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Tuesday 27 March 2007

"They'll Stone You When You're Walking Out The Door"

HI folks

You can tell it's another international interlude, as the dearth of decent Premiership material has the media at their most creative. Apart from their wooden spoon efforts to paint Willie Gallas as an outspoken troublemaker (a story that's easy to sell based on the reputation he earned whilst slumming it down at Stamford Bridge), as I was writing the following piece earlier this afternoon, I overheard a Sky Sports News comment concerning the Yanks denial of any efforts to effect an Arsenal buyout.

Who knows, perhaps there is no truth to the story, or perhaps this is merely a belated effort from across the big pond to try and keep the lid on the Arsenal's already soaring share price while they nip in for a touchdown. What we do know (at least according to reports) is that the club's largest shareholder, Danny Fiszman has been flogging off a large chunk of his shares, to the point where his holding is less than the 25 per cent required to rule the boardroom with his veto.

Maybe Fiszman had other reasons for wanting to liquidate his precious Arsenal assets but if not, it seems an odd time to be jumping ship after two trophyless seasons and after sweating it out with the building of the new stadium. With the future on the pitch looking so bright, one might've thought it would've been in his best interests to wait until the revenue from the apartment development at THOF and the new blocks of flats on the Emirates site starts flooding in, to be selling shares when the club was on the up and up, as opposed to while we're still suffering from paying for the stadium on the never never?

To my mind the truth will reveal itself this summer if Arsène actually ends up splashing hard cash, or continues having to paper over the cracks, still playing with both hand tied behind his back financially speaking, trying to polish up more gems from rough young diamonds, while the suits repeated assurances about his £20 million war chest proves to be just that, hot air! Personally I wouldn't be surprised if it's another season or so, before some of all that additional revenue every matchday begins to filter through, to benefit Arsène's team building. That is unless they've already received substantial advance payments for a large number of flats bought off plan.

Myself I will be pleasantly surprised if we spend big this summer. Although the end of season could be influential on the Arsenal suits way of thinking, as if we start seeing plenty of empty seats at the remaining home games, they might start fretting about filling the place for every home game next season, once the new stadium novelty has worn off and all the neutrals and part-timers have emptied their pockets for the privilege of checking out the new gaff. And perhaps for once their will be some substance to their suggestions that Le Prof has access to all the money he needs and Arsène might at long last enjoy an opportunity to splash the cash in Bond Street instead of bargain hunting for seconds in Chapel Street Market once again?

Meanwhile I should warn anyone who's not interested that, as ever on international weeks, there's a distinct Irish focus to the following piece, since it's written primarily with Irish Examiner readers in mind (he who pays the piper and all that). Mind you, if (as mentioned below) I wished I was at the first proper match at the new Wembley at midday on Saturday and then at the first ever football game at Croke Park in the afternoon, the truth of the matter is that with the recent cold spell, in actual fact, above all I'd have preferred to have been sunning mysef beside the Med on a Tel Aviv beach, before heading off to the Ramat Gan Stadium.

However I have to admit that without any current Arsenal involvement in the national team and with probably more family in the Middle East, than over here, I doubt very much that I'd have been supporting Mclaren's team. I'd have needed a special dispensation to join the yid army for one night only!

Going grey around the muzzle and with a bit of a limp due to a dodgy knee, it does seem true that I've taken on some characteristics of our dog, Treacle (or vice-versa). But England played in the exact image of their manager's personality, with no imagination, zero passion and devoid of creativity. Never mind "just like watching Brazil" this was just like watching paint dry and an insomniac's wet dream, as watching on pause on the Sky Plus gadget, I struggled to stay awake. At least if I'd been supporting Israel I would've come away feeling it was a good result and if Saturday's match was an appetiser, heaven knows what the game against Andorra has in store as a viewing spectacle. Ooh I don't know...Andorra v England and Wales v San Marino, there will be some feverish channel hopping in all the excitement of such thrilling international footie...not!

I just hope Staunton has the sense to play Reading's Stephen Hunt from the start, so that the Ireland v Slovakia game is sufficiently attention grabbing to save me from Alan Sugar and this sorcerer's apprentices. Although if various results don't go to plan in the midweek matches then it might well not be the last we hear of his infamous catchphrase before the week is out!

Peace & Love

"They'll Stone You When You're Walking Out The Door"

I’m no great aficionado of international football. Under normal circumstances these unwanted interruptions to the Arsenal’s season are a wind up, as we’re left worrying which of our players are going to end up returning fit following their dispersal to all four corners of the planet. Not to mention our customary disgruntlement with French coach, Raymond Domenech, due to his habitual efforts to do all possible to needle Arsène Wenger, usually by playing Henry for the entire 90 minutes, when other managers appear to be afforded the respect of having their players rested or subbed as soon as possible.

However my total indifference towards this international break was merely another regrettable reminder of our, thankfully unfamiliar antipathy, towards finding ourselves at the end of March, with so little left to play for. If I wasn’t so organisationally challenged, I would’ve sussed that tickets for the England U21 game were only ten quid, as for old time’s sake, I would’ve loved to have travelled that well trodden path around the North Circular to watch the first proper match at the new Wembley stadium.

That enormous arch has occupied an ubiquitous presence on the London skyline ever since it was erected, an unavoidable landmark on my regular travels around this orbital route. Yet where for the past 4 years it was merely a laughable aide-memoire of the incredible incompetence of all those involved in building the most expensive stadium ever, since our ignominious 87th minute cup exit to Blackburn, it’s now become further traumatic testament to the fact that we Gooners won’t be wandering down Wembley Way in May, for the impressive new arena’s inaugural Cup Final.

I guess we should be grateful that the auld enemy won’t be there instead, following last Monday’s QF replay. For most Gooners this was the ultimate definition of a dilemma. A game where really the only acceptable winner would’ve been the referee. In the past Schadenfreude has been the last refuge of the long suffering Spurs fans and it’s taking time for me to come to terms with the shoe being on the other foot. I’ll know we’re in real trouble when this footwear starts to feel comfortable, but in the meantime, with my Spurs mates having endured a constant diet of crow, during countless humiliating seasons, if I’m entirely honest, I’m trying to make the best of this utterly foreign bad lot, by having some fun with it.

