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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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