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Wednesday 31 October 2007

"Steve Gerrard, Gerrard......"

".....he kisses the badge on his chest, then hands in a transfer request. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard"

(I have been working all hours, fitting up Snow Queen for the ballet in Oxford but having written the following in the wee hours Monday morning, I thought I had better post it to my blog before tonight's Carling Cup encounter at Sheffield leaves it looking somewhat outdated)

I’ve been castigated in certain Gooner quarters for suggesting that up until recently we hadn’t actually been playing as well as the media hyperbole would have you believe and that our elevated status was more a reflection of the mediocre start to the season made by our competitors. I stand by this, as I firmly believe that the fact that the much unfancied Flamini and our two full-backs have been our players of the season so far, is all the evidence needed to confirm that many of the more illustrious Gunners had yet to hit a genuine groove.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we haven’t entertained, as we’ve produced purple patches of absolutely sparkling football, ever since day one. But with Arsène having set the Arsenal bar so incredibly high, up until the trouncing of the hapless Slavia Prague last Tuesday, to my mind the individual instances of brilliance were too disjointed, stalling on a wayward pass, or without any sting to the final ball.

With so many of our players still struggling for the delicate touch and control that is their trademark when in top form - even those who’ve been banging in goals for fun like Adebayor, Van Persie and of course Fabregas, might’ve been working their socks off, but few present would suggest they were in top form – we had yet to witness 90 minutes, nay even 45 minutes of the sort of total footie that would stand as testament to our true title credentials. That was until Sunday!

Obviously our confidence must’ve been soaring, after seeing off the Czech lambs to the slaughter in the Champions League midweek, where we laid down the sort of marker, which was bound to make the rest of Europe sit up and take notice. But after Gerrard attempted to strike the cover off the ball with his extremely effective opening gambit (albeit aided by the sort of gaping hole in our wall which the Liverpool captain could’ve driven a truck through!), the 40-minutes which followed was as dominant a display as I’ve seen from an Arsenal side playing at Anfield.

Not that there wasn’t continued frustration at our failure to capitalise on our first-half superiority, as all our flowing football came to naught in the final third. Far too frequently we resorted to a diagonal ball into the box that was meat and drink to Hypia and Carragher, with a solitary and somewhat isolated Adebayor all too often out-jumped. Considering we can move the ball with such incredible pace, I simply cannot fathom our reluctance to continue down the flanks to the byeline, from where a ball whipped in is much harder for the opposition keeper to deal with and which would force the lumbering defence to attempt to clear, whilst running back towards their own goal.

However it’s churlish of me to moan about such trifling matters as actually putting the ball in the net, or the odd misplaced pass, when from a purist point of view the Arsenal were poetry in motion for much of Sunday’s match. That doesn’t mean that that there was a sudden improvement in the level of individual performances, but you sensed that everything was ramped up a notch for what was an all-together more high quality contest than many we’ve played to date. Our passing was crisper with the ball forced to travel much more quickly around its triangular course, by the way in which Mascherano and co. were doggedly hunting us down in packs. While on the rare occasions that we were not in possession, 0-1 down and facing their stiffest examination of the season, our defence was a study in concentration, knowing they couldn’t afford a second slip up.

The media have praised us to the hilt for sticking to our principles. Yet in truth Arsène Wenger’s side only knows one way to play, as suggested by the refrain which echoed out from our end of the ground for long periods of the game “Liverpool hoof the ball….Arsenal pass the ball”. In hindsight the script was written in the way the two managers set their stalls out, with our five-man midfield forcing the Scousers to chase shadows for much of the match, but with Adebayor struggling to make much of an impact. However with the home side’s three pronged forward line, their occasional foray’s forward were somewhat more direct, forcing Manuel Almunia to demonstrate that Lehmann hasn’t been left on the bench merely out of spite.

Naturally going a goal down wasn’t what we’d have wished for, but without Gerrard’s early strike I rather suspect we’d have witnessed a far less enthralling contest, with both sides probing for a weakness without really committing men forward. Whereas Liverpool were on the back foot right from the restart since we had no choice but to force the issue, taking the game to them as if we were the home side and they the visitors.

You could sense the effects on the Liverpool psyche of Benitez’s constant tinkering, because once the initial euphoria of taking the lead had subsided a nervous hush fell across the home crowd. Then again it’s not the first time we’ve found ourselves teasing “where’s your famous atmosphere” at Anfield. Although my own nerves were also up to ninety. The previous day’s results at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge had made it even more important that we reaffirm our right to sit atop the pile, as despite our dominance in this game, without Fabregas’ 80th minute equlaiser, instead of singing our praises, the media would’ve undoubtedly begun to write us off as lacking sufficient substance to maintain a credible challenge.

