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Monday 31 March 2008

The Ghost of Arsenal Past?

We’ve had such a miserable time up at the Reebok in recent seasons that after the extreme disappointment of the defeat at Stamford Bridge last weekend, it was perfectly understandable that there were plenty of Arsenal fans who thought better of revisiting this annual masochistic ritual.

Indeed, if my piece for the Irish Examiner was entitled “Armchair Talk” and I didn’t feel some responsibility to the readers, or to my travelling companions, I myself might have rolled over, when the alarm eventually pierced my consciousness on Saturday morning. After a long, hard week’s work, it took every last ounce of my loyalty to the Arsenal cause, to drag myself from far more pleasant dreams in the land of nod, to the unappealing reality of a rain-sodden, four hour schlep up to the North-West, for another laborious encounter with our Lancashire nemesis.

It was a shame the weather was so awful, as the convertible BeeMer we drove up in would’ve really come into its own with the roof down. But then my mate was nervous enough as it was, of incurring the wrath of his missus for misappropriating her motor, while she was sunning herself in Spain. We couldn’t travel in the people mover, as would normally be the case because apparently his wife had taken it. But this was the source of some amusement, when I enquired in utter astonishment as to whether she’d driven the Previa all the way down to Malaga, only for him to reveal that it had merely been used for the more modest trip to Luton airport.

With the fistful of spare tickets that my mate had been given by other Gooners, we wandered around the Reebok on arrival, in the hope we might be able to return them at the Box Office. I thought Blackburn was the only Premiership club where this was possible, but what with Rovers having such poor attendances, apparently even they’ve become pissed off with having to refund substantial sums of money, originally paid to the Arsenal.

In the hope of us making it all the way to Moscow, apparently there are plenty of Gooners trying to improve their prospects of getting a ticket for a European final, by bumping up their away match credits. But this must be proving an expensive business, as Bolton certainly weren’t giving any money back at the Box Office and there was little point lingering outside the turnstiles, with all those Gooners who were struggling to give away spare tickets.

The flyer I was handed for the forthcoming Amir Khan fight at the Bolton Arena promised more entertainment than anything on offer at the Reebok this season, as evidenced by the proliferation of posters around the stadium, offering season ticket holders additional tickets to see Wanderers play West Ham for only a fiver! Once inside, a glance at all the empty seats confirmed the need for these sort of ridiculously reasonable marketing deals and is further evidence that while the Premiership’s top half dozen clubs continue to rake in the readies, it’s not all roses elsewhere in the league.

Mind you it’s about time football fans started voting with their feet and it’s just annoying that I happen to support a southern club, with such an affluent fan base, that the Arsenal appear to be somewhat immune to the economical climate. I know full well that if I refuse to pay my thousand quid renewal (x two!), there’s a massive queue of fans eager to take my place. My Ma was telling me that a mate of hers is taking her to the Old Vic theatre tonight at a cost of 78 quid for the two of them. It’s patently obvious that something in society is ass about tit, when an activity widely perceived as a toffs past-time, is almost half the price of a sport which was once an affordable weekly working class pleasure!

Meanwhile it seems somewhat crass talking about money, following 90 minutes of the sort of entertainment which you simply can’t put a price on, where with hindsight many of those misfortunate Gooners who made the mistake of not travelling, might give up half a years salary, to have not missed out on what turned out to be the most thrilling away game of the season.

As an example of a relatively modern arena, the Reebok is a stark reminder of quite how sumptuous our new stadium is by comparison, with every (albeit expensive) seat in the house having the same luxurious amount of leg-room. By contrast, as one attempts to tiptoe along the cramped confines of even the more costly upper-tier rows at the Reebok, like a club-footed tightrope walker (especially after a few bevvies!), where inadvertently crushing the toes of ones neighbours is far more preferable to the prospect of a dangerous fall down the steep incline on one’s other side, I am always mindful of how much more dangerous these all-seater stadia would inevitably prove to be in the event of a fire, or some such similar emergency, than a standing terrace, where the seats wouldn’t be the greatest obstacle in getting everyone out in good time.

It’s hard to have sympathy for the precarious predicament of a club that didn’t have the good sense to hang onto their one and only regular goal scorer and I'm certain that there won’t be too many Gooners who’ll be disappointed if we don’t ever have to go back there again. But if this should prove to have been our Bolton swansong, it was one helluva way to bow out.

