Sunday, 24 June 2007

All Good Things…..!

Driving along Drayton Park, past the row of partially built, luxury apartment buildings, rapidly impinging on the Emirates Stadium skyline, the depressing thought was just beginning to dawn on me that I would never again delight in the privilege of watching Thierry Henry perform in a red & white shirt. As, floor by floor these four blocks of flats obscure our impressive new arena from sight and as, around the corner, our once grandiose old ground has taken on the forlorn appearance of a World War II bomb site, with only RSJ frames preventing the gravitational obliteration of the two flimsy looking Art Deco facades, the last vestiges of our ancient Home of Football, one might view these circumstances as a metaphor for the Arsenal’s parlous plight.

Perhaps the ambitious commercial aspirations of the suits have caused them to lose sight of the club’s principal raison d’être, playing and winning football matches. Whilst chasing their dream of creating an Arsenal empire with a turnover that merits a seat at Europe’s top table, alongside the other footballing superpowers, it seems they’ve suddenly managed to destroy one of the Gunner’s greatest assets, that old-school tradition of long-term stability that’s previously made for the sort of secure environment, which has been capable of attracting some of the world’s greatest talents.

In truth the writing has been on the wall for some time. Myself I’m pretty much convinced Thierry would’ve taken his leave last summer if we’d beaten Barca in the Champions League final. With hindsight, perhaps it would’ve been better if he’d left back then, as we might’ve still had sufficient leverage to secure a swap for Samuel Eto’o. However I think most Gooners will agree that during his entire eight seasons at the Arsenal, Titi has gone about his business as a total and utter “mensch” . Whether it was due to some deep-rooted loyalty felt towards Le Gaffer, or towards the Gunners as a whole. Or perhaps it was merely a last-minute, indignant change of heart, at the thought of our Catalan conquerors being able to sift through the wreckage of our unsuccessful season, snapping up the most precious commodity amongst the flotsam of Arsène’s failure.

No matter what Henry’s motivation for staying, it seems an obvious conclusion to draw from the precipitateness of recent proceedings, that he was on the brink of signing for Barca last summer (both parties probably just resurrected their previous negotiations). We can only speculate on whether any arm-twisting went on behind the scenes. Yet after finally making it within touching distance of big-eared trophy for the first time ever, the one elusive prize that would truly validate Wenger’s amazing tenure in the eyes of the rest of the world (as our own faith in Arsène’s deification requires no such affirmation), only to endure the massive disappointment of having it snatched from our grasp at the death, perhaps I’m a sentimental old fool but I got the distinct sense that in a moment of selflessness, Titi couldn’t face putting the complete mockers on our imminent move to our new dream home, as the rat who left the ship before it was even launched.

However as a result, some might suggest that Henry ended up spending last season playing the role of the kind but cowardly male who hasn’t got the “cahones” to call time on a rancourous relationship, for fear of causing hurt to his partner, but who hangs on in there instead, subconsciously hoping that his burgeoning resentment will make him so unbearable to be with, that his other half will eventually be left with no choice but to grasp the mettle and end the marriage.

As we were left in the starting gate, almost out of the race before August had ended, perhaps Titi spent the remainder of the season regretting his decision, thinking the grass might’ve been greener as just one of Barca’s gaggle of Galacticos, rather than bearing the massive responsibility of being the Arsenal’s big fish, as both captain and principle goal getter. It was patently apparent that something wasn’t right and that Henry’s head wasn’t in the right place, as it was accepted that Arsène must’ve had good reason for leaving his leading man out, spending the majority of the winter alongside the rest of the benchwarmers.

I don’t deny that the ousting of David Dein had an influence on Henry’s eventual decision. Leaving aside the fact that Dein’s son was Henry’s best man at his wedding, doubtless some of the other board members would struggle to recognise half of our squad. Whereas having been instrumental in their acquisition, Dein developed a relationship with every Arsenal player. Moreover I won’t belittle Thierry’s suggestion that the uncertainty over our manager’s future was a significant factor in his departure. Myself I’ve always felt that Wenger was determined to see his vision for the club through to fruition and while we all know he’s not a man to break a contract, I can’t help but sense that having led the Arsenal to the promised land (hopefully without a forty year wander in the desert!) he might soon think it is time to call it a day.

Perhaps our latest crop of kids will turn it on sufficiently to encourage Arsène to stay on, to find out just how far he can take them. Yet you cannot understimate the unrelenting pressure of trying to compete against clubs with far greater resources, where he’s expected to work the oracle each season, fiscally speaking, with both hands tied behind his back. We’ve seen ample evidence of how this pressure to succeed has started to get to him, as the boiling point of the previously imperturbable Professeur seems to be reached ever more frequently. They say every job becomes a chore (even Arsenal manager!) and where once Arsène went about his managerial duties with the understated gusto of a man who truly relished the challenge, these days Wenger rarely looks like he’s having much fun.

