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!
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!
e-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com
Monday, 30 April 2007
Monday, 23 April 2007
As hard as my Spurs supporting pals tried, with their predictions of the imminent downfall of the current Arsenal dynasty, they couldn’t spoil my delicious Eggs Benedict on Saturday morning. I enjoyed my breakfast despite the side-order of sour grapes, as a veritable barrage of vicious banter is one of the expected pitfalls of accepting a lift to White Hart Lane in the company of this Lilywhite crew. Sadly our enemies have never had it so good, as far as heavy gauge ammunition is concerned.
After all the turmoil in the boardroom these past few days and the resultant endless reams of media speculation, in truth it was a great relief to get back to the business of actually watching football Saturday lunchtime.
In light of the disturbing circumstances and with the sort of dearth of healthy strikers, that’s left most of us wondering where the next goal would come from, I believe that prior to Saturday’s North London Derby most Gooners would’ve been only too happy to come away from White Hart Lane with honours even, having managed to maintain our marvellous record of not having lost to the auld enemy since the last millennium.
I certainly would’ve taken a draw at half-time, 1-0 down, after watching a first-half where a sharper Spurs played like a side competing for UEFA Cup qualification, while we laboured like a team that only needed two points from our last five games to guarantee Champions League football next term.
The consensus of opinion seems to be that we were fortunate Freddie Ljungberg limped off five minutes before the break because in coming on as a sub Cesc Fabregas changed the game. Although it’s true that this Arsenal side rarely seems to tick without the incisive midfield promptings of the young Spaniard, I’m not certain our second-half dominance was due to our improvement, or the fact that Spurs started to flag.
In truth, this match was symptomatic of all the other points dropped against weaker sides this season and sums up why we’re lagging so far behind the leaders. Apparently we still haven’t learned to defend set pieces, as at least three players in red & white were marking fresh air, leaving Robbie Keane free to head in the opener. It began to feel like another one of those frustrating afternoons, as we went on to hit the woodwork three times before Touré finally found the target and a wave of relief swept over our corner of White Hart Lane. Thoughts of our former vice-chairman, hostile takeovers and all the anxieties of the past couple of weeks evaporated, amidst the euphoric celebrations when Adebayor eventually headed home a second. However as has been the case far too many times this season, we failed to close out what should’ve been a comfortable win and left ourselves wide open to Jenas’s last gasp sucker punch.
The only consolation for me was that my Spurs mates had long since given up hope and along with several thousand home fans, they’d headed home with their Lilywhite tails between their legs. So despite Jenas raining on our parade and the prospect of having to escape the decidedly intimidating environs on my tod, I managed to raise a smile at the thought of them missing out on their big moment.
You’d have to wonder why Lehmann ever chose to keep goal, when he’s so averse to anyone invading his personal space. Jens is so tetchy about having his toes trod on and Arsène is sufficiently concerned about our crackpot Kraut, that he’s been allocated a minder at set-pieces, to separate him from all those who set out to push his buttons, knowing they might well benefit. Diaby and Berbatov didn’t deserve their bookings but Lehmann might’ve received a red card. And by the time ref Dean had taken the names of all three and ordered the corner retaken, our keeper’s antics had proved sufficient a distraction for Keane to take full advantage of our lapse in concentration.
Never mind Pompey’s Calamity James, we have to put up with Liability Lehmann and IF the Arsenal are to spend any substantial amounts this summer, personally I pray we aren’t lumbered with Jens for much longer and that Arsène can conjure up a top class keeper who's capable of maintaining an utterly blinkered focus for the entire 90 minutes.
Yet even if he does, who’s going to entice such high quality players to the club? Most seem to believe there’s an Arnie type “I’ll be back” aura to David Dein’s departure. It’s hard to believe we’ve seen the last of what appeared to be the ideal partnership between him and Wenger (where his replacement will merely be an Arsenal employee, without Dein’s deep-rooted devotion to the cause). But in the meantime we’re left with a managing director who might have the nous to flog Ramon Calderon a range of knitwear, but he’s hardly qualified to negotiate our way out of the Reyes/Baptistsa loan imbroglio with the Real Madrid chairman.