In the absence of Kevin Nolan (with 5 goals, their highest scorer after Anelka), you’d imagine that even the Arsenal’s leaky defence might hold firm against a team that hadn’t scored in 360 mins of footie previously. However as much as I adore Kolo Touré, he’s been playing at centre-back for so long that he’s bound to lack some of Bakari Sagna’s instinctive defensive tendencies at full back, as evidenced by the way in which Taylor managed to get his head on the ball for Bolton to take a surprising lead, from their only meaningful attack of the game.

However, to my mind, it was Diaby’s somewhat slothful demanour which was most to blame. But then once again we’re left having to ‘make do’, as Abou neither has the build or the instincts of a left winger. Aside from the fact that we’re deprived of ammunition from the left flank, because he needs to cut in on his right foot, I felt it was Diaby’s failure to track back which left Flamini with even more work trying to protect Clichy and provided Steinsson will all the time and space required to put the ball on a plate for the scorer.

After that, having failed to capitalize on any of our goal scoring opportunities, it seemed as if it wasn’t to be our day. Where Bendtner’s shot had deflected wide, just about Bolton’s second effort on goal was diverted into the net. But in the meantime Foy probably did us a big favour by sending Diaby off. No matter whether it’s us or the opposition, I hate seeing refs reach for the red card so robotically. I appreciate the need to try and prevent dangerous tackles, of which there can be little doubt Diaby’s was a prime example. But personally I don’t believe you can stamp them out completely, not without making football a less committed, not so full-blooded and thereby a far less thrilling spectacle.

The efforts to over-protect players are symptomatic of this whole nanny state culture and to my mind the authorities have a much greater responsibility not to tinker with the beautiful game because it wasn’t broke in the first place (and no I wasn’t the hypocrite who was calling for Martin Taylor to be banned a couple of weeks back!). I find it utterly infuriating that this strict rulebook mentality has been forced on our referees, to the point where week in, week out the automaton in the middle is making decisions, which all too often ruin the event as a contest for all the watching millions. You couldn’t wish for a more blatant example of the tail wagging the dog.

Mind you, the Arsenal have a habit of performing better with ten men than the full compliment and combined with the two goal deficit, Diaby’s premature exit served to force Wenger’s hand. Usually le Prof will leave his side unaltered until the last 15/20 mins, but with half an hour remaining Arsène rung the changes, which proved to be the catalyst for an astonishing comeback.

I sneaked out at the break to console myself, by sucking on a cancer stick on the stairwell. At that stage I was so pissed off that I joked with my pals that I might get lucky and an orange-jacketed anti-smoking nazi might do me the small mercy of slinging me out and save me from the second half!

Considering that Bolton looked far more likely to score a third after the restart with a rapid succession of corners, if I’m honest our remarkable revival was probably more a mixture of some long awaited good fortune, combined with the home side’s implosion, rather than any really dramatic turnaround in the Gunners form. Fabregas’ passes were still going astray and be it with banjo or football boot, Van Persie was still struggling to hit the proverbial cow’s arse (and under such circumstances, all credit to Robin for stepping up for the penalty).

I hate having to reduce a 90 minute performance in a team game, down to an individual mark out of ten, but I am often obliged to do so for the Observer's "Match Verdict" column and it was only when it came to doing so on Saturday that it dawned on me that in spite of the amazing turnaround, there weren't any really outstanding individual performances. In the end I gave Theo an 8 for his considerable impact, along with Willie and the Flamster (although even Matty was not without fault, especially in the lapse in concentration that led to Bolton's second) and virtually everyone else a 7, except for Van Persie and Diaby who didn't really deserve more than a disappointing 6. However if I had my way, sod the points for artistic style, I would've given the entire team a 10 out of 10 for application and effort.

What's more, I’m pretty much convinced that the sparkling form we've been so patently lacking in recent weeks, will come with the restoration of a little confidence. Far more important on Saturday was that in the sort of torrential conditions which would’ve seen many a lesser team give up the ghost, we showed the sort of ‘never say die’ mettle which meant that we made our own luck.

The TV pictures suggested it was a stick-on penalty, but from behind the goal, I was fairly certain there was some pre-meditation in the way Alex Hleb invited the challenge. There were those around me who were subsequently knocking Walcott’s naivety, when Theo stayed on his feet instead of hitting the deck. But Foy was never going to give us another pen and personally I quite like the idea that a youngster is too focused on possession of the ball for the intrusion of such felonious thoughts.

