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Monday 21 November 2005

One For You, Two For Titi

Sadly my youth wasn’t sufficiently misspent and so despite my teenage ‘barnet’ being coiffured into the obligatory wedge, the tapered ‘pegs’ and the plastic sandals, I might’ve had the look down pat, but I never actually made it north for the infamous ‘soul boy’ weekenders. Whither the Ecstasy fuelled, frozen smiles on the faces of modern day fun-seekers, when they discover there was a regiment of fashion conscious Northern ravers dancing around the clock at the Wigan Casino all-nighters, long before they were conceived.

Thirty years later I dragged my creaking middle-aged bones out of bed at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to schlep to Wigan. Doubtless the grand old Casino is probably just another bingo hall by now. Or as is the destiny for my own beloved Highbury, perhaps it’s been redeveloped into a block of flats, filled with residents who are completely oblivious to the ghosts of the past that haunt their historic abode. But I wasn’t off on a pilgrimage of Northern Soul. I was seeking entertainment of another sort, heading for my first ever visit to the JJB, fully expecting a hearty helping of food for my footballing id.

It’s been a while since I risked my Arsenal fix on the shambolic nature of the rail network at weekends. However while there are invariably engineering works that mean you can never guarantee your arrival time, unfortunately the trains often depart on the dot. Especially when one is hoping otherwise!

Running up the escalator from the tube, I charged into Euston with my chest heaving, cursing my noxious fag habit, just as the clock ticked to the due departure time of the early train. I might’ve made it if I’d known the platform. But by the time I’d sucked in sufficient breath to enquire, it was too late and I was left wandering the station for an hour, searching for the reassuring sight of similarly tardy Gooners,

In fact I was far from alone and soon stopped fretting (and sweating!). If I was going to travel all that way, only to miss kick-off, at least I wouldn’t be alone. So I spent much of the journey recounting tales of weekend railway woes, putting the wind up those gullible Gooners who assumed they could rely on a timetable that told of an arrival in Wigan 30 minutes before KO.

They thought I’d been pulling their legs when the train arrived as predicted and after stretching mine with a brisk walk, believe it or not, I made it to the JJB just as the teams were entering the arena. I’m such a superstitious sod that I was half-tempted to lap the stadium until I was suitably late and nearly did so, in search of a matchday programme. But I soon discovered that they’d all sold out to a record 25 thousand crowd. This included a surprisingly substantial Gooner contingent, considering it was an early KO, so far from home and was live on the box.

Naturally we teased the Wigan fans that they’d “only come to see the Arsenal” and 2-0 up after only 20 minutes, we were in great humour behind our goal, with a hearty chorus suggesting the Lactics “should’ve stuck to the rugby”. However with our hapless defending, it occurred to me that the home side didn’t need any further inspiration for a fightback. The team Paul Jewell has cajoled to such lofty Premiership heights weren’t about to lie down and play dead.

It should’ve been game over when Thierry Henry established a two-goal cushion for the second time, with an absolutely unstoppable free-kick worthy of winning any game. But it seems no-one told Wigan and next thing we knew, they were once again exposing our obvious defensive frailties as Bullard (or “marathon man” according to Arsène) ensured they were breathing down our necks for the duration of the second half, by banging home Wigan’s 2nd on the stroke of half-time.

With so much disconcerting gossip about Titi’s apparent reluctance to renew his Arsenal contract, we Gooners are constantly trying to second-guess what’s going on in the head of our heaven sent striker. Perhaps more will be revealed when Henry gives a rare public interview on Parkinson next Saturday (as far as I know he hasn’t got a book to flog!).

In truth, with his vital goals (and assists), Thierry has virtually carried this Arsenal side almost single-handed over the course of the past couple of seasons. In some respects I could sympathise if he feels his brilliance is being taken for granted. In the belief that the players at Wenger’s disposal are coping admirably with the book balancing, minimum requirement of Champions League qualification, the Highbury bean counters have been guilty of putting all our fiscal eggs in the new stadium basket. Whereas if they’d been more familiar with the nuances of the beautiful game, they’d have enabled the replenishing of our squad with the sort of calibre of player Thierry’s incredible talent deserves.

I’m praying that at the end of the day Henry might put a higher value on his happiness as the biggest fish in the Arsenal pond, than on the filthy lucre others are prepared to throw his way. Sure he could end all the speculation by renewing his contract and still renege on it come the summer. Aside from committing financial suicide as far as his personal interests are concerned, I happen to think Henry would hate to be cast as such an unscrupulous scoundrel.

Perhaps I'm being naive, but horror of horrors, if Thierry does end up leaving, I don't think it’ll be because the fiscal grass at the Nou Camp is so much greener, nor do I think he'd go because of any false illusions about improving his Champions League prospects. Anyone who watched El Clasico this weekend can be sure Titi was doing likewise. It's bloomin' obvious that such an ‘artist’ is bound to sit there contemplating how much more beautiful a mark he might leave on this magical game, if given the opportunity of playing alongside similarly talented stars like Ronaldihno and Messi.

Whereas there might be times when Henry feels frustrated by the handicap of some of Highbury’s less gifted individuals. Cygan was the scapegoat on Saturday but poor Pascal was far from alone in being culpable. His unfamiliarity with the left-back role resulted in our entire defence looking decidedly ‘didgy’. They were all guilty of uncharacteristic, schoolboy errors, against what is hardly the Premiership’s greatest strikeforce. I was gobsmacked to see the likes of Campbell left for dead, after sliding in and going to ground far too easily.

Battling it our for a half-time cuppa, amidst a dangerously dense throng that had dads hauling kids onto their shoulders in search of some oxygen, I found myself pondering Henry’s predicament. After conjuring up yet another couple of peaches in the first-half, I imagined him sitting there, wondering exactly what he has to do to win this game. As much as it pains me, I can understand his wariness until he sees which way the North London wind blows.

