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Monday 14 August 2006

Bring It On

Hail fellow Gooners well met,

After umpteen seasons slaving away over these diary missives, it becomes an ever more strenuous struggle to avoid repeating the same sentiments ad infinitum and for me to come up with anything interesting, or original. Often at this time of the year, me and my fragile ego end up sitting here wondering if anyone would really notice if I stopped mailing out my long-winded, weekly posts

in this particular instance I was feeling somewhat embarrassed. After churning out my diary entries week after week, including several pages on a trifling Coca Cola Cup trip to Doncaster, it's hard to believe that I've yet to transcribe my experience of perhaps the two most significant games in the entire history of the Arsenal. In truth I couldn't possibly do justice to the last game at Highbury and our first ever Champions League final, within the limitations of my Irish Exmaner column. So I've spent the months since May waiting for a moment when I had sufficient time and enthusiasm to produce something of the sort both occasions merited. Thus for someone who, if procrastination was an international sport, I'd be England captain, naturally I've not got around to doing it....yet!

However if ever there was a start to an Arsenal season with a wealth of original topics for me to babble on about, this is it. Thus doubtless I've infuriated the Examiner sports ed by filing the piece below which is twice as long as required. But just about the only reason I'm sitting here now, adding a diary entry to my blog and sending my piece out online, is a direct result of an e-mail I received from my good pal Fred Merrill, or at least he is now, since he wrote to enquire as to why I hadn't begun my weekly missives, as he was missing his regular fix.

If it wasn't for Fred, I would've probably started writing my Examiner pieces and childishly avoided mailing them out, until someone mentioned the matter to me, thereby massaging my ego sufficiently for me to feel that someone was reading my efforts. Otherwise it begins to feel like I am talking to myself and we all know what that means :-)

Peace & Love

Bring It On!

Róna never fails to be amazed by my ability to be entertained by twenty-two men and a ball. She once enquired if I could sit and watch football around the clock. In light of all the awful abominations that we’re confronted with, on a day-to-day basis, on this cockamamie planet, I could quite easily seek permanent refuge in the escapist pleasures of the beautiful game.

I’m no great fan of international footie. Yet this didn’t stop me from watching just about every single encounter in Germany this summer, including a 3rd and 4th place playoff, where a flustered Gary Lineker was forced to gainsay Martin O’Neill, to try and salvage the half-time viewing figures, as the refreshingly frank pundit pondered what on earth any of us were doing watching such an utterly meaningless match.

However since the moment the final whistle blew on the World Cup, I’ve hardly glanced at a back page, or kept myself abreast of any of the boundless transfer gossip. Admittedly, for the past month or so, we’ve had the distraction of the horrific, but nonetheless compelling, wall-to-wall live coverage of the war in the Middle East. There’s a certain sense of ghoulish voyeurism, watching live pictures of the projectiles flying through the smoke filled sky, knowing they might be about to inflict death and destruction on some unsuspecting victims. Yet it’s all the more compelling viewing for those of us who can only try to empathise with friends and family, cowering in the bomb shelters.

Pre-occupied with war, cricket and athletics, I was asked for some Premiership predictions the other day, when it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have a ‘scooby’ about any of the summer dealings. Perhaps it’s a subconscious soccer safety valve to guard against overkill, as from the moment I tuned into Sunday’s Charity Shield, I was transfixed. It didn’t matter that this wasn’t the Arsenal; my eyes were glued to the screen, like a greedy addict who’d been starved of his footballing fix.

Obviously we were amongst the 54,000 excited Gooners who descended on our grandiose new ground a couple of weeks back, delighted to have the long summer months of soccer sobriety interrupted by Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial We’d all received a computer print-out of the virtual view, when purchasing our season tickets, but I was incredibly anxious to experience the real thing.

Mercifully there’s a couple of large club crests adorning the concrete walls, in addition to the enormous neon signage, obsequiously branding the stadium in the name of our new sponsors (and if I spend the seasons to come conjuring up all sorts of contrivances to avoid calling our new ground by its given name, it’s because sadly I’ve nothing to gain by giving this Arabic airline even more advertising space!).

Driving past the building site at least a couple of times every day, I was delighted to discover that the most conspicuous finishing touches included an enormous “Arsenal” in six foot concrete letters that I assume is designed to stop fans spilling out off the South Bridge, onto the road. However since it appears that away fans will be entering from this end of Drayton Park, even if they remain undamaged, the pristine white surface is a positive invitation to visiting graffiti artists.

Additionally the two long black cast-iron canons at the base of the steps to the main entrance in Hornsey Road, are perhaps my favourite touch, as just about the only connection to the club’s historic origins, in an otherwise totally modernistic landscape. Nevertheless one can’t fail to be impressed on approaching this imposing agglomeration of concrete, steel and glass. It’s a leviathan landmark, that’s landed on the Highbury skyline like a Star Wars spaceship, hollering out its credentials as a stage that befits a footballing superpower.