With a Man Utd slump looking more and more unlikely, in the end Saturday’s result might only prove important in terms of a much-needed boost to morale, prior to Wednesday’s big game. Although considering the amount of effort involved, I can’t help but be a little concerned which of the two teams will line up without the disadvantage of some residual lactic acid in their weary legs. Then again, no matter what transpires during the remainder of the season, we might have enjoyed plenty of matches where the football was on a different planet to Saturday’s somewhat mediocre fare, but there will be few present who will forget their memories of such a magical afternoon.

There’s often some precious moments of mutual appreciation after such an exceptional encounter, which involves the sort of bonding both between the players and the fans that is beyond your humble correspondent’s descriptive abilities. I know the badge-kissing is an overabused cliché and is usually the precursor to a guaranteed summer exit, but no-one who witnessed the thrill on the faces of the likes of young Fabregas can question that there’s a commitment to the club, which transcends the size of their weekly wage packet. Whether the spirit of togetherness that was engendered by events on Saturday afternoon will prove sufficient to take us all the way to Moscow is another matter. But it sure won’t do us any harm and it is encounters such as these, which can forge an ethos whose effects might last long beyond May.

As an almost ever-present this season, it remains to be seen whether Sagna’s absence for this titanic trilogy with the Scousers will prove crucial. In truth it only confirms my belief that Arsène needs to be bold by putting our home advantage to good effect by playing two strikers. Even with Sagna I wouldn’t have had much confidence in our ability to maintain a clean sheet, especially with Torres on such a hot streak. As ever, our success will depend on our ability to outscore the opposition. While I may not be nearly so confident as I was prior to our meeting with AC Milan, I am hopeful that if we can contain Torres and co. to no more than a single goal, we can go to Anfield with everything still to play for. Then again if Fabregas rises to the occasion and Robin finds his shooting boots, perhaps we'll make Liverpool look like Premiership also-rans, rather than Champions League contenders?

In the car on the way back from Bolton, I pooh-poohed the lad in the back when he suggested he fancied the Toon to turnover Spurs. "Not at White Hart Lane" I rebuked, but then who could've imagined that the Lilywhites new messiah (in a long line of dodgy deities, whose water walking acts didn't quite work out!) would make such a tactical ricket, according to Lee Dixon on MOTD2. But then I guess Ramos has discovered that it's traditional at this time of year for Tottenham's squad to be more focused on which beach they'll be spending their summer on, than on their opposition. I certainly won’t be complaining if my predictive skills prove equally fallible come Wednesday and we kill the tie in the first leg!

Lee Dixon and Tony Adams as the pundits on Match of the Day 2, now there's a win double act if ever I saw one. With TA having had the piss taken out of him for apparently having holes in his shoes on his last appearance, he revealed that his patent leather pair on his "plates" on Sunday were a present from Alan "Smudger" Smith. It felt like a bit of an Arsenal love-in which made me somewhat nostalgic for the days of yore, when the Gunners were a long way from the sophisticated outfit that we've become under Arsène Wenger (albeit playing football to match!).

However I am sure even Tone and Lee would've been proud of Saturday's performance and it left me with a little hope that some vestige of the Arsenal spirit as we've always known it, still lives on, even in these far more mercenary times.
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1979gooner said...

I only just discovered your blog, I'm a big fan already, great stuff

Anonymous said...

Fook me! You manged to not only suck all the joy and thrills out of that great game, but also bored the tits off me!


Anonymous said...

very good indeed - best on the net... but u do go a bit mate!! haha keep her lit!

Bern said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bern said...

I don't know about thrills but I've had no complaints from Joy :-)

As for banging on a bit, I'm sure the Sports Ed at the Irish Examiner will concur with this sentiment wholeheartedly, but then brevity has never been my strong suit, as obviously I lean towards the "why use one word when ten will do" school :-)

But he who pays the piper inevitably calls the tune and since my weekly missive is primarily written for the Wednesday edition of the Irish Examiner, by which time there's been reams of opinion about the actual football, if I'm banging on a bit more than usual, it's often in an effort to find a slightly alternative angle. And after seven seasons of regular weekly missives, it's not always so easy to accomplish.

Occasionally the odd opinion slips through the net, as I wouldn't be a genuine fan if I wasn't somewhat opinionated. That's precisely the reason the beautiful game is the subject of endless discussion amongst us all.

However I know myself how maddening I find the incessant pontificating about the Arsenal, from some of those who seem to think they know better than our glorious leader and while I'm sure there are plenty who believe I'm no better when it comes to talking out of my backside (actually I talk through my nose....cos I've worn out my mouth!), I always endeavour to qualify my own opinions, in an effort to ensure that it's patently obvious I'm not so arrogant as to believe mine are any more, or less valid than the next Gooner.

Big Love