Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Written Off At The Media's Peril!

It's funny, as when I sunk into my seat on the plane at Bergamo airport late last night (or early Wednesday morning), before slipping off into a satisfied sleep, to dream of quarter final trips to warmer climes, I turned to the bloke sat beside me to smugly pronounce that I'd got it spot on in the missive I'd written the previous day.

However it was only on reflecting on matters this afternoon, that it occurred to me that while I might have filed my piece to the Irish Examiner on Monday, for their Wednesday sport's supplement, in my haste to get everything sorted before leaving for Luton airport, I'd neglected to post it to my blog, or mail it out to anyone else. So to ensure it's not just readers in Ireland who realise quite how perceptive I am, I have tagged it on below. But then on the basis that I've been writing this column for seven seasons now, I suppose the law of averages demands that I've got to come good once in a blue moon :-)

Having stayed up on Monday night because I was too paranoid about going to bed, for fear of not waking up in time to make the 5.30am check-in, if I'm entirely honest, there was a point about half an hour before I'd planned on leaving, when I was hardly thrilled to be travelling to Milan. In fact I actually turned to the missus and said that in some respects I was actually dreading the prospect of such a tortuous trek.

If I could've teleported to the San Siro for the match, there wouldn't have been any such hesitation, but after so many years of following the Arsenal around Europe, the thought of leaving in the middle of the night for a match at 8pm the next day, with virtually everyone predicting a dismal outcome, I couldn't help but feel somewhat ambivalent about what was likely to be an utterly exhausting outing.

Needless to say, one of the first of many texts I received, as we savoured our majestic triumph in Milan last night, whilst being kept in after the match for a typically inordinate amount of time, was a message from my missus, to remind me of my reluctant mood on departing, as Ro enquired "bet you are glad you went now!"

And she was right, as in truth I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Although I'd told everyone that I was quietly confident, knowing that on our day we had absolutely nothing to fear from AC and that to the contrary, it should be Milan who ought to be bricking it (and didn't they play like that!), I knew very well that there was always a possibility that this might've been 90 minutes of football that wasn't destined to go the Arsenal's way.

Nevertheless, although I've not been able to afford to travel to any of the Champions League awaydays so far this season and only managed to make it to Milan courtesy, believe it or not, of a Spurs mate who owed me a few quid and although I couldn't really justify losing out on what proved to be two days wages, instead of one (since after arriving back at 4am, I literally conked out on the sofa and woke up at 11am, still wearing my coat, when I was supposed to have been working down in Kent!), along with five thousand other Gooners who turned up in Milan from all four corners of the planet, by hook, or by crook, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss the opportunity of being there in person to see if the Gunners could be the first English side to put one over the European Champions in their own back yard.

I always felt that victory in this game was in the Gunner's heads, as on paper, it seemed patently obvious that we should be able to prove ourselves younger, fitter, hungrier than the majority of Milan's has-beens. However I don't think many of us could've predicted quite what an incredible performance Le Prof was about to pull out of the old magic hat. It's hard to recall quite such an accomplished 90-minute display from the Arsenal since we beat Real in the Bernabeu. A Gooner pal of mine who remained in Milan after the game told me that he had AC fans coming up to him today, to shake his hand and offer all due respect to "il grande Arsenal".

In fact one of the most enjoyable aspects to yesterday's outing was to see AC fans showing their appreciation to the Arsenal, applauding both the team off the pitch and with mutual gestures of appreciation between both sets of fans, in a spirit of great camaraderie. Considering how many Gooners has spent a long day drinking in the centre of town, it could've easily been a completely different and somewhat uglier story.

Meanwhile we couldn't let the evening pass without reminding everyone what had just taken place and I am just pissed off the battery on my mobile died before the night was out, as I would've loved to have videoed the scene, when they finally let us out of the San Siro and all five thousand of us wound our way, round and round, two or three of those concrete turrets, marching all the way down from the gods on the same interminably long walk we'd made getting up there earlier in the evening. Albeit that at least this time it was downhill all the way, with all the pre-match nerves and stress having been replaced by the sort of unbelievably satisfying feeling that left everyone grinning from ear to ear. It made for an amazing sight, as umpteen spirals of the concrete walkways echoed to the tune of "you're not Champions any more" and naturally "we're on our way......."

