Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday December 10 2010
Over many years, football memories become something of a montage in one`s mind. In the opening chapter of Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby memorably meditates that he fantasises about football far more often than a grown man ever should. ("For large chunks of an average day, I am a moron" his withering assessment). Especially now in the Sky age, where even the most insignificant match is given its own slow motion montage, as Martin Tyler wails "would you belieeeeve it?!" over the top of Celine Dion`s incessant warbling. Indeed, when our minds wander during an average day, I would wager that Tony Adams` volley in 1998, Jens Lehmann`s penalty save in 2006, Henry`s goal against Liverpool in 2004 and Thomas` goal at Anfield all flash through our minds at light speed, causing the hairs on the backs of our necks to stand to attention. Though sky would never allow you to believe it, football isn`t always like that however. In fact, it`s rarely like that. But if you peer hard enough, you see other memorable moments as well. Perhaps they don`t lend themselves to slow motion, soft rock montages, but sometimes you get moments that, though seemingly mundane, pass into folklore and attain a kind of cult status.
As an occasional soiree, I am going to look at some of these moments that have passed off into cult status. So the occasional series (yes, another one) will include, amongst others, Sammy Nelson`s arse, Limpar from the half way line and Robert Pires` penalty. But I will start with the moment by which all other cult moments are defined. An instance which spawned a million tee shirts. Much like the Sex Pistols gig on the River Thames, those that witnessed it are party to a small piece of history and if everyone who claimed to have been there was, then Highbury would have had 50,000 in that day. (In fact, the crowd was well under 30,000). I am talking of course, of the 31st December in nineteen hundred and ninety four. Forget New Year`s Eve, the date is always marked in my calendar as St. Jensen`s Day. I. Was. There. When. Jensen. Scored. In many ways, this moment became so engrained in Arsenal`s popular culture due to the clunky, gloomy surroundings it arrived in. The season 1994-95 was one of the worst in Arsenal`s history- certainly the worst in my lifetime. We finished 12th in the league table (the reality was that we hovered around 15th place for most of the campaign), Paul Merson spent half of the season in rehabilitation; George Graham was sacked amidst 'bung` allegations (one, rather ironically, procured during the signing of Jensen), we were knocked out of the F.A. Cup at home to Millwall, promising young midfielder Ian Selley suffered an horrific leg break from which he never truly recovered, David Hillier was arrested for stealing somebody`s luggage at Heathrow Airport and of course, to cap it all, Nayim from the halfway line. They say the British tend to find humour in the darkest moments, and that was what Jensen`s goal was all about in reality. It was a darkly ironic celebration of how mediocre we had become.
Jensen found an ironic popularity because he unwittingly became a symbol of how Graham was beginning to destroy his own empire. Arsenal signed the impossibly curly haired Danish midfielder, complete with toothbrush 'tache, in the summer of 1992. Jensen enjoyed a complex reception from Arsenal fans. On the one hand, Graham broke the hearts of many supporters that summer by selling the immensely popular, swash buckling winger David Rocastle. Here was a player dyed in the Arsenal wool, who wore the cannon with heart bursting pride and excited crowds with his dribbling. Rocky was an exciting player and a Gooner to boot. The Gunners` only summer signing in 1992 was John Jensen. Despite playing in a different position to Rocky, rightly or wrongly Jensen was seen as his direct replacement. He was already on a hiding to nothing. (That said, most of us were mightily relieved to see Jensen`s curly bonce, Graham had spent the summer openly courting horribly incompetent Crystal Palace midfielder Geoff Thomas, whose most famous moment was nearly hitting the corner flag for England when through one on one with the French keeper at Wembley).