If it was down to Dein, we’d now be crawling around the North Circular, to watch home games at Wembley and in truth he’d been somewhat marginalised by the rest of the board, ever since he failed to get “on message” with the new stadium project. Nevertheless, I’ve known his heart was in the right place ever since I saw him standing alongside Wenger, watching the kids on a freezing cold winter’s morn at London Colney.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Arsenal was a byword for boring mediocrity, back when we endured the humdrum likes of Hillier, McGoldrick and Carter. Thus Dein deserves our undying gratitude for having had the balls to bring in the unknown Arsène Wenger and for having overseen the transfers of players of the calibre of Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira, who’ve contributed to the sort of incredible entertainment that we wouldn’t have dared to dream of back in those dark days. The relationship might've ended with the "irreconcilable differences" of a bad marriage, but I only hope that the embittered parents don't end up taking their frustrations out with a series of ugly custody battles over their talented kids.
While the Arsenal might be engulfed in uncertainty, Saturday’s derby offered the comforting solace, knowing that whatever the future might hold, at least Tottenham are still a long way from treading on our red & white tailcoats.
e-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com
Posted by Bernard Azulay at 6:49 pm
Friday, 13 April 2007
It would be surprising if the following piece should prove to be a
literary masterpiece. In truth I was half tempted not to bother
posting it, but then if I started employing a quality control
procedure over my own work, you'd probably only end up receiving a
couple of pieces a season! I was up most of Sunday night, staring at
my computer and then after an early start on Monday morning, I spent
most of the journey to St James Park trying to stay awake long enough
to finish it, before the battery on my laptop conked out.
Being the Boy Scout that I am, I had thought to charge up the spare
battery, specifically for this purpose, only to end up leaving it on
the couch. As a result, once we'd parked up in Newcastle, I plugged my
computer into a powerpoint at the nearest hotel, not fully
appreciating that there was a twenty minute uphill walk between me and
St James Park.
By the time I'd filed the following piece to the Examiner, hurried up
the hill, through the centre of town and on to St. James Park and then
mounted an assault on the eternal staircase up to the gods of the away
section, there was an utterly exasperated look on the faces of my
travelling companions, as I eventually arrived at our seats, gasping
for oxygen at that altitude, some twenty minutes after kick-off.
Normally, considering Newcastle is an eight hour round trip, even with
my tardy habits, I'd consider it downright criminal to miss close to a
quarter of the entire game (although I was listening on the radio).
However I did have a reasonable excuse, as I can't stint on the
Examiner considering their contribution to my footballing expenses and
to be perfectly honest, I was seriously contemplating not making the
trip, so that I might finish writing my piece. It was only because I
thought that I'd be able to finish my column in the back of the car on
the way up there that I decided to go for it.
Mind you, if I'd known beforehand quite what a non-event it was going
to be, I'm not sure I'd have bothered (like many other more sensible
Gooners, judging by the numbers of empty seats in the away section!).
But then there's some sort of moth to flame type fatal attraction as
far as these arduous end of season outings are concerned.
Even with an apparently utterly impotent strike force, where one is
not sure where our next goal is going to come from (encapsulated by
the fact that Gilberto, our defensive midfielder, once again looked
like our most likely threat on Shay Given's goal), this is just more
grist to the mill that makes me feel even more obliged to prove my
loyalty, by schlepping all the way up to the North-East for such
anodyne Bank Holiday fare.
It's as if one is attempting to earn the loyalty points needed for a
Club Class trip to Wembley next season and if there was indeed a
Gooner loyalty card, then Monday's outing would've definitely been
worth triple points! An afternoon spent milling around B & Q with the
Bank Holiday crowds, comparing shower fittings would've probably been
more eventful, than a match where all 22 players performed as if they
had better things to do and were merely intent on doing what was
necessary to avoid defeat.
If I'd known quite what a mediocre match it was going to be, I
certainly wouldn't have risked an oxygen deprived heart-attack,
hurrying to the match, as in truth I could've turned up at half-time
and still not have missed any goalmouth action of any note!
