Football: Passion play enlarges Wenger's understanding

Mike Rowbottom sees the Arsenal manager further his education
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"Perhaps," Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, had ventured before the match, "it will be better if we can forget that it's Tottenham we are playing."

As the Arsenal players cavorted in the rain after their first Premiership victory over Spurs in five attempts, looking as if they had secured the Cup rather than three home points, you had to think: perhaps not.

The players knew, just as every one of the 38,246 spectators present knew, that this was not an ordinary fixture. And that knowledge produced a game full of truly passionate endeavour.

You could see what Wenger was getting at, of course. Since taking over at Arsenal at the end of September, he has had to accommodate his thinking to a series of awkward, local difficulties. For reasons historical and geographical, derby matches disrupt the smooth plane of Premiership fixtures like so many knots in wood.

But, for Arsenal followers, the idea of forgetting it was Tottenham was simply absurd. As absurd as the idea of Tottenham fans forgetting it was Arsenal.

The crowing cries of the Highbury faithful in the tumultuous aftermatch - "3-1, we beat the scum 3-1" to the tune of Blue Moon - brought the encounter down to its most basic level.

As the Arsenal fanzine, Highbury High, expressed it: "Today we welcome Tottenham, who are about as close to a championship side as El Dorado was to Shakespeare." The meaning may not be abundantly clear, but the feeling, with regard to the "cockerel-breasted, lily-white neanderthals" is heartfelt.

"Playing against Spurs is always the special match for us," said Martyn Lane, an East Stand season ticket holder who has supported Arsenal for 20 years. "It's not the same as playing Chelsea or West Ham. It's always got a cup final atmosphere.

"One of the reasons for that is because the clubs are so near to one another. There are a lot of families with Arsenal and Spurs fans. My brother- in- law is a Tottenham supporter."

Clive Barnes, of Horsham, a Tottenham supporter for 29 of his 34 years, was similarly unconvinced by the Wenger line. "This is the one," he said before hostilities commenced. "You rarely see good games - it's all 150 mph stuff - but this is the biggest moment of the season for us."

For him, the finale to the match will have been the stuff of nightmares, with Tony Adams, the quintessence of Arsenal, striking the decisive goal two minutes from time with - feel that knife turn in the wound - a left- foot volley.

While the Arsenal fans adore the sublime touches of Dennis Bergkamp, surefooted as a cat throughout, their passion is reserved for the likes of Adams and Ian Wright, whose emotions are always patent.

Wright, who celebrated his opening penalty by revealing a sweatshirt declaring "I love the lads", is revelling in the current Highbury atmosphere.

The feeling is mutual. On more than one occasion, team-mates eschewed shooting chances to try and set him up for a second goal which would take him closer to Cliff Bastin's all-time club scoring record of 159, of which he is currently 19 goals short.

Wenger, who confirmed after the match that Wright had received an improved contract last week, was full of appreciation for his players afterwards. "I didn't really think the spirit was going to be as good as it is here," he said. "I suppose I shall be accepted now we have beaten Tottenham - until next week." After the drama and delirium of this particular derby day, it is likely to last a bit longer than that.