A 7-year-old Arsenal superfan feels a veteran's pain, disappointment
You can never be too young to feel Arsenal's pain. Or hate Spurs. Take Danny Svensson, who pledged his eternal loyalty to the Gunners after attending the 2012 European Championships with his family and deciding that there was no more exciting player in the world than former Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski.
Nothing against "Poldi," who could hit a ball harder than just about anyone (and sometimes even on target) when he wasn't too busy adding to his impressive selfie collection. On the other hand, he's not exactly the first Arsenal player who springs to mind when it comes to hero worship. But in fairness, I should point out that Danny was at an impressionable age when he developed his first Gooners crush. He was 3 years old.
Now a veteran of disappointment at 7 years old, Danny's love for Arsenal has only intensified. Sunday's game between the Gunners and Spurs was the eighth North London Derby he's watched, always at the same place in Studio City, California. As it happens, when I arrived at a bar for the 4 a.m. PT kickoff, a little bedraggled from a long night trying to calm my frayed nerves over Santi Cazorla's match fitness with seven or eight beers, there was only one stool available among the 100 or so Gooners packed into the main room.
"Are you saving this seat?" I asked Danny.
"Yes," he said, "for someone who hates Tottenham as much as I do." And people say children aren't being raised with the right values today. I sat down.
"I told him that he could come here on one condition," said Danny's mother, Christine. "And that is if he never repeats any of the bad words he hears at the pub."
A boy true to his word, Danny sat through 90 fairly soporific minutes without uttering a single expletive, though the same cannot be said for those around him. At one point in the match, a middle-aged Gooner directed the old call-and-response chestnut "Whaddya think of Tottenham?" at Danny. The room waited for the expected answer, which, for the uninformed, is a word describing the stuff you find on the bottom of your shoes if you're walking through either a horse barn or the main thoroughfare leading into White Hart Lane.
But Danny wasn't taking the bait: "Not very good," he shouted back.
If only Arsenal had displayed the discipline that Danny did on Sunday, maybe they wouldn't have gifted two points to their bitter rivals in a 1-1 draw that left Spurs supporters considerably happier than their crosstown neighbors. Not only did Tottenham maintain their unbeaten start to the season, but they achieved a measure of redemption for their embarrassing Champions League performance earlier in the week against Bayer Leverkusen.
If you hadn't known better, you might have thought the team Spurs fielded against their Bundesliga opponents at Wembley were a bunch of impostors given how much more confident and committed was their play against Arsenal. Conversely, the Gunners, who hadn't lost in 15 games in all competitions capped by an exhilarating comeback in their 3-2 Champions League victory over Ludogorets on Tuesday, seemed to have left their attacking fluency in Bulgaria.
For all the surrounding hype, this game will not go down in North London Derby folklore. Neither team scored from open play and there wasn't a shot on target until the 30th minute. It was a frenetic, scrappy affair, and there were times when the slackness on both sides would have driven a man to drink if, in fact, there wasn't a California law that forbids the selling of alcohol before 6 a.m. (Remind me again why I left New York City to move here?)
If this was "more than a derby," as Arsenal manage Arsene Wenger posited earlier this week, it was a competition to see which team missed more sitters. The Frenchman, of course, had viewed it as a test of Arsenal's title credentials, but it is doubtful that the three teams now ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League table -- Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City -- are worried about anything other than their players laughing themselves silly at the Gunners' efforts in front of goal.
Sure, there was a 15-minute spell at the end of the first half in which Arsenal looked interested, laying siege to Tottenham's goal with such relentless pressure that it's a wonder the Spurs' defense didn't curl up into a collective fetal position. But that brief period of dominance was not reflected on the scoreboard until the 42nd minute, when a combination of Gunners' good fortune and the standard Tottenham naiveté gave Arsenal a 1-0 lead.
Shorn of his defensive bulwark, a knee-crocked Toby Alderweireld, Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino took a page out of Antonio Conte's new-look-is-his-old-look playbook and lined up with three at the back, one of whom (Kevin Wimmer) was given his first Premier League minutes this season. It was a tactical gamble by the Argentine, and it backfired spectacularly when Wimmer headed Mesut Ozil's in-swinging free kick into his own goal. At least young Danny now has a favorite Spurs player.
The crowd at the pub erupted in raucous celebration. Even Danny got into the act, jumping up to high-five anyone he could reach. "Lucky," the wise second-grader said when he sat down. It was unclear if he was alluding to the fact that two Arsenal players, Alexis Sanchez and Shkodran Mustafi, appeared to be offside when Ozil struck the kick or whether Wimmer simply panicked when he saw them behind him and lunged to head the ball away.
Whatever momentum Arsenal enjoyed after that was fleeting as Spurs equalized six minutes into the second half. The catalyst was Mousa Dembele, whose prodigious talent had been overshadowed by his ugly eye gouge on Chelsea's Diego Costa in last season's wild donnybrook that earned him a six-game suspension. Against Arsenal, the former Fulham player emerged as the dominant creative force on display, easily outshining the supreme being of the midfield himself, Ozil. Though he deserves an assist on Wimmer's own goal, it was, by Ozil's standards, a quiet game.
Instead, it was Dembele who swung the game back in Tottenham's favor. The Belgian's muscular burst past Francis Coquelin and Nacho Monreal caused Laurent Koscielny to stick a foot out at the edge of the penalty area. It was hardly the most nailed-on of penalties, but Mark Clattenburg is a by-the-book referee and so he pointed to the spot, much to Danny's consternation. The expression of horror on his face was reminiscent of the one Macaulay Culkin made iconic in "Home Alone."
"Dembele fell over," said Danny. "That's a cheap call."
Cheap or not -- and Wenger would doubtlessly agree with Danny -- up stepped the Arsenal avenging angel that is Harry Kane (five goals in his four previous North London derbies), marking his return from injury after seven weeks. With a lash of his right ankle, it was 1-1.
After the final whistle blew, Danny, like a true Arsenal fan, tried to find solace in another blown opportunity to go top of the league. "At least we didn't lose," he said, comforting me as the sun was beginning to poke through the grey mist. It was 6 o'clock in the morning, and Danny had a little spring in his step, which told me that perhaps I should continue to be optimistic about Arsenal's chances this year.
But if they don't win it all, I can't promise I won't use some of the bad words I heard at the pub.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.