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Wednesday 23 August 2006

New Stadium-itis v New Manager-itis

Hi folks

It was a strange walking along Gillespie Road past the Arsenal tube on Saturday, after all these years and seeing the huge hordes heading in the opposite direction to usual. Having been fortunate enough to secure a couple of extra tickets, we met up with a mate who was over on holiday from France and who was bringing his thrilled to bits 12-year-old boy, a Marseille fan, to the match.

Heading along Drayton Park, to the South Bridge, for the obligatory photo opportunity in front of the concrete "Arsenal" letters and seeing the stadium through this youngster's eyes, there's no doubt that it's an imposing arena and a setting that befits some of the best players on the planet - mind you, I’d caught Le Championat round up on Channel 5 a couple of days prior and witnessing the wonderful talents of Ribery and Niang in Marseille’s win over Rennes, you could hardly label this kid’s footballing education as deprived!.

However hard as I try, I am struggling to fall in love with the new place. Obviously it will take time, but I can't ever imagine having the same emotional attachment to this concrete and glass footballing cathedral, as I did with Highbury. It'd not just the size of the place, as those of us who are long enough in the tooth will recall regular 60,000 plus crowds at Highbury in its pre-all seater heyday and I'm sure that in time the new gaff will grow on me. But compared to the glorious, art deco individuality of the Gunners' old home, I can't escape this sense that the new place is nothing short of an extremely functional, gargantuan cash register.

Thankfully the long queues at turnstile J at ten to three didn't prevent us making it to our seats for kick-off. I’m not sure if it was a coincidence, but the bloke behind us in the queue had flown in from Sligo that morning and I’m grateful to him for revealing that we not only didn't have to struggle with the onerous task of sliding our membership cards out of the very tight plastic pouch in our red wallets, but that you don't even have to open the wallet itself, when shoving it onto the bar code reader on entering the turnstile. Thus the convenient discovery that one can get the green light to enter merely by shoving the closed wallet into the gadget was a pleasant surprise. Doubtless I will spend the weeks to come, smugly telling everyone in front of me the same!

What I find most ironic is that obviously this extremely modern, unmanned, computerised entry system must have cost a small fortune and yet, after having stumped up for this state of the art entry system technology, that’s made the old-fashioned turnstile operators redundant, the club are still having to fork out for an employee to stand at every single entrance, to advise us foolish folk how to use it!

The match kicked off just as we took our seats and usually, from the first whistle, I'd have an almost blinkered focus on the proceedings on the pitch. However I know from those I've spoken to since, that I wasn't alone in finding it hard to concentrate. I guess the importance of a single Premiership match (even the very first one of the season) pales into insignificance, compared to what are still (in spite of Dennis' testimonial) my first impressions of the seats from which I might well end up watching the vast majority of my football, until such time as I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Having reacquainted myself with the faces of those in my immediate vicinity, my new Gooner neighbours, I found it hard to prevent my mind wandering, wondering about the whereabouts of all those people who've been such an integral part of my Arsenal world for so many seasons past.

Due to the swap which has seen us join the ranks of the new Highbury’s lower tier hoopleheads (as a big fan of the HBO TV series “Deadwood”, while I won’t sink so low as to employ c***sucker as a universal adjective, you’ll have to forgive me if some of the far more marvellously descriptive language finds its way into my vocabulary), for less than half the price that we were previously paying for our privileged upper tier pitches, there aren’t any familiar faces in the vicinity of our new seats.

This makes for a very uncomfortable, first day at school feeling, but I guess apart from those who chose their seats all together in a large group, it’s the same for the vast majority of us. Prior to the move, I’d spent most every home match amidst the exact same couple of hundred West Upper punters (give or take the odd intruder, or the occasional absentee) for as long as I can remember!

And most of those seated around us had been there long before we became a couple of relatively new kids on X block. I’ve never been the most gregarious Gooner and as a result, even after all these years, I was barely on nodding terms with all but my immediate West Upper neighbours. I never dreamed I’d end up missing some of them. Obviously I miss the people who I’ve sat with for such a long time and with whom I was in the habit of shooting the half-time breeze. However as I sat during the opening salvoes of Saturday’s encounter, scanning the stands through my binoculars, trying to recall where Ray, the bloke I used to sit next to, had told me his new seat was, I suddenly found myself conjuring up a mental checklist of my now extinct West Upper world.

Perhaps it would’ve been different and I might’ve been less distracted if we were playing against more high profile an opponent. Yet it was hard to comprehend that instead of paying my customary 100 per cent attention to events on the pitch, my mind was drifting off in contemplation of all the weird and wonderful idiosyncrasies that would no longer be associated with my Arsenal experience.

