8 APRIL 2006, Page 71

Y ou will know by now whether Arsenal in Italy on

Wednesday carried on from their racily appealing first-leg home victory over Juventus and are now in the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup. Whatever, last week’s emphatic, even euphoric, Highbury show remains one to bottle up and savour as a memento of north London’s old marble palace before the bulldozers crawl in. Arsenal begin next season at a swish new home down the road. It is 93 years since their first game at Highbury Leicester Fosse defeated 2–1 in September 1913 — after they leased for 20 years the cricket fields of St John’s College of Divinity (promising not to play matches on Christmas Day or Good Friday; nor did they till 1925).

April, and most League matters seem settled. Surely Chelsea are home and hosed in the Premiership; in the championship Reading certainly are; and the Uniteds of Southend or Carlisle are smoothly docked at the top of the two lower divisions. It will be cathartic when Reading kick off in August in the Premiership. To me, the ‘Royals’ shall forever be perennial whipping boys of the antique Third Division South, which they were in the 1950s when a few of us would sometimes defy the probability of being seriously whipped ourselves if our black-cowled, rugger-mad Benedictine housemaster at Douai, Fr Norbert, discovered we had been occasional Saturday truants through the rickety turnstiles at Reading’s dilapidated old Elm Park ground, just a few miles along the Bath road from our monastery school (also, like Elm Park, now dearly departed). As long as those two Third Divisions, north and south, existed Reading were hapless and permanent members — cue our schoolboys’ fantasy joke when, promotion achieved at last, the Reading manager drives home on a delirious high, crashes into a tree and wakes up in the South Berks hospital. ‘Where am I?’ ‘Don’t worry, love,’ says the nurse, ‘you’re in the South.’ ‘Blimey, we weren’t long in the Second, were we?’ Some go up in triumph, others go inconsolably down. Cast-iron certainties for relegation from the four divisions this season are Sunderland, Crewe Alexandra, that ersatz concoction called Milton Keynes Dons, and (although it’s a frenzied scramble down in the basement for the dead and dying) Rushden & Diamonds, another newish outfit fashioned and formed a dozen or so years ago by the owner of Doc Martens boots between dinky Rushden Town and even dinkier Irthlingborough Diamonds. Further west in the Midlands there is an inner-city scrap of uncongenial, unneighbourly passion. Who can survive in the Premiership? Aston Villa are by no means out of the wood, but for sure Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion are deep in it. Their 11 foreign mercenaries on the pitch might well wonder what the fuss is all about and give up the fight with a shrug but, oh dear, the respective supporters won’t. Doleful forbearance is their accursed, cursing lot, personified by the fond tale of West Brom’s lifelong thick-and-thinner, Oldbury’s incorrigible Rabelaisian comedian Frank Skinner. One Saturday, as Albion ground out yet another turgid defeat, the Tannoy announced, ‘Congratulations to Mr So-and-so, your wife has just given birth to a bonny boy at Sandwell district hospital.’ At which the old fellow next to Frank muttered, ‘Poor bugger. He’s had to sit through this lot, and now he’s got to go home and make his own tea.’