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Monday 14 August 2006

There'll be another one along in a minute

Me again

Much like London buses, you wait all that time, then three come along at once :-)

It's rare to get offered a "free lunch" from The Irish Examiner but much as we did last season, the four contributors to their Terrace Talk feature were invited out for a meal, where our answers to a wealth of questions makes up a piece in their pre-season Premiership supplement.

After eating at a poncey bistro opposite the Bridge last season, my efforts to persuade the Examiner journo that superior Italian food and the far more reasonable prices at Il Baccio in Blackstock Road (where they do a mean Melanzane Parmeggiana) would leave a whole lot more of his budget to be spent on alcoholic beverages, all fell upon deaf ears.

After agreeing to meet up at 6pm a couple of Fridays back, in Orsos in the Strand, I found myself caught up in a Friday afternoon journey from hell (which is a story on its own), after offering to pick some friends up from Gatwick. When I eventually phoned this chap at 8pm to see if it was still worth me coming, I was much relieved when he suggested I "take a raincheck". I'd actually told him previously that I might have to leave prematurely for a party in Turnmills in Clerkenwell Road, where my first cousin and his partner were celebrating their civil union ceremony.

Murphy's Law prevailed as ever. Róna and I are both such incredibly unsociable buggers that these days we hardly ever tear ourselves away from the gogglebox to go out of an evening. Thus with two appointments on the same it was almost inevitable that fate would intervene and I wouldn't make either. I was concerned about making it to my cousin's shindig for fear of coming in for some homophobic stick from the rest of my family. But having blown out the dinner, I was so exhausted that I immediately passed out in the armchair and slept straight through until sometime the following morning.

I was concerned that I might have earned myself a black mark for not turning up for the Examiner dinner, when the Scouser contributor had made it all the way from Liverpool and I believe the paper's European pundit had even flown over from Italy. At least I wasn't alone, as Man Utd fan, Richard Kurt is always conspicuous by his absence from such encounters and as a result the two of us were tasked with providing written responses to all the questions.

Needless to say I ended up writing far too much as always but in this instance it worked out in my favour, as I received an e-mail on Friday advising me to send an additional invoice to the Examiner, as the journo had kindly taken all the material I'd written about the new stadium and concocted another piece entirely on a separate page!

Then I began to panic as I was due to write my first contribution for my regular column and while I was able to find the Q & A piece on the Examiner web site see: without a copy of this Premiership supplement I wasn't able to see exactly what bits he'd used in this other piece and I was fretting about repeating the same sentiments. Mercifully a copy arrived in the post Saturday morning and while it was a bit annoying to read something with my name against it that didn't for one minute sound like it had come from my mouth (or my keyboard), I wasn't about to complain because as Ró would say, the unexpected income was "better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick"

Having hardly written a word all summer, suddenly I was back up to full throttle straight from the off, as I also received a request from the Observer for a preview of the season ahead from a Gooner's perspective, for their "Verdict" column. Sadly no moolah for this one, just a little kudos and a plug for the blog (the income from which will soon enable me to retire, after nearly 37,000 hits have earned me the grand sum of 414 cents :-), as I guess there are any number of Gooners who'd be only too glad to contribute in my stead.

However despite forwarding me an example from last season of the sort of thing they were looking for, surely anyone familiar with my War & Peace like length of work will know quite what an impossible task they were setting, asking me to preview the season in under 200 words :-)

I took so much time answering the first set of questions for the Examiner and was so late in getting them back to him, that I might as well have picked the answers to the last few questions (promotion, relegation etc) with my eyes shut, as I found myself left with five minutes before I dashed off to work on Monday morning, frantically scanning over all the comings and goings of the summer, to try and ensure that I ended up with answers that weren't a completely unconsidered opinion.

In the past I've given answers to such questions in the hope that by doing so I was guaranteed to put the bok on whoever I'd plumped for (eg. like picking Spurs as the team most likely to break into the top four :-). I can remember feeling slightly smug about the fact that I'd made the correct choice for the first Premiership managerial casualty, in the French fella at Pompey. Although there was nothing clever about my method of choosing the team with one of the most impatient chairman - maintaining a similar logic for this season selection.