The geezer in front who’d grown into middle age, still sneaking a swift fag in his austere old man’s absence (though I could never be so cruel, I always wanted to offer him a smoke in his pop’s presence). The non-stop bogey muncher. Ok so one can get away with it in the privacy of one’s motor but I couldn’t fathom how this feller didn’t feel conspicuous, as he spent much of most every match plucking out the contents from his schnoz and then inspecting it on the end of his finger, as if it were a tasty truffle, before proceeding to chow down! The all too familiar phlegm rattle from behind which indicated one of the ancient old boys was about to clear his throat and which almost instinctively had the two of us ducking for cover, before casually adjusting ones headgear, hoping to have avoided a stray greenie!

Perhaps we were just fortunate to be in the open air, or merely downwind, as Ro and I have been at away games, where by rights we should’ve been knee deep in entrails, considering how often some miserable git kept dropping their guts. But while the matchday programme might’ve come in handy occasionally for fanning away the odd sulphurous stink, mercifully we weren’t at least plagued by the noxious gas of some phantom Gooner farter.

You’d think I might be delighted to have escaped the prospect of having my senses assaulted every other week by such disgusting sights, sounds and smells. However in all honesty I was always so focused on the football, that it is only now that it’s no longer, that I come to reflect on all such “corner of the eye” entertainment. Who knows, perhaps we have it all to come in our new locale. Yet even as a miniscule and particularly unpalatable part of the pleasurable West Upper whole, I am going to miss it all like hell!

As ever I could ramble on for several more thousand words, with particular reference to last week’s ricket, where I’ve since been set straight over my stupid over simplification of the calculation of the additional area of the new pitch.

I suggested that an additional 8 metres in length and 6 metres in width obviously amounts to 48 square metres. But I wasn’t about to argue mathematics with the Bachelor of Physics who has very kindly explained to me that the increased area of the new pitch is closer to an astonishing 1200 square metres (which according to the conversion yoke on my mobile phone amounts to around an extra13,000 square feet!)

However I had certainly planned on prattling on about my habitual exasperation over our patent failure to take advantage of all this extra grass. Theo Walcott’s terrifying pace would’ve been perfect for going around all the bodies that Villa got behind the ball. But as usual we continued to attempt to plough an incredibly frustrating furrow, right through the middle, making pretty patterns, in our eternal attempts to pass the ball all the way up to the flaming goal line.

Hands up who wasn’t moved on Saturday (several times) to scream “for f***’s sake shoot!” Hopefully we’ll see this rectified against Zagreb, as 3-0 up from the first leg, we’re hardly going to get a better opportunity, in a competitive environment, to practice the means by which we can use all our incredible pace and skill, to take advantage of all that extra space. Theoretically, at our best, we should be downright unstoppable on our new playing surface!

Meanwhile with a bit of luck this Champions League qualification romp will make any such whinging superfluous, so I thought I’d better post this beforehand.

Big Love

PS. I also intended having another moan about the lack of Arsenal-ification inside the stadium (jaysus another Dubya-ism!). Everyone seems to have mentioned how bad the bare concrete looks below Club Level, but the coincidence I referred to above about the feller from Sligo was that I could only see two flags displayed in the entire stadium on Saturday. I actually spotted another one on MOTD which had escaped my attention, but on looking through my binoculars at the two I could see (one hanging from the Club Level balcony and the other from the upper tier towards the North End), I discovered they both belonged to the Sligo Supporters Club (

Well done lads. At least this was some indication inside the stadium as to whose ground we were playing at.

I’ve chuckled a couple of times at the Rory McGrath advert filmed at THOF and watching this, it might be old hat, but for the moment I would more than settle for the canon motif portrayed on the seats at the old gaff?

New Stadium-itis v New Manager-itis

After Ireland’s capitulation to the Dutch in midweek, some labelled the armed lunatic who’d confronted Stan Staunton, a patriot! Personally I think it’s a pity that Martin O’Neill couldn’t be persuaded to take the Ireland job. To my mind it was a missed opportunity for both national teams. But then I imagine O’Neill’s not the sort of “yes man” the English FA were after. Why else would they have settled for the wet blanket of McClaren, instead of the firecracker inspiration of the Irishman?

If it wasn’t for the confines of the technical area, keeping O’Neill’s powder relatively dry at the Arsenal’s impressive new stadium, I’ve no doubt we’d have seen the tracksuited figure exploding up and down the touchline on Saturday. It’s a sad fact, but O’Neill’s suitability for the Ireland job was evident in Villa’s doughty performance, as they proved his renowned ability to encourage the very maximum, from a relatively mediocre squad.

Proof of their new manager’s infectious enthusiasm was demonstrated by the tireless midfield endeavours of the likes of Gavin Mccann, in denying us the time and space in the centre of the park to do Villa any real damage. I returned home to look up Mccann’s CV on my computer, finding it hard to believe that this was the same player, who, along with mostly the same Villa squad, had been such willing victims of last season’s April Fool’s Day drollery, when O’Leary’s side offered so little objection to dropping their shorts for their 5-0 spanking.

My missus put it most succinctly at half-time on Saturday, as she wondered whether it would be new manager-itis, or new stadium-itis which was to have the most influence on the outcome.