Sadistically speaking, I’d have preferred for them to have endured the more painful option of a semi-final exit. Yet with my inkling that the Lilywhites’ name might be on Europe’s Mickey Mouse Cup (after their bye in the last round), I suppose the sooner, the better that their already swollen heads were burst by a bit of a reality check. One of my Spurs pals was thinking of taking his 6-year old son to his first floodlight match. I texted him immediately afterwards, to suggest that it was probably in the poor kid’s interest for him to become acquainted with the taste of disappointment. However the boy’s match ticket never materialised and after hearing his Ma had allowed him to stay up to watch the first half on the box, my sympathies lay with his Da, at the thought of him being woken at the crack of dawn, by the enthusiastic sprog bouncing onto his bed, wanting to know the final score!

Meanwhile we learn what it’s like to look to towards the end of the season, whilst trying to calculate the least catastrophic permutation. The consensus of opinion seems to be anyone but Chelsea for the title. But then the insufferable smugness of all those fake Northern monkeys, heaven forfend the Moaners manage a clean sweep, just doesn’t bear thinking about. We can still cling to the romantic notion of a cup win for one of the two no-hopers, but failing that I suppose most of us would prefer to see Chelsea prevent a Mancunian double. In truth it’s like asking us to choose between crucifixion, or being thrown to the lions. Although I imagine there’ll be a good few Gooner seeking solace in these painful couple of months passing straight over their heads, while they settle for getting stoned!

The football might have failed to live up to the occasion but I was also envious of all those at Croke Park, for its historic initiation as a venue for the round ball game, so despised by the establishment as the plague that’s responsible for demise of Gaelic traditions. If Stan Staunton was a doctor diagnosing a problem that required immediate surgery, I imagine the vast majority would be dashing off to seek a second opinion! If Stan’s so patently struggles to inspire confidence in us supporters, surely he hasn’t a hope in hell of commanding respect amongst his star players in the dressing room. Mind you he hasn’t too many of these to choose from, as once again Damien Duff’s cameo displays of quality only served to remind one of the desperate dearth of quality. Leaving Staunton relying on the likes of Douglas - who I’ve to admit, I had to look up online, to remind me that he can hardly be replete with that winning feeling, when international footie must be more like respite from a failing Leeds side.

Those present on Saturday were perturbed about the pitch and its distance from the stands. It remains to be seen on Wednesday night whether its possible to generate an atmosphere and the performance necessary to prove that Croke Park isn’t set to become an oversized graveyard for the qualification aspirations of the Boys in Green. Whatever the outcome against Slovakia, after the drubbing England received in the rugby and having already been embarrassed by Lawrie Sanchez’s unlikely lads, could there be an outrageous triple on the cards out in the Caribbean. It’s a pity Ireland’s incredible exploits in the cricket have been overshadowed by the Agatha Christie style mystery surrounding the murder of Bob Woolmer. Although I imagine the Irish lads are over the moon to have earned a month long extension to their adventure in the tropical sunshine. Oh to be a fly on the stumps for the likely sledging of Freddie Flintoff after his impromptu booze cruise.

Meanwhile my heart goes out to Peggy McGarry and all the friends and family of Trish one of my myriad of Arsenal mailing list mates, who was tragically taken after a mere 34 years on this mortal coil. Apparently Trish went out in fine style on Friday, appropriately dressed in her favourite red & white, with her beloved blue Dubs shirt beside her, accompanied by a Gooner guard of honour. I’ve no doubt Trish will have been there in spirit on Hill 16 on Saturday.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis

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Monday 19 March 2007

Gooners Still Up For The Cup (albeit FA Youth)

Hunkering down under the hood of my overcoat, as we hot-footed it towards the car after Sunday’s disappointing last minute defeat, I felt sorry for the poor police horses, visibly flinching in the face of a vicious downpour of hailstones the size of marbles.

The ostriches who pooh-pooh the consequences of climate change should have been with us, walking across Stanley Park, over a bizarre carpet of what looked like those polystyrene packing balls, covering the grass.

Glancing up only briefly because of the stinging effects of this bonkers barrage, to see Anfield before us and Goodison behind us, it occurred to me that it should be no surprise that generations of Gwladys Road larrikins have grown into princes of the beautiful game, with ugly young frogs like Wayne Rooney having been kissed by the inspiration of playing on the public pitches that separate these two great sporting citadels. I might’ve lacked the lank blonde locks, not to mention the talent, to be Charlie George in childhood kickabouts. But young Scousers don’t need much imagination to be Dixie Dean or Kenny Dalglish, when the backdrop to boyhood games of three and in, is the very scene of their own personal heroes’ exploits

With the scent of summer in the air with last week’s warm weather, I was beginning to think I could’ve waited until next season to purchase my new padded coat. Yet with the loudest chant of the afternoon coming from the Gooners below us in the Lower Bullens “jump up if you’re f***ing cold”, boy was I glad of such sensible protection from the elements. At the time of buying it I recall thinking that a microchip in its lining to ensure I might be rescued in the event of an avalanche, was just a little superfluous. However as we sat in the motor, stuck in the car park for over an hour, feeling equally sorry for ourselves, wondering how many different seasons the 4-hour journey home would have to throw at us, I was beginning to think this microchip might come in handy, until this intense hailstorm eventually abated.

Feeling a little guilty, I offered to take the wheel for the return trip south. If my mate John hadn’t responded to my plea for a lift, late on Saturday evening, he would’ve been tucked up at home in the warm. I tried to persuade him that this miserable end of season outing was truly an example of paying ones dues. It would’ve been so much easier to have stopped indoors and watched this match live on the box, with ones feet up in front of a toasty fire, without having to endure a treacherous eight hour round trip trek. However, unlike the far too many fair-weather fans, who’s disappointingly shallow commitment to the club doesn’t even extend to stopping at home games for the duration, as they’re more interested in avoiding the queues at the station than supporting their team to the death, when success next comes the Arsenal’s way, it will be the couple of thousand hardy Gooners at Goodison on Sunday who'll truly feel they have earned it.

