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Thursday 30 October 2008

Seems Messrs Ross & Brand Should Have Some Company In The Apology Queue

Prior to tonight’s derby, I am sure that I wasn’t alone in thinking that it wouldn’t be such a surprise, under the circumstances, if Spurs got something out of the game. However I don’t think there could’ve been a person in the stadium this evening who, with the score standing at 4-2, could have possibly dreamed that they’d be capable of such a dramatic comeback at the very death (especially the eleven players in red & white, which was probably a major contributing factor!).

What bothers me most is that ignoring our defensive aberrations, there were periods during this game, where I was left feeling incredibly proud of the way we pressurised Spurs and the manner in which we wove such intricate patterns with our passing, that our opponents were left positively chasing shadows.

If this game was a boxing match, either Harry Redknapp would’ve thrown in the towel, or the referee would’ve stopped the contest, when we had them on the ropes in the eighth round, for fear of us doing irreparable damage. As a result, I and I imagine everyone else present, was left feeling devastated because of that awful feeling that our obvious superiority was more than deserving of all three points

Obviously there was an element of good fortune to the timing of our first two goals, with almost the last kick of the first half and the first kick of the second half. But our efforts to pull ourselves back into the match were so relentless that we earned the right to take the lead.

On the radio, Lee Dixon didn’t stop singing Gael Clichy’s praises, absolutely in awe of our full-back’s boundless energy. On a night when there were several equally impressive performances from the likes of Nasri, Fabregas, Van Persie etc., it’s extremely sad that we are left bemoaning the individual (and collective) mistakes that were ultimately responsible for our inability to see the victory out, instead of marvelling at such a fabulous game.

Let’s face it, our failure to put weaker opponents to the sword, in matches where we’ve dominated, is a perennial problem. Yet rarely have we ever managed to shoot ourselves in the foot quite so spectacularly, in a match where we should really have been able to cruise to victory in some comfort.

The only slight consolation was that the vast majority of Spurs fans missed their team’s unbelievable return from the grave, having long since left the ground. However when Spurs escape relegation this season (and escape relegation they will!), they will owe us a massive debt of gratitude for gifting them the sort of spirit on which their survival will be founded. Instead of sending them back to their dressing room feeling disconsolate, knowing in their hearts that they just don’t have the necessary quality to cut it with the big boys, they’ve ended up strutting back there, feeling seven feet tall, after we’ve gifted them the sort of positive team spirit and the confidence, which can be developed from just such a comeback!

Some might question Almunia, thinking that if he managed to get a palm to Bentley’s speculative effort, he should’ve been able to turn it past the post. However as (sadly!) we know only too well, even the greatest keepers are capable of being caught off their line every now and again. Perhaps Manuel was somewhat more culpable for Spurs second, as if Huddlestone’s effort was too hot to handle, instead of presenting it to Lennon, he should’ve turned it away from the danger zone.

Yet personally, I am far more pissed off at our defence, as I get really angry when they switch off in this fashion and end up guilty of the sort of schoolboy error of failing to follow a shot in. If a defender gets beaten to a rebound by a nippy striker and ends up throwing himself in vain to try and block a shot, fair enough. But if I’m not mistaken, Sylvestre was more of a spectator than I was, watching Huddlestone’s shot and while Gallas was perhaps also caught on his heels somewhat, I think he was at least going for the ball, while his partner just stood watching as Lennon was presented with a tap in.

Still if our captain hadn’t handed Huddlestone possession in the first place, the score would’ve stayed at 3-1 and neither of them appeared to going hell for leather to win the ball back . Then again, it was almost worth conceding, for Spurs fans to get a sniff of a comeback, only for us to go straight down the other end and snuff out this glimmer of hope (or so I thought), with Adebayor putting one on a plate for Robin to rifle home our fourth.

I can see where Wenger was coming from with his substitutions, as it was such an end to end game that there were bound to be some tired legs out there and Arsène wanted to wind the clock down. It’s easy to criticise in hindsight but after Eboué had stood on the touchline for about 10 minutes, waiting for the ball to go out of play, thereby completely defeating the point of his warm up, my first thought was that this was the worst possible sort of game to come in cold and to immediately attune oneself to the incredibly frenetic pace.