It’s either black or white as far as the press are concerned, either we are the best thing since sliced bread, or a bunch of immature kids who can’t possibly hold their own in the manly marathon ahead. Obviously this was just the first in a succession of formidable hurdles, but it was vitally important that we didn’t fall at the first as personally I believe Sunday’s fightback could prove psychologically significant in the mental development of this young squad, as is next weekend’s encounter with Man Utd. And if we can emerge from both these fixtures with our unbeaten record intact, the Gunners will have thrown down the gauntlet by establishing the pace the competition will have to keep up with, if they’re to continue breathing down our necks.

Stranger things have happened but considering our dominance, I would’ve felt incredibly hard done by to have departed Anfield with our tails between our legs and when it eventually came, Fabregas’ equaliser was nothing less than we deserved, making our nine hour round trip trek seem worth every arduous, traffic-ridden minute.

Mind you it all could’ve worked out very different. Standing queuing for my half-time cuppa, there was little evidence of any panic in the air at our end of the ground. With continued patience and plenty of application, it always felt as if we had the weapons to prevail. However just as I was about to be served, my mobile phone rang and it was Róna on the line, in a frantic state, having just exited Brent Cross Shopping Centre, babbling about the car having been stolen.

For a minute there, I thought the fates were against me and it was all going to pot, that I’d be ending the weekend with the Arsenal conceding top spot to Man Utd and with my motor knocked off! Meanwhile it was only moments later that the penny dropped and having enquired of my missus if she’d applied the steering lock, I was virtually certain that she’d merely returned to the wrong floor of the massive car park.

Mercifully it wasn’t long before she retrieved the motor and much to my relief, by the end of the match the Arsenal had been restored to the top of the Premiership table, a fitting place for the country’s leading exponents of the beautiful game as it is meant to be played

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Monday 22 October 2007

A Hair Raising Fortnight

For a while there on Saturday it appeared as if Bolton might achieve their objective, with the sort of bullyboy tactics we’ve grown accustomed to from Wanderers, which distracted us from doing what we do best. That was until Theo Walcott‘s introduction somehow seemed to energize our entire side and suddenly, instead of battering our way through the Bolton rearguard, we managed to produce the finesse that eventually found the visitors out.

Theo has been the source of much frustration up until now. There’s never been any doubt that the youngster’s been blessed with absolutely blistering pace and the sort of natural ability that first brought him to the attention of the footballing world (at least one World Cup too early!). But there’s been a worrying possibility that Arsenal fans would lose patience with Theo and would begin to get on his back, if his struggle to have an impact on games had continued for very much longer.

Football fans are a remarkably unforgiving bunch and if it wasn’t for the fact that Theo has acquired the mantle of the Arsenal’s latest great, not-so-white hope, there’d be few allowances made for the fact that he’s still a mere teenager, learning his trade. He hasn’t been afforded too many opportunities this season, as I’m sure Wenger is similarly aware of the need to tease the talent out of Walcott, without our more fickle fans doing irreparable damage to his confidence. Yet with him being the only English player in the current squad (as Justin Hoyte appears to have slipped down the pecking order), Gunners fans have been understandably desperate for the day when we could gush that “the boy done good”.

And such high levels of expectation have also been reflected in the groans of exasperation, as up until Saturday all Theo’s appearances have proved rather ineffective, other than to demonstrate that our teenage prodigy is only a “meep, meep” away from being able to pass himself off as Roadrunner. Even I have to admit that I was beginning to have my doubts as to whether Walcott was going to be able to transfer all his training ground promise, to the Premiership’s pressure-cooker stage and there were others who were prematurely writing the teenager off as a one trick pony. Such breathtaking speed is a marvellous asset in modern day football, but in order to tear top-flight defences asunder, it needs to be matched by the sort of instinctive speed of thought necessary to prevail, in what is the mental equivalent of an amphetamine fuelled chess match

I watch a good game of football, just like I watch a good game of tennis. By which I mean it is very easy, looking on from the stands, to be able to assimilate the information, the way the defence is lined up, the potential gaps to exploit and translate this into the optimum point of attack, but only the very best, the Dennis Bergkamps of this world, are able to subconsciously interpret this overview. For the vast majority of more mundane professionals, their performance comes down to a series of far more simplistic decisions, as to whether to take on the player directly in front of them, or to lay the ball off to a team-mate.

To date, Theo’s appearances on the sidelines have always resulted in an audible buzz of expectancy around the ground, rising to a roar the first couple of time he’s flown past a full-back. But sadly the excitement has soon dissipated as he’s invariably dribbled down a dead-end and once his initial bubble of confidence has been burst, Theo’s decision making has become decidedly suspect, hesitant whether to stick or twist and all too often ending up bust.