During the drive North I'd phoned the Examiner sports desk, to find
out if my column was expected as normal. The Terrace Talk feature in
the Examiner's Arena sports supplement is made up with contributions
from myself and those from supporters of Man Utd, Chelsea and
Liverpool. With none of the other three teams involved in Bank Holiday
games because of midweek European fixtures, I alone was filing my copy
in advance of an afternoon match. So I enquired if it'd be possible to
forward a revised version after the final whistle, in order that I
might tag on any comments which might arise from our encounter with
the Toon Army.
About the only saving grace as we trudged back down the hill,
returning to the car in such a disconsolate mood that we couldn't even
be bothered to discuss the game, was that at least I didn't have to
rush to concoct some sort of rewrite, as there was absolutely sweet FA
to say about this mind-numbingly drab affair, other than to question
our own sanity for not having stopped at home and endured the event on
I remember commenting at half-time that the game was live on Sky's
Pay-Per-View and that you'd have to feel like some kind of mug to have
stumped up twelve quid to watch such a pony performance and as the
words came out of my mouth, I wondered what that made those of us
who'd forked out 35 quid for a match ticket and who'd got out of our
beds at 7am on a Bank Holiday, for a round trip trek of over 500
miles, for 90 minutes of soporific soccer. Stark raving bonkers I
Match of the Day's Goal of the Month competition is often
a reasonable barometer of the Arsenal's form. The fact that our only
inclusion in the March goalfest was as the team on the receiving end
of one of Peter Crouch's strikes, sums up our miserable month. In
truth, considering we've endured our most inconsistent season for many
a moon, it's amazing our unbeaten record at the new stadium actually
lasted as long as it did.
Whilst many might point to our profligacy in front of
goal, to my mind Saturday's matchday programme must be partially
culpable for our first ever defeat in our new premises, as the stats
feature fatefully revealed that the third game of West Ham's only
winning streak of more than two games last season was their 2-3
triumph at Highbury. Additionally, in a section dedicated to pertinent
facts and figures, it was positively asking for a slap in the face,
when they went on to presume that the visitors had an "exceptionally
slim" chance of going on to win after taking a first-half lead,
according to the form guide.
Sadly Bobby Zamora didn't appear the least bit bothered by
the long list of stats that suggested this game would be a stroll for
the Gunners, as he lobbed Lehmann on the stroke of half-time. Whoever
it was, they were spot on when they spoke about "lies, damn lies and
Saturday's game was dedicated to Bob Wilson's admirable
Willow Foundation (set up in honour of his daughter, to provide
special days for seriously ill young people). Sitting beside Bob in
the Director's Box, perhaps Catherine Tate was their guest, but if
she's a Gooner, then I'm sure she's bound to be more than a little bit
"bovvered" by the three defeats on the spin, which have suddenly seen
us slip back towards the chasing pack of also-rans, perilously close
to blowing our crucial qualification for the Champions League.
Nevertheless I've absolutely no truck with the so-called
supporters who booed the Gunners off at the break and who doubtless
would've done likewise at the final whistle, if it wasn't for the fact
that the majority of them were already halfway along Holloway Road in
their rush to get home (on a Saturday afternoon?).
Even after a dreadfully lacklustre display at Anfield, the
hard-core, loyal Gooners who schlepped all the way up to Liverpool,
did their best to laugh off this embarrassing defeat. Whereas perhaps
our new gaff attracts a larger element of Gooners who demand results
in return for some of the meshugana prices and who therefore feel more
entitled to express their displeasure.
In respect of goalmouth thrills and spills, personally I
thought Saturday's game was great value. Moreover I've always believed
there was nothing to be gained from booing one's own team, even when
it's deserved, as it's hardly going to encourage them to try harder.
In my book, anyone is entitled to a bad day at the office, so long as
I'm satisfied that they've played their hearts out. In truth our only
failing against the Hammers was our blatant inability to find the back
of the bloomin' net.
With Róna in Dublin, I took my West Ham supporting boss
with me in her stead. Dave hasn't been back to watch a game with me,
since his beloved Hammers endured a humiliating drubbing at Highbury
some years back. Where, if I recall correctly, we absolutely tore
through them, scoring three in the first twenty minutes. According to
him (up until Saturday at least!) most Hammers fans were resigned to
their relegation fate. Yet with their predilection for aesthetic
football, they're intent on enjoying the artistry of the likes of
Carlos Tevez, while they still can. What's more he couldn't pass up
this opportunity (possibly his last for some time) to watch the Irons
first appearance at our new stadium.