Diaby’s appearance proved a masterstroke in Istanbul and with his long legs, Abou managed the odd mesmeric moment again tonight, but instead of running at their defence, I would have rather seen him run the clock down, taking it to the corner flag. I felt the introduction of Eboué, Diaby and Song, all in such a short space of time, had a negative impact on the rhythm of our play.

At the very least you would expect the players with the fresh legs to be putting themselves about, but coming into this cauldron late, I don’t think it’s easy to immediately appreciate the levels of commitment required. When Gael Clichy had his tragic slip (considering the last time he fell over in this fashion was at that disastrous match at St Andrews, I don’t want to witness Gael losing his balance ever again!!), watching a replay, I simply cannot understand why Song was not gaining ground and closing Jenas down, when the Spurs player had to take the ball with him and Song had only just come on. At the very least Alex should’ve been trying to exert some pressure on Jenas, so he wasn’t able to take his potshot in such a composed fashion
Then for the fourth and final act of this tragedy, I seem to recall seeing Diaby loping along in the wake of Darren Bent, when of all players, I’d be expecting all three subs to be simply busting a gut to catch up with play. However often in these circumstances I get the sense that instead of adding something to the flagging energy levels, the subs get dragged down to the same fatigued state of those who’ve been on the pitch for the entire ninety. Myself I would’ve much preferred to see the likes of Kolo Toure being introduced late on in tonight’s game, as a player who only knows how to play at 100 per cent, with plenty of experience of the steel needed and the potential costs of losing focus in these high octane encounters.

I seem to recall hearing it said that a ref should allow 30 seconds injury time for every substitution, but I can rarely recall any other refs applying this provision so precisely, if at all. And even then, this would only account for three minutes of injury time and considering I can’t remember either of the physio’s making a single appearance on the pitch (which itself is quite remarkable in such a hotly contested derby match), I don’t know where he found a further minute from? Yet it would sound too much like sour grapes, to be having a pop at the timekeeping, especially when, by and large, the fact that Atkinson was so inconspicuous suggests he had a blinding game.

In truth it was a breath of fresh air to have an official who seemed happy to keep his cards in his pocket, preferring to have a quiet word, rather than saddling himself with the rash of early bookings that have all too often ruined these derby games, when they’ve inevitably resulted in a sending off or two.

Considering the recent crack down on virtually any physical contact involving a sliding tackle, it was great to see a ref use his discretion, showing some appreciation of the fervent circumstances and attempting to let the game flow without unnecessary interruption and the customary need of all too many Premiership officials, to impose their authority.
So it would be a travesty to take our ire out on him, when we should be pointing the finger of blame at those who patently failed to play to the final whistle, whenever it was!

Personally I don’t really care that we’ve gifted the enemy such a much needed boost to their confidence, as I was already of the opinion that Harry’s arrival might enable Spurs to stave off the looming shadow of relegation. Far more significant a consequence of our somewhat naïve failure to close out this derby match, is the fact that we’ve blown two, possibly crucial points.

What have we learned in the process? Well there’s nothing revelatory about the propensity of our defence to be so porous and like I said, despite our miserable failure to “take it to the bridge” as far as the win was concerned, I remain nonetheless quite proud of the sort of commitment and fighting spirit shown for the majority of the ninety.

However, sadly, when you think it should’ve been oh so different and an overwhelming victory over our neighbours should’ve left us feeling that much more optimistic about our prospects, instead of which it has only managed to reinforce my feelings of foreboding, that when it comes to the Premiership prize giving in May, we will once again be left with our faces pressed up against the window, watching enviously as the silverware is handed out to our rivals, principally as a result of the fact that neither Chelsea or Man U would be guilty of the gift of mercy, once they’ve got a vice like grip around their opponent’s throats.

Still I suppose from a glass half full perspective, the one thing we’ve got to look forward to is how much sweeter it’s going to taste, so long as there’s no repeat performance of this sort of reprieve, when we give them a right royal stuffing back at White Hart Lane. Although I’ll be lucky to maintain my presence on this mortal coil, if we have to suffer many more similarly stressful matches in the meantime!

