Sunday, 27 May 2007

Gala Gooner Dinner Gone For A Burton!

The Blogger web site now has this facility to upgrade ones template, so that one can now add photos and all sorts of other neat tricks. I was hesitant at first, as being such a technically illiterate nincompoop, I recall how much trouble I had sussing out the HTML code from the original Arsenal template that I pinched, sorry borrowed, in order to make a few minor adjustments, let alone starting again from scratch.


However the thought of being able to personalise my blog and include my own photos, was incentive enough for me to eventually bite the bullet. As a result, I spent most of Friday night arranging the new one and then I was sitting at my laptop today, when I again had a yen to add some more photos (no doubt I will be tinkering with the look, ad infinitum from now on) and with my limited expertise with Photoshop, before I knew it, it was six o'clock and the entire day had passed me by!


And there's me having a pop at the missus because I've no longer got a hope of getting a cup of tea out of her, since she's become so lost in her Second Life world. Ro used to call my laptop, my crack pipe. She’d often threaten to dash it out of the balcony window, because she felt excluded for days on end. Whereas I am now getting a taste of my own medicine, after making the big mistake of pointing her towards Second Life. Ever since then, she seems to disappear into her other online world for days on end.

For example she’s having a snooze right now, after being up early this morning because she wanted to check out the gig Sky News were doing, where they broadcast an hour of the news from a newsroom in SL and where one's avatar could join in, taking a seat in the audience and asking questions. She was freaking out for a while, when naturally her machine crashed just as she managed to access the right place and then she had to wait, because I guess so many similarly minded lunatics where trying to do likewise. Eventually I heard the holler coming from the living room which suggested she’d been successful, as she screamed at me to turn the telly on to Sky News, so I could see her leopard skin attired avatar, with her newly purchased dreadlocks, on the box!

Personally I haven't really got the SL bug, after checking it out a few times. I didn't like the fact that all these snooty folk kept objecting to my animal like avatar wandering around in the nude!!?? But then I suppose if I’d persisted, I could have sussed out an Arsenal kit. In fact I wonder if you can buy replica tops in Second Life, as everything else under the sun seems to be on sale in there. I never fail to be amazed that these entrepreneurial folk seem to be making a living actually selling stuff in SL for hard cash (well actually for Linden Dollars, which you buy with hard cash). And I suppose it would be more surprising if someone hasn’t already cottoned on to selling replica footie tops in SL.

Actually it would be a bit of a novelty for me, as I’ve refused to wear an Arsenal replica top ever since the 70s, when they changed from cotton to man made fibre. As a child back then, I can well recall thinking originally that these nasty nylon footie kits were the sort of snide replicas that one bought from Wembley market on a Sunday, whereas I thought that surely the real thing must still be cotton, as I simply couldn’t believe that professional players would be wearing this horrible fabric next to their skin.

And my opinion has changed little in the intervening thirty odd years, as no matter what high-tech, dry-fit techno gobbledigook the manufacturers try to dress their latest fabric up in, the modern incarnation might have become slightly less nasty over the years, but nonetheless it will always remain “nylon” to me and as a result I cannot bear wearing it next to my skin and I still can’t think if anything worse than having to run around on a football pitch, sweating buckets in one. Never mind the problems athletes endure with nipple rash, but to my mind this material seems cold when the weather is cold and too hot when it’s warm and as a result, I’ve avoided modern replica tops all these years, saving myself another forty quid a season by sticking to my much preferred 71 shirt.


But then I guess the attraction of being able to wear a modern day Arsenal top is probably the sort of psychology that attracts most folk to SL, in the same way that overweight women can totter around in there on the sort of high heels they wouldn’t dare wearing in real life. However as far as I am concerned, until such time as someone organises footie matches in Second Life, I doubt I’ll be getting hooked (perhaps someone already has?)

Meanwhile I hope this redesigned template is well received? I was a little concerned that I might have made it look a bit too busy, after adding more photos today, but it's hard to resist playing with all the new Blogger features. I particularly like the link to the Youtube videos. But then I discovered you have to be careful, as I tried to include additional search terms instead of just "Arsenal" and suddenly my page included some well dodgy videos of a weirdo guitar playing comedian in the USA named Arsène. However considering my tendency for verbal diahorrea, in some of my more long-winded dispatches, I like the idea that folks can click on some Arsenal related colour videos should they find my meandering missives a little monochrome.

Then again I bloody well hope you like the changed look, as after spending all Friday night at it, I ended up falling asleep on Saturday afternoon, only to wake up at about 9pm to discover that I'd missed a phone call, which involved an invitation to last night's AISA Gala dinner at the new stadium. I was absolutely gutted that I'd blown it and I was still thinking of throwing some clothes on and dashing around there. But I thought it would be an even bigger wind up, if I eventually rolled up, only to find people were already beginning to leave!

Naturally I was straight on the blower this morning, to find out what I’d missed and I was even more disappointed to discover I could have spent the evening sitting on the same table and chatting to celebrity Gooner, Alan Davies. As much as I might take the mickey out of this sort of blatant ligging, when it comes to it, I guess I am just as guilty as anyone else. I've communicated with Alan Davies via e-mail a few times, as he's occasionally on the hunt for the odd away ticket. Yet I would've liked to have met him in person, as unlike many of the celebrity footie fans these days, who all seem to claim long-standing allegiances to a football club since before they were out of their prams, merely because it's advantageous to their careers, Davies comes across as far more genuine and doesn't appear to try and make mileage out of the fact that he's a Gooner.

As a result get the distinct impression that he's truly old school. I didn't read it myself, but I recall thinking that there is a man after my own heart, when I heard something about him turning down TV work (could it have been an entire series of Jonathan Creek?) because it interfered too much with the fixture calendar and would involve missing too many Arsenal games.

So I was gutted that I ended up snoozing through the entire evening, instead of attending what was likely to have been the last Arsenal related event of the season. I’ve been to a few of these type of charity doos in the past but I really wanted to go to this one because it was the first of its kind in the new gaff and I was looking forward to checking out the new facilities.

Moreover the organisers had the sense to make it casual attire. I must admit that the effect of everyone turning up in the sort of penguin suit seen in my picture above, with George Graham and David O’Leary, does still lend a certain touch of glamour to this sort of occasion. However in this day and age it is downright ridiculous to make “black tie” obligatory. I know I didn’t make it there anyway, but I believe if I’d needed to hire evening dress in order to attend this event, I don’t think I’d have even bothered considering it.

The best chariddy doos I’ve been to have been those where the players who’ve attended have been spread out across the room, so that everyone has one on their table. Apparently there was quite a good turn out last night of old-timers like Mickey Thomas, Smudger, Kenny Samson, Bob Wilson (of course since I believe it was in aid of his Willow Foundation) but they were all sat at a top table. I don’t know if any of the current squad had been invited, but if they were then I guess they all had better things to do than to spend an evening giving a little bit back to their fans (without demanding astronomic amounts in return for their presence!).

It occurred to me that if I wanted folks to check out the new look of my blog, I had better think if something Arsenal related to write about and it was after I’d heard some details about last night’s event and when I started to look at photographs to use for my blog, that I began to think about quite how much football has changed, not just over the course of decades, since I was in short pants, but the drastic changes that have occurred in the last few years.

My pal who invited me to last night’s event was recounting how Kenny Sansom had really choked up when his turn came to say a few words and he was revealing details about leaving the Arsenal for the Toon, a few short months before the sensational events of the 89 season. I also mentioned in my last post about how Bob Wilson had got so emotional when he came to mentioning the photos of Alan Ball at the auction in midweek that the tears began to roll down his face.

Both Bob Wilson and Kenny Sansom are far from unique as far as players of their day are concerned and the emotion they display when talking about their time at the Arsenal is not only representative of their strength of feeling about the club, but it also gives us some sense of the amazing spirit that was present in the Arsenal squad during their time. It is the sort of spirit that develops in a squad where there is this unspoken awareness that their whole is so much greater than the sum of the individual parts. It’s a spirit within the dressing room which is both crucial to their success and which develops even further with hindsight, with the growing realisation that it’s been responsible for having carved themselves a piece of Gooner history.


When we were discussing Sansom emotional display and decrying the dissipation of this special team spirit in the modern era, my pal was contending that it was perhaps still present to some extent in the 98 squad. But then Wenger’s first flush of success was achieved with a team that contained the defensive dinosaurs who were remnants of the Graham era, in Adams, Keown, Winterburn and Dixon. And I have always argued that Wenger was fairly fortunate to benefit from a magical chemistry present within this squad that was the catalyst for everything that followed, whereby the old-school Gunners were inspired to live up to the professionalism and athleticism of the new regime and where such arrivistes as Petit and Vieira found themselves falling in love with a style of football which they hadn’t experience in France (or Italy), where the game was played with ones feet.

Theirs was a love affair with football played with ones heart and soul and they discovered a commitment in their team mates which motivated them to play with the sort of intensity and selfless commitment that wasn’t instinctive in their careers to that point, playing without an emotional attachment to teams, where their involvement was merely a job of work.

As a result I think it’s probably fair to say that many of the players from that squad will look back on their time at the club with a certain strength of feeling that they won’t associate with any of their other employers past or present.

However it’s very hard to think of too many of our current squad coming back to gala dinners in years to come, to shed a tear with their former teammates about their experiences at the Arsenal. Obviously success is a very important factor in the way any player feels about their time at a particular club, but while team spirit was once the most integral factor in a team’s success and that success augmented the spirit, in the modern era we’ve witnessed how the huge sums of money in the game have been used by managers to create a more synthetic type of team spirit because they no longer have the time or the patience to risk waiting for a natural, organic spirit to develop within their camp.


