Wednesday, 21 December 2005

The Belle of The Ball

I'll have to be brief (now that would be a surprise), as I need to rush around and get a few things done in order that I might leave in good time for tonight's match at Belle View, but I wanted to post an entry, as yesterday for the second year, I was invited to this annual Gooner nosh-up upstairs at The Ivy, with around 20 to 30 hard core Arsenal fans all seated around the one huge table.

Wallowing in our 20 point misery (apparently they are installing new "Mind The Gap" signs at the Arsenal tube station!), I wasn't really looking forward to this year's gig so much as the last time - where I was privileged to spend the entire lunch seated adjacent to my hero, ex-Arsenal captain Frank McKlintock and opposite Sammy Nelson, who told some hilarious tales but who didn't drop his trousers!

I imagined it might feel more like a wake than a celebration, with all of us spending the day bemoaning the club's current ills but in the end I was delighted I went, as apart from the fact that it was an extremely enjoyable occasion once again, it also proved to be an incredibly cathartic reality check, reminding me of what really matters and I was left looking forward with great anticipation to tonight's outing.

Genial Northern Irishman Sammy Nelson was the solitary guest on this occasion and he stood up after our meal and got us all cracking up with a couple of hilarious jokes. I was sucked in completely last year, but I've now come to appreciate that Sammy has this marvelous straight-faced habit of telling a funny with such sincerity that right up until the punch line you aren't certain if he's telling a true story. He also took our questions and had us mad Gooners hanging on his every word, as he regaled us with some details, straight from the horse's mouth, of some of the more famous Gunners anecdotes.

I am sure we heard it last year, but it was no less interesting to get the low down once again, on the infamous battle in Rome with the Lazio players, outside the restaurant where both sides went to eat after our 1970 Fairs Cup triumph. Apparently it was like a scene straight out of high-noon, when they were confronted with four of the Lazio players walking towards them and one of them made the mistake of laying into Ray Kennedy (who I assume was more than capable of taking care of himself). Sammy also took the mickey out of "gorgeous" George Graham, holding his hands up pleading "anywhere but in the face".

Obviously the memorable subject of Sammy's moon at the North Bank cropped up. He enquired as to how many Highbury held, to which a few people replied in all seriousness, as he revealed that it must be closer to a 100,000 according to the amount of people who've come up to him over the years and said they were there that night, when he dropped his shorts in front of the North Bank.

He was talking about the repercussions, as he was terrified of being suspended for the Cup Final as a result. Apparently Dennis Hill-Wood, father of current chairman, approached him to advise that things would work out in his favour, as Hill-Wood had apparently spoken to Bert Millichip and promised him his vote for FA Chairman. But when it came to his appearance at the disciplinary meeting, Millichip wasn't having any of it, telling Sammy that he didn't believe a word of his explanation. This was (if I recall correctly) that it hadn't been a particularly entertaining game (believe it or not this was not unusual, but the norm back then) and so Sammy was just trying to provide some amusement for all those paying punters.

The club had automatically fined him two weeks wages, in the hope of preempting any punishment from the FA but I believe this was anulled when he was suspended for two weeks and fined 700 quid by the authorities (which was I imagine a considerable sum relevant to the wages back then).

The subject of the size of the crowds at THOF, raised some amusing reminiscing about the militant times of the early seventies, when during the miner's strikes and the infamous 3-day week, I believe over 60,000 crammed into Highbury for an afternoon midweek kick off against Cloughie's Derby.

Coincidentally, only recently I was going through some of the matchday programmes I have from games my old man took me to as a boy, as I was trying to determine if I'd actually seen Georgie Best perform his magic in the flesh for Man Utd. I am sure some one will correct me if I am wrong but if I am not mistaken, I saw Best play in a couple of occasion, scoring with Brian Kidd in a 2-2 draw in '69 and defeated by a John Radford hat-trick, when we held that magical triumvirate of Best, Law and Charlton to something like a 4-2 triumph the following season. But it was truly amazing to be reminded that I was crammed into Highbury amidst crowds of around 64,000 for these glamorous encounters.

I have fond memories of shuffling through the turnstiles at this early age, hidden between the folds of my old man's huge overcoat. But when he couldn't wangle himself a pitch amongst the posh Upper tier seats and we went into the unreserved seating in the West or East Lower, I still have vague memories of being passed over the heads of the sardine like supporters, to sit in front of the advertising hoarding alongside the St Johns Ambulancemen.

After Sammy sat down, in honour of the fact that we will be bidding farewell to our grand old stadium this season, we were asked to go around the table, taking it in turn to describe our greatest Highbury highs and lows.

Now I thought I was hard core, but I soon discovered I'm a positive lightweight in comparison to some of the Arsenal fans whose company I shared yesterday afternoon. There were at least a couple of Gooner geezers present who must have a good few years on me, as they were actually privileged to be there in person at Highbury in 1958 to witness the remarkable 4-5 defeat against Man Utd. I remember my old man frequently recalling this particularly special match, in absolute awe of the player he described as the greatest footballer he'd ever seen play live, Duncan Edwards.

And for the benefit of any younger Gooners who might not be aware, this match will always be remembered because it was the last time Sir Matt Busby's amazing "Busby Babes" played in this country before flying out for that fateful European encounter which tragically ended up with most of them losing their lives oh so prematurely, in the Munich Air Disaster.

There were other, somewhat long in the tooth, Gooners around the table who spoke in glowing terms about the Fairs Cup triumph against Anderlecht in '71 as one of their favourite Highbury highs. While the majority of us all referred to the more recent magical moment, when Bouldie passed the ball to Tony Adams, for our captain to create an incredibly poignant instant, as TA scored the last goal against Everton to cap our title winning run in '98 with the most perfect finale.

Littered amongst all these special occasions we Gooners all remember, were many more personal memories which folks were good enough to share. Of these, my absolute favourite was a tale from a Gooner who I chatted to afterwards and who swore to me that the end of his time on this earth just had to be Arsenal related. Apparently he and his parents were away on their family holidays, when his grandfather and a work colleague used their season tickets at Highbury. His elderly grandfather had got so excited at the game that he eventually passed away from the resultant heart attack. However the tale he told at the table related to the match against PSG a few years back, when Iam Wright missed an absolute sitter, when one on one with the keeper and it was left to Kevin Campbell to score with a marvelous header.

His own father was dreadfully ill at this time, on his virtual death bed in hospital and after the match he went to be by his dad's side. He told how he sat there, listening to his old man clinging on to this mortal coil, holding his hand, but at a complete loss for words. Eventually he leaned over and said to his dad "I bet you don't feel half as bad as Wrighty" and according to this chap, with his very last breath, his dad whispered "Yeh but I don't feel half as good as Kevin Campbell"!!

Unfortunately I don't have time right now to share any more stories with you but the day itself left me with a warm, fuzzy Gooner feeling, and a timely reminder of what it really means to be an Arsenal fan, sharing a special common bond, which can never be broken by a mere few bad results.

One of the best bits of this special occasion, is that I get a ride there and back in this absolutely beautiful relatively new Ferrari (which has been on a couple of those Gumball rallies) and on the way home we were discussing how sad it is to think that in 30 years timee, I can't exactly imagine any of the current Arsenal squad being the sort of lifelong Gunners, that they'd be prepared to spend an afternoon discussing all things Arsenal with a load of loyal fans (at least not for anything less than an extortionate fee of 30 odd grand!!)

See some of the more hardy amongst you at Doncaster
Come on you Red-currants
Big Love
Bernard

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Those Aren’t Sleigh Bells You Can Hear, Santa’s Calling Time On The Arsenal’s Season!

I had to resist the urge to vent my frustrations immediately after Sunday’s depressing defeat. I didn’t want to sound like all those raving Gooner loonies on the radio phone-ins, blaming everyone and everything for our current woes, from the Bolsheviks to the Berlin Wall. The truth of the matter is that after Le Prof’s career long purple patch at Highbury, according to the law of averages, Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal were long overdue a spell in the doldrums.

Nevertheless it’d be far easier to bear such a downturn in our fortunes, if it wasn’t for an abiding feeling that the Arsenal dressing room and the state of Denmark both have something rotten in common. Most commentators point to the huge chasm at the heart of our midfield, which was previously made complete by the immense physical presence of our former captain. It may only be since Vieira vacated Highbury that opposition teams have begun to ‘find us out’, but compared to Paddy’s previous peerless dominance, most Arsenal fans are of the opinion Paddy was only going through the motions in his last couple of seasons.

