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Wednesday 26 April 2006

We Just Sunk The Yellow Submarine

Hi folks

I got a call this afternoon from the Irish Examiner asking for 700 words on yesterday's trip by 6pm, which is bloody marvelous as it should just about pay for my outing. However having not slept since my arrival back at 5am this morning, I'm feeling so mentally frazzled that it was hard for me to feel sufficiently enthusiastic to do such an incredible occasion proper justice. So I am posting this blog entry because I will probably pass out for the next 24 hours, by which time I'll no doubt want to add several thousand words on the entire "joyful" journey (see below!)

Meanwhile it was already 30 miins past my deadline when I came to the last few sentences so you'll have to forgive me if I've had to hurry the ending. What's more, can you imagine, I was literally typing the closing words, when I got a warning on my screen of the sort "you are already using this copy of Microsoft Word and as a result it will now quit"

This threw me into a major panic. If I clicked OK, was it going to quit immediately and I was about to lose the entire piece (I simply couldn't face the prospect of having to start again from scratch), or at best I might lose the last couple of paragraphs, written since Word last did an autosave. I sat here for a few minutes trying to think of something I could do, hitting a few keys in vain, hoping I might find a solution. And then breathed a massive sigh of relief when I finally sucked up the courage to hit "OK", only to be presented with a "Save now" window (thank heavens!!)

Actually I got a similarly gut-wrenching feeling last night, which I forgot to mention below, when with a couple of minutes left on the clock, some Gooners nearby felt sufficiently confident of the outcome, that they sang the "We're on our way to Paris" ditty for the first time all night. To my mind it seemed an incredibly impetuous action, as it was as if they were daring fate to intercede and I was left wishing I'd not just muttered "schhh" under my breath a few seconds later, when I wanted to brain them all as the ref blew up for the pen.

I swear that if we'd ended up going out last night, I'd have felt this bunch of Gooners were exclusively to blame!

According to David Dein (on Sky) there are 23,000 season ticket holders and only 20,500 tickets. Moreover there are all the bond holders and those who have executive boxes (who I believe are guaranteed something like 10 ticket to every away game, so I guess they'd be offered a similar amount for a final?). Not to mention all those extremely affluent Gooners who have signed up for such packages as Diamond Class at the new stadium. Can you imagine stumping up £25k to the Arsenal and then being denied a final ticket? So for the next couple of weeks I will be sitting here with many other season ticket holders, fretting that I might be amongst the extremely disappointed ones who's applications won't be successful.

Actually I am pretty confident that my membership of the Away Ticket Scheme should see me alright but I am worried we won't get a ticket for Rona. Can you imagine, we've both been on the away ticket scheme since it started and we gave Ro's membership up on the very season we make it to a European Cup FInal! Still according to the FAQs on the Arsenal web site, the tickets will be allocated according to the number of away games attended and in this respect they take into account season 2004/05 and 05/06. So we will have everything crossed in the hope that the fact that Ro had a ticket for every away game last season should give her sufficient credits to merit a ticket.

I'll be sitting at my computer virtually 24 hours, constantly checking my e-mail, waiting for the response to having registered my interest. As apparently although a response in the affirmative will guarantee a ticket, it's a free for all, first come, first served after that. And why will I not be the least bit surprised that no matter how quick one is off the mark when this happens, there won't be any tickets left other than those priced £43 because all the best seats will have been creamed off for the "not what you know, but who you knows"!! Above all, most gauling to every fan of the two teams to make it, is that something like 30 odd thousand tickets will be allocated amongst "the football family". I wonder what proportion of these will end up in the hands of those looking forward to the corporate jolly, who have no real interest in either team, or in the hands of the scummy scalpers who will be able to skin us all alive, knowing how desperate we will all be to be present in person. Well at least three, as someone has just told me about three which have been bought already at a cost of £1200 each!!

But I had better his the send button now, before slipping completely into the arms of Morpheus and will wish all those applying for final tickets best of luck (so long as you don't get ours :-)

Big Love

We Just Sunk The Yellow Submarine

Standing on a small corner of foreign terracing that was destined to become forever Arsenal, as dusk fell on a balmy spring evening, there were big fat Gooners taking the wrappers off proportionately sized cigars. Intermingled with the aromatic cigar smoke, one caught the occasional fragrant whiff of ‘whacky baccy’, as many of the travelling faithful found their own individual means of marking such a special occasion. If only I’d set aside my own Cuban corona to celebrate the birth of a child, I’d have definitely tucked it into a pocket to take to Spain. It was that sort of night!

After schlepping all over the Continent this past decade or so, we all deserved to be standing there, sucking on a ‘Romeo y Julieta’, lapping up the semi-final high, awaiting the start of the 90 minutes of football which might at long last affirm the top table status of Arsène Wenger and his team.

Prior to such a pitifully uninspiring performance, the cigar lighting might’ve been somewhat premature. Nevertheless despite several heart-stopping incidents and the dramatic 90th minute denouement, when with Germanic reliability, our crash cart keeper revived this Champions League baby with his enormous paddles, it all came good in the end. It’s a tired cliché but I can’t imagine any other similar deliveries bringing genuine tears to the eyes of so many Gooner grown men.

Earlier in the day the omens had been decidedly dodgy. Initially my Gatwick departure appeared a good choice, when the pilot advised of us of the fog at Stansted, which suggested we might beat many other fans to our destination. That was until our plane was delayed, first because it was too full of fuel and then when it broke down. After being stuck on the ground for 4 hours, awaiting the delivery and fitting of a new hydraulic part, we were less worried about getting one up on Gooner mates and more concerned with actually making it to the game.

All thoughts of leisurely afternoon, laying in the sunshine on a Valencian beach had long since vanished. But while fellow travellers were being nicely toasted down below, even the prospect of a pre-match ‘cerveza’ and a bite to eat began to wane, as we found ourselves circling in a cloudless Spanish sky for a further 30 minutes, with the flaps fully extended, trying to burn sufficient fuel for us to be able to land.

It was 5pm before we finally alighted the coaches on the sea-front and I was gutted when I realised quite what a gorgeous afternoon we’d wasted. Worse still everywhere was shut. The locals’ siesta was only just ending when we set-off for the stadium an hour later. Either our totally cocked-up outing was a portent of worse to come, or the miserably tedious calm before a memorably marvellous storm.

My nightmare trip had seemed like a good idea at the time, as I’d assumed my prospects of securing a precious ticket would be improved by travelling with the official party. Yet in addition to our limited allocation of 1100 tickets, there was at least another 1000 Gooners who’d obtained tickets elsewhere. But if a Champions League semi was a big deal for us visitors, the same was true in spades for the 40,000 Spaniards living in this small town, 70km from Valencia

I was dying to attempt a crack in Spanish about a free Spain since Franco’s demise, as the coppers made a concerted effort to herd us all together as we headed towards the stadium. But I bit my tongue in fear of a bop from an over-zealous baton and limited my protests to the odd sheep-like “baah”.

However with music blaring from a lorry, tied to which was an enormous inflatable yellow submarine, the atmosphere wasn’t the least bit intimidating and so I soon escaped the border-collie attentions of our escort. Mingling with the locals in a bar, as I sought to get some grub into my belly, the mood felt more like some sort of fiesta. In fact they were all so friendly that I felt quite sorry for pooping their party before the night was out.