As for the promotion prospects, I think I plumped for Soton merely in the hope that Bradley Wright Phillips might do the business and to date Crystal Palace are living up to my prediction. But heaven only knows how I came up with Cardiff (perhaps based on the presence of the ambitious Sam Hamman?). It was only after I'd sent my reply that it occurred to me that I'd failed to consider the possibility that the likes of WBA and Birmingham might go straight back up.

With Brum beginning to look like the Arsenal reserves, with Steve Bruce having acquired the loan signings of Bendtner, Muamba and Larssen since I wrote the response below, doubtless along with every other Gooner, I will be following their progress with great interest.

Meanwhile I should warn you that I've repeated various sentiments in both responses and have probably produced a combination of the two in this week's diary piece. So I'd imagine you'd be bored to tears and definitely have far too much time on your hands than is healthy, if you find yourself reading all three in full :-)

Big Love

PS. I should know better by now and have no one to blame but myself, but the worst thing about sending in too much copy is that you all too often end up with something being printed that's the complete opposite of ones opinion. For example in the piece to the Observer, under "Ones to watch, I've said that the derisory reaction to Theo Walcott's inclusion in the England squad might have put the dampeners on his career, then commenting that Wenger's inclusion of Randall and Traore in the first team squad during pre-season would suggest Arsène wants to watch these to teenagers. I've also added my feelings about Man City's Micah Richards (compared to Curtis Davies), but the limitations of space have meant that I'm left feeling frustrated when the paper has quoted me as selecting Walcott, Randall and Traore

Hopes/fears for this season for United/Liverpool/Arsenal/Chelsea?

Obviously my hopes are for a more competitive Premiership climate, in which the principal contenders aren’t saying their “das-vi-danyas” before Xmas

I fear that unless a few decorative touches are introduced at Ashburton Grove, to establish some sense of the Arsenal’s illustrious history, we Gooners will be watching our football in a wonderful, albeit sadly utterly soul-less, Yankee style corporate cavern. For the moment, the big screens apart, I’d settle for the slightest indication inside the stadium that this is the new home of the Arsenal FC (oh yes....we are also all hoping for some sort of timepiece!). Most present at Bergkamp’s testimonial are assuming the stadium is an unfinished symphony (but unlike Wembley, a functional one!). Although there’s a contradictory school of thought which suggests that the absence of the slightest sign of an AFC motif (some red paint aside), is part of the architect’s minimalistic vision?

Did we learn anything from the World Cup?

We learned that a major domestic scandal immediately prior to the competition is most advantageous to one’s chances of winning.

We learned that England’s performances (& in particular their penalties!) were the absolute personification of their platitudinous and prosaic management.

Sadly we can’t receive RTE over here, or else obviously I would’ve been watching the far superior coverage offered by my bro-in-law, Con Murphy. However from the televisual offerings in the UK we learned that Martin O’Neil is by far in a way the most entertaining and honest pundit – did anyone else see his rib-tickling, derisory half-time comments, as to what on earth anyone was doing watching the 3rd and 4th place play-off!! I’m also convinced it won’t be long before we learn what a major ricket England have made, by employing the incredibly mundane Steve McClaren, instead of the proven motivational force that is this much more loveable Mick

Not to mention England’s costly lesson, whereby they would’ve been far better off paying for the child minder in order that the baba might be left back home with his playmates, instead of schlepping the poor lamb the length and breadth of the Fatherland

Player to watch for United/Arsenal/Liverpool/Chelsea

Midfielder Mark Randall caught my eye with some nifty footwork at the Arsenal’s Members Day shindig and Armand Traore made his presence known with a couple of bone crunching challenges during Denis’ Testimonial, which must’ve raised eyebrows amongst the Ajax lads. It seems Arsène agrees, as the two 16 year olds were included in the squad which went to the training camp in Austria. However with Randall being a rare English teenager, don’t be surprised to see him spending the season out on loan at somewhere like Reading, until eventually he realises that he’s not quite foreign enough for Wenger’s fancy!

(as for the other clubs....who cares, although until he was subbed on Sunday, I thought the Scousers new full back looked quite lively)

Player from each club who’s past their sell-by date

With Sol sold and Dennis departed, the more pertinent question at the Arsenal these days is “who has yet to reach puberty”!!

Chelsea – Chopper Harris
Liverpool – Ron Yeats
Man Utd – George Best (sorry bad taste!)

