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Monday 18 February 2008

Even If Half-full, Our Gooner Glass Won't Be Of Any Use Cracked

Such a bizarre suggestion might sound bonkers barmy, but I can’t help wondering if the outcome at Old Trafford might have been different, if my butterfly of a missus had been bothered to beat her wings down to the doctors for a flu jab before the onset of winter. If Róna had been immunised against some of the awful lurgies currently doing the rounds, she might not have ended up laid so low on Saturday that I was forced to stop at home and don my apron and cap, in order to take care of her with my best Nurse Ratched impersonation.

Considering the only other away trip I’ve missed was the defeat up at Boro (where, having travelled up to the North-East to see us drop two points against the Toon in midweek, I couldn’t make it all the way back up to Teeside four days later), I guess I should hold my hands up and accept full responsibility for our embarrassing cup exit. Or perhaps my missus should, but then it was hard not to feel a little grateful, since the one good thing to come out of her being so poorly was that at least my misery on Saturday evening wasn’t compounded by the prospect of a four hour trek back down the dreaded M6, with my humiliation being made complete, listening to all the callers on the radio phone-ins.

As hard as it might be to focus on the bright side, considering how badly the Gunners let us all down on Saturday, I would guess that with a track record of two games missed and two defeats, my newly acquired lucky mascot status should mean that I won’t be short of an offer of a lift to the remaining away matches. I would’ve been even more gutted if Monday’s draw had gifted Man U a proper FA Cup quarterfinal outing to the likes of Bristol, Barnsley or Cardiff.

I’ve very fond memories of travelling to Oakwell towards the end of the ’98 Double Season. The Tykes fans were long since resigned to their all too brief sojourn in the top-flight and were determined to savour every moment. It proved to be a mutual love-in, as we revelled in a triumph that took us one step closer to the title and they relished witnessing incredible entertainment, of the sort that they are unlikely to have enjoyed before, or since (not unless they're as long in the tooth as lugubrious Barnsley 'boy', umpire Dickie Bird). The home fans heartfelt display of appreciation at the final whistle will live long in my memory.

Some suggest that the oldest knockout competition on the planet has lost much of its lustre, ever since managers with more important fish to fry, began to rest some of their stars and use the tournament to bring on some of their youngsters. And yet I honestly don’t see how it can be such a bad thing, if the upshot is to enable the likes of the Tykes fans the rare opportunity to live the sort of dream of their deliriously happy day out at Anfield.

However there's a downside to Arsène’s approach. On the basis that momentum is everything, I would’ve thought that Wenger might have learned his lesson from events last season, which showed that we simply can’t afford to treat these cup competitions in isolation. No matter that we might be meeting AC Milan this week, I’ve always been a firm believer in playing our strongest side against our principal rivals because I don’t think it’s a good move to have gifted the likes of Utd the sort of psychological advantage, which might well prove crucial as we approach "squeaky bum" time in the run-in.

Moreover with Man U’s season having stalled against Spurs and with Man City doing the double over them, for the first time in many Mancs lives, they were always going to be desperate to bounce back. It’s easy to envisage the sort of Churchillian tones of Fergie’s teamtalk. By contrast, Arsène could hardly come across as a hypocrite, by trying to inspire the troops to play as if their very lives depended on this result, when in truth everyone in the team knew he was more concerned with keeping many of our walking wounded fit for Wednesday’s clash.

In reality, all that was required was for us to run our socks off for the first half an hour, silence the Theatre of Snores and prove themselves worthy of the opposition’s respect. Instead of which, in the absence of Ronaldo, Tevez, Giggs and Scholes, we passed up a perfect opportunity to finally put a sock in the mouths of all those pundits who’ve been expecting the Gooner bubble to burst and who’d begrudgingly begun to admit that perhaps they’d been wrong about Utd eventually proving their superiority.

Admittedly Arsène’s was decidedly hamstrung in his selection decisions by our long list of injuries and the fact that a number of the alternative choices have been allowed out on loan. Nevertheless, in my humble opinion our line-up was neither one thing, nor the other. There weren’t enough second string players for this mauling to be meaningless, but even if the first-teamers hadn’t embarrassed us so badly by their failure to turn up, without the influential contributions of Clichy, Sagna and Flamini, we never really had a hope.

If Arsène truly didn’t give a stuff because he feels it unrealistic for us to be able to maintain our challenge on three fronts, then to my mind he should’ve been bold and gone the whole hog, rather than hedging his bets by putting his big guns on the bench. It defeated the object to send them on for the last 20, as they will have ended up back in the dressing room having expended just as much energy and no less demoralised than those who played the entire 90.

I believe many of us were quite prepared to be disappointed on Saturday, as in truth it should come as no surprise that Wenger’s prioritisation of the Cup competitions should be reflected in the attrocious attitude of some of our players. After all if Arsène doesn’t deem the FA Cup important enough to warrant playing his best team, the likes of Fabregas and co. are hardly likely to feel inclined to run their bollix off!

But despite our depleted squad, I’m sure that along with most other Gooners, I would’ve rather watched our U13s wear their shirts with pride, going down with all guns blazing as they gave of their all, rather than end up feeling so ashamed of the utterly flaccid display of players who quite patently weren’t at the races.

Our heroes are so detached from their fan base nowadays, that they obviously don’t appreciate the sacrifice of the 9,000 Gooners who stumped up at least a hundred quid to be there. Otherwise I’m sure someone like Cesc (who’s proved himself to be a “mensch” in most other circumstances) wouldn’t dream of showing such flagrant disregard for our feelings. Moreover, with no-one but themselves to blame, I wonder if they've the slightest inkling quite how maddening it is for us (not to mention potentially ruinous for our future prospects) and how much stick we have to take, when they refuse to take their medicine, with anything like the good grace that is a given amongst all the greatest sporting icons.

Sure I want them to hate losing with the sort of passion that has my heart soaring when Adebayor chases back the length of the pitch to try and regain possession. But we could well do without that sinking feeling, on seeing our captain lash out in the sort of petulant frenzy, which could result in Gallas serving a three-match ban. Myself I felt it would’ve been far better to applaud Nani’s ball-juggling, rather than belittle themselves, by seeking retribution for his transgression of the unwritten code of conduct by trying to break his legs. The Gunners are far better than that and the best answer would’ve been to take the mickey back.

Meanwhile it remains to be seen whether the ramifications of this depressing result will cause the derailment of our campaign, or whether we can bounce straight back with the sort of performance necessary to restore some much needed pride. As far as AC Milan are concerned, I can’t quite see this aged Italian side having sufficient energy to cramp our style for 90 minutes. As far as I’m concerned, if the Gunners are sufficiently shamefaced about Saturday’s debacle, then they’ll demonstrate their remorse by bringing their ‘A’ game along on Wednesday.

From a glass half-full perspective, IF our confidence hasn’t been eroded, then hopefully while Man Utd continue on the road to Wembley, we'll be running away with the league. Although we're going to need to make the most of any matches played while Utd are otherwise distracted, as the ‘no fear’ approach I would’ve expected on our return to Old Trafford in April, is now likely to be replaced by more than a little trepidation!