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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Never Mind Firing Fifties At Us From Our Lawn, The Arsenal's Armoury Now Includes Our Very Own Tank

Coming soon from a tank near you
So far this season I've started three customarily long-winded diary missives, which haven't been posted because they remain unfinished and they instead sit there, in draft form on my Blogger dashboard, nagging at me every time I open the page.

You never know, the Gunners might eventually win something slightly more impressive than the FA Cup and the Community Shield, thereby affording me with another opportunity to produce a book. In which case you lucky readers might yet get to see all my hard work :-)

Meanwhile, I thought I had better post something to my blog, before anyone starts wondering if my Arsenal related frustrations have finally boiled over, to the point where I might even have popped my clogs! Sadly not so far-fetched nowadays and I'm sure there were plenty of Gooners who had the Samaritans on speed-dial, whilst fretting about going back into work to face the music, following that utterly gutless debacle at Anfield?

Mercifully, we witnessed a contrastingly gutsy display against Chelsea on Sunday, where although upon reflection, when watching the highlights back at home, there was still plenty of disconcerting evidence, on the whole it was extremely refreshing to watch a "team" performance, in which the Gunners proved themselves willing and able to stand up and be counted.

I'm not about to go overboard, as ultimately we dropped another two points. But getting to away games (especially early KOs on a Sunday) requires such an onerous amount of effort on my part nowadays that I must admit to having struggled to get myself going and out of the door, in good time to make kick-off on Sunday, burdened as I was by my reluctance to find myself facing the recurringly depressing prospect of the moment when one exits Stamford Bridge and the stream of dejected Gooners is forced to reintegrate with the piss-taking Blues fans (for the 6th successive time!).

This annual ritual has become so humiliating in recent years, each and every time the Gunners have only turned up at Stamford Bridge for the time it takes to wave the white flag that as I sat in the living room on Sunday morning, stressing about whether I'd left it too late to make the trip to the Fulham Road, in sufficient time to find a parking pitch near enough to the stadium to be able to manage the walk there (and back!), wondering whether I really wanted to put myself through the seemingly almost guaranteed torture of yet another demoralising day out in Chelsea.

I'm sure I wasn't alone with my dark mood, as when the social media tom-toms told of the team news an hour before KO, even my most optimistic Gooner pals were struggling to put a positive slant on Özil's injury and Alexis' omission from the starting line-up, with sarcastic comments such as "how many goals will we be behind, before Wenger brings him on?"

Our annual outing to Stamford Bridge has become such a masochistic ritual that the only debatable result of the day is whether the rain will hold off and whether or not I manage to find a decent parking pitch! Nevertheless, amongst the limited number of certainties in football, is the inexorable fact that no matter how long a run of miserable defeats endures, it's inevitable that it will end at some point. 

And for each additional season that one suffers the soul-destroying ignominy of a battering at the Bridge, the cumulative agony is such that it becomes that much more impossible to duck out of enduring this encounter, due to the exponential increase in the fear of missing out on the euphoric moment when the tables are turned and the feeling of ecstasy is made that much more intense, on account of all the anguish that has gone before.

With this overexcited Gooner
getting thrown out, I guess it rates
as "premature ejeculation"?
Unlike Shkodran Mustafi and many Gooners at the Bridge, I didn't make a fool of myself. With me being almost directly in line with the official who put such a dampener on our delirium, I spotted the lino's offside flag almost simultaneously to the ball finding the back of the net. Yet while we came oh so "close but no cigar" to experiencing the eruption of unconfined joy of the goal that might have secured the victory needed to erase all those nightmares of seasons past, as we all know, there's only a gossamer thin line dividing those two impostors of triumph and disaster. If Pedro hadn't fluffed his lines, when one on one with Petr Cech first-half, it might've proved an entirely different story!
I don't think it's biased of me to suggest that we had the best of the limited number of goal-scoring opportunities on Sunday. Yet if Chelsea had scored first, I fancy that the memories of past defeats would've come flooding back and the Gunners would've capitulated in customary fashion.

I've often criticised Petr Cech and the perfectly understandable timidity that appears to prevent him from dominating his penalty area, on account of his reluctance to risk sticking his head in, where it might hurt; in contrast to the "no fear" bravura evident from so many of his peers, who aren't burdened by the psychological baggage of a previous skull fracture. However, credit where due, since if Cech hadn't stood up long enough to produce the doubt in Pedro's mind, which resulted in a rather feeble effort (aided by Koscielny's determination to apply pressure), not only would a goal have decided the outcome of this game, but this would've also reopened the floodgates of "Wenger Out" hostility that are bound to swing wide open with each and every bad result.

If Cech had gone down too soon and Pedro had scored, this one single moment would've left us trailing the league leaders by seven points, after only five games, with the Gunners going into every subsequent Sunday game following a Europa League outing, in fear of a below par performance. Upon such fleeting moments can an entire season stand, or fall.

Prior to leaving home on Sunday, I sat watching a montage on Sky Sports of goals from Arsenal and Chelsea games gone by. There was such a sparkling collection of stupendous goals of all sorts, from both teams that anyone watching this programme would struggle to believe the disparity between the two teams in recent times. Yet what struck me most, whilst being reminded of the multitude of goals that we've conceded against the Blues, was the complete and utter lack of protection provided for the Arsenal defence, with us freely inviting the opposition to get at our back line, with the sort of ease and frequency that so often left our defenders scapegoated as the principle culprits for our defeats.

