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Monday 19 May 2008

Anyone For Tennis?

Howdy folks

You will have to forgive me but I completely forgot to post last week's final missive of the season after our trip to the Stadium of Light and it was only when Wednesday's Irish Examiner arrived in the post on Saturday and I was thumbing through their end of season Premiership supplement, that I saw my piece and realised that it had slipped my mind.

I also wondered what exactly I had missed, when I noticed Usmanov listed amongst their top ten list of richest chairman and directors!!

Doubtless the following is somewhat outdated by now but having written it and since it is probably my last posting for the next couple of months, I thought I should at least get it posted, prior to digging out the sawn-off and the stocking mask, as once again I begin to fret about finding the renewal cost of our season tickets. I suppose if I can't find a suitable bank to rob, I could always shoot myself :-)

I enjoyed Saturday's FA Cup Final, if only from the point of view that it made a change that for once it appeared to be a "fans' final" without the usual large proportion of seats occupied by all those liggers on corporate jolly ups. Although I would've at least liked to have seen Cardiff score just to have given their loyal faithful something to get excited about. As for this weeks Champions League final, in another end of season questionaire for the Observer, I suggested that deciding who I wanted to win this match was almost as bad as choosing between Boris and Ken for London mayor.

Man Utd wining a double would be absolutely insufferable but it would go completely against the grain to want Chelsea to win anything. Then again, considering the way in which the Blues fans continue to belittle the ability of their own manager, in this one respect, it would be quite amusing to see Avram bring home the (kosher) bacon. Coming from an Israeli society which runs largely according to "the one who shouts loudest, gets served first" principles, the Chelsea fans should really be counting their blessings that their mild mannered manager appears to conduct himself in a manner that's contrary to this obnoxious stereotype and it would indeed be interesting to hear whether they will still have the gall to slag him off so badly if he leads them to a European title. Moreover with the final being in Moscow, you can't help but wonder if the script has long since been written, with it being such a fitting setting for Roman to see some return on all that investment.

Doubtless I will be watching on Wednesday, like a masochistic moth drawn to a footballing flame, but I'm sure that along with most other Gooners, as far as the winner is concerned, I couldn't really care less.

Having fortunately remembered to book a seat online on Saturday, to see the Gunners play Juve and Real on the 2nd and 3rd of August, before they all sell out, personally speaking, the summer can't fly by quick enough as far as I'm concerned, as I'm already eagerly anticipating the day when the riveting roller-coaster ride begins anew. Until then....

Big Love

With about ten minutes left on the clock at the Stadium of Light on Sunday, the couple of thousand Gooners gathered behind one goal broke into a chorus of “we love you Arsenal, we do”, which we went on to repeat ad infinitum, relentlessly, right up until the ref blew the final whistle on the 2007/08 season.

I’m sure that even the boisterous Black Cats’ fans must’ve been impressed, as this was their party after all. But the home fans’ opportunity to show their appreciation for a season, where success was defined by their ability to maintain their Premiership status, would come after the final whistle. In the meantime our incessant repetition of this chant saw it develop into a sonorous mantra, inspired by some sort of spontaneous, deep-seated desire to invoke the footballing gods.

Despite, or perhaps because of our lack of any tangible reward for all our efforts, as one, we all grasped this last opportunity to pay proper homage for such a wonderful season, in the only way we know how, with a vocal display which served as an indisputable reaffirmation of our faith in the Arsenal football club and more importantly, the Wenger way.

In truth, for many of us it was merely a good excuse to jump up and down, in order try and get some feeling back into limbs, after we’d all made the mistake of travelling to the North-East attired in the sort of shorts, t-shirts and sandals that befitted the balmy weather conditions in the capital. I’m unsure about the Fog On The Tyne, but the fog which came rolling off the Wear into the Stadium of Light was bloomin’ freezing!

I was actually pleasantly surprised to see so few empty seats at our end of the ground, after most of us had bid the boys adieu during the lap of appreciation at our last home game. I suppose if we’d been beaten and the Toon had suffered a 4 goal drubbing at Goodison, the Black Cats could conceivably have ended up as top North-Eastern dog. Moreover a potential £1.5 mill difference in Premiership prize money was not to be sniffed at. But nevertheless, it remained a relatively meaningless match and a particularly healthy turn out, compared to the huge swathes of empty terracing down the road at Boro.

