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Monday 30 January 2006

Real Encounter Now The Be All, Or End All!

Unlike some of the patronising pundits who try to maintain some pretence of a non-partisan perspective, there’s absolutely nothing neutral about Ian Wright. Bless him, Wrighty came on TV on Saturday night and told Gunners fans that we shouldn’t be too hard on our Highbury heroes. According to Ian we must be patient, as the Arsenal are a team in transition. However the fact of the matter is, that whilst success eludes any football side, they remain in this state. Tottenham have been in ‘transition’ for almost half a century!

I was beginning to regret slaughtering my Spurs mates about their chances of any silverware evaporating in the first week of January. We might not have suffered the humiliation of being dumped out by the lower league likes of Leicester and Grimsby. But after experiencing our own bad bout of PCE (Premature Cup Ejection!), they were only too quick to return all the stick, with interest, on Saturday!

You’ll have to forgive me if I struggle to cope with the impromptu end to the Gunner’s campaign for domestic silverware, with customary equanimity. We’ve been so spoilt since Arsène Wenger took the helm at Highbury, having enjoyed such amazing fortune in the FA Cup (it’s been 6 years since we last failed to at least reach the semis!), that mercifully it’s pretty much an alien experience for our cup interest to be finished even before February. Most Gooners have been left badly winded, if not a little punch drunk, after being knocked out twice in one week by gut-wrenching, last gasp sucker punches.

Perhaps it’s our woeful away form which has seen us fall off the Champions League radar. Yet my Spurs mates seem to have conveniently forgotten that while they can keep us up to date on how Dot and the gang fare in Eastenders, the Gunners’ season is guaranteed to run for a few more weeks, at least until our date with Real Madrid.

Apart from the Bernabeu, I’ve worshipped the beautiful game’s false gods at most of the major footballing temples across the continent in recent seasons. As a result I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to genuflect before the Gunners in the Spanish capital’s real cathedral for donkey’s years.

It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to remain so detached, but win, lose, or draw, I’m determined to enjoy my long awaited outing to the Bernabeu, as part of our 3-day jolly to Madrid. However now, with Barca also running away with La Liga, this match takes on an importance for both teams of such immense proportions, as the loser will be left with the decidedly unenthralling prospect of playing out the last 3 months, chasing nothing more than Champs League qualification next season.

With so much riding on the outcome, the two legs of this encounter are hardly likely to be the open, entertaining contest that would befit some of the best players on the planet. I was hoping that the confidence would be flowing by then and we might take Real on. Instead of which Wenger is bound to adopt a conservative approach. Much like the midfield mêlée of our chess match at the Reebok, the two games against Real are likely to be decided by the odd momentary lapse in concentration, of the sort that resulted in the last minute rickets against Wigan and Bolton.

Even after all these years I never fail to be amazed how 90 minutes of football is all that separates us from the peak of euphoria, or the pit of despair. Only last weekend vice-chairman, David Dein was on the radio crowing about capturing three ”promising” additions to our squad in only 6 days. Who could’ve imagined this would be followed by three crushing defeats in 8 days, that are being referred to as the worst week in Wenger’s career and which has the Islington Samaritans working overtime!

Well actually we won on the night against Wigan but our away goal exit made for a hollow victory. I had some ambivalent feelings at the time, wondering how much I really wanted to schlep down to Wales for the final a day or so after we are due to return from Spain and whether a duel at the Millennium, with the possibility of extra-time and penalties, might prove an exhausting and perhaps fatal distraction, from our efforts to bring home the big-eared Champions League bacon.

As it turns out, ironically we’ll now be playing Blackburn that weekend instead, which I always find an arduous and one of my least favourite outings of the season. In fact any thoughts I might’ve had that Wigan might be more appreciative of a Carling Cup Final, these disappeared in inverse proportion to the pain of Jason Roberts disastrous dig, as salt was rubbed into our wound, first by missing out on a final with Man Utd and then relinquishing our grip on the other knockout trophy.

I was especially gutted because when Robin Van Persie’s extra-time goal hit the back of the net, I assumed I’d be regaling Gooner pals for time immemorial about my own personal assist. In the dim and distant past, when I played the game, I was in the habit of getting my kicks by trying to put off opposition players in close proximity, hollering “Yer c*ck’s hanging out!” Occasionally you’d get the desired response from the more gullible, terrified their tackle was on public display.

Last Tuesday I was sat in the front row of the North Bank, almost within touching distance and certainly within earshot of Mike Pollitt, Wigan’s Man of the Match keeper. For an hour or so, until Henry headed home, Pollitt played such a blinder, that I’d begun to wonder if it was going to be one of those nights where nothing would get past him. Yet after a succession of tremendous saves, as the keeper lined his wall up for Van Persie’s 108th minute free-kick, I screamed at him “You’re gonna miss this one!”

Being perfectly placed to participate with the scorer’s celebrations, I was hoping for a hatful of goals. However Van Persie’s precision strike was heading for goal from the moment it left his foot and the beauty of being so close was that there’s no mistaking that distinctive ‘swoosh’ as the ball caressed the back of the net. Try as I might I couldn’t catch Pollitt’s eye, but no matter how deluded it sounds, I’m convinced I played my part by planting a seed of doubt at such a crucial moment. If only Roberts hadn’t rained on my opportunity to take credit for our place in the final.

I believe a boxing analogy best sums up the Bolton game and the malediction which has afflicted the majority of our results on the road. For someone who was once such a rigid proponent of 4-4-2, surely Le Prof can see his squad isn’t suited to playing with a lone striker. Personally I think le gaffer’s giving away an influential psychological advantage, with the suggestion that our far superior squad needs to adapt their style of play to avoid defeat.

Wenger’s sides have never been designed to shut out the opposition and I firmly believe we should be sticking to the adventurous passing game that has left less talented mortals trailing in our wake in the past. Yet instead of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, Le Prof appears to have forsaken the principles on which all his success has been founded. He’s been drawn into trying to slug it out, with teams who wouldn’t know the noble art if it smacked ‘em in the face. And with a lightweight midfield that doesn’t possess the punch necessary for this sort of slugfest, we’re developing far too fond a taste for the canvass.

Getting knocked down ain’t so bad but it’s our reluctance to get back to our feet which is most demoralising. With 4 minutes on the clock and 4 more of injury time, in the past the Arsenal’s traditional ’never say die’ spirit would’ve provoked the sort of onslaught in response to going a goal down, which would’ve seen us camped in Bolton’s penalty area. Whereas these days we threw the towel in from the moment they took the lead. Martin Keown wouldn’t have abided time wasting by the corner flag. Both the ball and the players shielding it would’ve ended up in the stands.