Perhaps Arsène’s budgetary restrictions have been a factor, but having originally impressed me on his arrival at the club as he focused on the importance of the need to maintain a balance in order to retain that special ‘Arsenal spirit’, somewhere along the way our manager seems to have lost sight of this crucial cause. In fact I struggle to recall any real evidence of the traditional Gunners’ grit and determination, since Ray Parlour’s alimony problems forced him to seek pastures new.

It’s no longer a nationality ‘thang’, as in the modern era of the beautiful game as a mercenary business, the bulldog spirit is far from exclusive to these shores. In fact in a Premiership where sadly such steadfast resolve has become the rarity rather than the rule, it’s Phillipe Senderos (from a country that is proud of their fence sitting traditions) who’s about the only Arsenal squad member to have demonstrated that he might indeed be made of ‘the right stuff’.

Getting beat at our own gaff by Chelsea for the first time in 15 years was bad enough. But contrary to public opinion, I don’t believe the Blues played THAT much better than us. Wenger’s first XI compares quite favourably, but with a couple of injuries, it required an Arsenal side at their very max to master Mourinho’s rouble bolstered mob. Personally I felt that for a manager who’s previously expressed his rigid preference for 4-4-2, Arsène afforded the visitors a significant psychological advantage by experimenting with a formation, intended to match them in midfield.

To my mind this was the timid approach of a manager who was far too worried about avoiding defeat. Whereas I firmly believed it was beholden of us to at least attempt to demonstrate to the rest of the Premiership how to do it, by putting out a side with the sole purpose of staking our claim to all three points. The upshot was that Henry was far too detached and Van Persie was playing in an unfamiliar role, where he struggled to have an impact on the game.

Much like everyone else, apart from the authorities, I preferred the offside rule when it was black & white. Amidst all the current confusion, it’s farcical to expect a lino to be able to simultaneously look along the line and at the ball, whilst also calculating if an offender is interfering with play and which phase of the move they’re in. Since it’s pure potluck nowadays, there’s no point going demented over the Dutchman’s disallowed goal.

From where I sat, this titanic clash turned on the mere, gut-wrenching few inches, between Titi’s shot bouncing agonisingly back off the woodwork and Robben passing more precisely inside the post. With both sides equally determined to avoid defeat, from the box seat of being a goal to the good, the Blues were always likely to appear superior, as all too late, an ashen-faced Arsenal threw caution to the wind in our efforts to chase this crucial game.

However it was the heavy mood of defeatism which descended upon Highbury after the 2nd goal that I despair of more than anything. There was a time when you could guarantee that we’d at least go down like lions, led by those on the pitch and the terraces who’d rage against the result until the very last. Whereas our whimpering lambs rolled over on Sunday. Unfortunately it’s the trickiest enigma to crack in the transfer window. There’s hardly a glut of Adams, Keane & Terry type leaders and no matter their linguistic versatility, you can’t expect a player to arrive at a club, instinctively knowing which buttons to push to inspire his new colleagues

Perhaps it’s my pessimistic imagination, but from the balcony as you exit the West Upper, more and more each week the magnificent backdrop of our impressive new stadium begins to resemble an ostentatious mausoleum for all our mighty Arsenal aspirations.

________________________________________________________________________

Hi folks

Naturally by now I was hoping that I would've forgotten all about bemoaning my way through my last lengthy blog entry, instead of which I'm searching for the phone number of the local Samaritans. Sunday's devastating defeat has ensured that some of the comments in my previous blog have been repeated above because sadly they were so appropriate in such miserable circumstances.

However the Xmas / New Year schedule for The Irish Examiner with various end of year specials for the Arena supplement has ensured that this week's column is appearing in the paper proper instead and as a result I was limited to a measely 600 words. This is an impossible feat for someone as verbose as myself on an ordinary week, let alone after this weekend just gone. Even with me being extremely selective I still went well over. But I couldn't believe that, after all these years of waiting to pull Real Madrid out of the Champs League hat, I completely forgot to mention Friday's draw! This was crazy when I consider the drama that went on here at Highbury Quadrant.

Every season for the past few years whenever we've been involved in European draws, I've assumed that at long last this would be my opportunity to see the Arsenal play in the Bernabeu. The mammoth stadium in Madrid is one of the few footballing temples that I've yet to see the Arsenal play in.

Before the draw on Friday, I told Róna that I fancied Madrid or Benfica, basically because I really didn't want to end up going to Germany (which was a 3/1 shot with two possible German sides) and because, even in February, these two cities were the most southerly of the six teams we could've drawn. Additionally it would've been interesting to pay a visit to the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. Benfica's ground was designed by the same firm of architects as our new gaff and it would've been great to get a better idea of what our new experience next season might be like.

However I actually had an inkling we might be matched with Madrid. Somehow I felt that the Laws of Sod and Murphy wouldn't be able to resist the irony of us pulling my particular plum draw out of the hat. Even with our woeful European record, for the past few seasons in the eyes of much of the media, the Arsenal have been considered amongst the strongest sides in the Champions League. Whereas this season we started out right off the European radar, as we went into the competition with the weakest squad on paper in Wenger's entire time at the club.

So it seemed almost fated that we'd end up going up against the Madrillenos, the team with the most illustrious European reputation. Mercifully reputations usually count for little in any knockout competition and hopefully Real's current inconsistent run might continue until our date in February. Also, somewhat bizarrely, after so much lousy luck in the Champions League for so many seasons and when our league form away from home has gone to pot, suddenly good fortune seems to be smiling down upon perhaps the least deserving Arsenal side, compared to those we've put out in the past who've had a much more worthy pedigree. Still it will make a change for us to be going into a game as such supposed underdogs according to many.

I am always sat in front of my laptop for these draws. I don't like travelling on the official club trips to European venues because the local police invariably target British fans as a result of our reputation from yesteryear (which is largely unwarranted these days, especially with the majority of placid and respectful travelling Gooners). This often ensures that on the official outings one is herded off the plane, onto a coach, into the stadium and after the customary post-match delay, Gooners endure the reverse procedure. This can often mean that one ends up getting to see so little of the locality that you might as well have travelled to Leicester for all the flavour one gets of the foreign gaff.

We therefore much prefer to travel independently but with so many awaydays abroad in recent times, absolutely the only way we can afford our little sojourns to foreign shores is by bagging cheap flights. However as anyone who has tried to bag bargain flights on the day of the draw will know, unless you are very quick at the keyboard and book within seconds of the draw being announced, the prices of flight seats tend to shoot up very dramatically.

Thus it was a bit of a disaster when I discovered that I had an appointment on Friday morning which I simply couldn't avoid or postpone. Ro has heard me ranting and raving on these occasions, as I frantically try and book our trip. I've also detailed to her on many occasions the regular panic-stricken sagas, with long-winded descriptions of my various computer related tribulations. But she's never experienced it for herself.

So I was up early on Friday, in order to scribble down several pages of notes on how and where to find the flights, listing each of the destinations with the various airline options and prices. I was attending this meeting on behalf of a pal who's abroad at the moment. It was really important for him (otherwise I would've definitely taken a rain check), so I didn't want to let him down and as a result I completely forgot all about the draw the moment I walked out the front door.

It was probably nearly 12 when we'd finished our appointment and I received a call from my mate in Thailand, primarily to find out how we'd got on. However when I think back, it was absolutely barmy to have my Spurs mate phoning me from a beach in Asia, to tell me that I'd finally got the draw I'd wanted. So I immediately apologised to him and told him to call me back in a few minutes and was straight on the phone to the missus, holding my breath until I'd heard whether we had something sorted. I am not sure whether I'd have done any better, being slightly more proficient on the Apple Mac keyboard, but I was over the moon to hear we had flights booked for less than 140 quid. Ro had found cheaper flights but as is often the case, when she hit the confirm button they'd already disappeared. But by the time I called her the same seats were already 290 quid!

So I was just dead chuffed that we would be off to Madrid for a couple of days/nights in February, for about the same price, as many Gooners will pay for a day trip. Meanwhile Ró read out the other important fixtures, telling me who the other Premiership sides had drawn. But she couldn't confirm who Man Utd were playing and I spent a further few minutes on the phone waiting for more details to come up on Sky Sports News, until I burst out laughing, explaining to the missus that it had genuinely slipped my mind that they'd already been knocked out of the competition

I guess it was one of the few occasions when my accursed memory proved the source of such great pleasure!

Before I go, I guess I should reveal that I heard some shocking news today which might suggest that, while many of us point to a lack of Arsenal spirit as the source of our recent problems on the pitch, it could well have something to do with our club's awful karma coming back to bite them on the bum.

My sister's best mate is married to a chap who's second in command of the merchandising at THOF. He's been working for Arsenal for over fifteen years now and after slogging his guts out for a long time, trying to cope with the buying, the warehouse and the shops, a few months back the club employed a couple of young whippersnappers, one of whom was placed in control of the shops and the other the warehouse.

