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Tuesday, 27 September 2005

Crisis! What Crisis?

I have to admit that I was pleased to be heading back to
Upton Park on Saturday after the Irons brief dalliance with the lower
divisions. It might've meant doing battle with some of East London's
most traffic ridden back streets. Yet the relatively short drive past
Hackney Town Hall, along Homerton High Street, through Stratford
(where some think Spurs will end up if Stratford isn't to be left with
a white elephant of an Olympic Stadium) to Upton Park, always feels
almost like a home game.

This particular bit of East London might be more Bangladesh
than Tel Aviv these days, with all the Jews having long since
emigrated to leafier suburbs like Edgware, but I retain some affinity
with the East End, when I think of all the forbears who frolicked
along Whitechapel High Street. More importantly having made this
particular trip so many times in the past, as such a stickler for
tradition and routine, in this crazy age of global warming and whacky
weather, there's a comforting feeling that all is right with the
world, when walking along Green Street, full of anticipation for a 3
o'clock kick-off on a Saturday afternoon.

Although I have to admit that despite the best efforts of the
farcical new film of the same name (I've never heard a more
unconvincing Cockney accent than the lead in this movie!) to revive
some of the worst of football's hooligan traditions, it's great
nowadays to find oneself in the heart of Hammers territory, without
having to be in fear of ones life. Mind you while I'm happy that our
encounters are no longer the intimidating prospect they once were back
in the bad old days, it's a pity that the ground itself has lost much
of the imposing, intimate atmosphere it was famous for in the past.

The new main stand at Upton Park, with hotel bedrooms which
double as executive boxes on match days and the widening of the
playing surface has seen the Hammers relinquish a major home
advantage, in the demise of that fortress Upton Park feeling. Still it
may no longer be nearly such a menacing place to play, with visiting
teams no longer suffering the snarling, 'in yer face' home fans who
were in spitting distance of the touchline within the tight confines
of the old gaff, but compared to many of the somewhat soulless,
concrete modern stadia, Upton Park remains a 'proper' football ground.

I've yet to experience the Hammer's hospitality in the new
stand but there's something very reassuring about their rundown
facilities behind the goal. I recall receiving a text message from my
West Ham pal attending his first pre-season friendly "It's half-time,
the beer's run out, the karsey's are flooded, dontcha just love
football?" The bursting Premiership bubble is a popular theme at
present. In truth, much like a flatulent rhino, football's glitzy top
flight has been leaking gas ever since the Taylor Report condemned us
to all-seater stadia. Nevertheless I have to laugh at the glut of
obituaries in the popular press for the beautiful game of late.

Like death, taxes and most other things in life, football is
cyclical. Successful teams will come and go and according to the
fashion, the sport's popularity will continue to wax and wane with the
times. However there's a hard core of supporters who will continue to
turn up each week, come what may. In fact there are many like myself
who've experienced conflicting feelings about the impending and
overdue "bust" which will inevitably follow a sustained period of
"boom". At least it might result in the trimming off of the game's
glory-hunting fat, to the point where genuine fans will once again be
able to afford to follow their team.

It's been a while since I stood for an entire game, as all
the Gooners did behind the goal on Saturday. I'm no longer sure I
could manage it every match. I was almost glad of Roy Carroll's
incessant time-wasting as it gave me a few seconds respite, perching
on the back of my seat. However there's no denying that for some
strange reason, standing is far more conducive to singing, as it was
much noisier than if we'd been placidly restrained to sitting on our
rear-ends. It felt great to be amongst a couple of thousand Gooners,
giving it our all for nearly the entire 90.

Despite the dissatisfactory outcome, I arrived home
completely spent and pleasantly exhausted, with plenty of time for a
reviving kip before Match of the Day. After an afternoon spent on my
feet, vocally venting all my frustrations, this was followed by the
deepest and most undisturbed night's sleep I've had in weeks.

The scoreless draw was no surprise to me. In fact having
predicted it to all my pals, I was just gutted I didn't have any money
on it. After all the pundits who've been bemoaning the lack of
entertainment in the Premiership, pinpointed this encounter between
two of the league's exponents of attractive football, as the game
which was bound to get the beautiful ball rolling and the juices
flowing, as far as I was concerned, it was abso-bloomin-lutely obvious
fate would intervene with a 0-0!