Considering the Arsenal were once infamous for grinding out results and nicking all the glory with our own late winners, it is the absence of such ‘death or glory’ values in the current Gunners’ squad which I find most depressing.

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Monday 23 January 2006

The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (Episode 6!)

After a sprint up the escalators from the Underground, as fast as my nicotine addled lungs would carry me, I made it into the concourse at Euston just as they were announcing the departure of the 8.02am to Lime Street on Saturday. My oxygen starved fingertips trembled as fumbled for my credit-card and struggled to punch out a code number on the touch sensitive screen for my pre-paid ticket. In the past I wouldn’t have bothered booking in advance but these days, if you pay on the train you risk a confrontation with a conductor who’s a card carrying member of the Third Reich.

Much like their ridiculous ‘ubersturmbahnfuhrer’ refereeing colleagues who insist on pouring cold water on footballing passions, by waving red cards at those players who instinctively run to their supporters to share a special moment, it’s now also at the train conductors discretion whether to offer you an extortionate sixty quid ‘super-saver’. But if you’re not sufficiently deferential, or they don’t like your face, they can wallop you with a full-fare ticket, which at way over a hundred quid is doubtless far more than the cost of a taking a flight to the North!

There was a later departure to Liverpool, which was due to arrive before KO, but the trains can be so unreliable at weekends that I didn’t dare risk it. So without stopping at a cashpoint, or for a much needed shot of caffeine and unburdened by the carrier bag full of newspapers, with which I’d usually while away the three and a half hour journey, I legged it for platform and slumped into a seat, with a breathless sigh of relief, seconds before the station bod blew his whistle.

The train was very crowded and an elderly gentleman who obviously coveted my pitch with a table, kindly pointed out the reservation tickets sticking out the top of the seats, showing they were booked from the next stop on. With passengers sat in the corridors, I held my breath as we reached Watford, hoping I wasn’t about to be turfed out. Luckily it turned out that I knew one of the blokes amongst the gang of Gooners who’d booked this particular pitch and I was grateful to discover that only three of the four seats were reserved.

I’d originally asked the Chinese chap opposite if he minded me sitting there. So I felt just a little guilty when they sent him packing instead. But not sufficiently remorseful to want to spend the rest of the journey standing!

With only a few pieces of shrapnel in my pocket, I would’ve been sorted in the bad old days, when the catering on the football specials ran to sacks of cheese or ham rolls and cans of pop served out of a mail wagon at the back of the ropiest of old rolling stock. However while I might miss the camaraderie found on the infamous football specials of yesteryear and although I couldn’t stretch to more than a cup of tea and a Jaffa Cake, with the ridiculously priced refreshments the rail network provides its captive customers, there are plenty of consolations to travelling in relative comfort on ‘civilian’ transport.

Amongst a train packed with regular punters and a few hundred Gooners, there was a smattering of football fans of other persuasions, travelling North for their footballing pleasures, including the odd walking blue billboard for Chang beer. After a week when those Millwall lunatics managed to besmirch the beautiful game once again, it was a pleasure to be able to engage in some piss-taking, but civilised banter with these long-suffering Evertonians

After the goal fest the previous weekend and at long last Le Prof’s essential transfer activity, including the headlines splashed across the tabloids of how we’d finally got one over on moneybags Mourinho, by prising an extremely rare commodity away from Southampton, in a teenage prodigy whose first priority was for once his football, rather than filling his pockets, there was a great mood of optimism amongst us bleary-eyed Gooners.

In this instance I needn’t have been concerned about booking the train in advance, as I’ve rarely come across such a convivial conductor. I’ve certainly never heard an announcement on a train before, from a train operative trying to accommodate footie fans, by putting those with spare match tickets, together with others who were travelling to Goodison on spec. We were laughing about all the untapped scalping possibilities on the trains, but it was certainly better than the prospect of getting nicked outside the ground by over zealous coppers, whilst merely trying to find a face value home for a spare ticket.

Since the second-class carriages were so overcrowded, it occurred to me that our laid-back conductor wasn’t likely to be checking tickets again. So after shooting the breeze for a while, I slipped off down to the relatively empty first-class section, so I could take my shoes off and stretch out, to try and catch up on some ZZZZs.

I suggested my Gooner pal might be kind enough to give me a shout on arrival, as otherwise I was worried I might end up waking up all the way back at Euston. Little did I realise, considering the lamentable Arsenal performance, this would’ve been a result. Despite some engine trouble that caused a brief delay, the train limped into Lime Street over an hour before KO. Instead of sharing a taxi to Goodison with some Gooners, I strolled down to the bus depot to wait for the no. 19 bus, where I soon found myself deep in conversation with a gregarious Scouser who lived and supported the team on the opposite side of Stanley Park.

Naturally the subject of our discussion soon turned to the following day’s big North-West derby. It dawned on me that for about the first time since the start of the Premiership there was an element of ambivalence over the outcome of this game from an Arsenal point of view. From a purely practical and unemotional perspective I guess a draw would’ve been the best result as far as we were concerned. However both teams dropping a couple of points would also be the best result for the runaway leaders (if Mourinho’s arrogant mob still give a monkey’s at this stage with their 14 point advantage!) and as my new Scouse mate pointed out “How could you possibly be up for the Mancs?” Again little did I know that this amusing chat with my new Red pal would prove to be the highlight of my long day out.

What I find the biggest wind up is the high praise heaped upon the Toffees. Sure David Moyes’ side deserve credit for working their socks off and sticking to the “in yer face” formula, which has found the Arsenal out on the road far too often this season. Yet every Gooner knows only too well that even on a bad day, this Arsenal side should still have far too much firepower for an unimpressive Everton line-up. As with our dismal defeats at Boro, WBA and Newcastle, once again the paucity of our performance will only become truly apparent with the Toffee’s subsequent results.

Sometimes the Arsenal will stir themselves in the second half, but invariably we fail to do ourselves justice in these early KOs. However about the only Arsenal players to turn up on Saturday were the teenagers Gilbert and Fabregas. At least in getting himself sent-off Fabregas showed how much it mattered to him. Where the most emotion we witnessed from Thierry Henry all afternoon was the frustration he displayed in hoofing the ball away at the final whistle.