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Monday 27 October 2008

Oh When The Spurs, Go Marching Down

Hi folks

I received a slap on the wrist from the Sports Ed at the Examiner last week. He was worried that I was beginning to lose the self-discipline I've shown from the start of this season and that I was slipping back into my old habit of lumbering him with far too much work, by prattling on at such length and vastly exceeding the required number of words.

However, having renewed my efforts to please my Corkonian pals, I've ended up omitting several points I planned on making in the following piece. But you guys aren't so fortunate, as there are no such restrictions on my blog and so, work permitting, I plan on returning to offer my comments on last Thursday's AGM, the devastation of the Saturday fixture list by relatively meaningless UEFA Cup games, my displeasure at Carlton Cole's sending off and this worrying recent trend to try and rule out the sliding tackle and the possibility that perhaps events will prove we might have been better served by a draw that saw both Chelsea and Liverpool dropping points on Sunday?

Until then.....Come on You Reds
Nuff Love

PS. For the info of those who weren't present at Upton Park yesterday, along with all the amusement that was had singing "oh when the Spurs go marching down" (hilariously sung with the same elongated beginning to the chant), there were some relatively unsuccessful efforts to introduce "Theo Walcott. He's an Englishman at Arsenal" to the tune of Sting's Englishman in New York and I assume the fact that Eduardo is relatively close to a long-awaited return, inspired several choruses of "Eduardo Silva, Arsenal's number nine" (to the tune of the Fernando Torres song)

It was predictable that Spurs would ring the changes in advance of Wednesday’s derby. My closest Spurs pal has been so depressed that he’d done a bunk to Marrakech. Having texted him the breaking news on Saturday night, he phoned me back to tell me that he’d received my message in a restaurant, just as the belly dancer appeared. Thus for him Redknapp’s arrival at Spurs will be permanently associated with the sight of this dancer’s jiggling navel.

As wobbles go, the best thing about our neighbour’s plight is that it’s been the source of so much amusement on the terraces - doubtless you’ll hear our adaptation of “when the Spurs go marching down” echoing around our ground on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, it’s likely to prove a smart move (albeit from the same chairman who sacked Martin Jol!). Compared to “charisma bypass” Ramos, if there’s one coach with the personality necessary to arrest Spurs slide into oblivion, it’s likely to be Redknapp. He’s from the same mould as Venables, in his innate ability to charm players into wanting to perform for him.

However Harry’s appointment is indication of Spurs sudden shift in aspirations, as they’ve not plumped for this wily old campaigner because of any Champions League credentials, but because of his nous of what’s needed in a Premiership dogfight. Should Redknapp succeed, I can’t help but wonder if he’ll be the author of his own downfall, as no sooner will he have achieved mid-table security, than his employers are likely to return to setting their sights on the more sophisticated set-up, which might take them to “the next level”. Still, as genial as he may be, it will be hard to have much sympathy for someone who’s lived by the self-serving sword, should Daniel Levy end up disembowelling him with it!

Sadly we’ve been denied the sort of drubbing we might’ve meted out to Ramos’ despondent troops, but the circumstances should at least guarantee a rip-roaring atmosphere. I only hope the occasion inspires our lot to set about our neighbours with a little more urgency than we witnessed from the start of Sunday’s match and in other recent games, where it’s taken a goal deficit to really get us going.

Faubert might take a lesson from his teammate, as none of us Gooners standing behind the goal (the seats in Upton Park’s Centenary Stand are utterly superfluous, apart from being somewhere to park one’s bum during the break) could quite believe how Collins managed to clip the ball safely over his own goal some minutes earlier, from a position almost directly beneath the crossbar. Yet up until the French full-back inadvertently diverted the ball past his own keeper, it felt as if Rob Green was going to have one of those impenetrable afternoons, where, as time wore on, I envisaged the Irons nicking all 3 points from a single Bellamy breakaway.

I love going to West Ham, as on Sunday I was able to watch live coverage of the entire game at Stamford Bridge, not walking out the door until the final whistle had confirmed the welcome conclusion of Chelsea’s 4-year unbeaten home record, jumping on my motorbike at 3.30pm, scooting through the East London traffic and even with the detour due to Stratford’s massive Olympic development, I just made it into the ground for the 4pm KO. What’s more, with the missus away, I was able to make it back home again, before the dog had time to express her displeasure at being left alone, by taking a dump on the kitchen floor!