The other week, the one in charge of the warehouse walked out of his job, unable to cope (I guess under pressure with all the Xmas trade) and last week our pal was invited to a meeting, where he assumed he was going to be asked to take over this responsibility again. Having discussed the matter with his missus, they concluded that considering the way the club had shown absolutely no appreciation for all his graft (when they were eventually forced to pay a couple more salaries for the work he'd been doing), there was no way he'd be going back to slogging his guts out, slaving all hours for no apparent reward.

However to his astonishment this was far from the subject of his summons to a meeting. Without a by or leave, after giving over fifteen years of his life to working there and a week before Xmas, he was given the "tin-tack", made redundant at the latter end of his working life with only the absolute minimum required by law as a pay off (is it a week for every year worked?). I've heard of many shoddy goings on at THOF but this is about the most shameful! It was bad enough booting him out after all these years a few days before the club's Xmas party, but the way they went about it showed no class, manners or respect.

Doubtless the bean counting Edelman is behind this fiasco and I wouldn't mind betting that it's related to the move to the new stadium. Perhaps they looking for a younger, more dynamic marketing team but if it is indeed true that you reap what you sow then these shameless sh*ts have condemned us all to several seasons worth of bad fortune!! I just pray that whoever is ultimately responsible for this outrage, they also find themselves being similarly discarded like a used bit of loo paper, having the end of their working careers flushed down the same karsey as soon as they’ve served their purpose. So much for the Gunners' family, shame on you Arsenal!

Here's wishing one and all love, light and peace over the festive season
Bernard



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mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

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 :-(

Tuesday, 13 December 2005

Wanted! Famous Arsenal Spirit (last seen skulking into an AA meeting)

(anyone who read my last blog entry entitled "Hands Up" should be warned that as a result of being in such haste to vent my frustrations on Sunday, I've ended up repeating a few of the sentiments I expressed previously )

Hi folks

Things can't be good on the Arsenal front because I actually found myself watching Spurs v Pompey tonight and for the first time in many years, I was interested in the result. Obviously a Spurs loss is always worth a bit of mileage in the mickey taking stakes, but our North London rivals have been off the radar for so long, that their results haven't really mattered in recent times.

Whereas tonight I sat here hollering at the telly because the ridiculous Uriah Rennie handed the Lillywhites all three points at the death, by awarding a penalty for an extremely dubious handball. Meanwhile I'm assured by my Spurs mate that their run of form can't last and that things will be back to normal soon enough. But if I'm sat here worrrying about Spurs establishing a four point advantage over us in the table, then you know that something is seriously wrong!

Its hard to put our problems into proper perspective because we grown so accustomed to success under Wenger. However in light of the cyclical nature of football, I guess we're long overdue a dodgy spell. What's more things could be a lot worse. I was listening earlier to a podcast of Radio 5's Sunday Sportsweek show, in which Gary Richardson interviewed a financial whizz kid who happens to have the misfortune to be a Man Utd fan. He confirmed that according to the balance sheets, last season Liverpool earned 15 million Euros more than Man Utd from their triumphant run in Europe and that was with Utd going out in the knockout stages. So he estimates that with all the additional incidental income (ticket sales, merchandising etc.) that Utd have foregone this season, they've missed out on a least 15 million quid.

According to this chap, while Utd will have been unlikely to have budgeted for their extended involvement in European competition, as far as he's concerned it was probably essential if their new American owners were going to have any prospect whatsoever of servicing their ginormous loans. I didn't realise this but apparently the three New York hedge funds who loaned the Glazers more than £800 million to buy the club (over £100 million more than has been widely reported!), considered it a sufficiently risky investment that they are charging an absolutely extorionate 18 per cent interest (if only I'd have known! I could have bought Man Utd with my Barclaycard at a better rate and turned Old Trafford into a public karsey - I guess this would be doing a public service since, as the song says, "Manchester is full of sh*t" :-)

This Moaner's hoping that as the Glazer's ability to make the repayments on this loan (let alone turn a profit) become increasingly unlikely, with Man U's footballing misfortunes and the adverse knock-on effect on all their revenue streams (Vodafone!), perhaps this will soon present an opportunity for a consortium of genuine Utd fans, like himself, to buy the club. However the reality of this situation is that the Glazer's could end up having their new toy repossessed, with the result that Man U might find themselves in the control of a bunch of even more anonymous American bankers (yes that's a "b"!)

Nevertheless, the vast majority of footie fans couldn't give a monkey's about such boardroom shenanigans. All that matters to them is what goes on on the pitch. I suppose their financial circumstances could result in a "fire sale" of their star footballers in the summer. But for the moment the Moaners are fortunate that they don't have to contend with the possibility of losing Wayne Rooney at the end of this season.

Whereas there seems to be an ever increasing sense of foreboding amongst us Gooners, as many have interpreted Thierry Henry's recent lukewarm body language as evidence of the inevitablity of him buggering off to Barca. My position, as I've already stated, is that Titi's silence on the subject speaks volumes. But until such time as I've witnessed proof positive (considering the portents of such doom, I'll probably refuse to believe it until the crowing Catalans are proudly displaying their latest capture in a Barca shirt!), I prefer to kid myself that Thierry is only contemplating a move.

Meanwhile whether he continues to fulfill his contract at THOF, or decides his future lies elsewhere, our captain's current preference for keeping his own counsel can't possibly be having a positive effect on team morale. After all, although our title prospects have gone for a complete burton, it's hard to imagine our leader on the pitch encouraging his team mates on to chase Champions League qualification, if there's some suspicion that Titi might be competing for another club in next season's competition. In the opinion of many, we've already given up on the Premiership, but if they don't wake up and smell the coffee soon, we might find ourselves struggling to cling on to European qualification.

Even if Henry eventually confirms that he's going to stay, the current air of uncertainty can't be healthy. What's more in recent matches, when we've most needed a captain to inspire some 'do or die' commitment, there's been obvious signs of Henry's head dropping. While we've often witnessed Thierry leading by example, haring the length of the pitch to try and win back possession, personally I've never been convinced that a player who shoulders such a huge share of the goal scoring burden should be bothered by any further responsibilities.

I've always believed either midfielders or defenders make the best captains, because unlike a striker they don't play with their back to their team mates for much of the match and are therefore much more aware whether their colleagues are pulling their weight. Also a team leader is the last player who could be transferred into our club. It takes time to learn the correct buttons to push with each individual. To date Senderos seems the only viable alternative in my humble opinion and if Henry should leave, I only hope Wenger doesn't choose another stop-gap due to the fact that he feels it's too soon for the Swiss centre-back.

If given a long term run in the team, I'm sure Phillipe will grow in confidence. At least his inclusion in Saturday's line-up left our defence looking far less nervous. Although in the absence of Pascal Cygan, they certainly weren't the only ones, as at least I didn't have to spend the entire match hiding behind the sofa, absolutely bricking it whenever the Toon attacked.

Circumstances prevented me making it to St. James and I find the rare instance of having to watch the Gunners live on the telly far more aggravating. Even where the away fans sit at St. James Park, right up in the gods, it may be hard to maintain the illusion of being able to make oneself heard, but at least there's still some sense of playing ones part in proceedings, by hollering ones head off with encouragement. Whereas I get incredibly hot and bothered by the impotent feeling of sitting in front of the gogglebox, screaming about every single mistake. I'm reminded that it's much more stressful supporting the Arsenal from afar.

I wouldn't wish ill on any Arsenal player, least of all one whose limited abilities don't prevent him from trying his best, but I am sorry Pascal that I can't help but hope your injury is nothing too trivial, or one which doesn't heal before the broken bones in the feet of either Cole or Clichy. At least on Saturday Cygan's enforced absence meant we got the defensive line-up which would be most Gooners preference. Although personally I'd have reversed the full-backs, as Ralphie doesn't look too comfortable at left-back and with Kolo there instead, only one of our four defenders would be playing out of his natural position.

However it would seem that as far as Wenger is concerned, there is no substitute for experience. Mind you there was some evidence of this in Senderos' struggle with Alan Shearer, as the wily old striker provided our Swiss centre-back with an education in the abuse of the elbow. Much like Mark Hughes in his day, Shearer is the sort of striker capable of ruffling any defender's feathers. Yet while they might be the subject for so much loathing in an opposition shirt, what I wouldn't give right now for a just little evidence of such feistiness in the Arsenal squad.

Perhaps it will serve us well to be going into the Chelsea game with our backs so far up against the wall, instead of riding high as we've been in recent encounters. Although on this occasion I rather suspect, if we are going to achieve the right result, it will be us who'll be required to disturb the Blues recent winning rhythm, with some of our own old school physicality.

