Football: Suddenly everyone loves Arsenal

After decades of his team being called boring, Rupert Cornwell, a life-long Arsenal suppporter, explains why he is terrified they may become the most popular in the land
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The Independent Online
IT MAY be placing a curse over a fabulous season, but this lifelong Arsenal fan has a prediction to make, and it terrifies him. Our club is running a serious risk of becoming the most popular in the land. Worse than that, it could even turn into a national institution. One by one, the elements are falling into place. Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch provides the historical chronicle, a deep trough of the emotions of an Arsenal fan at which parched newcomers may drink. Then we have the glittering present, a string of performances that has all at once rendered Manchester United, the nearest thing we presently have to a national institution, as dated - and exciting - as last week's stock prices. And then there's Arsene Wenger. But of him more in a moment.

A singularly misguided writer in the Evening Standard recently predicted that, come the Cup final, an orgy of old fashioned Arsenal-hating would burst over the land, and that Newcastle would be every neutral's favourite. You do not have to be a believer to know the reverse is true - and not merely as a result of the grace, loquacity and affability of Kenny Dalglish.

Suddenly we have a team that everyone loves. In our most euphoric moments, some of us liken its style to that of the ''Total Football'' Dutch sides which every uncommitted follower of football vainly prayed would win the World Cups of 1974 and 1978. For Overmars read Rensenbrink, for Bergkamp read Cruyff. No longer is Arsenal just a dreary winning machine. Forced for decades to find virtue in the long ball up the centre and the hoof into the upper deck, to our amazement we find ourselves at the vanguard of the Beautiful Game.

In truth, "Boring Arsenal'' was always a bit unfair - the 1989 and 1991 Championship sides scored goals by the hatful, and the brief flowering of the Liam Brady/Frank Stapleton team of the late 1970s, cut short by Brady's defection to Juventus which even 18 years later still rankles, remains a golden memory. But, yes, it can't be disputed: by and large we were pretty dull, and in the late 50s, mid 60s and mid 80s we sometimes bordered on the awful. But vilification bred fierce clan loyalty. Now, lo and behold, we risk becoming a byword for sophistication and charm. For long time pilgrims to London N5, this transformation is seriously disorienting.

For despite the Johnnie-Come-Latelies who always hitch their allegiance to a rolling bandwagon, Arsenal's fan base probably hasn't greatly changed. Yes, football's gentrified and ultra-fashionable, and restaurants are replacing pubs as gathering places for the faithful. Yes, the sport has a rich business following, but then there always was. Residents complain of siege by limo on Saturday afternoons - but some of my first forays to Highbury were in walnut-panelled Daimlers (which my father would insist on driving with the windows sealed as he puffed on a cigar of Churchillian dimensions). But let the flash Harrys go to Chelsea. At heart Arsenal is still the neighbourhood team. Newcastle has Tony Blair, Blackburn has Jack Straw, and Tottenham in the Glory, Glory Hallelujah days had Freddie Ayer. I have called around to check, but the best anyone can come up with for Arsenal in the celebrity supporter stakes is Melvyn Bragg.

And the terrace poetry hasn't improved much either. These days, grace a Arsene, the verses have a more cosmopolitan flavour: "He comes from Seneg-AL, he plays for Arsen-AL ,'' for instance, in honour of Patrick Vieira, these days the North Bank's supreme favourite; or "He's blond, he's quick, he's named after a porno flick," eulogizing Emmanuel Petit, the other French titan of the midfield. The subject matter may be more ambitious, but in terms of scansion not a patch on "Six foot two and eyes of blue, Willie Young is after you," the chant in honour of the lumbering Scottish defender of blessed memory, responsible for the odd mazy dribble and one or two of the most thunderous own goals in Arsenal history (among them a header in the Manchester United game of April 1, 1978, that left Pat Jennings frozen as a statue). Or, going back even further, "Bertie Mee said to Bill ShankLEE, Have you heard of the North Bank, 'IghbuREE..."

And then there's Arsene. Even after his 1971 double, Bertie Mee never acquired a fraction of the star quality radiating from Wenger before the possible repeat of 1998. What is it about these Frenchmen that so bewitch us ? What came of our national contempt for the "bottomless superficiality" of the ancient foe from across the Channel? First Eric Cantona, the thinking man's footballer - artist, actor and poet on the side. Now Wenger, mysterious and cooler than Cool Britannia could ever dream of, who turns the post- match press conference into a Cartesian dissection of the footballing universe.

Did I detect an "over zee moon"the other day ? Maybe, but the gallic lilt of the studious, unfailingly polite Wenger, occasionally to be found in post-match rumination in a local restaurant, can turn Gaffer-speak into Racine. Small wonder the reporters feel like pupils at the feet of the master. So welcome to the new Arsenal, multi-national, multi-faceted, the blending of the best of British with the best of Europe. Isn't this what Blairism's all about? And, with New Labour's nose for a vote-winner, I can't believe our Prime Minister (lately of North London moreover), will be supporting Newcastle for long after 16 May. Thus will cult-status be sealed. Whether that's what I want is quite another matter.

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