Having timed our walk, I was happy to discover that we need only leave home ten minutes before KO, instead of five. Yet as our route takes us past our beloved old home, doubtless there’ll be mixed emotions in the months ahead, as we watch the builders develop the site into a sordid piece of prime real estate (although I’m sure it wouldn’t be nearly so painful if one of the £250,000 apartments wasn’t so far from our all too shallow pockets?).

Believe it or not, along with everyone else, we turned up early for once, expecting mayhem to ensue at the unmanned turnstiles. I recall the inaugural Premiership game at Man City’s new ground, where we had to queue for duplicates because our tickets hadn’t turned up in the post. One of the stewards wandering along the lengthy lines, reprogramming tickets with a handheld gadget, told us an amusing tale of how the queues were bolstered by all the bozos who’d held their tickets up to the electronic reader at the turnstile and in turning to their pals to marvel at the wonders of modern technology, they’d managed to miss their 20 second window!

However astonishingly there was no such aggro at our new gaff, as everyone gained entry to the ground like clockwork, leaving all the more time to relieve us of the entire contents of our wallets for refreshments, with beer at an extortionate £3.20 a pint, burgers 4 quid and a barmy 7 quid for a burger meal (+ chips and a coke)!

Traditionally the first day of the new season feels like a family reunion, turning up after all those years, hoping that neither of the two old buggers behind us have popped their clogs and scanning all the familiar faces for signs of any new intruders. Whereas, having swapped our posh West Upper pitch, to sit near the halfway line with the East Lower hoopleheads (for less than half the price!), by contrast Dennis’ testimonial felt like the awkward first day at a new school.

Everyone was looking around, nervously sizing up their new neighbours, bearing in mind that you might be sharing the most emotional highs & lows with these strangers for umpteen years to come. While I tried to break in the family in front of us gently, dampening down the decibel level for a match where the result didn’t really matter, I wonder how enamoured they’ll be with me, after their lugholes have endured 90 lung busting minutes of my bellowing on Saturday?

Although money, or the lack thereof, had been the principle motivation for our move, after being in such close proximity to the pitch for all those years, we didn’t fancy paying such a fortune for upper tier seats that were so far removed from the action. Yet having discovered at the Member’s Day shindig that the upper level wasn’t quite so distant as I’d imagined, not that we really had a choice, but I’d been fretting ever since about our decision to swap.

In a perfect world I would’ve plumped for a little more elevation. But we couldn’t have seats further back, without moving away from the halfway line. In truth, with the marvelous sightlines in these modern stadia, there isn’t a bad seat in the house and we were both delighted to discover that we’re amazingly close to the action. We’re close enough to the pitch to truly feel the force of an earth shuddering challenge before us. What’s more I now have even more cause to delude myself that I might be able to influence play, either with my constant stream of encouragement, or by my efforts to intimidate the linesman.

It was also a pleasant surprise when we turned around and discovered we were in hailing distance of a couple of our old West Upper pals, who’ve stumped up a whopping £19 grand to sit amongst the Gucci Gooners in the front row of Club Level. Any feelings of envy were eased by the thought that for £38 per match, we’ll be sitting on the exact same seats, with the same luxurious amount of leg room (compared to most every other stadium), only the diameter of a centre circle away from those who might be more than a little miffed to watch a dull 0-0 draw for a jaw-dropping £183!

In addition to the absence of any sort of timepiece, the most common complaint was that there isn’t a single Arsenal motif in evidence anywhere inside the stadium - intimidating or otherwise! If it wasn’t for the predominant use of red (seats and walls) and the info on the two giant screens, you could be absolutely anywhere. Hopefully this will have been rectified when Saturday comes, so that as a prelude to a 3 or 4 goal drubbing, visitors will be in no doubt that they are about to be demolished by the mighty Arsenal.

Meanwhile setting aside all my concerns that the support of the vast majority of us mug punters is to be taken for granted (so what else is new?), inside a mammoth machine that’s specifically designed for milking the corporate cash cow with maximum efficiency, I’m praying that the most influential statistic about the new stadium will prove to be the additional 48 square meters of playing surface.

For us fans, it’s going to take some time and the acquisition of some history and a few good memories, before it begins to feel like home. The only similarity with Highbury is the snooker baize like turf at new stadium’s heart. It remains to be seen whether this beats with the same regularity, without the palpitations of new stadium-itis that’s afflicted other sides subsequent to a move. Consequently the first couple of games could prove to be more crucial than ever.

So long as Wenger’s youthful team can remain in contention until such time as they begin to feel less like the visitors at Ashburton Grove, than our opponents, then we could be in for an exciting season ahead. Having escaped the incredibly tight confines of Highbury, where it was so hard to break down opponents with limited ambitions, playing with eleven men behind the ball, with all our pace and youthful vigour, we could prove an entirely different proposition on our new pitch, if we can take full advantage of the additional 6 meters in width and 8 meters in length.