Gooners have always been bemused as to how we ended up with about the only ungainly Brazilian player on this planet. Gilberto was far from the sole culprit on Saturday but he was about the worst of a bad bunch. When you compare our woeful efforts at Goodison to the wonderful demolition of Boro the previous weekend, it is patently obvious that somewhere outside London there must exist some sort of Bermuda triangle, where our World Cup winner and the majority of his Arsenal colleagues are regularly having their bodies invaded by clod-hopping aliens!

A more terrestrial cause might be our aversion to playing 4-5-1. Our captain certainly isn’t reticent about remonstrating his ire. When Henry’s good, there’s no-one better but when Titi’s unhappy, instead of trying to inspire his teammates, he’s prone to stomping about the pitch like Harry Enfield’s sulky teenager Kevin. What’s more we were going to Goodison on such a high that it should’ve been the home side adapting their formation to cope with us, rather than Arsène handing the Toffees a psychological advantage by altering our tried and trusted 4-4-2.

After the flurry of shots before Everton went down the other end and scored, if it wasn’t for the tight confines of the ancient wooden Upper Bullens terrace, with the backs of the seat in front inflicting permanent damage on my kneecaps, I could’ve easily fallen akip. Then again as with most of our rotten road trips this season, in my sleep deprived, groggy state this encounter felt like a recurring nightmare. I only hope Le Prof’s new purchases will soon pinch us all awake!

Although to be honest there have been several occasions this season when Gooners watching from the terraces have had serious cause to wonder if Wenger has really ‘lost the plot’. I don’t know who it was who was supposed to have struggling with the sun in their eyes but it often occurs to me that Arsène might really see sweet FA, sitting so low down in the dugout. Otherwise surely it would’ve been as obvious to him as it was to all of us that Campbell and Senderos were playing like two complete strangers.

For me (as a former defender), it is the ‘partnership’ at centre-back and their relationship with the keeper which is the pivotal point of any side. To date Lehmann has had a pretty decent season, yet he still doesn’t appear to communicate with his defence, as they never seem confident of when he is going to come and claim the ball. Jens has stopped plenty of great shots and kept us in many a game, but it appears that he still doesn’t command his area with clear vocal calls and as a result, for the most part, our defence is invariably left making last ditch clearances because they just don’t know if they can rely on Jens claiming the ball behind them. I’ve been left screaming with frustration more than once, when a fifty/fifty ball has resulted from a headed clearance which wasn’t necessary, as the defender could’ve simply ducked out of the way if he’d had a shout from behind.

Considering they are probably used to playing with each other after plenty of games with the reserves and after their assured performance against Boro, personally I would’ve much preferred to see Djourou and Senderos playing together. Sol Campbell has served us well, but he’s going to be absent every other week with his niggling injuries.

In addition to being on the downhill slope of his career, along with many other players, you can’t help but wonder quite how committed he is, when he might be trying to protect his rapidly aging frame from the ravages of regular football, in order to be fit for this summer’s last hurrah on the world stage? Whether there’s any truth to this or not, to my mind Sol is now part of the Arsenal past and the sooner we start bedding down a new, young, healthy partnership, who can continue to develop an instinctive relationship by playing every week, the better.

However undoubtedly the boss’ most baffling decision of the entire miserable match was the substitution of young Kerrea Gilbert with 15 minutes left on the clock. Not only did he remove probably our best player on the day, for an utterly ineffectual Hleb, but we were also left with Freddie Ljungberg playing at right-back. Go figure! What’s more I suppose Arsène was clutching at straws, hoping Diaby might make an instantaneous impact on his debut. But with everyone eagerly anticipating the appearance of the only one of our three new signings included in the squad, surely either you give the geezer a proper run out, or not at all.

By bringing the Frenchman on with only ten minutes to go for his first taste of the frantic pace of the Premiership, it was frustrating for all concerned. It’s asking a lot for an experienced player to pick up the pace and intensity of our high-tempo game with only minutes left on the clock, let alone a foreign debutante and consequently Diaby hardly got a sniff

Reading this, you have the advantage of knowing whether we were able to recoup the single goal deficit from the dreadful first-leg against Wigan. One thing’s for sure we’ll be guaranteed a decent gate, compared to the joke turnout at the JJB for Wigan’s first ever semi-final - excluding the Lactic’s success in the ‘esteemed’ Auto Windscreen Shield Trophy!

We Gooners wouldn’t exactly be over-excited by the distraction and the expense of schlepping to Wales for another war of attrition in the Final at the Millennium, in the midst of the two games with Real Madrid. Yet whether or not fate smiles upon us on Tuesday night, there’s a school of thought which feels Arsène should keep faith with the kids.

After Saturday’s defeat perhaps Wenger is suddenly somewhat more concerned about ensuring a route into Europe for next season, even if it is only the UEFA cup, as he’s drafted in Henry for his first Carling Cup game in 6 years. However I’m hoping he doesn’t ignore all the youngsters whose enthusiasm has taken us thus far in this tournament and who’ve earned their right to an opportunity to see the Carling Cup through to its conclusion. What’s more if we end up going out of the competition with all our big guns on parade it would be a major blow to moral, before yet another muscular encounter with Bolton.

Mind you we triumphed at the Reebok last season in the 6th round of the FA Cup on the back of the bitter disappointment of bowing out of the Champions League against Bayern and it’s about time this Arsenal side stood up to be counted again and finally put to bed the theory that they “don’t like it up ‘em”!


Hi folks

Obviously as I am posting this blog entry on Monday (and e-mailing everyone else), you don't have the advantage of knowing how we fared against Wigan. But you should bear in mind that the original (edited) version of the above was written for publication in The Irish Examiner's Arena sports supplement on a Wednesday

I've also started offering a weekly contribution to the Sunday Observer in a section entitled The Verdict - I've yet to find it on their web site so can't offer a URL). This means I've got another excuse (or obligation, depending on how you look at it!) to go to every match, as I now get a call afterwards asking for my comment. As you can imagine, the hardest part of this task is to restrict myself to a mere hundred words. I also hate the idea of having to mark each of the players performances out of 10 because I don't like the idea of reducing 90 minutes of effort (or lack thereof) down to a single mark

I've never been comfortable commenting off the cuff, so I spent much of the train ride home on Saturday trying to write something out in longhand and trimming it down to down to 100 words. I ended up with 120 words (had to leave something for the bods at the Observer to do) and while I've already mentioned some of the sentiments, it's easier to retype it all out in case it's of interest: -

"Two live matches on a Saturday might be a great excuse for the armchair fan to swerve the supermarket run. Yet early KOs are rarely the most captivating encounters. Moreover the TV tail wagging the football dog is a major bone of contention. There's no consideration for the supporting cast of thousands who provide the soundtrack.