It’s difficult to say what the difference was on Saturday. Perhaps some of the players were enervated after their International exertions and Campo & co’s infuriating repertoire of rhythm-breaking roguery had run its course. Whatever the cause, Wenger deserves the credit, as in the past I’ve frequently bemoaned his failure to intervene until the last 15 minutes. But the introduction of Walcott and Rosicky with half an hour to play was just what the doctor ordered, as it lifted the crowd (at 59.5k our lowest of the season, which I assumed was due to a few hundred Club Level suckers for punishment choosing to pay through the nose to watch England’s defeat in Paris, until I noticed the empty section of away seats that Bolton must’ve been unable to sell!) and stoked up the tempo sufficiently to put the visitors properly under the cosh for the first time in the match.

It was very gratifying to see a training ground routine come to fruition with Kolo’s industrial effort on goal finding the back of the net. It’s by no means easy to welly the ball on the deck, into the corner of the net with sufficient power to pass the keeper. But this was function over form and further evidence of the additional attributes that make this Arsenal squad a more formidable proposition.

Watching Villareal v Barcelona on Sunday night, Robert Pires’ mastery of a football made me feel quite nostalgic. Although there was an instance in this match where Pires’ trickery took him through, to be one on one with the keeper inside the penalty area. But instead of taking a crack at goal and perhaps killing off the game by making it 4-1, Le Bob tried an utterly audacious backheel, which rolled harmlessly behind the supporting striker. It would’ve been ‘magnifique’ if it had worked out but the fingers of blame would’ve been pointing in Pires’ direction if Barca had gone on to drag themselves back into this game.

I doubt the artist that is Pires would’ve approved of Kolo’s attempt to take the cover off the ball, but then in seasons past, the Arsenal’s efforts to caress the ball into the back of the net might’ve prevented us from getting the job done against the likes of Bolton. Meanwhile there was still time for the pretty passing patterns, as the game opened up once we’d taken the lead and Wanderers were forced to advance into our half of the pitch.

It will do young Theo’s confidence a power of good that he’s being acknowledged as the catalyst for Saturday’s success, but it could easily have been all so different, as the margins between back page golden boy and anonymous bit-part substitute are very slim. I happened to notice Rosicky having a word with our wunderkind after his first burst along the flank ended down a blind alley, with him failing to cut the ball back across the area to his unmarked team-mate. Whatever was said between them, their exchange bore fruit when Walcott arrived at a similar spot a few minutes later, as on this occasion he showed the awareness to pick out Rosicky, to provide the Czech with the relatively simple finish that secured us the three points.

On an off day for the likes of Eboué and Adebayor, Gael Clichy again stood out. Admittedly he had very little to do defensively but it’s his energy level that so impresses, with a couple of storming forward runs late on, one where it looked as though he was intent on jinking his way around the entire Bolton team. Meanwhile Bakari Sagna stood out mostly because of his ‘barnet’. After the Samson like effect of losing his conspicuous blonde locks, with it coinciding with his first below par performance in red & white against Sunderland, it seems as if Sagna is no less superstitious than the rest of us. Bakari’s hairdresser must’ve been busy growing him some new day-glo extensions while Sagna was away with the French squad. Long gone are the days when boots and shin-pads were the only accessories a footballer needed!

Losing Van Persie for some crucial clashes over the next few weeks was a lamentable outcome of the International break. Albeit offset slightly by Togo’s exit from the African Nations Cup, which at least means Adebayor won’t be accompanying Kolo and Eboué in their disruptive three week disappearing act at the end of January.

Many pundits seem to feel that the forthcoming fixtures against Liverpool and Man Utd will prove the first genuine test of our squad’s title credentials. However based on our experience in the recent past, we’ve not had any trouble raising our game for these glamorous, so-called title-deciders. It’s been our tendency to blow points against the likes of Bolton that has cost us dear and it’s been a real wind up watching these also-rans work their socks off to knock us off our stride, only for them to roll over and play dead against our immediate competition in subsequent matches.

It’s amazing to witness the increasing effect of that aura of invincibility. Where last season Bolton might have considered Saturday’s fixture with the outside chance of picking up a point, suddenly you know deep down that such opponents aren’t really expecting anything out of the game and their unambitious approach is merely an attempt to come away with their pride intact.

Based on recent results, in truth there’s no greater risk of dropping points at Anfield than there was at Upton Park the other week and the three points earned against the Hammers are worth exactly the same as the three points on offer on Sunday. My main concern is that to date this young squad is used to going into such games as underdogs, hungry to test themselves against the Premiership’s greatest talents. It will be interesting to see how they react to their new-found elevated status and whether they can retain the same intensity, as our main rivals take their turn at shooting us off our perch.