Although in saying that, apparently Old Trafford played host to a embarrassingly meagre turn out of only 834 for the quarterfinals of the FA Youth Cup, while over 11,000 watched our youngsters gun down a doughty Cardiff side. Moreover while savouring our first XI’s somewhat fortunate victory against Martin O’Neill’s Villa in the Midlands on Wednesday night, I was absolutely flabbergasted to discover that there was a record breaking crowd (for a Youth Cup match) of over 38,000 back on my doorstep in London watching the kids beat Man Utd 1-0 in the first leg of the semi-final.

With tickets at only £3/£1 (adults/kids) in advance and £10/£5 on the night, admittedly this guaranteed that there were thousands of kids present, who were perhaps enjoying their first trip to our new stadium and an introduction to the Gooner faith. However for a club that’s supposedly on the floor after a disastrous couple of weeks and who’s fans, according to the media, are supposed to be in open revolt, this was a significant show of faith, both in the club and in Arsène Wenger’s vision for the Arsenal’s future. I imagine that it must’ve felt somewhat discomfiting for our North London neighbours that our Youth Cup campaign attracted 5,000 more than the number of Spurs fans that bothered to turn up at White Hart Lane to watch Tottenham progress to the quarterfinals of Europe’s Mickey Mouse competition and only a couple of thousand less than the number of fans watching with me as we took all 3 points at Villa Park.

I was gutted because I rarely arrive at matches in time to see the warm up and I could’ve taken some marvellous photos, as Pat Rice placed the cones for the players to run around, almost within touching distance. Yet despite an infinite number of pixels and several million megabytes of computing power, it appears that without a masters degree in technology, the ingenious bit of kit that is my mobile phone is absolutely useless in my incompetent hands. By the time I managed to get the camera working, the lads were already walking back to the dressing room.

Worse still, only on route to Birmingham, I’d been whinging that the players only ever seem to throw their shirts into the crowd on the rare occasions when I’m not present, or when I’m sat right at the back of the stand. Obviously I’m deluding myself, but as he headed towards us after the final whistle, I was convinced Denilson was intending to reward me for my humble efforts to make him feel at home, by encouraging him in Portuguese. If only I was six inches taller, as I’m certain that some lofty Gooner is now walking around in (or offering on eBay!) an Arsenal shirt, which had my name on it (well Denilson’s name on it, but you know what I mean), as it only just eluded my outstretched fingers in the scramble to retrieve it. Doubtless it will be another decade before an opportunity to bag such precious treasure presents itself again. Although by which time I might well be entitled to the sympathy vote and they’ll be walking over to present their shirt to me in my wheelchair!

It’s a loyal football fan’s lot to be a naïve romantic but following recent disappointments, I honestly believed our victory at Villa might prove to be a turning point. With good fortune smiling upon us once again, in those few moments of mutual admiration after the final whistle, I thought I sensed a new found “the rot stops here” type resolve in the eyes of the Arsenal squad. And yet with Wenger down to the barebones of two strikers with only a solitary Premiership goal between them, I guess we were always going to struggle at Goodison. However the consensus of opinion would suggest that our task wasn’t made any easier by Le Boss’ bizarre choice of a backline where only Gallas was playing in his natural position.

Watching the incredibly incisive counter-attacking of Rooney and Ronaldo on Match of the Day reminded me of what we’ve been missing for much of the season, as we’ve grown all too accustomed to the seeing any thrust of the Arsenal’s forward play falter on the edge of the oppositions penalty area, while we plead for someone to take responsibility. You can’t fault Aliadière’s work rate and the faith that’s been shown in him suggests he must be a gifted player, but where Andy Johnson is blessed with the opposite polarity that ensures the ball is constantly attracted to him, Aliadière appears to suffer from the exact opposite.

In such awful conditions it’s hard to attach any individual blame for Everton’s goal. 9 times out of 10 Johnson’s shot would’ve rebounded off all those bodies in the box, but unfortunately for us he happened to find just about the only gap in the Gunners bulwark. However after hitting the woodwork twice, it was hard to deny that the Toffees deserved their goal. As usual we dominated much of the possession but failed to make this pressure count.

For my money the difference between the two teams was encapsulated in a first-half incident involving Fernandes, where he battled with first Diaby and then Fabregas, and his determination to retain the ball spoke volumes. In the end it was this desire that won the day, as while the Gunners were looking to the strange stuff falling from the heavens, waiting for the final whistle that would allow them to seek the sanctuary of the dressing room, having long since settled for a point, the home side were having none of it, having sensed that they might take advantage of the fact that we’d already switched off.

We can but hope that the price of this lesson in playing to the final whistle does not prove too costly and that it is a lesson learned which might serve us well in future. With such weird weather and Spurs still involved in two cups, some might conclude that the end of world is nigh. Me, I’m battening down the hatches and waiting for the inevitable winds of change.

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Tuesday 13 March 2007

FA Youth Cup -hat's off and humble pie!

I am dishing up a large slice of humble pie as I type, since it would appear that contrary to my predictions, the club have already sold 30,000 tickets to tomorrow night's FA Youth Cup match. So where only two thirds of the lower tier was open for the game against Cardiff in the last round, it looks as if the entire stadium will be occupied tomorrow night.

I also wouldn't be surprised if there are more at our ground than the nuber of fans joining me up at Villa Park and when you consider that we are supposedly on the floor at the minute, this is some achievement, especially in light of the fact that apparently there were under a thousand at Old Trafford to watch Man Utd in the last round

Now all we need is a win to ensure a place in the final, which will undoubtedly be a memorable occasion, as if there are over 30,000 for the semi on the same night as the first XI are playing, heaven knows how many would turn up for the final

Big Love

Monday 12 March 2007

The Future Remains Red, White & Remarkably Bright

Hi folks

The definition of a dilemma for a Gooner was epitomised in Sunday’s FA Cup quarterfinal between Chelsea and Spurs. It’s one of the few games I’ve watched where I’ve wanted the ref to win! Nevertheless even the most blinkered of us would have to admit that it was an amazing cup tie, of the sort that really left me envious we were not involved ourselves in playing for a privileged first appearance at the new Wembley. At least it looks like we’ll have a game to keep us busy over the semifinal weekend, which might mean we’ll avoid the ultimate humiliation of having one of the semis played at our place. Having Spurs progress further in the Cup and still involved in Europe (albeit the Mickey Mouse competition) is humiliation enough for this Gooner. Mind you I imagine even if there’s a financial incentive, no one at the club is going to be keen to have 30,000 Spurs fans, with their vast numbers of scum, ripping up seats and doing their utmost to deface our new stadium.

