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Tuesday 25 October 2005

Czech Please. Or Would The Record Smashing, Goal Grabbing Gorilla Please Mind Standing For All Subsequent Gooner Bills (l'd settle for five years :-)

With over 8 grands' worth of debt directly attributable to the extortionate annual expense of our season tickets, not to mention the maintenance of all the other spinning plastic plates, weighed down by the cost of tickets and travel to away matches, I had to accept the reality that we couldn't really afford to travel abroad for the Champions League group games.

Nevertheless, old habits die-hard. As has been the case for the past few years, at the end of August, on the day of the draw, I was sat in front of my computer, frantically pressing keys in search of cheap flights, as the Gunners' group began to take shape. I wasn't too worried about returning to Amsterdam and I couldn't envisage a sortie to Switzerland being particularly easy on the pocket (hopefully it will be all over bar the shouting by the time the Gunners go to the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern?).

However having missed out the last time we played in Prague and since it's rumoured to be one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, I couldn't resist at least looking into the possibility of travelling. Finding 50 quid flights soon made my mind up, but in the minute it took to confirm with the missus and a mate, these had doubled to over a £100. My pal's common sense prevailed and we weren't going to Prague, until a few moments later, when I remembered the reasonably priced flights with a Czech airline that I'd come across previously.

It's funny how the mind works. I guess with the excitement of the prospect of our outing, followed by the disappointment after deciding against it, we were feeling somewhat deflated. A difference of 20 quid was hardly going to keep the wolves from the door, but it was sufficient for us to make believe that £80 was enough of a bargain and our little jolly to Prague was back on.

I was announcing details of our trip at my Ma's dinner table the very next day, when it suddenly dawned on Róna that her granddaughter's brother was due to be born around the same date. As the designated driver for the hospital run and all associated grannies' duties, Ró decided she couldn't risk it. The little bugger has yet to make his presence known on this mortal coil and personally I believe if she'd gone, it would've been the best way of guaranteeing his arrival. According to Murphy's Law (since the missus is a member of the esteemed ó'Murchú clan), I reckon he'll wait to announce his arrival next weekend, bang in the middle of our derby day clash at White Hart Lane (where I can't quite put into words my disappointment over Edgar Davids' suspension!).

At least I was able to recover half the cost with a refund of Ró's airport taxes and I was seriously considering doing likewise for myself. It seemed as if fate was conspiring to prevent me from travelling to Prague. First off, it was only as I was thanking a shareholder pal (my empty pockets certainly don't stretch to shares at 4 grand a pop!) for inviting me to the last AGM at Highbury, that I realised we'd be returning from Prague that same day. My idea to avoid a dawn dash to the airport had backfired because we would've been back in time if I'd booked the early flight.

Although this wasn't such a disaster. Our AGM has become a tepid affair since the boards' feathers can no longer be ruffled by ad hoc awkward questions from the floor. I struggle to believe the suggestion that it was at the request of shareholders, but they introduced a system of censorship last year, whereby all questions now have to be written down, so they can decide in advance which ones they fancy dealing with!

His worst ever start to a Premiership season didn't stop Wenger from receiving his customary ovation when he stood up to speak. A couple of years back our vice-chairman, David Dein was famously quoted as saying "Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on our lawn and is firing £50 notes at us". It would appear Arsène has come to accept the fact that the Arsenal simply cannot afford to fight fire with fire. Much like my bank's TV ads, apparently Le Boss is bunging all our eggs in a basket containing his belief that there must be "another way".

The idea of building an Arsenal squad, instead of buying one off the shelf is a beautiful concept to a romantic like myself. I would adore watching an Arsenal team with a homegrown backbone who've imbibed in the sort of values and spirit, which would have them prepared to die for the cause. Yet in these mercenary times, even those who've been at the club since they were in short pants can be enticed away by the prospect of greener pastures, or more's the point, a new contract worth a king's ransom!

So perhaps it's naive of us to believe that we'll ever again see an Arsenal side containing more than the odd exception, for whom success on the pitch for "the team", means as much as it does to some of us mug punters on the terraces.