Finally this week’s column can’t end without paying my respects to the passing of Denton, perhaps the most renowned ‘face’ amongst the entire Gooner tribe, who died tragically in a car crash whilst looking after the Pet Shop Boys in Moscow. I can’t be a hypocrite, since it was the serious violence of the 70s that turned me off football as a spectator sport, as the thought of getting stabbed on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t my idea of entertainment. Yet I was driving past the new stadium all last week, wondering about the increasingly impressive tributes, as by Friday the area around the two cannons had become a floral sea of red & white. It wasn’t until the weekend that it dawned on me that the wreaths were for Denton, who sadly might be gone but who certainly won’t be forgotten.

Monday 15 October 2007

Rien Ne Va Plus

With yet another interminable interruption to our Premiership campaign (just as it’s coming nicely to the boil), I was hoping this weekend’s International fare might fuel my weekly column. Although with the Boys in Green’s Euro 2008 challenge petering out, with their dismal goalless draw against the Gerries at Croke Park and with the disappointing reality of a third successive qualification failure, compounded by England’s progress in the rugby, it occurs to me that perhaps the less said, the better, as far as Irish Examiner readers are concerned.

I’m unsure if any Arsenal players have succumbed to injury while on International duty thus far, but in truth apart from Jens Lehmann’s sadly all too uneventful evening in Dublin and Eduardo notching yet another strike for Croatia, there was very little of note in any of the games across the globe to arouse Gooner interest. If Robbie Keane has been left contemplating whether he might have done better, surely it’s small beer compared to Alexander Hleb’s embarrassment. I’m certain Hleb won’t be showing his face in Belarus, after suffering a home defeat to Luxembourg. Apparently it’s 12 long years since this tiny state last savoured success!

Personally I’ve rarely enjoyed watching rugby, especially since the modern game seems to have developed into a tedious, long-range kicking contest. However compared to the excitement enjoyed by those Philistine egg-chasing aficionados, proof positive that us fans of proper football were on to a loser this past weekend, came when I stayed up late on Sunday night, only to see Brazil’s samba soccer stars play out another boring scoreless draw in Bogota.

In fact from an Arsenal point of view, it was perhaps our keeper’s post match interview on Saturday, which most tweaked my interest. I looked up from my keyboard and cranked up the volume when I heard loopy Lehmann claim that since he hasn’t been seen on the bench following his couple of calamitous boo-boos back in August, obviously he hasn’t been dropped, but has been unfit these past couple of months. I’m unsure whether Jens is deluded, or he actually believes us to be sufficiently stupid to swallow his face-saving codswallop.

Whatever the case, our arrogant goal minder is going to feel a bit foolish if Arsène continues to keep faith with Almunia. Thus I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Jens again returns to the club with the sort of tenuous tendon strain that could keep him out of contention right up until the goalkeeping cock-up that might gift the German an opportunity to get his foot back in the first-team door. This would at least spare Lehmann from throwing his toys out of the pram, because he’s such an unhappy bunny playing second fiddle.

Meanwhile the dearth of Arsenal related doings on the pitch does provide a timely opportunity to delve into the increasingly muddy corporate waters, with the Arsenal’s annual AGM this Thursday. Friday night’s Evening Standard magazine included an interesting article about the latest predator to target the Gunners. With the mind-boggling billions of so many of these oligarchs having such dubious provenance, apparently a PR firm has been advising many of them to acquire a football club, as the easiest means of gaining social and commercial acceptance.

Even if only half the rumours currently doing the rounds about Alisher Uzmanov are believable, Yank businessman Stan Kroenke sounds positively saintly by comparison and it’s easy to understand why this n’er do well feels the need to legitimise his assets, with the Uzbek’s efforts to usurp such a prestigious chunk of Britain’s sporting establishment. When it comes to the relatively nouveau riche world of football club ownership, they don’t come much more establishment than the Arsenal, with its pre-war “Bank of England” reputation.

And who can blame him, when he gazes enviously at the high-society world his old Ruski sparring partner now inhabits. Abramovich has been welcomed with open arms, by those who’s noses are stuck so far up in the air, that they can’t possibly smell the rank odour of roubles, imbued with the amoralistic stench of blood, sweat & tears, upon which much of this fortune must have been built.

Personally I feel a little bit peeved. OK so I really wouldn’t have expected to be party to his latest tack, a charm offensive of a press junket on a private jet to Moscow, plus accommodation at the 5-star Kempinski, just so he could assure the British media that he has no intention of bidding for the club. At least not for the moment, which by implication, might only mean until the lockdown agreement of the other major shareholders, expires in a few months time? However my over-sensitive ego was more than a little piqued on discovering that my Gooner’s Diary blog didn’t merit the attention given by his legal muscle, to many of the other references on the Internet concerning the grievous allegations of Britain’s former Uzbek ambassador.

