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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
Bernard


E-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

3 comments:

highburied said...

Hi Bernard,
Another limp performance from our bunch of weaklings and I am glad to read even your rose-Titi'd spectacles noted our craptain's disgraceful demeanour.
Not that he was the worst culprit, Pires just isn't interested and should go now.
I am sick of feeling so negative about the Arsenal, but the highs of Boro and the signings last week only compound the disappointment, no anger, at seeing the team rightly beaten for lack of desire.
Kerrea Gilbert was indeed our best player in a side that is completely leaderless (except Lauren). The worry is that the emergence of Gilbert and Eboue could see Lauren offloaded, leaving kids, Henry and the ever comical Sol to lead the side out at AG.
Walcott apart, I do not share the widespread enthusiasm for the signings, however good they may prove in the long term, because they fail to address the short-term need for physical commitment and leadership.
I don't think the potential in that trio will do anything to persuade Ashley, or perhaps even TH14, to speculate the remaining key years of their careers at the club.
We still need to sign a proven leader.

Bernard said...

From the rumours circulating around, Ash is already a Goner come the summer to Real! But personally I've felt that ever since he was labelled "the best left-back in the world" with nothing left to prove, Cole's nowhere near hungry enough anymore and in some respects I'd prefer to see Clichy, as at least he's hungry and full of enthusiasm

Which is what we need in spades right now. I haven't really seen anything of Diaby (what was the point in giving him ten minutes on Saturday?) but I guess he's the most important of the three signings, as it's in midfield where we are woefully short of phyiscal presence (with Gilberto waving a leg at the opposition - you watch the Brazilian, as I've never seen a player who even when he does win challenges, somehow seems to fail to come away with the ball)

As for Henry, I get the distinct feeling that his stroppy teenager act is a reaction to playing 4-5-1, as perhaps he feels he deserves more than having to play as a work horse sole striker

In truth he has a point, as I firmly believe it should be our opponents adapting their formation to cope with us, not the other way around. However he's wearing the captain's armband for heaven's sake and someone needs to remind him of his captain's responsibilities occasionally (but who at THOF is going to have a pop at him?)

In the past when he's gone missing in his captain's duties, we've often seen a reaction in which I've assumed he's realised his responsibilities. I believe I've noticed this in a couple of home games after woeful away matches, where he's run around like a headless chicken, encouraging everyone, without a frustrated shrug in sight. So it will be interesting to see if this is the case tonight

Although I can't help but feel that Wenger should have kept faith with the kids, as it seems as if he's gone against his principles by getting the big guns out and I am not convinced it's the right move tactically speaking, as far as our immediate and long term future is concerned.

However no one will be happier when I am proved wrong by another confidence boosting 7-0 hammering

Come you Reds, please let Rip and the cannons Roar
Bernard

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