He was suitably impressed as we passed the huge concrete
Arsenal letters and approached what has perhaps become my favourite
aspect of our new arena, crossing the south bridge, with the
unmistakeable Clock End timepiece recently installed in an
eye-catching position, high up on the shiny glass and concrete
The entire east side of the stadium is rapidly becoming
obscured from sight by the row of apartment blocks, which seem to be
reaching for the sky with every passing day. There's an apparent halo
effect with a rash of other massive developments in the vicinity, as
the entire area appears condemned to yuppiefication. I might curse the
constant convoys of tipper trucks, which often make me even later for
work in the morning, but at least the construction traffic has caused
me to cease my superstitious habit of using Avenell Rd. as a shortcut.
Mercifully I no longer have to shed a tear each time I
pass the two wretched looking, listed Art Deco facades of the old East
and West stands, precariously propped up by RSJs, standing there like
defiant but somewhat decrepit old soldiers, who haven't yet discovered
the war against time has long since been lost. As all that remains of
our grandiose old ground, it's truly a depressing sight.
Supposedly the privileged £500 a match Diamond Club
punters can feast their eyes on a whole host of memorabilia but for
everyone else, the old clock is just about the only nod to our old
home and Highbury's illustrious past. Although it was symptomatic of
the entire club at the moment, as Dave happened to notice it wasn't
working! In the past our games against West Ham were an almost
guaranteed six points and I could sense his mood of trepidation as we
approached the turnstiles. Yet I assured him that on current form it
was most unlikely we'd be witnessing a repeat of the sort of rapier
like striking that had previously put West Ham to the sword.
Although on the evidence of the amount of opportunities
created in the first few minutes, I was anticipating having to eat my
words. However it soon turned into one of those games where we could
still be playing and not have breached Robert Green's goal. It might
help our cause if our players were able to learn to head the ball with
their eyes open. Yetwith such a dearth of striking options,
goal-scoring was always likely to be a problem.
As ever my main criticisms are reserved for the pitiful
performance of our crowd. London derbies were once some of the loudest
games of the season and yet our struggle to raise the decibel level
all afternoon, resulted in well deserved "library" taunts from the
visitors. Worst of all is the mass exodus long before the final
whistle which ensures all our home games end with a whimper, rather
than a bang. All the intensity evaporates from the game as the players
inevitably sense the mass movement in the stands.
Where in the past we've grown accustomed to seeing the
Gunners mount a last ditch assault on the oppostion's goal, of the
sort that makes you wonder what they were doing the rest of the match
and where we've garnered plenty of points as a result of last minute
goals (and given away more than a few!), in my opinion the new stadium
is not the least bit conducive to this happening in the future.
Then again there were similar circumstances at St.James
Park on Monday. But then this was such a non-event, with both sides
merely intent on avoiding defeat that it might have been better if
they'd shaken hands on a draw and saved us all the bother of an eight
hour trek for such half-hearted fare.
If the loss of our unbeaten home record has the effect of
helping the Hammers avoid relegation, then it will be some
consolation. But the only way we're going to continue to cling to
Champions League qualification is if Wenger can find a means of
juggling his pack to conjure up some goals from somewhere!
e-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com
Posted by Bernard Azulay at 5:02 am
Monday, 2 April 2007
For the want of a title, I didn't post this piece on Monday and subsequently I was so utterly crestfallen following that night's FA Youth Cup exit that it was probably best that I do so that same night, or else I would've ended up writing one almighty moan of preamble, whinging about what appears to be the Arsenal's own Groundhog Day.
I was at Villa Park on the night of the first leg of this semi-final, along with a couple of thousand Gooners, watching good fortune favour the first XI with the only three points we've managed to filch from the last nine. I was flabbergasted to hear on the phone that there was an FA Youth Cup record 38,000 crowd watching the kids at our new stadium. Where by all accounts, an Arsenal side made up mostly of first year pro's, dominated a Utd side of second years who were obviously older, stronger and bigger, taking a single goal advantage up to Old Trafford for the second leg.