Cream-crackered even before kick-off, I honestly cannot recall watching a more exhausting match. There was always going to be an instinctive tendency to sit-back and attempt to protect our slim single goal advantage. But considering it was the biggest game in most of the Gunner’s young lives, I couldn’t believe they were quite so passive. As a result, I spent virtually the entire match alternating between imploring the Arsenal to “get out” and watching the clock, as the seconds ticked by agonisingly slowly. It seemed as if there was more chance of willing past the sands of time, than witnessing any sort of test of the home team’s keeper!

Mercifully our own goal minder passed his with flying colours. In light of the huge banner behind Lehmann’s goal, expressing the home fans hopes for a fair referee, the award of a last minute penalty might’ve been recompense for the previous match. The moment Jens pulled of his save, I immediately thought of the Spurs fans back home, who must’ve hit the ceiling when the ref pointed to the spot and how they were floored a few seconds later. The contrasting peaks of euphoria and troughs of despair encapsulate everything that is beautiful about this game of ours. Whilst they continue to endure the sagas of Dot Cotton, we sang our songs of joy, suggesting they can stick 4th place where the sun don’t shine!

Amongst all the celebratory TV pictures of Arsenal fans rightly making fools of themselves, I imagine you won’t have seen the scenes outside the stadium afterwards, where the locals stood serenading the heroics of a home side that’s travelled from non-league obscurity, to the penultimate pinnacle in football, in a few short years.

Considering how the fates seem to have smiled upon us in Europe this season, unfortunately for Villareal they came up against an Arsenal side for whom at long last “the force” appears to be with us. Roll on Paris!

Tuesday 25 April 2006

We're All Going To Villareal, Tottenham Still Watching Eastenders!!

Hi folks

Since I need to leave for Gatwick at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning, I thought I'd better get my weekly missive mailed out before I leave. As we all know, 24 hours is a long time in football and by Wednesday morning, hopefully the demolition of Villareal will see the following completely outdated (although I rather suspect tomorrow night's match is unlikely to be the sort of open game which might result in a goalfest)

After Saturday's disappointing draw, I am even more desperate for us to proceed to Parisl. Apart from the incredibly tantalising prospect of our first ever Champions League final, after speaking to various Spurs pals today, no matter how confident they might now be of qualifying for next season's competition by finishing 4th, it was obvious just how much difficulty they are having in coping with the possibility that no matter what transpires in the Premiership, if we should be victorious tomorrow, they are going to have to spend the next three weeks contemplating the unthinkable consequence of our success in the final.

Although you never quite know in this funny old game of ours, personally I feel that our last chance of pegging Spurs back in the Premiership will come this weekend. Unless they should drop points against Bolton, it is hard to imagine the unlikely event of them doing so in their last league match, against a Hammers side focused on their first FA Cup Final for umpteen years. Nevertheless, even if the worst should eventually come to the worst, there is always some sort of silver lining. Just imagine how much fun we'd have watching them repeat Everton's experience this season, exiting Europe's premier competition in the qualifying round stages, against some anonymous side, from some unheard of corner of the continent?

Meanwhile all such concerns can be set aside for now, as the tension continues to mount before Tuesday night's match at El Madrigal. I don't think any of us could've imagined we'd be facing such a climax to our season back in August when our former captain made his unexpected exit. It would be absolutely marvelous if we should manage an early goal which would actually mean I could relax somewhat and savour the experience, instead of sitting there absolutely bricking myself with only a single goal advantage for an extremely exhausting and perhaps just about the longest 90 minutes I might ever have experienced in all my years of watching the Arsenal

Come on you Reds


We're All Going To Villareal, Tottenham Still Watching Eastenders!!

With the sun splitting the trees for our penultimate matchday stroll around to our Home of Football on Saturday, it seemed as if the stage was set for a marvellous Derby day swansong. Sadly Carrick, Davids, Keane and rest of their Spurs counterparts couldn’t have read the script!

I detest these early kick-offs, as we never seem to get going until the second half, if at all. Footballers are such creatures of habit that I imagine they are similarly unhappy about advancing all their pre-match rituals by several hours. What’s more with so little time to lubricate their vocal chords, our crowd can be even more library like than usual. Still, with it being the last but one game at our grand old stadium, we made a special effort to arrive in good time. But having hardly troubled Robinson’s goal during the first 45, come the break, many of my West Upper neighbours kidded that my change in routine was entirely to culpable.

Obviously the fact that we only had half a team out couldn’t have helped. Thus there was much consternation over Arsène’s decision to leave Henry, Fabregas and Eboué on the bench. In truth Wenger was in a no-win situation, doing his best to balance the physical demands of two incredibly intense games over the course of 4 days, on an already over-stretched squad.

What I couldn’t fathom was why Dennis Bergkamp was missing, assuming he’s the one player who won’t be making the trip to El Madrigal. Personally I would’ve preferred if Le Prof hadn’t monkeyed with a defence that’s performed so well in recent weeks. It’s the one area on the pitch where the key is consistency, rather than rotation. Additionally young Manny Eboué adds so much fizz going forward, whereas without him we appeared to lack any width whatsoever.

Meanwhile if the likes of Abou Diaby hadn’t been quite so anonymous on Saturday, there’d probably be no need for a post-mortem about Arsene’s selection and if the three energetic absentees should assist in our progress to a Champions League Final at El Madrigal on Tuesday, no-one will be left doubting our manager’s decision. Still it should be no surprise that our performance looked a little leg weary, by comparison to a side that’s set some sort of record for playing the least number of games in a season.

It was strange to see a usually urbane Arsène Wenger throwing such a wobbler. This was only headline news because it was SO out of character. No one would’ve batted an eyelid if it’d been Neil Warnock berating his opposite number. But by making himself the brunt of a cacophony of ‘pot calling the kettle black’ badinage, le gaffer hardly covered himself in glory. The fact that he usually takes all such slings and arrows of footie’s outrageous fortunes in his phlegmatic stride, would suggest that Arsène’s outrage was an indication of the mounting pressure, felt over the £50 million financial consequences of a 4th place qualification for a much coveted Champions League berth next term.

Yet with 10 minutes left on the clock on Saturday, it wasn’t so much the significant implications for the club’s coffers that were foremost in Gooner minds. It was the absolutely unbearable thought that our most hated local foes were about to leave us with such a horrific second to last Highbury memory.

Whether or not Spurs were guilty of unsporting behaviour by not putting the ball into touch, is a moot point. In the cold light of day, I can’t be 100 per cent certain we wouldn’t have done likewise. But without a Tottenham win on our turf since the old king died, it was our inability to contemplate the prospect of our rivals raining on our “Final Salute” parade that inspired such an incandescent response. There was even a disturbance amongst the sedentary suits in the Director’s Box, where stewards had to be deployed to save some over-excited, upper class infiltrators from being lynched.

To be perfectly honest, I grow ever more disgruntled about the increasing prevalence of time wasting, play-acting in the modern game. In fact I’ve often cursed this unwritten sporting convention, when our opponents have attempted to take all the heat out of a game, just as we’ve been building up a head of steam, by rolling around on the floor and forcing us to put the ball into touch. Consequently, I wonder whether the game would benefit if it became part of the referees remit. If there’s no obligation on the opposition and therefore no guarantee of the game being stopped, perhaps players would be discouraged from playing possum.