I asked Arsène afterwards if he’d specifically tasked Ljungberg with tracking the runs of Chimbonda, as a prelude to raising every Arsenal fans’ concerns over the patently obvious problem of Pascal being exposed for pace at left-back. Skirting around the subject with the sort of diplomatic skills that would suggest he could have a successful career running for public office, Wenger’s only concession to criticising one of his own, was his admission that he’d swapped Pires and Ljungberg around from the start, as Freddie might offer Cygan more support on that flank. I only hope that the lid has been put firmly back on the Pandora’s box of defensive frailties associated with Cygan as cover at left-back, long before the gobby Mourinho’s mob come a calling!

Wenger was almost out of the post-match press conference when he was asked if he’s still capable of being amazed by Henry’s ability. He replied “When people ask you to speak about him, I just say watch’s the best you can do”. At which point a Red-Top wag piped up “Barcelona?” The rest of the media rat-pack cracked up when, quick as a flash, our glorious leader came back with “Barcelona is a city, near the sea...1.5 million people, they speak Catalan!”

Apparently none too keen with being Ernie to Arsène’s Eric, in a room full of his peers (??), the journo tried to save some face by ploughing on regardless “But what’s the fee?”

“There’s no fee. We want to keep Thierry...of course it’s your job to create a story every week but Thierry’s 18 or 19 months from the end of his contract and we want to sort that situation out as soon as we can. We’re ready and when he’s ready he will do it” intoned Le Prof.

In the words of one of his sponsor’s previous ads, please Titi “JUST DO IT!”


Hi folks

I'll do my best to be brief (not my greatest strength :-) as I'm hoping to type up the rest of Wenger's press conference while it's still relevant. As mentioned below, the matchday programmes were all sold out by the time I got to Wigan. Although fortunately I was able to cadge a read of one on the long journey home. Yet with the extremely rare incidence of there being absolutely no past history between the two clubs, the programme was a rather light on Arsenal related details.

However I had a little chuckle when I came to the standard pages with some brief details about the principal members of the Arsenal squad. I doubt there will be many Gooners who'll recognise the player responsible for such a dodgy performance at left-back on Saturday in the following description of Pascal Cygan:
"Tall, powerful centre-half who has added further strength and leadership to the backline following his signing from Lille in July 2002. Composed in possession, dominant in the air and capable of filling in all across the back lline, Pascal remains a useful squad member. Netted twice in 4-1 win over Fulham back in August"

I don't know who the joker was that was responsible for producing this precis of Pascal's talents. True Cygan did score twice against Fulham, but in relation to Saturday's pitiful performance the remainder couldn't have been further from the truth. So unless he was writing tongue in cheek, I certainly won't be asking the writer for next week's lottery numbers! According to a piece in Friday's Evening Standard, apparently Arséne's faith in Cygan was due to the fact that the Frenchman started his career at left-back. It's the sort of comment I can imagine a player making merely in the hope of getting a first-team look in.

I might mention that I played a few games in goal as a youngster but I wouldn't dream of suggesting that this makes me capable of minding goal in a vital match. Moreover I don't like criticising a player for a lack of natural ability, if they've given their all, but for starters, you have to bear in mind that Cygan certainly isn't the greatest centre-back on the planet. Therefore I'm sure I can't be alone in finding it more than a little disconcerting to think that there have been coaches in Pascal's past who've suggested a change of position at some point, believing him to be more suited to centre-back than full-back!

Perhaps we should give Wenger and Cygan the benefit of the doubt, as it was his first outing in this position. Nevertheless I imagine a substantial majority of Gooners will all be hoping it was his first and last, as he certainly didn't look familiar to his new role and whether or not there's room for improvement, quite frankly he's not going to become any quicker and thus he's always going to lack the necessary pace.

The back line is the one area on the field that is most likely to suffer from sudden changes and an unfamiliar line-up, as the entire defence needs to be 100 per cent certain what all their colleagues are going to do in any given situation. As a result I thought everyone suffered on Saturday from Cygan's introduction. For example there were several instances where Cygan wandered infield, neglecting the opposition's wide man and causing indecision elsewhere for the likes of Sol and Kolo. We were left vunerable in the middle more than once, with neither of them knowing quite whether to stick or twist.

What's more even if Pascal's positional play should improve dramatically, our opponents attackers will be queuing up to dance past our leadenfooted Lurch lookalike. Additionally if Ljungberg is obliged to provide cover in this respect down our left flank in every match, we are bound to lose something offensively. Not to mention I can't quite envisage Pascal haring past Henry on the overlap! Personally I would much prefer to see Arsene experiment with either the extremely versatile Kolo, Lauren or Eboue playing in the left-back slot because at least all three of them have the advantage of natural pace

Or bearing in mind how Ashley got his big break, perhaps it's time to give one of our youngsters a bite of this cherry. At least there'd be some consolation with any resulting rickets, in knowing one of the kids would be learning from his mistakes. Whereas Pascal's probably long since reached the limits of his learning curve and even Arsene might struggle teaching this particular old dog some new tricks.

Whereas if the dubious defending by everyone in a redcurrant shirt at the JJB, left me with a few more gray hairs come the final whistle, if Arsene persists with Pascal at left-back, I'll be as bald as the slaphead Frenchman long before we're faced with the frightening prospect of Wright-Phillips prancing past him.