I was tempted to roll over when the alarm rang at some g-d awful hour before dawn. But there were Gooner dues to be paid at Goodison.

Apart from our flurry of shots before Everton scored, the only other slight consolation was that after schlepping hundreds of miles in my sleep deprived, groggy state, another rotten road trip felt like a recurring nightmare. I only hope that Le Prof's new purchases might soon pinch us all awake."

I was also mighty peeved, as I was looking forward to arriving home and watching my Sky Plus recording of Togo v Congo to check out one of our new signings. However much to my surprise Adebayore wasn't included in the starting line-up and after he came on as a sub to have minimal impact on Togo's 2-0 defeat, we later discovered our new striker has been involved in another bust up. At least this might mean Manny will be back from Egypt to join the Arsenal squad sooner, rather than later. But from the little we've heard of him so far, it hardly bodes well that we've bought the most team spirited player :-)

Peace & Love

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Monday 16 January 2006

A truly Great day to be a Gooner

I found myself humming Blue Moon as we dashed around to Highbury on Saturday afternoon, after savouring the unexpected denouement of the Mancunian derby. Róna had kindly given up her seat to one of her nephews, who’d flown over from Dublin on a final pilgrimage to the Home of Football. I suggested to Matthew that he might be fortunate to have picked a particularly good game. At the time of arranging his trip, there was no way of knowing it’d be Thierry Henry’s first match, following his efforts to put an end to all the speculation, by publicly pledging his allegiance to the Arsenal’s cause.

We’d all been wondering to what extent the air of uncertainty about Henry’s future had contributed to our inconsistent and decidedly vapid form to date. As a result I was dying to discover if his announcement was going to have the desired effect, not just on Henry, but on the team as a whole. I was kind of hoping we’d witness a return to the sort of carefree flowing football we’ve grown so accustomed to, played with a ‘joie de vivre’ that’s been so obviously lacking of late. Although in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined that the impact would prove so phenomenal.

Admittedly we were aided and abetted by the bowing and scraping of an immature Boro side, who’ll doubtless be rueing the fact that they afforded us far too much respect and with it, the room in which the Gunners were for once allowed to fire on all cylinders. Nevertheless we mustn’t let the visitors failings detract from the fact that, right from the off, it was an absolute delight to witness a hunger and commitment hardly seen all season.

For my money, Robert Pires epitomised the improvement. Unsure about his own future at the club, I guess Robert was most affected by the unabated stream of doom-laden rumours about his compatriot’s departure. While he’s produced the odd incisive pass and with it a glimpse of the influential Pires of old, for the most part I’ve constantly moaned about the fact that he’s been such a peripheral figure, merely going through the motions, always abdicating responsibility as if the ball was a hot potato.

You don’t have to look far for answers to our recent malaise, when you consider that the likes and of Pires and Ljungberg have invariably added 10 to 15 goals to the pot, with their late runs from midfield in seasons past. Well it was like switching on a light on Saturday, as suddenly instead of spending most of the match avoiding possession, Bobbie was popping up all over the pitch, demanding the ball. After his sublime strike on the stroke of half-time, sadly his second-half goal was incorrectly ruled offside. But I was so astonished to see him rise in the penalty area, intent on heading the ball, that I needed confirmation from a neighbour ”was that really Robert Pires we just saw heading the ball in the back of the net!”

One of the warmest welcomes of the afternoon was afforded to Ashley Cole, as our subs appeared from the dugout to stretch their legs on the touchline. When poor Pascal Cygan limped off injured, I’m uncertain whether it was a roar of approval that greeted Ashley’s long awaited introduction, or a wave of relief at the thought that we might’ve seen the last of Cygan at left-back. A little of both I suspect, as at the break the bloke in front commented “4-0 up and Cygan disappearing down the tunnel, does it get any better!” In the end it proved the perfect encounter for Cole’s reintroduction as the match was all but over as a contest when he came on.

Aside from the renaissance of the Arsenal’s old guard, with a dazzling one-two touch passing display, which served as a reminder that the achievements of the Invincibles wasn’t some glorious Gooner dream, the other pleasing aspect to the afternoon was the staunch serenity of the teenage Djourou and Senderos at the heart of our defence. Perhaps this was a glimpse of the heirs apparent of Arséne’s Gunners?

However above all the day belonged to our captain, equalling Cliff “Boy” Bastin’s long-standing league goal record with his hat-trick and with his selfless contribution in the build-up to each of the other four goals.

Each game in our last historic season at our grand old stadium has been given a theme. It was perhaps fitting that fate had decreed “1913 Day”, a celebration of our first season at the Home of Football, for Henry to inscribe himself yet another page in the Highbury history book. If Bastin was alive today, I’m sure the prolific winger wouldn’t begrudge his tally being overtaken by a player of Titi’s amazing calibre. But for those Gooners who weren’t aware, the two Jumbotrons in the corners of the ground announced the fact that Thierry was two goals away from breaking the record after his 2nd on the half hour.

When he eventually completed his hat-trick and equalled the record on 68 minutes, there was a truly magical moment, where I’m certain I wasn’t alone in struggling with a massive lump in my throat, as almost every Arsenal fan in the stadium stood and sung his name for a length of time that truly reflected the all consuming wave of appreciation which washed across all four terraces.

You have to bear in mind that this is a football “audience” that’s fairly used to being teased “2-0 and you still don’t sing!” But as Henry stood on the halfway line, with the game about to be restarted and the Highbury library reverberating to the sound of “Thierry Henry”, if our star striker had any remaining doubts about the wisdom of his decision to stay with the Gunners, these must’ve been dispelled by this incredibly emotional display of gratitude.

One man’s misfortune might be another’s boon, but as delighted as I was for young Matthew, considering all the extremely mediocre displays we’ve endured this season, I felt sorry for my missus and the bloke who sits a couple of seats away, who’d both missed this astonishing performance. He’d given up his ticket to a Gooner from Amsterdam. Unbelievably this bloke’s previous trip to Highbury had been the last 7-goal blitz against Everton. Instead of merely inviting him to come back again soon, I was sorry I wasn’t able to handcuff him to a seat! I imagine both he and Matthew will return home thinking that watching the Arsenal play live is always such an unbelievably euphoric experience.

