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Saturday, 17 December 2005

If Only The Kids Were Alright

I thought I'd better bemoan my way through another blog entry tonight, in the feint hope that I'll be rejoicing so much after tomorrow's result that I’ll have suffered a remarkable memory lapse about any of the Arsenal's current ills that are costing us far too many rotten results on the road.

I'm a bit loathe to lay into the Gunners with yet another whinge. The league table I've just seen displayed on my screen at the end of MOTD might make the most miserable reading for many a moon, with the Arsenal lying unbelievably in a lowly eighth, so far out of the title race and such a long way from a Champions League spot, that even if we end up achieving a result against Mourinho’s mob tomorrow, unless we buck up big time and begin a run of some consistency, if the other teams in that chasing pack continue to maintain their form, we might eventually find our worst fears realised in having only done Man Utd a big favour!

Nevertheless even in the event of this worst case scenario, whereby we could find ourselves in the unthinkable situation of opening our first campaign at our brand spanking new stadium (the name of the Arab airline continues to stick in my craw, especially until such time as I’m remunerated for a humble contribution to flogging their flight seats!), without the prospect of Champions League football, whether or not tomorrow’s result only furthers the cause of any lesser hated rivals, I would nonetheless, like every other Gooner and the entire footballing world in general (apart that is from the smattering of Blues supporters who continue to populate their half empty terraces – sure Roman, in every other circumstance maybe, but in football you are eventually discovering that indeed “money can’t buy me love”!) derive more pleasure than I could possibly describe from shoving the dirtiest great stinking sock down their Portuguese manager’s XXL sized gob, whilst taking his far too confident by half team down several pegs or two!

Meanwhile you can be darn sure Mourinho’s men aren’t going to let us walk all over the them, with our undoubted superior, more attractive, but less prosperous at this precise point in time, passing game. What’s more we aren’t going to benefit from the previous air of authority we once displayed, back in the good ol’ days, when we hadn’t been beaten by the Blues since the old king died and with the ‘indian eye’ over the Stamford Bridge bottlers, the bloated boot of confidence was on our red & white feet (although they’ve yet to triumph over us at THOF).

No if we’re going to make any sort of dent in Chelski’s title chances, we’re going to have to demonstrate that we want it, really want it. Coming out like Liverpool and countless other recent Chelsea opponents, crowding the midfield and adapting our game, merely in a far too humble effort to prevent Mourinho’s men from winning, just won’t be good enough. We simply must find sufficient belief to know we’re better than that.

However it’s been our own bottle which has been in question in recent weeks, after our woeful results on the road against Bolton and Newcastle. Alan Shearer certainly ain’t no MENSA maven, but he hit the nail on the head on MOTD when he was asked if, at his tardy time of life, Wenger’s post-match words worried him. No Shearer thought Arsène did a great job of deflecting attention away from his own team’s troubles, by pointing the finger of culpability at things outside of his control. Saint Alan also pointed out that the Toons knew full well that their only chance of winning was to prevent the Arsenal from playing football.

I guess he was therefore admitting that much like Bolton, they bullied us out of the result and far too often this season, when our desire and commitment has been called into question in games were the going has got tough, we’ve come up short. The fact that it’s only been this season where we seem to have been found out in the desire department, has left most commentators pointing at the hole left by Paddy’s recent departure. There’s no doubt that there’s a huge abyss where we were once blessed by our former captain’s immense physical presence. But when you think back to the performances of the valiant “they shall not pass” Patrick Vieira of a few seasons ago, in truth our own indomitable lion disappeared inside an uninspired shell somewhat in his last couple of seasons.

Although it’s not come in for such close scrutiny until recent times, myself I am inclined to believe that it was long before Paddy’s departure that we caught our last glimpse of any true Arsenal grit. Ray Parlour wasn’t blessed with anything like the ball skills and natural ability of some of our more talented midfielders and he was in fact most Gooners favourite scapegoat for the occasional mishap. However personally I don’t think it was a mere coincidence that Parlour was the last player to have come through the club under the disciplinarian tenets of George Graham’s reign, as one thing you couldn’t accuse Ray of, was an inability to roll his sleeves up and put his foot in (excuse my mixed limb metaphors) when required. Thus I date the last sighting of any real Arsenal spirit, back to a time before Shirley’s alimony problems forced him to seek pastures new.