I also get no end of amusement hearing everyone prattle on
about the paucity of entertainment. You've no idea quite how
outrageous this sounds to an Arsenal fan who's stumped up their hard
earned cash every week, to endure the dour 'skills' of the likes of
Hillier, Carter and Jensen, compared to the wonderment watching Henry,
Bergkamp and Pires. Like me, most Gooners have spent the past decade
pinching ourselves to ensure we aren't dreaming.

Those who continue to ring the death-knell don't seem to
appreciate that football comes just above cricket in the entertainment
stakes. The fact that a match ticket guarantees little in the way of
instant gratification is the principal reason those such as the Yanks
will never quite get it. There was a time when one paid five bob to
stand on the terraces, have a laugh with your pals, or spend quality
time with your pop, perhaps down a few beers, give the ref an ear
bashing and if you where lucky, the icing on the cake was a couple of
goals.

The modern day mercenaries might be a lot fitter and get paid
a whole heap more, but in essence, as far as entertainment is
concerned, the game hasn't changed. What's different these days is
ticket prices and a society which now demands value in return for such
a substantial investment. Or else they might as well stop at home,
where they can now watch almost every game on the box.

As we marvelled walking home from our win against Everton
last Wednesday, there's a very fine margin between success and failure
in football. Having waited 50 years, Chelsea fans should enjoy their
moment in the sun, as eventually someone will come along to shatter
that fragile fa├»¿½ade of confidence and knock them off their perch.
Perhaps Abramovich is destined to come a cropper to one of the many
enemies he must've made in his dramatic accumulation of wealth.
Hopefully sometime in the future I will still be struggling up the
stairs to the terraces, wondering "Roman who?"

If I was one of the Everton fans who schlepped all the way
down from Merseyside last Wednesday, I would've been extremely
disappointed with the limited ambition Everton displayed, in what was
little more than a damage limitation exercise. I couldn't care less
about the creed or colour of the players wearing an Arsenal shirt. But
what does bother me is the thought that my beloved club is a mere
staging post in their careers.

Ticket prices aside, in my humble opinion the biggest threat
to the health of the beautiful game is the bitter taste left in ones
mouth after watching a match which means far more to those of us on
the terraces than the majority of the participants. As far as I'm
concerned this is the only cancer which could end up having an impact
on the ardour of committed addicts like myself.

____________________________________________________________


Hi folks

I was listening to the podcast of a Radio 5 show, Fighting Talk
(Saturday mornings) on my slick, brand spanking black iPod Nano - a
premature b-day pressie courtesy of my bro-in-law. I wasn't dropping
any hints, honest, but having bagged two of these little beauties, I
don't think my sister is going to forgive me very quickly for sending
her hubbie a text while he was in New York to check out the new iPod's
at the Apple shop. It was actually an excuse on my part to ask him to
bring me back some ciggies, but I'm certainly not complaining that he
forgot the fags and brought this sexy bit of techno kit back instead.
Although in truth I will have doubtless spent the cost of a couple of
these gadgets, at five pounds a pack, before hopefully I get a chance
to restock with cheapie Camels in Prague.

In fact if fags were cheap in Holland, it probably would've paid me to
go and watch the game against Ajax this week. But sadly they're not
and so I'll be stopping at home to watch on the box, to save the
little that remains of my credit in the hope of us making the latter
stages

A regular pannelist on this amusing punditry programme is a 'septic
tank' who's name I think is Greg Brady and who often gets my goat with
his comments. I get the distinct impression from his regular
appearances that he thinks we're all sitting here waiting for the
World Cup, now that the Premiership os already over (according to
many!). He doesn't seem to appreciate that just because footie (or
soccer) aficionadoes across the pond have little else to focus on
because of the dearth of interest in their domestic game, it doesn't
mean any of us really give a monkeys.