As we exited Highbury, with our hands pleasantly stinging from the constant succession of high-fives, I directed Matthew towards an outside balcony with one of the best views of the new stadium. This panorama has been somewhat impeded by one of the blocks of flats which has suddenly sprung up in the foreground, but it remains an impressive sight, with the new stadium positively dwarfing our Lilliputian ancient gaff by comparison. However for the first time I had an inescapable empathy for Wenger’s vision, having just witnessed a display of the sort that might grace this magnificent arena. A glorious testament to the type of breathtaking football for which this monument to the beautiful game has been designed.

Hi folks

Once again I have to beg your forgiveness for my failure to mail out last week's diary piece. It's perhaps a little dated by now, so rather than clutter up your in-box with unwanted mail, anyone with web access who can't live without it is able to read it on my blog at:

or alternatively if any of you are feeling too deprived, you only have to ask and I will gladly forward a copy. You'd think I would have been only too keen to mail it out, considering what transpired. With the affect of Xmas and New Year upon the schedules at the Irish Examiner, my regular routine was completely cocked up. I assumed it had returned to normal by last Monday and I finished writing my missive about 3pm. Then I promptly fell akip on the couch and didn't stir until 5.45, when I discovered, to my horror that my e-mail was still sitting on the screen, with me having failed to hit the send button and file my copy.

I couldn't understand why the phone hadn't rung, as normally the sports ed at the Examiner starts screaming for my piece long before 5pm. But I hit the send button quick sharp and hoped for the best. It was a couple of hours later when I next checked my mail and there was a reply from the ed at the Examiner to remind me "no column needed"! I'd completely forgotten that I'd filed my half-term report the previous week, immediately after the Man Utd match, as last week's Arena supplement was an out-of-house printed glossy mag with a deadline days earlier. I'm just glad that I now have the blog to post my pieces on, so at least it didn't feel like a complete waste of time!

Meanwhile it's been a while since I've taken as much delight in writing a diary piece as I did today, after Saturday's sublime performance. When I filed the piece above to the paper I apologised for the fact that it's a few hundred words more than required. However I also suggested it's not like there's been much opportunity for us Gooners to gloat this season and that in truth it was some feat that it wasn't twice as long, considering we witnessed more entertainment on Saturday than almost the entire rest of the season put together.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I choked up a more than a little with our collective expression of appreciation, after Thierry Henry's second goal, as virtually the entire stadium chanted his name for a good five minutes. As Titi stood on the halfway line swinging his arms around, awaiting the restart, perhaps I'm a naive, overly sentimental ninny but I'm sure that I sensed an awkwardness about him which suggested that Thierry himself might've been somewhat overwhelmed by the this spontaneous outburst of gratitude to the great man, as I've said above, from a crowd which is normally not the quickest or the loudest in offering such a vocal demonstration of our feelings.

I'd be interested to hear from other Gooners present at THOF on Saturday, to know whether I'm reflecting on this moment through redcurrant tinted specs and making more of it than was the case, or whether indeed everyone else in the stadium sensed it was such an incredibly poignant Gooner moment?

I only hope the feelgood factor from Saturday can be carried over to our trip to Goodison next weekend, so that we can really begin to gather the sort of momentum that we've struggled to find all season. We have already overtaken Spurs once a couple of months back, when I made the mistake of assuming we'd leave the Lilywhites trailing in our wake. It seems that on that occasion I was a little too premature with my "See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya!" text message to my Spurs pals.

Despite the fact that I've since been able to respond to all their gloating texts about their superior league position. by reminding them that as far as silverware is concerned, their season is already over once again in the first week of January and even if they should surprise everyone, including themselves, by achieving 4th spot in the table, they'll still have nothing to parade around White Hart Lane come May.

Although they've been so starved of anything like success in recent years that if they did manage a top six finish and qualify for Europe, the sad buggers would probably be queuing up at White Hart Lane to have their picture taken with the table!!!

In recent times Spurs fans have had nothing to gloat about other than the odd Gunner's defeat and we were able to pull Lilywhite legs about how obsessed they were with the Arsenal. As a result they've not stopped making the most of their superior league position all bloomin' season and I've been running up my mobile phone bill every month, rising to the text message bait, So when we leapfrog them in the league next time, I'm hoping it will be for good this time and that they won't see Gooner heels for dust.

But I won't be making the same mistake twice and will therefore be giving it a couple of weeks for us to gain some proper breathing space between us and the Lilywhite lesser mortals, before "giving it to them large"!

Every match at THOF between now and the end of the season is likely to be an emotional occasion to some extent and some, like Saturday's ecstatic encounter, will be more meaningful than others. Yet the tugging at the sentimental Gooner heart strings doesn't stop at the Highbury turnstiles.

I'm no regular lemming on London Transport, but this morning I found myself heading into town on the tube and I'd completely forgotten about the new mural at the Arsenal tube until I entered the station. I only wished I'd allowed a little more time, but sadly I was late as usual and I was able to do nothing more than snatch glimpses of each of the multitude of images along the huge length of the subway leading from the ticket barriers to the steps down to the platform, Most, or at least many of the images appear to be those where they've used the technique to transfer the photo onto the wall and these have been painted, but there are several others which are completely hand drawn, with pictures representing every era since we moved to THOF until the present day.

I for one will be going back there to get a longer, better look at this fabulous mural. The only minor annoyance is that you need to buy a ticket to get past the barrier and I am sure I won't be the only one purchasing one with no plans to travel anywhere, other than back in time, as I savour this pictorial journey at my leisure.

The other "mural" I would love to see is the one which is currently taking shape on the walls of the marble halls. I was so flabbergasted when it was mentioned on the Sky coverage of the Man Utd match that I had to use the rewind feature on our Sky Plus gadget to ensure my ears weren't deceiving me, as I struggled to believe that the suits at THOF had allowed the hallowed marble halls to be desecrated. However over the past couple of weeks any players past and present who've visited Highbury have been inscribing their names on the walls, along with their own personal comment. Apparently there are some amusing ones, like Pascal Cygan who has thanked the wonderful fans and the amazing atmosphere at THOF but I am dying to go and have a gander for myself. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if I and many other Gooners are wondering if we can slip in there with a chisel towards the end of the season and come away with a very special souvenir!!