In this instance, I was more annoyed at our lot for committing such a cardinal sin. It must be at least 30 years since I was left standing on a pitch like a statuesque schmock, waiting for the ref to blow up. Even now I can still hear the coach hollering from the touchline at his lazy left-back to “play to the whistle”.

The Spurs’ argument that they weren’t aware of any need to put the ball out might be a little more convincing if Carrick hadn’t hesitated out on the wing. But as the opposition continued to advance, much like the car crash that seems to occur in slow-motion, it was as if everyone in an Arsenal shirt stopped to wait for an intervention, divine or otherwise.

I don’t know if it was the shock of this unscripted catastrophe, but in the past I would’ve expected Arsenal fans to raise the roof in our efforts to inspire the required response. Whereas on Saturday, aside from the jubilant section of Spurs fans, a depressing silence descended on the rest of the stadium, until our saviour stepped out of the dugout. Never mind the 3 points required for 4th place, at that stage all any of us cared about was that our last Highbury derby day shouldn’t end on such a depressing note.

Minute, by minute the tension mounted, to a point where my desperation was so acute that when Thierry finally found the back of the net, there followed such a euphoric rush of blood to my head that I thought I might faint. Heaven only knows how the Pompey fans managed to survive the stress of that last minute penalty without passing out?

And there’s no abeyance to the assault on Gooner fingernails, as no sooner had we breathed a huge sigh of relief at having avoided this disaster, than came the news of Senderos’ knee injury, to stoke the stress levels over just about the most important match in the Arsenal’s illustrious history.

No matter how we approach Tuesday’s return leg in Spain, there’ll be no avoiding the natural tendency to sit back and protect our slight advantage. This bodes for a bloomin’ long and nervous night. As a result I’m more fearful about this match than I will be if we should have the good fortune to progress to a final against either of the other two established giants.

Ever since our lucky win against lowly Thun, I’ve had an inkling about the Champions League, as I did when I suggested some time back to my West Ham pal that their name might be on FA Cup - if only I’d put some money where my big gob was! For his sake, I would’ve been up for the Hammers against Boro, if it weren’t for the fact that their progress to the final might result in Roeder playing a weakened side against Spurs. Hopefully Bolton will do us a favour beforehand, as I’d hate to end up hoping the Hammers are playing for FA Cup places, when it’s far more likely they’ll be saving themselves for the final.

However you won’t catch me complaining if our entire season comes down to a ‘winner takes all’ climax in Paris, with the additional prize of denying Spurs their first ever taste of Champions League footie. We’d probably be doing the poor loves a favour, by saving them from embarrassing themselves!

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Monday 17 April 2006

Dennis Doesn’t Fly, He Walks On Water

Hi folks

Doubtless I could’ve rambled on ad infinitum in this week’s piece if it wasn’t for the fact that I am always mindful of pissing off (even more than usual) the poor chap at the Examiner who’s lumbered with editing my missives (especially on Easter Monday). However as with most long standing Gooners, Dennis Bergkamp holds a particularly special place in my heart, as indicated by the North Bank banner on Saturday “Dennis doesn’t fly, he walks on water”.

If there was ever any doubt about the level of Gooner love for the great man, you only had to experience the overwhelming wave of joy when Bergkamp hit the back of the net to appreciate that this is certainly no run of the mill spoke in the Arsenal wheel.

As I’ve explained below, I relate all the marvellous football that we’ve experienced in recent times to the arrival of Dennis Bergkamp and thus Anno Dennis draws a line between all the dour mediocre dross before the Dutchman master and total change in style and the unbelievable entertainment we’ve enjoyed since.

The fact that he’s still here at Highbury stands as testament to the fact that the feeling is mutual and it seems a great shame that he won’t be staying on in some capacity, if only because he’s just about the most perfect example any young professional could have, of not only how the game should be played, but how to apply oneself to ensure one’s longevity in the game.

Still as we all know all good things must come to an end, especially when it comes to the beautiful game and we’ve been blessed by Bergkamp’s talents for longer than most. I am just relieved that Dennis didn’t disappear as some loyal servants have before him, during the summer, without us having a proper opportunity to show our appreciation and as for his testimonial being arranged as the first game at the new stadium, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate game to honour both him and our glamorous new arena.

There also wasn't sufficient room below to point out that since we take every opportunity to paint some of the suits at the club as the bad guys, I guess we also need to give credit where it's due. Although 2004 was a little short on silverware, as winners of the Fair Play award the club received a substantial sum in prize money from the FA. In addition to this there was an award to us as Fans of the Year. I am assuming this was earned as a result of our good behaviour because it certainly didn't result from the disappointing decibel levels at the Library (after the Red Action folk went to all that effort with the t-shirts on Saturday, you would've thought we could've come up with some singing to match the marvelous scene, as I couldn't believe how quiet we were up until the excitement after Dennis introduction).

As a consequence the club received two sums of money which accompanied these two awards, that were in addition to anything they'd budgeted for. They therefore deserve our praise for making a considerable amount available to the Red Action crew so that they are able to arrange stunts such as the one on Saturday. For those of you who were lucky enough to get an orange t-shirt, be sure to cherish it, as considering how we Gooners are usually made to pay through the nose, it's not often that you can come away from Highbury with such a souvenir absolutely gratis!

Meanwhile after enjoying Spurs being put to the sword - by a Utd side with a defence so jittery, it’s hard to understand how we didn’t manage to breach them, although sadly the vacuous Vidic wasn’t involved in our game – sadly it seems as if Chelsea are about to put a mild dampener on my Bank Holiday mood.
Still with only two more days to go to the most important match I’ve ever experienced at THOF, the butterflies are already buzzing around my belly. Then again that could be the matzos jews eat at this time of year to celebrate Passover – there’s absolutely no way the Israelites could of done a runner out of Egypt on a diet of this “unleavened bread” (no yeast) as the majority of them wouldn’t have been able to escape the karsey, let alone Pharaoh and his troops

Big Love

Dennis Doesn’t Fly, He Walks On Water

There were raised eyebrows on Saturday, amongst the West Upper regulars. They were astonished to find me already sitting in my seat when they arrived at Highbury. This was followed by the odd glance up at the famous Clock End timepiece, for reassurance that they weren’t tardy.

With my consistently dreadful memory, I’d actually forgotten all about ‘Dennis Bergkamp day’, until a few hours before kick-off, when a phone conversation with a pal who sits in front of me, had ended with his reminder “don’t forget to wear orange”. It suddenly occurred to me that while my cupboard might contain a substantial collection of Arsenal t-shirts, I don’t possess a single item of orange apparel (no doubt like the majority of the male population). But as I racked my brain, wondering how I was going to participate in our tribute to the Dutch master, I remembered hearing that Red Action, the supporters group that’s been behind various initiatives to improve the atmosphere at the Arsenal, had something up their sleeves for this event.

I actually had it in my head that they were organising a load of orange ‘titfers’ and so I picked up the phone and called one of the organisers, to demand of him “where’s my hat?” It turned out that it was orange t-shirts, not hats and knowing that I only live around the corner to the Home of Football, he suggested to me that if I hurried, I could help to hand them out.

