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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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