FOOTBALL COMMENTARY Helder signals a rise in standards

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The Independent Online
It has been a lot of fun imagining the fixtures - away to Grimsby, a London derby with Brentford, Peterborough at Highbury. But it is not going to happen.

When push comes to shove at the end of a Premiership season, it is rarely the fat cats who are squeezed through the relegation trap-door. On Saturday Arsenal, arguably the grandest fat cat of all, became the first of this years' troubled titans to signal their escape.

Everton, unfortunate in defeat to the leaders, Manchester City and Aston Villa can be expected to follow suit. Remember last year, when Tottenham, Everton and City all dwelt perilously in and around the relegation zone. And who went down? Sheffield United, Oldham and Swindon.

Discounting Newcastle, who have only recently re-emerged as a force, only two of the major, "big city" clubs have been relegated in the last dozen seasons, Manchester City (twice) and Aston Villa. Both quickly returned and neither are in first rank anyway. Not since 1977, when Tottenham were relegated, have one of the traditional "big five" (Merseyside, north London and Manchester United) been so humiliated.

Arsenal's stunning 5-1 rout of Norwich City - an April 1 scoreline if ever there was - vividly illustrated why such teams rarely go down. When the season gets tight, when injuries and suspensions pile up and confidence goes down, the Arsenals of the game reach for the cheque-book, the Norwichs plunder their youth team.

Arsenal's first and last goals were made by George Graham's final signing, the Dutchman Glenn Helder. Their first and third were scored by his penultimate one, John Hartson. Chris Kiwomya, the third part of his valedictory £6m spending spree, was on the bench. Of the four players who came through the ranks in the Arsenal team, Steve Morrow, at 24, was the youngest. Norwich fielded five of their former youth team, all younger than Morrow, three of them only 19. The difference showed.

Hartson, admittedly, is not 20 until Wednesday either, but it is clear that he is no ordinary teenager. Last Wednesday he made his debut for Wales in Bulgaria; on Saturday he could have claimed a hat-trick in the opening 13 minutes, and on Thursday he will be up against Sampdoria's experienced international defender, Pietro Vierchowod.

It is quite a step up for a player who only moved from Luton in January and was bought as a long-term investment. But, as Stewart Houston, Arsenal's manager, noted "he has a presence. Only certain players can play at big clubs, you have to be `up for it' all the time. He is."

The win was a relief for Houston after four successive Premiership defeats and strong rumours that his job has been offered to - and accepted - by Bruce Rioch, of Bolton.

It was also a welcome fillip for Thursday's European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final against Sampdoria at Highbury. Not that success in the competition will guarantee Houston an extended tenure, as David Dein, the club's vice- chairman, underlined in a newspaper interview yesterday. Ray Wilkins, now managing Queen's Park Rangers, is the latest candidate. He, not Houston, is said to be the players' choice.

Maybe, but Houston certainly had no trouble motivating his players on Saturday. Sampdoria's spies - Houston saw them play in Naples yesterday - watched Hartson sidefoot home from Helder's precise cross after four minutes. Lee Dixon then scored a rare and unlikely goal when Andy Marshall, the Norwich goalkeeper, was distracted when Hartson just failed to connect with his cross. Hartson then ran on to Dixon's neatly weighted through ball for the third and the game seemed over.

But Jamie Cureton slid in Darren Eadie's cross and, as tension entered Arsenal's game, Norwich looked capable of reducing the deficit. At times Arsenal looked fragile, notably when Robert Ullathorne, the left-back, glided by Tony Adams as if he were a statue.

But, with Eadie fading, Arsenal locked up the second half and Paul Merson, who had earlier seen Marshall tip a shot on to the bar, drove through the keeper's arms from Martin Keown's deflected cross. In injury time Rob Newman capped an awful day by heading Helder's cross past his own goalkeeper.

Helder was quite magical. One moment, when he bewitched Carl Bradshaw by the corner-flag, brought applause from both sets of players and a standing ovation from the crowd. The trick deserved a wider audience but, if there is a benefit from it being omitted by Match of the Day, it is that defenders will take longer to work it out. Better defences may shackle him, but he already promises to be one of the hits of next season.

Helder's brilliance, and the five goals, are reward for one of the most faithful supports in the country. Arsenal's season has lumbered from boring to catastrophic, with occasional European highlights, yet only Manchester United have a better average attendance. There were more than 36,000 at Highbury on Saturday and the bulk of the few empty seats were in the small visitors' area.

Highbury, more than most grounds, has a big-match aura, even when the game is a mid-table meander. "Arsenal may not be the Arsenal of old but, if some of the magic is missing, there is still a magnetic touch about the club." That is taken from the Chelsea v Arsenal programme of 40 years ago but it still rings true. Even if you detest executive boxes and seated stands, they have been more tastefully done at Highbury than most places and the attendance figures are a testament to the ground's allure, even when it has not been matched by the team.

This is why it would not be in the wider interests of the game if clubs like Arsenal were relegated. Sure, it would be fun for a season but, long- term, such theatres ought to be filled.

Goals: Hartson (4) 1-0; Dixon (6) 2-0; Hartson (13) 3-1; Cureton (32) 3-1; Merson (75) 4-1; Newman (og, 90) 5-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Bartram; Dixon, Bould, Adams, Winterburn; Merson, Hillier, Morrow (Keown, 22), Helder; Wright, Hartson (Kiwomya, 87). Substitute not used: Harper (gk).

Norwich City (4-4-2): Marshall; Bradshaw, Newsome, Newman, Ullathorne (Sutch, 41); Adams, Johnson. Bowen, Eadie; Cureton, Ward. Substitutes not used: Brownrigg, Rhodes (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).