How often in the past have we been forced to endure the clichémeisters of TV punditry criticising the Gunners for "leaving the back door wide open" in Wenger's relentless pursuit of entertaining the Gooner faithful. In his comments on Match Of The Day 2, Danny Murphy might have us believe that we've turned the page and that defensively speaking, Arsène has suddenly put the Arsenal world to rights, out on the training ground. You'll have to forgive me if I'm somewhat more circumspect. If Ramsey and Xhaka go on to produce a run of equally consistent performances and can stifle the flow of the likes of City and Man Utd and prevent the league leaders from exposing the limitations of our defence, I might become a believer.

However, with Cesc Fabregas left relying on the accuracy of his pinpoint passes and something of a shadow of the sort of player who in the past might've singlehandedly carried Sunday's contest and with Chelsea losing the battle in the middle of the park, until Bakayoko was introduced after the break, this encounter didn't prove to be quite as stiff a test as I was expecting.

The annual ritual of the squad photo was all over social media during the past week and looking at the pictures, I couldn't help but feel that seated amidst all these buff athletes, by contrast Arsène has the appearance of a frail, elderly interloper. He cuts the sort of unimposing figure who leaves me struggling to imagine him motivating this bunch of players. Is Wenger capable of encouraging the best out of them with his force of personality? Does the departure of the Ox lend weight to the suggestion that the old bugger no longer retains the sort of illustrious aura required, to inspire a willingness to run until they drop? Perhaps this perception is a hangover from my disappointment at the apparent apathy that we witnessed at Anfield. As my old man might've said , if you can't motivate a team for an outing on Merseyside, only three games in, it really is "och and vey"!

Still, after having endured enough negative opinions in August to last us a whole season, I much prefer to focus on the positives. Even if I was terrified of the one mistimed slide tackle from Mustafi that might've left Morata bearing down on Cech's goal, it was great to see the German centre-half leading by example, snapping into the tackle and denying Chelsea any time on the ball. And with "the Tank" as our new talisman, it was brilliant to see them all encouraged by the tone set by Kolosinac and at long last witnessing the Gunners doing some bullying at Stamford Bridge, instead of always being bullied.

From our vantage point in the corner of the ground, it seemed evident that it was Alexis who provoked David Luis into the reckless tackle that resulted in the red card. Luis foolishly lost his rag following Alexis' assorted efforts to ruffle his feathers all the way along that flank, until the irresistible Brazilian force met the immovable Bosnian object.

While we all questioned the sanity of starting with Iwobi, Wenger was perhaps mindful that while Bellerin offers a positive contribution to our attack, the Spaniard continues to struggle to find the necessary focus and concentration in defence. Watching the highlights of the game later that night, I was somewhat mortified by the sight of Hector leisurely ambling back, while leaving Koscielny busting his balls to try and catch up with Pedro. 

As pleased as I was with Kozza's attempt to apply pressure, with his last ditch effort to at least throw his body in front of the attempt on goal, I want to see this same level of commitment from all of our players, all of the time. In his performances to date Hector has appeared happy enough to bomb forward, in his efforts to grab the spotlight and some of the glory, but he seems to struggle for 90 minutes of consistency, when it comes to the more selfless defensive graft.

Hopefully a few more clean sheets will help to improve the confidence level and the spirit in the dressing room; but I do worry about Alexis' incessant whinging and that his public displays of disparaging contempt at the apparent ineptitude of some of his colleagues, might be the source of the sort of disruptive strife that could fracture the mood and which might not make for an entirely contented camp?

It was disappointing that Jack Wilshere didn't even make it onto the bench on Sunday. I'll be delighted if Jack gets a run out against Doncaster on Wednesday night and if he can remain injury free for long enough and be able to motivate himself sufficiently to force his way back into first XI contention. With Cazorla out for the foreseeable future and in Özil's absence on Sunday, personally I remain unsure that a partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka can provide sufficient creativity in the middle of the park. Obviously this pairing has more defensive responsibility, but contrast their inventiveness with the potential for flair football from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva.

With Alexis having struggled to have any impact to date when played in a central role, it seemed downright barmy to send him on to replace Lacazette. We all felt that Welbeck should've found the target with his headed opportunity early on, but with Danny having hit good form, I hope his groin strain won't leave him sidelined for long. Yet his retirement on Sunday at least offered an opportunity for Alexis to move to his more effective position on the left, when Giroud came on. Personally I would've liked to see how Lacazette and Alexis might've fared, playing together, but having sent Olly on, it was frustrating that we totally failed to play to his aerial strength at any stage.

Meanwhile, I don't want to make up for my complete lack of diary posts to date in this one missive, by waffling on ad infinitum! Even though it wasn't the win that we all craved, it was nonetheless marvelous to finally come away from Stamford Bridge feeling like we'd dealt a blow to the Blues and taken a decidedly positive step forward for once, as opposed to that all too familiar trudge back with our tails firmly between our legs.

Bring on the Rovers come Wednesday

CFC not quite so carefree
            Traversing London for a trip to Stamford Bridge felt like a decidedly tame affair, after having run the gauntlet of 20,000 German storm troopers on Spursday night. However with this being the first of five awkward awaydays, immediately following our midweek Europa League adventures, there was no mistaking the significance of Sunday’s encounter, as a third successive defeat on the road might well set a calamitous tone for our entire season.