Mind you perhaps I should be pleased that I continue to fly below Schillings’ radar (Uzmanov’s extremely high-powered brief), as their threats appear to have put the willies up plenty of others. To the extent that one service provider switched off the server that also happens to host the blog of Tory candidate for London Mayor, the bumptious Boris Johnson (although many would proffer a pat on the back for this particular public service!).

Meanwhile it must be pointed out that while we sit atop the Premiership pile, raking in the moolah from all our corporate and Club Level facilities (an astonishing £3million per match more than Man U!), we’re extremely fortunate to be able to take the moral high ground, when it comes to such undesirable investors. If we were in Spurs’ shoes, scrabbling to extricate ourselves out of the relegation mire, or Man City’s, with a massive fan base who’d all happily sell their soul to the devil for a long awaited sniff of silverware and an opportunity to have one over on their neighbours, we’d probably be rushing just as quickly to bag a sugar-daddy all of our own and to blow his millions, intent on keeping up with the Jones’ and not giving a monkey’s about the money’s unscrupulous origins.

Mercifully it appears that we Gooners can afford to get on our high horse and at a time when so many of our most august sporting institutions have become nothing short of grubby casino chips, to be gambled on the corporate roulette wheel by a motley collection of billionaires (many with similarly shady reputations), wouldn’t it be bloomin’ marvellous if the Arsenal were able to finally shout “rien ne va plus”.

Myself I would love to see the Gunners call a halt to this recent trend of greedy vultures gorging themselves on the beautiful games greatest assets, by producing some sort of proposal that wasn’t just exclusive to the club’s major shareholders, but which included the many Arsenal fans who’ve bought single shares as an emotional, rather than a financial investment.

It’s probably totally impractical and I very much doubt it would hold legal water, but it would send out such a powerful statement that our beloved club is not for sale, at any price, if every single shareholder was to sign a pledge to retain their shares for a period of five years.

Mind you, in saying that, my own financial predicament is such that if I was being offered ten grand, or a 400% profit on a share I bought only a couple of years back, I might find the offer impossible to resist. However by and large, our shareholders are an affluent lot and if such a proposal proved effective, this display of their commitment to the club might well put Usmanov off. I imagine he was seriously irked by the suggestion from the old-Etonians on the Arsenal board that his money wasn’t good enough for them and it seems to me that his reaction since, has been a display of his determination to defeat them at absolutely any cost.

However if it begins to dawn on him that unlike Abramovich, he won’t be welcomed by the Gooner hoi polloi, as a knight on a white charger, he might well change his mind, especially if there’s a suggestion that he might have to be patient for a good few years yet in order to realise his ambitions. Hopefully he might turn his attentions elsewhere, perhaps towards our North London neighbours, preferring a battle he can actually win, as Spurs certainly aren’t in a position to put up much resistance to his unlimited advances?

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Monday 8 October 2007

Can We Kick It? Van Persie Sure Can!

Come the revolution, the sadist who suggested noon kick-offs on a Sunday will be top of my list for lining up against the wall. Our walk to the new stadium might be a little longer, but it’s still only a 15-minute stroll around the corner. Whereas it must have been hardly worth the poor Wearsiders going to bed on Saturday night, considering their coaches departed Sunderland at an ungodly 3.30am. In this respect I was almost pleased for the couple of thousand hardy souls who packed the away section of our stadium, when they had, what I assumed would be a token goal to celebrate after 25 minutes, as we really should’ve been well out of sight by then, if it wasn’t for the dodgy offside decision that ruled out Diaby’s goal.

Yet instead of going in 3, or 4 up and cruising, after thirty minutes of football that served to highlight the huge gulf in class between title ‘wanabees’ and Premiership ‘willtheybees’, it was only 2-1 and this Arsenal side might’ve done better to spend the break with their ears cocked against the dressing room wall, listening to the dulcet tones of Roy Keane, instead of putting their feet up for a 15 minute “power nap”. Or at least this was the impression some of ours gave when the second-half started. Several of them appeared to be still half akip, as mere spectators when Sunderland scored the equaliser soon after. They should’ve known better than to switch off, against a Sunderland side constructed in its manager’s image, which was never going to roll over and play dead.

After thinking that we were about to dish out a swift and emphatic response to what seemed to be a somewhat flattering scoreline at Old Trafford the day before, I suggested to the missus at the break that it would be a tragedy if, instead of blowing the Black Cats away, their £9 million keeper came out and produced one of those special second half performances, where his onion bag was absolutely impenetrable and Keane’s other shrewd summer purchase, the burly Kenwyne Jones, popped up with devastating 90th minute equaliser. Mercifully Jones contribution to this contest came early in the second half, with plenty of time for us to respond. Roná never fails to be amazed at how fickle our fans can be, as the same supporters who’d been purring with content, during a positively peerless first half-hour of football, were suddenly roaring their disapproval at the way we’d allowed the Black Cats back into the game.

