Thursday 8 December 2016

Diehards fume while gourmands make merry in the boxes

Tommy Conlon

Published 07/02/2016 | 14:00

Mesut Ozil tried his best to create a breakthrough for Arsenal against Southampton Photo: Reuters / Dylan Martinez
Mesut Ozil tried his best to create a breakthrough for Arsenal against Southampton Photo: Reuters / Dylan Martinez

The Arsenal fans on the North Bank were cold, anxious and frustrated by the continuing stalemate out on the pitch. It was Tuesday night last at the Emirates. Arsenal were playing into the North Bank end for the second half so the home supporters were seeing plenty of goalmouth action up close. But Southampton were stubborn, disciplined and well-organised. They were not going to cough up a cheap goal. Arsenal would have to take it from them.

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But chance after chance was being blocked, saved, cleared or squandered. With 15 minutes to go the breakthrough goal still hadn't materialised. After one skirmish, Southampton centre half José Fonte went down and stayed down, close to the endline, right in front of several thousand frazzled Gooners.

They couldn't have been more compassionate if they tried. Convinced that the Portuguese veteran was stalling for time and breaking up Arsenal's momentum, their restraint in these harrowing circumstances bordered on noble. They merely called him a "wankah", a "facking tossah", and a "kant".

The game was held up for a good five minutes. By the time Fonte got to his feet their saintly forbearance was starting to fray a little. They began chanting "Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!" It didn't go unnoticed by the player. He turned towards them and pointed to his head, now swathed in a turban bandage. Then he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, 'What can I do? I'm genuinely hurt here?' Sad to report, his appeal for a little understanding fell on deaf ears. "Wankah!" "Facking tossah!" Et cetera, et cetera.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the corporate boxes was presumably a tad more convivial, its patrons a tad less exposed to the cutting wind. Up there, members of the WM Club and their guests were enjoying a cocktail reception followed by a five-course a la carte menu "overseen" by French master-chef Raymond Blanc.

We know this because we happened upon a glossy brochure on our way in that outlined the array of entertainment packages available at the Emirates. The WM Club, it tells us, "pays tribute to the revolutionary 3-2-2-3 formation introduced in the 1920s by Herbert Chapman and his team captain Charlie Buchan." Membership of the WM Club this season cost £12,030 for a seat over the half-way line, with lower prices for less advantageous locations. Prices do not include the cost of your club level season ticket. Anyway, the WM is a "private members-only 'club within a club' (that) represents the pinnacle of Club Level hospitality."

Only a notch down the hospitality scale is the Foundry, named after the club's late 19th century origins in the Royal Arsenal Armament Factory. The menu here is merely four-course but is also designed by Mssr Blanc. The premium Foundry membership price for 2015/16 was £11,105, season ticket not included. Then there are the four 'corner' bars exclusively available to club level season ticket holders.

The first half had enabled us to peruse the brochure at our leisure, in between keeping an eye out for Shane Long's movements in the Southampton attack. There wasn't a lot going on at the other end. Arsenal had come out to play as if there was nothing at stake. Everyone agreed beforehand that three points were mandatory at this stage of a volatile title race. The home players, however, did not seem to be similarly concerned about the situation. They looked low on energy and low on motivation throughout that first 45.

Claude Callegari was beside himself with vexation when he spoke to Arsenal Fan TV outside the Emirates afterwards. Claude is known as an Arsenal superfan. He told talkSPORT radio last year that he'd even left the wife over his devotion to the club. So on Tuesday night he wasn't holding back.

The team's lack of effort in the first half had left him incredulous. "I mean I'm sick and tired of it. We're going to facking blow it again because we haven't got the facking mentality. I mean we're going for the title and it's like a facking opera (in there). They upped the pace in the second half, why haven't we got that facking tempo from the start? They haven't got the mentality and we haven't got any facking leaders out there as well. Where was the drive tonight? We're going for the facking title!" Could be wrong, but one would doubt that Claude is a member of the WM Club.

Mesut Özil had been the marvellous exception. Not known for his fighting qualities, the German showed a different kind of leadership, almost always with the ball at his feet. He kept demanding it and kept trying to make something happen. And he did it with a style and elegance which was the abiding pleasure of the night.

Özil had one last chance to break the deadlock. As he pulled the trigger a Southampton defender arrived out of nowhere to whip the ball off his toe. It was a superb sliding tackle. At first we thought it was Fonte, a moment of karma in front of those same fans, now clutching their heads in agonised frustration. But it was his defensive partner Virgil van Dijk. Both of them embraced at the final whistle.

The burger vans were busy on the surrounding streets afterwards, the North Bank hoi polloi cursing the team and its manager while queuing for grub that was almost certainly not overseen by Raymond Blanc.

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