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Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A legendary day

Bobby


I know it was a few days ago but this is the first chance I've had to actually sit down and type something following the Arsenal Legends v Milan Glorie game on Saturday afternoon. I was extremely disappointed last week that certain names were no longer attending, despite being prominent in the club advertising of the match. I'm sure plenty bought tickets specifically to see Bergkamp and Henry - that was certainly my motivation as I wanted my two boys to be able to say they saw them play. Henry obviously started his new coaching job with Belgium last week, but the absence of Dennis never was explained.
Nevertheless I went to the game with my sons, my Dad, my brothers, my sister-in-law, one nephew and one niece (her first time going to Arsenal). What followed turned out to be a truly special experience for everyone who attended. I really hadn't expected much at all from the day but we were given an absolute treat by all the players and the supporting cast. The most evident thing is the way in which the former players are so full of adoration for Arsenal. Even the ones who are employed to criticise Arsenal on TV are full of love for the footballing institution that is our club. Bob Wilson was interviewed before the game and just listening to him talk about how much he loves Arsenal is enough to get your heart going - he was genuinely emotional about being involved again. Lee Dixon also demonstrated just how pleased he was to be back for the day, albeit unable to still play the game due to a wrecked knee. Liam Brady was also so enthusiastic about being there, even though he sadly admitted he is long past playing.
When the players came out for the kick-off we had David Seaman come towards the North Bank end, as he did for so many years back at Highbury. The reception he got from the crowd really did bring back memories of the old place as the chant of "Seaman, Seaman" went up from just about everyone behind the goal. Seaman reacted to the adulation as he always did in his prime with arms outstretched and thumbs up to the crowd. He wasn't the only one hearing his old song again. Freddie, Robert Pires, Marc Overmars - they all got a moment. 
Overmars showed that everything is relative by demonstrating that his pace later in life is still quicker than whoever his opposition full-back was. If you're too young to have seen Marc Overmars play for Arsenal then just imagine the pace of Theo Walcott, but quicker, and with the ability to destroy a defence all on his own and score goals. The only thing missing from Overmars on Saturday was his obligatory goal, thwarted ultimately by an ageing hamstring as he bore down on Dida in the second-half. 
The defence was the basis for Arsenal winning the game. In Justin Hoyte, Kolo Toure, Pascal Cygan and Nigel Winterburn we had a back-four who were still physically very fit - the only one carrying an ounce of fat was Kolo and he is the one still actually playing at the moment! Both Seaman and Jens Lehmann backed them up with fine saves - big Dave surprised me with his reflexes, while Jens could comfortably still do a squad job at a high level. The penalty save by Lehmann was exceptional in any circumstances. Even better than the defence, however, was the midfield masterclass delivered by Gilberto. My Dad said to me in the first-half that the current defensive midfielders ought to be sat down in front of a film of Saturday's game and told to focus just on what Gilberto does and where he is on the pitch. If ever Wenger let someone go, only to get it seriously wrong, it was Gilberto.
Ray Parlour sadly got himself injured within a couple of minutes, so Gilles Grimandi came on and did Manu Petit's running for him, while the ponytail himself sprayed the passes around from that wand of a left-foot. Freddie Ljungberg buzzed around up front while Robert Pires coasted around the pitch laying the ball off with ease at all times.
Some of the tackles across the pitch were surprisingly committed from both teams. The Italians remain the masters of the cynical trip and/or body-check, while Howard Webb remains the master of failing to know a foul from a decent tackle. Only a cretin like Webb could frustrate me on a day like this.
The game turned with the introduction of Kanu. The man really has not changed since his playing days. He is no slower, really, than he ever was, while his skill on the ball is totally mesmerising. It's easy to overlook just how strong Kanu is and the way he holds people off while in total control of the football is incredible to watch. I was pleased when Lee Dixon mentioned at half-time that one of Kanu's greatest Arsenal performances came when he dropped in to midfield at Anfield just before Christmas 2001 - with Gio Van Bronckhorst sent-off he went on to dominate the game, Liverpool unable to get the ball off him. He scored two good headers on Saturday, and then a penalty to complete a popular hat-trick. I'd still have him in the squad ahead of Sanogo, even though his official age is 40 - there is no way Kanu is only 40!
The highlight of the afternoon came in the shape of the fourth goal. Freddie suddenly burst past the Milan defence to a roar of appreciation from the crowd. Being a quality player he got his head up and played the perfect cross in to the path of an onrushing Bobby to smash the ball in to the net. It was undoubtedly the biggest cheer of the day. There had been a few passing moves that had rolled back the years, still taking the breath away even at a slower pace, but this goal really was the throwback we had been hoping for all day. Robert Pires saluted the crowd as though he had just scored another North London Derby goal and the fans saluted him back. It's fair to say that, even at an advanced age, some of these blokes really have still got it. They might lose some speed, but they don't lose their ability.
Following the total success of the occasion on Saturday I suspect this Arsenal Legends match will become an annual feature, one way or another. The chance to see some of the great AC Milan team of the 90's was also a joy - albeit tempered by not seeing a sadly injured Paolo Maldini. If there is another Arsenal Legends game this time next year I will be doing my best to be there. I'd urge everyone else to take the opportunity to see these greats in the flesh. They won't be able to come back and play forever, so don't miss them while they're still able - in ten years time it might be Denilson and Sanogo...


Not bad for a bloke in his late 50's

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