Ironically there was another piece in the Wigan programme in which centre-back Henchoz had written his thoughts on "How to keep Thierry Henry quiet" Talk about tempting fate! Perhaps Henchoz should have deferred to his highly educated captain and defensive partner, Arjan De Zeeuw, who came out with some particularly insightful and magnanimous post-match comments. When questioned about Henry and the talk of Barca's interest in our star striker he revealed:

"It would be a massive loss to Arsenal and to football in this country if he left next summer.....He apologised to me when I was booked for what was a rash challenge but which didn't hurt him at all. He came over and said, 'I'm sorry, I didn't want to make a meal of it or get you booked'. He's not that type of player anyway. He is one of the more honest players around. People think he is arrogant, because of the way he carries himself, but he's not like that at all. At the end of the game he said we were a bit unlucky, and genuinely he is a nice guy. The problem is he does try to lure you into a feeling of well-being, and then sprints away to score a goal, before jogging back and saying, 'Sorry mate.' But the one thing he is not is a stitch-up merchant."

On the face of it, taken in isolation, Thierry's stern faced posturing subsequent to another oh so special free-kick, could be interpreted as arrogant, but in context he was just taking the piss out of Graham Poll, as we discovered later. Perhaps it was as a result of allowing Titi to pull a fast one with a quick free-kick against Chelsea and receiving some flak for the resultant goal, that Poll chose to be more pedantic and made Henry wait for the whistle on this occasion. So after the ball nestled in the back of the net, having glanced in off the post with pinpoint accuracy and sufficient pace to slide past the despairing fingertips of Filan, I guess Thierry couldn't resist turning to Poll to enquire "Is that enough?" (I assume meaning, whether he'd waited long enough).

Savouring the fact that we'd scored three seemingly effortless goals, as I read on the train home about Wigan's amazing recent defensive record and how they'd previously maintained a clean sheet during eight and a half hours of football (up until they encountered the Arsenal!), in the absence of any past matches with the Gunners to write about in the programme, there was mention of our one and only previous outing to play Wigan Borough. According to the newspaper clipping this took place in the climate of the post first World War depression, back in May 1921.

You'd be amazed what minutae one can find to occupy the mind on a tediously long train journey back to London, but it sure beat the details about the modernisation of Virgin trains printed in the freebie 'in-flight' magazine, as I discovered:
"In spite of the fact that spending money is scarce in the town, close upon 3,000 paid for admission. It was decided after kick-off to throw open the gates and several hundred miners and other unemployed were admitted. A percentage of the gate money was earmarked for local unemployment district funds, while collections for similar objects were made at the ground"

I certainly can't envisage any circumstances in which the money grabbing businesses that have become of our modern footballing institutions, would throw open their gates for the sake of such a socially charitable cause in these mercenary times

Better get on if I'm going to type up the press conference before we play Thun (or before my back refuses to let me remain at the computer any longer)

Peace & Love

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Wednesday 16 November 2005

Never Mind Blowing, We’d Better Be Up For Bursting Some Bubbles This Weekend

Never Mind Blowing,
We’d Better Be Up For Bursting Some Bubbles This Weekend

Our club has offered reduced prices for Carling Cup matches in recent years. Yet after seeing the sensational 46,000 odd turn out for the last round in Sunderland, it’s great that the Arsenal have followed suit for our subsequent 4th round fixture against Reading. While they might not have instituted the admirable ‘kids for a quid’ scheme which inspired a full-house at the Stadium of Light, ticket prices of £20/10 for adults and £10/5 for kids will not only guarantee that Highbury is also heaving on the night, but for many Gooners it results in a rare chance of being able to afford to introduce their offspring to the joys of live footie.

This and the opportunity to witness the development of some of our much vaunted youngsters in a competitive environment are my customary reasons for hoping that we might progress in this particular tournament. I sincerely hope my fears prove unfounded, that ex-Arsenal trainee, Steve Sidwell could be inspired to come back and haunt us with Reading, as I’ve cause more than ever this year to hope for continued Carling Cup success.

One of the missus’ sisters was over from Dublin to meet our newborn grandson the other week. Cliona’s trip came with the added bonus of being able to use my seat for the Sparta Prague game, as I was fortunate to be offered a spare ticket in the East Lower, by a Gooner who I’d done a similar favour for in the past. However usually it’s only Carling Cup games that present an opportunity to sit somewhere other than our habitual marvellous Highbury pitch, as they are the only matches not included in our season tickets. So I’m hoping that our ongoing involvement in this competition might present me with the chance to work my way around the Home of Football, bidding a personal adieu to our ancient home, from each and every perspective the grand old stadium has to offer.

If this game should be televised, be sure to keep and eye out for us. On Friday I purchased two ten quid seats in the very front row of the North Bank, right behind the goal. And if the match goes to penalties, I’ll probably be the meshugana dropping my trousers, in my efforts to distract the Reading players!

Twenty quid for the two of us to watch a football match. If only the beautiful game was always so fairly priced, within reach of the average person’s pockets, as opposed to the extortionate140 quid we pay for our highly privileged Highbury pitch at every other match. Mind you if I’d dallied any longer over deciding where to sit, I’d have been forced to pay a fifty quid surcharge for our North Bank seats. My delight at bagging two together as close to the play as possible, immediately turned to dismay when to my horror, I turned around to find a traffic warden hovering around my motor.

There’s been such a furore in recent times over the despicable way in which local councils have abused parking regulations, merely as a means of raising revenue, with wardens indiscriminately taxing the public as they issue tickets willy-nilly, that these council employees now all appear to have been issued with digital cameras. Mercifully on this occasion I was back in my car and long gone before this warden was able to whip out his camera. In this respect I’m all for this new policy. In the past it would’ve been “sorry pal I’ve already written the ticket” and suddenly I would’ve had a whole lot more riding on what should otherwise be a rare unruffled Arsenal encounter.