While an unknown Arsène Wenger impressed me no end on his arrival at the club, when he stressed the importance of maintaining a balance between playing flair football and the need to retain that special Arsenal spirit, somewhere along the way, either Arsène has lost sight of the crucial importance of clinging onto that solid steel backbone which we’ve always been so famous for, in favour of blowing Gooner minds with such incredible entertainment, or perhaps it’s just that mundane financial circumstances have prevented him from putting us all in footballing seventh heaven without there being some detrimental effect on our traditional traits?

Whatever the case, we must at all times try and retain the proper perspective. After all, we’ve had it so unbelievably good under Wenger, so consistently in recent seasons, that really and truly, according to the law of averages, we’ve been due a dodgy patch for some time now. More’s the point compared to the ten successive defeats endured by the long-suffering Sunderland fans, it sounds a bit churlish for us to be throwing our toys out of our pram after our first successive defeats in 3 years and the first time in 5 years we’ve gone two games without a goal!

I was listening to the phone-ins on Radio Five and Talk Sport this evening and the other thing to bear in mind is the fact that the sort malaise we’ve been moaning about recently is certainly not exclusive to the Arsenal. It’s an epidemic affecting almost every club in the Premiership and is merely a symptom of these mercenary times. Listening to the vast majority of those fans phoning the radio stations to speak their mind, if you’d missed the beginning of the call (and ignored obvious give aways like an ugly Brummie accent), so many of the moans could’ve been about our own club, or any of the teams who’ve suffered similar defeats where the supporters are left accusing their over paid prima donnas of simply not turning up.

Despite an exhausting day Thursday, I dragged myself to Underhill in the evening because I’m a big fan of the FA Youth Cup. However a disastrous penalty shoot-out defeat to lowly Brentford was evidence that a preference for playing 4-4-2 and the pretty passing game are not the only factors consistent throughout the club, from top to bottom. Sadly I never seem to be able to lever myself out of a snug warm pit on a Saturday morning early enough to watch the U18s play at a windswept London Colney. So it is perhaps a little harsh to pass judgement on the Arsenal’s youngsters merely on the evidence of a single game, as perhaps they were merely guilty on Thursday of having a bad day (night) at the office.

Although I’m inclined to think that our kids are simply victims of the same infectious disease which has swept through the cash rich, commercial business that has become of the beautiful game and which has dealt a hammer blow to the millions of loyal fans who stand / sit on the terraces come rain or shine, wondering why the outcome most weeks no longer seems to matter us much to our heroes, as it does to us.

By and large, loyalty to the club’s cause is a thing of the past. To the extent that when I heard Harry Redknapp this evening recounting how one of his players had broken his hand in training the day before, but was so desperate to play that he did so only with the aid of pain-killing injections, I realised that this tale only stood out because it’s the exception rather than the rule in these selfish, look out for no. 1 times.

When we hear of the current Arsenal side’s sole remaining homegrown player sounding so desperate to cash in on his “best left-back in the world” label, then surely we’ve seen the very last of any one club, career long players. It’s even more demoralising to hear the Arsenal’s last dinosaur from this almost extinct creed, proclaiming that his heart belongs to another club at every opportunity, as Tony Adams appears unable to resist shoving his Hammers allegiances down our throat every time he’s on TV.

I also thought it was quite revealing this week when Ashley Cole’s glamorous Girls Aloud girlfriend announce on Frank Skinner’s chat show that Ashley’s main priority now is “to get fit in time for the World Cup” (rather than to help put the Arsenal’s season back on track!).

Then again it’s hard to argue with the players’ attitude these days, when from a financial perspective, most of football’s greatest prodigies these days would be thought to be stupid, or mismanaged if they haven’t got at least one lucrative transfer under their belt within the first couple of years of their careers. With all Premiership club absolutely terrified of having their best prospects tapped up by a club with greater resources, they are all trying their utmost to tie their best teenagers down with extremely rewarding long contracts.

These eighteen year old children can walk into a car showroom and slap down a quarter of a million quid for the flashest car of their dreams, or an entire basket load of the brightest, sparkling bling. So how on earth can these immature boys be expected to remain hungry to work their socks off on the training pitch, when all their many hangers are treating them as if they’ve already arrived as the “big I am” with nothing left to prove, despite the fact that as yet their trophy cabinets are devoid of any adult silverware.