Peace & Love
Bernard
____________________________________________________________

Wanted! Famous Arsenal Spirit (last seen skulking into an AA meeting)

We Gooners are more than used to a mid-season kick up the Arsenal. In seasons past such a disappointment has served as a timely reminder to some of our prima donnas, that when the going gets tough, merely turning up with our pretty passing game, is often not nearly enough, in a Premiership where hunger and commitment still count for plenty.

However what was so depressing against Newcastle on Saturday night was that we've grown accustomed to witnessing a robust reaction to such a hiccup. Whereas there was little, or no evidence of the renewed resolve we’d all been expecting at St. James Park after our woeful capitulation at the Reebok last week.

My brow became even more furrowed listening to Le Prof's bitter post-match postulating. It might be his policy not to criticize his players in public but he sounded like every other broken record manager as he blamed the ref, Shearer and Gilberto's sending off. Instead of railing at the referee, Arsène would be far better off directing his anger at the bird-flu ridden chickens which have begun to roost in his own half-hearted Highbury house. Inconsistent officials are, and always will be an intrinsic part of the beautiful game and griping about them is as pointless as complaining about a bad bobble of the ball.

To my mind it looked as if Dermott Gallagher suddenly decided he needed to get to grips with the game before it became too feisty. As a result, I thought he flashed a yellow card at Gilberto without realising he'd already booked the Brazilian and it was far easier to show him the red than admit his mistake in front of millions, by rescinding the second booking. Whatever the case, I sincerely hope Arsène will be admonishing our World Cup winning midfielder, as he was entirely culpable for putting himself in this precarious position in the first place with his utterly senseless foul on the stroke of half-time.

Anyone who's found themselves flagging during a football match would be familiar with the way in which the Brazilian dangled out a lackadaisical leg. So I'm inclined to believe our lazy midfielder was already looking forward to his half-time breather, when he foolishly chose to bring his opponent down instead of having to leg it after the zippy zebra. It also occurred to me at the time that he might regret putting himself on a knife-edge for the entire second-half, only one badly timed challenge away from having to take an early bath.

Yet in truth the Arsenal had a full complement of players for the first hour of this encounter, which was more than enough time for our talented team to put the Toon to the sword. Bramble showed some early promise at Ipswich and Boumsong formed one half of a formidable partnership with Mexes at Auxerre. But together both centre-backs have been the Toon’s Achilles heel to date, causing many to question Souness’ judgement. Perhaps these two lummoxes will go on to prove everyone wrong, but I rather suspect their lapses in concentration will be the cause of Newcastle being torn apart in matches to come against stouter opposition this season.

So while the media laud the mettle Newcastle demonstrated to defeat the not so mighty Arsenal, like all our other rotten results on the road, in my opinion we were the architects of our own downfall. We failed to get behind their lumbering centre-backs on more than a couple of occasions and while it took an incredible save from Given to keep out Henry’s volley, the fact that this was the only time we troubled their keeper during the entire 90 just ain’t good enough. However it won’t be until Chelsea walk away from St. James with the points, without working up a sweat, that we’ll be able to put our own abject efforts into proper perspective.

Wenger was also wasting his breath blaming Shearer. Saint Alan has been getting away with being the St. James Park bully, with almost absolute impunity, for donkey’s years. On Saturday the ref appeared so reluctant to reprimand the old war horse, that when Gallagher was finally forced to book him, I thought he did so almost apologetically. However despite the ageing striker’s dirty tricks, we’ve not succumbed to a defeat at St. James in nine seasons prior to Saturday’s debacle.

In fact it wasn’t so long ago that the Arsenal were renowned for dishing it out, rather than being the sort of soft touch that every aggressive team in the league is looking forward to playing. I had a call from a fellow Gooner who was watching George Graham’s post mortem on Sky. Considering the wonderful entertainment we’ve been treated to by Wenger’s team in recent years, I never imagined I’d be nostalgically reminiscing about the good old days of Graham’s boring, boring Arsenal, where at least we could be confident that it mattered to his team, as much as it does to those of us on the terraces. What’s more, any players guilty of merely going through the motions would be guaranteed a week’s worth of the sort of punishing drills that would ensure they wouldn’t dare incur such displeasure again.

In truth Arsène is guilty of spoiling us Gooners. We’ve all become far too blasé about our success. There was an item on MOTD2 about long-suffering Sunderland fans, schlepping a similar 500 mile round trip to the capital for the second time in seven days, subsequent to 9 successive defeats, loyally supporting their side, despite the inevitability of the drop and with little more to hope for than the occasional goal celebration and a rare point. By contrast it’s perhaps a little petty to be throwing our toys out of the pram considering it’s the first time in 3 years we’ve suffered successive defeats and the first time in 5 years we’ve gone two games without a goal!

I recorded the sycophantic British backslapping of the Sports Personality of the Year earlier that same evening, in favour of flicking between Barca v Seville and the Milan derby. There was plenty of talent on display but a dearth of the sort of frantic, full-blooded commitment, which makes football in this country so exciting. It occurred to me that the tepid brand of football we are playing at the moment might be perfect on the Continent. Instead of the prospect of losing our star striker in the summer, perhaps Wenger should be considering shifting the club, lock stock and new stadia, to southern Spain!

The only glimmer of hope at St. James was the sight of Senderos geeing up his colleagues in the tunnel before the game. It was the somewhat timid encouragement of a player who’s a little insecure about his place in the starting line-up, but it carried the feint, but beautiful scent of the sort of spirit which used to be the trademark of this Arsenal team. Hopefully it won’t be too long, but the time can’t come soon enough for my liking, when we might be hearing the Tony Adams type roar, of a leader who’s capable of inspiring his troops to roll their sleeves up and get down and dirty in Saturday’s sort of struggle.

Is it mere coincidence that the club can’t get all us Gooners signed on the dotted line quick enough, committed to our costly season tickets at the new stadium? As I drive past this increasingly impressive edifice a couple of times a day, I never imagined the possibility of commencing our first campaign at the new gaff without the prospect of Champions League footie. But then perhaps, just perhaps we could copy the Scousers and take this as our cue to go and win the bloomin’ thing!

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Sunday, 11 December 2005

Hands Up

OK I guess I'd better admit it, never mind dodgy Dermott and the sending-off at St James Park, this evening's defeat was all my fault, as circumstances conspired to prevent me making it to Tyneside. Mind you with yet another kick-off inconveniently timed, with total disregard to the hardy legion of loyal travelling fans, I am almost relieved I couldn't get there. Or else I would've doubtless been holed up in a hotel room in Newcastle all night, too depressed to venture out until tomorrow's trip home, for fear of being recognised as a southerner and having salt rubbed in my open Arsenal wounds, by some smart-arsed Geordies.

Not that I, or any of the Gooners who actually did make the five hundred mile round trip schlep to Toon Town, had any chance of influencing proceedings and altering the outcome. At least certainly not from the seats right up in the gods, which away fans are allocated at St James. However as is always the case on those rare occasions when I can't get to a game and the result has gone against us, I can't help but feel that it would've all been different, if only I'd been there. It's totally illogical I know, but no more barmy than the idea that I can predict the score based on how substantial a "pony" I've had the previous evening, or that the Arsenal's success is dependent on me putting on a particularly lucky t-shirt that day

Then again it's probably more productive to be pointing the finger at me, than at Dermott Gallagher's incompetent and dreadfully inconsistent refereeing. At least I can guarantee I'll be able to turn up at the next game, whereas such awful officiating is just part and parcel of football's infuriating vagaries and rotten referees will continue to remain as ever present at the ball itself.

So to be honest I find it a bit of a wind up, and I'm sure I am not alone, when Wenger comes on TV afterwards, sounding like all those other broken record managers, by blaming the outcome on bad decisions. Obviously I appreciate he was annoyed, I was no less livid myself, and I realise he can't be seen to be coating off his own players in public.

Personally my immediate reaction was that the ref didn't realise he'd already booked Gilberto and it wasn't until Gallagher pulled out the yellow card, that it dawned on him he'd made a ricket and was then obliged to produce the red. Naturally it might be a complete figment of my imagination, but I thought that Gallagher was just trying to get to grips with the game and prevent it becoming too feisty. However I'm inclined to wonder whether he might have been a little more lenient, over what was after all a completely innocuous challenge, if he'd realised he already booked the Brazilian.