We just booked our hotel in Madrid on Friday and on Saturday morning I dashed up to the box office to get in our application for match tickets for the Bernabeu, just before the end of the first priority period for away ticket scheme members. Now I've got to sweat to see if we've been successful as the club announced the second priority period in which Gooners can apply for one of the 3,500 tickets we've been allocated, only if they have 40 or more away match credits. Since Rona stopped travelling to long distance away matches (because of not wanting to leave Treacle our dog on her tod for long periods) we decided to cancel her away match ticket scheme membership. However her membership up to the start of this season gives her 55 credits but I didn't realise I needed to wait to make an application for both if us and because I handed our application in on Saturday, instead of waiting until today, if the box office want to be really bloody-minded, they could return my application requesting me to apply again.

It didn't occur to me that the club would set the bar for applying for tickets so high, or that I needed only wait another day, but now I will be sweating it out to see if my application is returned. Hopefully if the worst should come to the worst, I will still have time to reapply. But I am now absolutely bricking it that our application will come back unsuccessful, long after I've missed this boat.

What annoys me most is that it seems Uncle Tom Cobbly and all with the slightest association with the Gunners wants to attend this particular match. In fact I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever known anything like it, as I can't ever recall such a high demand for tickets for a match abroad which wasn't even a final. I was under the impression that since the likes of Leeds and Celtic had both received I believe something like 7 or 8000 tickets, we would be allocated a similar amount. But apparently we've received approximately the same 5 per cent of the stadium capacity that we've offered them.

However of the 3,500 tickets available, there are around 50 odd corporate box holders at Highbury who are entitled to something like 10 tickets to every away match. Now I am personally aware of at least a couple of hardy box holders who schlep all over the country to every single game, including all the far less glamorous occasions. Yet I imagine they rarely take up their entire entitlement to ten tickets apart from for the major matches. And I would also guess that they are far in a way outnumbered by the corporate boxes belonging to companies who don't bother taking any tickets for any away matches other than perhaps the Chelsea, Spurs and maybe Man Utd matches. But you can be darn sure that they will be requiring as many tickets as they can lay their hands on for this particular game.

So the corporate box holders, many of whom who will probably be bunging tickets as a sweetener to their non-Arsenal supporting clients, will probably account for at least 500 of the 3500 tickets. Then you have something like a 1000 of us loyal Gooners on the away ticket scheme (although I know of at least a couple on the scheme who only retain their membership in order to guarantee tickets to the high profile London matches and who rarely travel outside of the capital, perhaps making it occasionally if for example there's a major fixture against Man Utd at Old Trafford, but who for the rest of the season are trying to offload their tickets for the vast majority of matches). That will leave only around 2000 tickets remaining for everyone else!

Which is probably why the club have set the bar for away match credits at such a steep height to start with and there will now probably be hundreds of Gooners with less than 40 credits, who already have flights and accommodation booked and who will be sweating waiting for a chance to apply for any remaining tickets after this second priority period.

I don't want to scare the pants off these poor Gooners, but I imagine there's an entire other category Johnny-come-lately, glory hunting Gooners who have shelled out astronomic sums for their seats at the new stadium. Can you imagine all those punters who've paid £25 grand for a Diamond Class pitch at the new gaff, or who've stumped up four years up front, nearly £20 grand for a centre block Club Level seat, or the substantial fortunes for all those additional corporate boxes at the new, sitting back and passively accepting the fact that they fall at the back of the queue for a ticket at the Bernabeu?

Personally I imagine the phones to be positively hopping off the hook at Highbury with all the calls from those trying to wangle themselves and all the mates they've promised tickets for this particular match. So heaven only knows exactly how many of the remaining 2000 will actually end up being offered to genuine Gooners who are eligible to apply through official channels. However this is nothing new, as tickets for such high profile matches have always disappeared into the pockets of the sort of "not what you know, but who you know" type punters with the right connections. It is just that now we have a whole different millstone of our huge new stadium hanging around Gooner necks, it is likely that these shenanigans will have been elevated onto another scale all together.

Perhaps I'm being all too cynical, but it will indeed be interesting to see how many regular travelling Gooners end up getting satisfied and how many away match credits end up being the minimum necessary to get a ticket. I wish all the very best to those who are now sweating it out with less than 40 credits, if it's any consolation, until I hear otherwise, I feel as if I am in exactly the same boat! Worst case scenario, the Bernabeu is such a massive venue that I am sure there will be plenty of tickets available locally from enterprising pond scum Spanish touts!

Big Love

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Monday 9 January 2006

Santa Is A Gooner

It was as if all our Xmases had come at once last weekend. Arsenal fans were positively airborne on route down Avenell Road for Saturday’s early kick-off, huge grins plastered across every Gooner gob, after Thierry Henry had pledged his allegiance in the morning papers. Some might accuse me of naivety for taking Titi’s revelations at face value. But it was wonderfully refreshing in these mercenary times, to read that one of the world’s greatest talents had for once prioritised his loyalty to the club’s cause, above that of his own selfish concerns.

It’s just a pity that Thierry didn’t put us out of our misery with his declaration of intent a few months back. He might’ve dispelled the demoralising cloud of uncertainty that descended upon the club, prior to our Premiership form taking a nosedive. Nevertheless, as they say, better late than never, since we are now over the proverbial moon at the prospect of being bedazzled for at least another season, by the most breathtaking player ever to don the red(currant!) & white.

There’s little doubt that we’ve enjoyed the most cultured pleasures from the prodigious footballing brains of Dennis Bergkamp and Liam Brady and there are other Premiership players with amazing attributes, who demand our respect. Yet despite the strength and low centre of gravity that gives him such balance on the ball, the likes of Rooney is a little rhino compared to the animalistic grace of Henry. In my humble opinion, for fans of ‘the beautiful game’ there isn’t a more awesome sight than Titi in full flight with a football at his feet.

Although he’s more like the “Where does he sit? Where ever he wants!”, 800lb gorilla, when it comes to murmurs from the Doubting Thomases in the media that the deal is far from done and dusted. Henry will get what ever he wants from the Arsenal. No matter how much it costs to keep him at the club, it’ll be a helluva lot cheaper than the far-reaching consequences, across the board, of losing our best player. Meanwhile most Gooners believe the superstar is such a “mensch” that his word is his bond.

The timing of Thierry’s announcement is interesting. Some are suggesting Le Prof might’ve persuaded him with details of his big spending plans. However while Arsène might be intending to splash out with the huge budget that is supposedly available to him, come the summer, up until now he’s always stuck rigidly to his principles of not buying players unless they are better than those he already has.