If I’d wondered about Wenger’s apparent interest in Alonso during the summer, the manner in which he and Mascherano bossed the midfield at the Bridge, demonstrated exactly why le Prof wanted the Spaniard as a partner for Fabregas. In a question and answer session with some of us only a few months back, Wenger vehemently assured us that according to his stats, Alex Song most definitely was not an option alongside Cesc in midfield.

I often wonder if Arsène’s approach is a little too scientific and if he might dispense with the endless stats, every now and again and trust to his instincts more. Song might not be the ultimate solution in midfield. It remains to be seen whether he can develop the mental poise, to match his physical power. However he’s appears to be a more compatible partner for Fabregas than the flyweight facsimile of Denilson and lends a more dogged steel to the heart of the Gunners side.

There was much consternation amongst us on Sunday when Wenger withdrew Walcott & Nasri, the two most likely candidates to conjure up an opening. But we were soon bowing to the boss’ far superior knowledge, as the appearance of Adebayor and Diaby resulted in Van Persie shifting to the right, which somehow seemed to liberate the ineffectual Dutchman, as Robin began to impose himself on the game.

Diaby might not have managed the same dramatic impact we’d witnessed in Istanbul but a fresh-legged Adebayor was a handful for Upson and Collins. If Bendtner keeps feeding the Togonator the sort of passes that set-up our second, they’ll soon be best of pals and as if to repudiate any suggestion of bad feeling between these two, there was a moment earlier where Ade hit the deck after an effort on goal and the Dane dashed over to haul his teammate onto his gangly, long legs.

I was surprised to hear that prior to Sunday, we’d beaten the Hammers at the Boleyn only once in the previous 8 years. But while the win and a rare clean sheet was encouraging, it bothers me that it took until the last quarter for us to begin to turn the screw. If we fail to demonstrate sufficient urgency in Wednesday’s derby, the longer the game goes without a goal, the more our guest’s confidence will grow, to the point where they begin to believe a result isn’t beyond them.

Considering the two teams’ comparative expectations, dropping 2, or even 3 points would be far more damaging to us, than a Spurs side who, up until their cockney Lancelot came charging over on Saturday night, would’ve been happy merely to avoid embarrassment. With big games coming thick and fast in the weeks ahead, as ever, consistency will be the key to a genuine title challenge.

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Tuesday 21 October 2008

Normal Service Resumed?

I was fretting at half-time on Saturday, as my 11-year old nephew had flown over from Dublin with his mum, for his first ever pilgrimage to the Home of Football (Mark II). I was most disappointed for him that we were 0-1 down, after such a dreadfully humdrum first-half Arsenal performance. And with the two of them sitting close to the front, behind the goal, I was gutted that we hadn’t managed to score at their end of the ground, as young Jake would’ve enjoyed a wonderful view, from such close proximity.

It was also somewhat disconcerting to discover through my binoculars that they were only separated from the Everton fans by a thin line of orange-jacketed stewards in the very last two seats in their row. Fortunately, when it dawned on me that my route through the visiting fans enclosure was barred, instead of spending the break scuttling around almost the entire circumference of the concourse in the opposite direction, I realised that I could reach them by hiking upstairs to the Upper Tier, across and down. Luckily Jake’s not a delicate lad and didn’t appear unduly bothered to find himself acting as the net, with all the banter being batted back and forth above his head.

Aisling revealed that at least the worst offender was sufficiently ashamed about the possibility of broadening the boy’s vocabulary. Apparently he was constantly turning the air blue, swapping insults with the Scousers, but after each successive curse he was tapping her on the back to apologise!

Credit where due, as I’m all too often whinging about Wenger’s reluctance to tinker with his team until the last 10/15 mins. Although, in truth Arsène was forced to shuffle his pack at half-time on Saturday, as we were rapidly running short of defenders, with Kolo’s withdrawal. Moving Song to centre-back and Eboué to right-back, he sent Theo on to wreak havoc on the right flank, resulting in the injection of dynamism and directness which led indirectly to the equaliser.

If it wasn’t for our captain’s injury, I wonder if Wenger would’ve maintained his customary patience and left our Wonderboy cooling his heels on the bench, until the last quarter? As it was, the timing of our goal was absolutely crucial, coming only 3 mins after the restart. Without it, as the clock on the big screen began to tick down, our prospects of turning this game around would’ve diminished in inverse proportion to the increased tension, resulting from the growing mood of discontent amongst many Gooners present.

