch and it’s away but my gaze holds the Russian’s for a fleeting second. I look him in the eye: it’s Ok, he doesn’t fancy it, not this frantic spellbinding game. Could be the best game he’s ever played in but he’s not up for it. We’re OK.
So many chances, we could have, should have. We needed the points, after all. This morning, let’s leave the analysis, the tables, the Champions League, just for a few hours. For this was one of the great derbies in the forty plus years I’m been watching them. Thrilling, riveting, unpredictable dirty brilliance. This is why I love the game so.
6am, can’t sleep, have to write. But where to begin?