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Monday 19 September 2005

From "Bites Yer Ankles" to "Bites Yer Bum", Stuart Pearce for PM!

It seemed as if our "Invisible Wall" must've heard me, as Gilberto painted himself positively fluorescent against the Swiss side last Wednesday, with the most influential performance we've seen from the Brazilian for a long time. I know it was only Thun but as other results demonstrated, there are no free lunches in the Champions League these days and the multinational Swiss team provided stiff opposition.

Up to now most Arsenal fans have bemoaned the fact that of all the incredibly skilful Brazilians out there, we had to end up with their equivalent of Giles Grimandi. Perhaps Wenger had a word, but in addition to popping up with a headed goal and his usual defensive responsibilities, Gilberto was impressive all over the pitch, spraying 40 yard passes out to the wings, with the sort of precision which makes me wonder why he's been hiding this potentially far more influential light under a bushel.

However it is a funny old game indeed, since if it wasn't for Dennis Bergkamp's determination, in playing his 3 point get out of jail card at the death, 35 odd thousand Arsenal fans would've gone home feeling decidedly dissatisfied. I never fail to be amazed by that fine line between unbridled joy and a burgeoning mood of despair. If Dennis hadn't scrambled to his feet to stab home this late winner, another disappointing start to a European foray would've only fuelled the whispering campaign about the wheels coming off Arsène Wenger's bandwagon.

What's more with two defeats away from home since the departure of our colossus of a club captain, the confidence in the Arsenal camp has taken a bit of a battering. I'm not going overboard, as a last gasp goal against our obscure Swiss opponents isn't exactly going to repair the damage. But one sensed it was important for the spirit of unity within the squad. At least it gives Wenger something to build on going into the Everton game - additionally by contriving to get himself sent-off for Juve, it felt as if Vieira was with us in spirit!

Even if we hadn't managed to achieve a win in midweek, considering how bleak my outlook was after getting beat by Boro, there was a crucial difference in the two performances, which gives me cause for a soupcon of optimism. What bothered me most at Boro was that when we went a goal down, the game was immediately up. There wasn't a glimmer of the sort of resolve necessary to rescue a result. Whereas last Wednesday I never gave up hope of achieving a win. There was evidence of a renewed determination, whereby we battled right through to the final whistle, at no point settling for a draw.

It was a pleasant surprise, as the six game format of the opening group stage of this competition allows for a couple of indifferent results. It's one the reasons the Champions League has lost some of its "do or die" lustre and is doubtless a contributing in some of the half full stadia across the continent last week. As a result, having gone down to 10 men, it would've been easy for us to have blamed the harsh refereeing decision and accepted a consolation point.

It was no surprise to discover this was the youngest Champions League ref, making his debut in the tournament. One might wonder if he was somewhat insecure about his authority and felt the need to demonstrate his dominion over the proceedings, from the manner in which he brandished the red card without a moment's hesitation. It could be argued that Van Persie should've been wary of the fact that refs are more prone to penalising a raised boot in European matches. However I applaud the enthusiasm which inspired Robin's actions and I actually adore the idea that he was so totally committed to winning the ball that nothing else mattered. Personally I think it's a ridiculous rule, in a game where you can't kick the ball without raising your feet!.

Obviously I appreciate that there are some over-enthusiastic, career threatening, two-footed tackles that must be totally discouraged. However to my mind, in a sport where physical contact is an integral part of the contest, in most circumstances it should be "intent" which is the decisive criteria.

Where we sit, at the front of the Upper Tier at Highbury, we are fortunate to overlook the TV balcony. On European nights, when there are many more monitors, we get a great view of the replays that are deemed too controversial to show on the big screens. Thus we witnessed a replay of the incident which raised the choler of our usually imperturbable Brazilian. With the linesman standing only a few feet away, it was outrageous that this foul went unpunished, as Gilberto's eyebrow bore the brunt of an elbow, flung back at him with utter malice (as evidenced by the claret spurting everywhere!).

More ridiculous still is the fact that if UEFA should pick up on the incident after the event, the only ones to profit will be our competitors who might get to play against a Thun side weakened by any resulting suspension. Additionally, doubtless Wenger would've encouraged his side to give the ref every opportunity to redress the balance in the second-half, by collapsing at the first sign of any contact. Yet if the ref recognised the sending-off as somewhat severe and doled out 3 bookings as some form of compensation, again these could only end up benefiting our other opponents.