Personally I’ve always contended that good PR aside, this reduction in ticket prices is sound economics. It doesn’t take a genius to sense a relatively urgent need for some regeneration of the Gooner audience. You only have to look around you at Highbury to appreciate the rapidly advancing average age. Most fans will confirm that although they might’ve once been somewhat dispassionate armchair viewers, you only have to savour the sensory overload of a single draught from the fountain of that live matchday atmosphere as a child to be intoxicated for life. Thus any one-off reduction in ticket revenues must be negligible, compared to the vast sums accrued over the course of a lifetime of replica shirts sales etc. etc. from those addicts hooked by their first Highbury hit.

Most other times I understand it takes military planning to obtain a general sale seat at Highbury, three months in advance of matches. Taking the kids is out of the question unless you can afford to pay full whack, as apparently it’s almost impossible to acquire any seats in our fun-sized family enclosure. At the AGM our bean counting MD was touting the fact that this will be increased to 4,500 at our marvellous new gaff (no one’s paying me to advertise an Arabic airline!). Yet to my mind its incredibly disappointing to think that less than 10% of the 60k capacity will be available as concession tickets.

The scissors principle of supply and demand was about the only topic that stuck during 2 years tedious study of economics. I therefore assume the club are disinclined to cater for kids, when they can flog the same seats at full price. Far be it from me to preach treason but if a fallow period on the pitch for the Arsenal was reflected in row upon row of vast empty spaces at our beautiful new stadium, at least this might come with the consolation of a child friendly pricing policy in order to fill all the seats vacated by the fair-weather fans.

It’s sad to think of generations of kids whose experience of live football is limited to perhaps an annual treat. They’ll know little of the joys of the sanctity of a football stadium on a Saturday afternoon, where a kid can participate in their parent’s effing and blinding at the officials, without any recrimination. Moreover there’s not much that can compare with the sort of bonding experience of the unbridled celebrations that accompany a great goal. Nor can there exist any more ‘quality time’ than sharing the traditional derby day battering of Tottenham.

The fondest memories of my suburban childhood back in the early 70s are related to the footballing rituals I shared with my own dear departed dad. He was a fan of the game, rather than just a devotee of the Gunners. So whether it was to White Hart Lane, or to Highbury, it always made my weekend when at Saturday lunchtime he’d suggest we stroll down to the main road, to wait for a passing acquaintance on route to the ground, to stop and give us a lift.

I pity the poor modern day progeny who’ll never get to experience the thrill of such spontaneous hedonism. A goalless draw was no disaster back then, as there was always next week. Whereas I guess kids these days spend months hoping that their heroes won’t be injured or suspended for their annual Highbury high and that they’re guaranteed some goals with their gold dust ticket.

Meanwhile those who schlepped to Switzerland on Saturday certainly weren’t disappointed. It made a pleasant change to actually find myself enjoying an England encounter. I was just disappointed the Argies’ side didn’t include the latest prodigy to inherit the Maradonna mantle, Barca’s in form Messi. While Sven left out Sol, elsewhere in the Alps, Senderos was scoring again with his bonce as the Swiss battled it out with the Turks in a crucial World Cup play-off.

For fans of clubs whose players are scattered to all four corners of the planet during these International breaks, it’s like watching an impending train wreck. Having already endured the sight of Clichy limping off at the Lane on Friday night as the French U21s drew with England and after Van Persie did himself a mischief in training with the Dutch, I found myself holding my breath every time Henry went anywhere near the ball in a fairly vigorous friendly between France and Germany.

At this crucial period, when our finely tuned star turns are stretching every last sinew in their efforts to impress their national coaches and bag a precious World Cup berth, you just pray that by the time the last stragglers report back to London Colney at the end of the week, the Arsenal aren’t going to end up bearing the brunt of all their International exertions. After all I certainly don’t expect us to finally burst the Wigan bubble just by turning up!

Hi Folks

I sat down to write my diary missive early Monday morning, before dashing off to earn some proper money and after such a great game between England and the Argies on Saturday and with Ireland having dropped off the International map with their unfortante World Cup exit, it proved a particularly awkward task. Writing this piece primarily for an Irish paper (well actually don't tell the sports editor, but in truth I'm writing with all you folk in mind and I'm just fortunate to be receiving some meagre recompense for my efforts at the same time!) I'd win few friends in the Emerald Isle if I produced a 1000 words on the World Cup prospects of the country that was responsible for so much misery over there. In the interests of diplomacy (not to mention self-preservation), I avoided the subject all together, apart from tacking on a couple of paragraphs towards the end, which I wouldn't be surprised to find edited out of the final version.

I'm the first to admit that for the most part, I consider International football little more than a nuisance that so often causes far too much disturbance as far as the Arsenal are concerned. Nevertheless when the time comes, doubtless I'll be glued to events in Germany next summer and there's no denying that I sat here savouring the last few minutes of Saturday's tasty appetiser with audible delight. No matter where your loyalties lie, I challenge any true lover of the beautiful game to remain impervious to the increasingly precocious talents of Wayne Rooney.

It's just amazing to think that all those who stand to profit from the potential feelgood factor of the forthcoming World Cup, all the businessmen, the governnent even, and basically most of the population of this country, they are all going to become increasingly dependent on the continued fitness and mental stability of one wayward young Scouser. Such is Wayne's importance that sod such trifles as the prospects of Man Utd, or the arguments over locking terrorists up for 90 days, if Tony Blair really wants to ensure his popularity, he should be passing a law to wrap Rooney up in cotton wool for the next six months.

Meanwhile I'll be tuning into the friendly between Italy and the Ivory Coast tonight, praying that Kolo Touré can contain some of his customary exuberrance. As I write, I'm not sure if he'll be joined on the pitch by his Arsenal colleague, right-back Manny Eboué, but with our defence for Saturday's match already depleted by injuries to our two recognised left-backs, Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy, we could well do without any further worries.