Player that you are most looking forward to seeing in the Premiership 2006/07

I guess since he’s our only summer purchase so far, it’s got to be Rosicky, if only to establish if he’s an adequate replacement for Robert Pires and unlike the one goal wonder John Jensen, the Czech won’t prove to be a one World Cup game wonder.

I am also looking forward to seeing whether Steve Sidwell can cut the Premiership mustard. I believe the carrot topped midfielder was voted second best player in the Football League last year and this was no surprise, as he’s such an incredibly committed youngster that I was sad to see him go. While his amazing attitude was appreciated at Highbury, ultimately I understand that it was felt that Sidwell lacked sufficient natural ability to break into our first XI. It will be interesting to see whether Sidwell’s efforts on the big stage will leave Wenger & co. regretting letting yet another homegrown lad leave the club to seek first team football elsewhere.

Wishful thinking – Fernando Torres, Yaya Touré !
Bollix, if I'm gonna daydream, I might as well go for it - Lionel Messi

Best signing of the summer (to date)

In order to best answer this one, I’ve just been through the list of Premiership ins and outs to refresh my memory as to who has gone where. However running through the entire list, apart from the obvious candidates of Schevchenko and Ballack (and it’s impossible not to be cynical about the motives of those players coming to Chelsea, as with little to prove, it always occurs to me that they are hardly coming here to run their socks off week in, week out?), there are hardly any new arrivals who have me green with envy, wondering what they might have done at Highbury...whoops, that’s one old habit which is going to die hard!

Obviously it is hoped that Thomas Rosicky will prove to be the signing of the season, but I certainly haven’t seen enough of him to pass judgement. Considering Newcastle paid £12million less than Chelsea blew on bringing Damien Duff from Blackburn a couple of seasons back, I guess the Irishman has got to be the bargain buy of the summer and after two seasons spent treading water, warming the bench at the Bridge, if Glenn Roeder can revive the winger’s appetite for football, rather than focusing on the size of his wallet, then it could prove to be a shrewd move.

Kevin Keegan rated Bradley Wright-Phillips a better finisher than his brother, but with his fee undisclosed, it’s difficult to know whether it was a wise move on Southampton’s part. However I look forward to finding out and enjoying the unadulterated expressions of joy from his father, if his progeny proves himself a Premiership winner. At least Wrighty won’t have to waste so much time waiting for his brother to get a look-in at the Bridge.

If, as looks likely, Michael Carrick ends up at Man Utd, this could prove to be the best bit of business ol’ Red Nose has done in a long while. I am still annoyed that we didn’t buy Carrick from West Ham when we had the opportunity. I recall hearing an extremely bitter sounding Harry Redknapp describe how he was on the verge of bringing Carrick to Pompey, until interest from the Arsenal scuppered the deal completely. Then Patrick Vieira finally made up his mind to stay and overnight our interest evaporated, as we no longer required a replacement midfielder.

I assume Martin Jol had no choice in this matter and it will be interesting to witness whether he has spent the Carrick income wisely. Naturally I hope all his purchases will prove to be complete wasters, but the rotund Dutchman has definitely earned my begrudging respect in his brief time at Spurs. Of all the exciting talent in the Ivory Coast squad, Didier Zakora would have been some way from the top of my “most wanted” list, but based on Jol’s track record to date, I won’t be surprised if he and Dmitri Berbatov do the business for Spurs.

Biggest issue facing supporters in the 2006/07 season

As far as the Arsenal are concerned, in my humble opinion, the biggest issue is without doubt the corporate-ification of the club (jaysus I sound like Dubya!).

Compared to the succession of catastrophic cock-ups at Wembley, there’s little doubt that the Arsenal’s new stadium is a resounding success. It’s been finished on time, in budget, giving thousands more Gooners great views, comfy seats, loads of leg room etc. etc. However at this point in time, having made ones way through the modern, unmanned turnstiles, aside from the two big screens, there is absolutely no evidence of anything inside the stadium whatsoever to indicate that this is the Arsenal. Many believe that this is merely a result of the rush to get the stadium opened and there are still some finishing touches to come with the internal decorations. But there are also those who suggest that the stadium is as intended and the absence of any sign of an Arsenal motif is all part of the architect’s minimalistic vision.