Still I shouldn't complain because in some respects it was the feelings of injustice and the sense of winning in spite of being reduced to 10 men for much of the match, that had such a beneficial effect on our team spirit. You have the advantage of knowing by now whether it's proved sufficiently positive to overcome an Everton side, on the rebound from 6 losses out of 7, including a thrashing in Europe. Considering we scored 14 goals against them, in their best season in donkey's years, then we might also be up against the law of averages, which would suggest we are due to draw a blank against the Toffees.

We're going to need to be as confident as possible, when it comes to taking on a West Ham side this weekend, riding high on their surprising start to the season. In some respects I wish they were playing Chelsea, prior to the couple of hammerings that in all probability are bound to bring the Irons back down to earth. At the moment they're one of the few teams likely to take the Blues on without demonstrating fatal levels of respect.

It will take a manager like Pardew, or perhaps Stuart Pearce to spring a surprising result against Chelsea, with the "cahones" to send their team out to beat their illustrious opponents, rather than merely trying to avoid defeat. As a counterpoint to the customary arrogant witterings of Mourinho, it was wonderful at the weekend to be reminded that the beautiful game still contains the odd charismatic character. I am of course referring to the irreverent, rib-tickling sight of Stuart Pearce biting Sam Allardyce's bum on the touchline.

Moreover, from watching feeble performances by Spurs and Real Madrid, I got the distinct feeling that I needn't fret over Wenger's failure to capture the likes of Jenas and Baptista. Their fairly anonymous efforts (to date!) would suggest that events might have contrived to save the club from wasting over 20 million quid? The pundits would have us believe that it is Sol Campbell's return that could prove crucial. I would agree that it might be important but more in a psychological sense, as a player of Sol's size and immense presence lends gravitas to an Arsenal team that was in danger of being regarded as a little lightweight without both Campbell and Vieira.

Right at this point in time, a player who commands as much respect as Sol could shore up the cracks in the centre of the park. But I'm assuming it's a temporary fix, to relieve some of the pressure and allow the likes of Gilberto time to grasp the mantle of midfield general. Long term Sol's probably too injury prone, or perhaps not sufficiently committed these days, for a durable defensive partnership that we can depend on in the future


Hi folks

I was grateful for Dennis' goal Wednesday night, if only for the fact that if it hadn't been for the Dutchman being left with enough 'get up and go' in the 90th minute to 'smash and grab' the winner (can you imagine how gutted the Swiss side must've been?), this mail would've turned into a far more pessimistic moan

But it was what this represented which meant most to me. The fact that it was the first sign we've seen for some while of the necessary 'do or die' spirit which is crucial for success in football

It's funny because you can usually bank on me for an effusion of 'glass half empty' opinions, but with the fatalistic mood which has been flowing from miserable Gooners of late, suddenly I am back in my element. For season after successive season, we've suffered as the Arsenal have under-achieved as one of the most fancied teams in Europe

Yet when I look back to memorable nights such as the Cup Winners Cup win in Copenhagen, it seems that after several seasons of successful domestic football, played in such fine style, we've all forgotten quite what a reputation the Arsenal once had for our ability to 'win ugly', against all odds. Remember the mediocre line-up of humdrum journeymen who triumphed over Parma's multi-million pound, star-studded line-up

I daren't open my big gob and speak 'its' name precisely, for fear of tempting fate, but perhaps, just perhaps, in a season where we've our weakest, least fancied squad for years, we might surprise a few people, by scrapping out some unlikely results. Whatever the upshot, it will be great if we should qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, to find ourselves going into games as the undoubted underdogs

I am not suggesting you should rush out and place a bet on us for European Champions, but consider if you will that I have schlepped all over the continent this past decade or so, but as my plastic debts reach meltdown point, this is perhaps the first season where I hadn't planned on travelling to any of the away games in the group stages and only changed my mind and twisted my own arm with regard to a trip to Prague, after picking up some cheap flights. So perhaps it's already written that we are bound to progress in the first season where my lack of attendance at away games is going to result in me not being eligible for a ticket to the latter stages. If I'd known that's all it took for us to get to a Final, I would have stopped travelling years back :-)

I certainly hope we can look forward to some success in Europe, as it's not exactly looking promising on the domestic front. Even if we beat Everton tonight, we'll still be nine points behind Chelsea. And even if we win the game we have in hand over the Blues, while mercifully the British game is still just about capable of throwing up the occasional result which goes completely against the form book, it's hard to imagine more than a couple of teams with the wherewithal to put one over on the Pensioners

And if that should prove to be the case, then basically we're going to have to win every single game between now and 8th May! This would be a tall order if we were a team at the top of our game. It would be a bloomin' miracle based on our current form!