With all this in mind, I guess I shouldn’t really have been that surprised to find myself watching the third round (first round proper) of the FA Youth Cup on Thursday, as the Arsenal youngsters completely allowed the first-half to pass them by. Once again I was disappointed to witness an Arsenal side being bullied out of the game by Brentford’s kids, who were obviously bang up for it, with their feet secured far more firmly on the ground by being in touch with the much less glamorous realities of life in the lower leagues.

Moreover I think we’d all be scared sh*tless of not being seen to do our very best, if the consequences were a mauling from the inimitable ‘Mad Dog’ Martin Allen. Obviously the excitable Brentford first team manager wasn’t able to restrict himself to a few words of encouragement as the teams changed ends (at half-time and extra-time). My sympathies were with the Great Gatsby (Scott Fitzgerald), as the Brentford U18s cuckold of a coach had to contend with constantly having his toes stepped on by his boss.

It wasn’t until extra-time that I realised my gut was growling with hunger, rather than nervous tension and so I nipped down to the kiosk beneath Barnet’s main stand – the only one of the four open on the night and by the sound of their support, much to our shame it was largely populated by fans who’d schlepped from West London to support the visitors.

I was standing stuffing my face with a hot-dog alongside the pitch, with Steve Bould and the Brentford coach to my left, when bizarrely from behind my right shoulder, I realised Mad Dog Allen was seated in the stand ranting and raving at a colleague who was right in front of me and who was relaying Allen’s instructions to the players on the pitch. And alongside him was another geezer who was hollering at one Brentford player in particular, in a language which according to the names on the team sheet, must have been Bulgarian.

As a result I simply won’t accept that Brentford’s superior hunger and desire in the first-half was merely down to absence of any exclusively British bulldog spirit amidst the Arsenal camp. Coming from me, with my own Heinz heritage (57 varieties), any racism would be a bit rich, but I’ve watched enough football from La Liga and SerieA to know that no matter who plays in this country, winning games often takes a lot more commitment than is required in the less frenetic brand of football played on the continent.

Moreover I couldn’t help but wonder if the Arsenal’s U18s fully appreciated quite what an influential shop window the FA Youth Cup is, with the transmission of the two-legged final live on Sky, often the first chance many youngsters get to play in a televised match. While the life of a young professional footballer might appear glamorous to many, turning out before three men and a dog, on a windswept morning at London Colney every other week, is hardly the stuff of Champions League dreams - and I imagine the Arsenal's state of the art facility is perhaps the height of luxury, compared to some of the less impressive training grounds the kids visit when playing the likes of Millwall and MK Dons.

So for those Arsenal youngsters who haven't had a sniff of any first team exposure, this prestigious tournament is perhaps their only opportunity to appear before of a crowd of any sort, to hear their name called out by total strangers and to catch the feint, but nonetheless inspiring scent of the professional experience of performing on a public stage.

It’s one of the reasons I was so disappointed to see the U18s fall at the first FA Youth Cup fence, because if they progress further in the tournament, the closer to spring they get, when the weather improves and the pitches don’t cut up so easily, the better chance they have of the privileged experience of playing at Highbury, before a more substantial crowd.

The visitors certainly didn’t need any more inspiration than a “one shot” Eminem type team talk. Doubtless Brentford’s Mad Dog manager dangled the tantalizing carrot of making a name for themselves by taking the prestigious Arsenal scalp. After trapping our kids in their own half for much of the first 45 with their prodigious work rate, it was hard to begrudge them going in a goal to the good at half-time.

Whether it was the much deserved bollocking they got from Bouldie at the break, or the fact that Brentford couldn’t possibly maintain such a high tempo for the entire ninety. Whatever the case mercifully it was a completely different story second-half, as it was our turn to spend much of the 45 encamped in the visitors half.

Although much as with their first XI peers, as soon as the Arsenal ship started to take on water, they began to resemble a rudderless ship, with no-one really demonstrating the necessary leadership qualities to encourage his team-mates to get to grips with the game.

At least Bouldie appears to share my preference for giving the captain’s armband to his centre-half, who has a far superior overall picture of the efforts of those around him and a much better chance of pushing the right buttons to bring the best out of his colleagues. Admittedly Fabrice Muamba is a midfielder by trade and we did see him talking to his team-mates. Yet according to the torpid appearance of some of our more experienced youngsters, I’d have liked Muamba to have been far more demonstrative.