Thankfully we’d already witnessed a couple of goals at our new gaff, during Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial. However Adebayor was prevented from inscribing his name in the record books for posterity, as the first ever Premiership goalscorer, when Manny’s header on the stroke of half-time was ruled offside. So it was all the more galling when we gifted Olof Mellberg an opportunity to carve his initials on the goalposts.

By playing with 11 men behind the ball, Villa appeared intent on merely avoiding defeat. Yet their limited ambitions didn’t preclude them from taking the lead. By the time it dawned on us that they’d neglected to read the opening day script, Villa were able to sit on their single goal advantage and make it all the more difficult for us to break them down.

After pussyfooting around for much of the first hour, the prospect of our guests rudely pooping our party suddenly inspired a renewed determination. But despite laying siege to Villa’s penalty area for the last half hour, we were banging at the door almost incessantly before Gilberto eventually kicked it in.

I never fully appreciated the importance of knowing how much time is left to play, until I spent much of Bergkamp’s testimonial constantly glancing at the time on my phone. While a clock is still conspicuous by its absence, at least the elapsed time is now apparent on the giant screens. These showed that there were only 5 minutes remaining when the Brazilian finally caused the net to bulge in front of the new North Bank. Our new home reverberated with a wave of euphoric relief, grateful that Gilberto had spared all our blushes.

Up until this point, with one goal disallowed and two cleared off the line, it’d begun to feel as if it wasn’t our day and we could’ve played on until midnight without breaking our duck. However having finally burst this dam and with Villa suitably deflated after being denied such a historic victory, we’d built up such a head of steam that if only time would stood still we might have stolen all three points at the death.

Still compared to the prospect of the embarrassing defeat that’d loomed so large until the last few minutes, most of us were more than happy to settle for a face-saving draw. Moreover any disappointment about this opening day anti-climax, was tempered by the delightful and long awaited discovery that young Theo Walcott’s natural ability was far more than just a myth.

Theo inspired the second loudest cheer of the afternoon when he stripped off his tracksuit with 20 minutes to go. His cameo appearance as a sub was the perfect antidote for all those who’d begun to lose heart. There was a buzz of expectation every time the ball arrived at Walcott’s feet and his youthful exuberance and positively electrifying pace sparked the reinvigorated assault on Villa’s goal, which resulted in the equaliser.

Moreover if I was feeling a little maudlin as we strolled back past the somewhat dilapidated looking shell of our stately old Highbury home, I was soon cheered by the sight of Spurs conceding a couple of goals up at Bolton. With the Blades taking two points off the Scousers, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad day. Although the cost of Saturday’s disappointment will only truly become apparent when we discover whether Martin O’Neill’s inspiration is sufficient to prevent Villa being demolished on their trips to Chelsea and Man Utd.

Any illusions I might’ve had about these two team experiencing similarly awkward opening day encounters, soon evaporated on Sunday, as Man Utd started the season with the sort of bang, which could prove a crucial boost to their confidence (with the likes of Carrick and Heinze still to come) and Chelsea positively strolled to victory against one of the few Premiership teams who, when inspired by the fearless instincts of their manager, can usually be expected to at least take the game to the Blues and cause them a few concerns.

It was frightening to see Adrian Chiles tot up the cost of Chelsea’s third goal on MOTD2. I’ve rarely seen Roman Abramovich more animated than his excited response at Cardiff last week, to an initial return on his £30mill investment on Schevchenko. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether the Russian mogul will have shown any reaction, when it was pointed out the players involved in Didier Drogba’s well-crafted goal had a combined cost of £107mill!

Even with the additional revenue from a whopping 76,000 capacity at Utd, or with the extra £2mill supposedly generated by every game at our new ground, I still can’t see how any club is expected to compete with the bottomless pit of Abramovich’s pockets.

Meanwhile we were the club who could’ve benefited most from the sort of goalfest on Saturday that might’ve settled all our fears about finding our feet at our new stadium. 3-0 up from the 1st leg, I’m praying there’s no sign of complacency this Wednesday. If we’re to feel at home by the time we play Boro, we might benefit by banging in a hatful against Zagreb.

With only 10 days of the transfer window remaining and with the futures of Cole and Reyes apparently still up in the air, we’re all hoping Arsène still has a surprise (or two!) up his sleeve. If he doesn’t, perhaps Wenger’s inclusion of Walcott wasn’t without motive, as Le Prof attempts to allay some of the concerns about the lack of depth to our squad. When you consider the summer spending of the vast majority of clubs, most of whom are merely trying to maintain their precious Premiership status, I can’t see how the Arsenal can possibly continue to deny the financial impact on Wenger’s budget, from the massive expenditure on the new stadium.

Personally I would prefer a little honesty and I’m pretty sure most Gooners would accept the reality of the situation, if the net effect of ensuring the club’s future for decades to come, is that we’re forced to tread water for a couple of seasons. What’s more I wouldn’t be too disappointed if as a result we end up with a squad that is largely made up of homegrown kids who’ll sweat blood for the cause, instead of foreign imports looking to make a fast buck.

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