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Monday 14 January 2008

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon In The Merry Month of February

(having failed to post last week's diary piece, I then proceeded to write a massive preamble following Wednesday's lucky escape against Spurs and have to apologise that I am only now getting around to posting them both - should you prefer to jump straight to this week's missive, I will be posting it immediately after this one)

Hi folks,

I was so 'cream crackered' when I finished writing this week’s missive on Monday, that having forwarded it to the Examiner, I didn't get around to posting it and it now feels somewhat outdated, after events on Wednesday night. Nevertheless, I've tagged it on below, just in case some of you have nothing better to do :-)

I've just about recovered from the Spurs game, as it was a bit of a stressful evening all round. I was in deepest, darkest Kent until around 3.30pm that afternoon, at the ballet's new stores in Marden ("home of the Kent Air Ambulance" - no reason to mention this, other than the fact that I've now driven past this sign so often that the two now seem synonymous) and I had to deliver a van load of cozzies to the Colisseum in Covent Garden, take the rental van back to Greenford and collect the car, to get back in time for KO. Crawling along the A40 at around 6pm, still on my way OUT to Greenford, I thought I was never going to make the match, as once it gets past the point where they close the roads around the stadium, the local traffic and I think I actually got young Jamal out of bed, merely to ask for his mobile number, to tell him that I would give him a call to come around and meet me at the ground if I couldn't sell Ro's ticket. How cruel was that! I ended up flogging it to an extremely grateful Scandinavian and was left feeling very guilty for even mentioning it to Jamal.

Coincidentally it was another Scandinavian who benefited on Wednesday. I would've missed most of the first half, if it wasn't for the delayed KO. But as it turned out, I was trotting around to the ground, as fast as my nicotine-addled lungs could carry me, just as the players were coming out. The last time I was tardy for a match, I missed Eduardo’s early goal on New Year’s day and I don’t know whether the sound bounces off the concrete and brickwork of the rapidly rising construction of residential apartments that now stands in place of the old North Bank, but I was more than a little amazed that, for a goal scored against derby rivals, keeping us on the top of the Premiership pile, the only celebratory noises I heard were those coming out of the Gunners pub.

In the past I’ve always been annoyed when Ro hasn’t been able to make it to a game last minute, mainly because I get so embarrassed trying to sell her ticket, as I can’t bear the thought of being taken for a tout, wandering around to the game spouting that oh so suspicious “anyone need a spare” dirge. Perhaps I’ve a dodgy demeanour but it feels as if I might as well be peddling the plague, for the look of contempt I seem to catch from the majority of folk.

In this instance, not wanting to miss another early goal, I was in such a hurry that I was having to look back to see if anyone showed any interest in my offer. Unlike all the other home matches that are included in our season tickets, I’d actually had to go online to purchase these two seats at a cost of thirty-five quid (tickets for the second leg at White Hart Lane are an extortionate forty-four quid, I suppose because Spurs know they can get away with it – whatever happened to reduced prices for the Carling Cup??!!) and so I would’ve been that bit more annoyed if one had gone to waste.

But with the game having already kicked-off and considering we’d have missed a fair bit by the time we took our seats, in my head I’d already decided that I’d tell anyone that the price was thirty quid if we made it before anyone scored and twenty quid if we missed a goal. When it came to it, when this young lad piped up “How much”, I was too afraid of putting him off to ask for any more than twenty. However I ended up kicking myself.

I continued walking, telling him to hurry up if he was interested and occasionally glancing back to see if he was still in my slipstream. As a fit looking youngster, I can only assume that he was lagging behind because he was reluctant to believe his luck. But he eventually caught up as we crossed the North Bridge, where I suggested that we leave sorting the money out until we were inside, rather than delay, or risk being arrested for touting (although in truth it was probably something I said merely to try and reassure him that he wasn’t about to be ripped off!). However he already had a small wedge rolled up in his hand and as he peeled off a twenty, he revealed quite what a bargain I’d offered him. His old man had come over from Sweden for his last live match and they’d been fleeced for 140 quid a pop by a tout, whereas (as I suspected from the fact he was heading back towards the tube station) he’d just about given up on getting in to see this game.