As is my habit, before I began writing the following piece, prior to leaving for work this morning, I checked out the Arsenal page on the Newsnow web site, to get a take on Gooner opinions elsewhere and as usual, after glancing at other football news, I ended up getting sidetracked by the story about an anti-semitic video clip of Hammers fans at Upton Park last week. I then wasted about an hour searching the web in vain for cockneymatt88’s clip, which has apparently been removed from YouTube and which allegedly shows Hammer’s fans singing “I’d rather be a Paki than a Yid” and apparently giving the “Seig Heil” Nazi salute. However while there was no sign of the offending video clip, there was plenty of internet bandwidth wasted by the outraged opinions of various Spurs supporting bloggers.

I had to laugh at them getting on their high-horse about this one incident, when so many of their number are prone to giving civilians a slap in Tottenham High Road, even women and old men included. What’s more these are the same Spurs fans who’ve spent all these years assassinating our manager’s good character, with their totally groundless “Packet of sweets” chant. Imagine Arsène having to explain to his young daughter why they are all singing about him being a paedophile! Mind you, I have to admit that I’m such a hippy that I am invariably happy to hear the almost inevitable sound of this outrageous song at North London derbies, since as far as I am concerned it usually guarantees their subsequent fate, as I’m convinced their bad karma is gonna get them.

Meanwhile it wasn’t until I arrived at work and raised the topic with my West Ham supporting boss, that I discovered that all the media reports had somehow failed to mention that the Hammers fans song was actually a response to their visitor’s equally racist taunts of “Upton Pak”! I wouldn’t dream of trying to justify bigotry of any shape or form and I only mention the matter because stones and glass houses come to mind as far as Spurs fans expression of moral outrage is concerned and they need look a little closer to home if they’re sincerely concerned about football cleaning up its act.

It was only after finishing this piece late this afternoon that its inaccuracies dawned on me. I’m sure the Arsenal ladies wouldn’t thank me for referring to another silverware starved season, when they’ve been collecting so many trophies that they must be getting them wholesale. Moreover the youngsters still have something to play for in the form of the highly prized FA Youth Cup. Considering it’s been the Arsenal’s kids who’ve earned all the plaudits this season, with remarkable performances at WBA, Everton, Liverpool and Spurs that would live long if it wasn’t for my sieve like memory, it would perhaps be quite fitting if we conquered the Youth Cup.

Yet shame on whoever is responsible for arranging Wednesday’s semifinal with Man Utd on the same night as the first XI’s match at Villa Park, as I’m gutted I am going to miss this game. But it would feel a complete betrayal if I failed to follow the first team to Birmingham and would make me feel nearly as fickle as all those who walked out early on Wednesday night.

Additionally shame on the club for their blatant profiteering, as while tickets in advance for the Youth Cup game are the usual price of £3/£1 adults/kids, those who turn up on the night will have to pay £10/£5, merely because it’s a semifinal v Man Utd. Personally I think the club are shooting themselves in the foot, as I feel that the number of people who will perhaps be put off from spontaneously deciding to take the kids because it’s no longer such a cheap outing, could mean that they will end up taking no more money than if they’d maintained the cheap prices. Not to mention the loss of income from sales of all the incidentals and the fact that they might end up missing out on kids who would’ve been brought along because it’s only a quid and who might have got the Gooner bug for life and might’ve been worth a small fortune in merchandising.

The Cardiff game in the last round was brilliant, as included among the 11,000 who filled more than one half of the lower tier there were thousands of dads and moms accompanied by loads of little monsters and while they would’ve guaranteed even more at the Man Utd game, by increasing the prices on the day, I very much doubt they will get the 20,000 the club are expecting. Nowadays these Youth Cup matches are one of the few occasions during the season with the potential of helping to regenerate our rapidly ageing support with some young blood. Additionally it is wonderful experience for the young Gunners to play at the stadium in front of a substantial crowd, instead of on the slope at a dilapidated Underhill, before just a few more than the proverbial three men and a dog. For the club to try to take advantage of the occasion to extort a few more quid from our already overtaxed pockets is very short-sighted.

For those of you going along to support the kids, be sure to give them a shout for me and I will do likewise for you, by hollering my head off as usual at Villa Park

Big Love

Wednesday’s ignominious European exit was all the more difficult to take, knowing the nationalistic ballyhoo that would result in the media, with the other three Premiership sides all occupying highly prized berths in the last eight of world football’s most prestigious competition. What’s more, with Barca out and Milan struggling for form, it appears that the one trophy that continues to elude our illustrious club, is there for the taking this season. Hopefully Valencia’s David Villa might yet have some say in this argument. Yet I can’t help but feel that Bayern could be the only team left with the necessary Champions League credentials, to be capable of perhaps putting a spoke in the pretensions of the Premiership sides.

At the time, understandably, Alexander Hleb was crucified for sacrificing our last remaining chance of any silverware this season. However I was left feeling sorry for the Bielorussian, as although he was the obvious scapegoat as a result of his naïve and utterly needless foul, which led to PSV’s all-important away goal, in truth this was merely the penultimate act in the miserable pot-boiler of the Arsenal’s succession of failures over the past couple of weeks. What’s more, while the Netherlanders might have nicked a crucial couple of feet, to whip the ball in from a far more threatening angle, the massed ranks of our defence were tasked with taking care of one player. Since it was patently obvious from the stands, I couldn’t believe they weren’t more alive to the fact that their paramount objective was to prevent Alex, undoubtedly PSV’s greatest asset, getting anywhere near the ball, be it by fair means or foul.

Nevertheless this was merely another example of the sort of defensive failings that have plagued us for far too long. While most successful sides are founded on a regimental back-line that reacts like clockwork, our seemingly shambolic approach to defending set-pieces means that we’ve grown accustomed to having to rely on being able to outscore the opposition.

