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Saturday 3 December 2005

Never Mind The Pascal, Feel The Van Persie

In the many marvelous montages seen on the TV over the course of an emotional weekend for football, we were reminded of the brilliant, many would say the greatest talent ever to grace the beautiful game. Much in the same way the Real Madrid fans stood and applauded Ronaldhino last weekend, after their team had been torn asunder by their despised rivals' star striker, George Best played football with a joie de vivre which transcended petty partisan passions.

I retain foggy childhood memories of being allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch the black & white TV pictures of Man Utd beating Benfica in extra-time in '68. Sadly the old grey matter is far too addled to recall other individual games. Yet I've still got the matchday programme to prove that I was among 60,000 Highbury punters who saw Bestie score in a 2-2 draw the following year.

It's a pity they've yet to discover a data recovery service for the corrupted mind, as there is for clapped out computers. Although if this was possible, while I'd love to peruse my own live recollections of Pele's favourite footballer, in a massive list of long since forgotten matches, the following season's encounter would probably appear a little higher. How amazing it'd be to revisit John Radford's hat-trick, from a 9 year old's rapt perspective, as Bertie Mee's spirited side started out on a remarkable road to repeating Spurs Double feat of a decade earlier, with Frank McLintock & co. frustrating Sir Matt Busby's famous triumvirate of Best, Law and Charlton, in a 4-0 thrashing.

Poor Georgie's premature passing inspired plenty of nostalgic reminiscing. Collecting dust in a cupboard with my most precious programmes are all my Soccer Star annuals from that era. Standing on the threshold of virtual reality gaming, kids today will find it hard to understand the endless hours of entertainment we once had, collecting, swapping and proudly preening over a completed collection of frigid little pictures of First Division footballing faces.

Watching the wonderful clips of the Belfast boy's bedazzling ball skills, brought home another difference between now and then. Best appeared to have this amazing balance, which enabled him to remain on his feet despite a veritable barrage of bellicose invitations to bite the dust - and boy did defenders like Chopper Harris hack at him back then!

However by and large these were far more innocent times, when the British game remained fairly honest compared to the cynical brand of football played on the continent. We'd yet to be infected by the diving disease and all the other conniving shenanigans that were soon to become so much more commonplace, as the world grew smaller and the game in this country became increasingly cosmopolitan.

I wouldn't dare to suggest our football was played by angels who wouldn't dream of dropping in the box to con a pen out of a gullible ref. But as we witnessed in the way George would ride challenges, it wasn't always an instinctive action of first resort to try and fool the officials, when faced with the alternative prospect of carving out a half-decent opportunity.

Thus on a day when football fans around the country paid homage, following the demise of the fifth Beatle, at Highbury it was wonderful to witness a 20-year old Dutch prodigy unwittingly rage against the dying of Bestie's light with virtually the last kick against Blackburn.

Some of us are wondering if Wenger might be worried about a volatile Robin Van Persie losing the run of himself, without a tight rein being kept on his burgeoning star status. Otherwise what possible reason could there be for leaving a player who's performing at his peak, cooling his heels on the bench on Saturday; to be replaced by the cultured but ageing Dennis Bergkamp, who hasn't found the back of a Premiership net all season. Robin's struck such a rich vein of form right now that Wenger should really be making the most of it while it lasts

The young Dutch pretender only got a look-in for the last few minutes, as Wenger wound down the clock. So he wasn't about to waste his one solitary opportunity, in pursuit of a mere free-kick. Receiving the ball out wide on the right wing, he controlled it with his first touch and took two Rovers players out of the game with his second, leaving both for dead, as he darted between them.

I've grown accustomed to laughing at the gamut of theatrical routines. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it's strange that refs are so easily suckered, when such shoddy play-acting is so obvious to all and sundry in the stands. Still it's always a wind up, wondering what might've been, if only they'd stayed on their feet and played out the move.