Apparently a tout had offered him a ticket for 90 quid and with no better offers, he’d headed off to the cashpoint beside Highbury House as he only had £60 on him. But the tout had disappeared by the time he’d returned. It’s funny, as if I’d asked him for £60 he probably would’ve been a whole lot less wary of me. But it was well worth the fifteen pound loss I made on the amount I’d paid for our tickets, as the look on his face was absolutely priceless. After paying a small fortune for a seat up in the gods, in the corner of the upper tier on his last visit, the look of wonderment on his face was more gratifying than any amount of greenbacks, as I walked him through the turnstile, to our fabulous pitch, close to the halfway line, about halfway back in the lower tier.

If the back of the Upper Tier is like watching a match from the roof, then halfway back in the lower tier is like the game is being played in the same room and this lad was so chuffed that he was straight on the phone to his Gooner dad in Sweden (who was watching on the box), to marvel over his great view in stereotypical “hurdy gurdy” stylee.

I’d missed out on buying our own seats for this game. While I was fretting about applying for tickets to the second leg at White Hart Lane, I’d managed to forget all about the fact that the first leg wasn’t included in our season tickets. Luckily it wasn’t too late when the penny eventually dropped, but it turned out to be a day after the date for buying one’s own seat. Consequently, since our seats are about half a block away from the halfway line, I decided to try booking seats in the next block along and so it was some coincidence when, of all the seats in that block, I was offered two in the row directly in front of us, only one seat closer to the halfway line than our regular pitch! I guess we must be right in the middle of the row and so the next seat along is considered to be in the adjacent block.

Normally we’d enter Block 18 but heading to our seats via Block 17, I didn’t have my bearings and so didn’t have a clue where our seats were precisely. What’s more, at the old place it would never have been a problem, but at the new stadium the faces change from game to game and so it’s not so easy to locate one’s seat. I was tempted to sit in the first two empty seats we came across, when I looked along to see that there weren’t any spaces in the vicinity of where our seats should be, as I didn’t fancy that embarrassing palaver of having to get people to stand up to check the number on the back of their seats. But with so many people arriving so late because of the problems with the trains, it would’ve been even worse to have to start moving around again, if someone turned up to claim these seats.

There were a few regulars around who recognised me (although I imagine most would only know me by my foghorn like voice), but who were looking at me as if to suggest “you’re in the wrong row you numpty”. Eventually, after getting enough people off their backsides and establishing where our two seats were, I kicked out a couple of people who were two rows in front of where they were supposed to be.

The Swedish lad, Linus (isn’t that the name of the kid with the comfort blankie in the cartoon….Peanuts – having been superceded by the Simpsons et al, it’s hard to believe one can forget the name of a cartoon that was once such a cultural landmark) turned out to have followed his old man into Goonerdom and was taking in as many Arsenal matches as he could afford, on a pittance of a wage from a temporary job at House of Fraser, whilst taking time out to travel after finishing school. I felt bad for him at first, because it was such an awful Arsenal performance. In truth we could easily have been three or four down by halftime and would’ve been, if Spurs hadn’t fluffed their lines so badly in front of goal.

I was thinking that in his shoes I would’ve been absolutely gutted, to finally get to witness an Arsenal v Spurs derby live, only to see us get beat for the first time in eight years. However I was amazed at how philosophically he was taking the prospect of a defeat, suggesting “I suppose we have to lose against them sometime”. Apparently he was so delighted just to be there, that anything (everything!) else was a bonus.

The writing was on the wall for Jenas’ 37th minute goal, almost from the moment we arrived. Listening on the radio walking around to the game I’d heard commentary on a Bentdner header but apart from this, I can hardly recall us troubling Spurs’ replacement keeper. By contrast the Lilywhites looked like scoring almost every time they crossed the halfway line and even from the stands, you could sense the air of blind panic in our defence, as the opposition created chance after chance. Unlike Cerny in the Spurs goal, Fabianski certainly wasn’t going to strain a muscle from suddenly being called into action after standing around in the cold!

Am I completely bonkers, or am I correct in my perception that when Senderos and Djourou last played together as a centre-back partnership they made quite a reasonable fist of it? Whereas on Wednesday, not only did our backline look as if they hadn’t played together, they performed like complete strangers. When the goal eventually came, it was far from the first time Spurs had breached an extremely naïve offside trap, although myself and everyone else who was close to being in line with the play, was absolutely certain the linesman had got it badly wrong.