Having schlepped up to Liverpool these past two successive weekends, to watch us get beat on both occasions, I was hardly full of the sort of enthusiasm necessary to encourage me to travel all the way back up to the North West on Monday. Thus for the first time, I watched an entire match courtesy of the Arsenal's online TV facility.
For an absolute age I cursed the fact that the techies at Arsenal TV weren't interested in catering for us Apple Mac users. Then eventually, some couple of years after everyone else, I was finally able to check out this service, courtesy of some third party plug-in. This was a real novelty, being able to watch all those various lists of "ten best" Arsenal clips, but then no sooner had Arsenal TV added some details to advise Mac users of the availability of this plug-in, than suddenly it stopped working properly, as the option to increase the screen size, or watch clips full screen had somehow disappeared.
As a result, my opinions of Monday night's match were gleaned whilst watching the game on a three-inch window! It was like sitting up in the gods at the Bernabeu, watching these ant size players, waiting for a close-up to be able to see where the ball actually went. And yet even whilst suffering such a disadvantage, there was no mistaking the total dominance of the Arsenal kids during the first hour of this game.
In fact, one of the most infuriating ramifications of this distressing defeat is that on the face of it, Utd's youngster's progress to the final justifies Fergie's claims that their kids are every bit as good as our own. Whereas in truth, you'd have to have been a blind man to have not been able to appreciate the Gunners' youngsters' superiority over the course of the two legs.
Sadly the kids seemed to bottle it completely over the course of the closing stages. Even watching on my laptop, I got this sense of their belief draining from them as they virtually invited Utd back into the game, nervously giving the ball away and dropping too deep. Having got the goal which gave them a two goal lead on aggregate, I was hoping that we were home and hosed and was looking forward to playing Liverpool in a two-legged final and perhaps a chance of at least having something to put in our new trophy cabinet by the close of the season.
However once the Man Utd kids managed to get one goal back, it was as if they suddenly realised that our superior ability wasn't going to get us to the final by right and when it got to ninety minutes and the ref unsurprisingly found four whole minutes of injury time from somewhere (no doubt in fear of facing the wrath of Fergie, who was sitting in the stands with his Mancunian timepiece!), it seemed as if an equaliser was inevitable.
With Man Utd having all the momentum, I was certain they were going to win in extra-time. Yet even then the Arsenal kids ensured that false hope sprang eternal, as they scored a great goal with just about their only attack of the first 15 minutes. "Surely they can't blow it again", I thought. But I should've known better!
If you'd seen the tearful youngsters dropping to the turf when it was all over, having conceded the two goals which ultimately denied them a cup final appearance in doubtless their first major competition in an Arsenal shirt, it was obvious from their apparent distress quite how devastated they all were. Thus you couldn't question their desire or commitment. However the evidence of what we've endured over the past few weeks would suggest that the Arsenal is currently suffering from a club wide malaise.
Arsène deserves all credit, as he appears to have struck an incredibly rich vein of naturally gifted youngsters, many of whom appear capable of mounting a credible challenge for first team places. However having endured a succession of painful defeats against patently inferior opposition in the likes of Blackburn, PSV and Man Utd's youth team, the nature of our agonising under-achievement this season makes it hard to ignore the evidence of an apparent blind-spot, in spite of Arsène's studious attention to detail.
I felt sorry for poor Maria, the elderly, retired schoolteacher whose foghorn like "Come on you Gunners" will be familiar to anyone who's ever watched the Gunners play live. I heard Maria at Goodison and I saw her last Saturday, sitting in front of us at Anfield and even through the tinny sound of my laptop speakers, there was no mistaking the distinctive cry coming from the stands at Old Trafford, confirming that she'd schlepped all the way back up to the North-West to support the kids. Such unstinting loyalty deserved more than yet another defeat and the outcome only confirmed quite how callous fate can be, as I would've thought that we might've been rewarded with a win for Maria's remarkable effort alone.