The moment Nasri’s grass-cutter skimmed its way into the bottom corner of the net, I immediately trained my binoculars on Jake. I was delighted to discover that his initiation into the tribe was complete, seeing him give vent to first-half frustrations and the Toffees fans’ gloating, with a rapid-fire succession of one fingered salutes, directed at his new found “friends”. “Go on my son” I muttered under my breath, “give ‘em loads”. I couldn’t have been more proud if he was my own.

I guess as far as he was concerned, our 3-1 victory will have tasted all the sweeter for having been behind at the break. But having taken our seats only moments after watching Chelsea reserves ominous tonking of Boro at the Riverside and with Man Utd seemingly coming to the boil that evening against the Baggies, blessed with so much attacking threat that they didn’t appear to miss £32mill. Tevez, the ruthlessness and the potential consistency of the competition leave me feeling somewhat pessimistic about our own Premiership prospects.

With Liverpool and the Gunners both making hard graft of our games, while the other two contenders cruised to victory, normal service appeared to have been resumed this weekend. Yet as the tension evaporated with our equaliser and we were able to relax, we were transformed into the Arsenal side that is no less an irresistible force than either of our two main rivals

It leaves one wondering exactly what it is that’s responsible for our recent trend towards inertia, seemingly waiting for success to fall into our laps and needing to go a goal behind, to inspire the sort of urgency that’s required to really force the issue. Why we can’t apply ourselves with the same intensity right from the off?

If it’s a matter of complacency then seemingly they aren’t the only culprits, since Saturday’s events would suggest that the lack of aggro at our new gaff up until now has resulted in some of the old bill going to sleep on the job. I’m unsure whether some slieveens in the posh Club Level seats above the away fans were responsible for causing the problem, or if they were reacting to some aggro below, but from the evidence seen since on YouTube, their behavious was reprehensible. Mercifully the fracas occurred towards the back of the Lower Tier, but I spent the last 10 mins focusing on Ais & Jake, terrified they’d get caught up in the middle of it, watching the over-reaction of a copper who’d had his helmet knocked off, trying to make up for the lack of numbers, by lashing out at the Everton fans indiscriminately with his long black truncheon!

This heavy-handedness (or being hit from above) provoked a rabid reaction amongst a few away fans, where I’d have expected to see a squadron yellow-jacketed old bill flooding into the area to quell such unrest. Instead of which, it went on unabated until the end of the game and if I was sufficiently worried about what might happen outside, to dash around to meet Ais & Jake right by their exit, then surely it would’ve made sense to hold the Everton fans back long enough for the crowds to disperse?

Instead of which some of them headed straight out the exit to start attacking all and sundry in their vicinity. Astonishingly there weren’t any police on the scene to intervene. If I was kacking my pants, standing waiting on my tod, heaven only knows what an ordeal it must’ve been for some of the women and kids amongst the civilians caught up in the inexcusable efforts of a small group of Evertonians to seek some retribution!

Eventually a lone mounted copper came clip-clopping along the asphalt to try to separate the troublemakers. Thankfully I spotted Ais & Jake emerging from the stadium and hurriedly shepherded the two of them off, in the opposite direction, taking the long way around the ground to avoid any further incident.

Considering the light-hearted banter I’ve shared with the Scousers for several years now, I would’ve never believed it would end up being Evertonians christening our new gaff with it’s first scenes of violence (thus I have to assume there was some provocation). However by comparison to the sort of sedate, often to the point of soporific atmosphere that is unfortunately the norm at our new gaff, I guess Jake couldn’t have wished for a more fervent occasion for his first ever game, if not all of it particularly pleasant. Still doubtless he’ll have returned to Dublin to impress his playground pals with a barrage of choice invective and the win means he doesn’t have to worry about not being invited back.

Hopefully publication of this piece will coincide with a return from Istanbul with 3 more Champions League points in the bag, in a game which based on form, is highly unlikely to be a boring scoreless draw and where the side with the least inconsistent defence is likely to prevail.