The most frightening aspect to our injury woes is the prospect that Wenger might be considering playing the hapless Pascal Cygan in their place. Assuming Kolo comes back to Highbury fit and healthy after his exertions for Les Elephantes, personally I'd prefer to see him played at left-back, with Campbell and Senderos in the centre, while our hapless bald Lurch remains where he can do least harm, keeping the bench warm.

I was surprised Arsene didn't give the Phillipe a run-out at some point against Sunderland. In all honesty I can't see Wenger as a vindictive sort, yet there have been times in the past when a player's made a crucial mistake which has cost us points and has subsequently disappeared out of the picture completely for a time, as if serving his punishment. Considering Senderos started the season as a mainstay of the team, with Sol somewhat marginalised, it's easy to make similar assumptions about the Swiss lad's absence in recent weeks. Perhaps Senderos was responsible for lapses in concentration which contributed to a couple of woeful results on the road. But it's wrong that he should be the scapegoat for what were the whole team's failings.

Still I happen to believe that Campbell's return couldn't have been more timely. After starting the season without both Vieira and Campbell and with the lightweight likes of such relative schnips as Fabregas, Flaminin and Pires, this distinct lack of stature suddenly meant that we weren't nearly such an imposing proposition for many of our opponents. Thus I am sure Sol's return made an important difference as you can imagine his physical presence having an impact even before a ball was kicked, just standing in the tunnel.

However I'm certain it won't be long before Campbell is crocked again. Personally I believe Sol's reached a stage where he is sufficiently injury prone that we will be lucky if he's available for 50 per cent of the season. What's more I firmly believe that Senderos happens to be about the only player in the current Arsenal squad with the genuine character traits of true captain material and while sadly Sol might have reached the point in the cycle of his career where it's all downhill, hopefully Senderos will prove to be the future

Moreover, with the Ivory Coast one of the firm favourites for the African Nations Cup, you have to bear in mind that we are likely to lose Kolo (and Eboue?) come January for what could prove to be an extended run for Les Elephantes in this competition. As a result, to my mind it would be much better to bring Senderos back in now, rather than being forced to to throw him to the lions at a later date, coming back at a crucial stage with little competitive match practice. We saw evidence on Saturday from Wayne Bridge of the potential risks of giving a run out to a rusty player when the pressure is on and who knows what long-term damage might be done if Senderos should be found wanting in similar circumstances.

I've not seen for myself how Senderos played against Turkey in the play-offs, but to my mind if he's capable of contributing to Switzerland's inclusion in the World Cup, then providing he doesn't come back knackered, Wigan should hold no fears for him.

Who would've possibly imagined back in August that we'd be going to the JJB this weekend, worried about how we're going to stop the mighty Wigan from scoring! As one James Greaves might say "It's a funny old game"

Peace & Love

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Tuesday 8 November 2005

Wanna Buy Any Second-hand Telescopes?

It seemed that just when the tabloid sheep should've been writing about Chelsea's perceived wobble in Europe and the Worthless Cup, the Blues' shrewd manager found a means by which he was able to deflect attention from his team, as the entire media world focused on the arrogant one's barney with Wenger. I can see no other explanation for his unwarranted outburst.

I'm not sure whether it reflects on the smutty minds of the readers or the writers? But the 'red tops' back page rat-pack are invariably true to their scurrilous rodent traits, sprinting straight up the drainpipe of a story with the slightest hint of salacious undertones. Neither Wenger, nor myself will ever forget the attempted character assassination on his arrival at the club. Supposedly it was a money motivated Spurs supporter in the City who dreamt up the despicable paedophile slur, in an effort to affect the Arsenal's share price. I happened to be walking past Highbury that very day and I've vivid memories of the shameful way the journos hounded Pat Rice along Avenell Road, trying in vain to hassle Arsène's assistant into slipping up, with the slightest substantiation of the sick rumours "Come on Pat, you must've travelled on scouting trips with him"!

In light of these disgraceful first experiences with the dregs of British tabloid journalism, within days of taking the Arsenal job, I wouldn't have been surprised if Wenger had packed his bags and headed straight back to the relative tranquillity of Japan. Meanwhile Mourinho might've been wise to bear this backdrop in mind, before opening his big gob.

Arsène is no more interested in Chelsea than the millions of other aficionados of the beautiful game. We'’ve all been scanning the Blue horizon in hope of the first signs of some fallibility. It just so happens that our manager is being asked to give his opinion on the subject on a more regular basis. What's more, if Arsène's a voyeur, doesn't that make Chelsea's manager an exhibitionist? Besides with Mourinho's supposed 120 page dossier, you have to wonder exactly who's "voyeuring" who - also can it be mere coincidence that he only mentioned this detailed record after Arsène raised the possibility of litigation)!

There's been some speculation as to why an inoffensive Arsène arouses so much animosity amongst some of his peers. Perhaps it's a businesslike approach that precludes him from exchanging social pleasantries over a glass of post-match vino. Although having witnessed the team's awayday routine, I envisage a far more pragmatic excuse, in Wenger not wanting to keep an entire coach load of the Arsenal contingent waiting to commence their tiring return journey, while he quaffs wine with his opposite number.

Personally I feel some of his fellow managers have the needle, due to the fact that they fail to command the same sort of reverence amongst the media that's afforded to Arsène. While the majority of managerial press conferences are informal, jocular affairs, Wenger's scientific and somewhat professorial demeanour engenders a scholastic aura, whereby the journos seem to think they might have something to learn from Arsène's insights. It might not be apparent in their columns, but there's no mistaking the contrasting way in which Wenger's press conferences are conducted in a teacher/pupil type atmosphere.