Obviously, in time, it is bound to begin to feel more like home. However for the moment, it might be a wonderful, modern arena but compared to all the history and sentiment attached to our old stately home around the corner, the new gaff seems to be absolutely devoid of any soul. I have never been to watch any live sport in the United States but I get the distinct impression that Yankee sports fans would feel right at home in the Emirates Stadium.

Moreover in the marketing of the stadium to date, it has felt as ever, as if hoi polloi have been completely taken for granted. They could have afforded us a mere square foot of concrete terracing with no amenities at all, at a price higher than every Premiership club and still we’d have been queuing up in our thousands, clamouring to hand over our hard-earned cash for a season ticket that offered a precious live pitch. Meanwhile I suppose we should be counting our blessings, as we find ourselves watching our beloved Gunners in one of the best, if not the best, stadia in the country for the same price as we were paying last season. Although I’m inclined to believe that it won’t be too long before they begin to take advantage of us by hiking up the prices for us plebs.

However up until now, confident in the knowledge that the majority of the ground would sell itself, the club has focused almost exclusively on marketing the stadium to all the high-rollers. And what I find astonishing is the fact that, in London at least, there appears to be an inexhaustible seam of seriously affluent football supporters.

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it but from the evidence of Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial, it would appear that the club’s PR department has not been gilding the lily in their assertions that the eight rows of the exclusive Club Level section has been sold out entirely. The seats in the two centre sections are only available on four year contracts, so to obtain one of these privileged pitches, it was necessary to stump up an astonishing £19,000. At £4,750 per season, these seats work out at £183 per game! The remainder of the Club Level seats were available with annual contracts but for some reason the corner seats were the cheapest, at ‘only’ £2,500 per season. Whereas to sit behind the goal, with a lousy view of what’s occurring at the other end of the pitch, it costs £3,250, a mere £125 per game, for the 26 games which are included in the price of our season tickets.

I played a part in convincing one of my wealthy Gooner mates that is was worth his while forking out a £38,000 fortune for himself and his son. After all it is only a fraction of what he needs to find to pay for his new Ferrari and I argued that in his shoes, I wouldn’t think twice about the possibility of securing myself the best view in the stadium, as in years to come, he might end up kicking himself if he’d passed up the opportunity, only to end up at the back of a long waiting list. Doubtless my encouragement wasn’t entirely without motive, as my pal travels abroad a lot and so I’m hoping I might eventually get the odd chance to experience how the other half live.

Meanwhile, having become a member of what some have dubbed ‘the prawn circle’, one might think he’d be the very last to be grieving about the demise of what was once the working man’s game. He told me that it was painful paying all that money but that there was a certain sense of security knowing that those seats were theirs for the next four years. However even he was dismayed by the club’s over the top efforts to cash in on the corporate spondulicks, as he detailed how he’d been receiving incessant correspondence to encourage him to invest a further sum in their “meal package” for the season, before they all sell out!!

Apparently these meal packages range from a burger and chips, to a four course blow out. However I found it most amusing that these meal packages do not include a regular reservations at the new ground’s Raymond Blanc restaurant. Perhaps seats in the Michelin starred restaurant are reserved for the really rich, as there’s an even more exclusive Diamond Class package at the Emirates Stadium, whereby I understand punters are required to pay £25,000 per season, again with a four year contract that requires an outlay of an unbelievable £100,000.

I just can’t believe that there are so many Arsenal fans with so much disposable income and I can only imagine that along with the ring of corporate boxes between Club Level and the Upper Tier, the vast majority of these ridiculously expensive seats at the new stadium must have been bought by the companies of those who are able to write off the astronomic expense as corporate hospitality.

However I can’t help but find it funny to think that these hundred grand high-rollers can look down their noses at all the Gucci Gooners, whose investment of a mere £19.000 leaves them rubbing their noses up against the window of the Raymond Blanc eaterie. I am reminded of that famous comedy sketch with John Cleese, A.N Other and Ronnie Corbett, with the John Cleese character stating “I’m not sure about the offside rule, but I look down on them whilst gorging on my Raymond Blanc grub” and the Ronnie Corbett character “After supporting this club for forty years, I will be left looking up at both those fraudulent fans when they get tickets for the Champions League final and I don’t”!