Consequently it is hard to imagine many of the current Chelsea players arranging annual reunions in the future to celebrate their recent success. Yet similarly the same might be said of our recent team of Invincibles. Hopefully the likes of Bergkamp, Henry and perhaps even those such as Pires and Freddie will look back in years to come with misty eyes when they recall this astonishing feat and you’d hope that they will continue to retain some affection for the Arsenal, no matter how much time elapses. But in the main, as far as this particular achievement is concerned, in my own somewhat unbalanced mind, it is stored as an image of a not so sentimental statistic, rather than in terms of the humans who attained such incredible heights - although perhaps this is merely the net effect upon my subconscious of seeing that Nike “WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWD etc.etc” sticker on the rear window of the motor, every time I look in the rear-view mirror?


Then again, I am not suggesting the modern day players are the only guilty parties, in what was once a culture of belonging to a football club, rather than it becoming merely a place of ones employment for a couple of seasons. There would be absolutely no difference in the attitudes of the career long, one-club players of yesteryear, if they were playing nowadays for the businesses that have become of our one-time footballing institutions, where the balance sheet has become the be all and end all.

I always refer to the example of Dennis Bergkamp when it comes to the whole issue of loyalty and commitment to the Arsenal cause. Here was a world class player, coming to Arsenal whilst still at his peak and virtually single-handedly setting the tone for all the amazing success that has followed since, as this announced the club’s intent to dine at the game’s top table. However if it wasn’t for the fact that his family was so settled in England, Dennis could’ve probably chipped off to Italy or Spain at any stage during his long spell at THOF and banked a substantial signing on fee, followed by the sort of mega-money wages that the Arsenal couldn’t begin to compete with.

Whatever the factors involved in Dennis’ decision to remain at THOF and provide us with some of the most seductive entertainment we are ever likely to see from anyone in an Arsenal shirt in our entire lifetimes, when his contract eventually expired and suddenly the boot was on the other foot, whereby the suits at the club had the upper hand, knowing that Bergkamp’s age meant he was no longer in a strong negotiating position, what sort of example did they set to demonstrate to his team mates how the Arsenal rewarded the sort of loyalty shown by Bergkamp, but to offer him a ludicrously embarrassing pay-as-you-play contract for the following season, at something like a third of his existing wages!


Apparently Dennis is one of the game’s shrewdest with his dosh (or perhaps his financial advisers are?) as I believe he owns serious chunks of property and perhaps the Arsenal suits (such as Edelman) assumed they could get away with this outrage because Bergkamp wanted to remain in North London and didn’t exactly need the money. Mercifully it seems that his agent had the good sense to shame the club into a more decent proposal, by making the whole matter public and exposing this misdeed in the media. Yet in my humble opinion the damage was already done, since this was a signal to players everywhere to look after number one and to screw their employers for all they can, before the time comes when old age and the expiration of their contract catches up with them and they are forced to bend over and bite the pillow, while they get shafted by their employers.

Meanwhile footie fans everywhere are forced to get more and more used to having players and managers breeze into our clubs, with Lampardesque type “my club, my people”, utterly fabricated false loyalty (with the Lampard family’s historical association with the Hammers, I can only begin to imagine how fat Frankie’s post FA Cup pitchside comments must have irked Irons fans), remaining just long enough to capture the hearts of us eternally naïve mug punters and to learn a few lines of a foreign language, before breezing out a couple of seasons later, to cross the continent and convince the minions at their new place of employment that “Espanol es un pais encantador”!

However this is merely one symptom of the drastic changes that have seen the beautiful game evolve into the massive business that is in its current incarnation almost unrecogniseable from the game I grew up watching. It remains to be seen what will be the long-term consequences of the current revolution? You have to assume the suits must envision a profitable future, as far as top flight clubs’ all important balance sheets are concerned, as this seems to be the only logical reason that Premiership clubs have suddenly become the latest must-have accessory for every self-respecting billionaire.

Yet in thinking about the ex-Arsenal players who turned up for last night’s AISA dinner and as I pulled out some photos from an album, to choose which ones to scan and include in the header of my blog, I found myself reflecting on a far more insidious change that’s occurred in recent times and one which has had and is having a particularly influential effect on us fans and our relationship with the game.

If I look back through my collection of programmes from my childhood, there are loads of footie programmes, boxing night dinner menus and various other chariddy publications, which have only been saved from my missus’ absolutely relentless attempts to unclutter our lives and the miniscule storage space in our little flat, as a result of some illegible scribble somewhere on them. If Rona had her way, she would doubtless bin absolutely everything, whilst I am a dreadful hoarder, desperately hanging on to every single bit of crap, whilst constantly trying to convince her that an uncluttered home is one which no-body lives in!

A few of these scrawls have my childish handwriting underneath them, where I’ve written in pencil who the signature belongs to and I only wish I’d had the good sense to have done likewise with them all, as it’s now impossible to discern who the vast majority of these signatures belong to and doubtless some of them might be quite valuable.

As far as I was concerned, my old man was the next best thing to G-d when I was a kid, for his ability to wangle us in absolutely anywhere. When taking me to matches, he’d often blag our way into the players’ car park after the final whistle, where we’d wait patiently so that I could collect my heroes’ autographs. He was also famous for coming out with these absolutely outrageous stories but over the years both my sister and I learned to know better than to challenge some of his outrageous claims, as invariably there would come a time when they’d be proved true.

Like the time he claimed to stopped to offer England captain, Bobby Moore a lift. Now it comes to repeating the tale, I wonder if perhaps I imagined it, as it sounds far too bloomin’ bizarre to be true. Or perhaps my old man just enjoyed taking the Mickey out of his offspring, to see how far he could stretch our credibility. Then again, from experience, the most likely scenario is that he was telling us as it happened but sadly he’s no longer around to confirm, or otherwise.

It was far-fetched enough that World Cup winner Mooro should be walking alone in a London street and accept a lift from a perfect stranger. Although no doubt the old man would have said that Bobby and he were best of pals, as was his tendency when talking about anyone famous, as he was the most gregarious geezer who would strike up conversation wherever he was and who would usually end up having his target guffawing with laughter at some of his jokes and by his credo, once someone had laughed at one of his jokes, they were good mates.

However the punchline of his Bobby Moore tale was that we were left wondering just how it came to pass that a pair of Bobby Moore’s pants happened to fall out of his kit bag and be left in the old man’s car. But if you were going to invent a story, you’d hardly concoct something quite so incredible. If only we still had the pants concerned, with some sort of certificate of authority. Imagine what they would fetch today on eBay.

The reason I include this odd tale is to highlight the difference between now and then, when no matter how high a pedestal we put our footballing heroes on during their 90 minutes on the pitch, they came down after the final whistle to return to be mere mortals who one might bump into in Tescos.

Perhaps this hasn’t been the case for many years now and back in the early nineties we were just fortunate to have a few quid so that Ro and I could afford to travel on the Exec trips to away matches in Europe, where we could mingle on planes and in airports with the Gunners of the day.


We had a wonderful couple of seasons during those two Cup Winners Cup runs, travelling with the team all over Europe, climaxing on the night represented in one of the photos in the header above, when after an utterly mundane Arsenal side managed a magnificent ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ triumph over a star studded Parma side. When we climbed on the plane on the way home from Copenhagen, much to the concern of all the Arsenal employees on board, Tony Adams simply passed the trophy back for the hundred odd supporters at the back of the plane, for us to enjoy.

There were so many great photo opportunities during that two-season period, in airports and on planes, that we eventually got a little blasé, as you can only drive Wrightie mad so often for a photo. Although I was gutted not to have a camera with me for the most perfect photo opportunity. Believe it or not, back in those days, after a successful midweek result, many of the players were in the habit of downing close to a crate load of those tiny quarter pint cans of beer during the flight home. So with their almost non-stop drinking, it was obvious that the first port of call as soon as we landed was the karsey and I recall walking off the plane once and needing a wee myself and when I walked into the loo, there was virtually the entire Arsenal squad lined up at the urinals along two opposite walls. I’d have loved to have a camera and had the balls to whistle as I’d walked in, as it would’ve made for an absolutely wicked photo with them all turning around at the appropriate moment.

The other amusing incident I recall was when George Graham got caught short and ended up in the karsey as the plane came into land. We all had a good giggle when the plane eventually taxied to a halt, as GG appeared from the lav and some bright spark piped up “they should change your name from Stroller to Dribbler”!

Similarly there was quite a long period after the old training ground burnt down, when the players were using the health club at Sopwell House hotel in St Albans as their base for showering and changing after training. This meant that virtually anyone could turn up at the hotel at the right time of day and be able to mingle with the players and staff after they’d finished training and whilst some of them fulfilled their media obligations to the press, before dashing off in their Jaguars and Aston Martins.

There’d often be a small gaggle of Gooners hanging around by the barrier at the entrance to the hotel property, waiting to collar the players as they drove out, with their photos to be signed and their autograph books. However without wearing a replica top, it only required the merest bit of front and a relatively respectable appearance (as evidenced by the fact that I was able to get in), to be able to stroll in, as it was a public hotel and there was no reason why one shouldn’t be able to buy a drink at the bar.

It was a brilliant period for the liggers amongst us. I well remember going up there one day when it happened to be the birthday of one of Rona’s sisters in Dublin. Grainne had a bit of a thing for TA and thus she was absolutely blown away when Ro phoned her up and passed the phone for Tone to have a chat with her.

Having had a couple of collections of my weekly Examiner columns published in two books, there was the odd friend of my sister who would automatically assumed that I must be in a position to get the odd autograph. In fact she works for a design company and as a result she was able to get one of her colleagues to design the cover of my book. Mercifully I managed to sort him a couple of tickets in lieu of my gratitude, but my sister told me that he said the one thing he’d really like was a cover of the book he’d designed, signed by the players who’s images were portrayed on the front and back.

Yet I’d have needed to carry the book cover around for a couple of seasons, in the hope of an opportunity to collar the players for a signature. The only one we used to see occasionally was Patrick Vieira, when he came into San Daniel, the restaurant we occasionally frequented after midweek matches and as I told my sister, apart from Paddy and perhaps the odd other player, the opportunities are very few and far between for us fans to come into contact with our heroes.