            Despite our FA Cup and Community Shield success against Conte’s side at Wembley, horrific memories of recent humiliations at the Bridge made for a less than optimistic mood, which was hardly bolstered by the pre-match revelation that neither Özil nor Alexis featured in the starting XI.

            I could perhaps understand the logic of including a workaholic Welbeck, with Alexis sadly still such a long way from firing on all four cylinders. Yet as demonstrated, in an otherwise dire display against Cologne in midweek, even when at his worst, the wantaway Chilean is still capable of conjuring up that one inspirational moment of world class genius that Sunday’s encounter was crying out for, in order to unlock the Blues miserly defence. By contrast, seemingly shorn of all last season’s confidence, Iwobi’s benign display against the Bundesliga outfit, left us all baffled by his selection and Wenger only compounded this apparent error, by failing to acknowledge Iwobi’s impotence until his 80th minute substitution.

            Without the psychological baggage of our abysmal record of late against top six opposition and our lily-livered performances at the Bridge in particular, I was counting on the likes of Lacazette and Kolosinac, as the most likely source of a “game changing” contribution. In truth, if I was a Chelsea fan, I would’ve been disappointed by the home side’s failure to try and take more of an advantage of the Gunners recent fragility on the road, by steaming into us with a little more intent right from the off.

            However as the two sides felt each other out in the opening stages, there was a cagey timidity about them both, which spoke volumes as to their limited confidence levels to date and the fact that (with the exception of the Azerbaijanis!) neither outfit has produced the sort of prolific flowing football coming from the Mancunian competition.

After our embarrassing capitulation at Anfield, most Gooners would’ve gladly settled for the draw against Chelsea that might at least enable us to redeem some much needed pride. And it was somewhat refreshing to see a Gunners side set their stall out, focused first and foremost on not throwing the game away.

Kolosinac’s “tank” nickname couldn’t be more appropriate and the Bosnian’s rugged style of football seems to be rubbing off on his team mates, as the Gunners have finally begun to remember how to push back. Albeit that this was the source of much frustration in our corner of Stamford Bridge, as ref Oliver appeared to be suckered into awarding free-kicks, every time Morata and co. hit the deck at the slightest physical contact.

            We spent most of the first-half paying homage to our subs as they stretched their legs on the sidelines directly in front of us. Not that our obdurate manager was about to be influenced into introducing some more firepower at the break, by our adoration of first Alexis and then Giroud. By contrast, the only reference to Walcott was by way of teasing Hazard “you’re just a sh*t Theo Walcott”.

            It was perhaps indicative of the Premiership’s direction of travel, where the fear of defeat has become so incredibly intense that the two most talented players, Hazard and Alexis, were both left parked on the bench. While neither player was deemed sufficiently responsible to graft for 90 minutes, both managers eventually called on their star turns for a 20-minute cameo, in the hope they might take advantage of flagging limbs and convert one point, into three.

            As pretty much our only source of any creativity, Aaron Ramsey was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet first half and Lacazette left us all flabbergasted when he somehow contrived to miss the rebound. He’ll fast need to learn that in a performance of so few genuine chances, you really can’t afford to fluff your one and only line!

            Wenger never fails to confound with his “give with one hand, take with another” substitutions. Yet while we might’ve failed to sufficiently trouble Courtois, there was plenty of consolation in the resilience shown at the other end of the park and with far less arduous opposition to come, the point earned from an all too rare clean sheet affords us some much needed confidence to build on.

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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Not Over, Not Out!

          News of Wenger’s contract renewal hardly came as a shock. Would it have been any different if he’d not just become the most successful manager in FA Cup history, I doubt it because the club simply doesn’t have the structure in place to cope with a smooth accession.

            No new manager is going to come to the Arsenal and expect to be running the club from top to bottom, in the same fashion that Arsène does. Yet therein lies the quandary, as with Wenger agreeing a two-year extension, how do the tame suits at our club intend to engineer a transition, persuading their overlord to relinquish control of contract renewals, transfer signings etc., to leave his eventual successor able to focus solely on managing events on the pitch.

            Too little, too late perhaps, but while there can be no disputing the form the team found in the final month of this campaign, off the pitch it’s been something of a shambles, gross incompetency even that they’ve failed to nail down the futures of the club’s prize assets.

            I’m not so concerned about Özil as I don’t exactly envisage there being a queue of tempting suitors; but surely the club have been remiss in not securing Alexis, long before his agent turned his head. If Alexis decides to depart, Wenger will have a massive problem, filling the hole left in the absence of the Chilean’s goals and assists.

            Even if Alexis chooses to stay, something needs to occur during the summer to convince the fans that next season is not merely going to offer more of the same old, same old unconvincing Arsenal. I suspect Arsène is far too loyal to effect a merciless overhaul of his squad, by shipping out those players who’ve patently failed to fulfill their promise. But without some serious transfer window action to signal the club’s intent to compete, I absolutely dread the reaction from the terraces the moment the team fails to perform.

            The club appears to be preparing itself for a rash of refusals to renew season tickets, judging by the numbers on the season ticket waiting list who’ve received notification of their opportunity to purchase a seat. With so many fans eagerly waiting to replace dissatisfied Gooners who choose not to renew, irritation over the stasis at the Arsenal is unlikely ever to be reflected by a lack of bums on seats.

