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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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