For me, the spirit in the Arsenal dressing room right now, was summed up by the wonderful way in which Cesc leapt into Arsène's arms to celebrate his goal. I only hope we don't experience any sort of "after the Lord Mayor's party type hangover, at the somewhat less glamorous surroundings of the JJB on Sunday, as if we can carry the triumphant mood and the undoubted confidence boost into the title race, hopefully, as they say, we'll be running round Stamford Bridge/Old Trafford with our willies hanging out (although my own grandad ensured that the second line of this little ditty doesn't apply to me - apparently prior to being a first class gentlemen's cutter, he used to circumcise elephants in the African jungle, where the wages were terrible, but he didn't half get big tips :-)

Come on you Reds
Bernard

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Apparently there’s little point in me travelling all the way to the San Siro on Tuesday, nor schlepping up to the JJB this weekend, as according to much of the footballing media, we Gooners might as well throw the towel in! Well personally I’m never happier than when everyone else is writing the Arsenal off.

Admittedly it was somewhat demoralising to be a goal behind at home to Villa on Saturday and to hear the news that 2-0 up at the Cottage, Man Utd had brought on Rooney and Ronaldo. Its hard to deny the evidence that on paper, the strength in depth of the squads of our two principal competitors sees them better equipped to cope with the relentless pressure of the run-in.

You only have to look at Gael Clichy, who's been a model of consistency all season long and who, along with the likes of Sagna and Flamini, have been the unsung heroes of our campaign so far. And yet in the past couple of games Clichy has been guilty of the sort of uncharacteristic errors, which might lead one to conclude that the youngster could do with being left out for the odd game, in order to recapture the sort of verve and focus that made him such a potent force in the autumn. However we all endured the disastrous consequences at Old Trafford a couple of weeks back when Arsène tried to leave out this crucial triumvirate.

Nevertheless, if winning trophies were merely a matter of amassing a suitable number of players, surely Liverpool wouldn’t be languishing in 5th, 15 points off the pace. So while it might prove a factor, Man Utd’s ability to be able to rest their star players doesn’t necessarily make Fergie’s side the sort of sure-fire certainties for the title that many in the media would have you believe.

For my money, the most decisive factor is momentum and while it can’t be disputed that we’ve faltered in recent weeks, if we can triumph in the San Siro on Tuesday, it could prove to be just the sort of springboard that would get out title challenge back on track.

However it's going to require a marked improvement on Saturday’s somewhat lacklustre display, if we're to succeed against the wily Ancelotti’s campaign hardened veterans. Our encounter with Villa was always likely to be an awkward proposition and even against an Arsenal side on song, there was a possibility that we might drop points against them.

Arsène suggested that we were still suffering from a hangover, after the tragic events at St Andrews last week and I sincerely hope that he’s correct, as from where I sat, I was concerned that it could be a touch of complacency, or even arrogance that was perhaps the principal cause of our failure to force Villa onto the back foot. Reading our captain’s programme notes at half-time, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were perhaps suffering from the distraction of Tuesday’s trip to Milan. There were periods early on in the game where, instead of pressurising the opposition and denying them time and space on the ball, we appeared to be guilty of standing off them, as if we were just a little too certain that our superior ability would eventually win the day.

Yet self-belief counts for little, unless it is matched by the necessary application and there’s enough quality in Martin O’Neill’s team for Villa to create problems against any opposition, let alone one that’s lacking 100 per cent focus. It would be laughable to suggest that I’m a xenophobe, with my own Heinz heritage (57 varieties), but when it comes to this stage of the season, I have to wonder if we’re not disadvantaged by the possibility that some of our players attach a good deal more kudos to the Champions League than the Premiership and that as a result, they might be far more inspired by the prospect of proving themselves on the glamorous European stage, than they are by the unrelenting demands of a title challenge?