Then again, with Premiership football have coming so far from its region specific precursor, it’s evident nowadays, from the range of accents other than Cockney that one hears, that any slack in away match ticket sales is usually picked up by those geographically challenged Gooners who are grateful for any opportunity to see their Gunners play live. Additionally there were plenty others present on Sunday, who contrary to my own last minute lifestyle, had planned their trips months in advance, booking flights way back when we’d all been mislead into believing that the last match of the season might prove to be the positively umissable moment of our crowning glory!

I’m unsure how game I would’ve been if the last competitive match of the season had involved a tortuous 10 hour coach trek. Mercifully my mind was made up when a mate offered to use his air miles to fly the two of us to Newcastle. The metro ride on our return to the airport confirmed the impact of the Keane/Quinn double act on Sund-Ireland. In addition to the smattering of jet-setting Gooners, the train was packed with two plane loads of red & white striped Paddies flying back, both to Dublin and I assume all those with the broader West Country accents were heading home via Galway.

We witnessed more evidence of the ever increasing international appeal of the Premiership product on our arrival, as my pal flogged his spare ticket as we strolled into the terminal, to an Arsenal supporting Pole, who was hoping for an opportunity to cast an eye over our somewhat slight in stature, reserve keeper, Fabianski.

There were momentary interludes in our end of match mantra, in order for me to confirm the fates of all the other clubs, via my terrace tranny. Thankfully the survival of Fulham compensates for those of us travelling fans who consider promotion/relegation issues solely from a mileage perspective, but despite the additional schlep to the North-East, I am delighted Sunderland beat the odds by staying up. The Stadium of Light might look like a poor relation, compared to the grandiose glass and steel aspects of our new gaff, but what goes on inside a stadium is far more relevant than mere aesthetics and with everyone on one level, Sunderland’s ground is often far more atmospheric than most.

Sunday’s party mood ensured that we all enjoyed the merriment, entertained at one stage by a huge line of Black Cat fans conga-ing along the concrete walkways. One is invariably greeted by a genial vibe on Wearside, amongst fans who truly appreciate such aristocratic footballing fare and who definitely don’t take their highly-prized Premiership status for granted.

As the metro ride from the airport became ever more cramped on approaching the stadium, the conversation turned to the extremely pertinent subject of ticket prices. Aside from far more affordable season tickets, Sunderland fans doubtless benefit from the trend for categorising matches, while we Gooners invariably have to pay a premium. But then I guess that according to the modern day credo “you gets what you pay for”!

No sooner has the season ended than I’m already panicking about finding the two grand required for our renewals, prior to the looming 1st June deadline. Yet despite our lack of trophies and increasing concerns about Hleb following Flamini out the door, the demand for a seat at the Arsenal will be no less intense.

Like fans of every club, we started out this season brim full of renewed hope but with few actual expectations. Our subsequent sense of “so close, but no cigar” disappointment stems from the fact that we were mislead by the period spent straddling the Premiership summit, into believing that we had already reached the Promised Land.

It wouldn’t be football if we were all in constant agreement with Arsène’s actions. Many might contend that splitting our centre-back pairing and playing Touré at right-back was the cause of our agonising Champions League exit. I prefer to think of it as evidence of Sagna’s importance and the cost of his untimely injury. There are others who simply cannot fathom our manager’s continued reliance on Eboué at right-wing, as the ill-fated Ivorian has become everyone’s favourite boo boy.

Along with every other footie fan, most of us would love to see Wenger break the bank and spend big, namely on a keeper, a centre-back and perhaps a winger. But ultimately, for the vast majority of us, our faith in our manager remains constant and we all know this isn’t Arsène’s style. With a relatively small squad compared to some, if it wasn’t for long-term injuries to the likes of Van Persie, Rosicky and Eduardo, it might well have been a different, far more successful story. Myself I rest assured that with a minor tweak, here and there, Arsène’s young squad will start next season and continue on an upward cycle that holds the promise of great things to come.