In truth I can’t really complain, as we’ve swapped seats with some Gooners so that they have taken our upper tier seats and we have their lower tier seats. As a result our two seats in the lower tier have ended up costing less than the £1875 cost of one seat in the upper tier. Nevertheless I was chatting to A West Ham fan the other day who was telling me that he’d just paid something like £150 to renew his son’s season ticket at Upton Park. Whereas any concessions at our new ground are limited to what is bound to be an oversubscribed family enclosure. No doubt if they had the facilities and the affluent fans, the Hammers would also be milking them to the full, but I can’t help but feel a little envious that the East London club is at least feigning some interest in maintaining a social conscience.

Naturally I was a few weeks late in stumping up for my season ticket renewals. Having tapped out all my credit cards with all the football expenses these past few seasons, it took a huge effort to amass the renewal cost in cash. As a result I was desperate to hand the readies over to the Box Office some Saturdays back, before the sum was depleted once again by some financial crisis, or other. When I pointed out to the chap at the Box Office window that there wasn’t a box to tick for cash, I was abruptly informed “that’s because we don’t take it and besides you are too late!”

Knowing there was no point in trying to make my case to this particularly miserable bugger, I was about to pick up my envelope and walk away, when he beckoned me back with a decidedly derisory nod of the head, as if to say “oh go on then, I’ll do you the big favour of relieving you of a couple of grand of your hard borrowed money”! However he only accepted my payment on the express understanding that I was made fully aware that (according to him), the eight week deadline for payments was necessary because it took that amount of time to produce the new swipe card memberships and so long as I appreciated that our membership cards were not going to arrive in time for the first couple of games, which meant that we wouldn’t be able to gain admittance without them.

As it happens both our membership cards arrived in plenty of time and we’ve already used them to get in to Bergkamp’s testimonial. Yet it felt as if this ignorant git derived some sort of pleasure from his efforts to put the wind up me. As I walked away from Highbury for the last time that Saturday morning, I wondered where else in the world would one be treated with such utter contempt as an employee attempted to belittle ones efforts to hand over a large sum of cash?

Still the more the football needle swings from a sport, towards big business, sadly the more inevitable it becomes that the ordinary fan is priced out of the game, as clubs increasingly focus on cashing in on the corporate market. Long term clubs like the Arsenal should bear in mind that it has always been the atmosphere which makes football and British football in particular, such a spectacle. However since it has always been the committed, lunatic fans like myself who are prepared to participate in creating that atmosphere, if the fanatical plebs end up priced out of the market, it’s hard to imagine the prawn circle punters paying such fortunes to sit in a silent stadium.

Similarly I have some fears about the long-term future of football, where big business becomes the be all and end all. Since the introduction of all seater stadia, it has been the visiting fans who invariably generate any atmosphere. As we edge ever closer to the advent of a European super league that might spin even more money for the fortunate few, I find myself marveling at how fellow Gooners manage to afford to travel to so many matches abroad. I am actually still paying for season tickets from a few seasons back on my Premiership credit card and with an ever mounting deluge of football related debts, I am eventually being forced to accept that I simply cannot make it to every single match in future. I’m concerned that the increase in the frequency of matches abroad might eventually result in demise of the travelling fans, so that we end up with a sport which is similar to those on the other side of the Atlantic, with an almost exclusively home crowd and which is a helluva long way from the beautiful game as I’ve always known it.

Could something like the Italian football scandal happen here?

Nothing is impossible, since everyone has their price and Roman Abramovich has pockets which are more than deep enough. Nevertheless, with the exception of Chelski, unlike in Italy, British football is not governed by an oligarchy of super powerful industrialists/politicians like Agnelli and Berlusconi. These tycoons’ tentacles are so widespread that I’d guess that the beautiful game is just a reflection of the “he who pays the piper, calls the tune” type corruption which is endemic across the board, in most aspects of Italian society

Quality of refereeing in the Premiership. Rank awful or much ado about nothing?
Use of technology/rule changes

Much ado about nothing. I watch a lot of test cricket during the summer months and modern technology has been used to great effect with the third umpire, Hawkeye and all the other advances which have combined to increase ones enjoyment of the sport. However much like the philistine sport played with an egg shaped ball in the US, the commentators in cricket have endless dead air to try and fill and if we weren’t looking at a wagon wheel of where the batsman had placed his shots, as an aficionado of Test Match Special on the radio, I would be listening to the plummy sounding voice of Blowers as he described which double-decker bus was heading down St Johns Wood Road, or what flavour cake had been sent in by a listener for the TSM crew to enjoy with their tea.