It just goes to prove quite what a difficult job the officials have these days, with the speed of our game. I have yet to see a replay of the Spurs goal but I’m led to believe that the officials weren’t at fault and that Keane was onside when he received Berbatov’s through ball in the build up to the goal, despite the fact that we all believed otherwise.

On paper I would’ve been most concerned about Justin Hoyte, coping with the pace of Aaron Lennon and in an inexperienced back line of Hoyte, Djourou, Senderos and Traoré, I guess the guile of Berbatov at his best was always going to be a problem. With Justin being a rare homegrown lad, no one would be happier than me, to see him force himself into regular first team contention. I can’t claim to know his parents but I do remember seeing them on the athletics circuit when I was competing for Shaftesbury Harriers and this intangible connection puts me in Justin’s corner more than any other young Gunner. In fact the perfect scenario would be to see both Justin and his brother Gavin playing in red & white.

However, as much as it would please me to say otherwise, from the little I’ve seen to date, his performances have not been particularly convincing. Perhaps he’s a little too inhibited when playing for the first XI and too worried about his defensive responsibilities to make the most of his genetic advantage (coming from a family of sprinters). Yet he seems to hesitate about going on the overlap and beating a full-back for speed down the flank, as he invariably seems to come to a halt, afraid to advance past the line of the penalty area, where his penetration might cause a proper panic.

And if Justin doesn’t demonstrate his sprinter’s speed going forward (I’d love to se a table of the Arsenal player’s best times for 100 meters, or at least those of the likes of Walcott, Clichy, Traore and Hoyte as judging by their accelerations over short distances, I’ve no doubt they’re able to post respectable 100m times), I’m afraid he doesn’t exactly fill me full of confidence when he’s facing a class act in defence. Hopefully we’ve yet to see the best of him, as he must have displayed more talent than we have seen to date, to inspire such confidence in his ability from the coaching staff (both at the Arsenal and for England – although I sometimes wonder if selection for the England squad is a given for any English Gunner who’s actually made it through the ranks!).

I assume Jocelyn Hoyte-Smith must be Justin’s aunty, as she was about the most memorable runner bearing the Hoyte family moniker and with all the competition allegedly bang at it these days with the creatine and various other dubious vitamin supplements, perhaps Justin’s biggest disadvantage is that his aunt is now a BAA anti-doping officer.

I assume Djourou must’ve taken a knock during the first half, as I could see no other reason why Wenger chose to move Justin to centre-back. I can’t recall if Sagna was any more impressive after the break, but as a unit, our defence was certainly no more secure, with more holes than all those in Blackburn Lancashire (not in the Rovers defence but the Beatles song) For once my awful memory is a blessing, but even I can’t forget that Spurs continued to carve up our defence almost at will, whilst mercifully wasting several more good goal scoring opportunities.

However while none of our backline did themselves much justice, I definitely don’t hold them entirely culpable for gifting Spurs their best opportunity to record a win against the Gunners in many a moon. For my money, the fact that they were left so exposed to Spurs rampant front line was due to the lack of protection they received from midfield. If we’d ended up on the wrong end of a defeat, the one person who was most guilty in my eyes was Gilberto. Never mind “the Invisible Wall” our Brazilian midfielder has become a blatant liability, as a shadow of the reliable rock he once was.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilbo wants out, as I get the distinct impression from his body language that his heart’s no longer in it. I sincerely hope I’m proved wrong, as you can be one hundred per cent certain that we’re going to be needing a player of his previous stature, composure and versatility during the course of this campaign. Yet even the way he ran to close Spurs players down didn’t look particularly committed and where once Gilberto could be relied on to break up opposition attacks and lay off the simple ball which would start the counter, on Wednesday he was half-hearted in the tackle and constantly conceding possession with far too casual passes.

Hopefully it’s merely a symptom of his lack of match practice and the fact that a Carling Cup encounter, playing alongside all the kids, was hardly the perfect game to get a World Cup Winner’s adrenaline pumping.