One of the bonuses of volunteering my services was that it gave me carte blanche to wander around in the bowels of the stadium, schlepping some of the sacks full of a total of 10,000 t-shirts to just inside the turnstiles. So it was worth losing a few pounds in sweat, if only for a rare and final opportunity to have a ‘butcher’s’ at all the behind the scenes hustle & bustle in the stadium on a matchday.

The shortest route from the Clock End distribution point, to the West Stand, took me through the corner section of away supporters, where I was collared by a Baggies fan. Dennis Bergkamp’s remarkable and enduring impact on British football, over the course of a decade of sensational service to the Gunner’s cause, was brought home to me when this Brummie politely enquired if he might take a t-shirt.

As I’d told everyone else, the only proviso for one of these freebies was that you had to put it on straight away and this chap was happy to do so, informing me “I’ve always been a Bergkamp fan”

Many people forget that Dennis pre-dates Arsène, as he was signed during Bruce Rioch’s brief tenure. However his arrival at Highbury was, in my opinion, not just significant in terms of the Gunners, but for the profile of the Premiership as a whole. While Wenger might’ve been the ultimate architect of all our success in recent times, an era of absolutely incredible entertainment actually dates back to moment the Arsenal proudly displayed their new Dutch signing, wearing the red & white.

Up to then, no Gooner would’ve ever imagined we were capable of competing with the seemingly bottomless coffers of the Continental giants, to capture a truly world class star, at the very peak of his footballing powers. You have to bear in mind that up until the day Dennis arrived, the limit of the Arsenal’s European flair extended only as far as the dour addition of John Jensen, to a midfield which was hardly lit up by the mediocre skills of the likes of Hillier, Selley and Morrow.

I can remember going out and buying a video entitled “A Perfect 10”, a highlight package of Bergkamp’s feats and finding it hard to believe I was going to be watching such an amazing talent in an Arsenal shirt every week. By signing Bergkamp, the Arsenal threw down a marker of our intent to scale the summit of the Premiership and European peaks. Thus it’s fitting that we found ourselves paying tribute to one of the principal catalysts in this process, just a few days prior to the encounter which could take us as close as we’ve ever been to finally achieving the ultimate aim.

Admittedly it was the Bosman ruling and the subsequent abolition of the two foreign players limit which opened the floodgates for footballers from foreign climes, coming to England for a slice of the prodigious Premiership cake. However prior to this, apart from the obvious suspects, Cantona, Schmeichel, Molby, Ardiles and Villa, players from abroad weren’t exactly clamouring to ply their trade in the Premiership.

The massive pay packets on offer in Spain and Italy meant that we were a net exporter of professional players and as a result we suffered from an inferiority complex, when comparing our game to the far more glamorous product on offer on the Continent.

After the Arsenal gave £7.5 mil. of our share of the Sky TV loot to Inter Milan, to end the Dutch superstar’s unhappy sojourn in Italy, Anno Dennis can now be seen as the date when the huge sums of money washing around the Premiership first began to attract an assortment of the cream of foreign talent to all our top clubs. Instead of an unsophisticated stepping-stone, suddenly the Premiership had become the acme of footballers’ short career.

There’s been a theme for every match, in honour of our last season at Highbury, many of which have passed me by until I’ve arrived home and read details in the programme. So I’m delighted Dennis’ day lived up to expectations. It was very satisfying to step out on to the terrace 20 mins before KO and be greeted by an absolute sea of orange at either end of the ground and in the East stand opposite.

Dennis has played a peripheral role for much of this season, but whenever he’s appeared, he’s displayed the enthusiasm of a teenager. You’d expect nothing less from such a model professional. I believe he bagged goals against Thun and Pompey before Xmas, but Bergkamp’s had such slim pickings, that every time he’s appeared I’ve prayed for some long overdue magic.

Highbury might’ve looked marvellous on Saturday but strangely the atmosphere appeared even more subdued than usual, until Dennis made his entrance. Then the entire afternoon immediately fell incredibly flat when WBA equalised. Yet this trough only helped to make the wave of ecstasy seem that much more intense, as Dennis conjured up the ‘perfick’ climax by being alert enough to assist with the 2nd and sealing victory with the 3rd, with a trademark Bergkamp curler, which couldn’t possibly have been better scripted.

It would be brilliant if his illustrious career could end on the high-note of a European Cup, but unlike many presumptuous pundits, I honestly believe our semi-final opponents might prove the most formidable hurdle between us and this objective. The plucky Spanish side can play with the freedom of having soared past any expectations and it will require a redoubtable performance on our part, along with a fair share of good fortune.

Some would have it that we might be slightly more determined, without the safety-blanket of a 4th place qualification for next season’s competition. Not to mention the possibility of the ultimate irony in denying Spurs their first taste of European football in donkey’s years. Nevertheless such a perspective wouldn’t have prevented every Gooner from enjoying Man Utd’s victory on Monday. It’s set the scene for an historic derby day in more than one way. What a wind up it will be then for the visitors from White Hart Lane to be making their last trip to Highbury, for their biggest game in an age, only to find that for players and fans alike, hopefully most Gooner minds will be halfway to Paris!

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Saturday 15 April 2006

Tottenham still watching Eastenders...Arsenal going to Villareal!

I am sure that like many other Gooners, I felt that Sky's live coverage of Barca v Villareal last night seemed a far more interesting proposition than Man Utd v Sunderland, with a view to checking out our opposition next week. Even with resting the prolific likes of Riquelme, Forlan, Saurin etc , the Spanish side's performance only confirmed my concerns about the way in which many of the pundits have been talking about our semi-final as if it was a foregone conclusion.

Villareal are certainly not going to be the sort of pushover that some presumptuous footie folk would have us believe and we are going to have to produce the genuine Gunner's goods if we are going to get through to the final. To be perfectly honest, personally I would've preferred to be facing either of the other two footballing giants in the semis, as we've seen this season how we've been capable of raising our game for such high profile, glamorous occasions. What's more, on the basis that we are going to have to beat the big boys at some stage, if we are to finally get grubby Gooner hands on the big eared prize, I'd rather get them out the way sooner, rather than later, as with some of Europe's more mercenary stars, the closer they get to filling their nostrils with the scent of the football's most prestigious prize, the more they might be likely to motivate themselves to perform to the very maximum.

It also occurs to me that none of the mollycoddled main men in the Barca and AC Milan camps would've fancied meeting an in form Gunners side in the semis after witnessing the drama free way in which we disposed of Real and Juve without even breaking much of a sweat. However for the humble Spanish side, it didn't matter which of the teams they met in the semis, as they were going to be underdogs against any of them and in truth, of the three teams, you can be sure their South American strike force will fancy their chances of scoring against our young inexperienced back line, more than they would against the old defensive salts at Milan & Barca

When you consider how much further the lowly Villareal have progressed in this illustrious competition, than absolutely anyone would've expected (did I hear right this evening, that Villareal were a semi-pro side until the early 90s?), including even the most optimistic amongst their own fans, then it follows that they are likely to play with the sort of freedom of a team which has absolutely nothing to lose. Whereas if it's still up for grabs come the second leg, within the tight confines of the less than glamorous surroundings of El Madrigal, there might be some tension amongst the Gunners playing as the outright favourites for a place in the final, against a team we are expected to beat - it seems without even raising a sweat, if you are to believe some of the preposterously imprudent rubbish I've read.