Considering he wasn’t up against the World’s greatest strikers, I wouldn’t like to rate Fabrice on this performance alone but I’m led to believe he’s an utterly charming and ever so humble chap, with a remarkable story. Apparently he came to this country as a refugee from a war ravaged Congo and simply turned up on the Arsenal’s doorstep one day, demanding a trial. It would seem that Muamba has impressed sufficiently since to have earned a call up (with his refugee status) for his newly adopted country.

Having been struck down by a dreadful lurgy on the day of the Reading game, with such a debilitating bug that I couldn’t manage the short walk around to Highbury, I missed the debut of tall Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner (I can only assume Lupoli is too old for the age range, or was injured?). While Alex Song must’ve made such an impression in his appearance against Thun, that I’d completely forgotten I’d already seen the Cameroonian play 90 minutes.

However until defeat loomed towards the end of 90 minutes and both these two senior players began to pull their fingers out, I got the distinct impression from their half-hearted efforts that they were both decidedly unimpressed with having to make this drop down after their experiences on the fringes of the first team. I’m told that for such a tall player, Bendtner has bundles of ability but he appeared a particularly reluctant participant, as the Brentford no. 5 kept the Dane in his pocket, merely by being first to every ball while Bendtner waited for it to arrive at his feet. Whereas while I’ve yet to see anything from Song which would confirm what it was that originally aroused Arsène’s interest, it might be wrong to criticise the Cameroonian, as for the first time I noticed that the young lad has something of the Nwankwo Kanu about him (if only he shows similar ball skills!), with a languid loping gait which could easily be mistaken as laziness.

Nevertheless if Wenger considers Lauren’s countryman good enough for the first team bench, one would’ve thought he should have stood head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch in this sort of company. Song actually stabbed home the 78th minute equaliser which finally arose after some delicate skills by the Danish striker, who left a couple of defenders for dead as he worked his way in from the bye-line towards the six yard box. This resulted in a goal mouth melée where after three shots failed to find their way through a crowd of Brentford bodies, it appeared as if we were never going to score until Song’s effort somehow found a clear path into the net.

After a pep talk from the Brentford gaffer at the change round for extra-time, the visitors came out with all guns blazing. But I guess as fatigue began to take it’s toll, we soon wrestled back control and you sensed that there was only going to be one outright winner in the additional 30 minutes.

Arsène live so close to Underhill that he could easily walk it if he wanted and as extra-time progressed, someone pointed out the forlorn looking figure of Le Prof standing all on his tod in the closed stand behind one goal. He could’ve been there all game for all I knew and it occurred to me that if anything was going to inspire the Arsenal youngsters it should’ve been the sight of the one person who has the ultimate say about the kids Arsenal future.

Having wolfed down my less than delectable hot-dog, I strolled down the other end of the pitch for a sneaky fag. I found myself chatting to a fellow Gooner who was in an awkward predicament with the son of his best pal playing at left-back for Brentford. Apparently his own son is on the books at Watford and he explained that while Chelsea had expressed an interest, he would’ve never recommended that his lad went to learn his trade with such a high profile club, even if the Arsenal had come a calling.

I had to agree with his argument and wonder how many other good prospective teenagers we must miss out on because their parents don’t like the idea of them playing for a club where they’re never going to get a look-in.

According to the AFCi match report, Irish striker Anthony Stokes was arguably our best player on the night. Stokes in fact scored what I assumed would prove to be the winner right in front of us, following some more good work by Bendtner. Although following in the recent club tradition, with a wonderful shooting opportunity himself, the Dane couldn’t resist gilding the lily, passing on responsibility by cutting the ball back for Stokes. For a moment I thought the move ended with the fairly typical result, as I saw the ball nestle in what I assume was the side netting. But I immediately realised my mistake with the resultant celebrations.

As I explained to the conflicted Gooner parent, Anthony Stokes is the perfect example why folks might not fancy sending their offspring to the Arsenal. No doubt Liam Brady’s Dublin charm did no harm, but I’d love to know exactly how Brady persuaded Stokes to come to THOF, when he was previously playing for Shelbourne, an Irish feeder club for Man Utd club supposedly with some sort of exclusive arrangement with the Moaners. Moreover Anthony Stokes is already a hero of mine, having stuck a metaphorical two-fingers up at Fergie, as according to the Times, old Red Nose was prepared to pay half a million quid for the Dublin teenager.