Nevertheless, in truth, instead of railing at the ref, really Arsène should be admonishing our World Cup winning midfielder about the totally cynical and entirely senseless foul on the stroke of half-time that resulted in his first booking. I can't actually recall whether there was the prospect of a threatening counter-attack and Gilberto could use the excuse that he was breaking this up, in order to give us time to retreat. Yet having committed many similar fouls myself in my youth, when I was flagging during matches, the way he dangled out a lackadaisical leg and took his opponent down, I'm inclined to believe Gilberto was already looking forward to his half-time breather and therefore decided on the laziest option, not to nullify any immediate danger, but because he couldn't be bothered to leg it after the zippy zebra.

Playing as our holding midfielder, the Brazilian should know much better than to pick up such unnecessary bookings. With the number of challenges he has to make, he's faced with the possibility of committing fouls all over the pitch, by being only a fraction of a second late. It occurred to me at the time that he could well end up regretting picking up the yellow card so carelessly and spending the entire second half on a knife edge. Although I wouldn't have dreamt he'd be taking an early bath for such a banal incident. Especially when Saint Shearer was causing actual bodily harm all over the pitch with almost absolute impunity. When Gallagher finally punished his umpteenth transgression, I almost expected the ref to apologise to the old war horse.

It might've only come to some folks attention a few years back, when he got off scott free with that stamping incident, which was conveniently ignored so that he could play for his country, but actually Shearer's been getting away with his dirty tricks for donkey's years. To the extent that these days some of the refs who've been around for a while seem to turn an increasing blind eye to many of his antics, as if there's an "old school" acceptance that there's one set of rules for everyone else and one for Shearer, in sympathy with his advancing years and the fact that he increasingly depends on maintaining such an unfair advantage over some of his younger, more naive opponents. However the fact that he's fast approaching his eventual retirement is no excuse for any such partiality. Shearer's been singing his "it's a physical game tune" his entire career, while leaving the imprint of his elbow on the ugly mugs of defenders up and down the country and the fact of the matter is that he's nothing short of the playground bully.

However with all this whinging I am beginning to sound like Wenger, when Shearer's been at St James for most of the nine seasons since our last defeat up there. We've also been on the wrong end of our fair share of incompetent officials, without suffering two successive defeats in the past three years, or more's the point, without failing to score in the two successive games in the past five years. What's more we had a full complement of players for the first hour of this game without making an impression on the score-sheet.

As with our other rotten results on the road this season, what annoys me most is that the media are likely to go overboard about a terrific Toon performance in the second half. Shay Given made a fabulous reaction save to keep out Thierry Henry's well struck volley, but the truth of the matter is that Wenger can contend all he wants that "we were the better team" but the fact that we only worked the Newcastle keeper once, in the entire ninety minutes just ain't good enough.

To date the centre-back partnership of Bramble and Boumsong has been the Toons' principal achilles heel. There was a time when I thought Bramble was quite a decent prospect and playing alongside Mexes, Boumsong was one half of a pretty effective defensive brick wall (I believe for Auxerre?). They are both big, strong and fast, but so far their performances in the Premiership have given me cause to question Souness' judgement as a manager. Perhaps they will build on this performance and go on to settle down into a redoubtable defence. However I rather suspect that before the season is out, there will be visitors to St James Park, like Chelsea or Utd, who will take advantage of their lapses in concentration, to positively tear the Toon apart. And it will be in the light of such results that we will fully realise quite how lame our efforts were tonight, in respect of our failure to get behind these two lummoxes more than a couple of times!

I was seriously hoping that our woeful display at the Reebok would prove enough of a wake up call. The reason we've not suffered successive defeats for so long has been that in seasons past we've only required one such reverse of the form book, to remind us that no matter how good you are on paper, football in this country remains sufficiently committed that the desired outcome in most matches requires a lot more than merely turning up!

There were a couple of minor consolations in this lamentable single goal defeat. I quite like the fact that we now get another chance to snuff out completely Spurs renewed glimmer of hope. The other was the fact that Cygan's "injury" meant we finally got the defensive lline-up most Gooners have been calling for since Cole and Clichy both broke the same bone in their feet. Personally I'd prefer to see the full-backs reversed, with Lauren in his regular position at right-back and Kolo at left-back. Then at least we'd only be playing the one defender out of their more customary position. Also I am not sure the right-footed Ralphie looks particularly comfortable on the opposite flank.

However I am not going to quibble, because anything is better than the sort of nervous performances we've seen from our back line with Cygan at full-back. Gawd love poor Pascal, I wouldn't wish harm on anyone, least of all a Gunner who, unlike some, can't be accused of not giving his all when wearing the red & white, but I can't help myself from hoping his injury is nothing too trivial! Personally I find watching the Arsenal play (so badly!!) live on TV much harder than being there in person. I wouldn't dream of giving Arsenal players anything but my support from the terraces and at least there's a sense, no matter how futile, that you can at least try and have an impact on the circumstances. Yet in the privacy of my own living room, I will scream blue murder over our every mistake and I find nothing more frustrating than bellowing my head off at an inanimate goggle box in the corner of the lounge.

Saturday's example reminded me that if it wasn't for the outlet of being able to vent my fervent feelings about the Arsenal at live football matches, so far this season I'd probably be blowing a gasket every other week and doubtless would've long since lost what remains of my heir, having torn much of it out whilst fuming in front of the TV. Moreove, never mind Treacle our monster of a pooch being petrified of firework bangs, my caterwauling would've probably have turned her into a nervous wreck. As a result Cygan's absence was a great relief because at least it meant I didn't have to spend the entire match hiding behind the sofa, absolutely bricking it every time our defence was called into action. It's not ideal for the Arsenal to be turning out without a recognised left-back, but at least with this line-up, you didn't get the sense that there was an overall air of nervousness pervading the squad, with everyone unsure of their roles and their responsibilities, whilst trying to cover for the inadequacies of our leaden-footed lurch.

Personally speaking, with Kolo Touré about to disappear off to the African Nations Cup in the near future, I was very pleased to see our Swiss centre-back brought back into the first team fold. I wouldn't have seen it unless I was watching the match on the box, but from the moment the live Sky transmission showed Phillipe Senderos geeing up his colleagues in the tunnel prior to kick-off, it was like a breathe of fresh air, carrying a feint but beautiful and much missed scent of the sort of spirit which used to be our trademark.

It was a slightly tentative shout of encouragement, the sort that one might expect from someone making his first start in a Premiership line-up since October. But then you'd hardly expect a Tony Adams type roar from Senderos, when he's only involved as cover and is not exactly secure about his place in the team. With a run in the side and his confidence completely restored, I am sure Phillipe will begin to growling like a lion. But in the light of the lacklustre showing of his team mates in the past two games and the absence of hunger and commitment, I was nonetheless extremely grateful for the first signs of some evidence that there is at least one member of Wenger's squad who is prepared to give some vocal expression to his desire. and who in time, will hopefully be able to inspire a little more of that special "Arsenal spirit" from the rest of the team.

After all we don't need Wenger to tell us that we were the better side, as we are all only too aware of the incredible ability of some of the players in this Arsenal squad. Yet since this is such an obvious fact, surely it is also proof positive that no matter the apparent weaknesses in certain positions, we are currently suffering, as a result, from a far more basic problem which can't be addressed so easily in the January transfer window, by simply throwing money at it.

I am beginning to feel like a broken record myself as I've been bemoaning the same problems all season long. However these past two defeats have made it patently evident that the answer to all our current woes is that certain "je ne sais quoi" which unfortunately does not grow on trees and often as not, no matter how big your budget, it's not easy to buyl.

There's a famous football mantra which says that every five years a football club either has to change it's manager, or the team. Whether or not we are currently witnessing some signs of complacency raising its ugly head, amongst an Arsenal side where some players are a little too secure about their places in the starting line-up because there isn't sufficient genuine competition for their places, or whether there are a few too many players in the team who've been listening to Wenger for so long that his words of encouragement no longer have the desired effect, in truth only those in the dressing room can answer this question.

However one of the first things I invariably look for at a football match is some confirmation that the Arsenal are sufficiently committed. From Lehmann's clearances, throw-ins and set-pieces, I want to see Arsenal players facing the ball and demanding possession from their team mate. All too often recently I've found myself bemoaning out loud "You've gotta look like you want it!". When we've been on top at THOF there are unmarked players appearing everywhere on the pitch and the ball flows from one end of the pitch to the other at pace, with everyone keen to participate. But far too often when we are away from home, when our opponents are pressing us all over the park, trying to prove "we don't like it up us", too many of the usual suspects are guilty of hiding.

To my mind it was ironic after last week's reprehensible display at the Reebok, to hear Freddie reminding his team mates that sometimes you need to "put your foot in" away from home, when Ljungberg's as guilty as anyone else of going on the missing list. So where was Freddie at St. James? I have to admit that for much of the match Ljungberg was so conspicuous by his absence that I forgot he was playing. Mercifully there were some more positive signs in Alexandre Hleb's return to action. At least we witnessed him running at the opposition with the ball, prepared to take players on and beat them.