Myself I've always believed that the nuances of the game are hardly a Gordian knot. To the contrary, football's greatest exponents are often only at their very best when performing with a simplistic grace. There was no escaping the sense that our encounter with Sunderland at Highbury was merely an hors d'oeuvres to Sunday's Mancunian main course. However we blew away the bottom feeding Black Cats with the sort of crisp incisive ball skills that left Sky's Andy Gray with the impression that "Arsenal are back in business".

Meanwhile Sunderland slug it out, struggling to preserve their precious pitch on the Premiership gravy train, Surely the Wearsiders would give their right arms to be enjoying the sort of artistry we Gooners get to witness on such a regular basis. Thus it was understandable that their fans felt the need to taunt us "2-0 and you still don't sing!" Although having finally found some form, few will appreciate that it's far too easy to become blasé about our fabulous football. At times, even I've sat back in absolute awe of some of the best football I've seen and forgotten to show my appreciation.

There was a moment during the game when we all managed to make some noise, as every Gooner in the ground gave thanks for the greatest (certainly the most entertaining) player on the planet. Henry received the ball in the area, with his back to goal and with sufficient space and time to turn and slot. A mundane player would've concentrated on merely securing a more comfortable goal margin. Whereas Titi had to attempt the extraordinary, flicking the ball up and executing a brilliant bicycle kick. He was only the width of a post away from scoring the goal of the season. Apparently the Frenchman's philosophy is why should he simply put the ball in the back of the net, when there's the possibility of conjuring up something far more special. We're often accused of failing to kill off weaker opposition, but we can hardly complain when this inability proves quite so pleasurable.

A Sky engineer was due round here on Sunday to install a new digibox and I was fretting that he might interfere with my afternoon's viewing. I can't ever recall feeling quite so much nervous anticipation about a game that didn't involve the Arsenal. Mercifully our TV was back up and running in time to enjoy the big match. Although "endure" would be far more apt, what with Utd hanging on for grim death during the last half hour. If our poor pooch, Treacle, wasn't already sufficiently freaked out by firework bangs, my bellowing at Utd to at least try and retain possession instead of hoofing the ball straight back to the Blues, had her cowering in a corner.

The greatest advantage Mourinho has over the competition is a subs bench stuffed with players capable of having an impact in most cases. By contrast, despite the fact that Utd had completely run out of steam following their first-half efforts, Fergie didn't have sufficient faith in his substitutes to bring on some fresh legs. I've not stopped drinking since Poll blew the final whistle, in an effort to wash away the bitter taste that stuck in my craw after cheering the Moaners on to a memorable victory.

When our Invincibles set their 49 game unbeaten run, many fans imagined we'd never see the like again. It would've been awful if the Blues had eradicated our amazing record quite so soon. However sadly I'm unable to swallow the bunkum that this one bad result has blown the title race wide open. Unfortunately, in truth Mourinho has so much strength in depth that even over the course of our marathon season, it's hard to envisage many more teams managing to triumph over them. Unless the Toon can turn the Blues' blip into a fully fledged crisis in the following match, for the moment I'm just happy that the fat lady has been thwarted from clearing her throat and that at least the Blues have been prevented from turning the title race into a boring procession just yet.

Hi folks

It was positively barmy on Sunday, thinking of all the billions of football fans around the globe settling down in front of their TVs to cheer Utd on to beating Chelsea. Especially all of us Gooners.

Obviously in the interests preventing Chelsea from disappearing out of sight and ensuring that the title race doesn't turn into one of the most boring in the history of the Premiership, it was perfectly understandable that we were all hoping for Utd to do everyone a favour by exposing a chink in Chelsea's vulcanised armour. More's the point, I would have been devastated if the incredible achievement of the Arsenal's Invincibles had been cheapened if Chelsea had managed to steal our thunder only a couple of seasons after we'd rewritten the record books.

However unless you believe the wheels are about to come off the Abramovich bandwagon and like me, you can't imagine more than a couple of Premiership sides with sufficient 'cahones' to take points off the current title holders, in truth, from a less emotive and more pragmatic perspective, we Gooners might have benefited more by avoiding a truce with our more traditional enemy in the hope of seeing Utd get well and truly stuffed.

My feeling is that Utd's narrow victory will eventually only delay the inevitable and hopefully maintain some interest in domestic matters until after Xmas. If this should prove to be the case, then it's probably far more likely that we will end up battling with the Moaners at the tail end of the season for the consolation prizes, in the hope that our players might be able to prevent a shortened summer break and the possibility of having to come back early to play a problematic Champions League qualifier.

Nevertheless I can't honestly imagine that there were many Gooners capable of considering Sunday's encounter in Manchester from such a detached and dispassionate point of view, as myself included, we were all desperate to see Mourinho's mob taken down a peg or two and our record remaining intact.

We'll have to wait to discover if Chelsea's defeat is going to have a serious psychological impact on their confidence and whether the extra week, with the break for Internationals, is going to compound this effect by giving them time to brood on it, or give them all a better chance to get it out of their system

The thing is that from what we saw of the match on TV, it wasn't as if Chelsea were exactly overrun at Old Trafford. Utd only managed to achieve a modicum of success by running their socks off in the first-half and as the reds began to flag after the break, they really struggled to hang onto their single goal lead.

In fact as Mourinho attempted to rescue a result with his substitutions, it was very strange to see Fergie standing on the sidelines, his side so obviously struggling to hold back the Blue tide, yet apparently completely impotent, unable to call on the services of any substitutes who might have an impact on proceedings by re-establishing control of the game. To my mind with his inaction, it was as if old red nose was utterly resigned to the fact that Utd do not possess sufficient strength in depth to dominate Mourinho's men. If you ever needed it, Fergie standing there with gritted teeth, his arms folded across his chest, feeling absolutely helpless, was all the confirmation required of the changing of the Premiership guard

By contrast while Sean Wright-Phillips might have proved somewhat ineffective when he came on, the introduction of Gudjohnsen appeared to give Chelsea the impetus which nearly resulted in a different outcome all together - I am sure I wasn't the only one who was convinced it was going to prove a total tease as fate intervened with a last gasp equaliser?