I might have had an opportunity for a few words with Theo Walcott in midweek at Bob Wilson's charity auction, but this was the first time in several seasons that I'd managed to speak to a current Arsenal player and that was only because I was fortunate to be the invited guest of someone who stumped up a small fortune for "a golden ticket" (but then I guess the moral of this story is that if you have sufficient moolah, you can get to meet up with anyone!)

Sure we still see photos in our matchday programmes of the players making the traditional Xmas visit to the kids in hospital. But ever since they built the new, state of the art training ground, the fences and electronic gates that are designed to keep unwanted visitors out, are in fact a metaphor for the way footballers at the very highest level have become so totally detached from their adoring fans.

I would guess that the consequences cut both ways, This almost constant state of seclusion prevents us from having the sort of occasional contact that we might have enjoyed in the past, where any kid, so long as he was patient and persistent enough, could obtain the signatures of his heroes, thereby preventing us from being able to pass on the sort of anecdotes which would enable us to relate more to modern day stars on a personal level. And where as a result we might not be left wondering if they went home after a defeat feeling as miserable as those of us who’d watched the match from the terraces, as we’d have likely heard some confirmation to prove that the Arsenal’s success means as much to them as it does to us.

You often hear players these days stating that they don’t want to autograph items and others who will only give their signature if they can make it out to someone personally, because they don’t like the idea that someone might be making money out of their name, by selling these items in bulk either online, or in a shop somewhere (more’s the point I imagine that their actual objection is to someone making money out of selling their autographs without paying them a cut!).

Yet while I can understand the players wanting their privacy, rather than being bothered by the public all the time and the club wanting to create an environment for them, where they don’t have any such unwanted distractions, to my mind they all might benefit from just a little regular contact with their fan base. Without it, they can easily get away with turning up for every game as if it was a job of work and doing just what is required of them and no more. Whereas if they were confronted on a regular basis by the deep seated emotions of us Gooners and got to know the odd one or two of their fans on a personal basis, perhaps the sentiments might rub off a little, in as much as they might know that they couldn’t face such an individual on a Saturday night if they’ve had a stinker.

Doubtless I’m just a sentimental old git who’s desperately clinging in vain to the hope of watching an Arsenal team at our new stadium, confident that the eleven players on the pitch are no less eager for an Arsenal win than I am. But if this is a little naïve of me in these mercenary times, when players change clubs more often than their underwear, then I am pretty certain that if the current status quo is maintained, or becomes any worse, not only could it have a negative effect on ticket sales, with punters reluctant to pay astronomic prices to watch a team perform that’s full of players, to whom the fans simply cannot relate and where it feels as if the majority are merely turning up to endure the ninety minutes of football that separates them from their hefty pay packets, but the players are also likely to lose the little sense that remains of what it means to their massive audience. So that they can return home after the weekend’s match to laugh and relax over their evening meal, with exactly the same level of enjoyment whether they’ve won, lost or drawn that day, without the slightest inkling of the resultant weight of disappointment felt by millions of Arsenal fans when they’ve lost, because they are so sequestered from the heart beat of the club.

But that’s more than enough depressing drivel from me, as hopefully I’ve at least achieved my own objective of getting a few people to see my new looking blog. It’s funny as I assumed that with the end of the season and the fact that I no longer had to file my weekly Examiner pieces, I’d have little cause to write anything Arsenal related this summer. But to the contrary, having been freed from the restraints of my weekly thousand word missives, it appears that the resulting liberation has enabled me to babble on ad infinitum….you poor things :-)

Then again, it could be worse, as I've probably got at least another couple of thousand words in me about our season ticket woes (with the 1st June deadline looming ever closer). But with it being a rainy Bank Holiday Monday, with little else to get excited about other than what the pundits are calling "the most lucrative one-off match" in football history, with supposedly the sum of £60 million riding on the outcome of the West Brom v Derby game at Wembley this afternoon, I might still find time to drone on some more.

With an average of about a thousand hits per post to my blog, I suddenly thought of a barmy notion that perhaps I could persuade readers to stump up a pound a pop in order to encourage me to desist from writing another word, thereby solving our season ticket renewals in an instant
:-)


Big Love
Bernard


e-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Summer Makeover




Just an opportunity to play with all the new bells & whistles on Blogger



















Substance Over Style?


It would be wonderful if I had a Champions League diary entry to do now, but sadly it wasn't to be. My biggest regret is that a) we went out to a patently inferior team in PSV (especially when their one class act, Alex, injured himself immediately after beating us, leaving the Scousers with an even easier task in the next round) and b) I felt that the Champions League trophy was there for the taking this season.

Milan might have risen to the occasion in the last couple of rounds and I quite fancy them to beat Liverpool tonight, as I got the distinct sense from Clarence Seedorf's impressive performance in the last round, that there are players in this Milan squad like the Dutchman and Maldini who are well aware of their impending top flight mortality and who appear desperate to see their careers out on a high. Moreover, a substantial number of this Liverpool squad have already made an appearance in a Champions League final, in Istanbul, where they were highly charged on the sort of vast amounts of adrenaline that must course through the blood of a young professional playing on the biggest stage in the game and which resulted in their amazing second half comeback in that game. Yet I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if some of them are a little more blasé about their match in Athens and to my mind, perhaps subconsciously, the effect is likely to be that they might be unable to reproduce the same sort of intensity.

By contrast the majority of this Rossoneri squad will still have a memory of the bitter taste of their defeat in Istanbul and the utter dread of having to repeat the awful experience of that long journey home from such a glamorous final, without the trophy, only to have to face the music in the media on their return, plus the fact that Milan are blessed with slightly better quality players in certain areas of the pitch, is to my mind going to make the difference, in what I expect to be a far less exciting event than their previous encounter as the fear of losing for both teams is likely to make for a far more cagey affair.

But then the final is about to kick-off in Athens and I guess that by the time I eventually conclude this long-winded ramble it will be long past the final whistle and my perceptions will have either proved correct, or a total load of crap. Mind you I guess it the latter should be the case and Liverpool win, I'll have probably gone back and edited my thoughts, so as not to have made a fool of myself :-)

Equally frustrating as far as I am concerned is that I felt there weren't any really outstanding contenders for the trophy in the earlier stages of this competition and I was therefore disappointed because it seemed to me that with a little assistance from Lady Luck, any team that reached the knockout stages was capable of coming home with the one trophy that continues to elude us. Although, based on the two teams recent form, I think we might have struggled to beat Milan. But then one of the biggest attractions about the beautiful game is that, in spite the fact that sadly the financial aspect to the sport has made matters somewhat more predictable, it continues to be the case that in a one off match, any team is capable of beating another. This is probably the principle reason why I loathe being forced to make predictions, as the longer one watches football, the more one is aware how easy it is to be made to look a complete idiot. Additionally the downside to writing this diary is that any presumptions about the outcome of matches are out there in the public domain, where one is wide open to having the piss taken.

On the other hand, on the odd occasion one gets it right, you can afford to be very smug, knowing that the proof of ones predictions are there for all to see. I recall that prior to the second leg of Milan's quarter-final against Bayern, following the Tuesday night's results, the betting odds on those teams that had already made it to the semis had shortened big time. Whereas after having drawn 2-2 in Milan in the first leg, the Italians were still being quoted at something like 16 to 1. While I fancied them to beat Bayern in Germany, at that stage, from what I'd seen, Milan hadn't played well enough to convince me that they'd be bound to win the competition, but nevertheless, in what was by then basically a five horse race (with Liverpool's progress a foregone conclusion after their first leg romp), it seemed to me that these were decidedly generous odds. I only wish I was a betting man and had put my money where my mouth was. But then, knowing me, if I was a betting man, my previous losses would've been such that I would've had to borrow a stake to place a bet:-)

My other reason for feeling smug is due to the media's focus on Milan's Kaka, since the pretty boy Brazilian blew Man Utd away in the semis. But I've been singing the praises of just about my favourite non-Arsenal player, ever since I first saw him play for the Rossoneri some years back, when Kaka first came from Brazil and it's hard to resist a bit of "told you so" type trumpeting, when I know it's down there in black & white in diary pieces from many moons back. Tonight's game is unlikely to be the sort of miraculous goalfest seen two seasons back but as far as I am concerned, I am keen to watch any match involving Kaka, much as was the case with Dennis Bergkamp. While you know that there's always the chance they'll have an off night, with a somewhat anonymous performance where they might struggle to have some impact, there is also always the possibility of them producing those absolutely magical moments, of the sort that any lover of true footballing artistry just cannot afford to miss.

Meanwhile, in accordance with the trades description act, I'd better get back to more Arsenal related matters. The real raison d'etre for this post is that with the looming prospect of a couple of months of Arsenal cold turkey, I thought the details of my outing last night might be appreciated.

I was most fortunate to be invited along to an auction at Bonhams in aid of Bob Wilson's Willow Foundation. With the ever impending due date of 1st June for our season ticket renewals, I'm hardly in a position to donate three hundred quid for a ticket, despite it being for such a worthy cause. Thus I was only able to go along as the guest of a fellow Arsenal mailing list pal. Steve Birnie got in touch with me about a month back to send me a link to the Willow Foundation web site, with details of the evening, and to ask if I wanted to join him on the night.

Steve’s a very interesting case, as you don't get many examples of a more devoted Gooner. Having emmigrated Down Under many years back and settled down, married a Sheila and made a couple of babies, I first met Steve at St. Marys some three years ago, when he came over to England to visit his folks and to take in a couple of Arsenal games (although I wouldn’t dare be so presumptuous as to mention these two motives in order of priority!!). Being around the same age as myself and as an avid Gooner from early childhood, we got on like a house on fire, what with us sharing so many Arsenal memories. Having gone back Australia, I was astonished to hear some time later how his trip to England had reawakened his adoration of all things Arsenal and how he'd subsequently decided to uproot his wife and two kids, to return to the motherland, basically because he couldn't bear to remain recreationally challenged, separated from his beloved Gunners by so many thousands of miles.

