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FA Carling Premiership, 25/9/99
Weary but proud
By Ian Grant

In the street during the week, and there's the unmistakeable rumble of a pumped-up car stereo. You know the kind of thing - not so much a sound as a vibration, trembling waves of bass rattling the windows of surrounding buildings. Pretty much the only reason I'd want to own a car, to be honest.

The rumble got closer and it felt awesome. I tried to identify the record from its shockwaves. Something cool, no doubt - some aggro NY hip-hop, or steel reinforced tech step, or slack lazy dub, or whatever. You don't buy a stereo like that if you're not going to make good use of it, right?

It was "Mama Mia" by sodding Abba....

That'll be some kind of metaphor for the first half at Highbury, then. For all the intimidating, ominous thunder that precedes the arrival of this Arsenal team - most notably with the endless, movie-trailer announcement of the line-up before kickoff - the reality proved to be rather less terrifying. For forty-five minutes, little Watford - line-up gabbled out over the PA in about ten seconds flat, as if to say "Oh yeah, somebody else turned up as well!" - made their hosts look very ordinary indeed.

We ought to feel proud of ourselves. Some will say that we came to defend and lacked ambition, I would say that we came knowing that we would have to defend and that attempting to compete on the same pitch as Arsenal's international all-stars is ambition enough for now. Besides, one glance at a team that included four essentially attacking players - Kennedy, Wooter, Smart and Foley - ought to tell you that we intended to at least distract Arsenal.

In that, we probably failed - only the excellent, industrious Smart was really effective. But the bravery of the team selection was transferred to the performance. We've become so used to seeing this that it's easy to take it for granted and difficult to do it justice. But, against a truly world class strikeforce, we were organised and strong and determined. It was so nearly enough.

There was just one lapse in the first forty-five. It came early on, caught out by a quick free kick that found Tony Adams completely unmarked - he will feel that he should've forced Alec Chamberlain into a less comfortable save. Apart from that, we were hugely impressive, passing our sternest test so far with flying colours.

Arsenal found themselves restricted to snatched shots from around the edge of the box, none of which required Chamberlain's involvement. Kanu was wide, Overmars likewise with a mis-hit effort and again ten minutes later. Parlour was closest, blazing just over from twenty yards after a corner was cut back to find him loitering in space.

The rest - apart from a Vieira header at Chamberlain after half an hour - was drab and uninspiring. Which suited us rather more than the massed ranks of near-silent home fans. With Steve Palmer tracking the midfield runners superbly, Arsenal were simply unable to find enough space to play their flowing football. And when they did get past Palmer's dogged resistance, they came up against the gritted teeth of the back four - beat the likes of Mark Williams if you can, but they'll be right back at you until they get their way.

There was only one team in it, of course. Scrappy and chaotic in our approach play, except for Smart's neat and purposeful work, we never established any pattern. Fitting, then, that our best chance was created by an Arsenal player - Vieira's lazy, looping back-header after twenty minutes putting Manninger in trouble, Smart winning the bruising aerial challenge but unable to get any direction on the ball and seeing it bounce wide.

The longer it went on, the more our confidence grew. Frustration began to set in among the unimpressed and over-expectant home fans, and the last five minutes of the half saw us gain some measure of control. For the first time, we were passing the ball to yellow-shirted colleagues rather than away from red-shirted opponents, playing our own game rather than denying Arsenal's. Micah Hyde's rising shot just before the interval ended a lovely pass-and-move session, briefly suggesting that we might be able to hope for more from the match than mere survival.

Such optimism didn't last long into the second half. Arsenal were transformed after the break, rampant at times and demanding emergency measures from our heroes. It was frantic, unrecognisable from the dull stalemate of before.

Henry - thoroughly eclipsed by the lanky genius of Kanu, but still a threat - blasted a shot at Chamberlain's near post, bringing the first bit of brilliance from the Watford keeper after three minutes. The corner was half-cleared and then returned to find Adams lurking in a world of his own, Chamberlain again stunning to block the fierce shot. Adams pounced on the rebound and looped the ball across, Henry attempting an overhead but hitting it over the target. Yeah, this is what we expected.

Again, however, defensive slackness might've cost Arsenal dear. Instead, unfortunately, it ended up costing us - Keown failed to deal with a long punt from Williams, and Smart was injured in another fifty-fifty challenge with Manninger. The striker was substituted soon afterwards, Ngonge's pace proving to be little compensation for the loss of our target man.