I suppose there are plenty of patriotic loonies but if you ever look
at all the flags at an England game, the vast majority come from
places like Didcot and Darlington, where they don't have a decent
footie team of their own to dominate their attention. Brady seems to
have this misguided believe that we are all still in mourning after
getting beat by N.Ireland, when many of us weren't even interested in
this match when it was taking place (I was watching Ireland v France
at the time) and even more of us found the outcome quite amusing.

In this weeks's show there was a question about which set of fans have
the right to be most disappointed so far and Brady suggested us.
Bearing in mind this was before Newcastle supposedly turned the corner
with Saturday's win and prior to another defeat for Everton, or Man
Utd fans booed Fergie as they got beat at home by Blackburn.
Admittedly we've plenty of cause for cursing our luck but to my mind
his answer just proved quite how little some of these so called
pundits focus on anything other than the top three teams. How about
poor Spurs with Martin Jol's best team getting beat by Grimsby and
losing perhaps their only chance of a sniff of silverware this season

Apart from perhaps Chelsea, West Ham and Wigan (maybe Charlton as
well), virtually all the other supporters of Premiership teams have
plenty of reasons to be more pissed off than us. I was just as gutted
as every other Gooner when I heard how long Henry would be out for. I
am also horrified at the ever increasing momentum of the gossip
bandwagon which would have us believe Titi will be buggering off next
summer (although it's hard to blame him if he does!).

I was also more than a little miffed today when I received a text
message from my sister to say that she was sitting waiting for an
X-Ray at the Princess Grace hospital alongside none other than Thierry
Henry. Actually she initially texted me to tell me it was Patrick
Vieira, but considering Paddy scored his third goal in three games for
Juve in Italy, as they continued their 100 per cent start to the
season on Saturday, I found this a little hard to believe, until she
corrected herself.

I couldn't believe she managed to get me and everyone else I
subsequently texted with this snippet, all excited and then completely
failed to appreciate quite what a precious opportunity this was to pop
a couple of important questions - like how long he thinks he will be
out injured and more importantly, whether Titi thinks he'll still be
here next season. The funny thing is that the Swedish specialist she
is seeing is the absolute spit of Sven Goran Ericsson and I was at
least hoping she might get a picture of the two of them together. Yet
whilst waiting for this photo op, she got 'nyammed' by a traffic
warden and a sodding parking ticket!

Considering he was hardly the most prolific goal scorer during his
time at THOF, it's kind of hard to accept that he's begun scoring so
regularly, especially when we've been looking so goal shy of late.
However in truth I am happy for Paddy. When you think back to the
peerless player who absolutely dominated matches during his first few
seasons but who ended up marking time with the Arsenal, it would've
been much better if he'd rediscovered his motivation at our gaff, but
it would've been criminal if he'd continued to do just enough to earn
his keep and it's great to see him back to his best. Let's face it, it
could be worse, at least Paddy's not wreaking havoc on our own front
door. The funny thing (peculiar, definitely not ha-ha!) will be
if/when we progress in the Champions League and we inevitably draw
Juve in the knockout stages!

Meanwhile with our squad apparently dropping like flys and beginning
to look more than I little stretched, I've already said that I think
there might be a silver lining to us having dropped off the radar as
Champions League contenders, in that traditionally we always been at
our best with our backs against the wall and as a result I've got this
strange feeling we might just end up surprising a few of the so called
experts.

"In layman's terms" that's one of the sentences I read in an article
this week which always winds me up. There are many who earn their
living from talking and writing about football who love to maintain
this illusion that they are privvy to some professional insight which
is way above the heads of the average man in the street. When in
truth, most everyone who has ever played the game can confirm that
whether your playing in the park, or before 40,000 of the faithful,
the principles remain the same and incredibly simple. No matter how
many weird and wonderful formations the coaches can concoct, all the
way from your basic 4-4-2, through Christmas trees, diamond
formations, 4-1-2-2-1 and everything in between, the object of the
exercise remains unchanged. The team who get the ball in the back of
the net more times than their opponents wins the prizes. The rest is
basically ten per cent tactics and ninety per cent the motivational
skills and the confidence, or lack thereof on which every outcome
depends.