His timing was perfect, as his return to England coincided with the last season at Highbury and the building of the new stadium. After scratching around for tickets to most every game during his first year back, Steve was able to invest in a Club Level season ticket at the new gaff. We've all been fortunate to have enjoyed the sort of warm Spring weather which made Julio Baptista's moaning sound like the barmiest of excuses. But having endured a couple of years of the sort of miserable weather conditions that we are used to in this country, Steve's missus has struggled to settle down in the UK and although his two kids are both young enough to adapt to their new environment without any bother, apparently she's not particularly happy. Steve revealed to me last night that for her sake, they are going to have to return to Australia at some point in the near future.

They might be able to watch all the games in Aus, but he explained that having enjoyed his return to his passion so much these past couple of seasons, it's hard for those of us who take it for granted, to appreciate the difference down under, without the breadth of daily coverage in the media and with none of the range of the sort of TV programmes like Soccer AM that have become part of the landscape of football in the UK. Consequently, as far as he's concerned, he can't get enough of Arsenal during the time he has left over here and is therefore keen to take every possible opportunity to attend absolutely every and any Arsenal related event.

I felt so honoured to be invited as Steve's guest that I wouldn't have dreamed of turning his kind invitation down. However when it came to it, after schlepping scenery all day for the ballet yesterday, I arrived home feeling so smelly and exhausted, that all I wanted to do was have a shower and put my feet up in front of the telly. Not being a drinker, a champagne reception held little attraction for me and it took some effort to get myself spritzed up and drag my aching bones into the car, to drive through rush hour traffic in the West End in order to attend this sprauncy event at Bonham's auction rooms in Bond Street. Obviously I was looking forward to the idea of being able to lig with a few current and ex-Arsenal player, but I didn't expect too many to turn up, as I assumed that most would have already either returned to their homelands, or be soaking up some rays on a sun-kissed beach.

As it turned out, I was glad I made the effort. Included in the cost of Steve's "golden ticket' was the prospect of having his name put into a draw which was to be announced at the end of the evening, whereby each ticket holder would end up taking home one of the vast array of the signed and framed photographs of Arsenal players past and present which were on display on the walls of the auction room. Naturally as usual I was just a little bit tardy and by the time I got there, Steve had already had an oppoortunity to look around at all the photographs and the items included in the auction.

Apparently Perry Groves had joked with him that if he ended up receiving one of the two photographs of Ashley Cole, he was going to take it outside and burn it! I might not be a drinker of alchol of any description and this is doubly true of champagne (after a childhood incident on a boat in Spain, where my lovingly cruel old man left me to learn my own lesson, as I gleefully downed several plastic cups full of fake champers and following a 24 hour period of incessant technicolour yawning, ever since I’ve been unable to smell the stuff without wanting to instantly upchuck). So I wasn’t the least bit bothered about missing out on being able to make the most of the free booze but I was very glad that I got there in good time for a wander around, rapidly getting drunk in my own way, as I wallowed in all the nostalgia on view and all my memories of Arsenal players past and present portrayed around the walls, as well as several marvelous images of bygone Gunners who played for the club long before my time.

To my mind there is something far more evocative about the old black and white photographs than the glaring reality of the modern day colour ones. I myself was an avid collector of Soccer Stars and in fact I still have several complete albums (albeit somewhat nicotine stained and crispy these days, as they collect dust in the cupboard) from the late sixties and early seventies. But I've an absolutely dreadful memory for names and faces (and everything else for that matter). By contrast Steve's recall abilities are astonishing, as not only was he able to identify all the Arsenal players hiding behind some monstrously huge sideburns (eg. Jeff Blockley), but he was also able to name the opposition team and almost every obscure individual performing in each of the photos.

Prior to the auction, whilst the high-rollers present (including the likes of Lord Harris, Frank Warren etc.) sipped their champagne and nibbled on their fancy canapes, we heard brief speeches from the main man at the Willow Foundation and Meg Wilson, to explain the charity's purpose, before Bob Primose Wilson himself got up to speak, obliged to explain the origin of his flowery middle name, after his wife had alluded to it. Apparently he was given the mad moniker Primrose, in honour of his methodist chaplain grandfather and as Bob explained, it would’ve been no bother if he'd had an artistic bent and become a painter, but in the macho world of football, it made one an easy target for abuse, for example when he flapped at a near post corner at Wembley.

I've always loved Bob Wilson. Not just because I admired the bravery of goalkeepers of yesteryear, who dived in without a moment’s hesitation, where the boots were flying, (wearing his skimpy green jersey and white shorts), with nothing like the sort of namby-pamby protection afforded by the refs to modern day goal minders, to the extent that the current incumbate is prone to throwing his toys out of his pram should an opponent dare to tread on his toe. Sadly the game we love is fast becoming almost a non-contact sport and you only had to watch the black & white TV pictures shown in the build up to Saturday’s FA Cup Final, to appreciate that the likes of a somewhat cowardly (by comparison) Lehmann wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the butch hurly-burly of the old-fashioned aggressive game of yesteryear, where such was the lack of protection from the man with the whistle, that taking out the keeper was seen as a legitimate tactic – although if I’m not careful, I’ll start to sound like a Monty Python character ranting on about the macho old days, when men were men and women wore Lilywhite!

To me Bob Wilson is not only the heroic player who minded goal during that magical season of 70/71, but he’s also demonstrated quite what a true Gooner he is, in his devotion to the Gunners ever since. There’s no mistaking the extent of Wilson’s allegiance to the cause, whenever he’s asked to comment on TV and in his work for the media he has always come across as a real “mensch” and one of the game's true gentlemen, in every sense of the word. This was ably demonstrated last night during Bob's speech, as he spoke about all the photos around us on the walls. When he told how the two photos of Alan Ball must have been some of the last things Ballie signed before he passed away, Bob literally choked on these words, while a tear or two ran down his cheek.

We also heard a marvelous anecdote from the Double season. You'll have to forgive me if my sieve like memory prevents me from retelling it in Wilson's exact words, but I will nonetheless do my best. Apparently as they were about to leave the Highbury dressing room to meet Man Utd, Don Howe held them back for a moment. Howe's timing was awful as apparently Frank Mclintock's head dropped, as Howe detailed out loud how Dennis Law had escaped our captain, to score a couple of goals in the Gunners’ last game against those northern monkeys and so our esteemed coach instructed McClintock that the first time Law received the ball, Frank should clatter him from behind and kick him right up in the air. "With you both being fiery Scotsmen, Law's bound to get up and bop you one on the nose and get himself sent off". To which McClintock responded "but I'll get myself sent off as well", whereupon Howe replied "yeh but they will miss him a lot more than we'll miss you!"

The respect Bob has earned throughout the footballing world was demonstrated by the turn out of such Arsenal luminaries as Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Theo Walcott (with his old man in tow as his minder) and Charlie George - although gawd love him, Charlie is my absolute hero, but one gets the impression that he'd turn up to the opening of a paper bag and with free champagne and posh snacks, there was probably no keeping him away! Whereas Patrick Vieira sent his missus along, with an apology from Paddy as apparently he'd been sent back to Paris for an operation.

Then again, before I arrived Steve had a conversation with Charlie George and enquired as to why Charlie hadn't been involved at Wembley on Saturday in the parade of FA Cup legends, as the representative from the 71 final. After all Charlie WAS the 71 final, since there are few more memorable Wembley images than the famous one of him lying on his back on the Wembley turf, with his long lank 70s hairstyle. According to what Charlie told Steve, he was invited on Saturday, but it seems he must have had similar thoughts about being involved in this occasion, as those which occurred to me while I watched the weeble likes of John Barnes waddling along the touchline in Saturday’s parade, whilst being roundly booed by both sets of fans. Charlie’told Steve that he didn’t fancy turning up to suffer that level of abuse from both Mancunian and South London scum (mind you I wouldn’t mind betting there were more Moaners present from South London than Manchester!).

As the auction itself began, I expressed my surprise to Steve, since apart from the odd famous faces in the room, there was only one other Gooner that I recognised, as he was a regular at away games around the country. But of those other Gooners present, Steve rightly pointed out that the reason I probably didn’t recognise any was doubtless due to the fact that I don’t breathe the rarerified Club Level air. Believe me, it wasn't eau de cologne that I could smell in that auction room, but eau de filthy rich. However I guess such affluent folks don't get to accumulate their substantial pile of spondulicks by spunking it up. Thus despite all those having a hard time, struggling with the weight of moolah in their hefty wallets and despite the fact that it was for such a good cause, for all the encouragement of the extremely accomplished auctioneer, we were both a little taken aback by how much he was having to graft, to try and get any of the high-rollers to bid up.

The only other auctions of this type that I’ve attended in the past, have been at charity dinner dance type doos, where dressed in their penguin outfits and after an evening of eating and drinking, I’ve tended to do a runner out of the room, with my need for a fag as a timely excuse for me to miss out on the moment when one is expected to put one’s hand in your pocket. However I assure you that this isn’t because I’m some sort of tight skinflint, but invariably because it’s embarrassing not being able to afford to get involved in the giving and receiving. Steve and I both agreed that if we had the sort of dough that some of these wealthy types have, we’d think nothing of throwing a few grand in a charity’s direction, in return for a fabulous piece of memorabilia (especially when I imagine that the majority are only spending money that would otherwise end up in the government’s hands by way of tax!).

In addition to the usual collection of signed shirts, including two particularly fetching yellow ones, one with blue trim signed by the 71 Cup Final team and the other with its iconic CBD badge and Pele’s unmistakeable signature (which I believe fetched five grand), there were a couple of more unusual lots, including a work of modern art produced by Titi himself where the splatters on the canvass were created by him kicking the ball against it.