I am hoping that in time, much like John Terry, Senderos will develop into the driving force of the team, capable of rallying the troops when the chips our down, but in the immediate future it's increasingly apparent which each successive performance where our opponents have managed to put us under the cosh, that we are desperate for a proper leader out on the park, who can inspire the best from his team mates with his "do or die". "they shall not pass" attitude.

With each passing week there seems to be a growing feeling of inevitability about the dreaded summer departure of our star striker. And many would suggest that his increasingly exasperated body language is only further evidence that Henry has had enough of carrying all the Arsenal's hopes on his shoulders. Whether Thierry goes, or whether he stays, to my mind it is more than enough responsibility for one man that, Van Persie apart, Titi bears almost the entire goal scoring burden. Sometimes Thierry remembers his captain's duties, trying to lead by example, dashing back to try and recover possession in defence and tearing back down the other end of the pitch, to do what he does best. But all too often these days, when things aren't going our way, we see our captain's head and shoulders visibly drop.

Perhaps I'm too much of a traditionalist, but I've always believed a captain should come from the defence, or certainly no further forward than the midfield, where unlike Thierry, he spends the majority of the match facing most of his team mates, instead of with his back to them for most of the 90. And we've never been more in need of a leader with a physical and vocal presence, who can put the fear of g-d into his colleagues and demand more from them. Whereas sadly at the moment the opposite is true, where you can't help wondering if Henry really cares where the Arsenal will be next season and should this be the case, then surely such negative vibes must be infectious.

I had a call from a fellow Gooner who watched George Graham's post-match analysis for Sky and who said they found themselves nostalgically longing for the boring, boring Arsenal of old. Whatever we lacked in entertainment, at least you knew that the result mattered to that bunch of players, as much as it did to you. After a result like that George would've had them out on the training ground on Monday, punishing them with the sort of exhausting and tiresome drills, which would've ensured they'd be doing their utmost the following week to avoid a repeat of his displeasure.

Doubtless much like Utd, we'll raise our game for next Sunday's glamorous occasion. But we are going to have to wait for our Boxing Day visit to the Valley to see if there is a positive reaction, or whether the current malaise is congenital!

Peace & Love
Bernard

Thursday, 8 December 2005

More A 'No Contest' Than A Championship Bout

It was ironic that they wheeled out Danny Williams at half-time at THOF tonight, as I wouldn't be at all surprised if Saturday's "big fight" with Audley Harrison proves a similarly tedious, uneventful anti-climax, with each of the contestants shadow boxing their way through the evening waiting for t'other to make a fight of it!

I guess we shouldn't be too surprised, with both teams having nothing to play for. However I was very disappointed afterwards to discover that if Thierry's penalty had gone a few inches to the left, we would have joined only four other teams to ever achieve maximum points in the Champions League group stage. What's more Titi would have been one game away from setting a 22 match record for goals in successive European games (which is the sort of record you can't imagine him coming anywhere near so close to again in a hurry!)

To be honest I was so unenthralled by events out on the park, that I spent much of the match distracted by the commentary in the earpiece of my terrace tranny from the Stadium of Light. I am sure most Gooners are in unanimous agreement that this was indeed the best result of the night. Although I purposely prevented myself from getting too animated about it, as I was almost certain Utd were going to sneak a pretty typical last leap from this particular frying pan. Fergie must have had the stopwatch out standing on the touchline, as believe it or not, they were still playing six minutes of extra time in Lisbon as we left THOF.

The whistle finally blew at the Stadium of Light as we exited the Clock End concourse and I couldn't help announcing to all and sundry that the old enemy would not only be "watching Eastenders" but the entire weeks worth of soaps for the remainder of this season, as they were bounced out of Europe all together, bottom of their group. The exultant guffaws of Shadenfreude echoed along the corridor as the gleeful news spread like the loudest Chinese whisper you ever heard.

It was the sort of news you just couldn't hear enough of and absolutely every Gooner was left making their way home with huge grins across the width of their gobs! We were due to meet up for some pasta at the local Italian but I was half tempted to take a rain check, just so I could get home in time savour the Mancunian misery on the box. Actually I'd been fretting for much of the evening about forgetting my plastic, with which I was going to pay for our grub. But as it turned out, even with it pissing down, I was only too happy to have an excuse to dash back home to grab the credit card, as I was just in time to catch ol' Red Nose's melancholy requiem for the Champions League, along with the convoluted last rites for their involvement in any European competition, read by their plug ugly new skipper.

Wallowing in the Moaners misfortune reminds me of one of my dear departed old man's favourite "meises" (stories - for the uninitiated into the less globalised yiddish vocabulary) and since today would've been his birthday, you'll have to forgive me my sentimental celebration in repeating it here. Mr Cohen walks into his local bank and ask the counter staff if he can speak to Mr Hawkins the manager. "I am terribly sorry" says the teller "unfortunately Mr Hawkins passed away last week". With this news the old boy duly buggers off. But then he's in and out of his branch umpteen times the same day, on each occasion he poses the same question and it's explained to him that the manager has shuffled off this mortal coil. Eventually the counter staff loses patience "Mr Cohen, we've told you fifteen times today that sadly Mr Hawkins is dead". Upon which he chirps up "I know, but I just love to hear it!"

Now if only it was this weekend that we were travelling North with a train crammed full of Cockney Reds, instead of last week's awayday to the Reebok. What fun we'd have over the course of three hours, constantly piping up "Who'd you fancy playing come the draw Friday week for the knockout stages? Or did I ask you already!" :-)

I guess the Moaners will be joining Spurs supporters and fans of all the other clubs who've no Continental competition, in focusing on this Friday's draw for some far off footie fest in Germany this summer. I wonder how many Gooners will give a monkeys about such an irrelevant event, when we've far more important matters to focus on. Unfortunately (as far as I'm concerned), I'm led to believe that a return to Bratwurstland is probably our best bet. I know Werder Bremen banged five past Panathinaikos, but Bayern have become a bit of a bogey team. Of the six team we could draw (PSV, Real Madrid, Rangers, Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen, Benfica) there a 33 per cent chance of a German side and apparently when you look at who our prospective opponents cannot play, these odds become even greater (although I have to rely on those whose head doesn't explode when they try to contemplate the various possible permutations in the whole complicated schemozzle!)

However if I had a choice it would either be Real Madrid or Benfica. Aside from the fact that these two are I believe the most southernly possibilities and therefore perhaps offering the prospect of a jolly to slightly warmer climes, personally I've been dying to see the Arsenal play in the Bernabeu, for what feels like donkeys years, as it must be one of the few major footballing temples across the Continent that I've yet to worship the Arsenal at. And each season I've been more certain than the last that this will be my opportunity. With managerless Real Madrid hitting such a rocky patch right now, not to mention the fact that at long last, for once Lady Luck seems to be gracing us with some good favours in the Champions League, there might never be a better time for a beano in the Bernabeu.

As for Benfica, with the Stadium of Light being built by the same architects, it would be brilliant to get some idea what going to a game at our new gaff is going to be like. Better still would be an opportunity to show Utd how to do it, by blowing away their bête noire.

The consensus of opinion from the few I've broached on the subject suggests many Gooners would fancy us pulling Rangers out of the hat. I'm wondering whether this is because they're thinking it would be easy for them (or cheap?) to get to, but I would guess it might be more expensive to fly (and certainly by train!) to Glasgow, than a budget flight abroad. Moreover, although Rangers might appear a plum draw on paper, with their woeful record in Europe and their recent lamentable league form, personally I'd favour a far more glamorous opponent. I believe Rangers would be a no win situation, because we'd be expected to brush them aside and so if we manage to do so, we will hardly enhance our reputation. I also imagine we'd be likely to play down to their level, as they attempt to muscle us out of the match and clatter us out of the Champs League.

The thing is that if we are going to get anywhere in this competition, we are going to have to find the confidence to cope with proper competition and in my opinion, since we are already perceived to have progressed from the easiest group, the sooner we establish a reputation and begin scaring future opponents by blasting past some of the big guns, the better.

Meanwhile, watching from behind the goal in the Clock End, I might be slowly achieving my objective of working my way around the ground and getting a last chance to watch the Arsenal from every possible perspective at THOF.Although I was a little disappointed that my brief Clock End sojourn wasn't a little more atmospheric. Some of the Ajax coaches were arriving and parking up along Drayton Park when I passed by on my way to work this morning and so I was expecting them to sound hale and hearty, having doubtless spent the entire day oiling their vocal chords. However I was hoping the response from the home crowd would've been a little more raucous. Yet I enjoyed my participation in the Clock End choir, it certainly made a change from my West Upper solo performances.