Secondly, subsequent to the wind up of some of the Johnny-come-latelys amongst the bondholders snaffling the best seats at the new stadium, I was amongst the first batch of season-ticket holders to receive a highly prized appointment at the Reservation Centre to select my new pitch. Again, sadly this also coincided with the day of the AGM and the fact that I wouldn't be back from Prague in time. Mercifully this wasn't the major problem that it might've been if I wasn't planning on a swap with someone who has much cheaper, lower tier seats.

Finally it's many months since I last worked for the ballet, my former full-time employers. So guess what? I get a call Friday before last with an offer of work that I'd have to pass up. Suddenly my trip to Prague was proving to be bloody expensive! As such a martyr to the cause and in light of my sacrifice, I was convinced the match and my entire little East European adventure was condemned.

Somehow Prague seems to have escaped much of the ravages of the Second World War. Moreover, when you consider that the incredibly bland construction of Soviet style suburbs must've continued right up until the Velvet Revolution only 16 years ago, it's quite remarkable how the Czech capital has retained its picture postcard pulchritude. On a crisp autumnal morning, with the sun beaming out of a bright blue sky, highlighting all the amazing architecture, it was well worth investing a score for us to absorb the best of the city's Bohemian beauty, from the back of an open-topped, vintage Czech boneshaker.

As for the event itself, as we approached the stadium, the sight of the old bill in full riot gear, staring out of the eyeholes in their balaclavas was somewhat intimidating. Perhaps it was because the stadium was only half full (as punishment from UEFA for racist chanting at the Ajax match) but there wasn't the slightest hint of any aggro. In fact it felt as if the Gooners outnumbered the locals. We surely outsung them, but it wasn't as if they had much to shout about.

Gluttons for their Bratwurst, the sausage chomping Czechs' taste in food is a little too Germanic for my liking. By contrast my West Upper neighbour was complimenting the grub. But then I guess so long as you have a penchant for pig in every conceivable (and many inconceivable) guise, you are well catered for. Either that or the consumption of copious quantities of the locally brewed lager meant that the majority of Gooners could've been eating leather and cared less!

Considering what transpired when Henry replaced Reyes, Sparta must've regretted targeting the Spaniard and cracking his ribs. The temperature dropped a good few degrees at night and until our own "special one" appeared with gloved hands, we were joking that Gary Lewin must've received a ribbing for forgetting their mittens. The funniest sight of the evening was that of our substitutes bench, all tucked up in powder blue blankets, like a line of chilly little children.

Henry had one brief jog along the touchline before coming on. It was sufficiently cold that I was certain he was about to aggravate his injury with his first burst of speed. Instead of which Titi went straight for the top corner of the goal, reminding us quite how shot shy the Gunners have been in his absence.

I wouldn't have missed this magical moment and the one which followed, for the world! Considering the thousands of miles I cover during the season, supporting the Gunners, I would've felt incredibly cheated if I'd not been present for such a memorable occasion. Henry wasn't even supposed to have travelled originally, so I was amazed to be handed an "I was there" card as we left (trust Nike!) advertising a web site and wallpaper designed to honour Henry's achievement.

Returning with a carrier bag stuffed with cartons of Camel (at £1.20 a pack!), it was a great result all round. Moreover the work I missed out on has been re-offered to me this week. But now I'm not sure whether to feel sad about not being able to schlep all the way to Wearside (as I can't afford to forgo the graft), or glad of the excuse? I will be gutted if Anthony Stokes gets a run out as this game's not being shown on the box. Stokes was mentioned in dispatches, after Ireland U-19s 4-1 win against Italy last week (albeit on a waterlogged pitch).

