Beauty vs The Beast

When I think back to it, it still sends an icy shiver down my spine. It was one of those games that are special, that live long in the memory, and even longer in the heart. Yet whilst it was special, it was also tragic; traumatic; terrifying. How could I be happy about the result, the character, the togetherness, when one of Britain’s brightest prospects had had his leg snapped in two on the way to achieving all this. A confused cocktail of emotions. First there was the cloud. Then there was the silver lining. Then there was the cloud again. Cue pandemonium amongst the gooner nation.

Stoke City v Arsenal was arguably the most talked about Premier League match of the season last year. So much occurred, of which so much was symbolic, that every gooner has fabricated an almost obsessive bond with that match. For not only representing our superiority in the way in which clubs have to resort to brute violence to combat us, but also the way in which the team grew-up that day.

It began just like any other Stoke V Arsenal encounter. A long, bullet-like Rory Delap throw somehow found Danny Pugh on the far post who duly tapped in. Stoke were in front within minutes and apparently Arsenal had learnt nothing. We had seen this before and, it seemed, we were about to see it all over again. The headlines in the next day’s papers were already writing themselves. Talk of Arsenal not being strong enough or gritty enough for the title were bound to arise once more.

Yet when Bendtner leapt to power in a pinpoint header later on in the first-half, everyone seemed to get the feeling that this team were different. More mature? Perhaps. More physical? Possibly. More of a team? Certainly. That goal roused the troops, and was met with unbridled glee. It was a headed goal, from a cross, and thats what made it more special. It proved we had the resources to alter our game plan and turn to a Plan B, if you like.

Though what ever had happened in the match, and whatever else was going to happen, in terms of football, all was soon rendered unimportant. To this day, it’s difficult to talk about it, and I will never forget the reaction from the rest of the pub I was situated in. A collective hush fell over the place, a communal flinch followed by despair as Ryan Shawcross careered into Aaron Ramsey, leaving the young welshman ashen faced, his ankle hanging at a precarious angle. The immediate reaction from the rest of the players was something else. Sol Campbell, a symbol of Arsenal’s character over the last decade, furious. Fabregas, his third experience of an horrific injury to a teammate, distraught. Thomas Vermaelen, an exemplary tackler and classy Centre-Half, aghast. It is rare you catch glimpses into window’s of a player’s soul during their entire career, let alone one match. But in that moment, as Ryan Shawcross wept and Aaron Ramsey was stretchered off, aided by an oxygen mask, something happened to the rest of that team; they evolved. Once feeble, underachieving, often isolated teammates, the group was now united. They had a collective motive. A collective hunger to avenge their companion and do it by facing adversity straight in the face. Where their predecessors, and in some cases, former selves, had shriveled in the wake of Eduardo’s horrific leg-break, this group were different. With Cesc Fabregas now valiantly standing where Gallas once betrayed his troops, the team were hurt, yet determined not to let happen what took place in the months proceeding Eduardo’s injury as our grip on the title was conceded.

I cant move on from this swimmingly without making some comment about the tackle itself. Whilst Martin Taylor’s on Eduardo was a disgusting, studs up lunge, this was less calculated, and to this day many Arsenal despising humans believe it wouldn’t have even merited a red card had Ramsey not broken his leg. This is somehow missing the point. Ramsey did break his leg, and that is simply down to the fact that Shawcross made that challenge with excessive force, at stupid speeds and with a clear lack of intelligence. Amongst all this the challenge was on the half-way line, and miles away from winning the ball. It’s almost farcical that people were even considering to sympathize with this weeping brute, when Ramsey, in the form of his life, was lying crippled on the deck, with his career potentially ruined. Anyone who believes that not to be a shocking tackle needs to think twice about their own grasp on the game, and whether, really, that kind of tackle is acceptable. Alternatively, sit down, shutup and listen to this. Alan Davies’ now notorious tirade after the incident expresses what the entire gooner nation were feeling in a far more succinct and passionate manner than I could ever hope to portray in writing.

It was brutal. It did scar the players. It did make their blood boil and their stomachs shrivel in equal measure, yet all we saw from this group of players was passion, cohesion, desire and togetherness. It was arguably the night that made this team what they are today. It brought them together. It provided a shared motive to destroy the opposition. The Arsenal spirit was there. Lead by Cesc, the troops were invigorated and the newly impassioned group went on to achieve one of the most symbolic victories in Arsenal’s recent history. The celebrations spoke for themselves after Fabregas’ 91st and Vermaelen’s 93rd minute goals. There, in that moment, was a personification of the character and spirit this team can call on when the going gets tough. We have since seen it, and heard it spoken about by Wenger, numerous times. And it was forged on that gray, gray day in Stoke.

Tonight, as the Premier League title race begins to reach its climax, similar levels of energy and hunger will be necessary if we are to close the gap on United. Shawcross will, deservingly, receive a torrid reception. A reception that would have been worse had Arsenal not prevented the fans from supplying 500 whistles in order to bombard the ex-United player with a hellish reception. As we have seen before, the team are far more impressive when the fans are unanimously behind them, and with this collective target, a raucous atmosphere can be expected tonight. The 3 points will hopefully follow.

 

 

 

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