Yet it proved a reminder why I prefer the posher seats along the side of the pitch because when it came to some post-match analysis with a few pals, I suddenly realised I didn't really have a clue that we were playing an extremely rare alternate formation. Apparently Arsène for once forsook his favoured 4-4-2, but I am not sure this was intended to be for 4-5-1. The sight of Le Prof popping out of the dug out, to repeatedly stand on the side of the pitch screaming at his charges and frantically gesturing some of them forward, this would suggest that the intention was for them to play more 4-3-3 . Although I have some sympathy for the kids at the club who've spent their entire careers at Highbury religiously schooled in the one regular Arsenal formation, only to be asked to do something completely different for their Champions League debuts!

From where we sat, all I can tell you is that in my humble opinion, apart from one suicidal pass towards the end, Phillipe Senderos looked extremely sharp. Admittedly Phillipe was clattered just prior, but whether the Swiss lad learnt his trade in French, German or Swahili, surely he would've been indoctrinated with the schoolboy commandment (I know I was) that makes passing across the face of one's own goal absolutely sacrosanct? However I'm happy Arsène has finally given Phillipe a run out. With Kolo off to the African Nations (perhaps for the entire duration of January considering the fortuitous prospects of the Les Elephantes), I've been fretting about Wenger leaving Senderos out until he's forced to bring him back, cold, without much confidence after such a long lay-off. To my mind the fact that he looks sharp as a bell, is only further argument for playing him as Campbell's partner and making use of Kolo's versatility at left-back

Sadly I didn't get to see Kerrea Gilbert's apparently impressive performance against Reading in this position (as I believe he's a RB by trade) but he also looked pretty bright tonight and unlike poor Pascal, at least Gilbert has plenty of pace to burn. Personally I'd be much happier seeing him or any sprightly youngster instead of Cygan, because at least if a kid's going to make mistakes, there's some consolation in knowing that they're hopefully going to learn from their errors. Whereas if Wenger insists on stubbornly sticking with the hapless Cygan, he's soon going to end up such a hate figure, that his career will be consigned to the same Arsenal history as Stepanovs (whatever happened to Igor?)

Arsène's other completely unfathomable preference recently has been the lack of game time given to Robin Van Persie. To my mind Robin appears to be in such an incredibly hot streak of form right now, that every ball runs his way. Whereas for example you can almost guarantee that if Dennis try's a ting against a couple of defenders, he's going to be undone by a dodgy bounce of the ball off one of the defenders shins. Whereas by contrast Van Persie appears unable to do any wrong. From what I've gleaned of such hot streaks of form, they don't last ad infinitum. If they did you can be sure the gamblers of the world would've long since broken the bank of Monte Carlo. So for gawd's sake gaffer, just play him, play him, play him! Otherwise you could end up denying him game time, just long enough for his form to take that almost inevitable dive into the doldrums. I can only imagine that Wenger's adopted this strategy of limiting Robin's pitch time, for fear of giving him his head, in case he loses it? Or at least that's my suspicion from report's of Robin's wayward nature. Hopefully Jose's injury misery will prove Van Persie's good fortune for the immediate future.

I only hope I am at St James Park to find out in person. Yet another awkward kick-off time, at the other end of the country this weekend, ensures that we Gooners can't get home the same night by public transport. I'd actually probably quite enjoy a Saturday night out in Toon Town, seeking out the company of some friendly Geordie fillies in their white stilettos and fishnet stockings (doubtless on a freezing cold night when I will be snugly ensconced in my thermals). Apparently it's just a matter of finding the handbags on the floor, to discover this hardy Toon tribe dancing around them. However I am not sure my missus would approve of this sort of nocturnal bird watching of the non-feathered variety, especially approaching Xmas, with so many likely to be lagging drunk, staggering around looking for the nearest nest. More's the point I can't afford wasting (any more of!!!) Barclaycard's bread, if they are going to cough up for our flights in February to the Continent

It's been many years since I last took a Travel Club coach and I am not sure I could bear an eleven hour round trip (all being well!) cramped up on one of these. Normally I wouldn't think twice about pootling up their in our little Fiesta, but it's beginning to show its age and not only did I hear a nasty clunk from the axle area, which would have me paranoid about schlepping to Tyneside in it, it really needs a couple of new tyres before I'd contemplate a 550 mile drive on icy winter roads.

So if there are any Gooners who should happen to read this and are contemplating travelling to Toon town Saturday, be sure to get back to me if there's any prospect of accompanying you

Peace & Love
Bernard

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

We All Agree....(well everyone accept Arsène!)

Standing opposite the Reebok Stadium late Saturday afternoon, in a lengthy queue at Horwich Parkway station, with it raining cats and dogs and with the Trotters' fans merrily taking the Mickey, I was relieved not to be one of the "cockney bastards" mentioned in their misogynistic ditty. Otherwise, after such a disheartening performance, I might indeed have been dashing home to "bash the missus"!

I thought I'd seen the last of the pestering text messages from one of my Tottenham pals, when we leapfrogged them in the league a couple of weeks back. I'd bid their challenge adieu with the response "See ya, wouldn't want to be ya!" But waiting in a queue which wasn't dissipating, with the freezing rain dripping down my neck, as I fretted about making it to Manchester in time to catch a connecting train that would get me back to London some 5 hours later, my mood wasn't improved when the bleep on the phone announced the arrival of his "Check the tables" text which confirmed my worst fears.

Mind you there's some silver lining to slipping back behind Spurs in the league, as this merely gives us another opportunity to gloat when we snuff out their renewed glimmer of hope. Although such thoughts were of little consolation on such a gloomy Lancashire evening. I've been following Arsenal long enough to suffer the slings and arrows of football's outrageous fortunes with good grace. Thus it wasn't so much the bad result against Bolton which bothered me so, but the marrowless manner of the defeat, as we buckled with a whimper instead of a cry.

"Be first" is customarily one of my initial cries of encouragement. Yet such good advice evidently fell on deaf ears on Saturday. We endured a first-half where we struggled to get past the halfway line, against a Bolton side that bettered us with their work-rate, hunger and commitment. In fact my best hope was that the Trotters might struggle to maintain this intensity for the entire 90. And this appeared to be the case as the Arsenal came back into the match after the break. But no sooner had we begun to impose our superior ball skills, than the head of steam we were building evaporated completely, with Arsène's absolutely baffling substitutions.

As far as I'm concerned Dennis Bergkamp will always be one of the greatest ever players to don the red & white. Nevertheless I couldn't possibly fathom Wenger's justification for removing Robin Van Persie, who, with 7 goals in 7 games, is in the best form of his brief career and replacing him with Bergkamp, who hasn't found the back of a Premiership net all season. What's more Lauren was probably the best of a bad bunch before the break. At right-back, Ralphie's probably the
only member of our back-line who's far enough away from the hapless Pascal Cygan that he hasn't been affected by the sort of collywobbles that are responsible for the calamitous defending on the other side of the park.

Perhaps Arsène was hoping that with the enthusiasm and fearlessness of youth, Manny Eboué might inject a little inspiration. Yet I wouldn't have thought there's an Arsenal fan on this planet who felt the answer to our problems was more attacking instincts on our RIGHT flank. You won't catch me chortling again in future when Le Prof claims not to have seen an incident on the pitch. The evidence of the past couple of weeks would suggest that Wenger's not merely visually challenged, but that he suffers from completely myopic blind spots as far as his bald countryman's incompetence as cover at left-back is concerned.

Time was when the disaster of going 2-0 down away from home would have most Gooners glued to their seats, in the hope of savouring the prospect of an enthralling fight-back. Whereas they were departing the Reebok in their droves, long before the final whistle. There's a surfeit of talent in this Arsenal side, capable of turning it on when the going is good. But for some time now we've been bemoaning the absence of that vital backbone of players (no matter what nationality!) capable of rolling their sleeves up and inspiring their colleagues to battle their way back into a game. Consequently, almost from the moment Arsène made his meshugana 70th minute substitutions on Saturday, instead of roaring them on to at least try and rescue some pride, sadly both the Arsenal's fans and players alike appeared to be enveloped by a miserable air of resignation.

With a copper hollering at us not to rush and high-spirited Wanderers' fans questioning his confident contention "You'll all get on", mercifully we were eventually getting excruciatingly intimate with some of the Trotters on a train to Manchester. The steamed up windows in a carriage full of damp and sodden passengers, ensured that we were pulling into the station before it dawned on us that this wasn't Piccadilly. Desperate to make it onto a train home before the match ended at Old Trafford, we dived into a taxi for a dash across town.