Over time I've taught myself to make light of such footballing frustrations. If I was to constantly go 'meshuga' during every match, like Busta Blood-vessel, the Arsenal loony who sits a few rows behind us, with the bulging blue veins on his forehead fit to burst, as he bellows out such niceties at the officials as "I hope your mother dies of cancer", I'd be foaming at the mouth so frequently nowadays, that my heart would've long since given up the ghost and it'd be me greeting George at the heavenly gates.

Doubtless in other circumstances our hotheaded striker might've reacted to Robbie Savage's red rag, by rolling on the deck feigning agony. But with only minutes in which to make an impression on this match and the confidence of a player whose radar is unerringly locked on to finding the back of the net, there was only one thought in Robin's mind.

Some might argue that there's already little to choose between Savage and Cheetah. While others might suggest that this is an insult to the intelligence of Tarzan's chimp. Yet I suppose Rover's midfield raver didn't take too kindly to Van Persie making even more of a monkey of him. Despite Van Persie's relatively innocuous position out wide, Savage made at least two desperate last lunges at his legs. With Best like balance, Robin somehow managed to ride the attempts to take his legs away and before anyone, least of all Brad Friedel, had time to realise his intent, he'd released a thunderbolt that arched its way goalwards from an acute angle and in off the far post.

It's a bit rich coming from one who's typically tardy arrival resulted in me running up the steps to catch a replay of Fabregas' 4th minute opener on the big screens. But I pity the poor part-timers who slipped away early to try and beat the traffic and missed such a poignant tribute to the master.


(forgive me but I started writing this on Monday, after the Blackburn game and before Reading and after a decidedly unwanted introduction to a particularly nasty bug, I've only just got around to finishing on the eve of our trip to the Reebok)

Hi Folks

If the object of leaving Robin Van Persie out of Saturday's starting line-up was an attempt to rein in the Dutch youngster, it appears Wenger wasn't the only one, Amazingly for once I've also managed to rein in my wordy tendencies to present the editor at the Examiner with an extremely rare example of a piece which meets their requirements almost exactly.

Although as a result you are likely to bear the brunt with a War & Peace like preamble because there are so many other topics to comment on that I couldn't include below.

Subsequent to Thierry Henry and Robert Pires combining to score a sensational second goal against Rovers which was almost as beautiful in its simplicity, as Van Persie's third was in its utter brilliance, I was eagerly looking forward to a rare public performance from the great man later the same night on Parkinson. I was nonethless a bit baffled by Henry's decision to appear in such a public forum, considering how little we see of his utterly charming character off the football pitch.

After all, it wasn't as if the French maestro had a new book or DVD to flog. But it soon became apparent that Titi had only agreed to appear, in an honorable attempt to publicise his earnest endeavours to promote racial tolerance. To be honest, I was left feeling more than a little disappointed. Thierry's particular interview was far too brief and it focused almost exclusively on a topic, which although extremely admirable, isn't exactly top of my list of what I'd like to hear Thierry talk about.

You have to wonder, of the millions who tuned into Parkie last Saturday, how many of them were looking forward to hearing from ex-Coronation Street actress Sarah Lancashire, or loony ex-game show host turned luvvie Matthew Kelly. At least Stevie Wonder was the sort of class act who deserved to share such prestigious billing with the world's best footballer

I'm assuming that Titi's people only agreed to the appearance on Parkie, on the explicit agreement that this would be the main topic of discussion and that he wouldn't have to face any awkward questions about his future. However I'm sure I sensed Thierry bristle somewhat with Parkie's totally unnecessary repetition of the "Black Sh*t" quote from the Spanish manager, which to my mind was a distasteful example of Parkie pandering to the sensationalist style of a TV station beholden to its commercial sponsors. I'm actually in the wrong even to be including the neanderthal Spaniard's racist remarks here, in a forum of a mere few hundred, let alone Parkie giving the comments of such an ignorant human being, airspace in front of an audience of millions!

