As Per Mertesacker buried a 24th minute header to level the scores at 1-1- during the recent North London derby, the big German’s finish understandably sent the home Arsenal support into raptures. And not just in the stands either.
For the travelling Tottenham Hotspur support, the proceeding pelters that came from the home fans was of course a mere taste of what was to come over the next 76 minutes, but there was something that riled the Lilywhites’ support just that little bit more.
Most goalkeepers within the league afford themselves a fist pump, an intense scream of joy or anything resembling some form of celebration for when their team puts one away. From Peter Schmeichel’s cartwheel to Ali Al-Habsi’s dance of relief, keeper’s rituals aren’t anything new.
But when Wojciech Szczęsny hammered his fists high into the air, chest turned promptly to goad the away support, the feeling of venom within the away end was almost palpable. And the macabre beauty of it was, that the feeling was wholesomely mutual as well. This wasn’t just a player celebrating his side’s equalising goal – this was a fan rejoicing in the moment.
Yet while the Poland international’s actions catalysed an almost unworldly torrent of abuse from Tottenham fans, as bizarre as it may seem, it also produced a begrudging level of deep-lying respect. Because although Szczęsny the player or even Szczęsny the man, with his cocksure attitude and air of seeming arrogance, might not be everybody’s cup of tea, his derby day passion is something of a dying breed.
Of course, Szczęsny’s passport reads Polish as his nationality and his birth certificate lists Warsaw as his place of birth. And in the fickle world of football, as Arsenal fans know as well as any, proclamations of love for the shirt mean very little in this day and age. But the 22-year-old has been a part of the club since the age of 16.
He might not have been born a Gunner, but he’s been bred one, and the Emirates Stadium is all he’s known. Coming through the ranks with the likes of Jack Wilshere, he knows what the club is all about, what the fans expect and consequently, he knows exactly what the North London derby means to fans.
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Many foreign signings drop in a rent-a-quote about their new club in order to gain cheap affection, but there was nothing superficial in Szczęsny’s infamous statement in the March of last year, when asked if Arsenal could close the now infamous 10-point gap upon their rivals.
“It is obvious that it is my ambition to finish the season in front of them… because I hate them.”
Don’t doubt the sincerity in the Pole’s sentiments for a minute. This is a man that went on record supporting Chelsea during last season’s Champions League final, solely on the premise that he’d have taken solace in Spurs’ misery to qualify for the competition should the Blues win it, which they eventually did.
For Spurs fans, the sight of the smug Pole celebrating constituted an absolute derby day sickener. But in some ways, is that not what the derby is all about? Tempers running high, players soaking up the fervent emotion that supporters’ carve up and the added spice and controversy that comes with it.
It’s a viewpoint dressed up in nostalgia, but you can’t help but feel that the English derby day sometimes feels diluted in its passion and desire – not necessarily in the stands – but rather, on the field of play.
Where have all the Szczęsny’s gone? What happened to the players who thrived on the opportunity to wind up rival fans, the ones who seemed to love the hate and abuse that was thrown their way when the occasion arose? Footballers who didn’t paddle around pre-match interviews dishing out the same old sanitised PR. The ones who said it exactly how it is, a la Szczęsny.
The finger of blame has always been traditionally pointed at the influx of foreign talent into English football, usually popularly painted as the naïve Johnny Foreigner who doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t ‘get’ the occasion. But Szczęsny certainly isn’t English, or even British for that matter.
In fact, putting the shoe on the other foot, the most passionate Tottenham Hotspur derby day contender in recent years was a certain Dutchman. Rafael van der Vaart celebrated every goal he scored against Arsenal as if it was his very last, kissing cameras, leaving his foot in tackles and sprinting over to the Gunners support at White Hart Lane, goading the away fans right in front of them. Nationality has nothing to do with it – it’s simply where your heart is.
And perhaps in some way, it is the game itself, which is strangling some of these characters out the game. A comment made in the heat of the moment post game, might land a player with a tasty FA fine. Dare to speak your mind on Twitter or have a pop at a rival fan, and you’ll find yourself in hot water. Be careful with your celebrations too, because winding up the away end, taking your top off or even embracing some of your own, could see you get a yellow card for your troubles.
Are we merely suffering from a lack of characters in the game or have we created an environment set to stifle them? This shouldn’t be interpreted as some militant cry to players to start kicking the living daylights out of each other come derby day. But the spice, the love, the hate and the running of hot blood is what makes a local derby the one fixture we all go looking for as soon as the dates are released at the start of the season.
For anyone in the white half of North London, no one will forget being sat in that Clock End, enduring Szczęsny’s taunts for a while to come. Yet should Spurs enact revenge on their rivals next year, it’ll be the Pole who’ll be the first to hear about it. And isn’t that the glory of it? Shout, scream and holler in anger all you want at him – but the occasion wouldn’t be the same without him. Long may it continue, too.