Then again, when you reach this stage of such an arduous and long drawn out tournament and you appreciate the incredibly narrow margins between success and failure, a huge part in whether we are to progress or not, will be down to luck and the fact of whether fate has our name on the one piece of silverware that has to date eluded the inside of an Arsenal trophy cabinet.

It's a shame, as I was hoping that we might have done a whole lot better in the league, against Man Utd and Pompey and if we hadn't dropped what might prove to be a costly five points over the course of these two matches, Le Prof might well have been in a position to give a couple of players a breather today against West Brom. In fact some of those I've spoken to in the past few weeks actually pinpointed today's game, as possibly a suitable occasion for the long-awaited introduction of our lightning quick teenage prodigy.

Having sadly missed getting my first glimpse of young Theo Walcott's first performance in an Arsenal shirt, for the reserves at Underhill, I've been eagerly anticipating an opportunity to see if the starlet lives up to expectations. If it wasn't for the fact that West Brom are still battling for their Premiership lives and we are now becoming a little desperate to grab every last point in the dash to the line for the last Champions League spot, today's game might've been the perfect "end of season" affair, in front of a friendly home crowd, for Walcott to get his first taste of the big stage. Additionally, it would be a great shame for the lad if having arrived at THOF, we end up leaving without him ever getting an opportunity to tread the hallowed Highbury turf.

However Arsène faces some dilemma today. Does he rest players again and risk even further the possibility of relinquishing fourth place (to Spurs of all teams!), in the hope that the same players might appear refreshed, for our massive midweek encounter. I've already expressed my strong feelings about Arsène's failure to always start with our best XI away from home against Utd & Pompey, then he could've substituted the most fatigued if the game had gone our way. If we'd managed to maintain the momentum that had only just begun to build, tiredness would not have been nearly such a pertinent factor, since a winning side will always feel so much more full of beans

And if we'd managed to accrue the four points from the last six that should easily have been within our capabilities (actually I firmly believe that on our day, our current best team should have no problem in blowing their Utd counterparts away), Wenger would've felt far more comfortable about giving a couple of players a breather today.

Meanwhile it wasn't to be and on the other side of the coin, there is a point of view which would suggest that gifting our mortal enemy from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Rd. that highly prized Champions League place, might well prove to be in the Gunners' best interests. Psychologically speaking, it might not be so great to be going into the game against Villareal, with the players thinking that they still have a good chance of securing European football next season, by finishing fourth in the league.

If they believe there's a reasonable chance that we've blown it already, with all our eggs in the one Euro basket there will be no fail-safe and thus our entire squad will be guaranteed of being 100 per cent focused, in such a winner takes all climate, where they’d know that failure would mean no Champions League footie next season. Personally speaking, I am not sure I’d be able to take the pressure, as can you possibly imagine how tense it would be, if we end up reaching the 80th minute at El Madrigal, with the semi-final still on a knife-edge, knowing that defeat might leave us contemplating suicide,, rather than the absolutely unthinkable prospect of having to endure Spurs fans singing “Arsenal watching Eastenders” next season!!!

Whereas, heaven forfend, if we should end up a goal behind, in the 80th minute in Spain, I’d be wondering whether there'd be quite the same level of motivation for players with aching limbs full of lactic acid, to rally themselves for one last, fate-defying onslaught on the Spaniard's goal, if in the back of their minds there’s a feeling that, if the worse should come to worst, they will still be able to smother their immense disappointment in the security blanket of fourth place.

Am I the only sad bugger who sits here pondering every such permutation, surely not? Hopefully we’ll witness the denouement of my ideal scenario this afternoon and after sending out the big guns, we’ll be three-nil up in thirty minutes and while Titi’s taking an early bath, Wenger can introduce Jersey Joe Walcott to the Highbury faithfull. Then in the perfect world Tottenham will get turned over at Goodison, before Man Utd make mincemeat of them on Monday. Thus we can approach Wednesday night feeling so relaxed, that we will roll over the Spaniards and be booking our seats on the Eurotunnel even before the second leg starts.

It would be unbelievably wonderful, although somehow it just wouldn’t be the Arsenal if we didn’t end up finishing this surprisingly exciting season without doing everything the hard way!

Come on you rip roaring Reds
Big Love

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Monday 10 April 2006

A Rainy Day In Manchester

Hi folks

I've been meaning to post this piece for the past few days but to be perfectly frank, after our decidedly unsatisfying trip to Portsmouth (never mind "Play up Pompey" what about "buck up Adebayor!"), listening to the radio on route home there was a caller on one of the phone-ins who succinctly expressed most of what I have to say about Sunday’s match in two poignant comments. Basically he felt Le Gaffer had made a big ricket because its seems fairly obvious that you always play your best XI away from home and I also found myself nodding my head in agreement when this Gooner decreed that momentum is everything.

But since I spent hours typing out pages and pages basically emphasizing these two thoughts, I'm not about to merely trash them and as I was forced to ignore the actual footie in my 100 word diary piece, or wind the Examiner ed up (again) with yet another over-sized effort. So you'll have to forgive me for being unable to resist wasting your bandwidth with this opportunity to opine on the match, with doubtless many of the same sort of comments which have been made by more informed pundits than my humble self.

Apart from the first 20 minutes, we were second best on Sunday. We came out of the traps playing with the same confident verve of recent weeks, but we patently failed to sustain it.

However it's not so much the getting beat that is the bitter pill to swallow, but the fact that we so obviously deserved to get beat which is what I find so hard to accept. Especially when most of us know that on our day we are more than capable of tearing this Man U team to shreds.

Leaving Henry out of the starting line-up wasn't Arsène's only error in my opinion. If it is true that Thierry was physically in need of the rest, then he should have been left out entirely. But if Arsène had it in his head that there might be any likelyhood of playing him, then he should have been in the starting line-up and taken off if the game went our way. Titi is hardly going to show any benefit of not playinh 90 minutes on Sunday, after spending much of the match warming up on the touchline. And despite the fact that he hardly touched the ball when he did come on, you can be sure there was no appreciable difference the amount of fatigue felt when he trudged off the pitch thann if he'd played the whole game.

Sure it's easy being critical with hindsight, but my instincts are that Wenger would've been best doing his utmost to maintain that winning momentum, as a triumphant team doesn't feel anywhere near as tired as the defeated one. Moreoever, just as we were finding the necessary levels of that ephemeral confidence factor for the first time this season, it was important to send out our best possible eleven.

Then again I did a 100 word preview comment on the match for The Observer in which I said that the best evidence of our good form was that same Invincible feeling, when it seemed that no matter who slipped seamlessly into the side, our confidence continued to peak. Yet I don't think this quite applies to our current captain and most crucial Arsenal cog, at least not until the Gooner steam roller has gathered some momentum.

Can you just imagine the expressions of relief on the Utd defenders faces when they heard they weren't having to go up against perhaps the greatest player on the planet on Sunday. If only for the huge boost this must've given to the Utd side, it was a big mistake to leave Thierry on the bench.