The cynic in me is wondering if Henry’s decision is a deliberate attempt to deflect the pressure for our manager to push the boat out in the January sales, so Wenger won’t need to waste money shopping for any of the nearly men that other clubs are trying to offload. Moreover how on earth could Arsène top the revelations that Titi intends to stay?

It will be interesting to discover to what extent Titi’s indecision has affected our form to date. Hopefully we’ll witness a marked improvement as the team returns to playing the sort of carefree football we’ve grown accustomed to in the past and our captain will start doing the business again with the same incredible consistency of the previous three seasons. Perhaps our other problems will also melt away. We might be lacking the leadership qualities necessary to grab a game by the scruff of the neck and turn a result around. But this isn’t nearly such a crucial factor when you are a couple of goals to the good.

There was some evidence of a reaction on Saturday. The Arsenal combated Cardiff’s attempts to kick us up in the air, by moving the ball around far too quickly for them to be able to get anywhere near it. I guess the two early goals knocked the stuffing out of the visitors, but I was so looking forward to the thrills and spills of a combative Cup encounter, that to be honest I was a little disappointed by the Bluebirds lack of bottle. Basically we cruised into the 4th round and another bloomin’ brawl with Bolton at the Reebok, without really breaking sweat.

With their abysmal reputation, the 7000 travelling Cardiff fans are hardly the most affable bunch. Yet I was almost happy that they at least had something to cheer about, when their side scrambled home a late consolation goal. Although I would have much preferred for us to build on the confidence of a 5th consecutive clean sheet.

They’d been chanting “on the pitch” but mercifully only one maniac actually carried out this threat and they soon changed their tune, with the feint possibility of pinching a late equaliser. But the Gunners took the sting out of the last few minutes, demonstrating the gulf in class with a game of keep ball that left Cardiff chasing shadows. Considering our complete domination, it would’ve been more than a little farcical if they’d forced a replay.

Yet if I felt denied a sufficiently satisfactory fix of FA Cup adrenalin, I didn’t have to wait long, as we were treated to the coverage of a fabulous live encounter between Luton and Liverpool later that evening. Then after Roy Keane’s Celtic debut was ruined and Man Utd were held to a draw by the non-leaguers the next day, our FA Cup weekend was brought to a perfect climax savouring Spurs capitulation at Filbert Street.

After hearing the Scousers taunts on TV the night before, I couldn’t resist texting all my Spurs pals. I swear it was as if the Foxes fans heard me as they started singing the second I hit the send button “2-0 and you f***ed it up”. The poor long-suffering Lilywhites, they were just beginning to grow a little cocky about Jol’s side avoiding the usual mid-season collapse. Suddenly it’s only January and all hope of any silverware has evaporated for another season, after conceding late cup goals against lowly Grimsby and Leicester.

Never mind the supposed shift in the balance of power, next thing you know we’ll be leapfrogging Spurs in the league and the North London divide will be restored to Grand Canyon proportions from a Gooner perspective!

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Saturday 7 January 2006

Transfer Window Coup To End All Coups

When I received a call about 8pm this evening, I was careful not to let myself get too carried away. After all, over the years plenty of such "scoops" have proved to be bum steers. But as I tried to temper my excitement during dinner at my Ma's, while at the same time texting all and sundry Gooner across the globe, I thought I detected some logic to the most delicious media story we've read all season.

Obviously there could be no doubt that Thierry Henry has been considering his future for much of this season, but I wouldn't mind betting that, at a time when the Arsenal would most benefit from such a major boost, Arsène has made a concerted effort to appeal to Titi's loyalty and convinced him to make up his mind.

The cynic in me can't help but wonder if it's no coincidence that Henry has pledged his allegiance to the Arsenal as we enter the transfer window. Perhaps this assurance of the greatest signing we all could have wished for, is going to take the pressure off Wenger to waste the club's money in the January sales, by plugging the obvious gaps in our squad with the sort of nearly men who tend to be transfer listed at this time in the season.

Amidst all the players that clubs are trying to offload from their exorbitant wage bills, basically because they're not doing the business and from the multitude of names mentioned in all the other gossip mongering despatches I've read, I've only noted one with proven Premiership experience, who might be capable of coming in and doing an instantaneous job, by perhaps adding the sort of grit to our midfield which enables us to turn games around. However Thomas Gravesen would hardly be top of my personal 'most wanted' list. He just happens to be one of the few players who's signing doesn't appear as improbable as my preferred choices. Gravesen wouldn't exactly feature in a game of fantasy football when compared to the likes of Messi, Kaka, Terry and Ballack.

Nevertheless, even before this evening's gob smacking good news, it had occurred to me that according to Le Prof's strict principles of only buying players who are better than those he already has, he might choose to remain inactive in the transfer window, rather than act in haste and repent at leisure. Alternatively perhaps Thierry made his mind up after Arsène sat him down and enlightened him with exact details about how he's about to spend this £50 million transfer budget he's supposed to have at his disposal and we are about to discover that the Arsenal are intent on matching Henry's ambitions with some major buys (now that would be a surprise!).

Although how on earth can Arsène top the revelations that Titi's staying and who knows, hopefully the huge gloomy cloud of uncertainty about Henry's future which has been hanging so heavy about the Gunners, has now been removed and we might at long last return to playing the sort of carefree footie which means we no longer have to concern ourselves with our inability to turn games around. Not if we start winning again consistently.

Life is a helluva long time in the ephemeral world of the mercenary beast of the modern game and while I can't stop smiling as I read and re-read the quotes attributed to Thierry in which he pledges his future to the Arsenal cause for the entire length of his career, I think it would be naive to assume this is gospel.

For the moment I am just over the moon that the most breathtaking player I've ever had the privilege to witness isn't going anywhere this summer. Although I must admit we can't afford to suffer season after season, ruined by the sort of uncertainty, which plagued us with Paddy's enduring saga

Yet as much as I would love it, it's hard to imagine Thierry remaining with us until the point where the law of diminishing returns begins to apply to his value due to his age. If we weren't Gooners, we'd all consider Henry downright stupid, if he didn't cash in at least once on his value as one of the world's greatest.

Thierry's arrival at THOF wouldn't have been exactly lucrative by today's standards. considering he came to us as a relative unknown and to be honest, in light of the incredible entertainment he's provided, we could hardly begrudge him a big pay day while still at his peak. Especially when Titi's proven himself to be a consummate "mensch" by putting the Arsenal and le gaffer's cause before his own selfish interests in this instance.