By contrast, footie is a fast paced sport that doesn’t lend itself to referring every contentious issue to a second referee with a TV monitor. Personally I am from the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school and the only argument I have is with the constant tinkering with the offside rule, to the point where the officials have an impossible task trying to decide instantaneously whether a player is active, or inactive, or which particular phase of play is which. In my humble opinion the only change should be the simplification of the offside rule, as these days the inconsistencies are unbearable. Moreover the vast majority of linesmen are so intensely focused on doing their offside duty that they are usually totally oblivious to all other aspects of the game, even when an incident takes place under their very nose.

Perhaps in generations to come, the referee will evolve into a bird like creature with an eye on either side of his head. Until such time as an official is capable of looking in two different directions at once (ie. at the player striking the ball and the position of the strikers running to receive it), mistakes are inevitable.

In fact inept officiating is part and parcel of what makes our game so beautiful. It’s what makes it possible for two supporters to have sat side by side in the stadium for 90 minutes and then spend umpteen subsequent hours in the pub, arguing as if they’d been watching entirely different matches.

Sadly I think change is inevitable, as along with every aspect of a sport whose beauty diminishes in inverse proportion to the vast sums of money swilling around the upper echelons, unfortunately football is ever bigger business. And in business, mistakes and the vagaries of the fickle finger of fate are unacceptable! Time was when it was accepted that an obvious error which caused a defeat, would even itself out over the course of a season and supporters and participants alike were resigned to this swings and roundabouts system. However with the advent of so many technological innovations, supposedly we now have the means to eliminate the element of doubt. Therefore those with the most to lose as a result of any mistakes, are calling for the introduction of various equipment to aid the officials.

I could perhaps accept the limited use of goal line technology. However how many times have we sat watching an incident replayed from every possible viewing angle, only for each of the studio pundits to be left expressing a different and opposing opinion!

Meanwhile I would be bang up for the introduction of any system which was designed to prevent Premiership officials becoming personalities in their own right and for referees to be able to return to using their common sense, instead of automatically brandishing red and yellow cards, according to FA directives. My most common complaint about referees in recent times has been about their insistence on stamping their authority on matches. All too often I’ve found myself watching a match which hasn’t involved a single “dirty” tackle, but having officiated to the letter of the law, the referee has made a rod for his own back by booking several players early on and suddenly the man in black manages to ruin the match for both teams, the spectators and the millions watching on the box, by sending someone off as a consequence of two innocuous incidents.

Not only is it downright wrong that the one man in the middle so frequently ruins the match for everyone else, when a word in a player’s ear would’ve been perfectly adequate, but as a result, all too often it is us poor paying punters who are punished, as the subsequent suspension finds us long-suffering fans stumping up a fortune for our tickets, only to find our favourite stars stuck in the stands, instead of entertaining us on the pitch.

I’ve heard calls for the introduction of an orange card, to give referees some leeway before issuing a red, or a sin bin, as seen in ice hockey. However there would be no need for such substantial tinkering with the rules, if our referees were merely allowed to apply some common sense by issuing a warning before booking a player and by saving their red and yellow cards for incidents that involve real intent.

Although one can’t help but wonder about the decisions made by some specific refs (Graham Poll?), if the revelations about the scandal in Serie A tell us something, it’s that we should be counting our blessings that by and large, at least the mistakes made by officials in the Premiership are honest mistakes.

Should something be done to restrict the number of overseas players in the Premiership or introduce a salary capping system (both ideas floated in the past 12 months)

While I applaud the good intentions of some of these ideas, as I for one would love to witness an Arsenal side which included more (or in fact any!!) English/Irish players, for the most part once again my feelings are governed by my “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. In the past we’ve seen efforts to limit the number of foreigners challenged in the courts and eventually free trade and market forces have prevailed. Moreover while a salary cap might aid the less well-off clubs and create a more competitive Premiership environment, at the end of the day the big boys and the members of G8 are able to veto anything that isn’t in their interest, by means of the leverage they have with the threat of forming a breakaway European league

If you could change one thing in the Premiership . . . what would it be?