Only Daniel Levy knows whether Juande “Charisma Bypass” Ramos will still be (not so) gainfully employed. According to tradition, the Spurs chairman will eventually lose control of an increasingly squeaky sphincter, 3 days before the derby, in a desperate attempt to salvage a result against us, by sacking the Spaniard. For those Spurs fans who weren’t still hiding behind the sofa on Sunday night, if the advice of messrs Dixon and Keown wasn’t hard enough to stomach (Plug even sounded sincere, suggesting they should stay loyal to their hapless gaffer), how worrying must it have been to have heard Adrian Chiles reveal on MOTD2 that only Southampton have survived such a woeful start to a Premiership season to stave off relegation!

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Monday 13 October 2008

Wake Me Up When It's Alll Over

Hi folks,

I was planning on writing a bit of a preamble, in an effort to add some much needed Arsenal relevance to the following missive. However after a long day unloading several containers stuffed with inordinately awkward and weighty scenery, I'm afraid I can just about muster hitting the send button.

So if you are only interested in the Arsenal (as I am, but unfortunately I still have to file my piece to the Examiner during an International break), then you have been forewarned


The hypocrisy of the tabloid media knows no bounds. Myself I’m rarely sufficiently absorbed in the eternal soap-opera that is the England team, to give a monkey’s. But it was a bit rich to see the Red Tops having a pop at those fans who booed Ashley Cole at Wembley on Saturday, when its they who are largely responsible for much of the resentment felt towards Cole, by perpetuating the image of him as one of England’s avaricious, overpaid “Bentley boys”.

Personally I’ve never believed in booing a player who’s wearing the shirt of the team you are supposed to be “supporting”, as it’s hardly likely to encourage them to play any better. However that doesn’t mean I don’t understand why so many of the 90,000 present, who’d stumped up serious wedge for their Wembley tickets (in these belt-tightening times!), felt entitled to give Cashley the bird.

England v Kazakhstan was hardly a mouth-watering prospect and I was half hoping for salvation, in the form of my missus needing some assistance pushing a trolley around Tescos, as I’m sure I’d have found more excitement in the supermarket aisles, than in the first half of this drab affair. However watching on the box, I thought I sensed some complacency in a couple of instances where, with the game still at 0-0, England players seemed to be caught on their heels, hardly breaking their necks to be first to the ball.

Having finally achieved an air of respectability, albeit courtesy of a bog standard set-piece and an own goal, Cole’s casual backpass and his gift of a glimmer of hope for the Kazakhis, was the apotheosis of the sort of lax, arrogant approach that has cost the England team so dear in many matches over the past few decades and it’s the sort of problem I would’ve expected a strict disciplinarian like Capello to have pounced on.

Every schoolboy defender has it drummed into them not to pass the ball back across their own box, to avoid just such a mishap. But it wasn’t just because supposedly the world’s best left-back had committed such a cardinal sin that they were in such high dudgeon on the terraces, but that it was representative of an insufferably casual attitude
I actually prefer Clichy, as in my most humble opinion he may be some years away from having Cole’s wealth of experience, but where Cashley requires the inspiration of the big occasion, or a grudge match to raise his game nowadays, Gael has more to prove and can therefore be guaranteed to produce the same consistent levels of commitment, week in, week out.

There was some suggestion that it was the Gooners present at Saturday’s game who were responsible for giving Cole so much stick. However while Golden Balls Beckham can do no wrong and receives more adulation from the England crowd for his warm-up routine, than Rooney gets for scoring a couple of goals, if it had been any of the other players who’d presented the visitors with a gift-wrapped goal, they’d have been subject to the same sort of angry reaction.

Moreoever, it is the media again who are largely culpable for the way in which the England fans permanently exist on the cusp of this love/hate relationship with the national team, as a result of the incredibly fickle way in which they vacillate between deification of the players one day and accusing them of being the devil incarnate the next.

Myself I’ve always tended to give them the benefit of the doubt, when they’ve offered up “we gave it our best” type clichés, in breathless post-match interviews because I suppose still cling to some misguided romantic notion that even the most jaded old whores of the professional game must feel some inspiration, pulling on their national shirt. Despite the evidence of my own eyes, in games where I’ve expected them to go for it, hell for leather, I guess I’ve always assumed they were acting under the manager’s instructions not to hare around, chasing the ball like headless chickens.

