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Monday 30 April 2007

One Goal Doth Not A Beast Make

Hi folks

Mercifully I'm not nearly long enough in the tooth to have any memory of Arthur Milton, but I remember Alan Ball's arrival at THOF very well. I'd guess Ballie must've been one of the first players to take advantage of merchandising, with his famous white boots. I think I might even have had a pair as a kid and I'm pretty sure they were a load of pony (and I don't mean the manufacturer!). But there was a lot of duff stuff on the market in the 70s, at a time when every kid I knew wanted a pair of Clarke's Commandoes, with a compass in the heel!

When I look at the ultra modern blade style boots of today, I'm pretty much convinced that in years to come we'll look back on them as an equally likely cause of injury as the techno madness of that era which resulted in another dodgy pair of boots, with the front four studs on a plate that swivelled independently from the boot.

I don't think I took to Alan Ball at first. Perhaps it was because I was such a fan of the double side of 71 and aged only nine or ten, I was distressed by Bertie Mee breaking this team up so prematurely. Or perhaps it stuck in my childlike head, when I overheard my old man claiming that Ball had only left Merseyside to escape all his creditors. If he was the archetype of the modern player, it wasn't just on the pitch, as apparently rumour had it that Ball was a big gambler off it. Back then, it was like seeing Tony Adams play in an Everton shirt, or it might just have demonstrated the influence of Soccer Stars stickers, as to my mind Ball was, and always would be associated with the Toffees. In fact I happened to catch that programme on Sky presented by Dickie Davies just the other day, where Bobby Charlton and Ball were the pundits and where they were disssecting a recording of an Arse v Man Utd encounter, which I guess was from 1973. I'm assuming it must've been after Frank Mclintock had left the club and I'd completely forgotten that Alan Ball had actually been the Arsenal captain. With his squeaky, high-pitched voice, it's hard to imagine the diminutive Ballie having much authority, as a leader of men.

I'm sure others with more mature memories of Ball as a player might correct me, but I have an image of him as a Perry Groves type player, perhaps (as a World Cup winner) with just a little bit more ability, but all passion and 100 per cent commitment. Watching from above, I wonder what he would've made of Sunday's less than committed encounter, from players who probably earn more in a week, more than he was paid per annum!

BIg Love

As an Arsenal fan, there was a certain sadistic pleasure involved in channel hopping between the high-drama of Saturday's high-noon double-header. Obviously I’d be a whole lot happier if we were actually involved in the exciting conclusion to this season’s title race. But if we were, I’m not sure my old ticker would’ve taken all the stress and tension of the phenomenal peaks and troughs that were packed into this one 90 minute period. Thus there was some solace and more than a little satisfaction in being able to savour the gobsmacking denouement of both games as a not so neutral observer, knowing exactly what the Man Utd and Chelsea fans were going through, as the pendulum of good fortune swung back and forth.

It was also interesting to see the composed way in which Chris Eagles curled in Man Utd’s 4th goal. Fergie’s assertion that his kids are every bit as good as the Gunners, might have been validated on paper by their victory over us in the Youth Cup semi-final. Yet anyone who actually watched this two-legged encounter will know better. There’s no doubt that the Arsenal currently has a rich seam of talent running throughout the club, at every level and in patches this season, we’ve been privileged to see some utterly sublime footie. But for all the artistry we’ve enjoyed watching in the build-up, this last goal at Goodison served to remind me that our most common complaint has been that we’ve all too often lacked the killer instinct, when it comes to the crucial business of putting the ball in the back of the net.

Considering I grew up supporting Arsenal sides that were infamous for their ability to grind out results, it’s perhaps a little churlish of me to be complaining, now that I’m fortunate to be watching some of the most cultured football being played anywhere on this planet and where hordes of freeloading pundits and ex-pros name the Arsenal as the one team they would put their hands in their pockets to watch. But ironically, no matter how grateful we are that Arsène Wenger has instilled this ethos of flair football, the most obvious missing ingredient amidst all the finesse, is a player with the more primitive ability to put his foot (or his head) behind the ball and give it some wellie!