            You have to credit the stubborn old bugger’s staying power, as even if the Wenger Out Brigade have the summer to come to terms with the situation, it’s obvious that Wenger will be in for an immediate shellacking every time results go against us. In addition to having to contend with the negative impact of the Europa Cup’s Thurs/Sun schedule, Wenger needs to find some means of getting all those far too entitled Gooners back on side. Otherwise it’s hard to imagine how we can expect the next two seasons to play out any differently, amidst an increasingly rancorous atmosphere of disunity. 

            Over to you Arsène?
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Better than Cannavaro, Rob Holding You Know

            It felt like one of those slow-motion car-crash moments when Koscielny recklessly clattered into Valencia during last Sunday’s climax to our league campaign. Doubtless I might feel somewhat differently next season, when forced to schlep to some far-flung East European wilderness in the Europa Cup on a Thurs night, but at the time I was more devastated when the realization dawned with the resulting red card that our defensive lynchpin would be suspended from the Cup Final than I was with being denied Champions League football by Boro’s capitulation at Anfield.

            All hope I had of us denying Abramovich’s upstarts the double and ending the season on a high by beating Chelsea in the Cup Final evaporated in that instant. Any remaining vestiges of Gooner optimism departed upon the stretcher that subsequently bore Gabriel from the fray.

            Such was the seemingly incredulous misfortune of the decimation of the Gunners rearguard in advance of our big day out at Wembley that as I fiddled with my radio, impatiently awaiting team news while negotiating an illusory security cordon around the national stadium on Saturday, I half expected to hear that Alexis and Özil had collided in the warm up and would also be on the missing list.

            Whether Ospina’s cup appearances are written into our Columbian keeper’s contract, or his selection was merely testament to Arsène’s obdurate loyalty, frankly it seemed to me that it didn’t matter who’d be facing Chelsea between the sticks, if our defence proved too porous to provide sufficient protection.

            After witnessing Mertesacker’s brief cameo against Everton, I was positively dreading the prospect of our BFG enduring a humiliating last Arsenal curtain call. However I’m delighted to be left eating humble pie, after Per seemed to muster his entire career’s worth of experience and put it all into Saturday’s majestic swansong. 

            To prevent the likes of Costa and Hazard exposing his oil tanker like pace, the BFG tried to maintain a 20-yard buffer zone. This often left him dropping so deep that I was most surprised Conte didn’t pick up on the opportunity to target the amount of space provided by our old warhorse’s reluctant to push up and play the opposition offside.

            Yet ever since their 3-0 defeat at our place back in September, Conte and his charges had invested so much focus and concentration into mounting a consistent title charge that it perhaps wasn’t surprising that they went somewhat off the boil after securing their principle target. For the first half hour of Saturday’s enthralling contest, it appeared as if the two sides had swapped personalities, with the Gunners coming out of the traps like a team possessed, seemingly intent on producing the sort of committed performance on the pitch that would provide the best possible response to the season’s worth of callous criticism that their Cesar was past it.

            The question left on most Gooners lips was why had we failed to produce this sort of intensity for the vast majority of our campaign and what might’ve been, if only we hadn’t hidden the light of such scintillating footie under a bushel for much of the past eight months.

            While many tried to draw inference from Arsène’s tactful withdrawal from last Sunday’s “lap of appreciation” at the Emirates, watching Wenger soaking up the heartwarming adulation as the squad celebrated their shock success in the Wembley sunshine, it was hard to imagine le Gaffer being anywhere else. I could see Gooners everywhere nudging and teasing one another over the hypocrisy of our fervent chorus of “only one Arsène Wenger”. What a complete contrast to the poisonous vitriol spewing forth from the terraces at Palace only last month!

Up for the Cup
            For the past couple of months, most have been convinced that the only question was whether Wenger would sign an extension for one year or two. But I sense a change in our manager’s demeanour over the last week. He’s suddenly responded to what he perceives as a betrayal by those Gooners who’re intent on besmirching his illustrious legacy.

            Whenever our ageing dinosaur has appeared to be at the point of extinction, the euphoria of the FA Cup has been there to provide the kiss of life. But this was no expected victory over Hull or Villa, this was a derby triumph over the club that’s provided the benchmark in recent times. In an age where quietude is invariably impinged by the bling of a mobile phone, the hush of the 90,000 crowd in memory of Monday night’s tragedy was particularly moving.

            Yet it saddens me that the authorities have been cowed by this outrage, in cancelling the traditional trophy parade and thereby depriving the red & white half of North London the opportunity to come together and revel in the very best of what multi-culturalism has to offer. I guess we’ll have to wait for the Community Shield to regale the Blues about sticking their double where the sun don’t shine and to chide Spurs about ending their best and our worst season in decades with  “no silverware”!
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Monday, 8 May 2017

The Fat Lady Takes A Rain Check

Prior to yesterday’s match I met up with a mate who’d flown over from Dublin to bring Joel, his youngster to his first ever Arsenal game. If one was planning such an outing, you would’ve thought that with the momentous history between the two sides and with so little love lost between Wenger and Mourihno, a high-profile, end of season clash between Arsenal and Man Utd should prove a guaranteed winner.