Not to mention making Gilberto captain in his place, possibly the least vocal member of our entire squad (not so much on account of his linguistic capabilities but merely because the Brazilian is about the most softly spoken geezer in the entire Gunner's camp. Nor is he a "lead by example" sort, as I hardly recall him throwing himself into the sort of bone-crunching tackles that are required if one is going to insipire ones team mates in this fashion. Personally , after making the fateful decision to leave out Henry, I would've thought it might've been a perfect afternoon to let Phillipe Senderos try out the armband for size. Although perhaps Arsène feels the Swiss lad's confidence might not be sufficiently robust enough as yet to have coped mentally if his first game at the helm hadn't gone our way.

True enough, there certainly isn't a long list of candidates for the captaincy in the current squad, but surely at 25 Kolo has the psychological strength to cope with anything thrown at him and he at least would've been one player to tyr and get his team mates to rally around him by following his own example?

The other ricket Wenger made, which was the one I heard most complaints about from the terraces, was his patent failure to appreciate quite how uncommitted Bobby Pires was in this particular game. Apparently some seem to feel Wenger left Pires on the pitch because he's most atuned to the timing and direction of Thierry's runs.

Henry had some excuse, as we all know how hard it can be to come on in this kind of match and try to immediately pick up the appropriate tone of intensity. But neither of these two musketeers were worth a light on Sunday and to my mind Robert should've been the first player pulled off the pitch because it seemed so incredibly obvious that he wasn't at the races. As just about the most experienced player in an Arsenal shirt, he should've been trying to take this game by the scruff of the neck and impose himself on it, like we all know he's capable of doing.

Instead of which, all bloomin' afternoon, he constantly passed off his responsibility, laying the ball off to the likes of Fabregas and even then, we witnessed several of Robert's relatively simple short passes going astray because of his lack of focus. In fact if I am not mistaken it was Le Bob letting the game pass him by in the build up to Utd's second goal, as we endured another episode of the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, as far as the tackling Pires who took the ball of Vieira for the first against Juve, was concerned. Or perhaps more accurately, sadly it was "normal service resumed" for an anonymous Robbie!

It would be easy to point the finger of blame at our two central defenders for a decidedly off day at the office as far as Phillip & Kolo were concerned. Then again an in form Wayne Rooney is capable of getting goal side of any defender. What's more I can't help but have some sympathy with Senderos. I've seen a couple of comments in recent weeks from those in the now who've confirmed that there's absolutely no specific defensive coaching at London Colney. When Senderos has a mare like he did yesterday against Rooney and a few months back against Drogba, I would like to think of him going back to the training ground and getting drilled incessantly until he could mark either of them in his sleep.

Yet it would appear Arsène doesn't do any work with the defenders. It seems that once they make the first team at THOF, they're expected to already know their trade inside out. But our current makeshift set up with it's young average age must still have loads to learn from the art of defending and would surely benefit from working with someone like Steve Bould who could pass on a career's worth of tricks of the centre back trade?

I'll never forget having this discussion with Frank Mclintock. Apparently Don Howe's sergeant major style hullabaloo wasn't really compatible with Arsène's zen approach to football. But back when our defence was on the rocks, Mclintock was confident Howe would have them sorted after a mere few training sessions (the club should never really have let Howe go, as he has such a passion for the Gunners, that I'm pretty sure he'd have been happy to stay on in any sort of capacity and you just cannot buy the sort of effect Howe's infectious enthusiasm is capable of having on impressionable youngsters). I still had a bruise to show for it a few days later, after Frank gave me a physical demonstration how they remain touch tight to the attacker they were marking in their day. Mclintock may be knocking on a bit but you can still feel his wiry strength transmitted through his touch and he gave me such a dig in the ribs, that when someone else asked him the same question some minutes later, I couldn't jump out of the way quick enough, before I got another dig as his practice dummy.

Surely the only way our inexperienced defenders can learn from their mistakes to the point where they've been ironed out of their game completely, is if they have someone to show them the right way? But then what do I know!

Meanwhile even if our two centre-backs were somewhat culpable with both goals, as far as I am concerned it was our midfield where the battle was lost in this game. Not only was their contribution going forward so insignificant that the limited number of chances created by Van Persie all had to be snatched from relatively long range, but the graft and grit across the middle of the park was so lightweight that our defence was left looking exposed by the lack of protection they were offered.

Many reckon Fabregas is battling through the pain barrier to play for 90 minutes. Since Cesc has been the engine at the heart of virtually all our creative efforts in midfield in recent times, it would seem that Wenger doesn't have the luxury of giving him the rest which would enable his bumps and bruises to clear up, or for Fab to replenish his energy banks. So while Fab buzzed away at the beginning of the match, he soon faded. Proof of this and how dependent we've become on the youngster was evident in how very little we created up front for the majority of the match.

I heard Hleb take some stick from Gooners around me as is usually the case, but he was also busy at the beginning of the game. Yet even if he faded I would've left him on in preference to pulling Pires off. It seems to me that Hleb's biggest problem is that when he does get anywhere on one of his mazy runs, after doing all the hard work, he seems clueless about what to do once he reaches the penalty area. Hopefully the coolness of thought necessary in the heat of battle is a facet to Alexandre's game which will improve as his understanding with his team mates grows.

However I struggle to recall Hleb helping Eboué out by tackling back down our right flank and sadly our midfield enforcer had one of his more fey games, dangling a limp leg out, when you'd be expecting our captain to be clattering the opposition up in the air. To highlight Gilberto's lack of suitability as captain, you only have to compare the laid-back Brazilian with Chelsea's whole-hearted John Terry.

It's no wonder that Fabregas is completely knackered when he's having to produce all the graft and the guile, as the likes of Pires and Gilberto keep laying the ball off and expecting the young legs of our Spanish prodigy to make all the running.

The other problem with bringing on Thierry late on was that with everyone around him flagging, it was always going to be hard for Henry to pick up any momentum. However it's obvious that with nine games in a month (compared to Utd's 6 or Spurs' 5!) Arsène is going to have to make use of our squad but I would've been a lot happier at the thought of him bringing the likes of Diaby and Djourou into a winning team

After blowing three points on Sunday, the importance of Wednesday's game is magnified and we'll soon find out which of the Arsenal players are prepared to put themselves on the line to seure fourth place. Although there is a side to me that can't help but wonder what a sweet irony it would be if Spurs qualified for the Champions League for the first time ever, only to be thwarted by us actually winning the bloody thing!'

A Rainy Day In Manchester

It’s been some years since I last travelled on an organised day trip to a European game. Sitting watching the quarterfinal draw with 6 pages of notes, listing all possible permutations of cheap flights, I let out a squeal of delight when we drew Juve, as I knew I’d already found 25 quid returns on Ryanair. However although I was making my booking before the ball had come to rest, these seats had already soared to £140 and even when I tried to confirm them, I got an error message telling me to try later, as the web site was too busy.

I’ve had two 75 quid compensation vouchers for a cock-up in Copenhagen, sitting in a drawer since 1994. Sadly an almost free trip with the Travel Club didn’t quite materialise, as they’d only let me use one at a time. So it was that I set off for Stansted at 6am last Wednesday. Yet it appears I’m no longer fit for such arduous outings. Even after finding a hotel in Turin, to crash out in for a couple of hours that afternoon, by the time I found my seat at the Stadio Delle Alpi I was seriously flagging.