Moreover I'm certain Thierry didn't take too kindly to Parkie's amusing reaction to his tale of being spat on, which certainly wasn't a laughing matter when the Frenchman was being covered in disgusting spittle. What was Parkinson thinking with his utterly insensitive chuckling about such a disgusting incident, right at a time when the brother of Man City footballer Joey Barton was about to be sentenced to 18 years in prison for the totally unprovoked racist attack on Anthony Walker ?

I always think it's impossible to compare different footballers, let alone footballers from different eras. I know I saw George Best play live, but sadly I can't distinguish any childhood memories apart from those mentioned below, from the many wonderful clips we've seen on the TV over the years - of which my absolute favourite is the one from the match between Northern Ireland v USSR. It reminds me of the famous "no mas" fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Duran, with Bestie having taunted the life out of the Ruskie defenders and standing there like a matador with both hands out at his side, waving on the opposition to come and try and get the ball off him, pure magic.

George was undoubtedly one of the greatest ever gods to grace out footballing temples. Just as Liam Brady was one of the most artistic ball players I've ever witnessed and perhaps Dennis Bergkamp has demonstrated the greatest footballing brain, the fruits of which we've enjoyed in recent years. Nevertheless, of all the players (the memory of whom remains fresh in my mind - unlike my clouded childhood reminiscences), there has been no one I've been fortunate to watch play live who has Henry's ability to take my breath away and leave me completely dumbstruck with quite such regularity, with the balletic, panther like athletic grace he displays with the ball at his feet

Thus I felt it was almost a complete waste to finally get such a stupendous perfomer in front of a TV camera, for once with some breath left to speak (unlike his occasional, oxygen defficient and all too brief post match comments) and utterly fail to explore any of the qualities which combine to make this footballer tick. Instead of which Parkinson focused almost exclusively on the sad aspects of "monkey noises" and the like which reflect so badly on those societies as a whole who are tacitly complicit in their refusal to address such problems. In my eyes not only was this a dreadful waste but it was "not respect"!

Parkie's solitary probing question was a hypothetical, whereby he enquired of Titi whether he'd want to play before some of the racist crowds found on the continent in particular Spain, Thierry replied that it didn't stop him signing for Juve previously

Henry qualified this by saying "that doesn't mean I am going to leave Arsenal!"
However unfortunately my feeling about this is that the one conclusion we can draw from his comments to date, are that he is definitely considering his options. If Titi had already made his mind up that he's definitely not leaving the Arsenal in the summer, I believe he would've put all the rumours to rest once and for all by coming out and reassuring Gooners the world over by confirming that he's not going anywhere.

Henry strikes me as the honorable sort of person who just couldn't do this unless it was gospel and so sadly I think his silence speaks volumes. The one other thing which was apparent in this interview was the life-changing effect of fatherhood. It could be that this change in Thierry's circumstances might well be responsible for him having a far more selfish outlook, as far as the best interests of his family are concerned.

Personally I'm hoping (praying!) that Thierry suffered his first injury in a good while and with all that spare time on his hands, he could've been chatting to his pal Patrick and the green eyed monster might've raised it's ugly head, as Paddy tried to convince him how much greener the grass was, playing far less games, for so much more money, without half the weight of responsibility, playing for a team where perhaps it doesn't matter nearly so much as it does at THOF. I can but cling to some optimistic speculation that at the end of the day he's just going to use his great bargaining position, in order to leverage both the best possible deal to stay at THOF and for the club to prove their ambitions match his

However Henry might continue to be happy as Larry at Highbury and perhaps it will be a huge wrench to part company with his mentor, Le Prof, but I can fully appreciate that he might be prepared to make some personal sacrifice to leave this comfort zone, as the biggest fish in the Arsenal pond, if he's been made the sort of offer he can't refuse to play elsewhere.

It might be hard for us to comprehend that the sort of telephone number type wages he's earning each week at Highbury and the even bigger ones being bandied about on the continent, can make that much difference. After all, how much can you spend in one lifetime? Yet you have to bear in mind the ephemeral nature of a footballer's career, with two-thirds of their life occurring after their retirement.