I don’t think Steve intended buying anything, but he was having a great time, sticking his hand up every few moments to make several bids to get the auction going for several lots. I guess if the worst had come to the worst and the hammer had come down on any of his bids, he actually had the wonga to back it up, but I was bricking myself on his behalf, as he bid up to a couple of grand for Thierry’s “painting”.

According to the auctioneer this was a one off but the bloke beside us was suggesting that another example produced by Titi had sold for something like £21k at the Arsenal gala evening recently. In which case, if I am correct in recalling that it ONLY went for eight grand, then I guess the bloke who bought it got himself a bit of a bargain! The auction climaxed when these lots had been sold and the screen above us around the room became the focus of everyone’s attention, as everyone held their breath, waiting for the draw in order to discover which particular signed photograph they’d be going home with. Steve was convinced he was going to end up with one of Ashley Cole, while I would assume that Lord Harris must have a massive home, with sufficient space on his walls to accommodate a whole bevy of about a dozen photographs (when you think of how much pleasure some of us would get from having these signed photos of our heroes up on our walls, it would be a crime to think these could end up hidden away somewhere).

Included amongst all the photos were plenty of not so legendary Gunners. The idea was that once the draw was complete, you went and grabbed your photo from the wall and we both noted that nobody rushed to collect their picture of Julio Baptista which was rather appropriately somewhat hidden over by the entrance to the karsey! As it turned out, we were both delighted when Steve had a right result, as we discovered that the number alongside his name belonged to a picture of Bob Wilson himself, squatting beside the two silver trophies, taken on the Highbury turf in 71 (with my old West Upper pitch in the background).

Once the formalities had finished and while folk were rushing around grabbing their photos off the wall (and boy was I tempted to bag one for myself, as eventually the charity staff began removing pictures that I assume must have been awarded to those who’d bought a ticket but who hadn’t been able to attend – however it would’ve proved just a little bit embarrassing if I’d been collared at the desks on the way out, where they were checking off the tickets and photos!) there was a bit of time before everyone began to drift away.

I’d been kicking myself earlier when Steve had asked me to hold his glass and signed Bob Wilson autobiography, as he dived into the throng surrounding Theo Walcott, in order to obtain an signature for Charlie, one of his kids. I wasn’t really interested in getting him to sign something for me, but it was only during the auction when I saw him standing alongside his dad at the back of the room, that it occurred to me that I would’ve liked to get Theo’s autograph, if only for the fact that it would present an opportunity to shoot the breeze with the Arsenal’s young prodigy.

Without quaffing copious quantities of alcohol, to aid in the alleviation of ones inhibitions, I invariably suffer from the proverbial “spare pr*ck at the wedding” syndrome, when it comes to such perfect ligging opportunities. In addition to my positively painful shyness, I usually find myself empathising with the players in such circumstances, as it must require creditable reserves of patience, for them to have to constantly cope with pesky punters absolutely each and every time they appear in public, having to put up with an absolutely incessant stream of the exact same banal queries.

However I’ve become a little more comfortable in my skin as I’ve aged (and ironically, as the contents of my epidermis gives me more and more pain by the day!) and Steve was having none of it, as he convinced me to collar Theo. Unfortunately I wasn’t sufficiently prepared to be able to pose any of the sort of interesting queries that might enlighten us with details other than those reported in the media and so I am afraid I can only confirm that the papers are correct with their reports that Theo has undergone the required operation on his dodgy shoulder. It occurred to me that it would be a blinder if, after so many requests for autographs, the signing of my guest ticket (which I plan on posting on to one of Ro’s nephews) proved to be the straw which broke the prodigy’s damaged shoulder and set him back several weeks!

The other thing I can confirm is that it is true that Walcott is an extremely well-mannered youngster, making time to speak to everyone, with an incredibly polite and patient demeanour. My one concern might be that perhaps Theo is just a little bit too nice and has been brought up in middle class circumstances that have made him a tad too respectable, as he doesn’t appear to have an arrogant bone in his body. Whereas in my experience, it is often the case that there’s a necessary element of arrogance about the vast majority of the very best young sportsmen, because they need to have a substantial ego, in order to have the belief that will set themselves so far above their peers. Hopefully Theo will be the exception that proves this rule, as he’s such a little diamond of a youngster that he deserves to do well and demonstrate that not every young professional has to be a lary sports car owning, loudmouthed yobbbish larrikin.

Once I’d cornered Theo, I was on a roll. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t persuade Steve to let me take any photos with my mobile phone of him and any Arsenal players, as I’ve garnered plenty such trophies in the past and I thought that if Steve is eventually forced to return to Australia, he’d be chuffed to bits to take a couple of photos of him and any Arsenal players back with him. But he declined all my efforts to persuade him to jump in between Martin Keown and Tony Adams and instead wanted to take my phone to take a photo of me.

Sadly I stood there too long, waiting to dive in between the two of them and by the time I found a convenient point to interject, without interrupting their conversation, they’d drifted apart, as this would have made for a perfectly composed photo, standing between the two ex-Arsenal centre-backs. The high point for me was when I merely went to ask Adams if he minded posing for a picture with me and he greeted me like a long lost pal. I was chuffed to bit that the ex-Arsenal captain appeared to recognise me from a previous encounters (as it’s been a long time since I last had a chance to meet him).

Being a little dumbfounded, I struggled to make any lucid conversation, except to ask if he was enjoying his time at Pompey and to suggest that it must be interesting working with Redknapp. TA merely confirmed that it was “very interesting”

The conversation of the evening came when we collared Martin Keown. Initially we enquired whether he intends on staying within the game, as Steve has seen Martin sitting alongside our current players behind the bench at a few games this season but apparently this is just because he’s entitled to a pass to the paddock at the new gaff. Martin went on to explain that he felt that going from being a player, straight into coaching or management was the easy route as far as he was concerned and he wanted a bit of a break. I got the distinct sense that he feels the need to do something else, if only to validate his own self-worth, by proving to himself that playing or coaching football is not the only thing he is capable of doing, as Keown confirmed that there was every possibility he might come back to the game at a later date, but when he does, he wants to be able to do so out of choice, rather than because it is the only thing he can do.

As an old school defender, I instinctively assumed Keown would be a natural advocate of man-marking over zonal defending. Therefore, having spent the past couple of seasons growing increasingly desperate to discover the supposed advantages of zonal defending, I couldn’t resist this opportunity to ask someone in the know. However I have to admit that I lost a great deal of respect for Keown as a potential coach last night, as he went on to astonish me by indicating that he’d become a proponent of zonal defending. Yet he was still unable to make it clear to me why anyone would choose this system, over more traditional defending methods and since he appear somewhat vague on any specific reasons for his choice (perhaps with the inference that a layman like myself might struggle to understand the concept!!), it was my impression that this choice was merely influenced by the amount of respect he has for other advocates of the system, like Wenger and Benitez.

I laugh at such outrageous “chutzpah” when I reflect on our conversation, as I can’t believe that I actually proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes arguing about the principles of defending, with one of the best centre-backs Highury ever saw, trying to convince him that he was talking utter codswallop, as I went on to suggest that zonal defending leaves a side at a disadvantage because when a defender is marking an area instead of an opponent, it means that invariably, when the opponent runs into your specific area, he has far more momentum when he jumps to head the ball, while you are leaping from a standing start. Secondly with a man marking system, everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing, so that if a player has a free header then it’s perfectly obvious who is at fault for letting him go. Whereas with a zonal system, it is fine when the opposition is at the centre of a particular zone, but when he strays towards the perimeter, suddenly there’s a grey area as to the exact point when he becomes the responsibility of ones team mate and therefore I have little doubt that when it comes to apportioning blame for conceding a goal, there are always going to arguments over who should’ve been marking him.

If footballers were robots and there was no room for human error, perhaps a zonal system would work, as the specific zones would be delineated in the minds of the defence and everyone would know the exact point at which they were tasked with picking up an opponent. However we are talking about football players, many of whom haven’t reached the pinnacle of their careers as a result of their amazing mental capacity. To the contrary, whether it’s a result of damaging too many brain cells from heading too many high balls, or from too many dangerous clashes of heads, but in general I think it can be said that defenders don’t tend to be amongst the games most intelligent genus, with many having the IQ of a gnat. Consequently, unless they are drilled to the nth degree (which the Arsenal defenders obviously are not!) to the point where the way in which they defend set pieces is almost totally instinctive and unless they are in almost constant communication with one another, in order to acknowledge to their team mate that an opponent has entered their zone and has become their responsibility, sadly in my opinion this system is doomed to fail far more frequently than more traditional defensive methods. And if you are to believe some of the gossip being bandied about recently, the likes of William Gallas would appear to only speak to some of his team mates when he feels they deserve a hard time and if this is the case, he’s hardly likely to maintain a constant stream of defensive chatter, to ensure that the likes of Touré, Eboué and Clichy are constantly doing their own jobs.

Mind you I give some credit to Keown, as I am sure it would’ve been far easier for him to have dismissed me as a babbling idiot, rather than to have engaged in arguing his case to any extent (although I’m still pretty much convinced that he failed to elucidate on any specific reasons as to the benefits of a zonal system). However eventually I realised that I was losing his attention as the wandering of his gaze indicated that he was becoming a little desperate for someone else to come and interject, so that he might be rescued from this lunatic, who dared to try and convince him that perhaps I knew better than a man who’d been a professional player since he was in short pants! And I rapidly took the hint offered by Keown’s body language, letting Martin off the hook before he had to resort to being rude.

However with him having mentioned the name of Gallas, I couldn’t let him go without enquiring whether he believed there was any truth to the rumours that Frenchman's abrasive attitude makes him a disruptive element in the dressing room. Now I don’t know whether Keown’s response was merely a case of Martin maintaining the footballers’ code of conduct, by avoiding the possibility of bad-mouthing a fellow pro in public, as he wasn’t exactly over effusive in his attempts to suggest that there was no real substance to these rumours, as he went on to explain that Willie was merely a victim of a footballing media that has got it in for Gallas. Then again, I guess it won’t be too long before we eventually find out for ourselves, one way or another, as the evidence of our own eyes should at some point confirm whether or not Willie is in fact some sort of troublemaker, or if Keown wasn’t merely defending one of his own with his allegation that all the smoke is coming from a malicious media.