Don’t get me wrong because as far as I’m concerned, there can’t possibly be a more pleasant way to pass a Sunday afternoon than watching the Gunners, while soaking up some particularly agreeable Spring sunshine. Yet when one reflects upon the obscenely inflated sums invested in the prima-donna purveyors of our afternoon’s entertainment, frankly I sat there at half-time thinking that my Irish pal and his lad must’ve felt like they’d been sold a pup, with the sum total of the first forty-five minutes amounting to quite such disappointingly dour and uninspiring fare.

I can recall so many titanic encounters with Man Utd in the past, where often the tension has been so great that it’s been ten minutes into the match before I’ve even dared draw breath. This might only have been a clash between the also-rans in 5th and 6th in the table, but it was hard to credit that both teams were supposedly battling to cling to the slightly increased hope of Champions League qualification, after the Scousers had kindly left the door ajar by dropping two points at Anfield.

Even the library-like Emirates has risen to the occasion in the past and the atmosphere has been absolutely electric for so many of our previous meetings. Perhaps there was still some hangover from the gut-wrenching disappointment of last weekend’s derby defeat. Or maybe it’s down to an abiding mood of disillusionment, amongst all those Gooners who are distraught at the inertia that exists at the club and the apparent unwillingness to dynamite the current, complacent status quo and effect some long overdue change.

Yet even by the sedentary standards of our new stadium, I struggle to recall a Man Utd game where the home crowd has been quite so insipid, as the testimonial like circumstances of the first-half on Sunday. I guess the lack of goalmouth action didn’t exactly help. I’m not sure that the containment of an unimpressive Martial counts as much of a test, but while the Gunners might’ve acquired a more calm and composed aura in defence with the current formation, sadly it would appear that the inclusion of an additional centre-half is not without cost to our attacking potency.

With both Alexis and Özil finding themselves forced to drop deep to see anything of the ball and with Ramsey and Xhaka reluctant to make runs into the box, on those rare occasions when the Ox or Gibbs threatened down the flanks, either an isolated Welbeck was the only target in the box, or more often than not, our lone striker’s tendency to roam left the opposition’s penalty area entirely vacant of red and white.

While enduring our lamentable display at White Hart Lane, it struck me that Spurs formation was far less rigid, with their three centre-halves having more license to influence proceedings when they were in possession and only reverting to five across the back when they lost the ball.

Every time I’ve seen Man Utd play this season, I’ve marveled at the club’s ability to spend SO much money, while managing to remain quite so mediocre. I almost feel sorry for Rooney, since he’s become such an ineffectual shadow of the player who left us all with our jaws on the floor when he burst onto the world stage with THAT first goal at Goodison. 

I guess Arsène was long overdue some luck against his gobby, managerial nemesis. Mercifully he got it in spades on Sunday. It was only upon seeing the replay on the big screen that I realized Xhaka’s speculative effort had deflected off Herera’s back, causing the bizarre arc that defeated De Gea.

I was most relieved that Joel was able to enjoy the euphoria of witnessing his first live goal, as up until then, this contest was so sterile that it appeared destined to end goalless. It was the hunger of young Rob Holding that was the catalyst, which led to Welbeck heading home and much as occurred last weekend, with the second goal coming in such swift succession, it pretty much killed the game off as a contest.

Alexis should’ve been embarrassed by his inability to disturb Utd’s debutante right-back. With our Chilean pocket-rocket seemingly so out of sorts, it’s hard to envisage where the goals are going to come from. Yet amidst all the doom and gloom, it would be some feat if we were to sneak under the wire into 4th spot.

Not that I’d wish harm upon anyone, but after knobbling Silva in the semi (I'm really not sure if we'd have won otherwise!), Gabriel might do likewise with Hazard in the final. If we were to beat Chelsea and end a miserable season on a high, by both winning the Cup and qualifying for the Champions League, much like UKIP, the Wenger Out mob would be left with little to protest about. Personally I feel fans should be forced to endure a season supporting the likes of Leyton Orient, or Blackburn Rovers to afford all those Gooner ingrates some proper perspective.

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Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Sentimental Last Stroll Down The Lane?

5p for a programme...those were the days!
Can anyone identify any of the autographs?
            It was previously rumoured that the reason Spurs hadn't announced any plans to acknowledge the demise of their dilapidated old ground was because they hadn't quite given up hope of playing there next season. However Friday's confirmation that their home games will be played at Wembley means that Sunday will definitely be the last ever North London Derby at the Lane and I guess there's no better excuse for indulging in a bit nostalgia.

            For the majority of Spurs fans, the intense level of bitterness felt towards the Arsenal is in direct proportion to the lifetime they've spent suffering in our shadow. The resulting fervent acrimony between the two sets of fans has ensured that younger Gooners have grown up believing it to be their birthright to be able to have nothing but scorn for "the scum" at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road.

            Yet it was only on shooting the bitter cold breeze, outside the Emirates prior to Wednesday's game that I was reminded that there was a time when the North London Derby was more akin to the Merseyside equivalent, where families with supporters in opposite camps could happily stand alongside each other on the terraces, without risking life and limb.

            Before all the tribal aggro began in the 70s and back when "boring, boring Arsenal" were still trying to grind their way back out of the shadow of the Lilywhites' Glory, Glory boys of '61, it was fairly common amongst North London football fans to make the trip to opposite ends of the Seven Sisters Road on alternate weeks.

            My old man wasn't a diehard Gooner, he simply enjoyed watching footie and apparently like many others in those days, he was often in the habit of going to the Arsenal one week and Spurs the next. In fact, back when Bill Nicholson's team (including the likes of Chivers, Greaves, Gilzean and Mullery) was that much more entertaining to watch than Bertie Mee's more dour outfit (of the likes of Radford, Graham, McLintock and Storey), I can recall my dad taking me to the odd Spurs away game!