In fact the Icelander was sufficiently impressive that I began to have some appreciation why Mourinho chose to play him on his own up front against Betis. Watching Chelsea's defeat in the Champions League earlier in the week, I questioned Mourinho's managerial acumen. On the back of a dreadful start to the season for Betis that has left them in the bottom four of La Liga, it seemed as if Mourinho had made a right ricket by giving the Spaniards battered confidence a leg-up with his unambitious line-up. For by the time he brought on Drogba and Duff after the break, Betis' first-half performance had restored some of their confidence and inspired enough belief for them to be able to hang on for a victory.

At the time my feeling was that Mourinho had made a mistake by failing to capitalise on the Spaniards fragile confidence and going for their throat. However it's all too easy for me to berate Mourinho's managerial ability with the benefit of hindsight and having witnessed Gudjohnsen's impact in the second half on Sunday, I am not quite so scathing about his part in Chelsea's European mishap.

Apart from the pure pleasure of witnessing the Portuguese manager's frustrated features in the dug-out on Sunday, another good side to this game as far as the Gunners are concerned, could be the fact Utd won't gain much confidence from this result to build on because they were so patently second best to the Blues for most of the time after the break.

However you never know in this game of ours and if Fergie is still worth his salt, he'll convince his squad to forget the fragile manner of their victory and focus on the psychological effect of putting one over on the Blues. While if it was down to wishful thinking, we'd be hearing the sound of Abramovich's crumbling house of cards as I type. Yet it's wrong to compare the end of Chelsea's unbeaten run to ours because they are far from like for like. If Mourinho wanted he could probably replace all eleven who played on Sunday with hungry, fresh faces of proven ability who'd probably show little sign of any ill effects against the Toon from the club's three dodgy results.

Sadly Arsène was in a much tighter pickle, tortured by trying to pick up the moral of same dozen players over the course of several weeks, without the luxury of an experienced replacement breathing down each of their necks. What's more I can't quite recall Utd struggling against us as we threatened to overrun them. So I'd be highly surprised if this suspect result materialises into Mourinho's downfall. You can but hope!

I texted the Utd fan who writes for the Examiner on Friday, with my best wishes for his team to stuff Chelsea. He might not have thought Utd had a hope, but I had this inkling they might get something from the game. I just felt that the big-headed likes of Ferdinand and Rooney wouldn't have fancied meeting up for the England game, having merely rolled over and handed bragging rights to Lampard and Terry.

Although I imagine Ferdinand's almost faultless performance must be cause for much frustration. Personally I have no qualms when a player has a bad game, or a bad run of games, as everyone is entitled to a dip in form. However if Ferdinand was capable of raising his game for Chelsea's visit, it would suggest that his previous inconsistencies are a result of a lack of focus that reflects in his basic motivation.

Then again Ferdinand is no more guilty of having his head turned from producing the sort of 100 per cent concentration required on a football pitch these days, than any of the other multi-millionaire youngsters in the modern game. Myself I've almost been glad that Ashley Cole got a knock, as it's given us a chance to see Gael Clichy again.

Talk in the West Upper on Saturday suggested that according to someone who bumped into his agent, Ashley Cole's transfer to Real next summer is already a done deal. This doesn't surprise me in the least, as ever since the fall-out from the tapping up affair, my feeling has been that whilst the club wasn't going to be dictated to by the media, Ashley had burnt his bridges at THOF beyond repair. I don't mean to sound smug, but I suggested back then that they might have come to some arrangement, whereby if Cole agreed to keep his head down below the media scandal parapets and his nose clean for another season, he'd be allowed his extremely lucrative transfer come the summer, by mutual agreement.

You only have to see Ashley's bright white pearlers smiling out from the pages of another glitzy (tacky, more like!) spread in Hello magazine to appreciate that he's now a long way from the young lad who was steeped in the Arsenal tradition ever since he was in short pants. There was a time when there was no mistaking the Martin Keown style, never say die attitude in everything Ashley did in an Arsenal shirt. It left one utterly convinced that there remained at least one homegrown player on the pitch capable of inspiring his colleagues with a commitment which positively shouted that the outcome of our matches meant as much to him as it does to those of us on the terraces.

Some Gooners have contradicted the fact that I've questioned Ashley's motivation in recent times, by reminding me of specific incidents in certain matches this season. However I've felt that this is merely evidence of Ashley trying to maintain his claim to his "best left-back" moniker for more selfish reasons, either because he didn't fancy being shown up by some younger whipper-snapper, or perhaps because there's a World Cup coming up and he's wanted to catch Sven's eye in the stands. My belief is that the fact that such instances have stood out, when in the past Cole's entire game was similarly committed, this is evidence in itself of his waning hunger to graft for the good of "the team".

By contrast, Gael Clichy might've taken a few games to get the defensive rust out of his system (since reserve team football just doesn't have anywhere near the same intensity) but to my mind it would be a great pity if no sooner has he begun to find some form, than he's sent straight back to the stiffs. Personally I find it a refreshing change to find myself watching a player who's hunger cannot be questioned and who, if anything, is guilty of being a little too over enthusiastic. Thus so long as Gael continues to keep up his end, in a winning side, I for one hope Ashley doesn't just walk back into the side when fit but is forced to earn the right to wear the shirt. Especially when you consider that it's one of the few positions where we've genuine competition for places.