But that’s more than enough rambling from me for now. Hopefully I’ll soon have cause to interrupt an interminably dull cricket season, when our manager makes his move in the transfer market. Otherwise it’s going to be a long couple of months until the pre-season friendlies begin and I’ve some other Arsenal related events to comment on. Although if I’m entirely honest, I won’t exactly be holding my breath, waiting for Wenger to splash the cash, in order to bolster our squad, since I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if any comings and goings around London N5 are boardroom based and have little direct effect on the playing side.

Meanwhile my West Ham supporting pal was chatting to me the other day about a question on one of the WHU web sites, whereby one had to name a player who’d left the club in recent season, but who we’d most love to have back. I struggled at the time when we spoke, to decide on which former Gunner I would go for, but the news over the past 24 hours has answered this question for me. Isn’t there something just a little ironic in the richest club on the planet acquiring Steve Sidwell on a free transfer. Personally I can’t see the sense in Sidwell going to Stamford Bridge, as it’s hard to envisage him getting much of a look in, amongst the wealth of midfield talent in the Blues current squad (although perhaps the Gobby One is expecting some movement in the other direction).

From what I understand, Sidwell was a much loved player as a youngster at THOF, with the sort of committed attitude that marked him out as potential captain material. But I am under the impression that ultimately he decided he needed to seek first team football elsewhere, as he wasn’t perceived to be blessed with sufficient quality to earn a regular place in this Arsenal squad. However having seen Sidwell arriving in the box with the sort of late runs from midfield that we’ve lacked ever since Pires left and Freddie lost a crucial yard of pace, I can’t help but wonder whether Sidwell’s going to be the player most likely to come back to haunt us. Moreover, quality isn’t everything and with Wenger’s penchant for only purchasing players who are blessed with sufficient natural ability, it seems to me that our squad and the spirit within the camp could well benefit if Arsene was for once able to choose substance over style?

Peace & Love
Bernard

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e-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Substance Over Style?

It would be wonderful if I had a Champions League diary entry to do now, but sadly it wasn't to be. My biggest regret is that a) we went out to a patently inferior team in PSV (especially when their one class act, Alex, injured himself immediately after beating us, leaving the Scousers with an even easier task in the next round) and b) I felt that the Champions League trophy was there for the taking this season.

Milan might have risen to the occasion in the last couple of rounds and I quite fancy them to beat Liverpool tonight, as I got the distinct sense from Clarence Seedorf's impressive performance in the last round, that there are players in this Milan squad like the Dutchman and Maldini who are well aware of their impending top flight mortality and who appear desperate to see their careers out on a high. Moreover, a substantial number of this Liverpool squad have already made an appearance in a Champions League final, in Istanbul, where they were highly charged on the sort of vast amounts of adrenaline that must course through the blood of a young professional playing on the biggest stage in the game and which resulted in their amazing second half comeback in that game. Yet I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if some of them are a little more blasé about their match in Athens and to my mind, perhaps subconsciously, the effect is likely to be that they might be unable to reproduce the same sort of intensity.

By contrast the majority of this Rossoneri squad will still have a memory of the bitter taste of their defeat in Istanbul and the utter dread of having to repeat the awful experience of that long journey home from such a glamorous final, without the trophy, only to have to face the music in the media on their return, plus the fact that Milan are blessed with slightly better quality players in certain areas of the pitch, is to my mind going to make the difference, in what I expect to be a far less exciting event than their previous encounter as the fear of losing for both teams is likely to make for a far more cagey affair.

But then the final is about to kick-off in Athens and I guess that by the time I eventually conclude this long-winded ramble it will be long past the final whistle and my perceptions will have either proved correct, or a total load of crap. Mind you I guess it the latter should be the case and Liverpool win, I'll have probably gone back and edited my thoughts, so as not to have made a fool of myself :-)

Equally frustrating as far as I am concerned is that I felt there weren't any really outstanding contenders for the trophy in the earlier stages of this competition and I was therefore disappointed because it seemed to me that with a little assistance from Lady Luck, any team that reached the knockout stages was capable of coming home with the one trophy that continues to elude us. Although, based on the two teams recent form, I think we might have struggled to beat Milan. But then one of the biggest attractions about the beautiful game is that, in spite the fact that sadly the financial aspect to the sport has made matters somewhat more predictable, it continues to be the case that in a one off match, any team is capable of beating another. This is probably the principle reason why I loathe being forced to make predictions, as the longer one watches football, the more one is aware how easy it is to be made to look a complete idiot. Additionally the downside to writing this diary is that any presumptions about the outcome of matches are out there in the public domain, where one is wide open to having the piss taken.

On the other hand, on the odd occasion one gets it right, you can afford to be very smug, knowing that the proof of ones predictions are there for all to see. I recall that prior to the second leg of Milan's quarter-final against Bayern, following the Tuesday night's results, the betting odds on those teams that had already made it to the semis had shortened big time. Whereas after having drawn 2-2 in Milan in the first leg, the Italians were still being quoted at something like 16 to 1. While I fancied them to beat Bayern in Germany, at that stage, from what I'd seen, Milan hadn't played well enough to convince me that they'd be bound to win the competition, but nevertheless, in what was by then basically a five horse race (with Liverpool's progress a foregone conclusion after their first leg romp), it seemed to me that these were decidedly generous odds. I only wish I was a betting man and had put my money where my mouth was. But then, knowing me, if I was a betting man, my previous losses would've been such that I would've had to borrow a stake to place a bet:-)

My other reason for feeling smug is due to the media's focus on Milan's Kaka, since the pretty boy Brazilian blew Man Utd away in the semis. But I've been singing the praises of just about my favourite non-Arsenal player, ever since I first saw him play for the Rossoneri some years back, when Kaka first came from Brazil and it's hard to resist a bit of "told you so" type trumpeting, when I know it's down there in black & white in diary pieces from many moons back. Tonight's game is unlikely to be the sort of miraculous goalfest seen two seasons back but as far as I am concerned, I am keen to watch any match involving Kaka, much as was the case with Dennis Bergkamp. While you know that there's always the chance they'll have an off night, with a somewhat anonymous performance where they might struggle to have some impact, there is also always the possibility of them producing those absolutely magical moments, of the sort that any lover of true footballing artistry just cannot afford to miss.

Meanwhile, in accordance with the trades description act, I'd better get back to more Arsenal related matters. The real raison d'etre for this post is that with the looming prospect of a couple of months of Arsenal cold turkey, I thought the details of my outing last night might be appreciated.

I was most fortunate to be invited along to an auction at Bonhams in aid of Bob Wilson's Willow Foundation. With the ever impending due date of 1st June for our season ticket renewals, I'm hardly in a position to donate three hundred quid for a ticket, despite it being for such a worthy cause. Thus I was only able to go along as the guest of a fellow Arsenal mailing list pal. Steve Birnie got in touch with me about a month back to send me a link to the Willow Foundation web site, with details of the evening, and to ask if I wanted to join him on the night.

Steve’s a very interesting case, as you don't get many examples of a more devoted Gooner. Having emmigrated Down Under many years back and settled down, married a Sheila and made a couple of babies, I first met Steve at St. Marys some three years ago, when he came over to England to visit his folks and to take in a couple of Arsenal games (although I wouldn’t dare be so presumptuous as to mention these two motives in order of priority!!). Being around the same age as myself and as an avid Gooner from early childhood, we got on like a house on fire, what with us sharing so many Arsenal memories. Having gone back Australia, I was astonished to hear some time later how his trip to England had reawakened his adoration of all things Arsenal and how he'd subsequently decided to uproot his wife and two kids, to return to the motherland, basically because he couldn't bear to remain recreationally challenged, separated from his beloved Gunners by so many thousands of miles.

His timing was perfect, as his return to England coincided with the last season at Highbury and the building of the new stadium. After scratching around for tickets to most every game during his first year back, Steve was able to invest in a Club Level season ticket at the new gaff. We've all been fortunate to have enjoyed the sort of warm Spring weather which made Julio Baptista's moaning sound like the barmiest of excuses. But having endured a couple of years of the sort of miserable weather conditions that we are used to in this country, Steve's missus has struggled to settle down in the UK and although his two kids are both young enough to adapt to their new environment without any bother, apparently she's not particularly happy. Steve revealed to me last night that for her sake, they are going to have to return to Australia at some point in the near future.

They might be able to watch all the games in Aus, but he explained that having enjoyed his return to his passion so much these past couple of seasons, it's hard for those of us who take it for granted, to appreciate the difference down under, without the breadth of daily coverage in the media and with none of the range of the sort of TV programmes like Soccer AM that have become part of the landscape of football in the UK. Consequently, as far as he's concerned, he can't get enough of Arsenal during the time he has left over here and is therefore keen to take every possible opportunity to attend absolutely every and any Arsenal related event.

I felt so honoured to be invited as Steve's guest that I wouldn't have dreamed of turning his kind invitation down. However when it came to it, after schlepping scenery all day for the ballet yesterday, I arrived home feeling so smelly and exhausted, that all I wanted to do was have a shower and put my feet up in front of the telly. Not being a drinker, a champagne reception held little attraction for me and it took some effort to get myself spritzed up and drag my aching bones into the car, to drive through rush hour traffic in the West End in order to attend this sprauncy event at Bonham's auction rooms in Bond Street. Obviously I was looking forward to the idea of being able to lig with a few current and ex-Arsenal player, but I didn't expect too many to turn up, as I assumed that most would have already either returned to their homelands, or be soaking up some rays on a sun-kissed beach.