Meanwhile, while I might moan constantly about the mercenary “show me the money” nature of many of our modern stars, I now have my faith in their feeling for the club renewed, after it was revealed to me that Adebayor spent an entire afternoon going through Gooner memorabilia, amongst the huge collection at the home of one particular Gooner. So bear this in mind, the next time you read in the media that the Togonator is taking his boots elsewhere!

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Monday 5 May 2008

We're By Far The Greatest Team.....

G'day fellow Gooners,

I guess with one more diary piece to come, with the Irish Examiner wanting a "that was the season that was" reflection next week, this is my penultimate piece (for the eighth consecutive season!). I have to admit that it was a bit of a wind up receiving an e-mail from the Sports Editor detailing the end of season arrangements for deadlines. Aside from missing out on a few quid for a couple of extra missives, it really brought home what a wind-up it's going to be for us not to be playing a part in any of the end of season party pieces.

If I'd known then, what I know now, I would've been grateful to have gone to Tenerife with the missus, where it would've been so much easier to avoid all the media ballyhoo in the climax to the Premiership and the build up to the Champions League final. It's almost as bad as having to decide between Ken and Boris in the London mayoral elections!!

Mind you I would've probably slept right through the last home game of the season if left to my own devices. I sold Ro's ticket to a chap on the mailing list late on Saturday night, assuming it was a 4pm kick-off and I only ended listening to a phone message from Neil at ten past one on Sunday, discovering that to my horror, that I only had twenty minutes before the game actually started. As a result, instead of a relaxing Sunday afternoon, it all proved a bit of a rush, especially knowing I had someone waiting for me and with it being their first game at the new ground.

Come the final whistle, when the team trooped off the pitch, I started feeling guilty about the dog, as I didn't have a chance to take her out beforehand and I was worried Treacle would be sitting cross-legged by the front door. If I'd known they were going to come back out without delay, I probably would've hung on, but as it was, I have to admit that I was a little gutted as I heard the cheers of appreciation just as I was walking up Aubert Park. However I hope I'll get to show my appreciation after the last game, at the Stadium of Light next weekend (assuming I manage to get up there).

Walking up the hill away from the ground, I wondered whether all the other Gooners around me had similar excuses, as the majority of them certainly won't be travelling all the way up to Wearside next weekend and so it was hard to understand why all of them were in such a hurry to get away, considering it was probably their last footie game for a good couple of months. I simply don't understand the mentality of those supposed Arsenal supporters who can't be bothered to take an additional five, ten minutes, on a warm afternoon, to show their appreciation for all the player's efforts to entertain them this season and I sometimes wonder if such ingrates get the success (or lack of it) they deserve!

Meanwhile judging by the volume of noise coming from the stadium, it was great to hear that so many fans did stay to acknowledge the squads efforts, as it would've been a pretty poor show if they'd been left wandering around in an empty stadium.

And for the few foolhardy Arsenal fans who've been venting their frustrations in Arsène Wenger's direction over the last few weeks, I hope they were watching Inside Sport on the BBC this evening, where in a great interview with Neil Warnock, the Crystal Palace manager expressed his love for our manager, stating that no one has done more for English football over the last decade. I like Warnock if only because he wears his heart on his sleeve and hope his Palace side succeed in the play-offs, as with WBA and Stoke winning automatic promotion, it will be great for us travelling fans to have at least one London team. Then again Watford would be much easier, as it's almost like a home game, whereas getting to South London is almost a more arduous trip than the Midlands. Warnock's final remark about the Gunners was that he would love to buy Arsène a centre-half, an English centre-half, as according to Neil, we would then be unbeatable.

Then again, it really would be time for Wenger to call it a day when he starts needing advice from the likes of Neil Warnock

Until next week
Peas & Love

We're By Far The Greatest Team.....

Any last hopes of a miracle were crushed on Saturday with West Ham conceding 3 in the first 30 minutes at Old Trafford. Although I must admit that when Nani stuck his head in Lucas Neill’s face, for a moment there, I envisioned the sort of mass brawl that might result in a three-point deduction! Moreover, any hope of pipping Chelsea to second place evaporated in Toon Town, thereby condemning us to an unwanted Champions League qualifier and I guess the premature curtailment of the Gunners summer break

With so much resting on these Champions League qualifiers and with there always being the possibility that they could throw up extremely awkward and highly motivated opposition, at a time when most top class pros are still struggling to get their game head back on, after their break, they can be extremely nervy affairs.