Alex’s goal had the effect of extinguishing the fire of hope that had only been lit a half hour earlier, when he’d inadvertently put the ball in the back of PSV’s net. However having failed to make the most of the opportunities which should’ve afforded us our own away goal in Holland, we were always prone to being hammered by such a devastating sucker punch. So despite this all too brief period of belief that the quarterfinals beckoned, in the back of my mind there was always an abiding fear that we’d basically blown our European ambitions for yet another season out in Eindhoven.

Some Gooners contend that the circumstances might’ve been different if we were involved in an encounter with one of Europe’s footballing superpowers. Yet I have to admit to being jealous of the way the Scousers fulfilled their 12th man obligations, by raising the roof at Anfield the night before. With us being out of every other competition and with this being the biggest occasion under floodlights, at out new stadium to date, after the baptism of the Spurs and Man Utd matches, I was hoping to hear the sort of noise which might truly cause the hair to stand up on the back of my neck for the first time at our new home.

OK so PSV might not be the most glamorous opposition, but considering our entire season rested on the outcome of this game, I would’ve at least expected the two teams to walk out into our grandiose arena, to be greeted by the same sort of wall of noise that we’d witnessed in Liverpool the night before. Of the sort that if it didn’t intimidate the opposition, perhaps it might’ve inspired the Gunners to go for the throat right from the off. Instead of which we had to wait until the second half for a concerted assault on PSV’s goal. When in truth, with our two goal target, we really should have been turning the heat up from the opening whistle, producing an intensity which might’ve put PSV under pressure and resulted in a much needed early goal, rather than allowing the visitors all the time they required to settle into a defensive rhythm. And to my mind the lack of fervour from our support was no less culpable for the fact that we approached the game without sufficient fire in our bellies.

Prior to this match some suggested that we needed to guard against going at PSV too gung-ho. Yet this was always unlikely in light of the lukewarm climate on the night. Sadly, as is all too often the case in over-priced, all-seater Premiership stadia these days, instead of producing the atmosphere that might inspire events on the pitch, an hour passed before our crowd really raised the decibel level, but only in response to the goal. Yet while the atmosphere at every ground has suffered from football’s gentrification, it seems that elsewhere that are still some fans who recognise when a ‘big game noise’ is needed and they continue to pull something out of the bag as far as crowd participation is concerned.

I appreciate that the culture of corporate hospitality is essential to ensure the finances at our new stadium stack up, but I have to wonder if it’s going to end up costing us on the pitch, possibly because we’re dependent on a much higher proportion of these high-rolling hordes than other clubs. Perhaps it’s just me, but where European nights at Highbury were invariably high-octane affairs, I get the sense of a strangely subdued mood at the new gaffe. It’s as if the place has been invaded by an army of less partisan suits, wandering around at half-time in search of the grub and the grog that’s on offer gratis to guests of UEFA’s ubiquitous corporate partners.

Yet considering the club’s proud “never say die” traditions and football’s infallible “funny old game” facet, as witnessed in the “not over until it’s over” events at Upton Park only a few days earlier, what really bothered me last Wednesday was the reaction to PSV’s goal. You’d have never seen the likes of Keown and Adams lie down and accept their fate. Even with only 5 minutes left on the clock, they’d have gone out of the competition still kicking and screaming, right until the last second. And although such staunch characteristics might well exist amongst certain members of Wenger’s current squad, they were hardly likely to demonstrate such indefatigable qualities amidst a mass walk-out, with thousands heading for the exits with their backs to the action. As far as our fickle “audience” was concerned, all hope had left the building, the second Alex headed home!

Meanwhile, despite falling at the last hurdle, Arsène avoided an adverse response to last season’s lack of silverware, by dint of our campaign at least coming to the climax of the Champions League final in Paris. Whereas I suppose the ridiculous “end of the world is nigh” reaction of some harebrained Gooners, to a second successive fallow season, is merely evidence of how high Arsène has raised the bar of our expectations, during his remarkable tenure. By contrast, those of us who are long enough in the tooth to have endured a relative eternity in a silverware starved wilderness by comparison, we certainly won’t be turning on possibly the club’s greatest ever manager and we won’t be losing faith, but will remain eternally grateful that our squad is blessed by one of the best players on the planet. Instead of which, with bevy of youngsters burgeoning with unbelievable talent, we’re just desperate for tomorrow.
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Wednesday 7 March 2007

Tuesday night's alright for fighting!

Hi folks

After seeing both the Scousers and Chelsea progress this evening, I am even more desperate for us to succeed tomorrow night. I hate to say it, but after their bye in the last round, I've an inkling that Spurs name might be on Europe's Mickey Mouse silverware this season. And while Hoops fans might be all too familiar with the annual heartache, it's going to seriously depressing if our season comes to an anti-climactic conclusion and we're left having to avoid all the bullsh*t nationalistic ballyhoo in the media, as the only side from these shores denied a quarterfinal berth.

Although I only watched highlights, I thought the encounters involving Liverpool & Chelsea were interesting and I have to admit (begrudginly in Big Mouth's case!) that both managers earned their corn tonight.

When Chelsea signed Cole, Schevchenko and Ballack last summer, I was convinced that with nothing to prove, such established stars weren't going to Stamford Bridge to graft their socks off in the unrelenting grind of the Premiership, as was perhaps demonstrated in their influential efforts this evening. Some might suggest Ballack has to limit his ambitions in a midfield where Lampard is their most offensive player. But to my mind, much like Desailly before him, Ballack has done little more than just enough to justify his place at the Bridge in the Premiership to date, especially when you consider Ballack has the ability to have a much greater influence on matches than has been seen from him so far.

I therefore felt it was quite poignant to see all three of them combine with Didier Drogba to manufacture the goal that put the Blues into the last eight of the Champions League. Perhaps Schevchenko's case is a little more complex but as far as Cole and Ballack are concerned, tonight's performance only confirmed my belief that the two of them are only really going to turn it on for such glamorous evenings as the grand stage of the Champions League.