Still there was noise enough in that vast arena to prevent me from nodding off and I found the 0-0 fare quite satisfying. I would’ve never dreamed the Arsenal’s inexperienced ship capable of lasting the entire night without springing a single leak, against such distinguished opposition. In truth we prevailed over more of a toothless bag lady than the illustrious Old Lady of Turin, as demonstrated by the far sterner test of our defensive credentials at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Nevertheless as the exhausted Gooner army clambered aboard our return flight on Wednesday night, there remained only one team in Europe and it was well worth schlepping North this weekend, if only to remind a record crowd of Moaners of this inescapable fact.

It’s aptly labelled the Theatre of Dreams, as the decibels appear to drop in inverse proportion to the ever-increasing amount of punters. It takes Wayne Rooney at his rampant best to raise the energy levels inside this swollen stadium. Instead of “70,000 muppets”, a more appropriate taunt might be “70,000 insomniacs”. This would certainly sound less offensive than the rhythmic “DVD” tease every time the poor Korean, Park, trotted down our wing (although ashamed as I am, it did tickle me) - I don’t know if it’s quite so commonplace to hear Oriental dealers of dodgy DVDs touting their wares in Ireland, as it is in many a shop car park over here?

I bid farewell to some mates as we boarded the plane in Turin, for fear I might be falling into the arms of Morpheus on the way out of the airport at t’other end. When I confirmed to them that I was going to the game on Sunday, a small bag of grass was shoved into my hand, for me to take with me to Old Trafford. Real grass I might add, swiped from the clippings of the hallowed Bernabeu playing surface. A sample of which had travelled to every subsequent success filled game.

However my appearance might be deemed somewhat more bohemian than the previous bearer of this Gooner ‘obeah’ and so their reassurance that they’d had no trouble passing through customs with this tiny package of pseudo contraband, didn’t really cut any ice!

Moreover with my tardy habits I didn’t really fancy finding myself singularly responsible for conceding an early goal on Sunday because this essential talisman and I were still stuck in traffic on the M6. In light of what actually transpired, I would’ve happily settled for such a surmountable drama.

Since my pal Stuart took charge of Sunday’s travel arrangements, we headed out of London with loads of time. However unfortunately one of our number turned out to be totally allergic to travelling North of Watford. At first I thought his puffed cheeks and waving hands were merely an enquiry as to who had ‘cut the cheese’ in the front seat. But thankfully I translated his signals just in the nick of time for an emergency stop on the hard shoulder and a huge technicolored yawn.

Poor George spent the remainder of the journey hanging out of the window, heaving his guts out. We diplomatically diagnosed travel sickness, as it seemed somewhat insensitive to suggest he’d fallen ‘tom & dick’ only seconds after consuming roast-beef sandwiches, lovingly made by his own Ma.

Our day didn’t get any better as we got caught in an April snow blizzard on our way into Old Trafford. Whatever lurgy had afflicted him, George seemed to settle down for the duration of the game. Then again there were a couple of thousand Gooners feeling sick to the stomach, when first Wayne, and then Park wrote off any chance of a good result. However he again deteriorated rapidly as we departed Manchester and spent most of the return journey either writhing around in his seat, or with his head hanging out the window.

Eventually we stopped at some services on the M6, to try and get some medicine and hot water into him. Now if ever a paltry football match was put into proper perspective it was then. As I stood queuing for coffee Stuart appeared from the karsey to inform me that our sick as a parrot pal had just received a phone call with the news that a close mate had been killed on his motorbike that very afternoon. It may sound inhumane and I hope this is not being read by any of the deceased’s kith or kin, but the two of us just couldn’t stop ourselves from bursting into a fit of involuntary giggles at all this g-d awful tragedy.

After taking him to A & E on our return, poor George was admitted immediately and after spending the night in hospital; he was diagnosed with a particularly excruciating gastric bug. He’d been seemingly at death’s door the night before and lost a much-loved mate. So a mere 0-2 defeat to Man U was small potatoes. As for the grass, I guess I’ll be sticking that in my pipe and smoking it!

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Tuesday 4 April 2006

Ooh To, Ooh To Be, Ooh To Be A Gooner!

Hi folks

I received a comment on my blog from someone who said that my posts are so long that they've never yet managed to finish one on them. So for the benefit of Sourena, I will try to keep this preamble short & sweet (yeh and some of those porkers from Jimmy's Farm have just passed their pilot's license :-). Although to be honest, considering how I've prattled on in previous months when we've been playing so pony, with my verbal diahorrea, it's hard not to wax lyrical when we're conjuring up some of the most sublime footie we've seen all season!

I watched Spurs play WBA last week and it occured to me afterwards that the Lillywhites efforts were so unimpressive that if we can't finish above Spurs then we really don't deserve Champions League footie. Then again most of those poor fatalistic fools from the wrong end of Seven Sisters Road that I've spoken to, they all seem to think they've long since blown any chance they might've had of finishing above us. If you compare the sensational footie seen at THOF on Saturday to the performances of any of the teams supposedly challenging us for that priceless fourth place (albeit that Blackburn have yet to play), based on current form (and the assumption we can maintain it), then surely it's a foregone conclusion?

It was like slipping back into a favourite pair of ones most comfortable shoes on Saturday, as the easy air with which we went about slaughtering Villa with such simplistic grace, came as reassuring confirmation that results against the Fulham, Scousers and Charlton weren't just positive blips like the one against Boro, in a season beset with abysmal inconsistency.

I don't want to speak to soon but our makeshift back four is looking anything but makeshift and suddenly we look every bit as capable of the sort of astonishing feats of a couple of seasons back, with the added bonus of the variation of Van Persie and Adebayor up front and the energy levels and enthusiasm of a squad with a far younger average age.

I heard one of the pundits on the box bemoaning the possibly loss of Cesc and Manny in Turin because apparently our squad doesn't really have the depth to cope with injuries to key personel. Personally I'd love to retain the current back line and believe it would be wrong if the likes of Campbell and Cole were automatically returned to the first team, since it would be very harsh on Flamini, Eboué, Senderos or Kolo if they were dropped and those returning from fitness need to bide their time on the bench and battle to earn a place back in the starting line-up. However although I've highlighted below my concerns about the knocks our two young starlets picked up on Saturday , for me personally, the evidence that this team is really on fire, comes by way of the same feeling we had when the Invincibles were at their peak, in as much as you get this sense that the enite squad is interchangeable and to a large extent, no matter who drops out injured, or who comes in to replace them, the confidence levels remain the same.

We saw this on Saturday, with the absolutely seamless substitution of Diaby for Fabregas and to a lesser extent when Johan Djourou replaced Manny Eboué. While as a centre back by trade, the Swiss youngster might not offer nearly so much in attack, there was never any feeling of vulnerability down our right flank.

In some respects if we'd started out the season in this sensational fashion we would be far too blasé about it by now, but having endured the worst season so far of Wenger's tenure to date, it was evident from the expressions of faces at THOF as we began to turn it on this weekened, just how appreciative we are to see our side back in the bloom of health

Finally (Sourena will be glad to read!) just FYI, the lass, Triziam, who I've referred to below is the Chelsea fan who wroted the adjacent column in the Irish Examiner, along with Richard Kurt, the Moaner and Stephen Kelly, the Scouser and none of whose sides can hold a candle to the Gunners based on current form

Assuming I make my flight on Wednesday morning and arrive at the stadium in sufficient time to get into the ground that night (in light of the OTT security checks which are supposed to follow the necessity to produce our passports when collecting our tickets at THOF!), I will be sure to give a big shout for all of you who can't make it to Italy as hopefully we set about reading the last rites to the Old Lady of Turin

Come on you Reds
Peace & Love

Ooh To, Ooh To Be, Ooh To Be A Gooner!