Sitting here, reflecting on the subject, it would seem stark raving bonkers for Titi to want to go abroad and entertain some of the racists he'd find on the terraces there - not that they're extinct here, sadly, as some would have us believe, but mercifully in most cases these days, peer pressure from the majority ensures that such disgusting antics won't be tolerated on the terraces, although some would suggest that labelling Damien Duff a gypo, with the "where's your caravan" taunts is no less a racist crime? - when Henry can virtually name his price at THOF. However when you consider how huge Beckham's global profile has become since his move to Real Madrid, in truth Thierry would probably be mad to turn down the sort of total income he could attract in wages, sponsorship, advertising etc, for a mere couple of seasons, scoring goals on the Continent. What's more with his daughter being so young, it's probably now or never, with regard to being able to move without having a detrimental effect on her education etc.

Whereas often it's the footballer's wives wanting warmer climes, we can but hope that Henry's English missus might be a homegirl who has a yen for fry-ups rather than continental brekkies? Time will tell but I do fear the worst. From the way one of the journo's tried to ellicit some info from Wenger at the Wigan press conference, he was speaking as if it's already a done deal!

Although a friend of a friend who found themselves eating at a dinner with Wenger and his wife a few weeks back asked Arsene the all important question and was told Thierry is going nowhere this summer. But you never know, this might just be wishful thinking on Wenger's part, as in his place I wouldn't want to entertain the prospect of losing the best striker on the planet. I get the distinct feeling that Arsene will continue to deny that Thierry is considering leaving the Arsenal, right up until the dreadful day might dawn (heaven forfendf!). It's probably the worst case scenario in view of the club's promotion plans for all those expensive seats at the new stadium. "Que sera, sera" as someone once sang, but whatever transpires, as awful a prospect as it might be to consider an Arsenal side without Henry, we have to feel incredibly privileged that such an unbelievable artist has graced us with his breathtaking talents, week in, week out, these past few years.

Apparently on the same evening Arsene confirmed that controlling Van Persie is a bit of a problem and that Chelsea's conduct in the whole tapping up affair with Ashley Cole was even worse than was reported in the paper.

Meanwhile it's Wenger's implausible deniability on another subject which is of more immediate concern. Arsene seems to have this problem entertaining the prospect that he might be wrong when it comes to certain decisions. I get the feeling that the more Pascal Cygan gets slated about his total incompetence as temporary cover at left-back, the more Arsene is going to try to prove otherwise

It seems as plain as the nose on Wenger's face that absolutely anyone with a little more pace than the flat-footed Pascal, would have a better chance of doing the job. And while it was worrying watching our nervous defence try to cope with the leaden footed lump on the left flank against the likes of Wigan and Blackburn, we're all bloody terrified at the prospect of Duff, Wright-Phillips and Robben tearing past him if Arsene persists with the poor Pascal for Chelsea's visit in a couple of weeks. If I've gone even more grey enduring the decidedly dodgy defending of the past few weeks, I'll be as bald as the slaphead himself by the time the Blues get here!

Unfortunately the only thing likely to change Wenger's mind in the meantime, is if the hapless Pascal is patently responsible for us dropping points against Bolton or Newcaslte. I've always felt Cygan has just about been able to cope at centre back in the slower paced Champions League games but is soon exposed in the far more frenetic Premiership. Thus it's going to be extremely painful travelling to Bolton and Newcastle with Allardyce and Souness bound to target this obvious week spot, as we suffer a player on the flank with the turning circle of an oil tanker. While there aren't too many alternative options, personally I would prefer Campbell and Senderos in the middle, with Kolo and Lauren at full-back. However I'd happily accept absolutely anyone playing there with more pace than Pascal. I'd even prefer to see one of the youngsters given their big chance because at least then, if mistakes are made, at least we'd have the consolation of knowing the lad was learning from them. Whereas there can't be much left to teach the current old dog who's covering at left back.