However I can’t imagine what a wind up it must have been for Stokes, as he appears to have taken one step forward and two back at THOF. I am probably as desperate as Liam Brady to see an Irish player come through the ranks at the Arsenal, because it would be brilliant for me with my weekly column in the Irish Examiner. But sadly Stokes seems to have slipped back down the striking pecking order at Highbury with the arrival of Lupoli and Bendtner. In fact, rather than discard the Dubliner, the club appear to be trying to turn him into a winger, as this has been the only way Anthony’s been able to get a run out in the reserves.

Surely it can’t be easy for the teenager to be trying to learn a new trade out on the flank, only to find himself thrown back up front un such an important match for his future. Mercifully it hasn’t appeared to effect his goal scoring instincts as he slotted home our second goal. But I am reluctant to be too eager to laud the Irish lad, as I’ve already had my typing fingers burnt in this respect when I put all my prospective hopes in Graham Barrett’s basket some season’s back (the Dublin striker is currently on loan from Coventry to Livingston!).

It was outrageous as the teams changed ends after the first period of extra-time, to see the overly officious referee tell the players off for taking on water and giving them a hard time for merely trying to re-hydrate themselves.

Most of us thought it should've been game over, that was everyone except the Brentford lads. In the second period of extra-time, as the clock ticked down, they were humping the ball upfield for their nippy substitute striker and loading the penalty area at every possible opportunity (throw-ins, free-kicks etc)

On one such occasion they worked themselves a shooting opportunity, where a snap shot resulted in a great save from Vito Mannone, but sadly he was only able to push the ball back out from whence it had come. It was absolutely criminal that a half asleep Arsenal defence gifted the Brentford player a second bite of the cherry and despite Vito getting back to his feet and pulling off a decent attempt to stop the second shot, the ball found the back of the net.

You could sense that it was a real big deal for Brentford and their fans and having been on the brink of going out of the tournament, they were all lifted by the equaliser. Thus I was convinced they would go on to win the penalty shoot out.

We witnessed eight great spot kicks, including two superb saves from either keeper, until perhaps Brentford’s best player, the no. 5 forgot the first rule of shooting for goal, to keep ones head over the ball. I almost felt a little sorry for the youngster when he skied the ball over the bar, as I imagine he would’ve struggled to get over the guilt of being singularly responsible for Brentford’s exit from the tournament, after coming so close to humbling the not so mighty Arsenal.

However any sympathy soon evaporated when Fabrice Muamba got his opposite number off the hook, with an almost exact replica ricket. After the sixth Brentford spot kick found the back of the net in sudden death, it was Henri Lansbury who ended up hanging his head in shame when the keeper pulled off a decent save. Yet Lansbury was no more guilty than any of his teammates, who according to Bouldie “lacked a bit of commitment” against a far more “driven” Brentford.

It was sad to see us go out of this competition so soon, as you never know, something as small as some success in the Youth Cup could’ve proved a tonic for a more buoyant mood in the Arsenal camp. It would have certainly been better than all the hangdog faces of the Arsenal youngsters, arriving in for training on Friday, totally depressed after a somewhat embarrassing defeat.

I believe we last achieved success in this tournament in successive seasons (2000 and 2001) and I recall travelling to an away leg of the final against Coventry, where a young Jay Boothroyd looked the business. He reminded me of Stan Collymore, with everything in his locker, size, pace and ball control. But as he departed Highfield Road Boothroyd joined a bunch of his “homeys” instead of getting on the Arsenal coach and I recall thinking at the time that we / he would be lucky if he didn’t have his head turned by a scent of the high life.

Apparently of the team who played at Underhill on Thursday, Bendtner is the most likely prospect, Yet apart from the great Dane, based solely on this lacklustre showing, I’m sorry to have to report that I didn’t see anyone else who is likely to be banging on the door, staking a claim for a first XI spot any time soon (and believe me I’d love to be promoting Stokes claim). Then again what do I know? In recent youth teams I thought the likes of Julian Gray and Jerome Thomas looked equally, if not better prospects than Jermaine Pennant

It will be off little consolation to Liam Brady, as considering the amount of money invested in our youth program, he must be absolutely desperate to be able demonstrate some significant signs of success. However in the light of the equally disappointing efforts of the first XI, if anything at least the youngsters are consistent :-(