            I often say that I only ended up a Gooner because my bony little bum was far more comfortable on the padded seats of the West Upper at Highbury than the hard wooden equivalent at White Hart Lane. Perhaps it was merely youthful rebelliousness, as there were plenty of Spurs fans in my extended family, many of whom would regularly harangue me about the insanity of me forsaking the flair football on offer at Spurs, in order to support the Gunners more prosaic game. 

            The fact that I played as a left-back as a kid might've made me more appreciative of the Arsenal's defensive traits and their ability to shut shop, but whether it was the famous Marble Halls and the stadium's Art Deco grandeur, or the camaraderie evident in the steamy, crowded cafe in the bowels of the West Stand, there was a certain "je ne sais quoi" that seemed to make going to THOF that bit more special than matches at White Hart Lane.

            Mind you, as far as I was concerned there was definitely one major attraction about White Hart Lane, as my old man was an extremely gregarious geezer who could charm the leaves from the trees. There was a steward in the West Stand at Spurs who regularly let him pass through this magic door, which led to the players car park. So while my programme collection from the late 60s, early 70s includes Arsenal programmes with autographs from the odd celebrity Gooner, who frequented the plush 100 Club in the West Upper at THOF, like DJ Pete Murray, I've got tatty old Spurs programmes covered in the spider-like scrawl of the star players of the day, sadly many of which are utterly unidentifiable.

            I feel extremely privileged to have been present for both of our historic title triumphs at the Lane and compared to the euphoric ecstasy of these two occasions, it's ridiculous to get too depressed about the prospect of throwing Spurs fans a rare bone of finishing above us, for the first time in over a couple decades. 

            In fact, as I was trying to console myself in a teasing text battle with one of my Spurs pals, they've grown so accustomed to being left trailing in the Arsenal's wake that so long as they don't end up winning the bloomin' title, it's likely to prove far more satisfying if their expectations are raised and they are fooled into believing that their time has finally come, only to have all this hope quashed, when normal service is (hopefully!) resumed next season.

            In recent years the level of animosity from Spurs fans has become so intense at the derby game on their turf that I've grown to view the short hop from Highbury to Tottenham with the same amount of enthusiasm as I would have for a trip to the dentist, with the principal ambition being to get there, get in, get out and back home with the minimal amount of suffering.

            If I had a nine-year old kid, I'm really not sure I'd want to be taking him to tomorrow's game, knowing I've seen youngsters literally brought to tears by the frighteningly aggressive hostility witnessed in and around the ground in recent times. Fortunately it was a different story back in 1971, when I'm embarrassed to admit that I squeezed into White Hart Lane with nearly 52,000 others (with just as many locked outside), with an Arsenal rosette on one side of my tiny little chest and a Spurs rosette on the other.

            The Spurs rosette had long since bitten the dust by the end of the evening, when we worked our way around from the Paxton Road to the West Stand, to join all the Gooners who'd taken over the stadium and we took it in turns to serenade the thousands who'd invaded the pitch. Glory hunter that I am, I suppose this was the night when any sense of split loyalties evaporated and mercifully I became a firmly committed Gooner.

            In view of there being more than a little sentimentality attached to tomorrow's outing, I hope you'll forgive me if I take the opportunity to give this particular anecdote one more run out (with apologies to anyone who's read it before). It was the 20th anniversary of my old man's passing a few days ago and it was amazing that my memories of that incredible night in May '71 were so fuzzy that it wasn't until the occasion of my dad's funeral, some twenty-six years after that I was able to fill in some of the blanks, thanks to a Spurs supporting lad who lived down the road, who was with us on the night and who I naturally found myself reminiscing with, when he came to pay his respects.

            Ian was (and still is) a couple of years older than me and with his old man working on the day, dad offered to take him with us to White Hart Lane. Going to football wasn't an outing that required military planning, months in advance back in those days, prior to era of football hooligans that sadly resulted in the advent of "all ticket" matches. The fact that one could turn up and queue for unreserved seating meant that going to a match was a far more spontaneous thrill.

            Growing up in Edgware, long before mobile phones, my old man would often walk back into the house midday Saturday and if he fancied going to a game at either Arsenal, or Spurs, we'd walk down to the main road and stand on the corner, waiting for anyone he knew to pass by heading to the match, so he could flag them down for a lift.

            I've heard several tales over the years of those who actually had tickets for the momentous meeting on Monday 3rd May '71, but who never made it into the ground before the gates were locked. I was extremely fortunate that my old man had "more front than Sainsburys" and with him having driven us up to White Hart Lane after school, the queue for the unreserved seating in Paxton Lane already stretched around the corner and along Tottenham High Road.

            It was Ian who reminded me that my dad had marched up to a copper and come out with a yarn about leaving his pitch in the queue just to fetch the two of us from school. I'm sure we wouldn't have made it into the ground, if he hadn't blagged his way in near the front and amongst my most vivid memories of that magical night was the mad rush, when the gates eventually opened and reassuring protection of my old man's arms, wrapped around the shoulders of the two of us nippers, as he shepherded us to into the turnstiles.