I’ve an opportunity to attend a Q & A session with Arsène Wenger this week and amongst the many questions I’d like to put to Le Prof, I wonder to what extent playing these crucial qualification matches affects our pre-season training, as perhaps it was the case this season that our August encounters with Sparta Prague helped us to hit the ground running in the Premiership. But if as a result, he was forced to ramp up the fitness regime that much earlier, could this have been a factor in us falling short and running out of steam, at the business end of the season?

Then again, if we’d been blessed with the same strength in depth as the Blues, Man U and Liverpool, Arsène would’ve been better placed to offer Fabregas and the other essential figures in this Arsenal squad enough of a breather, to ensure that there was no chance of them feeling a little jaded, by the time it came to the last few hurdles.

Although this sounds a little hypocritical, coming from someone who always advocates playing our best XI. Far be it from humble old me to question the great man, but how often have we’ve seen Arsène attempt to rest players, only to be forced to bring them on, when we’ve been left chasing games. Obviously it’s easy to opine with the benefit of hindsight, but it’s often appeared patently clear that we’d have been better off starting with our best XI, in the hope of being able to secure the two goal breathing space that would allow him to be able sub 2 or 3 of our most leg-weary stars.

Meanwhile the beautiful game is such a professional business nowadays that with modern fitness regimes, in theory there should only be marginal differences between the comparative fitness levels of the elite squads. The modern breed of managers might look to science to try and give them an edge, as with the rumours about Wenger’s use of Creatine supplements some years back, or the investment in oxygen chambers to speed up the healing process of injured players.

Yet in practice, we’ve witnessed this season the remarkable effect Ramos had on the Spurs squad. Martin Jol was a genial enough character, but on the evidence, for example, of the dramatic change in the physique of Tom Huddlestone, it seems glaringly apparent that Jol was missing a trick. It’s perhaps not so surprising that the likes of Teddy Sherringham lasted at Spurs so long, with such a leisurely fitness regime in the past.

However for the successful sides, the crucial games come so thick and fast as you approach the finishing line that with everyone playing on empty, they are just using their down time to try and recover. Under these stressful circumstances, where players are required to call on their reserves of adrenaline every three days, mental strength becomes by far in a way the most critical factor.

There’s two sides to this particular coin. Some might believe this young Arsenal side suffered this season, compared to squads that have a backbone of players who’ve been there, done it and bought the t-shirt. But while experience might lend an air of composure, enabling a team to remain patient at 0-0 with only ten minutes to play, unless our young players have become too spoilt, hunger should be an equally important ingredient. I would hope that come this time next season, with everything still to prove, the Gunners might have an edge over those rivals who’ve already amassed a decent medal collection. While the opposition are struggling to drag their weary frames to the well once again, hopefully we’ll be drinking long and hard, after dashing to it for the first time?

In a game that had a decided end of season feel to it, there was evidence of just such enthusiasm with the introduction of Traore against Everton on Sunday. Young Armand was like a breath of fresh air, as “hell for leather” is the only way the French lad knows how to play. With his pace and his apparent crossing ability, perhaps the conversion of the full-back into a winger will prove the answer to the Arsenal’s obvious lack of natural width.

And Traore is not the only option available to Arsène as an alternative to dusting off the Arsenal cheque book. Although Wenger has had his fingers burnt when spending big (Jeffers, Reyes), I tend to believe his reluctance is more related to a desire to maintain the delicate status quo in the dressing room, rather than the prospect of having to deal with the disturbance caused by the introduction of any huge egos.

I can fully appreciate Flamini’s desire to squeeze as much as possible while his star is at its zenith (I don’t imagine AC Milan knew who he was before this season). With our £50k per week offer supposedly falling so far short of his £70k demands, I can neither blame the player for looking after his best interests, nor the club, for not allowing themselves to be held over a barrel.