It was bad enough that the "dry" train to London prevented many from drowning their sorrows. But at least we avoided the prospect of angry Gooners venting their frustrations in an inevitable contretemps with the hordes of jubilant Cockney Reds who'd accompanied us on our outward journey.

I'd spent much of the previous week in bed, after being struck down by a particularly virulent bug. As a result I really should've remained at home in the warm. Taking three points from the Reebok would've been well worth a relapse. Yet I ended up feeling foolish after risking my health for that load of old tosh. Still I couldn't resist masochistically enduring the highlights replayed on a recording of MOTD. I sat there wondering if the likes of Gilberto was similarly unable to slip into the welcoming arms of Morpheus until he'd analysed his woeful performance. I somehow doubt it!

To be honest, until Hansen tore him to bits in his TV analysis, I didn't think Cygan had that bad a game. Like every other Gooner I sat there groaning, as the ball seemed to constantly gravitate towards him. Yet in truth this was probably due to the fact that the bald defender was at least doing his best, while some of his teammates were patently guilty of hiding. However, as sympathetic as I may be to the centre-back's "fish out of water" plight, by half-time I was considering passing the hat around to pay a Wanderers' player to put Pascal out of action for a few weeks, or at least until after Chelsea's visit.

Cygan's lack of pace and the fact that he has the turning circle of an oil tanker are only compounding our defensive problems. However with the same unshakeable conviction that's been the foundation stone for his success, Arsène appears to stubbornly refute the possibility that Pascal not only lacks the attributes necessary to play at left-back, but that his inclusion as cover in this position is destabilising the entire team. Personally I don't think he's doing his compatriot any favours. We've seen far worse centre-backs in the Arsenal squad over the years. But Cygan is fast becoming such a scapegoat for the fans and a subject for so much ridicule, that the poor feller will soon have no future at the club, because he'll be unplayable in any position.

Meanwhile I've been going greyer by the week watching our opponents target our obvious weakness on this flank. By the time Mourinho brings his Blues to Highbury with the prospect of Duff, Robben and Wright-Phillips tearing past the leaden-footed lummox, I will undoubtedly be as bald as the slaphead himself!

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Hi Folks

Fulminating the entire length of a four hour train ride back from Bolton, I was fit to burst by the time I'd got home and endured a replay of the highlights on MOTD. However I was glad I resisted the temptation to grab my laptop and vent my fury there and then, or else this would've undoubtedly resulted in one interminable whinge.

Hopefully some 48 hours later I'm able to put Saturday's match into some perspective. There are some Gooners who will contend that the defeat against Bolton has put the kibbosh on any remaining pretensions of recapturing the Premiership title and who believe that Arsène is only really interested in the one silver pot which contines to elude him.

Ever since Dennis Bergkamp poked home a 90th minute get-out-of-jail card for the ten man Arsenal, against the Swiss minnows in our first European match, I've fancied that in a season when we are least favoured for success by the pundits, maybe, just maybe Lady Luck might favour us with the sort of good fortune which could surprise a few people. However considering how elusive success is in the Champions League, when all hopes in the knockout stages can disappear up in smoke with one dodgy performance, personally I feel it would be a bit foolish for us to forget the Premiership and dump all our hopes in the Champions League basket

Hopefully Saturday's match might prove the sort of timely kick up the backside we've required in seasons past, when it's taken just such a thoroughly comprehensive lesson for us to realise the hard way that you can never expect to earn the points in the Premiership simply for turning up!

It is true that Bolton deserve the plaudits for putting us under the cosh but I find it a bit of a wind up reading all the OTT reports on Sam Allardyce's side remarkable achievement. When in truth the team Wenger put out on Saturday were so devoid of the necessary desire that non-league Tamworth would've probably given us a pasting. In all the remarks I've read lauding Bolton's Vieira mark II, everyone seems to have neglected to mention that their man-mountain Abdoulaye Faye was competing against Cesc Fabregas, the smallest kid on the pitch, when he headed home their first goal!

It was the same against Boro and West Brom, when the media sung the home side's praises for putting one over on the Premiership aristocrats. Obviously I will take it all back if Chelsea go to the Reebok and are similarly undone, or if Bolton come anywhere close to beating the Blues. But I rather suspect the inadequacies of our performance will only be truly revealed when Mourinho's mob make a mockery of Sam Allardyce's simplistic tactics, by matching the home side for work rate and taking all three points without much problem.

Meanwhile it was actually a relief watching MOTD and I just pray Wenger will have heard the post-match comments of Hansen and Lawrensen. If he did, we can but hope that he realises when it comes to his belief that the bald-headed one can play at left-back, contrary to his contention, our Highbury king is indeed as nude as the day he was born. They pointed out the obvious alternative and almost every Gooner I speak to wonders why Wenger appears to be so reluctant to bring back Senderos alongside Campbell and move the versatile and pacy Kolo Touré to left-back

He gave Lauren a brief try in Switzerland the other week and although Ralphie appeared a little uncomfortable at this point in time I'd jump for joy if he played absolutely anyone in the left-back position, instead of having the whole team unnerved by Cygan's flapping "fish out of water" impersonation.

The saddest fact is that in truth poor Pascal doesn't deserve anything like the disapprobation he's bound to be receiving from some of THOF's more fickle fans. I only hope his English isn't up to understanding some of the stick he must be suffering, or that there's an extremely thick skin under that shiny pate. Playing out on the wing, I dread to think of the "f**k off and die" type delightful suggestions being screamed at him by some of THOF's more critical Neanderthals

These days it seems as if there's a "you pays your money, you says what you feel" type attitude amongst many punters on the terraces. Personally I'm a firm believer that it's a big mistake for loyal Gooners to lambast anyone wearing the red & white, as it's hardly likely to encourage them to try harder. But for heaven's sake it's decidedly unfair to dish it out to a player for his lack of g-d given ability, when he's grafting his socks off and obviously trying his best.

I'm not saying I wasn't secretly hoping Cygan would get sent off on Saturday, or that I wasn't cursing under my breath every time the bald headed berk went anywhere near the ball. But in such circumstances when his confidence is taking such a battering, while the poor geezer is wearing the shirt, he needs all the support he can get!

To my mind if I was going to have a go at anyone at the Reebok, it was Gilberto who was perhaps the most guilty candidate. Was that really a World Cup winner commiting the schoolboy error of giving the ball away over in the corner, when even I know he should've stuck it in row Z (although perhaps he wouldn't have felt the need to be there in the first place if he had more faith in the full-back?). However out loud, I would only ever encourage the most slovenly Arsenal player merely to pull their socks up.

I only hope we don't have to experience a repeat against Chelsea of the sort of 6-1 embarrasment we endured at Old Trafford before Arsène admits the error of his ways and Cygan's career ends up ditched in the same scapegoat dustbin where Wenger dumped Igor Stepanovs!

Meanwhile no matter how tirelessly Henry worked to try and rescue a result, there was no mistaking his head dropping at one stage. I happened to freeze frame the Sky Plus gadget on Thierry's face after Bolton's keeper fingertipped his fabulous shot on to the post and prevented Pires from tapping home the rebound. The exasperated expression on our captain's face spoke volumes! I'm sure Henry's not by nature the sort of arrogant player who would dream of dissing his team mates, but if I had to put his melancholy mush into words it might say "Am I really expected to remain at the Arsenal merely to waste my gifts with weekly recue missions to compensate for the regular cock-ups of some of my infinitely less talented team mates"!

Barcelona appear to be the team of the moment if you want to wallow in some of the world's best fantasy football. With all the rumours about Thierry's imminent departure from THOF in the summer, if I'm watching Barca's weekly appearances on Sky wondering what incredible feats Titi might accomplish if he was being fed by the likes of Messi, Deco and Ronaldihno, surely Thierry must be equally curious?

Whatever the case, no matter how tirelessly Titi continues to graft in the Arsenal's cause, it's enough that his broad shoulders have to carry the goal scoring weight of putting more in the opposition's net than we keep conceding each week. I swear I visibly saw these sag on Saturday, as Thierry trudged back up field after coming back to help out at yet another Bolton set-piece. It's too much to expect him as captain to carry the moral of the entire team as well. Once more we were crying out at the Reebok for the sort of leader who's capable of putting fire in the bellies of the Arsenal's troops from back to front, bellowing at the team mates before him, instead of captain who spends most of the 90 with his back to his colleagues, only capable of trying to inspire them to match his effort.

Still a decent result against the Dutch on Wednesday and doubtless it will all be sweetness and light again. Although with no trains back from Newcastle next Saturday night, it's going to take a much more committed performance to persuade me to drive all the way to Toon town and back

I say bring on the trip to Doncaster Rovers as I can't think of a more punishing reality check for some of our prima donnas

Peace & Love
Bernard

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