Mind you, nowadays, at our new stadium, I often wonder if these same fans share some of the blame for goals conceded in the five minutes before, or after the break, as the substantial amount of movement in the stands, from those dashing off to beat the queues and those dawdling back from their beer and burgers, must be a distraction. In fact it often feels as if we’re just playing out time until the whistle, once these thirsty/hungry punters have had the unspoken cue (usually the injury time board) to begin the rush from their seats. And after the break it’s as if the team are waiting to enquire “are you all sitting comfortably, then we’ll begin” but sadly the visitors are under no such obligation to perform according to the niceties of our new stadium etiquette and so Sunderland took advantage of this vulnerability, by catching us cold after the break.

If Roy Keane’s side was guilty of standing off and showing us a little to much respect early on, their two goals and a half-time haranguing were all the encouragement necessary for a bit of belief to break out. We were all a bit incredulous, as what had looked like being a comfortable Sunday afternoon romp, developed into a stiff test of our desire. I guess it made for much more interesting viewing for the neutral, assuming that like myself and many other footie addicts, you’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that you’ve no choice but to stump up an additional tenner a month for a Setanta subscription (espeially with their growing monopoly of all the big clubs dedicated TV channels). However , personally I could’ve well done without all the emotional stress of having to wait for Van Persie’s 81st minute winner.

Still when it eventually came, amidst all the euphoria, I couldn’t help but picture the smile being wiped off of Fergie’s face. I’d been unable to escape the image of the phone call the evening prior, between him and his protégé, to ensure the Black Cats produced a “balls out” effort to put a spoke in the wheel of the Wenger bandwagon. Ex-young Gun Anthony Stokes came close to doing this metaphorically, when the sub stretched Almunia with a looping, long range strike, whereas Mcshane’s effort was a little too literal for ref Stiles’ liking (and obviously Alexandre Hleb’s), when he appeared to catch the Bielorussian right between the legs. Although in the context of this whole-hearted encounter, it should’ve been a booking at worst as the kid from Co. Wicklow was only guilty of an over-enthusiastic tackle, rather than a concerted effort to separate Hleb and his wedding tackle.

Watching this incident from the opposite side of the ground, as it occurred directly in front of Keane, on first impressions, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Sunderland manager had to resist congratulating the youngster with a pat on the back, for an “if you can’t beat ‘em, knobble ‘em” type challenge that was once such a regular tool in the Corkonian’s own infamous armoury.

It would’ve been a massive psychological blow if we’d ended up making a hash of this home banker and thereby conceding top spot to the Mancs for the two weeks of another annoying International break. Ireland v Germany might be an enticing prospect, but quite frankly I detest the idea of having the increasingly enthralling rhythm and momentum of this Arsenal side interrupted, as our players disappear off to all four corners of the planet and the media in this country focus on an uninspiring encounter with Estonia and an endless stream of drivel bemaoning the Ruskies artificial playing surface.

Nevertheless it’s some consolation to be able to spend the break in domestic footie, looking down on everyone else from our lofty perch atop the pile. While many in the media point to the complacency that crept into this performance, as evidence of our immaturity, I prefer to believe that the way in which we had to come back and win Sunday’s contest a second time was further proof of our youngster’s new found resilience.

Perhaps we’ll have to rename Sagna, Samson, with his first bad performance in an Arsenal shirt coinciding with him having been shorn of his conspicuous locks. But it we’re prone to a more tangible weakness, it is that while Diaby and Hleb both appear to have the potential to be seriously influential players, neither of them are natural wide men, with the instinct to hare up and down the flanks, both to the byeline and back to help out the full-backs. Their tendency to head in towards the middle means that our full-backs are often the only source of any real width when going forward and we are also prone to being stretched when the opposition doubles up at the other end.

However these problems only confirm that we are a work in progress and compared to Benitez, we must be grateful that Arsène recognises the need to accommodate all his best players and that “points win prizes”, rather than slavishly following some grand plan. Who knows, perhaps the Spaniard is still to have a ‘tortoise and hare’ type last laugh? That’s assuming the Scouser’s patience stands the test of time! As for Chelsea, we might yet witness a Terry inspired revival, but in the meantime, the empty seats behind the goal at Bolton are bound to invite the variation on an old favourite, as in “where are you now you are sh*t?”

Monday 1 October 2007

Oh East London Was Full Of Grit…..!

Hi folks

The fact that Matty Flamini was once again most people’s Man of the Match for the Gunners, just about summed up Saturday’s performance. Although most of us spent the second half fretting about the fact that we felt we were always going to need a second goal to win this game, after gifting West Ham all six points last season, it was great to discover that our young guns are capable of grinding out a gritty, old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal”.

To my mind, the unsung Flamini and our two full-backs have been our best players of the season so far, which is basically a reflection on how much more we should be able to expect from this side, as hopefully the mood of confidence surging through the camp with our current unbeaten streak, results in others in the squad beginning to hit a similar streak of form.