Meanwhile it would be an injustice not to give O’Neill’s side the credit they deserve, as the Irishman’s tactics on Saturday only reaffirmed the respect I have for him. The vast majority of Premiership managers come to our place with decidedly limited ambitions and by playing with a lone striker, they invariably end up inviting the sort of pressure that has been a feature of so many of our home games. By contrast, with the brick sh*thouse that is John Carew and lightning pace of Agbonlahor, Villa had a sufficiently potent outlet both to enable them to retain the ball going forward and to prevent us from being too gung-ho, as we were forced to chase the game.

In fact, I am sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that the longer the game went on and the more we were forced to throw caution to the wind, considering how little we’d troubled Carson, I felt Villa were far more likely to score a second from a swift counter, than we were to equalise.

Whereas I’ve no such respect for the Villa fans, who provoked an understandably outraged reaction in our corner of the ground, with a distasteful chant about Eduardo walking like Heather Mills! Although in some respects I wish they’d have been more vociferous, as aside from my belief that such reprehensible behaviour invokes bad karma (as I’ve always felt whenever I hear the paedophile chant), I’m sure our players might’ve been stirred into a similarly concerted response, if they’d actually been able to comprehend the Midlanders, nasal Brummy drawl – I immediately knew what they were singing about from the vehemence of the response (until his progress was blocked by half a dozen burly coppers, one particularly incensed, doubtless pissed up Gooner charged around the perimeter, intent on taking them all on singlehanded) but even sitting in such close proximity I couldn’t make out the words of their unseemly ditty.

I hope they were all suitably shamefaced when within a few minutes we showed them how to behave, as Davies was stretchered off the field, to a refreshingly sporting round of applause.

Meanwhile this wasn’t the only lesson meted out on Saturday afternoon. In response to the groan from behind when the official held up the board showing 3 mins of injury time, I turned around to suggest that we could continue all night without getting an equaliser. However if my head had given up the ghost, my heart was screaming otherwise and I simply couldn’t believe how many of the 60,000 crowd were heading for the exits, apparently having already accepted our fate.

I’ve given up hoping that some of the less committed Gooner faithful might learn from this last-gasp lesson but I just can’t imagine how it must’ve felt to have endured 90 minutes of frustration, only to miss out on that incredibly intense moment of euphoria because of trying to beat the queues at the station?

Myself I was thinking of my Corkonian pal, who had brought his lad for his first pilgrimage to the Arsenal and I was merely relieved that instead of heading home with his head on his chest, the youngster’s trip had been made complete in one magnificent instant.

From the sort of fortitude we’ve witnessed several times this season, if Wenger’s young Guns have demonstrated one thing, it is that you write us off at your peril!

2 comments:

Ottawa Gooner said...

Mate, I have to say that this is far and away my favourite Arsenal blog, and considering how many of them are floating around out there, it's no small feat!

Being that I live in Canada and haven't ever had the privilege of seeing the Gunners play in person, I find the best part of your reports are the accounts of travelling, the supporter's experience, and the atmosphere that can only come from being so close to the Club.

What else can I say but keep up the great work, since your descriptions of the journey to Milan and the experience that is Ashburton Grove are driving me ever closer to planning my own pilgrimage to North London.

Cheers, and UP THE ARSE!

Bernard said...

Cheers Ottawa Gooner. To have succeeded in bringing just a little flavour from the terraces to geographically challenged Gooners such as yourself is extremely gratifying and makes all my efforts worthwhile.

I wasn't going to bother posting this because I didn't really feel I had the time to do such an amazing night sufficient justice, as if I don't get to bed and then to work in the morning, I won't have sufficient funds in my account to cover the debit of the next away match ticket.

Hopefully I will get a chance to recount the whole magical experience in Milan,in more detail, but with the high profile games coming thick and fast until the end of the season, I tend to feel if I don't do it now, I never will.

Mind you I guess I should count my blessings that I'm not a Club Level resident, as they have all had to stump up several thousand pounds for their renewals by Monday just gone. I can't help but wonder if there are one or two of them who might have been vacillating about the cost of their renewals and who've been delaying the decision until the last, but who's cheques were in the post immediately upon their arrival back from Italy :-)

Meanwhile if my humble efforts are of some encouragement for you to save up for your own first live Arsenal experience, then as far as I'm concerned, my work is done

Big Love
Bernard