However, sadly it would appear that nowadays, for established squad players, playing for one’s country is merely part of their job description and they go about it in a far too perfunctory and businesslike fashion for my liking. No matter what they might claim, all the evidence suggests that these days, it’s just another day at the office.

Myself I am more of a Theo Walcott fan than an England fan, as I can never really set aside some of the resentment I feel towards some of our Premiership opponents. Although Theo started Saturday’s match with all the energy and enthusiasm of a youngster who still gets a real buzz from being picked to play for his country, as the match progressed, it was as if the spark of his dynamism was doused by the humdrum way in which his teammates went about their business.

It reminded me of the joke about the young bull wanting to run down to the lower field to procreate with a fine looking heifer, while his elders advised him to walk down and procreate with them all. Yet in truth most spectators would’ve rather seen Theo score once early doors, than to wait all afternoon hoping the old bullocks might find the energy to do the business before all the cows end up heading back to the barn with a headache!

Meanwhile it’s unlikely that as a stadium, Wembley is ever going to become the fervent home fortress the FA are hoping for, because of the way in which, much like our new place, they’ve focused on maximising their income from the corporate moola. If it’s mildly embarrassing at our gaff when the game restarts after the break with Club Level half empty, because of the prominent position of the posh seats of the Bobby Moore Club at Wembley, it looked bloody awful when the second half kicked off, with the camera pointing directly across the halfway line, showing the players in the centre circle, with all 1800 of the seats in the background entirely empty.

I actually contacted a Gooner pal of mine to get the scoop. I suppose my strict scruples about not selling football tickets above face value are not quite so valid, in an age where the suits are perfectly happy to write off vast sums for the privilege of being present at “must see” football matches. Thus along with others, he bought his Bobby Moore seats as something of a buy to let investment, whereby the approx. £500 a pop pitch doesn’t really cost him anything, so long as the Gunners don’t make it to a Wembley finals and he can cover his outlay by flogging them off for both Cup finals for a small fortune.

In their defence, he tells me that the 1800 member club and its restaurant are so vast that it takes him 8 mins to get to his table and back and by the time you include a trip to the karsey, half-time is over. So the logistics of serving 1800 members makes it impossible for them to get back before the start.

However he also forwarded details of Saturday’s menu, which I’ve included here, as it highlights more succinctly than I ever could how dramatically football has changed in recent times and how the large amounts of disposable income from the “nouveau” footie fans have become a necessary evil, to feed the insatiable appetite of he footballing beast (although perhaps much of this income will have been disposed off during the parlous economic climate of the past couple of weeks!).

On the pitch it might still be the beautiful game, but the trend for these elitist and extremely profitable enclosures in our modern arenas couldn’t be more far removed from the pie & pint, piss in the pocket of the punter in front terraces of yesteryear.

As for the Boys in Green, perhaps the Azzurri’s draw in Bulgaria suggests that the outcome of Ireland’s group is not written in stone (as nothing else appears to be nowadays!). Yet on the basis that even a misfiring Italian team should have sufficient wiles about them to win the group, an Italian win in Sofia would’ve probably best served their qualification prospects. We can but hope that they can do their bit to keep the competition interesting with a win in Cyprus?

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Monday 6 October 2008

Down....but certainly never out

The Stadium of Light is a long old schlep and after an exhausting week, if I’m entirely honest, if Saturday’s game had been live on the box, I might’ve been sorely tempted to stop at home with my feet up, instead of spending a gruelling 12–hours at the wheel of my motor, only to endure 90 minutes in the wind and rain at a North-East encounter, which hardly held the promise of being a particularly scintillating affair.

But then until such time as the Irish Examiner feature is renamed “Recliner Armchair Rabbit”, instead of “Terrace Talk”, I’d feel too much of a fraud if I didn’t make the effort and as every travelling fan knows, a failure to ‘pay one’s dues’ at the Premiership’s least tempting profferings, can often prove the sort of fatal mistake that will inevitably guarantee one misses out on the game of the season.