As it turned out, I was glad I made the effort. Included in the cost of Steve's "golden ticket' was the prospect of having his name put into a draw which was to be announced at the end of the evening, whereby each ticket holder would end up taking home one of the vast array of the signed and framed photographs of Arsenal players past and present which were on display on the walls of the auction room. Naturally as usual I was just a little bit tardy and by the time I got there, Steve had already had an oppoortunity to look around at all the photographs and the items included in the auction.

Apparently Perry Groves had joked with him that if he ended up receiving one of the two photographs of Ashley Cole, he was going to take it outside and burn it! I might not be a drinker of alchol of any description and this is doubly true of champagne (after a childhood incident on a boat in Spain, where my lovingly cruel old man left me to learn my own lesson, as I gleefully downed several plastic cups full of fake champers and following a 24 hour period of incessant technicolour yawning, ever since I’ve been unable to smell the stuff without wanting to instantly upchuck). So I wasn’t the least bit bothered about missing out on being able to make the most of the free booze but I was very glad that I got there in good time for a wander around, rapidly getting drunk in my own way, as I wallowed in all the nostalgia on view and all my memories of Arsenal players past and present portrayed around the walls, as well as several marvelous images of bygone Gunners who played for the club long before my time.

To my mind there is something far more evocative about the old black and white photographs than the glaring reality of the modern day colour ones. I myself was an avid collector of Soccer Stars and in fact I still have several complete albums (albeit somewhat nicotine stained and crispy these days, as they collect dust in the cupboard) from the late sixties and early seventies. But I've an absolutely dreadful memory for names and faces (and everything else for that matter). By contrast Steve's recall abilities are astonishing, as not only was he able to identify all the Arsenal players hiding behind some monstrously huge sideburns (eg. Jeff Blockley), but he was also able to name the opposition team and almost every obscure individual performing in each of the photos.

Prior to the auction, whilst the high-rollers present (including the likes of Lord Harris, Frank Warren etc.) sipped their champagne and nibbled on their fancy canapes, we heard brief speeches from the main man at the Willow Foundation and Meg Wilson, to explain the charity's purpose, before Bob Primose Wilson himself got up to speak, obliged to explain the origin of his flowery middle name, after his wife had alluded to it. Apparently he was given the mad moniker Primrose, in honour of his methodist chaplain grandfather and as Bob explained, it would’ve been no bother if he'd had an artistic bent and become a painter, but in the macho world of football, it made one an easy target for abuse, for example when he flapped at a near post corner at Wembley.

I've always loved Bob Wilson. Not just because I admired the bravery of goalkeepers of yesteryear, who dived in without a moment’s hesitation, where the boots were flying, (wearing his skimpy green jersey and white shorts), with nothing like the sort of namby-pamby protection afforded by the refs to modern day goal minders, to the extent that the current incumbate is prone to throwing his toys out of his pram should an opponent dare to tread on his toe. Sadly the game we love is fast becoming almost a non-contact sport and you only had to watch the black & white TV pictures shown in the build up to Saturday’s FA Cup Final, to appreciate that the likes of a somewhat cowardly (by comparison) Lehmann wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the butch hurly-burly of the old-fashioned aggressive game of yesteryear, where such was the lack of protection from the man with the whistle, that taking out the keeper was seen as a legitimate tactic – although if I’m not careful, I’ll start to sound like a Monty Python character ranting on about the macho old days, when men were men and women wore Lilywhite!

To me Bob Wilson is not only the heroic player who minded goal during that magical season of 70/71, but he’s also demonstrated quite what a true Gooner he is, in his devotion to the Gunners ever since. There’s no mistaking the extent of Wilson’s allegiance to the cause, whenever he’s asked to comment on TV and in his work for the media he has always come across as a real “mensch” and one of the game's true gentlemen, in every sense of the word. This was ably demonstrated last night during Bob's speech, as he spoke about all the photos around us on the walls. When he told how the two photos of Alan Ball must have been some of the last things Ballie signed before he passed away, Bob literally choked on these words, while a tear or two ran down his cheek.

We also heard a marvelous anecdote from the Double season. You'll have to forgive me if my sieve like memory prevents me from retelling it in Wilson's exact words, but I will nonetheless do my best. Apparently as they were about to leave the Highbury dressing room to meet Man Utd, Don Howe held them back for a moment. Howe's timing was awful as apparently Frank Mclintock's head dropped, as Howe detailed out loud how Dennis Law had escaped our captain, to score a couple of goals in the Gunners’ last game against those northern monkeys and so our esteemed coach instructed McClintock that the first time Law received the ball, Frank should clatter him from behind and kick him right up in the air. "With you both being fiery Scotsmen, Law's bound to get up and bop you one on the nose and get himself sent off". To which McClintock responded "but I'll get myself sent off as well", whereupon Howe replied "yeh but they will miss him a lot more than we'll miss you!"

The respect Bob has earned throughout the footballing world was demonstrated by the turn out of such Arsenal luminaries as Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Theo Walcott (with his old man in tow as his minder) and Charlie George - although gawd love him, Charlie is my absolute hero, but one gets the impression that he'd turn up to the opening of a paper bag and with free champagne and posh snacks, there was probably no keeping him away! Whereas Patrick Vieira sent his missus along, with an apology from Paddy as apparently he'd been sent back to Paris for an operation.

Then again, before I arrived Steve had a conversation with Charlie George and enquired as to why Charlie hadn't been involved at Wembley on Saturday in the parade of FA Cup legends, as the representative from the 71 final. After all Charlie WAS the 71 final, since there are few more memorable Wembley images than the famous one of him lying on his back on the Wembley turf, with his long lank 70s hairstyle. According to what Charlie told Steve, he was invited on Saturday, but it seems he must have had similar thoughts about being involved in this occasion, as those which occurred to me while I watched the weeble likes of John Barnes waddling along the touchline in Saturday’s parade, whilst being roundly booed by both sets of fans. Charlie’told Steve that he didn’t fancy turning up to suffer that level of abuse from both Mancunian and South London scum (mind you I wouldn’t mind betting there were more Moaners present from South London than Manchester!).

As the auction itself began, I expressed my surprise to Steve, since apart from the odd famous faces in the room, there was only one other Gooner that I recognised, as he was a regular at away games around the country. But of those other Gooners present, Steve rightly pointed out that the reason I probably didn’t recognise any was doubtless due to the fact that I don’t breathe the rarerified Club Level air. Believe me, it wasn't eau de cologne that I could smell in that auction room, but eau de filthy rich. However I guess such affluent folks don't get to accumulate their substantial pile of spondulicks by spunking it up. Thus despite all those having a hard time, struggling with the weight of moolah in their hefty wallets and despite the fact that it was for such a good cause, for all the encouragement of the extremely accomplished auctioneer, we were both a little taken aback by how much he was having to graft, to try and get any of the high-rollers to bid up.

The only other auctions of this type that I’ve attended in the past, have been at charity dinner dance type doos, where dressed in their penguin outfits and after an evening of eating and drinking, I’ve tended to do a runner out of the room, with my need for a fag as a timely excuse for me to miss out on the moment when one is expected to put one’s hand in your pocket. However I assure you that this isn’t because I’m some sort of tight skinflint, but invariably because it’s embarrassing not being able to afford to get involved in the giving and receiving. Steve and I both agreed that if we had the sort of dough that some of these wealthy types have, we’d think nothing of throwing a few grand in a charity’s direction, in return for a fabulous piece of memorabilia (especially when I imagine that the majority are only spending money that would otherwise end up in the government’s hands by way of tax!).

In addition to the usual collection of signed shirts, including two particularly fetching yellow ones, one with blue trim signed by the 71 Cup Final team and the other with its iconic CBD badge and Pele’s unmistakeable signature (which I believe fetched five grand), there were a couple of more unusual lots, including a work of modern art produced by Titi himself where the splatters on the canvass were created by him kicking the ball against it.

I don’t think Steve intended buying anything, but he was having a great time, sticking his hand up every few moments to make several bids to get the auction going for several lots. I guess if the worst had come to the worst and the hammer had come down on any of his bids, he actually had the wonga to back it up, but I was bricking myself on his behalf, as he bid up to a couple of grand for Thierry’s “painting”.

According to the auctioneer this was a one off but the bloke beside us was suggesting that another example produced by Titi had sold for something like £21k at the Arsenal gala evening recently. In which case, if I am correct in recalling that it ONLY went for eight grand, then I guess the bloke who bought it got himself a bit of a bargain! The auction climaxed when these lots had been sold and the screen above us around the room became the focus of everyone’s attention, as everyone held their breath, waiting for the draw in order to discover which particular signed photograph they’d be going home with. Steve was convinced he was going to end up with one of Ashley Cole, while I would assume that Lord Harris must have a massive home, with sufficient space on his walls to accommodate a whole bevy of about a dozen photographs (when you think of how much pleasure some of us would get from having these signed photos of our heroes up on our walls, it would be a crime to think these could end up hidden away somewhere).

Included amongst all the photos were plenty of not so legendary Gunners. The idea was that once the draw was complete, you went and grabbed your photo from the wall and we both noted that nobody rushed to collect their picture of Julio Baptista which was rather appropriately somewhat hidden over by the entrance to the karsey! As it turned out, we were both delighted when Steve had a right result, as we discovered that the number alongside his name belonged to a picture of Bob Wilson himself, squatting beside the two silver trophies, taken on the Highbury turf in 71 (with my old West Upper pitch in the background).

Once the formalities had finished and while folk were rushing around grabbing their photos off the wall (and boy was I tempted to bag one for myself, as eventually the charity staff began removing pictures that I assume must have been awarded to those who’d bought a ticket but who hadn’t been able to attend – however it would’ve proved just a little bit embarrassing if I’d been collared at the desks on the way out, where they were checking off the tickets and photos!) there was a bit of time before everyone began to drift away.

I’d been kicking myself earlier when Steve had asked me to hold his glass and signed Bob Wilson autobiography, as he dived into the throng surrounding Theo Walcott, in order to obtain an signature for Charlie, one of his kids. I wasn’t really interested in getting him to sign something for me, but it was only during the auction when I saw him standing alongside his dad at the back of the room, that it occurred to me that I would’ve liked to get Theo’s autograph, if only for the fact that it would present an opportunity to shoot the breeze with the Arsenal’s young prodigy.