Meanwhile I was grateful my new Swedish pal eventually got to celebrate an Arsenal goal and when it came Theo’s goal resulted in a rush, which was less euphoria and more relief. It was interesting to note that Berbatov reverted to type the moment the game took this fortunate turn for the better. Where the Bulgarian striker was everywhere when his team were in front, suddenly his demeanour took on a more disinterested air, as his enthusiasm visibly evaporated. There’s no doubt as to his remarkable ability, but to my mind Berbatov is a “fair weather player” who won’t be seen digging in and getting his shorts dirty whenever the going gets tough (basically he and Spurs are perfectly suited!)

Thus this bunch of slieveens from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road will be gutted to have blown such an great opportunity to have put this semifinal to bed, with their profligacy in front of goal. Yet you can be sure this encounter will have instilled them with plenty of confidence for the second leg and our youngsters are going to have to raise their game considerably, if we’re going to deny the enemy a rare appearance at Wembley, whilst earning our own first outing to the new national stadium.

Doubtless I’d be sick as Michael Palin’s moth-eaten parrot, if I’d seen my team’s prospects of silverware disappear in the first week of the New Year (leaving fans with the depressing reality of watching their side play out five months of yet another success starved season), as a result of the sort of managerial pragmatism, which persuaded the likes of messrs Moyes and Hughes to tinker with their respective squads on Saturday.

In the recent past, resting star players for cup encounters has been the sole province of title challengers and relegation candidates. But with the FA Cup having been passed around amongst the big four, for the past 12 years and the remainder of Premiership clubs forced to chase the Holy Grail of European football via promotion to the mini-league of also-rans, suddenly everyone is at it.

Along with inflation, the state of the NHS and the failure of the national team, it seems to be fashionable to blame Arsène Wenger for such widespread belittlement of the oldest knockout tournament on the planet. Instead of which, events this weekend would suggest that we (and the FA!) should be grateful to le Gaffer for instigating this trend and unwittingly being responsible for giving this aged competition the kiss of life. By leaving out all those players in need of a little R & R following the festive fixture pile-up, this has resulted in a levelling off of the playing field, which has produced the most enthralling 3rd round in many a moon, full of the sort of cup shocks that were thought to be a thing of the past.

Besides which, far from detracting from the tournament, I believe there are many Gooners out there like me, who look forward to these rare reserve team run-outs in Cup competitions, with even more enthusiasm than we have for the twice-weekly appearances of our first XI. Aside from the fact that we’ve grown accustomed to the privilege of seeing so many scintillating performances from the Young Guns in recent cup campaigns, compared to the edge-of-the-seat nervous tension involved in the majority of our other matches, there’s a carefree, nothing-to-lose aura to these games that often results in an unusually genial, but fabulously fervent atmosphere and gives the youngsters a license to fully express their abilities, with a freedom that simply wouldn’t be possible in the pressure-cooker climate of the Premiership or the Champions League.

Thus I set out early Sunday, on a crisp, sunny winter’s morning with such a jaunt in my step, that miracle of miracles, for once I even managed to arrive at my mate’s house on time! It seem such a rare event that one gets to tick off a previously unvisited stadium nowadays, that I’d been looking forward to the trip to Turf Moor ever since we’d pulled ‘Burnley away’ out of the hat. I remember Burnley as a top-flight side from my childhood soccer star annuals, a side that included such lumiaries as the likes of Ralph Coates (in his pre-comb over period), Colin Waldron and Leighton James. If I recall correctly Burnley appeared on the second page in my late 60s, early 70s annuals, immediately after the Arsenal, or only separated by Birmingham City.

The club’s tag line proudly lauds their status as “founder members of the football league” (I guess they’ve got little else to glory in these days) and my trip to Turf Moor means that I’ve now seen the Arsenal play against all eleven surviving clubs from the original twelve founding members (Accrington FC were the only club to disappear). However I suppose in recent times they’ve suffered, along with all the other Lancashire Mill town clubs like Blackburn, Bolton, Preston, Oldham etc who are all struggling to attract fans from a relatively small catchment area and to prevent them from defecting to their more glamorous Mancunian neighbours.