Shame he didn't do it five months back. But I ain't complaining when his selflessness is such an unbelievably pleasant surprise in this day and age. True Thierry might have little to lose. As one of the top three players in the world, at his age the effect upon his value of another season or so at the Arsenal is only likely to be marginal. What's more, for all we know Thierry might have been persuaded to remain at the club primarily for commercial reasons, rather than footballing ones, as I imagine our board has been absolutely bricking themselves about arriving at our vast new arena next August, with no star turn to entertain all those megabucks corporate box holders.

Meanwhile I don't happen to give a monkeys's about all the whys and wherefores and am just offering "big respek" to Titi for sending me to bed tonight to indulge in footballing wet dreams about all those awe inspiring feats of amazement we have to come.

Now let’s see if Thierry’s oath of allegiance has the desired effect. We should certainly discover to what extent we’ve suffered this season up until now, as a result of his vacillating. Hopefully not only will Titi begin doing the business again, but the whole team will benefit from a renewed impetus. It’s perhaps expecting a bit much, but wouldn’t it be brilliant if, from tomorrow’s encounter against Cardiff, we are reborn as the Invincibles and begin to build the momentum, which carries us right through an unbeatable second half of the season.

As they say, if you are going to dream, you might as well dream big!

Thursday 5 January 2006

The Beginning of the End or The End of the Beginning?

After mounting a viable challenge for the Premiership title for the past eight seasons, it’s decidedly painful to find myself reflecting on the first half of the season with reality sinking it’s teeth deep into Gooner backsides. Having just taken a single point from our home match against Man U, we are basically left relying on the fact that we still have the two remaining encounters with the Scousers as possibly our best bet of bagging third place.

For the moment most of us would settle for pegging back Spurs’ three-point lead. After lording it over our North London neighbours for so many years, to the point where the Lillywhite challenge was nothing more than Gooner laughing stock, you’ve no idea of the sort of stick I’ve suffered of late

My Spurs pals remained in their shells until recently, afraid of getting too cocky. They’ve been expectant of an almost inevitable annual capsize into murky mid-table mediocrity. Yet the constant stream of mickey taking text messages are testament to their burgeoning confidence. I’m just relieved that we can cling to our standard Champions League riposte, with the reminder “Tottenham watching Eastenders”, at least until the trees are back in bud

Le Prof is fortunate in this respect. I’m sure he’d be under a whole heap more pressure and our mood would be a lot blacker, if we didn’t have a delectable date at the Bernabeu to distract us from our lacklustre Premiership campaign. And let’s face it, although we progressed as group winners, those present will all confirm that we hardly covered ourselves in glory against lowly Thun, Prague and Ajax.

I am not yet quite so bitter as to suggest that watching the Blues win every week must be boring. But Mourinho’s side has evolved into a highly efficient unit that doesn’t bear comparison to the unstoppable force of nature of a counter-attacking Arsenal side at its best. He’s fortunate to have a first team roster he can rotate to his heart’s content, without ever having to send out a player suffering from fatigue. Still I firmly believe we can continue to take pride in the fact that as far as most neutrals are concerned, there’s a joie de vivre about the Arsenal’s game that on our day, makes us the most attractive footballing team in the land. Sadly those days are fewer and further between!

As I reflect on a first half of the season, where the highlights were a 77th minute equaliser against Spurs, a day out in Doncaster to see the kids progress on penalties into the Carling Cup semis and a trip to Prague, which perhaps included the one truly euphoric moment in the entire past five months, with Thierry Henry’s heroic return from injury, to remind the world he has wonders to perform as we tripped the light fantastic watching Titi’s record breaking goals, I’m not sure whether I should be writing the apotheosis for the Arsenal’s Invincibles, or hopefully the foreword for Arsène Wenger’s next fabulous adventure?

The problem for me, as with most genuine Gooners, is not so much losing the odd match, but the manner in which the Gunners have been prostrating themselves before patently lesser footballing mortals. For me to be enthusiastic about schlepping hundreds of thousands of miles, following the Arsenal every season, I need to believe in my heart of hearts that wearing the red & white means as much to the majority out on the pitch, as it does to those of us on the terraces. And I’m afraid that for most of this season I’ve been far from convinced.

Not that I’m often there in time, but when I have been, even the recent habit of the pre-match group hug has felt somewhat phoney and hollow of late. Such sentiments haven’t been borne out by the sort of ‘backs to the wall’, ‘fight to the death’ togetherness on which all our past success was founded. Obviously every footballer has far more fun playing in a triumphant team, yet there’s this unnerving sense that a number of Wenger’s first XI no longer appreciate their privileged position and are simply going through the motions in far too many matches

Most pundits point to the psychological effect of Vieira’s departure. There’s no denying there’s a huge chasm in our midfield, which was previously more than amply occupied by Paddy’s imposing physical presence. Nevertheless our former captain was a player of such consummate ability, that he was capable of papering over the cracks with his eyes shut for his last couple of seasons. Whereas in his absence it has soon become apparent that in Wenger’s quest for the most wonderful football, our manager has neglected to maintain a crucial balance.

As a result, the number of players in our squad with real ‘roll your sleeves up’, ‘we shall not be moved’ character has dwindled to the point where, as convinced as I am that any striker, including Henry, shouldn’t have the responsibility of the captain’s armband, on perusing this Arsenal squad, it’s hard to point to a single guaranteed first team player who’s ‘cahones’and hunger are large enough to lead us into the promised land.

I dread the thought the big opening day at our stunning new stadium dawning without our star attraction. I’m literally praying that Titi’s loyalty and gratitude to Wenger is such, that he might be persuaded to stay, just long enough for us all to be able to enjoy Henry’s last Arsenal hurrah, on a stage fit for this king and one which has basically been built on the back of the incredible consistency of those blue-blooded shoulders. However for the sake of the team and our sanity, I wish he’d make his bloomin’ mind up quick sharp. The air of uncertainty around the most breathtaking footballer I’ve ever had the privilege to witness, is a major contributing factor to our current malaise.

We’d have to play out of our skins and would require a large slice of good fortune to repeat the Scouser’s achievement by bringing home the Champions League bacon. However as the clock runs down and I lap up every last drop of history and tradition, during the last dozen or so incredibly sentimental trips to our ancestral Highbury home, I can’t think of a more fitting tribute than to honour the grand old gaff by capping our substantial silverware collection with the one big eared trophy still missing from the cabinet.

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