He's already a hero of mine after choosing to come to N. London. Despite Man Utd supposedly having first pick of Shelbourne's young players and rumours that they were prepared to pay half a million for the Dubliner, I'd love to hear details of how Liam Brady charmed Stokes to Highbury? However he's slipped down the striking pecking order, behind two other teenagers, a little schnip Lupoli (who played against Stokes for Italy) and a tall Dane Bendtner. As a result Anthony has only been getting a look in for the reserves playing out wide. It's hard enough passing judgement on a player in an uncompetitive environment, let alone playing out of his natural position. But I'd love to see how Stokes fares if he plays on Tuesday night

After their derby defeat, I suspect Sunderland will be absolutely desperate to progress in the cup. Hopefully they'll still be feeling the effects of Sunday's exertions but I will be pleasantly surprised if we get a second chance to see the Arsenal youngsters in the next round. With adult tickets only a fiver and the innovative "kids for a quid" scheme, I am sure there'll be a great atmosphere at the Stadium of Light.

While the board confirmed at the AGM that the family enclosure at our new gaff has been increased to 4,500, I think it contemptible that less than 10% of seats will be available at concession prices for kids. On a more positive note, at least we can sleep at nights, knowing we're safe from any Man Utd type predatory takeovers, since the Arsenal Shareholders Trust have been granted A SINGLE share in the club's future!

It was a shallow victory against City on Saturday, considering their were periods when the pressing of Pearce's players prevented us from escaping out of our own half of the pitch. My perspective on our performances on the road has been magnified by Boro and WBA's results since. Neither defeat was due to a lack of quality but our inability to impose ourselves on the opposition.

I can't recall Robert Pires running at an opponent with the ball all season. Against WBA we saw Senderos storming forward, ending up as our most advanced player and again on Saturday, Kolo Touré was left taking City on, running with the ball right to the edge of the area. It speaks volumes for our lightweight midfield, when our centre-backs are left having to fulfill the role of inspiring their teammates by creating some forward thrust.

I suppose I can't end without commenting on THAT penalty. Doubtless I would be feeling far less ambivalent if City's equaliser hadn't been (wrongly?) disallowed. And if it hadn't turned into a French farce, everyone would be fawning over their fantasy football. We all saw our captain calling the shots prior to the spot-kick and personally I just think nerves got the better of Pires. At a time when it's trendy to lambast the lack of entertainment, it seems capricious to complain about Henry's efforts to light our footballing fire. In view of all the vacant speculation on the prodigy's future, I'm reminded of the ancient gag about this geezer's 800lb pet gorilla. "Where does he sit?" enquires his pal. "Wherever he bloomin' well wants!"


Hi Folks

After such an eventul week, squeezing everything into a mere thousand words was an impossible task. In all honesty I thought I'd done quite well only lumbering the poor wretch with the misfortune of editing my piece for the Examiner, with only double the required amount :-)

Naturally I sincerely hope I'm completely wrong but I rather suspect that we might struggle against a Sunderland side, desperate to bounce back after their derby day defeat and keen to keep their season alive with some cup interest. Unless they are still suffering the effects of Sunday's exertions against the Toon, I'm afraid we might end up being outmuscled in a men v boys type encounter?

Still this didn't stop me passing by the travel club today to check the time that the coach leaves for Wearside tomorrow, in the vain hope that I might finish up with work in time to make it back for the 12.15 departure. I sincerely hope the Arsenal youngsters will make it into the hat for the prospect of another Carling Cup outing, but lest they do, I will be doubly gutted to have missed their only competitive first team look-in

Then again, I guess I've gotta find some means of paying a downright barmy 43 quid to sit (stand!) behind the goal at White Hart Lane next weekend, since I am not amongst the many Gooners who've chosen to avoid paying through the nose to experience such an unpleasant atmosphere, preferring instead a far more friendly atmosphere surrounded by their pals in the pub.

I suppose I'm just a sucker for the prospect of losing my voice at the Lane on a Saturday afternoon and in a season when the scummers have got their first sight of a serious challenge for a European spot since the old king died, I seriously pray we have plenty to shout about. It will be worth a hundred abysmal outings to the likes of Boro and West Brom (and no Lady Luck, such glib remarks aren't meant to be taken seriously!) considering how far the poor loves will have to fall from the heady optimistic heights they've scaled so far this season, if they end up on the wrong end of a footballing lesson

Come on you Reds
Big Love

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