Meanwhile it was a reflection on West Ham’s work rate and commitment that neither Clichy or Sagna made much of an impression on Saturday (apart, as far as I can recall, from Clichy’s long range shot with his weaker right foot). What’s more I was quite impressed with Dean Ashton. Despite the fact that West Ham fans still consider him some way from full-fitness “with the turning speed of an oil tanker”, Ashton managed to trouble both Senderos and Kolo, winning almost everything lumped into the penalty box and perhaps looking like the real deal as far as an England career is concerned.

In truth the Hammers had some cause to feel hard done by, as aside from the fact the Freddie was onside when he received the ball before scoring, I thought that the pass came off Kolo, which I guess meant that it shouldn’t have mattered where he was. Mind you it was only two great second half saves from Green which kept the Hammers in the game and I was relieved that they appeared to run out of steam a little bit towards the end, as I was convinced they were going to nick a late equaliser.

At first I thought it was Bowyer who tackled Hleb and being a bit of a little thug, I was sure he’d intentionally knobbled the Bielorussian. However Noble comes across like an honest lad and on seeing the replays I don’t think there was any intent. Although judging by last week’s performance against Newcastle, I am not so concerned about picking up injuries, because it might just prove an opportunity for some of our Carling Cup kids. I wasn’t so impressed with Eboué’s performance, but I’m prepared to cut him some slack, with Manny having just returned to fitness. Yet he looked great for the sixty minutes that he played against the Toon, as it seemed to me that we lost much of our attacking impetus when Eboué was substituted

However I guess Diarra was without doubt the biggest talking point following our midweek encounter, as he plays like Gilberto on speed, with bags of commitment and the sort of skill on the ball that left everyone catching their breath, when he pulled off the sort of audacious move bringing the ball out of defence, that might have seriously backfired if it had gone wrong. But I suppose this is just another reflection of the burgeoning confidence running throughout the squad, which all augurs well for some wonderful football to come

Bring on Bucharest
Big Love

Oh East London Was Full Of Grit…..!

Upton Park might have lost some of its renowned intensity since the main stand was moved back several feet and as a result, I imagine it’s no longer quite such an intimidating place for visiting teams, because the home fans aren’t nearly so “in yer face” as they once were. Yet it remains one of my favourite awayday outings.

Mind you I can only assume it’s the preparations for the London Olympics, or the Channel Tunnel rail-link which impinged upon my short hop through the industrial wastelands of East London and my enjoyment of the radio coverage of Man City v Newcastle, as I made my way to the Boleyn on auto-pilot on Saturday. I was somewhat flummoxed to find my customary route through all the back streets blocked by road closures, which forced me to turn the car around and to have to think of an alternative. It wasn’t long before I started to panic about missing kick-off, as I ended up inching my way towards the Bow Interchange, caught up in the almost permanent queues of traffic that seem to exist on the dreaded section of motorway that leads to the Blackwall Tunnel.

Mercifully I managed to negotiate the eyesore that is Stratford,(London E15, as opposed to Upon Avon, Shakespeare’s far more salubrious domain) which will require one helluva facelift if it’s to become the least bit beautified by 2012! On eventually approaching my usual parking pitch at Upton Park, I was relieved to discover (as I am every season) that Newham continues to be just about the only London borough that hasn’t cottoned on to the ridiculous amount of revenue, waiting to be realised by enforcing the sort of rigorous residential parking restrictions that are the bane of every driver in the capital.

Even after the circuitous stroll, forced upon visiting fans, all around the houses, to the entrance at the far corner of the Centenary Stand, I still managed to buy my matchday programme and make it to my seat, before a ball had been kicked in anger. I appreciate West Ham’s need to maximise their limited income, but at an outrageous £3.50, theirs is probably the most expensive half-time read in the Premiership. If they can get away with it, you can be darn sure other clubs will soon follow suit, by stinging the football tourists for the traditional souvenir of their visit. However what was once a fairly painless superstition, is fast becoming an over-priced obsession, for those of us addicts who are convinced we can’t win without all the essential ingredients of our matchday ritual.

Seat is a bit of a misnomer for my pitch behind the goal on Saturday, as the only time I actually sat in it was when trying to sneak a surreptitious half-time ciggie. Being stuck right at the very back of the lower tier, it was easy to get away with a smoke without being caught. But the roof of the upper tier above makes the few back rows very claustrophobic and I was reluctant to add too much smoke, to the heady smell of BO, Bovril and burgers (not to mention other, more noxious human odours). Combined with the humid climate, by half-time the atmosphere was unbearably oppressive.