Moreover, with Man Utd still having so much left to play for, you would've thought they could've thrown us this small crumb of comfort, especially when they are so blasé about success that only eight thousand bothered to turn out to support their kids (compared to the 38k who came to watch them perform at home). If football was based on ability alone, we would've beaten Blackburn and we would've still been in the Champions League, but unfortunately no one bothered to inform these two opponents that they didn't deserve to beat us and similarly the Man Utd youngsters weren't about to lie down to their betters and wave us through to the final.
The all-important difference between these two teams was that the home side seemed imbued with the same sort of resilience that we are used to witnessing from their first team (and which used to be the Arsenal's own trademark!!). If it weren't for the fact that they were playing the Arsenal, I would have nothing but admiration for the equaliser Utd scored in the 93rd minute and the eventual winner in the 116th minute. The Utd kids were no less knackered than our own, as I'd imagine that there's very little difference in the fitness of the two teams. But unlike our lads, who seemed to suffer a bout of stage fright as the prospect of reaching the final loomed, the opposition appeared to be driven on by that heady mixture of youthful hunger and fear of the wrath of their manager and the bollocking they'd be due for getting beat by the Arsenal, if not the dire consequences for their prospects of a future contract.
Obviously you can't expect the Arsenal to be playing with a smile on their faces when the game is going against them, but watching the Arsenal at every level these days, they might all display remarkable ability on the ball and wonderful technique, but apart from those occasions when it is invariable too late and we've gone a goal down with seconds left on the clock, you never really get the sense that our lot are playing as if their very lives depended on the outcome, as if a lack of commitment this week, might see them left out for the rest of the season.
Commenting on the difference in Wenger's management style, Paul Merson once spoke about how Arsène treated his players as adults and infamously, how he instilled them with "unbelievable belief". Yet while there can be no doubt that Wenger is a winner, who suffers every defeat with just as much pain as us punters, I sometimes wonder if he credits some of his players with this same level of blinkered commitment to the Arsenal's cause, when in truth, psychologically speaking, many of them are still big kids who need to be cajoled and encouraged, by both the carrot and the stick, if he wants to get the best out of them.
Meanwhile along with every other Gooner, I might have struggled to fathom some of Arsène's stranger decisions this season (like a backline where no one is playing in their natural positions) but unlike a few fickle Arsenal fans, I am not about to lose faith in the fact that ultimately "Arsène knows". In truth the extent of our disappointment about a second successive season sans silverware is merely a reflection of how high Wenger has raised the bar in his time at the Arsenal, to the point where our expectations are such that we demand to win something every single season.
As someone suggested the other day, this mood of disgruntlement has only been magnified by the distressing sight of the rubble that remains of our ancestral home and the fact that our move around the corner has now fallen flat on its face. Yet if we can step back and view our circumstances with some perspective, many of us are long enough in the tooth to have endured several unsuccessful seasons of dour depressing football, of the sort where the prospect of a top four finish including wins over Spurs, Man Utd and Liverpool, a Cup Final appearance, five minutes from a Champions League quarter final with some fabulous entertainment along the way, would have seemed a resounding success by comparison!
You can analyze it all you like, but at the end of the day without the thirty plus goals that Thierry Henry has chipped in these past few seasons and without the guarantee of 15 goal contribution from the likes of Pires and Ljungberg in midfield (where once we could count on the midfield to come up trumps if Titi wasn't on top form, this source has almost dried up completely), you don't need to be a brain surgeon to work it out! As they say, football is a simple game and no matter the superb quality of our football, matches are won by scoring at one end and stopping them going in at the other. Since we've been struggling so badly on both fronts, in truth we should be counting our blessings that we are still above an in form Tottenham and still in with a shout for Champions League qualification.
Mind you, the increased revenue which should begin to filter down to the transfer kitty at some point in the near future, this won't make up for what we stand to lose, both financially and in our ability to attract top players, if we don't make it back into the Champions League. And at this precise point in time, with Adebayor as our only effective striker, we should be thankful for our five point advantage over the teams below us (and Everton have chipped away at this today!) and personally I will be very grateful of we can cling to fourth place.