However while I was whinging that it will cost so much more to replace the Flamster, it was pointed out to me this could provide Diaby with an opportunity to fulfil all his early potential (as Abou’s certainly not a wide man). Alternatively I’ve been saying for some time now that I’d like to see Kolo Touré given an opportunity in centre midfield, as I’ve always felt his talents are somewhat wasted at centre-back.

It was great to see Arsenal fans give Jens Lehmann such a great ovation on Sunday. As frustrating as I’ve found Jens’ tendency to be distracted by petty squabbles, instead of focusing on the job at hand, the German keeper has been a good servant to the Gunners and definitely deserved his moment in the sun.

With Fabianski still looking some way short of the finished article, this is definitely the one area where I would dearly love to see Wenger make a statement of intent, by spending big on a world-class keeper with the sort of presence capable of putting the fear of G-d into opposition strikers. Since Spunky’s departure, it’s been no surprise that Arsène’s efforts to pay peanuts has resulted in goalkeeping monkeys and I remain convinced that a consistent keeper would solve many of our defensive ills.

A goalie capable of dominating his area might even achieve the miracle of making Senderos look good. Although when you consider the Arsenal’s tradition for a surfeit of centre-backs, this is perhaps the other area of our squad which most requires attention.

But where I believe Fabianski only had the one save to make on Sunday, if I was a little disappointed, it was because Theo didn't make more of an impression on the game. I'm sure Theo will eventually hit the sort of heights that we are all expecting of him, but the more I see of him play recently, I'm afraid the more I find myself worrying about the lad. I had really hoped that with the pressure off in these last three matches, Theo would relax and really begin to impose himself, grabbing his opportunity with both feet and forcing Wenger into giving him a regular berth in the starting XI next season.

While it's obvious that Walcott is blessed with a surfeit of pace and natural ability, he has yet to demonstrate (to my eyes at least) that he has the sort of football brain necessary to succeed at the highest level, of the sort that affords a player that instinctive spatial awareness of what's going on around them and enables one to know when and where to make the run and when and where to pass instead.

Up until recently, Theo's rare appearances left one feeling that he was so desperate to make his mark, that perhaps he was a little too anxious to make something happen absolutely every time he received the ball. As a result, I was hoping that his inclusion in the starting line-up for these last few games might give him an opportunity to perform without so much anxiety and that this would perhaps bring the best out of him

Unfortunately this wasn't the case against Everton, as for the most part young Hibbert had Theo in his pocket. Moreoever, the ability to perceive the right option with the ball is not really a trait which can be learned on the training ground, as you are either born with a footballing brain, or not! Hopefully Theo is still suffering from the fact that he was an out and out striker up until his time at the Arsenal, who only ever had to worry about being on the end of an attack and finding the net, rather than being part of the creative work force and being able to pick a pass.

His ability to hold his own against Premiership opposition has definitely improved, but he's still a little too easy to muscle off the ball. If the club can develop his upper body strength and his ability to become an immoveable force in the penalty box, he might begin to fulfill his potential as an out and out front man. By which time hopefully he'll be demonstrating a dramatic improvement in his decision making as a result of serving his apprenticeship out on the flank and then much like his hero, Henry, we might be able to rely on Walcott not only for those vital 20 plus goals a season, but also for a high proportion of assists?

With Liam Brady touting the likes of young Jack Wiltshire as our latest “great white hope”, most of us are eagerly looking forward to putting the excruciating disappointment of this season behind us and getting on with our next campaign. In light of the fact that we’ve experienced a succession of agonising results in recent weeks, primarily at Anfield, but also at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, it was great on Sunday to see the majority of Gooners linger for the lap of appreciation in order to show their gratitude. It would appear that aside from small minority of success spoiled fools, most of us are able to view our efforts over the past eight months from the perspective of the extremely fine margins between success and failure and the fact that, in truth, we’ve vastly exceeded expectations.

Without any tangible reward by way of trophies, the media might do their utmost to talk up the pressure on Le Prof. But while we are relishing some of the most entertaining footie on the planet (and Spurs are still celebrating the sort of cup that they give away for free with every ten gallons of petrol), our only real worry is whether we can afford our season ticket renewals. Is it any wonder then that the last thing I heard before leaving for the game on Sunday was Arsène commenting on Sky “I’d be happy to be starting the new season tomorrow”.