But there I go getting all morose again. Although it's hard not to in the circumstances this season. Ro had a splitting headache last Wednesday and decided to stop at home at the last minute and watch the match on the box. This particular situation always present a dilemma. Do I risk the ticket going to waste, walking round to the Box Office and heading to the West Upper entrance from there, in the hope that there's a Gooner mind reader looking for a spare ticket, as that's the only person I am likely to flog it to, when I am far too afraid of being taken for a tout to be able to make the necessary vocal effort required to find a less psychic, ticketless Gooner

Moreover at that late stage, there's absolutely no way I am going to get anywhere near the seventy quid face value for it (in fact I've never had the front to ask for more than fifty quid for a football ticket -despite being prepared to pay so much more myself!). So considering it's far more likely to go to waste, or at most I might get 20 or 30 quid, and knowing quite how much of a wind up it must be for his Spurs supporting dad (having already lured his son away from the dark side - which doesn't take much persuasion these days!!), I will invariably knock for the lad downstairs.

However there was no reply when I called for Jamal on my way round to THOF and since I'd arranged to meet a mate who usually sits in the East Upper, I invited him to come and sit with me instead. I love having someone come and sit with us for the first time, as it often takes for me to experience our amazing pitch through the wonderment of someone else's eyes, so that I'm reminded to fully appreciate quite how fortunate we are to have such a fabulous view of the incredible entertainment we've been privileged to witness in recent years.

We usually nip out of our seats in the 90th minute, to go and sit nearer the bulkhead, ready for a quick exit at the final whistle and although the additional distance from the pitch is a mere few yards, somehow you lose that feeling of being right on top of the touchline, almost able to reach out and touch the players, at least certainly within shouting distance. This is especially the case for someone with my dodgy bins, where the expressions on the faces soon become a blur the further back we go

But it's not until I experience the view through the eyes of someone who's perfectly happy with their own pitch, with a great view of proceedings and the necessary height to enjoy a tactical perspective, but who comments on how brilliant it is to have all that and the ability to hear the crunch of an Ashley Cole tackle, that I realise quite how lucky we are

It's also a timely reminder to savour every single second, as it reinforces the particularly poignant feeling of quite how much we stand to lose when we move to our new stadium. It's hard for me to convey with mere words, without experiencing the view with your own eyes, but while the £18 grand (four years in advance) centre block seats in Club Level are the nearest possible equivalent to our current pitch, even these outrageously expensive seats will offer nothing like our current intimate Arsenal experience

It's the reason I've been prepared to go into such hock (still paying for two seasons back!) as these seats are undoubtedly worth it and it's for the same reason that, while I whinge and whine about the club focusing almost exclusively on the affluent Arsenal fans, I would bite their hand off if I was in a position to afford one of the best Club Level seats at the new gaff.

However as each home match passes, it's hard to believe that we're enjoying this experience for the last few times. As we exit THOF from the north end of the West Upper, you walk out on to a balcony which offers perhaps the best possible view of the new stadium. Yet as we walk down the stairs, we've become friendly with the stewards over the years who stand charge at a door which leads to the North Bank (which is usually reserved for the red jacketed fillies leading their herds of corporate punters around the pitch to the Clock End hospitality).

It must save us about 15 mins, nipping through the North Bank, instead of walking all the way around and battling past the queue for the Arsenal tube station. And each time I pass this way now, I am reminded that there will be none of this personal feeling at the new stadium. We'll have to start from scratch and perhaps we'll develop a relationship with the stewards over the coming years, but I can't help but have increasingly depressing feelings about becoming just one amongst sixty thousand faceless other punters.

Meanwhile my WHU supporting pal who used to be my boss at the ballet, was in touch this weekend. He and his wife return once a year to celebrate their anniversary at the same plush, Docklands hotel. In the past they've shared the first class facilities with the Arsenal squad who used to go there to prepare for home games (I don't know whether the stringent financial restraints on the club have put the kibbosh on such luxurious preparations, but I tend to think otherwise?). On this occasion last weekend it was the Chelsea team who were 'in town'.

I wish I'd known in advance, as we could have had a whip round to see if we could persuade my pal to push John Terry down a flight of stairs :-) Apparently Mourinho was in the bar on Friday night at a table with some of his cronies and an innocent Yank, noticing his tracksuit, enquired "Chelsea.....are they any good? I'm Man Utd myself", at which point according to my mate, the pouting Portuguese manager promptly got up and walked out :-)

Come on you Reds
Peace & Love

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