As above – bring about the return of common sense refereeing, where refs were able to establish a dialogue with the players on the pitch, issuing a warning as the action of first resort, rather than a yellow/red card, so that all the fans and the millions watching on TV are less likely to have our afternoon’s entertainment completely ruined and to be deprived of the stars that we stumped up such substantial amounts to watch.

Alternatively....the reintroduction of a standing section of terracing in Premiership stadia

Away trip that you are most looking forward to?

Despite Fratton Park being a decrepit p***hole, Pompey is a perennial favourite because the atmosphere and a return to facilities from the dark ages often gives one the feeling of a proper old-fashioned footie match.

Glad to be going back to Vicarage Road. Aside from the fact that Watford’s sensible ticket pricing policy usually guarantees a great family day out vibe, an almost certain three points and the size of the Gooner contingent gives it the feel of a home game – I know of quite a few Arsenal fans who are season ticket holders at Watford because they can’t afford to take their kids to see the Arsenal every week. Doubtless the fact that I have to drive almost past my Ma’s front door has a bearing on this decision, as a pitstop on my way home means I’m guaranteed a good nosh up.

We’ve had some marvelous encounters with the Blades over the years, which rarely seem to pass without plenty of drama. However a trip to Bramall Lane is a must, if only to hear a hearty rendition of what must be a contender for the best terrace tune:-

You fill up my senses,
Like a gallon of Magnet,
Like a packet of Woodbines,
Like a good pinch of snuff,
Like a night out in Sheffield,
Like a greasy chip butty,
Like Sheffield United,
Come thrill me again,

Predictions for:

Premiership top four?- Chelsea, Arsenal, Man Utd, Liverpool
Club most likely to break through into top 4? - (unfortunately) Spurs – although hopefully I’ve just ruined any chance they have :-)
Three to be relegated? - Watford (sadly), Fulham, Wigan
Three to be promoted? – Southampton, Crystal Palace, Cardiff

FA Cup winners? – Arsenal
Carling Cup winners?– West Ham
Champions League ?- Real Madrid
First Premiership managerial sacking ?– Chris Coleman


and my far too wordy contribution to the Observer's "The Verdict" column:

Hopes & Fears?

Habitually the first home game of a new season feels like a homecoming, a reconciliation for the first time in a couple of months with ones footballing family, the same Arsenal fans that I’ve sat amidst for so many years. However this is a start to a season like no other for us Gooners. We’ve had a dry run with Dennis’ testimonial. An opportunity to check out the view from our seats at the new gaff and a grand one it is at that.

Hopefully there are still some finishing touches to be added inside our state of the art new stadium (a timepiece for one!), to give it more of an Arsenal feel. You can’t fail to be impressed on approaching the imposing landmark, that’s landed on the Highbury skyline like a Star Wars spaceship. It hollers out its credentials as a stage that befits a footballing superpower. Doubtless it only needs to acquire some history before it begins to feel like home. But for the moment it’s a somewhat soulless agglomeration of concrete, steel and glass. A mammoth machine made specifically for milking the corporate cash cow with supreme efficiency, with Club Level pitches at up to £173 a pop apparently all sold out!

The only similarity with Highbury is the snooker baise like green surface at its heart. But it’s the regularity of the beats which are my biggest concern, as obviously I fear for the palpitations of the sort of new stadium-itis that’s afflicted other sides subsequent to a move. Hopefully the players will feel more at home than I do and with all the pace in Arsène’s youthful side and an additional 6 metres in width and 8 metres in length on our new pitch, in theory it should prove a much harder proposition for our opponents to prevent us scoring by getting all eleven behind the ball.

Having never had to step over the crucial banana skin of Champions League qualification before, the collective sighs of relief subsequent to our success in Croatia on Tuesday night could’ve whipped up a tornado, as we were terrified of a catastrophic European curtain-raiser. Yet Marseille have managed to quell our buoyant mood, as many of us had assumed the income from Cole and Reyes was earmarked for creative flair of Ribery, until what appears to be a bizarre display of umbrage over the Frenchman’s public statement concerning his imminent departure. Ribery is ruled out from contributing to any other clubs European campaign until the spring, after Marseille brought him off the bench for the last 20 mins of their match against Berne. Still, never mind the larger pitch, the last 16 of the Champions League might be a long way off, for the legs of players involved in qualification matches when their competitors are still enjoying the cricket?