I might not have had my ear to the floor this past month but despite the fact that the competition has been splashing the cash, I very much doubt Wenger’s lack of transfer activity has resulted in any unrest. In all honesty most Gooners are still basking in the glow of Thierry Henry’s contract renewal. Embittered Spurs fans aside, is there another player in this country whose decision to continue to grace the Premiership would’ve received such unanimous approval?

Personally I won’t be unhappy if we should end up getting Gallas for Ashley Cole. Ever since some labeled Cole as “the best left-back in the world”, he was no longer the hungry youngster with everything to prove. Whereas in his role as a utility player, I felt that Gallas’ ability as a centre-back was under appreciated by Mourinho, It'd therefore be ironic if he arrived at the Arsenal, only to be asked to fill in at left-back.

In the protracted row over the amount of recompense, some suggest both clubs are waiting for the other to blink. But considering the level of animosity that exists between all parties and Chelsea’s peerless purchasing power, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re toying with us, in the hope that Wenger ends up missing out on his targets.

I’m amazed Real are quite so keen to acquire Jose Reyes. Wenger’s supposed exclusive interest in Baptista last summer must’ve waned in the interim, as apparently he’s been offered his choice of either ‘the Beast’ or Robinho. Perhaps Madrid feel they can make better use of Jose’s ability, by getting him to hare down the wing and whip in crosses from the byeline as he does for the national team. Whereas Reyes ineffectiveness in an Arsenal shirt has resulted from his dreadful decision making and his inability to raise his head whilst running.

Basically the winger is woefully short on brainpower but then Robert Pires isn’t the brightest spark but this didn’t prevent him from perceiving the most effective use of the ball, by picking out an incisive pass. I was sad to see Pires go, as despite his advancing years and an apparent lack of motivation, players of his calibre, capable of coming off the bench and influencing a match in a single move, are few and far between.

Myself I will be pleasantly surprised if we recoup anywhere near the ridiculous fee we paid for Reyes. There’s a consensus of Gooner opinion that believes Wenger’s only interested in the readies because they’ve already been earmarked for Ribery. Myself I wonder whether the diminutive midfielder possesses the necessary strength and desire to be able to create the time and space necessary to produce all his trickery, amidst the frenetic and physical climate of the Premiership. However it’s begun to look less likely that we’re going to find out. It would appear that Ribery seriously pissed off Marseille and their fans with a surprise, live TV statement about his imminent departure.

Surely Marseille can’t be planning to keep the lad if he’s intent on leaving. Thus on the face of it, it would seem as if it was a bizarre act of spite to bring Ribery off the bench for the last 20 mins of their UEFA Cup qualification match v Berne, thereby ensuring the midfielder is cup tied. I’ve yet to discern whether this is for the entire season, or only until the spring, since some seem to think he could play for another club in the last 16 of the Champions League? Whatever the case, as far as Marseille are concerned, it’s as if they’ve been prepared to wipe a few million Euros off Ribery’s value, merely to impose their will and demonstrate their ultimate control over the player’s destiny!

Watching Sunday’s Charity Shield, myself I’d love to have a midfield enforcer of the calibre of Sissoko, who’s impressed me ever since his first performance against us. As for more creative players, the ridiculously inflated cost of Michael Carrick is a succinct explanation of the dearth of British players in Wenger’s squad. It’s hard to believe that after a couple of seasons in which Carrick hasn’t exactly set the Premiership alight, Spurs have sold him for almost 7 times the amount they paid West Ham. However I’ve not stopped seething over the fact that we could’ve acquired Carrick for relative peanuts compared to the £18.6 mil.coughed up by Fergie..

I’ve never forgotten the fact that, according to Harry Redknapp, Carrick was on his way from West Ham to Pompey until we supposedly scuppered the deal by expressing our interest. Arsène was desperate to plug the gaping hole that was about to be left in his midfield by Patrick Vieira’s imminent departure. But we made the mistake of persuading Paddy to stay for another season and within the space of 24 hours, Carrick was suddenly surplus to our requirements.

After having reigned supreme, at least in North London for the last 30 years, it’s been hard enough having to endure the fact that under Martin Jol, Spurs have finally managed to mount a serious challenge to our dominance, with the aid of Michael Carrick. Personally I’m inclined to agree with those who believe the Scousers are the team most likely to threaten Chelsea’s dominance over our domestic league this season. It’s hard to argue with Liam Mackey’s contention that the Blues might take their eye off the Premiership ball, as they concentrate on the Champions League. However I can’t imagine how galling it will feel, if a Carrick inspired Man Utd make all the running and manage to snuff out our own threat.

However I’ve always loathed this prediction malarkey and the possibility of making a complete fool of myself. So as the Arsenal commence a season unlike any other in our entire history, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m even more reticent than usual ( that's an oxymoron if ever I heard one!!), as I reserve judgement until I’ve witnessed which way the Premiership cookie crumbles over the first couple of games.