Arsenal resumed their tempestuous assault, and the opening goal became an inevitability. Ljungberg's low cross was prodded wide from less than five yards by Kanu at the far post, the distraction of Gibbs' do-or-die challenge his only excuse. But if that was a bad miss, the Nigerian's subsequent involvement was blinding - a sublime shuffle to wrong-foot defenders, followed by an instant swerving drive from twenty-two yards that had smacked against the upright and rebounded away before anyone else had even noticed what was happening. That's class - if you come to Highbury and lose to a goal like that would've been, you know you've done all you can. Kanu headed an Overmars cross against the same post a minute later, just to emphasise the point.

And so it continued, Arsenal camping in front of the North Bank and hardly threatened by occasional Watford breaks (although Ngonge and Foley ought to have made rather more of one counter-attack). Overmars and Kanu sent screaming shots off-target; Robinson hurled himself in front of Parlour to block. Some kids called Suker and Bergkamp arrived as substitutes - Suker'll be a decent enough player if he learns how to finish; Bergkamp was pretty nondescript, a bit like Geoff Pitcher or something, and needs to work harder if he's to have much of a future as a professional. (Leaving humour and bravado aside, for a second...we were watching Suker and Bergkamp and Kanu and Overmars against Palmer and Page and Williams and Gibbs and Robinson, and the score was still goalless...I mean, bloody hell....)

The minutes ticked by, slower and slower and slower. Still we clung on, the possibility of launching a new section on BSaD entitled "Famous Draws" becoming more realistic by the second. Suker headed weakly at Chamberlain, Overmars drove over from distance. More champagne moments to enjoy - Robinson bashing away at Bergkamp until the Dutchman finally surrendered possession; Palmer bewildered by Bergkamp's extravagant skills in midfield, but refusing to be beaten and eventually tackling back triumphantly.

The pressure refused to subside, but you sensed that we'd already taken everything that Arsenal could throw at us. The dominance of Adams and Keown at set pieces, the darting pace of Overmars, Kanu's trickery, Vieira and Parlour with their breaks from midfield - it didn't matter how we'd survived them all, just that we had survived. And surely, magnificently, we were going to leave Highbury with a point.

Their heads were starting to drop, exasperation taking hold. Suker was denied by Chamberlain with another near post save, and then scooped hopelessly over after a rare moment of defensive disintegration. Keown fired in a drive from long range, which may have indicated desperation but still required a good save from Chamberlain, Kanu unable to get to the rebound under challenge from Page. The clocks on the scoreboards seemed to have slowed to a standstill.

When it came, it came so quickly and innocuously that it took a few seconds to realise that we'd surrendered our hard-earned point without a fight. Another moment of pure class from Kanu, collecting a long throw, twisting past Page, and carefully side-footing the ball in from a tight angle. Brilliant, but savagely disappointing. The visible deflation, in the stands and on the pitch, was understandable - in dumb and simplistic pundits' terms, we didn't "deserve" a draw and Arsenal were clearly the "superior" side...but football is about defending as well as attacking, it's about winning points by countering the opposition as well as out-playing them, and Arsenal fans who've been around for longer than five years ought to know that better than most.

We'd worked our butts off, fought for everything, kept our heads, earned the bits of good fortune we'd experienced - an entirely different and vastly superior performance to the one at West Ham, who wasted chances that Arsenal would've killed for on Saturday. A goalless draw may well have been an "injustice", but it wouldn't have been "undeserved". But we were going to get nothing, and our hearts sank. With a Watford goal always a remote possibility, even when Arsenal were committing extra men forward, there was no real prospect of a late equaliser - the home side simply retreated and shut us out.

The players, weary but proud, were applauded off and rightly so. There won't be many who get so close to a clean sheet at Highbury, and there won't be any who show such monstrous commitment in the attempt. There's no shame here.

The crucial point is that we have to maintain these performances. On Saturday, and a week previously against Chelsea, we put in displays that would've been enough to crush most Premiership sides - lacking goalscoring opportunities, perhaps, but they'll surely come in time and against weaker defences. Yet it's no use as anything other than a morale boost if we can't learn to do it against "most Premiership sides".

Simple fact: you can play like this at Highbury and come away with nothing; you can play like this at Highfield Road and come away with three points. Another simple fact: if we're as motivated and organised as this for the rest of the season, then Premiership survival ought to be a formality.