One night in Stevenage

Arsenal fans seeking meaning after yet another European failure against Bayern Munich need only cast their mind back to a sultry summer’s night in Stevenage.

It was in August 2002, with the ‘double’ won at the end of the previous season after victory at Old Trafford and, here just a few miles north of London up the A1, we had gathered for a pre-season kickabout.

Stevenage, of the humble Conference, needed the money and brought on a bloke near half-time who had paid a couple of hundred quid to charity. He shuffled on in funny looking black boots with a corner about to be taken, and caused such uncertainty in the Arsenal defence that Stevenage equalised. It was the moment that marked the death of the “Arsenal Back Four”.

It also happened to be Pascal Cygan’s first game. ‘To be fair’, Cygan of course wasn’t playing against Bayern on Wednesday night (you felt the sigh of relief as he went off injured against Portsmouth the Saturday before) and is only a symptom of the problem.

Arsenal’s rise to Champions League participation co-incided with the old Back Four fading away. For a brief while there were hopes that an elderly Tony Adams might usher into greatness the likes of Igor Stepanovs but, legend though the Latvian was, those dreams came to nothing. Coach Arsene Wenger went on to shrewdly unload Sol Campbell from Tottenham but confused us by selling Matthew Upson.

Does Wenger know how to work with British players? He doesn’t seem to trust them to be able to provide what he wants. I have no problem with in general Arsenal having an internationalist make-up, but it seems wrong to abandon an area where there is a solid local and national tradition. The back four is a rare part of the park where England are still strong at the moment.

As for Arsenal, I heard about five years ago that someone was writing a book on its Back Four, such was the institution it had become. I’ve heard nothing more of it since and imagine that, if it has appeared, it must be in some dusty corner of the British Museum.

Meanwhile, the thought of one day seeing a mummified Martin Keown in the museum is a grim one, but worth thinking about since he and the Adamses, Dixons and Winterburns of this world deserve their place in our collective memory. Their like will not been seen around Avenell Road or Ashburton Grove ever again.

Smith survives hammering

Fans of good goalkeeping enjoyed Paul Smith’s performance for Southampton against Tottenham at the weekend. With the game so tied up in midfield these days, we rarely see the spectacle of a keeper engaged in heroic one-on-ones with onrushing forwards.

When we do we’re apt to get the ridiculous outcome of that effort by West Brom ’s Russell Hoult in the last round of the FA Cup when, having bravely dived and saved at the feet of a Spurs forward, he had a penalty awarded against him. I suspect had Hoult not also been carried off injured after colliding with the Spurs man, the ref would have sent him off.

Yet Smith’s performance was sad in a way, not only because its kind is so infrequently seen, but also because most of his saves were off a knee or an elbow that he’d flung at the ball. Football keeping today is a position reduced in status to that in, say, handball. Thanks to modern ball “technology”, the best most can do is throw themselves around in the hope of interposing some body part between the ball and goal. The art of good catching - like the Arse Back Four - has long since disappeared.

Fisher of men

It’s true that the late Reverand David Sheppard was more a “fisher of men” than a catcher of edged cricket balls coming at him at 90mph. Hence that line from Freddie Trueman on an ill-fated tour of Australia in the early 60s when Sheppard - having dropped another one in the slips off Trueman’s bowling - was told to keep his hands together like he did in church.

But Sheppard’s death, a day before his seventy-sixth birthday, is further evidence that good guys leave us far too early. The obituaries point out that he refused to tour apartheid South Africa but without quite underlining how pioneering such thought was at the time. Today it’s taken for granted that Nelson Mandela is the greatest guy in the world, but it wasn’t then, and nor had most of us heard of him. Mostly you heard the tiring wail from the members’ pavilion to “keep politics out of sport” and that touring South Africa was the way to reform it.

Earlier still in London when he was curate at St Mary’s church in Islington’s Upper street, he could be counted on to come to our primary school to give out the prizes and, outside the Oval and Lord’s when Sussex were in town, to respond to autograph requests with his neat and flowing signature.

Towards different ends of his career he had the distinction of scoring a century in the 1956 Old Trafford Test against Australia when Jim Laker took 19 wickets, and of being called a “Marxist” by Mrs Thatcher’s government. Most people remember him for his safe pair of hands as a unifying bishop of Liverpool. Other UK cities with a religious divide could have used him as their man in the dog collar.

Dragons on fire

Good to see the Welsh doing so well in the Six Nations, if only to dispose of the theory that they stopped being able to play rugby with the death of coal and steel. Coming straight from the pit or the foundry with their boots and kit tucked under their arms was what made the best players, said this line of argument; later generations of computer programmers and management consultants just weren’t up to it. If this season’s Welsh success extends to the triple crown, it might also lift the increasingly fatalistic mood of our correspondent Huw Richards. He has had this idea in his head that the two of the world’s nations who really care about rugby - Wales and New Zealand - were in danger of going down the tubes together.

Unwise men

Millwall fans aren’t what they were in the tough days of Jack Dash and the dock unions so it was an unequal battle when manager Dennis Wise confronted some in the crowd last week who were giving him a hard time over the team’s performances. Wise is good company in a press conference, though one of those people in whose presence you somehow just keep smiling. From his Wimbledon days I think of him as Vinny’s nastier little mate. Still, if Chelsea make it to the Champions League final in Istanbul this season, memories of Dennis might serve them well in what can be a hostile footballing city. When a Kurd separatist invaded the Stamford Bridge pitch during a Chelsea v Galatasary clash some seasons back it was Wise who brought him down.

Those Feet

David Winner, who wrote for the pink pages in the heyday of FT sport, has a new book out entitled Those Feet (Bloomsbury, £14.99.). At first blush it’s a bit of a bland title, but actually a clever reference to William Blake and memories of school speech nights when the deputy head’s dodgy piano intro led us all to “Jerusalem”. Winner, of Brilliant Orange fame, called in while writing the book to say he was making the connections between football and its deeper roots in the repressed times of Victorian England. But were we ready for its sub-title?: “A Sensual History of English Football”. It looks like it’s going to be more Freud that Fatty Foulke and I await getting into its first chapter - “Sexy Football” - with bated heavy breathing.

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