London Calling

Rob Shepherd on being a Hammer rather than a Gooner, brawling with Martin Keown – and the value Arsenal bets for the months ahead

I could easily have been an Arsenal fan. In the late Sixties there were no such things as proper replica shirts, so with Christmas looming my mum set out to buy something resembling an authentic West Ham top – to no avail. She eventually decided to compromise, and under the tree I was left holding a red shirt with white sleeves.

My dad wasn’t impressed either. He must have been the one who stuck the shirt in the twin tub and made sure the dye ran so the sleeves turned pink and it had to be thrown away. Had he not been such a hardened Hammer, then who knows? I guess I could have started running round the garden kicking a ball and pretending to be Frank McLintock rather than Bobby Moore.

But to be honest, Arsenal simply weren’t that interesting to a kid growing up in northeast London. They’d last won a trophy, the league title, in 1953 and had just been humiliated by Third Division Swindon in the 1967 League Cup final. West Ham, on the other hand, had lifted the FA and European Cup Winners’ cups in the Sixties and, of course, the big one – the World Cup.

Oi, Shepherd – outside, now!

Arsenal, on the other hand, were the butt of all jokes. Eric Morecambe loved to mock them in his act, hissing their name as a by-word for rubbish. In my area, although some kids supported Manchester United, it was really a question of whether you followed Tottenham – still enjoying their glory, glory days – or West Ham. Arsenal? No way! What were they ever going to win? By the time they had won their first Double I had that claret and blue jersey and it was far too late to switch allegiances.

Ironically, in the 20 years I’ve worked as a football hack I’ve seen far more Arsenal than West Ham games. Although it’s been a sheer pleasure to cover Arsene Wenger, it was hard going at times when George Graham was in charge. And without doubt the worst part was having to deal with Martin Keown.

During Bruce Rioch’s brief reign I turned up to their training ground one Friday only for David Platt to warn me Keown was on the warpath over something I had written. I thought Platty was winding me up, but a few minutes later Keown burst through the door and offered me outside. He was foaming at the mouth and jabbing his finger towards my chest. Thankfully, Paul Merson acted as peacemaker and saved me from a mauling.

I wasn’t so fortunate four years ago. After a European game, Keown was walking towards the car-park when he spotted me and suddenly the red mist descended. Keown stormed over, ranting about an England piece I wrote the previous season. Before I had a chance to offer an explanation, he wrestled me to the ground. Ray Parlour intervened before Keown did any real damage, but he needed the help of a security guard. And Keown could never understand why his team-mates (normally behind his back for obvious reasons) called him Mad Martin.

Arsenal are currently missing a player like Keown, whatever his faults. With Patrick Vieira sold, the Gunners lack a leader. And while Thierry Henry remains a joy to watch, the mesmerising football Arsenal produced when they won the title two years ago has dramatically faded. During that period there was a strong argument to suggest the brand of fast, free-flowing football they produced was the best ever seen by an English club side. Certainly glamorous enough to persuade any undecided London kid that an Arsenal shirt was the one to wear.

But they have slipped so dangerously into Chelsea’s slipstream they may have to win the Champions League for the first time to be sure they make the competition next season. A top-four finish in the Premiership is by no means guaranteed. Bet365 reckons they still have a good chance Betting on Football of at least finishing runners up, pricing them at 6/4. I’m not so sure. The unthinkable, a finish outside the top four, is only 10/1. In their heyday that would have been more like 66/1.

Au revoir, Thierry?

As Wenger admits, failure to qualify would be a catastrophe for the club. It would both seal Henry’s departure to Barcelona and have devastating financial consequences as they move into a new stadium. In eight years of Champions League football, Arsenal have reached the quarter-finals only twice. However, perversely, as they struggle to match the standards they have set on the domestic front they could at last find the focus they have lacked when it’s got down to the nitty-gritty in Europe. And, as Liverpool proved last season, anything can happen in the knockout stages.

You can get a reasonably generous 12/1 on them betting on Champions League, and I reckon they would stand an even better chance if they ditched those ridiculous redcurrant shirts. If they looked like Arsenal they might just start playing like the Arsenal we have all come to admire, if not love.