With Berbatov banging in goals for fun for the enemy and considering the farcical climax to last season (with Spurs campaign for a Champions League spot coming to its comical conclusion in the karsey - at least they've got their brown kit in case of a repeat performance!), Martin Jol won't have to work too hard to motivate his lot for what might yet prove to be a crucial trip to White Hart Lane.
Before that, to my mind a Bank Holiday trip to St James Park is bound to sort the men from the boys as far as any end of season apathy is concerned and we have our unbeaten home record to cling onto, against a Hammers side coming to play at our new place for the first time, on the back of two successive wins, for only the second time this season (the last included our 0-1 defeat at Upton Park!). Time was when West Ham was a home banker, a guarantee of three points with goals aplenty and yet tomorrow I would gladly settle for a good old-fashioned, boring "1-0 to the Arsenal", as other than Adebayor, it's hard to envisage anyone else finding the net on current form.
With Róna in Dublin, my West Ham supporting boss is using her ticket. Dave has been to a game with me since we absolutely mullahed West Ham, with something like four goals in the first twenty minutes. Apparently they are already resigned to their relegation fate and are merely intent on enjoying the football from their mercurial Argentinian wizard while it lasts, before he high tails it out of East London. You would've thought that the pristine expanses of the Emirates playing surface would be made for the likes of Tevez and I'll be surprised if West Ham prove to be a pushover.
Hopefully there will be a bit of a backlash, after last week's abysmal performance and with Gilberto back, the Brazilian might plug some of the gaps in our sieve like defence. Whatever the outcome, I have explained to Dave that I'm no longer seated in the sedate environs of the old West Upper and personally I will be praying the Hammers don't score just so I don't have to panic about his reaction. As I joked with Dave's missus, myself I will just be grateful if I've still got a job come five o'clock Saturday afternoon.
It’s a pity there are no Premiership points awarded for the fan’s contribution off the pitch. If there were, perhaps we Gooners would’ve cancelled out Peter Crouch’s perfect hat-trick at Anfield on Saturday, as we shamed an increasingly taciturn Kop, with the sort of staunch, stentorian support, that left me feeling proud to be a Gooner and which proved to be some slight consolation for such a slovenly performance.
However after trouncing the Scousers in our three previous meetings, with our “under strength” cup sides banging in nine of twelve goals against them, I guess that according to the law of averages, Benitez was bound to catch a break at some point. Along with everyone else, I might have taken the Mickey out of the Rafa’s incessant tinkering with his team, but the Spaniard was spot on on Saturday, trumping Arsène’s reliance on a teenage midfield, with the relatively mature, Argentinian World Cup warhorse.
Any respect I might’ve previously held for Alan Curbishley’s managerial capabilities disappeared during Saturday’s game. Perhaps Curbishley had ulterior motives, but on the face of it, the West Ham manager’s seemingly criminal failure to avail himself of the masterful abilities of Javier Mascherano is utterly incomprehensible.
I spent half-time hoping that the Argie might flag following the break and that his influence might ebb accordingly. Obviously Benitez had sussed that if you suffocate Cesc Fabregas, basically you prevent the Arsenal from orchestrating any footballing arias. And until he was subbed late on, Mascherano managed to snuff out this threat, sadly with consummate efficiency.
It would’ve been embarrassing for Benitez to have suffered a fourth stuffing on the spin from his mate’s team and perhaps Le Prof still has a trick or two to learn. Apparently Rafa reminded his troops of their previous drubbings, by sticking details of the scores up in the home side’s dressing room. This was an interesting discovery, as it accounted for the apparent indignation, which saw Liverpool approach the game, right from the opening whistle, with a level of intensity and fervour that meant we were already a goal behind, by the time we’d languidly emerged from the starting blocks.
Before the game I’d suggested that if we could get to the break with only a single goal deficit, we’d have a decent chance of at least a draw, on the basis that we rarely seem capable of pulling our collective fingers out, until the second half of these early kick-offs. Yet there was no mistaking the massive difference in the respective motivation of the two teams.