I myself am often guilty of falling under the spell of this illusion.
When Arsene or some other manager makes the sort of decision that all
35,000 fans in the crowd are convinced is a blatant mistake, we sit
there wondering what does he know that we don't. When I've come to the
conclusion that the truth is even someone as pragmatic as Le Prof,
with all his wealth of statistical information on fitness and
technique, he may be making decisions which are slightly better
informed than some of his competiors, but this doesn't mean he isn't
winging it any less than every other manager.

They roll the dice every game and hope they come up double-six and
when they don't they'll try something different, a blow on the dice, a
change of hands, a funky shake. If none of these work they change the
dice and if their bad luck continues, eventually they will crap out

I've stated below that it's all bunkum about boring football being
responsible for the bubble bursting because basically the game is the
same as when I started watching. I am not sure the statistics will
bear this out but on reflection it's occurred to me that we shouldn't
be surprised if we are seeing less goals. The mega money involved in
the game has ensured that those at the vast majority of those at the
top have become far too afraid of defeat to take any risks and thus
defensive formations prevail.

Youngsters these days will find it incredibly hard to believe that
many years back when I first began kicking a ball, there was only one
formation in football, which was youor standard 2-3-5. It looks back
to front these days and even I struggle to remember how two defenders
(full-backs) would manage to contain five forwards. I guess it's a bit
of an illusion because in truth only the centre forward was an out and
out striker, inside forwards (there's a dated moniker, which makes me
sound like Jimmy Hill) helped to create in the middle of the park,
wingers worked up and down the entire flank and the centre-half was
the rock at the centre of a footballing universe, around which ever
other player orbited.

Nevertheless, in actual fact no matter how you line the players up on
the blackboard, at the end of the day, formations have and always will
be the window-dressing which we see changed every now and again, while
the footballing stock remains the same

You knew you were in the East End on Saturday, when at half-time they
wheeled out decidedly D-list celeb Tessa Sanderson and the mayor of
Tower Hamlets (personally I would have preferred to watch the far more
aesthtically pleasing antics of the prancing young fillies who are the
Hammerettes!). The local mayor droned on about what a boon for the
borough the forthcoming Olympics would be and how it was great that we
beat the French "and we'll beat then again today". This comment passed
straight over my head, as I slurped the half-time cup of luke warm
water doing a poor impersonation of a cup of PG tips. So it wasn't
until a few minutes later that it occurred to me that he must've been
referring to us with his slightly racist remark.

I guess he thought he was being really clever when he wrote it,
appealing to all the right wing neanderthals who no doubt continue to
haunt the Hammers' terraces. However I assume it wouldn't have
occurred to him that they'd be playing an Arsenal side without a
single Frenchman amongst our ranks, at least not until Mathieu Flamini
made an appearance as a second half substitute. He's not the only one.
Was it only back in '98 when I bought a t-shirt printed with the
famous Daily Mirror front page "Arsenal Win The World Cup". It's a
sign of the changing times at THOF that we started on Saturday with
nine nationalities that included only two players from these isles and
not a single player from jusr across the Channel!

With Vieira having left already and rumours abounding that Robbie
Pires also wants out, is it that surprising that Thierry Henry might
not feel quite so at home at Highbury as he once did? Sod me banging
on about Wenger buying players from these shores, or bringing in more
homegrown talent who might play with the sort of heart and commitment
which reflects their respect for wearing the red & white. If I was
Arsene, I'd be thinking about filling Thierry's Xmas sock with a
handful of Frenchmen and anything else which might make our greatest
asset happy

Peace & Love
Bernard

PS. I've just got around to creating a gmail account (by the lack of
available log-in names remaining, it feels as if I am the last to be
invited, hence thedogsbollock address, but if there is anyone else who
needs an invite for a gmail account, please feel free to ask) and I'd
be grateful if you ould amend my e-mail details for future reference.
It depends on me checking my mail for me to receive messages to my old
address. Whereas there's a great little yoke for the toolbar with
gmail which tells you as soon as a new message arrives and thus I am
likely to see messages a lot sooner

However this is the first time I've attempted to use it to send my
weekly missive, so please be sure to let me know if there are any
problems (ie. you receive two copies, or only some of it etc. etc), so
I can try to find a solution in future

--
mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

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