Obviously a winning team would make all the difference and personally I don’t believe Le Gaffer’s future is inextricably linked with Henry’s. My instincts are that Arsène will wait to see which way the wind blows, both on the pitch and crucially in the boardroom, after having lost the services of the sidekick who took the on the awkward responsibility of contract negotiations and allowed Arsène to focus on the playing side.

However to my mind it’s been the cumulative effect of another unsatisfying season, Dein’s dethronement and the conjecture over Arsène’s future and the ownership of the club which have combined to give Henry the excuse he needed to be able to walk away, after expressing his commitment to the Gooner cause on signing a new four year contract last summer

It was a measure of our unstinting respect and admiration for Thierry that Arsenal fans accepted his extended absence last term without complaint, (contrary to some reports!), even as we began to run out of striking options and our need for someone capable of converting goal scoring opportunities became ever more desperate. Such was our gratitude for the previous seven seasons of Titi’s astonishingly consistent contribution that a season with him out of sorts was a small price to pay.

Whether or not he was the Arsenal’s greatest ever, is an argument for an afternoon in the boozer but Thierry undoubtedly ranks amongst the very best. However for my money, with Henry it’s not just a question of natural ability but his capacity for repeatedly taking one’s breath away, like no other (at least not in all my many years) that singles him out from so many of his equally gifted peers, as perhaps the most entertaining player I’ve ever had the privilege of watching perform. With Titi it isn’t just what he does with a football, but the way in which he goes about it, with the languid air of a super fast big cat.

That he was off colour during our last campaign was evident in the fact that we hardly ever witnessed instances of our main man’s explosive speed. However in the seven seasons prior, there was no more dangerous sight than Henry dawdling in the long grass out on the wing, waiting to catch a scent of a potential kill, before accelerating with effortless ease to pounce on his prey, as if all around him were running backwards. There can be few more exciting spectacle on a football field than the instant when Titi turns on the turbos.

Moreover, with him having been converted from a winger by Wenger, Thierry must be a dream to play alongside, because he lacks the selfish instincts that we’ve come to expect from more single-minded front men. Equally remarkable as Henry’s astoundingly consistent goal tally over the course of the previous seven seasons, was his contribution as far as assists were concerned. I’m fairly sure that there can be few strikers who’ve ended a season as Thierry did in 2002/03, with 24 goals and 20 assists!

Such is Henry’s ability to attract bums onto seats that the terrace taunt of “You’ve only come to see the Arsenal” has rung true in recent seasons and few will deny (even euphoric Spurs fans) that the Premiership will be a poorer place without him. I immediately recall the trouncing of Inter Milan, the fact that I was fortunate to be in Prague when Thierry made a surprise return from injury to finally take Ian Wright’s goal-scoring record, as if he was taking candy from Czech babies and at Fratton Park for the Pompey fan’s display of mutual admiration, after they’d endured a dazzling demolition. Yet Henry has left us with so many fabulous memories of his amazing feats in an Arsenal shirt that it is hard to begrudge him bagging this one last big payday at Barca, considering he’s resisted the temptation to cash in his Gooner chips during eight years of loyal service to the cause.

Cynics amongst us might suggest that his exit has been timed to ensure that our season ticket renewals have been paid prior to the announcement. Although it seems Arsène would’ve preferred to have secured a replacement before the story leaked, leaving everyone aware of our need for a striker and how much we have to spend. It will be a daunting task for whoever is charged with filling Henry’s huge boots and his exit will only add to the aura of the Arsenal’s impending crisis. However he leaves with this Gooner’s blessing, with my utmost thanks for some of my most greatest ever Arsenal memories.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Pas De Deux Milles

Hey folks

With everything so quiet on the Arsenal front, discussion on the Arsenal Mailing List turned to the good old fashioned 2-3-5 formation of yesteryear, back in the days when players wore 1 to 11 and the shirts on their back indicated exactly where they played on the park. Someone (considerably older than myself, I might add!) was drawing comparisons between Alexandre Hleb and George Eastham

I only have genuine memories of watchng the likes of Geordie and Terry Neill from the team of Eastham's era, as they were still around when I was first taken to THOF in the late 60s. I know I saw Ian Ure play a few times, but in truth my memories of the big blonde centre back are probably more associated with his distinctive photo in my collection of Soccer Star stickers (I imagine pictures of Ure were amongst my huge bundle of "swaps", as one of the many players whose appearance in ones pack would ellicit derisive moans of "not him again" when searching for that elusive photo to make up a full team).

I'm aware that Ure's poor performance was largely deemed responsible for our embarrassing Cup Final defeat to lowly Swindon but in truth my childhood memories of this traumatic experience are related to our 'drawing a day', grey exercise books from school, where aged only seven, I was already a revisionist historian, having spent all of a Monday colouring the faces of a Wembley crowd watching a triumphant Arsenal victory.