Ones to watch?

The derisory reaction to his inclusion in the England squad might have put the dampeners on Theo Walcott’s career but since “Arsène knows” I suppose we should be keeping an eye out for the another couple of babes in arms who’ve been promoted to the first team squad, midfielder Mark Randall and French full-back Armand Traoré. As for elsewhere, while many moan about Curtis Davies’ hugely inflated price tag, personally I’d quite fancy Man City’s Micah Richards. I’m praying he doesn’t end up yet another addition to Martin Jol’s English legion.


Poor Pascal Cygan is about the only target in the Arsenal squad for the unjustified japes of Highbury’s....sorry, old habits and all that.... The New Home of Football’s (no free advertisements here!) terrace jesters. However I have to admit that before the “Legends” turned for the second-half of Bergkamp’s testimonial, with Pascal’s presence amidst all those teenagers, one could be forgiven for thinking the kids were having a kickabout with their granddad! Boos or cheers, I’ll be happy to discover we haven’t departed the Highbury Library, only to end up moving to the Corporate Mortuary!

Where will you finish in the league?

Our season could end up depending on us being able to remain in contention, just long enough for our lot to feel less like they are the visiting team than our opponents. Having escaped the tight confines of our extremely narrow old pitch, I am extremely excited by the potential prospect of putting all comers to the sword if we should prove capable of taking full advantage of the additional 48 square metres of turf (although in order to do so, it might help if we saw the reintroduction of the art of running down the flank to corner flag, instead of wrong-footed wingers who insist on cutting in with the ball?). I’d feel a lot more confident about answering this question in a couple of months but for the moment, let’s just say that if we should finish above Chelski, I will be more than satisfied.

Who will be Champions?

With such a wealth of talent in such depth, it’s hard to look beyond the Blues retaining the trophy. Although with absolutely nothing to prove, I can’t honestly imagine the likes of Ballack and Shevchenko have taken up residence in the Kings Road with the intention of grafting their socks off. It will indeed be interesting to witness whether their mighty gob of a manager can maintain the hunger necessary to succeed in a third successive marathon. If Mourinho can continue to motivate his mercenary hordes on a miserable wet winter’s eve in Wigan then he’ll have earned my begrudging admiration. Meanwhile despite the unfair advantage in this age of Abramovich and no matter how misguided, until such time as reality bites with the first big disappointment of the season, surely even the most pessimistic amongst us is entitled to retain some belief in our team’s ability to bring home the Premiership bacon

Who will be relegated?

Perm any three from six. Obviously the three promoted teams must be favourite for an all too brief opportunity to bury their snouts in the Premiership trough. I imagine the pragmatic business heads that control both Watford and Reading will prevent them mortgaging their futures so their respective managers can spunk up the sort of spondulicks necessary, in what might still prove to be a fruitless attempt to maintain the dream. However as unlikely as it may be, for geographical reasons alone I’d like these two to avoid the drop. Watford is almost like a home game for many Gooners. Moreover my Ma lives on route home from Vicarage Road, so for me it’s not only an almost guaranteed three points but also a great post-match nosh. For the not so affluent fans, the cost of taking the kids to the Arsenal regularly is far too prohibitive these days - a half-time burger at the new gaff is four quid and a burger meal (plus chips and a drink) an extortionate seven quid! As a result I know of more than one Gunners’ fan who, in order to maintain the matchday traditions they enjoyed as a child, they buy season tickets at Watford, where three of them can go for less than the cost of one seat at Arsenal prices!

Hate figure?

I know there are plenty of fans of other clubs who find Le Prof’s TV appearances particularly irritating. However to my mind Wenger’s short-sighted foibles are a direct result of a credo which requires him to display unwavering loyalty to his charges in public at all times. While I am afraid that for me there is only one football personality who winds me up to such an extent that I want to put the boot into the googlebox and with the cyclical nature of our swings and roundabouts sport, I will derive no end of entertainment from “the arrogant one’s” eventual downfall.


Anonymous said...

christ.......the prices to see arsenal are just tooo expensive......thats ridicolous, what do they think we are, russian oil tycoons?

Anonymous said...

Yeah £32 scandalous...