I feel sorry for Cygan really, because so long as he's giving of his all, it's hard to give him personal stick for a lack of g-d given speed and natural ability. But to my mind, just by the fact that Wenger admitted he played Freddie on that flank against Wigan because he's more defensively minded, this suggest to me that Arsene has already admitted that Pascal just ain't up to the job!

But then who are we to argue with Le Boss? It's not the first time Arsene has stuck to his guns in the face of almost total contradiction from both Gooners and media alike. If many of us had had our own way we would have long since given up on Jose Reyes. After arriving on the Arsenal scene with a massive splas. with his amazing performance against Chelsea, it was almost all downhill, to the point where Reyes reported to be dreadfully homesick and nearly everyone at Highbury, bar Wenger, had given up hope.

I know the deal for Reyes was exagerrated in the press, in as much as we'd have to win the Premiership, the Champions League and the World Cup for Jose to cost all of the£20 odd million transfer fee reported, yet my feeling at the time was that Wenger had made such a substantial investment in the Spanish winger that he couldn't afford to be proved wrong. It was my firm belief back then when Jose couldn't put a foot right that if he'd not been such an expensive purchase, Arsene would have long since dropped him

However he continued to show faith in Jose and has eventually been proved right as the Spaniard finally seems to have turned the corner and has begun to come to terms with the Premiership. I only hope Wenger's judgement is proved correct , even in the face of such unanimous opinion that Pascal ain't up to the left-back job

Meanwhile I finished the following piece on Monday and promptly came down with a dreaded lurgy which proved so bad, that not only did I not get around to sending this out until tonight (Friday), but I also failed to be able to drag myself out of my pit and around to the Reading game on Tuesday (missing my first game this season).

You had to know I was sick when, with the game not even being shown live on the box, or any live commentary on the radio, it's a helluva wind up when you can hear the stadium announcer through our open windows and even worse when you hear the obvious roar of a goal going in and you have to wait for the radio to tell you who's scored. What's more, with the rare opportunity to sit elsewhere other than our season tickets, I was really looking forward to the possibility of perhaps hugging Van Persie from a seat in the front row of the North Bank, just beside the goal.

I guess it would have been a bit of a wind up with both first half goals going in at the Clock End, I believe, and only a decent view of Lupoli's third, but I'm dead relieved we beat Reading and we might yet have the prospect of a home draw in the next round, so I can bid a personal farewell to the North Bank. With three ex-Arsenal players returning with Reading, I was convinced the likes of Sidwell, Harper and Stack were going to come back to haunt us. Yet it seems the kids did more than alright and so "big respek to the yout". Although they are gonna have to do a whole lot better if I am to get anywhere near achieving my objective of working my way around to say a personal farewell to every stand in THOF!

Mercifully I've just recovered from this bout of a dreadfully nasty lurgy just in time for the weekend and after three days in bed, I am currently sitting here wondering if I am actually mad enough to schlep all the way up to Bolton tomorrow. Assuming I don't oversleep in the morning, I think we all know the answer to that one! To miss one game was bad enough. Thankfully we won, as otherwise it would've been all my fault. But to miss two in a row would be sacrilege and would be asking for trouble. Bolton always seem to save their most obdurate performances for our visit to the Reebok and so I'm assuming we're going to need all the help we can get including my contribution of some doughty decibels :-)

I'd certainly risk a little relapse for the sake of three points at the Reebok tomorrow. Although the longer the season goes on without Mourinho's mob giving us a glimmer of hope by dropping the odd point, the more daunting the chase appears. We could certainly do with their aura of invincibility taking a little battering before they get to THOF in a couple of weeks, but I'll sure settle for the 'baby step' of beating them that day

But if I don't put a sock in it soon, I'll have no chance of getting up in time to catch a train to darkest Lancashire

Peace & Love

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