I also recall that back in the day when we had a few quid and we were privileged to travel on the Exec trips to European matches, there was this old boy who, when he discovered that I worked for the ballet, began telling us how he'd grown up in Finsbury Park with the founder of our company Dame Alicia Markova. Apparently, prior to adopting the airs and graces of a high society ballet dancer, she had the far more mundane moniker of Alice Marks. It seems that when the old boy invited his old flame to a footie match, having watched the Arsenal play, unbelievably she suggested that of all the athletes in the Gunners side of the day, Ian Ure, the big blonde lummox at the back, moved most like a ballet dancer!

These days I am merely most grateful to be able to afford our season tickets and I've been more concerned than ever this time around, as the struggle to pay for our renewals is rapidly becoming an increasingly impossible feat. Rona proposed the preposterous suggestion that, in light of our precarious financial plight, perhaps we'd be better off using the money for her ticket to pay off a few debts. However even if the idea of giving up one of our seats merited consideration, we couldn't manage it, even IF we wanted, because we've swapped seats and would therefore be giving up the seat in the name of the person we swapped with.

Mercifully, thanks to being able to "put the squeeze" on those friends and family who appreciate quite how much the Arsenal means to us, I was able to roll up to the Box Office this morning, with a couple of grand burning a big hole in my pocket (roll up being the operative word, as roadworks at Finsbury Park are to be avoided like the plague at the moment, as it's absolute mayhem around here, with traffic backing up the entire length of Drayton Park and every other route out of the area).

I've been fretting ever since the Friday deadline that our seats might get thrown back into the system at the click of a mouse and I was dead anxious to get it sorted, both before we ended up losing them and before some other fiscal panic impinged on my wedge. If it wasn't for this and the thought of being caught in that awful gridlock again later in the day, I might have driven on when, to my disappointment, I saw the one person at the Box Office window who I would've most liked to have avoided. I'm familiar with many of the Box Office staff who've been working there for a while and this surly git is just about the most unhelpful of the lot.

Our renewals were probably more like a month overdue, than a mere four days, when I went to pay a couple of seasons back. But with a pal working in the Box Office back then, I knew that our seats were still safe. For similar reasons, worried that the money might dwindle by Monday, I was relieved when I walked around to THOF and discovered the Box Office open, but then disappointed when I eventually saw that it was this same miserable bugger behind the window.

Thankfully I knew better, as otherwise I might have had a heart attack, as he took some sadistic pleasure in telling me "You are too late!" I was about to walk away, thinking I'd better let my mate sort it out on Monday, when he tapped on the window to advise me that he'd relented, as if he was going to do me the massive favour of relieving me of nigh on four grand (for our old West Upper seats).

By contrast, he was relatively genial this morning, until I pulled the envelope from my back pocket and produced the readies, at which point he advised me that they no longer take cash! Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? He didn't have to tell me that there was no box to tick for cash on the renewal forms, but I'd assumed this was merely because they didn't accept cash through the post. It's downright bizarre for him to suggest that they don't accept real money over the counter! I stood there, dumbfounded for a minute, hoping he'd come up with a suggestion, whilst wondering whether I might be able to obtain a two grand postal order at the post office, as I couldn't bank the cash and pay by cheque, as most of it would have been swallowed up by my overdraft in the interim!

Then again, as had been the case previously, I was about to take my leave, in the hope of coming back later and finding someone more helpful at the window, when he indicated that he'd show me some mercy and make an exception! I just couldn't believe that this bloke had once again attempted to put the mockers on the unconfined joy felt at eventually managing to pay for our renewals, with the relief of knowing that I've secured our seats at the Arsenal and another season of viewing.

I suppose his sadistic party piece is intended to leave me feeling grateful to him for being so kind as to agree to take my two thousand pounds! Actually it was 1980 quid to be precise and he would only take it on the proviso that I had the exact money. What a complete tosser and it was a total contrast to my visit to the Box Office on Friday, when I was made to feel a small part of the club I love by the fact that the smiley young lass knew me by name.

His no cash and exact money rules were totally ridiculous because I then proceded to buy tickets for the tournament in July. I happened to pay for these with my Switch card (having spent all my money!!) but it occurred to me this evening that he must have been accepting cash for these tickets and I doubt very much that many punters would have the precise payment!

For your information, having gone on general sale, there are apparently still plenty of tickets for the two games on the Saturday, 28th July (Arse v PSG and Inter v Hamburg) but naturally the games on Sunday, 29th (Arse v Inter and Hamburg v PSG) are rapidly selling out. So you'd better pull your finger out if you fancy watching what I hope will prove to be Paddy's return?

Only the Arsenal could employ a person to deal with the public who's capable of taking two grand from me in such bad grace!!

Big Love
Bernard