            In such extremely fraught circumstances, where only a win, or a 0-0 draw would suffice to take the title, I've a vague memory of the explosion of pent up euphoria when Ray Kennedy's header hit the back of the net, with only minutes left on the clock. But with this being the moment when Arsenal fans were finally able to consign Spurs feats of '61 to history and lord it over our North London neighbours, it was the tumultuous post-match celebrations and subsequent events which stuck most firmly in my mind.

            Having joined all the Gooners in the West Stand, chanting back and forth to those on the pitch, we eventually made our customary exit, through the door which led to the players car park. And as we're wandering around, with me in absolute awe, as my dad collared some of my heroes for autographs, who should pipe up asking if anyone was going past his parents' hotel, but the title winning goal-scorer, Ray Kennedy.

            Naturally my old man didn't need a second invitation and promptly offered Kennedy a lift and us two kids were left agog in the back of the motor, as I whispered to my mate "they're never going to believe us at school tomorrow!" I'm assuming from the "to whom" in the dedication, my dad might've suggested to Kennedy what to write, but the inscription of "to Bernard whom I travelled home with" has obviously ensured that this programme is without doubt my most treasured piece of memorabilia.

            I get seriously pissed off with all those Gooners who fail to appreciate quite how spoiled we've become in recent years. Fans of the vast majority of clubs must find our incessant whinging irritating, when they'd give their eye teeth to have enjoyed two decades at the top table, with the promise of Champions League football every season.

            The vast majority of Spurs fans haven't seen their team win the title in their entire lifetimes, while I've savoured SIX gloriously historic title-winning seasons watching the Gunners, including the icing on the cake of a second crown won at White Hart Lane in '04. Even in the unlikely event that Spurs should ever achieve a successful league campaign, it's doubtable that we'll ever have to endure the humiliating ignominy of it happening at our gaff.

            So perhaps their fanatical hatred is understandable, but any sympathy I might feel certainly doesn't extend to me wanting to gift them an opportunity to be able to crow even more than they are already, by winning our last ever meeting at the Lane. It would be most amusing if Chelsea slip up at Goodison in tomorrow's earlier KO, only for us to subsequently put a definitive spoke in Spurs title aspirations. Yet there's already enough riding on the outcome of this encounter and I'd prefer that the pressure wasn't ramped up even further, by Chelsea dropping points.

            The Gunners need to prove that last weekend's gutsy display wasn't a one off, since the bare minimum that we can afford is a draw, if we're to come away from the Lane for the last time, with our pride intact. With the London Stadium such a far cry from the atmosphere at Upton Park and recalling how my football experience has deteriorated since departing THOF, I keep reminding my Spurs mates to savour their remaining matches because football as they know it will never be the same. Nevertheless, worryingly it appears as if Levy has taken lessons from our experience and with its single terrace at one end, I wonder if Spurs new stadium might not be nearly so sterile as our antiseptic arena. 

            Still we're guaranteed at least one season's worth of laughing at Tottenham, while they struggle to come to terms with playing at Wembley. It remains to be seen whether we'll look back nostalgically at the Lane in future, or whether we'll be glad to see the back of "the Shit Hole"? 

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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Le Prof Pulls Out His Chemistry Set

            So just how excited are we all at the prospect of Sunday's Wembley semi-final outing? Perhaps it's the erosion of any last vestige of youthful exuberance that accompanies my advancing years (or merely a result of my increasingly decrepit memory), but personally I struggle to recall facing this familiar, end of season odyssey around the North Circular, with quite so much trepidation.

            It's hard to believe that it was only at the beginning of this same month that we managed to achieve an honours even share of the points with Guardiola's Man City. Then when we returned to our gaff only three days later, to produce some brief cameos of the most entertaining footie that we've witnessed from the Gunners in months, in nailing the Hammers 3-0, we were sucked in by the false dawn of a quasi-religious "born again" renaissance.

            Sadly this premature scent of a barn-storming, end of season resurgence had long since dissipated, perhaps amidst the pollution of all that traffic, as the team coach struggled to transect "the Smoke" to SE25. It was to be replaced by an all together more offensive whiff, as the Arsenal positively "stunk the place out" at Selhurst Park.

            After having to endure another irritating weekend's worth of football, where all the opponents of the teams above us seemed to roll over in an annoyingly meek manner, we were left impatiently waiting for a decidedly unappetising Bank Holiday outing to Boro. But it wasn't merely a win of any description that I was desperate for on Monday evening. 

            It felt as if any self-respecting Arsenal player should be positively desperate to be party to a collective response, to the accusations of a "lack of balls" cowardice, which were levelled at them with the fusillade of deservedly chastening criticisms that came in the aftermath of the defeat at Palace. This was an experience that couldn't have possibly proved any more humiliating (but a helluva lot more hilarious) if BFS had pranked his old foe Wenger with a friendly "wedgie"!

            So I found myself scrutinising Monday night's performance for evidence of some slight chink of Arsenal indignation; some signs of renewed resolve in their demeanour that might give me cause to feel more optimistic about Sunday's encounter. I mistakenly presumed that the players might feel some obligation to at least try to demonstrate that our leader is not an entirely spent force and that he's still capable of motivating his squad, to turn it up a notch or two when the chips are down.

            Sure, much like every other Gooner, I took plenty solace from landing all three points from our Riverside fishing trip, since these were essential just to keep us in the picture. Yet in order to garner a little confidence and momentum going into Sunday's game, we could've badly done with a more convincing display, rather than this somewhat fortuitous struggle to reel in a catch that's seemingly already doomed to relegation.