While we continue to dominate possession against weaker opposition with our mazy passing patterns around the penalty area, such is our increasing frustration with the players’ failure to take responsibility that we’ve taken to celebrating an attempt on goal of any sort, no matter how inept. Although it has to be stressed that if any of our competitors had lost the services of their two most prolific strikers for the majority of this campaign, it's likely they'd have found themselves in similar schtuck.

It was this same old story on Sunday, when Baptista could’ve bagged a hat-trick in the opening minutes and we should’ve buried a patently inferior Fulham side, that hardly performed in Lawrie Sanchez’s fire and brimstone image. Perhaps it was scoring so early that killed the game as a contest, as in truth it was a rather tepid end of season affair, until the 78th minute, with a lethargic looking performance from an Arsenal that had been guaranteed 4th place by the previous day’s results and very little passion from Fulham, of the sort that would suggest they were fighting for their Premiership lives.

However with our profligacy in front of goal and a couple of stunning saves from Niemi preventing the expected drubbing from materialising, as the game wore on, you sensed a growing belief from the Cottagers that perhaps this match wasn’t a lost cause. I know I’m always bemoaning Lehmann’s failure to dominate his area but for once I wished he’d stayed on his line, as his fumbled punch presented Davies with an awkward opportunity for a sand wedge chip over all the bodies and into an open goal. Suddenly we were struggling to hold on to a point, in a game which should’ve been one of our most comfortable wins of the season.

What I can’t understand is that unlike many of the other costly sucker punches this season, this one was telegraphed from about 10 minutes prior. If we knew it was coming in the stands, surely the same was true on the pitch. Sadly it wasn’t until after Fulham had equalised that we pulled our collective fingers out. With only 12 minutes left on the clock, I feared the worst, as often in such circumstances, when a team’s been coasting for most of the match, it’s hard for them to suddenly change gear and find some momentum.

When one of the loudmouths in the row behind suggested it was the worst game he’d seen all season, I began to feel awful for my two mates from Cork watching from the Upper Tier. It was no hardship for me to stroll around the corner to spend 90 minutes bathed in sunshine and no matter how boring this game, for me there’s always next week. Whereas their one and only trip to our new stadium had been planned for months and it was a pity to think of them going to the effort of flying over from Ireland for such a lacklustre affair.

We rarely struggle to raise our game when the big guns come a calling. But there’ll have to be a drastic improvement, if we’re to have a hope of sticking a sock in the Gobby One’s mouth by putting the kibosh on Chelsea’s Premiership hopes next Sunday. Consequently I was grateful both for my two Corkonian pals and in terms of the team’s confidence that we managed to end this match on a high. Not to mention that I’m not sure I’d have been able to face my West Ham supporting boss on Monday, if we’d ended up gifting their relegation rivals a potentially crucial point.

Lawrie Sanchez might as well have pulled a shirt on, as he spent the entire 90 standing on the touchline, kicking every ball and doing his best to marshal his defence. He even rushed onto the pitch instead of Fulham’s physio at one point. Yet despite Sanchez’s best efforts to prevent Fulham from going too gung-ho and leaving their back door open, it was Lehmann’s save from Michael Brown’s decent effort to snatch a winner, which actually began the counter-attack that resulted in Adebayor’s goal, as their over-stretched defence struggled to contain our gangly Togolese striker.

Gilberto’s goal from the spot was the icing on the cake, which ensured we all went home much happier bunnies than we’d been 10 minutes earlier. Although the now customary mass exodus before the final whistle meant that many missed our 3rd and others who left even earlier will have only known it wasn’t a draw by nature of the distant sound of our celebrations. With all the public transport problems, I can perhaps understand folk rushing to get home from a midweek game. But I can’t possibly fathom why so many would risk missing late goals on a Sunday afternoon. What’s more with so much obvious movement in the stands, I’m amazed the players managed to maintain sufficient focus to score them.

I was too busy avoiding the overly fastidious orange jackets, whilst sneaking my halftime fag on a stairwell, to have seen the Arsenal Ladies who dashed over from Borehamwood, to display the spoils of their midday UEFA Cup triumph. But I can’t end this piece without giving their triple feats all due credit, since their amazing achievements have at least ensured that there are a few baubles to display in the new stadium’s trophy cabinet. Considering they were crowned Premier League champs with a 5-1 win over Chelsea, I pray we don’t end up wishing Wenger had sent the ladies out at 5.45 next Sunday!
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