Time was when the Arsenal were capable of beginning matches, playing football at a tempo that was totally overwhelming for many an adversary and where it would be game over, before the opposition even had a chance to get to grips with the game. Whereas these days, following the now slightly cheesy pre-match love-in, comprised of all those somewhat insincere hugs and kisses in the centre circle, we appear far too chilled out, starting games with an absence of zest, as if Arsène has introduced the art of zen meditation into the warm-up ritual.
In truth, I suspect Le Prof probably sets too much store by their professionalism, expecting them all to be self-motivated, for what amounted to a third place play-off. When I’d imagine many of them fall some way short of Wenger’s blinkered focus, at this stage of a less than gratifying season, with their adrenaline levels hardly surging whilst they tie up their boots, pondering on which tropical paradise they’ll be parking their backside once this season’s “work” is done.
So we kicked-off, hoping to be able to patiently pass the ball about, with an almost over-confident conviction that if we could string enough passes together, a goal would eventually manifest itself and if it didn’t, after three wins against the Scousers, a draw wouldn’t be such a disaster. By contrast there was a nervous energy to Liverpool’s approach, as if their very lives depended on the outcome and thus they went for the throat, with a ferocity that caught us cold and kept us on the back foot, until it was already too late.
It’s perhaps wrong of me to perpetuate the mythical Scouse stereotype, but it is still the case that either you stump up seven quid to leave the car in a car park, or you spend ninety minutes fretting about whether it will still be there, intact, on your return. So for the second successive week we found ourselves inching our way out of a Merseyside car park, but as I reminded my mates, at least the sun was shining, we weren’t being bombarded by hailstones the size of marbles and we hadn’t conceded to a gut-wrenching 90th minute goal, as had been the case at Goodison the previous week.
Sadly such defeats are fast becoming far too much like the norm rather than the exception. Although I have to admit that while a more fickle home crowd would have moaned and groaned their way through the match, as the away fans, I am reminded of what it was like many moons back and what fans of most other teams experience all the time on their travels.
Perhaps it was far too splendid a spring afternoon to be totally spoilt by the Gunners lugubrious failure to live up to expectations. But there was this sense of strength through adversity amongst the travelling Gooners, where we were all lunatics together, following a crack of dawn departure and a four hour drive North, paying 34 quid to endure 90 wretched minutes before schlepping all the way back.
With his unrelenting work rate, one could be forgiven for thinking Adebayor was operating as a lone striker. Having grafted like a Trojan, Manny deserved far more reward than his acquaintance with the Anfield woodwork. However aside from Adebayor, in contrast to Crouch’s clinical finishing, no one in yellow looked vaguely like troubling Reina. The extent of our current woes began to sink in as I stood soaking up some rays at the break and a mate enquired if Aliadière was on the bench. Bizarrely, after Ljungberg, Jeremie might be the Arsenal’s longest serving player and gawd love him, he’s never short on effort, but you just know were in big schtuck if we’re left counting on our other French striker to be the Gunner’s saviour.
Most were left puzzled as to why Le Prof hadn’t played Diaby in the middle of the park, where he might’ve made more of an impact than out wide on the flank. Denilson never fails to impress with his ability to retain possession, despite the muscular attentions of much bigger opponents. But the Brazilian disappeared second half and at this precise point in time, his partnership with Fabregas at the heart of our midfield leaves us looking a little lightweight at the highest level.
Obviously I’d much prefer a return to the winning habit, rather than this new found familiarity with defeat that promises awaydays devoid of optimism for our prospects on the pitch. But I have to admit that there’s some solace to be found in the sort of gallows humour that often results in the best terrace banter. I actually can’t recall the last time we had any new material and I’m not certain it’s entirely original but top of the terrace pops on Saturday was “Steve Gerrard, Gerrard, he kisses the badge on his chest and hands in a transfer request, Steve Gerrard, Gerrard!”
It will be interesting to see if Man Utd supporters respond to the record FA Youth Cup attendance at our place for the semi-final first leg, by turning out in such vast numbers for the return game. With a 1-0 advantage we might yet have an opportunity to avenge Saturday’s defeat and to put our new trophy cabinet to some purpose, if we can get past Utd, to play the Liverpool in the final. I only hope the Scousers youth team doesn’t contain any more 6’7” surprises!
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Posted by Bernard Azulay at 5:25 pm