Besides, I’m no great fan of the sort of ‘letterbox’ view of proceedings offered at the back, that leaves one having to guess where the ball is going to come down every time it’s kicked above head height and so I headed down the front towards the end of the break, hoping to find a pitch in the fresh air. Many Gooners were still gabbing out the back, or queuing for refreshments when the game recommenced. So while I waited to spy a spare seat, I could sense the steward beside me bristling and decided to strike up a conversation, before he had an opportunity to complain about me standing in the stairway.

There’s a slightly dilapidated feel to the Centenary Stand, which makes it seem like it’s been in situe for a lot longer than a dozen or so seasons. But there can be no denying that there’s something about standing at a live football game that makes for a far more fervent mood than the sedentary atmosphere found at most of the Premiership’s more modern, but sadly somewhat sterile stadia. At most grounds these days, the stewards tend to hassle you to sit down if you are on your feet for any length of time and I believe persistent offenders have even been thrown out at our new place!

My missus moans and I can appreciate her point of view, as it’s a problem seeing the game if you aren’t particularly tall. But from my point of view, the opportunities to stand for the duration at a top-flight football match are fewer and further between and so I make sure to savour this increasingly rare pleasure. I certainly don’t miss that warm, damp feeling down the back of ones leg, when the inconsiderate bugger behind couldn’t hang on until the final whistle and doubtless my memories are more than a little rose-tinted, but Saturday’s game was a nostalgic throwback to a time when one could spend 90 minutes hollering one’s head off, without fretting about inflicting a headache on the fragile folk in front.

However my rapidly ageing bones are not averse to spending the duration of a game on my backside, but it’s when one is up and down like a jack-in-a-box which drives me bonkers, as I detest the idea of missing out on a crucial incident due to not jumping up quick enough every time the ball comes down our end of the pitch. In answer to my query about why they weren’t hassling us, the steward informed me that they only did as they were told and usually it was only when the FA inspector’s were on the prowl that they had to be seen to be making an effort to get everyone to sit down.

Compared to many other clubs, it would appear that West Ham are quite enlightened, being patently aware that the more heated the atmosphere, the more likely they are to profit from their home advantage and thus they aren’t in the habit of discouraging any contributing factors, unless they have to. The Arsenal wouldn’t get away with it, as far too many of our ‘nouveau’ fans would be up in arms, as they’ve paid for a relatively luxurious, padded seat and so they’re bloody determined not to be deprived of making use of it.

Modern day audiences seem to be made up of two types of supporter, those who want to sit back and enjoy their football in silence and those who are intent on participating in proceedings and who enjoy coming away from the match feeling spent, having vented a week’s worth of frustration at the officials, the opposition and even their own team. And our stadia should be able to cater for both. Sadly in spite of all the sensible protests, I can’t see it happening in this country because of perceived safety issues (albeit that to my mind the current situation is fraught with far more danger) but we’d all be much better off if we could do away with the current farce completely, by creating purpose built standing areas at every ground, such as those in Germany.

Not only would this do away with all the aggravation for and from the stewards and the screams of “si’down” every few minutes (although I must admit that I’ve been inclined to join in myself when Róna’s struggling to see), but at a time when we’re constantly bemoaning the fact that the once famous walls of sound, from terraces like the Kop and the Gallowgate, are turning week by week into a timid whisper, these areas might act as a focal point to inspire everyone else to open their gobs and perhaps stem this inexorable tide towards corporate graveyards, encouraging the return at some of our grounds, to at least something of the cauldron of noise for which they were once so renowned.

I finally found an empty pitch right down at the front for the second half on Saturday and I stood there trying to avoid the gaze of the geezer beside me, for fear he’d tell me his mate would be back any moment. Until I turned to discover it was someone I knew, in the exact same boat and who’d also been hoping I wasn’t about to tell him to bugger off back to his own seat. It was only then that I relaxed and focused on the footie, but unfortunately what had started out as frantic, full-blooded London derby, began to fizzle out, as we Gooners grew more nervous, certain that one goal wasn’t going to be sufficient and the Hammers fans began to lose hope, believing their best chances had been and gone.

Despite the fact that the home side struggled to get their ball back during brief periods when we dominated possession, this was a much more even contest than was suggested in many of the media’s match reports. Moreover, after gifting the Irons all six points last season, we were all very grateful to depart Upton Park, having seen our young guns demonstrate their new found ability to grind out a good old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal”

I had to forego the opportunity to earn a small fortune, for a lucrative day’s work, in order to go to Saturday’s game and it’s bad enough knowing my wage packet will be lighter than everyone else’s come Friday. But my life positively wouldn’t have been worth living if I’d passed on this job, only to face a barrage of merciless teasing from the Hammers fans at work on Monday, if we’d ended up blowing all three points. Instead of which, I guess I can’t complain, as we’re still top of the league and I’ve managed to survive thus far, without getting the sack from my claret & blue boss!

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