ITV's co-commentator (Jim Beglin?) made an astute observation in the build-up. With such a muscular target man up front as Drogba, Ashley Cole was able to whip the ball in from deep, knowing Drogba's aerial ability and his physical presence would enable him to win the knock-on, when customarily, facing away from their own goal and dealing with a ball played from halfway inside their half, the centre back would be favourite in most cases.

I am as big a fan of the Arsenal's incredibly cultured football, as the next Gooner, but for a long time now we seem to have suffered from the lack of sufficient brawn to add to all that ability and ironically we appear to continue to do so even with a player nicknamed the Beast in our ranks up front.

Surely I'm not alone when I find myself sighing when our customary dominance of possession results in yet another corner-kick. Or the opposition's frustration at their inability to win the ball back ends up with them kicking one of ours up in the air, earning us the resulting set-piece.

Although Chelsea might not produce performances where their control of possession is as complete as many of our displays, you know full well that if the Blues win a dozen corners during the course of the game, the law of averages guarantees that at least a couple of these will end up with Drogba or Terry getting their head on the ball and producing decent efforts on goal. Whereas by contrast I find our apparent impotence in failing to not only to make the most, but all too often maiking absolutely nothing out of so many set-piece circumstances, utterly exasperating. Especially when you consider our tradition, where the likes of Bould and Adams were the virtual architects of the near post flick-on.

For a while there earlier in the season, it looked as if Gilberto might have grown into the Gunners' aerial threat, in addition to his responsibilities as chief penalty taker & stand-in captain. I wouldn't have been surprised to find Gilbo was taking the kit home to wash as well!

But a team's got to have more than one player with the sort of commitment and determination that makes them prepared to risk injury, getting their head on the ball, otherwise it makes matters all too easy for the opposition. Although it's not only the fact that we lack much of an aerial threat that annoys me. When you consider that we have so many supremely skilled strikers of the ball, it's a real wind up to see the likes of Fabregas or Denilson float yet another corner across, as meat and drink for the opposition keeper to collect.

To my mind it seems utterly obvious that a ball whipped in at pace is likely to prove much harder to defend against, if only for the fact its possible to impart so much spin on the modern day balls that a defender is just as likely to put it into their own net, as clear it. And with all the hours spent on the training ground, you would've thought they'd be able to find some time to conjure up the occasional set play involving just a little more guile than merely smashing the ball into the box? (then again remembering the farcical spot-kick cock-up involving Titi and Pires, we've hardly a great track record with such rehearsed moves!)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that we've lacked this sort of muscular presence up front, capable of winning a large percentage of aerial balls, ever since Arsène's been at the club. It coud be that the very physique which enables a player to win the ball in the air is often going to belong to the sort of footballer who lacks a sufficient turn of pace and mobility on the ground to present Wenger with the sort of statistical profile that doesn't arouse his interest?

What I do know, is that if we still haven't scored twice with only a few minutes left on the clock tomorrow night and we are forced to hoof the ball into the box in a last ditch effort to avoid a premature end to our Champions League campaign, I'm going to be tearing my hair out, once again, because we'll be left losing out in the air, with our only hope that the defender's knock down might fall fortuitously.

Meanwhile I'm not sure whether Benitez deserves praise for his tactical nous, or if Rijkaard was responsible for Barca's demise with his somewhat naive line-up. From the little I saw, it appeared to me that by playing three at the back, the Barca manager was guilty of contributing towards the congestion in midfield, that meant that the likes of Messi wasn't able to find sufficient space or time to be able to influence the outcome.

If we're able to manage the feat of maintaining our Champions League interest by beating PSV tomorrow night, in truth, on the basis that their bad form is likely to be transient and according to the saying, class is permanent, it's probably best that the Catalans are out of the competition. However so long as Etó'o is struggling to get back into goal scoring groove, there's a side of me that's sorry we might've missed out on an opportunity to exact some right proper revenge on the supercilious Spanish side.

However right now I'd be overjoyed to settle for a place in the last eight, as the way things are going, it will be even more devastating if we end up going out of the Champions League, as a result of a shot to nothing effort in Eindhoven, from a PSV side whose ambitions were limited to maintaining a clean sheet. Especially when, to my mind, if we can get past PSV, I'm pretty confident that whoever the seven other remaining sides are, they'd have more to fear from us than we'd have from them.

If the Arrogant One deserves credit for a half-time team talk which inspired the Blues to raise their game in the second-half this evening and if Benitez is deserving of respect for having outwitted Rijkaard, then similarly Arsène truly needs to pull something out of the bag tomorrow night to enable us to strike the right balance. Admittedly I will be absolutely gutted if we're guilty of not giving it a proper go, but bearing in mind PSV's own attacking threat, maintaining our patience will be an onerous task, without going so gung-ho that we play right into Koeman's counter-attacking plans.

Would a goal in the opening moments be too much to ask for? It would certainly save a few thousand Gooner fingernails, what remains of my hair, whilst going a long way to saving us all from what could otherwise prove to be an incredibly stressful evening.

As for all the other non-footballing distractions obviously we're now set for the ultimate irony, where doubtless the English FA end up throwing the book at us, following on from everything which resulted from the absolutely harmless melée of pusing and shoving in the Millennium. Whereas what's the betting we have to endure watching UEFA dish out a relative slapped wrist by comparison, as punishment for the madcap shenanigans witnessed at the Mestalla this evening, in which (if the tales of a cracked conk are indeed true) actual bone breaking punches were thrown!

Big Love

Tuesday 6 March 2007

Never Mind The High Ground, The British Media Would Be More At Home In A Moral Quagmire

Hi Folks

If I'd felt a little more inspired I'd have likely avoided the subject altogether. However after accusing Arséne of losing it somewhat last week, it seemed only fair to focus on Saturday's far less rabid post-match reaction, where le gaffer's good humour would suggest that he's benefited from the passing of time, by being able to view events in their proper perspective.

Meanwhile I'm not sure whether it's nerves which have resulted in something of a literary drought, but I was recently reminded that the Arsenal were in worse shape leading up to last season's sortie to Madrid. What we all wouldn't give on Wednesday for a reprise of the magical ecstasy we experienced in the Bernabeu.