            While Wenger responded to our frequent moans about his tactical rigidity, by surprising us all with his team selection, it seems more than a little bizarre for him to be waiting until the end of April, to be experimenting with playing three at the back for the very first time in twenty years!

            In the past, our manager's point blank refusal to bow to public and media pressure has been viewed as one of his strengths, but the more cynical amongst up might ponder whether Monday's formation might've been the equivalent of "dad dancing", with Wenger suddenly feeling the need to prove that anything Pep or Conté can do, he can do better.

            I presumed this to be a "horses for courses" one off experiment, with Wenger loading up on centre-halves to deal with Boro's expected aerial threat. Yet when one considers that it might've ended up resulting in a far more miserable outcome, if either of Downing's decent crosses had been despatched, the performance hardly served as validation of our ability to effectively adapt to this particular tactical strategy.

            Others have questioned whether it might've been a dress-rehearsal for Sunday's game and I for one bloomin' well hope not, as I'm already terrified by the likelihood of Ramsey and Xhaka playing in the middle, where I fear neither is willing, nor able to produce the work rate necessary to provide our defence with sufficient protection. And surely the worrisome prospect of us being overrun by City in the middle of the park only becomes more acute, if AW includes an additional centre-back?

            If as I suspect, Wenger reverts to his more standard formation, I imagine that I'm far from alone in questioning whether "two wash-bags" Bellerin will receive a recall at right-back. It's rumoured that Hector has been carrying a knock recently and I certainly hope that this is the case, as it would at least provide Hector with some excuse for his lamentable dip in form and it offers some hope that the disturbing sight of Sane leaving him for dead might just be a one-off aberration.

            Rather than Hector carrying the psychological baggage of the Man City wide man getting the better of him, into next season, I think I'd want him to be challenged on Sunday to go out and prove his mettle. In fact the club could do a lot worse than sitting the entire team down and force feeding them recordings of their forbears more memorable displays, by way of a much needed reminder of the sort of resolve, the 100 per cent committed attitude that's expected of them come Sunday.

            The Ox appeared to be just about the only energised Arsenal player against Boro, willing to take responsibility to run with the ball and at least make something happen. But even he seemed to run out of puff, or enthusiasm, as he slipped into comparative anonymity, along with his colleagues second-half. Will Wenger take a risk on Alex maintaining his energy level for 90 minutes on Sunday. Or will Walcott get the shout, knowing he might contribute little overall, but is at least capable of popping up with a goal? In truth I fancy that all such selection quandaries will not prove nearly so significant as the attitude of the starting XI.

            When I contrast the Gunners utterly tame efforts of late, with some of the engrossing Champions League encounters in midweek, it seems to me that leaving aside the question of sufficient quality, it's been the woeful lack of intensity to the Gunners efforts that's been the most obvious difference. In the past I've invariably been able to kid myself that our players were at least willing to make it look like the outcome mattered to them. But watching a positively distraught Neymar, blubbing his eyes out after Barca had exited the competition, I simply couldn't envisage any of our lot as having been equally distressed after they were trounced by Bayern.

            Never mind the daunting prospect of proceeding to the cup final, I'm absolutely desperate for us to win, or at the very least to produce a performance in which they do themselves proper justice on Sunday, if only to be able to carry some confidence into the North London derby. If, in addition to finishing below Spurs for the first time in a couple of decades, we have to face the ignominy of losing our last ever encounter at White Hart Lane, I'll have a depressingly long summer's worth of piss-taking to look forward to, from all those puffed up Spurs pals who'll be keen to make the most of their rare bragging rights.

            I'll be only too delighted to end up having to eat these words, but watching Spurs batter Bournemouth last Saturday, it didn't exactly appear as if Pochettino's side are about to produce an encore of the way in which they ran out of steam last season. With the Spuds 2-0 up after only twenty minutes, the game already looked done and dusted as a contest and on TV it sounded as if the atmosphere evaporated as the first half wore on; to such an extent that the only noise being picked up by the pitchside sound effects mics was that of their Argie manager bellowing at his team to maintain their high-intensity fervour.

            Equally revealing was that unlike the Gunners far more sedentary displays, there was no sense of Spurs smugly sitting back on a three goal lead and it was hard not to be impressed, watching our neighbours continue to work their socks off, as they pressed for a fourth goal in the 92nd minute.

            As we all know, mercifully form can go straight out the window when it comes to a derby game but it's precisely this sort of hunger and determination that the Gunners are going to need to match (and which has been on the missing list for most of the season), if we're to have any hope of taking them down a peg, or two and putting a spoke in their Premiership hopes, thereby calming the rising panic about a last gasp title charge.

            Even if we're to end up failing, so long as the Gunners give us a performance to be proud of. I'm already dreading the short trip to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road far more than would normally be the case and I couldn't bear the thought of putting myself through such an ordeal, only to watch an uninspired Arsenal side that rocks up expecting to get turned over.

            Sunday's semi-final is crucial in this context because it's essential that we produce the sort of impressive display that inspires some hope. Otherwise I might end up sitting here, seriously wondering if I'd be better off cashing in the gold-dust of my White Hart Lane ticket, putting the cash towards my season ticket renewal and allowing some other mug to suffer a sado-masochistic adieu to Spurs dilapidated old home.

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