I pray that the alarm will have permeated my consciousness and prised me from my pit, so that by the time this diary piece appears in the Irish Examiner, I'ill be winging my way to Turin. I’ll have no one to blame but myself, if I should oversleep and miss my crack of dawn departure. However if the Arsenal somehow end up shooting themselves in the foot in the Stadio Delle Alpi, personally I’ll be pointing an accusatory finger at Oisin Langan. My brief chat with the Newstalk106 radio host was pre-recorded; otherwise I might’ve pulled him up on Sunday afternoon, for the flippant way in which he tempted fate by “absolutely guaranteeing” that the Gunners would go through.

Lest we forget, Fabio Capello is the cunning old fox who created Italy’s own “Invincibles”, the all-conquering AC Milan side of Baresi and Maldini, that remained undefeated for a season and a half. Juve’s ingenious gaffer certainly won’t have given up the ghost. In his efforts to knock Arsène’s relatively inexperienced side off their stride, the old bugger is bound to try every trick in the book and a few more beside, having sleeves positively stuffed with the chicanery he’s picked up from challenging for the big-eared prize for much of the past fifteen years

Undoubtedly the Italian media will’ve already written off their domestic champions’ European chances. So we definitely don’t want to be gifting their manager with any more motivational tools, such as Oisin’s cavalier counting of our semi-final chickens, with which Capello could inspire a miraculous comeback.

I’m led to believe that the fact that European matches aren’t included in the Italian’s season tickets is one of the principal reasons for poor attendances. They often get an embarrassing turnout at the enormous Stadio Delle Alpi and with a 2 goal deficit, there’s likely to be even less locals there than usual. Thus my greatest concern is that the Gunners might be lulled into a false sense of security, when they witness the vast expanses of empty concrete terracing in this cavernous arena. They might think they’ve already done all the hard work and I’m wondering whether they’re going to struggle to fire themselves up in front of such a feeble audience.

Juve’s stadium was absolutely deserted for our last anti-climactic encounter in 2002. I was amongst the thousands of Gooners who’d made plans to travel to Turin in advance, assuming the last group game between us would be a glamorous, high-octane affair. It turned out to be the exact opposite. Bottom of the group, Juve were already out of the competition and sent out a reserve team. While we had a feint chance of qualifying, if Depor could do us a favour against Bayer Leverkusen. But the Spanish side also sent out a second string, as they’d already qualified for the quarterfinals. In a match devoid of any atmosphere, I spent much of the 90 trying to translate the score coming from the Riazor on my radio, since it didn’t really matter what went on in front of us unless Leverkusen lost.

I recall a bit of a buzz, when we heard that Depor had brought on the big guns after going 2 goals down. But any glimmer of hope when Tristan got one back, was soon snuffed out when Zalayeta, a complete unknown sub for Juve, scored the only goal of an entirely miserable game.

We had a much happier trip to Northern Italy for the 2nd leg of the Cup Winners Cup quarterfinal in 1994 against Torino, when we took a typical ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ to Turin . The stadium was still half-empty, but at least the city’s second team attracted a relatively respectable sized audience. I’ve got some fabulous photos of the fusillade of flares which the Torino fans ignited on the terrace behind one goal and if I remember correctly with the resulting cloud of smoke, it was 10 minutes into the match before it subsided sufficiently to be able to the pitch clearly.

I’d bite your hand off for a repeat of the 0-0 shut out we achieved that night to reach the semi-final of this now defunct competition. However Wenger’s sides just aren’t designed to sit back and grind out a clean sheet. Obviously there’s likely to be a natural tendency for the Gunners not to be too ambitious, but it’s going to be a very long night if we sit back and try to soak up pressure for the entire 90 minutes, while Juve regain their confidence.

Really I’d like to see us capitalize on the respect we earned in the 1st leg and go for their throats, but in truth this just ain’t gonna happen. Hopefully the 2 goal deficit will mean that Juve can’t afford to play their customary waiting game, patiently expecting to pinch a goal at some stage. As the clock ticks away and they grow increasingly desperate to get on the scoresheet, they should leave themselves increasingly exposed to being hit on the counter-attack, especially with all our pace out on the expanses of their wide pitch.

My feeling is that if we can make it past the 20 minute mark without conceding the goal that would undoubtedly raise the home team’s hopes and their spirits, Juve’s task could appear increasingly impossible and perhaps their heads will begin to drop. Yet unlike Oisin, as the eternal pessimist and with the likely return of the mercurial talents of Nedved and Del Piero (while we face doubts over the fitness of Fabregas and Eboué) as far as I am concerned nothing is guaranteed until we nail home the lid on the Old Lady’s coffin with that crucial away goal.

The closer we get to an elusive European crown, the more I begin to wonder whether our name might be on the trophy. But by daring to believe, the more disappointed I’d be if we were to fall at the last couple of fences. In truth I want the one missing trophy from the Arsenal’s illustrious list of honours, so the rest of the footballing world can acknowledge, what every Gooner already knows to be true, that Arsène Wenger walks on water.

When you consider the sort of pragmatic, conservative tactics necessary to achieve Champions League success in recent times, it would be wonderful if Wenger could prove capable of scaling such heights with his purist form of footballing entertainment. Additionally there’d be more than a little satisfaction to seeing a huge shadow cast over Chelsea’s domestic glory for a second successive season.

Yet while I wouldn’t admit it to Trizia, it’s league success that’s the litmus test of the consistency necessary of truly great sides. However far football, fate and good fortune (remember FC Thun!) take us in the clash of the Continental titans, Saturday’s slaughter of Aston Villa was further evidence of the halo effect on our Premiership form.

It’s not just the huge growth in the young Gunners’ stature, which we’ve witnessed in recent weeks. Sure as they begin to gel as a unit and with the rampant surge in confidence and team-spirit that’s resulted, as we’ve run riot in recent weeks against the best players on the planet, they’ve developed a presence on the pitch, which just wasn’t able to blossom previously despite their obvious ability. ,

Yet perhaps more importantly, with the return of the swagger which comes with beating the likes of Real, suddenly we’ve regained the respect of those opponents who are now afraid to get in our faces, for fear of being made to look foolish and are instead allowing themselves that crucial yard of thinking space that gives us room to play the sort of flair football we’ve been prevented from producing for much of the season.

It’s all a matter of perception, as we are once again perceived by our opponents as a force to be reckoned with; instead of a side full of boys who could merely be muscled off the ball. To be honest it’s a huge relief that the good times appear to be back at Highbury with such a vengeance, both in terms of encouraging Henry that he’s hardly likely to have more fun on a football pitch elsewhere and so that we can see the Home of Football off in such fine style.

While in one corner of the Clock End on Saturday, the dejected Villa fans were pleading with us “please take O’Leary back”, the Gooner choir behind the goal once again enquired “have you ever seen Chelsea play like this?” The Blues might be umpteen points ahead of us but after watching them limp towards the finish line earlier that same afternoon, I know which of the two teams floats my beautiful game boat.

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