Football: Screen test for Arsenal
Matt Tench travels to Highbury to watch the Londoners' away game with Manchester United
Monday 18 November 1996
There was not a player to be seen at Highbury on Saturday, but the best part of the North Bank Stand was full as those Arsenal fans unable to get a ticket for a game at Old Trafford - the 3,000 allocated were quickly sold out - were able to watch the game live on a giant TV screen in the centre circle.
Actually it wasn't just Arsenal supporters. A small group of Manchester City fans joined the throng presumably so disenchanted with their own team that their only pleasure these days is watching United lose.
A fortnight earlier Chelsea fans had been able to enjoy their side's victory in Manchester and it was the sixth time Arsenal had experimented with the ersatz excitement of the live game at one remove. Once Mr Murdoch signs his next big cheque these strange gatherings seem destined to go the way of Baywatch, their details doubtless to be relayed to disbelieving grandchildren. "You sat in a chilly stadium to watch a televised game, grandpa? You must have been mad..."
Their departure will be a shame, because if the afternoon at Highbury lacked the authentic big match atmosphere that Alex Ferguson was so glad to see return at Old Trafford, it was certainly not without some atmosphere.
There was a mood of slight bewilderment as people took their seats, but a big cheer greeted the arrival of the Match of the Day feed, and the kickabout produced a pantomime-like set of audience responses.
Picture of Ian Wright: cheers. Crowd chants, "Ian Wright, Wright, Wright."
Picture of Alex Ferguson: Boos.
Close up of Andy Cole in the stands: Boos. Chants of, "Arsenal Reject, Arsenal Reject."
The first enquiry as to who on earth were Man United (well, something like that) came at 2.57pm and, having got their bearings, the crowd settled down to watch the game - though there was still a bit of confusion when the visitors won their first corner. A small contingent began an instinctive round of, "Come on you Reds", before it was pointed out to them that Arsenal were in yellow.
Unfortunately while the picture quality was not bad (even if someone did seem to have pressed the contrast button to full) Barry Davies sounded as though he was commentating from the bottom of the North Sea. Which meant we were spared his view of the referee, not that anyone needed second opinions on Mr Poll. Each of Arsenal's five bookings was greeted with rising incredulity, especially as the home side, who were no less physical, escaped with a single caution. "United have to commit murder at Old Trafford to get punished," the man behind me muttered, "and then it's only a yellow."
If the game was less than a classic it was certainly sufficiently compelling to avoid any awkward arguments about switching to the film on BBC2 at half-time. The decisive moment was greeted with a mixture of despair and puzzlement, a messy goal rendered unfathomable by a combination of Barry Davies under the sea and the over-vivid images. It was only after the close-up of Nigel Winterburn that an awful home truth dawned: Arsenal's legendary defence had been breached by one of its own.
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