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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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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

3 comments:

ross said...

Some good points, but I would pick you up on these observations:

"if Saturday’s game had been live on the box"

It was. All you need to do is find a boozer that is willing to run the risk of screening it from the foreign satellite channels. Not sure whether it's as common down your way, but I know of at least ten pubs in my area of Sunderland that had it on, four of which I've been to at times in the past. This, as much as the credit crunch, is driving down attendances.

"Premiership’s least tempting profferings"

Sunderland may not be a club of the size or wealth of Arsenal (yet :)) but surely a trip to the SoL is one of the better outing outside of the top four? The magnificent nearby beaches, Mackem hospitality and cheap, lively nightlife surely mark out Wearside as one of the best awaydays, not worst. Plus there's a direct train from Kings Cross to Sunderland Central now.

"I doubt it’s a paucity of entertainment that’s responsible for the large swathes of empty seats at the Stadium of Light"

The attendance was still over 40,000, the highest of the day and not bad at all considering the issue I hit upon above. Yes there were 8,000 empty -- but then we should never have extended beyond 42,000 really, a decision that has driven down sales of season tickets in seasons such as this.

"cent 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"

There are certainly a good few hundred fans travelling over by easyJet, especially for the big fixtures. But the Irish flags are just as likely to be taken along by local fans as a tribute to the Irish owners, chairman, manager and players who have so transformed the club. The Trinidadian flag in the south east corner is a tribute to Yorkie and Jones, not necessarily a sign that people have flown over from the Caribbean to attend the match. (I'm making this as a point of order not a criticism of your article.)

"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"

Sunderland fans would indeed be incredulous if these were the tactics on show at every home game. They are not. Arsenal are one of the big four and as such require different tactics to when we play the Fulhams or the Blackburns, Boltons, Middlesbroughs and Newcastles. A point (which could easily have been three) is better than being stuffed 4-0, which is what happened last season when we employed more open and positive tactics against the quality teams.

"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"

Kind of agree here, but I would add that I made it five shots on target per team.

"In a contest with the obese and the infirm (an overweight Andy Reid and a positively pensionable Dwight Yorke"!!!!!

Quite unreasonable since, for me, Yorke was man of the match and Reid, although obviously fond of the odd corned beef pasty, is often our most creative player -- though granted not on Saturday.

Bernard said...

Points brilliantly made Ross and for the most part I defer to your far superior knowledge. If I'm honest you've left me feeling a little embarrassed but then if it occurred to me I was writing for a Sunderland audience, I might well have tried to inject a little more balance.

My quip about the obese and the infirm was just my attempt to inject a little humour, because as you rightly point out Dwight Yorke was Sunderland's MoM and I have to admit to being surprised at how effective he was, as I seem to recall him being far more anonymous the last couple of times I saw him appear?

As for Reid, he may not be particularly mobile, but often more than he makes up for it with his ability to strike a ball.

However you are dead right about SoL being far from one of "the least tempting profferings" and in truth its one of my preferred choice of Premiership destinations, which is the reason I was so desperate to go. Perhaps I should've qualified this, in the sense that I struggled to find anyone else to go with because it is such an awfully long journey and the fact that I didn't really feel up for the travelling on Saturday

I have to admit that it didn't even occur to me that there were 40,000 present on Saturday which is a pretty healthy turnout in anyone's book. But like you I am sure, I am much happier seeing full terraces, as empty seats don't make for the best atmosphere. Although I'd much rather see them filled with genuine fans, as opposed to the huge quantities of corporate hordes we have at out place.

If there are that many empty seats every match, I don't understand why the club doesn't give them away to local schools (or similar), as at least they are going to get some revenue (burger, programmes, merchandise) back and a load of screaming kids would be a whole lot better than empty seats. Not to mention that it's a great means for capturing their attention young!

Finally as for the Irish tri-colour, I guess I am just jealous, as it wasn't so long ago (during the times of Brady, Stapleton, O'Leary) that it would be a common sight at our place, in fact there used to be Arsenal merchandise with hats that had club colours on one side and the tri-colour on t'other

Meanwhile I am only too pleased to have my ramblings picked to pieces by as sound a sounding geezer as yourself. I only wish it would happen more often

Many thanks for taking the trouble

Zachary said...

Mr. Azulay, I appreciate your musings more than you will ever know.

I was quite upset watching the match live on our North American version of Setanta to see that we deployed the 4-5-1, and stuck with it as our repeated attempts at goal were turned away. I thought that the left side of midfield seemed vacant as RVP continued to drift inside and Cesc's role seemingly as a support striker didn't allow him enough of the ball to release our wingers and open up the defense. had we gone with a more aggressive formation sunderland's defensive play might not have proved so stifling.

anyway, thanks for your weekly first hand observations and your will to make them happen.

Zachary in Ohio.