I would’ve also thought that most travelling Gooners would know better than to give up the ghost on this Arsenal side. After making the 500-mile round trip trek, I pity the many poor souls who made a disconsolate dash for the exits on 85 minutes, the moment Leadbitter’s speculative shot nestled in the back of Almunia’s net. I know it’s an almost instinctive, ‘not our day’ type reaction to want to escape the scene of one’s misery, after having the rug pulled from beneath our feet, with what was the epitome of a smash & grab, 3-point robbery (considering our almost total domination of possession).

However after travelling all that way, how gutted must these Gooners have been to have missed out on the highlight of our afternoon and the gleeful celebrations that greeted Cesc Fabregas’ equaliser, as the young Spaniard salvaged not just a point, but some self-respect, by avoiding our worse start to a season in umpteen years. I imagine most will be too embarrassed to admit it, but I simply can’t imagine my last Arsenal memory, before a six hour return trip in the pouring rain (and a two week International break) being the sound of the eruption in the stadium behind me, which would’ve been loud enough to indicate a goal, but not sufficiently sonorous to suggest a second for the home side. What a sickener!

Sadly by and large, the game itself lived up to its unappetising billing. Although I doubt it’s a paucity of entertainment that’s responsible for the large swathes of empty seats at the Stadium of Light, as the pictures on MOTD of sparsely populated terraces elsewhere and the perimeter advertising, offering reduced price season tickets would suggest that Premiership football is fortunate to have obscene amounts of TV money, to cushion the adverse effects of the credit crunch.

Still the recent proliferation of the Irish tri-colour on scarves and flags around the ground would suggest there’s no shortage of punters willing to travel from the Emerald Isle to support the Quinn/Keane revolution on Wearside – who could’ve possibly predicted that such a hostile relationship would eventually develop into wedded bliss (although the cynic in me might conclude that it’s only a matter of time before this analogy arrives at its inexorable conclusion, involving deceit, divorce and customary disputes over illegitimate offspring!).

Saturday’s match was evidence of the contrasting levels of expectations between the two sets of supporters. As with most clubs who’ve endured yo-yoing between the top division and the various incarnations of the far less glamorous lower league, you get the distinct sense that Sunderland fans are simply grateful to retain their invitation to the Premiership party. Whereas an Arsenal home crowd would scream their disgust, if Wenger dared to employ Roy Keane’s negative tactics, getting ten men behind the ball for the entire 90. Nevertheless, Arsène should be more than used to opposing managers paying us this sort of respect and he should be aware that any sort of “park the bus” griping is likely to sound like sour grapes.

No, Sunderland must be commended for the well drilled way in which they stuck to their manager’s gameplan and as frustrating as it proved for anyone associated with an Arsenal side, tasked with breaking down what basically resembled an attack v defence training ground exercise, if any criticism is due, it should be directed at our own lack of dynamism.

Mercifully the miserable weather abated during the second half, just long enough for a football match to break out. It’s all well and good for the best teams to be patient, but when all efforts fail to pick a path through the ten bodies blocking ones route to goal, the obvious answer is to employ a sufficient burst of pace to deny the opposition time to get back into position, facing the ball in two impenetrable banks of four, lined neatly across their area.

I can only recall two instances where the Gunners managed to change down a gear, to attack at sufficient speed for Sunderland to have only five men tracking back into their box, still facing their own goal. One resulted in Van Persie forcing a decent save from Gordon and the other resulted in the ref disallowing a perfectly good goal (at least from my close proximity Walcott prevented the whole of the ball from going out of play). Whereas for the majority of the rest of the match, for all our possession, it was the home side’s rare forays forward which proved more threatening, as our attack lacked the necessary incisiveness.

To my mind, considering Sunderland’s lack of ambition, Alex Song was superfluous as a midfield enforcer. In a contest with the obese and the infirm (an overweight Andy Reid and a positively pensionable Dwight Yorke) which wasn’t particularly physical, the more cerebral ball skills of Samir Nasri might’ve proved more successful in picking the Black Cats lock.

At least Cesc’s determination to get his head on the ball at the death meant that we didn’t head home feeling too deflated. But having blown 8 of 21 points to date, to continue with the feline analogy, I can’t help but feel that it is a bit early to have already nixed the majority of our nine lives. Although I guess we must be grateful to our North London neighbours, as by joining Newcastle as the Premiership laughing stock, Spurs have ensured that all such trivial setbacks are put into proper perspective.

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