I was relieved to cadge a lift as the 2pm KO meant an ungodly 6.30am start for the coaches, whereas we didn’t depart until gone 9am and with such good weather and little traffic, we covered the 230 odd miles in under 3 hours (which I daresay wouldn’t be possible without the aid of one of those convenient little gadgets to warn one in advance of all the different speed traps). With time to kill, we plotted up in a café beneath an aircraft hanger sized modern supermarket. We had a good giggle, when I phoned a Gooner pal who was stuck at home with her bairn, as she suggested that we’d be lucky to get a cup of instant coffee, let alone anything as sophisticated as a latté. But it seems the place must’ve come on a bit since she her last visit, as my lactose intolerant mate’s request for a hot chocolate with soya milk didn’t even rate a raised eyebrow, and a long queue of clued-up locals all ordered the entire ridiculous range of variations on the theme of coffee.

One of the few advantages to the strict smoking regulations is that the gathering of nicotine addicts outside grounds, sucking furiously on our cancer sticks, trying to raise our nicotine levels in order to cope with the 90 minutes of anxiety ahead, is that it often affords even a painfully shy soul like myself, an all too rare opportunity to chat with strangers. Although the Arsenal sold all 3,200 of its allocation of tickets behind the goal, I was surprised to discover there were several areas of empty seats in the other three stands. However it would appear that Burnley shot themselves in the foot somewhat and created a fair amount of disgruntlement amongst their fans, with a somewhat short-sighted effort to maximise revenue from this match. In order to purchase a ticket for Sunday’s game, home fans had to buy a second ticket for another match at the same time. I’m sure this must have put off both Burnley fans and neutrals from coming along to watch them play the Premiership leaders.

While we Gooners were in full voice behind the goal, I was a little disappointed that the home fans hardly raised the roof (although I suppose it’s not so surprising considering they’ve had little to shout about without a home win since October!). Who knows quite what a difference a full-house of happy fans might’ve made, as the revenue from the second ticket they were forced to buy must be relative peanuts compared the sort of money Burnley would’ve received, if their crowd had roared them on to extend their cup run.

In truth, compared to some of the weekend’s stirring encounters, this match never really caught fire. I was actually quite astonished that ref Alan Wiley managed to restrain himself from producing a single card for the first hour (even if there was a couple of tackles that at least merited a quiet word, if not a booking). And then he had to go and ruin it with an utterly needless red card. In the event, mercifully it didn’t have that much of an impact on the match itself, as Burnley continued to try and take the game to us, even with ten men. But I never fail to be utterly outraged that the man in the middle can spoil the match as a contest, for all those who’ve travelled long distances to watch it live and for the millions watching and listening around the world, with one irrational decision, which in light of the recent rash of two footed tackles, has been made merely because he fears castigation from the authorities, if he failed to crack down on what he incorrectly perceived to be a malicious lunge

Perhaps it was a tactical decision by the Arsenal to make use of the long ball, for while Turf Moor isn’t a particularly uneven pitch, it’s hardly the snooker-baize like playing surface that best suits the precision of our passing game. Although I’m delighted to have a tall centre-forward like Bendtner, who now gives us the option of a Plan B, I never imagined that we would turn into Wimbledon, hoofing the ball from back to front at every opportunity. A stranger could be forgiven for wondering which was the Premiership side, as it was Burnley who stroked the ball around, often using Elliot Wade as their outlet on the flank. The tricky winger gave young Traore a torrid afternoon and alongside him, the bag of nerves that was Philippe Senderos hardly inspired us all with confidence for the coming month ahead without Kolo!

Still, although I was disappointed that all those who’d “only come to see the Arsenal” didn’t get to enjoy the high-class entertainment that they were probably expecting, I suppose the only thing that really mattered is that the Gunners new brand of more agricultural football got the job done in the end. The telling difference between the two sides was that with Eduardo’s ice like calm in front of goal, we scored with two of only three decent chances we created all afternoon, whereas a lack of composure in front of goal saw Burnley blowing the best of their opportunities.

Hopefully we’ll be back to the beautiful Arsenal by the time Wednesday’s Carling Cup semi comes along, on our pristine pitch, where Arsène will undoubtedly stick to his policy of playing mostly second string players. It would be great to be taking a comfortable lead to White Hart Lane for the second leg. Then again, in such a results orientated “business” if yet another long hoof down field ends up responsible for an old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal” you will hear few complaints from this quarter of Highbury.

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