Football: Flatts shines in midfield mire

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The Independent Online
Manchester City. .0

Arsenal. . . . . .1

WHOEVER spins the records at Maine Road has a sense of humour. As the teams reappeared after a soporific first half, 'Hope of Deliverance' was blaring out. It proved a forlorn hope for City, but a goal created cleverly by the unsung Mark Flatts renewed Arsenal's belief that they could redeem their Premier League campaign.

George Graham's side had last taken full points nine games ago, a run which, in most seasons, would have put them out of contention. Instead, as their former striker Niall Quinn suggested, Manchester United and Aston Villa might be advised to look over their shoulders. The Irishman, still without a goal against the club who discarded him three years ago, found his grudging respect for them reinforced.

'They're a good, resilient side and, unfortunately for us, they were better organised than they have been lately,' Quinn said. 'In some ways being at Arsenal was like being in the army, and they're still more disciplined and regimented than teams like us who try to show a bit of flair. But they are capable of stringing together six or seven wins - you rule them out at your peril.'

Quinn, who volleyed over his team's only first-half chance ('I hit it too well') and saw David Seaman save one-handed from their sole opportunity in the second, felt City tried to go through the middle too much. Which was unsurprising given that the onus to switch the focus of attack was on two relatively inexperienced midfielders, Garry Flitcroft and Fitzroy Simpson, whose most conspicuous asset is lung power.

The Arsenal engine-room, manned by David Hillier and John Jensen, was hardly an advert for the finer arts either, and one wondered what the watching Liam Brady made of the inelegant impasse. It is all very well for managers such as Graeme Souness to harp on about 'hunger' and 'desire' - not to mention the ludicrously over-used 'attitude' - but they can only take you so far unless allied to skill, imagination and vision.

Fortunately, Flatts is still nave enough, at 19, to want to leave defenders on their backsides and cross from the byline rather than check back or hump the ball in from deep positions. With time running out, he jinked past two challenges and found that Paul Merson, Arsenal's outstanding player, had arrived in the six-yard box in the hope of delivery. A deft diving header did the rest.

The margin of victory might have been greater had the referee not ruled, to general disbelief, that David Brightwell's last- minute foul on Kevin Campbell was outside the area. 'I'm just glad the score wasn't 0-0 at the time,' Graham said, almost biting his lip after an expensive outburst against another official recently. He measured Arsenal's effectiveness as Bill Shankly used to do with Liverpool: by the way they kept the home crowd quiet.

Without denigrating Arsenal, there was another reason for the subdued atmosphere, which may also explain why Quinn and his cohorts scored eight goals in their last two away matches but have won only four of 15 at home. Merson's goal came at the rebuilt Platt Lane end, which was empty, save for hundreds of boxes containing tip-up seats. Cardboard City is Maine Road's passion-killing equivalent of the Highbury mural.

Goal: Merson (79) 0-1.

Manchester City: Coton; Ranson, Phelan, Simpson, Curle, D Brightwell, White, Sheron, Quinn, Flitcroft, Holden. Substitutes not used: Reid, Mike, Margetson (gk).

Arsenal: Seaman; Dixon, Winterburn, Hillier, Bould, Adams, Jensen, Campbell, Smith, Merson, Flatts. Substitutes not used: O'Leary, Carter, Miller (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).