Only fate knows whether we are destined for the timely boost of tonking PSV. Yet even if such a feat should prove a step too far, at the very least I expect the lads to do us and themselves proud, with all our young guns blazing in a glory or bust type performance, rather than limping out of world football's most prestigious tournament with nary a whimper. Perhaps successive Champions League finals is expecting a little too much, but so long as our talented young squad do themselves justice on such a glamorous stage, with a display that demonstrates the true brilliance of the Gunners future.

Watching West Ham's demise in the umpteenth minute of injury time on Sunday was a stark reminder that the beautiful game is always only the odd shot on goal away from being such a cruel beast. Even as a not so neutral, the upshot of this encounter at Upton Park was absolutely unbelievable and I can't possibly begin to imagine the Hammers' fans unbearable pain.

However it certainly put a different perspective on our date with PSV, leaving me duly grateful for the privilege of enjoying the Gunners perform on such a grand stage and truly blessed to be a Gooner

Come on you rip roaring Reds

On reflection, we were fortunate that Reading were the visitors on Saturday. I’ve always been an admirer of Steve Coppell’s footballing philosophy. As far as most pundits were concerned, Coppell’s failure to break the bank, to strengthen his humble Championship winning squad last summer, made Reading favourites for instant relegation. Consequently the wonderful way in which the Royals have prospered in the Premiership to date, has been one in the eye, for all those who would have us believe that money has become the be all and end all, as far as the beautiful game is concerned.

There can’t be many more worthy candidates for manager of the season than the unassuming and unbelievably unflappable gaffer of a side that’s achieved such consistent success, against teams containing star players who have cost more than the entire Reading squad put together. Yet more importantly, most newly promoted teams arrive in the Premiership merely intent on survival. Their desperate efforts to consolidate their highly prized position, as one of the twenty cash cows burying their heads in the top-flight trough, has all too often translated itself into limited ambitions on the pitch, with the sort of percentage football that has in the past proved to be the most feasible route to amassing the required number of points to beat ones immediate rivals to the holy grail of ending the season higher than 17th and avoiding the dreaded drop.

By contrast, Reading have been a remarkable breath of fresh air. Coppell has imbued a squad largely devoid of prima-donnas, with a sense of belief in the synergy that has enabled Reading’s whole to equal and occasionally surpass the sum of many of their opponents' individual parts. In so doing, Reading have offered hope to all the other Championship sides, by proving that Premiership survival isn’t solely dependent on the size of a club’s bank balance and by demonstrating that there is “another way”, one which offers far more entertainment value to the long-suffering fans.

Where in the past, fans of promoted teams have been expected to shell out inflated Premiership ticket prices, week in, week out, whilst wallowing in an inferiority complex that leaves them with little expectation of success, merely grateful for the privilege of an all too brief Premiership ride, Royals’ fans have been turning up at the Madjeski all season, marvelling at a team that’s been prepared to take on supposedly far more talented opposition. Win, lose or draw their fans (and football lovers everywhere) have enjoyed Reading’s efforts to express themselves, as opposed to the sort of prosaic exercise in containment, that we regularly witness from sides who are less certain of their right to compete at this level.

Similarly the Arsenal’s reputation as the purveyor of a passing game, which, at our peak, enables us to embarrass the very best on the planet, has ensured that we’ve grown accustomed to opponents “parking their bus” in front of their goal when visiting our new stadium. Thus, following on from the gut-wrenching disappointment of our two cup defeats and in advance of a Champions League encounter, which will either offer our season much needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, or which will result in the team from the Netherlands nailing shut the coffin lid on an anti-climactic campaign, Arsène Wenger couldn’t have wished for the fixture schedule to throw up more suitable opposition.

If we’d endured 90 frustrating minutes, battling in vain against more obdurate visitors, Saturday’s match certainly wouldn’t have offered the sort of boost to our confidence which was wanted in advance of Wednesday’s far more crucial encounter against PSV. Admittedly we were in serious danger of blowing it near the end and I can’t help but wonder as to Wenger’s post-match reaction, if Reading had managed to equalise. However a win is a win and the fact that both teams’ efforts reflected their manager’s analogous approach to the way the game should be played, was perhaps an added tonic.

“What a difference a day makes”, as our jocular manager managed a total transformation from the man, who only 24 hours earlier had appeared to be in such an utter tizzy in his Friday press conference. Such was Wenger’s conviction that the whole world was persecuting him and his team, that I was half-expecting an appearance from the men in white coat to turn up. Le Prof might struggle to maintain his customary serenity on the touchline these days, but I can’t ever recall Arsène appearing quite so apoplectic for a meeting with the media rat-pack.

Who knows whether it was solely the relief of a win that was responsible for Saturday’s light-hearted post-match reaction, or the eventual realisation that the wrath of the FA is likely to have such a hefty impact on his bank balance. But for a man who, in the opinion of some pundits, is utterly allergic to any form of apology, I suppose his smirking assertion that his decision making off the pitch during the previous few days, was as suspect as some of his players choices on the park, was about as close as Arsène gets to a public act of contrition.

Although it’s a little hard to swallow our erudite manager’s suggestion that he’s merely a victim of the subtleties of the English language, as to my mind he could’ve been speaking in tongues and there’d still be no mistaking his allegations about the official’s mendacity. With the benefit of hindsight, while he might continue to stand his ground, I’ve little doubt that Wenger will regret not having taken a less accusatory stance.

However, above all, I have to laugh at the totally OTT way in which Arsène has found himself being lambasted by the media. When I think back to Wenger’s stoicism in the face of the farcical allegations of paedophilia, within days of having arrived in this country and in light of the chants of the lowlife scum that constantly remind us of this appalling character assassination, I wonder how on earth the press has the front to occupy the moral high ground over a mistake that's a mere faux-pas by comparison.

Meanwhile Arsène can continue to libel every linesman in the land as far as I’m concerned, so long as he’s able to foster the sort of ‘fortress Arsenal’ spirit that enables us to turn around the single goal deficit on Wednesday. Sadly PSV will be determined to ensure that it isn’t anything like as open an encounter as we enjoyed at the weekend. But if only we can achieve the result that would take us into the last eight, with a whole month to prepare for the Champions League quarterfinals, it might yet be a season to remember?
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Saturday 3 March 2007

They're Coming To Take Him Away......!!