However, Jensen was spared immediate teeth gnashing amongst the Highbury faithful. Slightly before the days when foreign satellite and You Tube clips furnished everyone with a bulls**t opinion on every player this side of Qatar, Jensen brought himself to our attention. Despite not even qualifying for Euro 92, Denmark amazingly marched to the finals in Sweden. (Yugoslavia had to pull out at the last minute due to the ongoing political situation and the Danes hopped into their place). Denmark played Germany in the Final and beat them 2-0. Jensen sealed the victory with a rasping drive from outside of the area. In lieu of regular access to Danish football, this was the solitary impression any of us had of Jensen. "Well, it looks like he can hit a shot anyway." How little we knew. Behind the scenes, the sale of Rocastle and the signing of Jensen was a confirmation that, in the wake of the European Cup exit to Benfica in 1991, Graham was dismantling the flair wing of his team in order to add more nuts and bolts. Hiller, Morrow, Carter and Jensen began to feature regularly, as Limpar and Davis were frozen out. It was all graft no craft.
Despite the addition of Stefan Schwarz in the summer of 1994, by the 1994-95 season, watching Arsenal became a grinding chore. Arsenal lost 17 times in the league and scored a paltry 52 goals in their 42 league games (conceding 49 in the process). Crowds dipped to well below capacity as the Gunners stumbled upon the magic combination of being skull achingly boring as well as completely ineffective. John Jensen meanwhile, the midfielder who we had all asserted, "has quite a shot on him" hadn`t scored in his two and a half years at the club. Every time he received the ball, the ironic cry of "shooooot" echoed around the ground. "We`ll be there when Jensen scores" would follow. I think we recognised that it wasn`t quite his fault. Though he was the no frills, hard working type of midfielder which the club was bloated with, we saw that John Faxe Jensen was by no means a limited player himself. Were he allowed the liberty of playing alongside a Vieira or a Fabregas; he would have likely flourished in his unremarkable role. Jensen wasn`t a limited player; he had been transplanted into a limited team, most of whom shared his skill set. He was well liked by Arsenal fans. We saw how hard he worked and desperately wanted him to have his moment in the sun.
On December 31, 1994, Jensen lined up for a league game at home to Queens Park Rangers. It was his 98th game for the club. I was sat in the West Stand Lower Tier that day. QPR took an early lead through Bradley Allen. Shortly before half time, Arsenal began to mount some impotent attacks. That was until the 39th minute. Jensen received the ball on the edge of the area. A gap appeared to open in the Hoops defence, Jensen had time and space to control the ball. "Shoooot" came the cry, but there was no comic ennui in this cry. Highbury rose to its feet expectantly. Jensen curled the ball towards the top corner and it arced into the net with all the grace of a gliding albatross. A sumptuous effort. Jensen, a calm and collected character, sprinted towards the West Stand, his arms aloft as Highbury greeted him. There was something different in the air, in a season in which we went through the motions; there was genuine delight in the celebration. Not for the team though, but for the individual. "We were there when Jensen scored!" the crowd chanted incredulously for the rest of the game. A couple of Vince Bartam errors allowed Bradley Allen and Andy Impey to score as QPR left Highbury with a 3-1 win. But there was little but smiles as we left the ground. Jensen`s goal had consigned the defeat to irrelevancy. We knew we had witnessed one of the great, offbeat Highbury moments.
Jensen ended up playing for Arsenal 138 times, leaving us in the summer of 1996. This effort was the only goal he ever registered in an Arsenal shirt. He managed to score for Denmark twice in 21 attempts during his Arsenal career. Jensen became a cult hero at Arsenal, much like Perry Groves before him. Football is essentially a team sport, but this moment was rare in that it was all about the individual, much like Eduardo`s recent goal at Ashburton Grove. In a season that left us with very little to celebrate, Jensen`s goal became something to hold onto, something that made us smile in a campaign that seemed to be etched with a permanent frown. The Arsenal fans` proclamation "We were there when Jensen scored" was also an ironic acceptance, a coming to terms with the fact that we had plummeted back to the crushing mediocrity Graham had rescued us from. The goal is still fondly talked about in the pubs on the Holloway and Blackstock Roads. Whenever it is mentioned, those of us in attendance will immediately pipe up with "I was there when Jensen scored." (Many still own the tee shirt). The phrase itself has come into cult status amongst the Gooner faithful. John Jensen`s curling shot has easily outlasted the ramifications of a 3-1 home defeat to QPR and has earned itself a niche place into a small nook of our history.LD.
Date:Friday December 10 2010
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