When the subject of Cole cropped up, my immediate neighbour in the West Upper suggested that Real would be offering us a straight swap with Baptista. I've not really seen enough of "the Beast" to decide whether it would be a good deal. I believe he's injured at the moment but from the Madrid matches he's been involved in which I've managed to catch, I have to admit that I've not been overly impressed with the Brazilian. With his size, pace and apparent limited ball control, he reminds me of a high-powered Emil Heskey, but perhaps this is unfair as Real have hardly been setting any fires and according to some folks, they've been playing Baptista out of position

However much Ashley's success has left him feeling he's little to prove any more, my biggest concern if he should depart, is that we might end up ever further from having that crucial core of home grown players. Arsène suggested at the AGM that the only way the club can compete with Chelsea is by developing the number of players produced on the Arsenal production line and I am all for this argument. Yet as we've seen at other clubs over the years, homegrown players capable of mounting a creditable challenge for first team selection tend to come in cycles.

We've had a pretty barren spell in recent times with Brady's boys. Wenger might disagree in public, but my contention is that youngsters like Touré, Fabregas, Senderos and Eboué ain't exactly engrained with the Arsenal spirit, having only arrived at the club relatively recently (although it must be said the they've all showed signs of being made of the "right stuff")

As we walked back from THOF a couple of weeks back, we were discussing forthcoming away matches. Obviously leaving the pooch on her own for long periods is a problem that prevents us both going but Ró was contemplating why it is that she's lost some of her enthusiasm in recent times for schlepping all over the country. It's certainly not down to the quality of entertainment on offer. No she believes that it might be the fact that there are no longer many players in the Arsenal squad that she can relate to.

This is a modern day malaise, that in these mercenary times doesn't just affect the Arsenal. However Ró received her Gooner education during a period when we were blessed with a hard-core backbone including the likes of WWW, Merson and our dinosaur back five. Whereas nowadays she looks at the back of the matchday programme and wonders who amongst the current squad is going to reproduce the sort of empathy we once knew, whereby there was no question of Martin Keown trotting straight off the pitch without connecting with us Gooners. You only had to take one look at Plug's ugly mush to know it meant as much to him as it does to us.

I am not saying that there aren't plenty of spirited players in the current Arsenal squad. For example one get the feeling that someone like Kolo would continue running until he dropped because he's so determined to avoid defeat and unlike the rich rat-pack which included the likes of Jenas and Dyer, there's no sense that Kolo has become the "big I am" who no longer appreciated quite how privileged he is to be getting paid such fortunes for a job we'd all do for free (or happily pay huge amounts for an opportunity to appear in red & white).

Nevertheless Touré didn't spend all his formative years at THOF and so when he's running his socks off, I can't help but wonder if he's motivated by far higher principles such as providing future security for his family first and foremost, rather than Kolo feeling such a responsibility to his Arsenal kith and kin that he's prepared to sacrifice himself for "the team". If the sort of players conjured up in my romantic imagination still exist, you couldn't possibly imagine them handing over potentially costly possession as they jump three foot in the air to avoid a hefty challenge. Nor would they be tentative going into a slide tackle, with the Arsenal coming a poor second behind the possibility that they might be risking their future earning potential, or the option of lucrative transfer prospects with the risk of an injury.

As a result, I guess when Ró is wondering whether she wants to bother schlepping hundreds up miles up north, or whether I should flog her ticket, it's hard to feel motivated if you get the feeling that many of our players might not be making the trip if they weren't receiving massive remuneration

I guess this is just something we are going to have to come to terms with all the more in the future as the trend for changing teams more often than ones underpants continues. Still it would certainly help to make us all feel a whole lot more secure and their team mates might be suitably inspired, if they were trotting out alongside at least a couple of youngsters who've been at the club since they were bairns and who've been indoctrinated (brainwashed!) with the sort of principles that they put the Arsenal before everything and only know how to play with 100 per cent commitment.

There is no real secret to Wigan's surprising success. They've been promoted into a Premiership that is extremely mediocre, apart from (hopefully!) a couple of teams and have therefore managed to achieve marginal victories, against sides that simply lack sufficient focus to endure, when faced with the sort of team spirit and togetherness that Paul Jewell has managed to inspire amongst his squad full of relative journeymen.

Everton's yo-yo period has proved that there's a fine line between relative success and abject failure and doubtless the Wigan bubble will also burst at some point. But that doesn't mean less tenacious teams that include any half-hearted players won't be caught with their pants down at the JJB

Meanwhile I'm absolutely fed up with these international breaks, especially when they fall just as we begin to find some form. I wonder how many of the Wigan players will be disappearing off to all four corners of the planet during the next couple of weeks. Instead of which Jewell will probably have most of his squad for the entire fortnight, to attempt to plot the downfall of team which will be arriving at the JJB, some with long flights still in their legs and other nursing knocks received in games where they might have been trying just a little too hard to secure highly prized places in a World Cup squad.

In what other "business" in the world would someone be allowed to borrow a multi-million pound asset every few weeks, expect you to continue paying for the upkeep whilst they use and abuse the finely tuned specimen, before sending back your broken down property for you to pay for the repairs which might just get your most crucial resource up and running again, just in time for the next loan request. You'd think anyone was downright potty to put up with such a preposterous situation?

Personally I'm a bit peeved to have discovered the U21 encounter between England & France U21 is taking place at WHL on Friday, as it clashes with dinner at my Ma's. Otherwise I would've avoided withdrawals from my footie fix, by enjoying my birthday watching Clichy & co perform in a rare, stress free 90 minutes. It's also a pity that there isn't a single Arsenal player involved for the home side

Since I still haven't been able to twist my Ma's arm, by persuading her that she can't live without un ugly satellite dish on the side of her precious abode (honest Mum, they are tiny and decidedly unobtrusive these days :-), I won't even be able to watch the game on the box. Ho hum I guess I will just have to settle for the chicken soup and some birthday cake instead

Big Love

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