I purposely avoided the papers since Sunday and was therefore more than a little surprised when I heard it from a Spurs mate that Wenger was in hot water for accusing a linesman of lying.

I've just watched the BBC's video of Friday's press conference and I can't honestly recall ever seeing Arsène in quite such a tizzy. I'd like to think it was a tactical ploy to get the club to raise the portals and instill the sort of fortress Arsenal spirit, which is needed right now. However I have to admit that I'm more inclined to believe it's evidence that the boss is losing it and that the pressure is getting to him.

If it wasn't for the fact that we are without Henry, Van Persie and so many other injured players, I wonder if he'd be able to view the recriminations from Sunday's final with a little more perspective?

Let's face it, no matter how innocent Adebayor is of the crime for which he was sent-off, any chance he had of getting the suspension rescinded was ruined by Manny's reaction and his refusal to leave the pitch.

Sure I can understand how unhappy Manny was and in his shoes, in those particular circumstances, whose to say that even the most even-tempered amongst us wouldn't have reacted likewise. Nevertheless, as an example to all the millions of kids watching on TV, Manny's actions were absolutely indefensible. There will be lary young larrikins playing on Hackney Marshes and open spaces up and down the country, who'll doubtless end up immitating Manny, anytime they are wrongfully accused, thinking his actions give them a license to express similar contempt for the officials decisions

Meanwhile no matter how much Arsène rails against the perceived injustice of it all, at the end of the day, we will have still blown our chances of any domestic silverware and in truth (unless there's something to be gained from putting up the barricades and promoting the "fortress Arsenal" spirit), he'd probably achieve a whole lot more, by expressing remorse about his team's failure to set the right example and by looking a little closer to home, when it comes to apportioning blame.

Let's face it, unlike Lille, it wasn't as if Chelsea or Blackburn beat us by means of a sneaky, quickly taken free-kick. Just like everyone else who has been watching football all their lives, Arsène should know only too well that as far as the officiating is concerned, you win some, you lose some. Thus it's a futile waste of breath to be blaming the men in black, especially when there's far more obvious reasons for both defeats. But then perhaps it's much easier to vent ones anger elsewhere, rather than accept his own player's responsibility.

Success eluded us against Chelsea because we failed to take sufficient advantage of our first-half dominance and against Rovers, it was always going to be a case that the winners would be the team who wanted it most. Judging by our decicdedly uninspired efforts, apart from a couple of players who truly worked their socks off, by and large, you never got the sense from the somewhat timid displays of some of those in red & white, that they really wanted it.

It's wrong really to single out individuals in such a lame performance overall. However watching the likes of Baptista and Hleb, there was never any sense in their casual efforts, that they were prepared to die to make it into the next round. I should be careful, lest I really go off on one, but watching the (entirely inappropriately named) Beast literally bounce off Blackburn's 6ft 5inch centre-back, just about summed up our evening. Sadly our free-kicks either failed to make it into the box, or were floated in, as meat and drink for Brad Friedel. However at every single set piece, I was screaming for someone, anyone, to demonstrate that sort of John Terry like determination to get their head on the ball, putting themselves, the ball and anyone else into the back of the net, with a show of the sort of hunger and commitment that was deserving of a place in the quarterfinals.

Sadly it wasn't to be and if Arsène isn't careful, instead of inspiring the troops, he's going to end up promoting the sort of blame culture, where our squad is going to feel permanently hard done by, moaning about everyone and everything, other than their own lack of intensity.

If we're going to turn things around against PSV, we really need to roll Reading over to get us back in the winning groove. Most other clubs would be delighted if they could put out a side with half the ability of Arsène's patched up team. Considering the inevitable and doubtless costly consequences of FA's wrath, I pray Arsène's outburst ends up having a positive effect.

And while we're on the topic of throwing one's toys out of the pram, personally it drives me absolutely potty when people insist on drawing any parallels between football and those Phillistines egg chasers. "Rugby is a hooligan's sport played by gentlemen and football is a gentleman's sport played by hooligans". It might well be a worn-out cliché but it remains as true today as it always was. The respect afforded to the officials in rugby results from the fact that it's always been an upper and middle class pursuit (at least that is the case as far as rugby league is concerned), by and large played by privileged youngsters. When was the last time you saw kids on a council estate throwing a rugby ball around? The officials in a rugby match command the exact same authority that is afforded to the teachers in a posh public school, where no one would dare show any disrespect. By contrast, the lack of respect often shown towards the officials on a football pitch is no different to the attitude usually shown towards teachers in a less privileged school.

I in no way mean to suggest that this is right, but it's merely a fact of life that football is a far truer representation of the society in which the majority of us live, compared to the more rarerified atmosphere of the hampers and champers crowd who frequent Twickers and the like

Meantime we have to have faith in Arsène's ability to get our season back on track over the next two games. Failing that, the demoralisation is likely to be such, that I really wouldn't fancy our chances of recovering sufficiently for the few remaining Premiership matches. Such a complete capitulation over the course of two weeks would be truly ironic, when you look back to the astonishing manner in which we demolished the Scousers and after which the pundits were absolutely falling over themselves to heap praise upon the abundance of talent in Wenger's young squad. Who could've imagined a season of such promise, could potentially end up being so disappointing?

However I honestly haven't been so excited about the promising prospects for an Arsenal squad, since Manu Petit and Patrick Vieira first paired up in our midfield. I'm under the impression PSV haven't lost a game in the last dozen matches and with this in mind, it would be no mean feat if we can turn things around next week. Yet if we can actually get past the Dutch and into the last eight of the Champions League, Arsène will have nearly a month to prepare for the quarterfinals. And with the likes of Diaby, Denilson and co. all coming to the fore with relatively fresh legs, compared to the potential opposition, where the majority of their most influential stars have played so many more matches, I certainly wouldn't back against us!

Besides which, we've gotta beat Reading and PSV, if only to prevent the men in white coats coming for Le Prof and hopefully, to put a much welcomed end to the old bugger's constant whinging

Come on you rip roaring Reds