Without quaffing copious quantities of alcohol, to aid in the alleviation of ones inhibitions, I invariably suffer from the proverbial “spare pr*ck at the wedding” syndrome, when it comes to such perfect ligging opportunities. In addition to my positively painful shyness, I usually find myself empathising with the players in such circumstances, as it must require creditable reserves of patience, for them to have to constantly cope with pesky punters absolutely each and every time they appear in public, having to put up with an absolutely incessant stream of the exact same banal queries.

However I’ve become a little more comfortable in my skin as I’ve aged (and ironically, as the contents of my epidermis gives me more and more pain by the day!) and Steve was having none of it, as he convinced me to collar Theo. Unfortunately I wasn’t sufficiently prepared to be able to pose any of the sort of interesting queries that might enlighten us with details other than those reported in the media and so I am afraid I can only confirm that the papers are correct with their reports that Theo has undergone the required operation on his dodgy shoulder. It occurred to me that it would be a blinder if, after so many requests for autographs, the signing of my guest ticket (which I plan on posting on to one of Ro’s nephews) proved to be the straw which broke the prodigy’s damaged shoulder and set him back several weeks!

The other thing I can confirm is that it is true that Walcott is an extremely well-mannered youngster, making time to speak to everyone, with an incredibly polite and patient demeanour. My one concern might be that perhaps Theo is just a little bit too nice and has been brought up in middle class circumstances that have made him a tad too respectable, as he doesn’t appear to have an arrogant bone in his body. Whereas in my experience, it is often the case that there’s a necessary element of arrogance about the vast majority of the very best young sportsmen, because they need to have a substantial ego, in order to have the belief that will set themselves so far above their peers. Hopefully Theo will be the exception that proves this rule, as he’s such a little diamond of a youngster that he deserves to do well and demonstrate that not every young professional has to be a lary sports car owning, loudmouthed yobbbish larrikin.

Once I’d cornered Theo, I was on a roll. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t persuade Steve to let me take any photos with my mobile phone of him and any Arsenal players, as I’ve garnered plenty such trophies in the past and I thought that if Steve is eventually forced to return to Australia, he’d be chuffed to bits to take a couple of photos of him and any Arsenal players back with him. But he declined all my efforts to persuade him to jump in between Martin Keown and Tony Adams and instead wanted to take my phone to take a photo of me.



Sadly I stood there too long, waiting to dive in between the two of them and by the time I found a convenient point to interject, without interrupting their conversation, they’d drifted apart, as this would have made for a perfectly composed photo, standing between the two ex-Arsenal centre-backs. The high point for me was when I merely went to ask Adams if he minded posing for a picture with me and he greeted me like a long lost pal. I was chuffed to bit that the ex-Arsenal captain appeared to recognise me from a previous encounters (as it’s been a long time since I last had a chance to meet him).



Being a little dumbfounded, I struggled to make any lucid conversation, except to ask if he was enjoying his time at Pompey and to suggest that it must be interesting working with Redknapp. TA merely confirmed that it was “very interesting”

The conversation of the evening came when we collared Martin Keown. Initially we enquired whether he intends on staying within the game, as Steve has seen Martin sitting alongside our current players behind the bench at a few games this season but apparently this is just because he’s entitled to a pass to the paddock at the new gaff. Martin went on to explain that he felt that going from being a player, straight into coaching or management was the easy route as far as he was concerned and he wanted a bit of a break. I got the distinct sense that he feels the need to do something else, if only to validate his own self-worth, by proving to himself that playing or coaching football is not the only thing he is capable of doing, as Keown confirmed that there was every possibility he might come back to the game at a later date, but when he does, he wants to be able to do so out of choice, rather than because it is the only thing he can do.

As an old school defender, I instinctively assumed Keown would be a natural advocate of man-marking over zonal defending. Therefore, having spent the past couple of seasons growing increasingly desperate to discover the supposed advantages of zonal defending, I couldn’t resist this opportunity to ask someone in the know. However I have to admit that I lost a great deal of respect for Keown as a potential coach last night, as he went on to astonish me by indicating that he’d become a proponent of zonal defending. Yet he was still unable to make it clear to me why anyone would choose this system, over more traditional defending methods and since he appear somewhat vague on any specific reasons for his choice (perhaps with the inference that a layman like myself might struggle to understand the concept!!), it was my impression that this choice was merely influenced by the amount of respect he has for other advocates of the system, like Wenger and Benitez.

I laugh at such outrageous “chutzpah” when I reflect on our conversation, as I can’t believe that I actually proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes arguing about the principles of defending, with one of the best centre-backs Highury ever saw, trying to convince him that he was talking utter codswallop, as I went on to suggest that zonal defending leaves a side at a disadvantage because when a defender is marking an area instead of an opponent, it means that invariably, when the opponent runs into your specific area, he has far more momentum when he jumps to head the ball, while you are leaping from a standing start. Secondly with a man marking system, everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing, so that if a player has a free header then it’s perfectly obvious who is at fault for letting him go. Whereas with a zonal system, it is fine when the opposition is at the centre of a particular zone, but when he strays towards the perimeter, suddenly there’s a grey area as to the exact point when he becomes the responsibility of ones team mate and therefore I have little doubt that when it comes to apportioning blame for conceding a goal, there are always going to arguments over who should’ve been marking him.

If footballers were robots and there was no room for human error, perhaps a zonal system would work, as the specific zones would be delineated in the minds of the defence and everyone would know the exact point at which they were tasked with picking up an opponent. However we are talking about football players, many of whom haven’t reached the pinnacle of their careers as a result of their amazing mental capacity. To the contrary, whether it’s a result of damaging too many brain cells from heading too many high balls, or from too many dangerous clashes of heads, but in general I think it can be said that defenders don’t tend to be amongst the games most intelligent genus, with many having the IQ of a gnat. Consequently, unless they are drilled to the nth degree (which the Arsenal defenders obviously are not!) to the point where the way in which they defend set pieces is almost totally instinctive and unless they are in almost constant communication with one another, in order to acknowledge to their team mate that an opponent has entered their zone and has become their responsibility, sadly in my opinion this system is doomed to fail far more frequently than more traditional defensive methods. And if you are to believe some of the gossip being bandied about recently, the likes of William Gallas would appear to only speak to some of his team mates when he feels they deserve a hard time and if this is the case, he’s hardly likely to maintain a constant stream of defensive chatter, to ensure that the likes of Touré, Eboué and Clichy are constantly doing their own jobs.

Mind you I give some credit to Keown, as I am sure it would’ve been far easier for him to have dismissed me as a babbling idiot, rather than to have engaged in arguing his case to any extent (although I’m still pretty much convinced that he failed to elucidate on any specific reasons as to the benefits of a zonal system). However eventually I realised that I was losing his attention as the wandering of his gaze indicated that he was becoming a little desperate for someone else to come and interject, so that he might be rescued from this lunatic, who dared to try and convince him that perhaps I knew better than a man who’d been a professional player since he was in short pants! And I rapidly took the hint offered by Keown’s body language, letting Martin off the hook before he had to resort to being rude.

However with him having mentioned the name of Gallas, I couldn’t let him go without enquiring whether he believed there was any truth to the rumours that Frenchman's abrasive attitude makes him a disruptive element in the dressing room. Now I don’t know whether Keown’s response was merely a case of Martin maintaining the footballers’ code of conduct, by avoiding the possibility of bad-mouthing a fellow pro in public, as he wasn’t exactly over effusive in his attempts to suggest that there was no real substance to these rumours, as he went on to explain that Willie was merely a victim of a footballing media that has got it in for Gallas. Then again, I guess it won’t be too long before we eventually find out for ourselves, one way or another, as the evidence of our own eyes should at some point confirm whether or not Willie is in fact some sort of troublemaker, or if Keown wasn’t merely defending one of his own with his allegation that all the smoke is coming from a malicious media.

But that’s more than enough rambling from me for now. Hopefully I’ll soon have cause to interrupt an interminably dull cricket season, when our manager makes his move in the transfer market. Otherwise it’s going to be a long couple of months until the pre-season friendlies begin and I’ve some other Arsenal related events to comment on. Although if I’m entirely honest, I won’t exactly be holding my breath, waiting for Wenger to splash the cash, in order to bolster our squad, since I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if any comings and goings around London N5 are boardroom based and have little direct effect on the playing side.

Meanwhile my West Ham supporting pal was chatting to me the other day about a question on one of the WHU web sites, whereby one had to name a player who’d left the club in recent season, but who we’d most love to have back. I struggled at the time when we spoke, to decide on which former Gunner I would go for, but the news over the past 24 hours has answered this question for me. Isn’t there something just a little ironic in the richest club on the planet acquiring Steve Sidwell on a free transfer. Personally I can’t see the sense in Sidwell going to Stamford Bridge, as it’s hard to envisage him getting much of a look in, amongst the wealth of midfield talent in the Blues current squad (although perhaps the Gobby One is expecting some movement in the other direction).

From what I understand, Sidwell was a much loved player as a youngster at THOF, with the sort of committed attitude that marked him out as potential captain material. But I am under the impression that ultimately he decided he needed to seek first team football elsewhere, as he wasn’t perceived to be blessed with sufficient quality to earn a regular place in this Arsenal squad. However having seen Sidwell arriving in the box with the sort of late runs from midfield that we’ve lacked ever since Pires left and Freddie lost a crucial yard of pace, I can’t help but wonder whether Sidwell’s going to be the player most likely to come back to haunt us. Moreover, quality isn’t everything and with Wenger’s penchant for only purchasing players who are blessed with sufficient natural ability, it seems to me that our squad and the spirit within the camp could well benefit if Arsene was for once able to choose substance over style?

Peace & Love
Bernard

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