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Monday 13 August 2007

Not Quite So Far From Home Sweet Home

Our season couldn’t have got off to a better start, as we savoured watching another Lilywhite false dawn being flushed down the Stadium of Light plughole, in the 90th minute on Saturday. Naturally, in our house we were pleased to see Sund-Ireland bank all 3 points. But with Martin Jol’s extravagant summer spending and with all the press speculation about the imminent disintegration of the Wenger dynasty, my Spurs pals had grown so incredibly cocksure of their imminent return to the big-time that the bursting of this illusory bubble, on day one, was an absolute delight.

I should know better than to have tempted fate, with a barrage of mickey taking text messages before our own turn at bat, but I couldn’t resist. Time was when league tables weren’t produced until at least three games in, but I wasn’t complaining about it’s premature appearance on MOTD later that night, as this afforded me the opportunity to remind my misguided mates that rather than the rarefied air they’d been expecting to breathe at the top, for at least a couple of hours earlier in the day, they were slumming it amongst the relegation fodder.

As a result, I was about to turn my own mobile phone off, with only a few minutes left on the clock against Fulham the following day, rather than face the imminent threat of reprisals. That was until Kolo Touré saved our bacon, by demonstrating such drive and determination, in the dying throes of a frustrating encounter, with an absolutely barnstorming run that was rewarded with a penalty.

There’d been many a raised Gooner eyebrow when it was announced that Gallas had been awarded the captain’s armband. I’m no great fan of Arsène’s tendency to set so much store in seniority and his efforts to use the captaincy as a carrot in recent times (eg. Vieira, Henry) certainly haven’t proved particularly successful. Personally I feel it should be a position of respect that has to be earned as a reward and on Sunday, in refusing to lie down and almost single-handedly grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck, it was Kolo who came to the fore, with this display of “the right stuff”.

Although, in truth, perhaps the most positive aspects to Sunday’s performance (as has been the case in pre-season) was the evidence from our squad as a whole of a renewed determination, in a post Henry era, to prove that the Arsenal are anything but a one-man team and the suggestion of their resolve to cast off this “soft touch” reputation that they’ve acquired in recent times.
Even our phlegmatic manager was a little more anxious than usual, to avoid allowing crucial points to slip through our fingers. In the past we’ve been able to set our clocks by Arsène’s substitutions, coming as they invariably do 15, or at the most 20 minutes before the final whistle. Whereas on Sunday Wenger’s patience ran out just after the hour mark, when he began to ring the changes with Theo Walcott. In fact it was Bendtner’s introduction with 18 minutes to play, which ended up having the biggest impact on the eventual outcome, by adding a long-awaited different dimension to our front line.

Up until then Fulham’s big centre-backs had looked far too comfortable and to be honest I was very disappointed when I first arrived at the ground to discover we were playing our first home game, against inferior opposition, with only one recognised striker on the park. Moreover I don’t really think Van Persie is an out and out front man, as to my mind his talents are far more suited to Bergkamp’s mantle than the Shearer type role. Hleb did his best to link the play, but all too often either Van Persie was left isolated, or they both dropped off to fetch the ball and our wide men were the most advanced players on the pitch, preventing us from pulling Fulham apart with pace, as they were forced to wait for support.

My other main concern is that Van Persie appears to be our only player capable of threatening from a set-piece. Until the introduction of the 6’3” Danish kid, the Dutchman was our tallest player on the pitch and it was a constant wind-up watching him whip, or Fabregas float the majority of our 14 corners straight down the throat of the Fulham keeper. By contrast, we appeared fragile at each of Fulham’s 4 corners. Some suggest our centre-backs are too short, but I remain convinced that many of our defensive ills could be cured by a more consistent keeper, who dominates his area.

However I’m focusing on the positives. Last season we were out of the race after only three games and I doubt we’d have converted this calamitous defeat into a win. Thus Loony Lehmann probably did us a favour, as a prosaic win against Fulham certainly wouldn’t have consolidated the sense of squad solidarity seen in the impromptu group hug after the final whistle. In this respect Wenger is correct in suggesting that it could be a significant result, as a winning momentum is all-important, whereas a fall at the first might have had a more significant impact on us than any other team in the Premiership.

Whether or not we can maintain it, is another question, as the genuine title contenders will need to set themselves above the mêlée, which is about to ensue below. It appears to me that a levelling out between the league’s lesser lights is likely to make for one of the most interesting competitions in many a moon, as if the promoted clubs can maintain their intensity, they’ll be inviting several other sides to join them in the relegation dogfight.

With a smorgasbord of largely unappetising encounters, I imagine the new boys on the pay-per-view block are banking on this being the case. I would’ve liked to watch Torres’ debut on Saturday, to see whether he’s capable of transferring his prolific La Liga goalscoring feats to the Premiership. However I haven’t heard of anyone who has actually stumped up an additional ten quid a month to Setanta. It seems many might cherry pick the odd game. Yet the majority of us are already forced to make such financial sacrifices for our footballing pleasures, that hopefully we’ll make a bit of a stand, before sliding down the slippery slope towards multi-subscription fees to watch every live match. Although that’s easy for me to say, when I’m privileged to watch most every Arsenal game in person.

Meanwhile you give the Gunners a grand in season ticket renewals these days and you don’t even get a new ticket. As we turned up for Sunday’s ridiculously timed kick-off, there was a moment of panic on shoving my somewhat time worn plastic wallet into the turnstile gadget, as I wondered what the hell I would do if some incompetent bozo hadn’t pushed the button to re-credit my membership card.

The return to Highbury at the start of a new season always felt like a family reunion and so I was relieved to reach my seat on Sunday to find a few familiar faces. For me and many like me, the new gaff is never going to equal our beloved Highbury high, but I’m happy to report that it’s beginning to feel a lot more like home.

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