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Monday 26 January 2009

Harry Redknapp, He's Got A Twitch

Hi folks,

One of the best things about awaydays such as Sunday's outing is that they occasionally tend to be the proving ground for new chants. So for all those who weren't present at Ninian Park, the latest addition to the Gooner repertoire might not be particularly original (tunewise), but it made me smile. To the same tune of "We're on our way" it goes something like:-

"He's got a twitch, he's got a twitch. Harry Redknapp, he's got a twitch. Where'd he get it, I don't know. How'd he get it, I don't care, all I know is Harry's got a twitch"

In truth, a draw was probably a fair result on Sunday, considering Enckelman wasn't exactly overworked in the Cardiff goal. The fact that we managed to create so few genuine goal scoring opportunities, despite our second half dominance and as Cardiff dropped ever deeper as the clock ticked down, would lend credence to those who argue that we could benefit from the arrival of Arshavin.

In all honesty, I can't recall seeing enough of the player to pass judgement. Yet while I'm certain he's blessed with the sort of guile and craft that befits his inflated price tag, it would be extremely surprising if he was capable of slotting straight into the team and as a result, for us to suddenly start producing the sort of incisive football which has been sorely lacking up until now. In truth, it might take the Ruski until April to adapt to the frantic pace of Premiership footie and to fully come to terms with the players around him (timing of their runs, where best to play them in etc). Thus it would be a bit unrealistic to expect him to be an instant stand-in for our injured Spanish maestro and it will indeed be interesting to see how Arsène intends to play the two of them in the same side.

Nevertheless, while virtually all the teams around us in the Premiership have their moral boosted by the arrival of new signings, giving their challenge some renewed impetus as a result of the influx of some fresh blood and increased competition for places in their dressing rooms, I think it's almost imperative that Arsène makes some sort of significant move during the transfer window, even if it does go against his customary reticence to be pressurised into getting involved in the January madness, not just for positive boost it might give to the moral of our squad and our fans but because of the negative pyschological impact, if we end up as one of the only teams not to strengthen our squad.

From past experience of holding my breath to the point of suffocation during the January transfer window, to avoid any disappointment, I've been saying all along that we shouldn't be surprised if Wenger chooses not to get his cheque book out. However the recent flurry of business conducted elsewhere leaves me feeling fairly certain that Arsène must recognise the fact that he has to be seen to be making some moves to compete with everyone else and for our team to push on and make some sort of challenge for silverware, lest he wants his team to be perceived as merely treading water.

The most optimistic aspect to Sunday's performance was the confident display of Kieran Gibbs. Yet in the light of how impotent the Arsenal appear in the absence of the influential likes of Fabregas, the dynamism of Walcott and hopefully the goal scoring contribution of Eduardo (to name but three), surely even our emu of a manager must appreciate that for him to trot out his traditional line about "having every faith in his squad's ability to challenge for honours" just won't wash this time around.

And unlike the bonkers bandwagon of Wenger knockers, I don't say that with any criticism intended, as it's Le Prof's pertinacious qualities which have been largely responsible for providing us with footballing pleasures beyond my wildest dreams, back when we were paying to watch the likes of McGoldrick, Carter, Kiwomya, Helder et al not so long ago.

Nuff Respek
Almost four and a half thousand Gooners trekked to Cardiff on Sunday morning, all eager to time travel, a couple of decades, from the sanitised, extortionately priced Premiership product, back to the days of old-school football.

Our modern new stadia might stand as imposing architectural landmarks across this island’s landscape, bringing live football to a wider, largely more affluent “audience”, but Sunday’s outing served as a timely reminder that all that’s been lost in the migration from the tight-confines of the ramshackle terracing of yesteryear, will never be recaptured in the antiseptic environs of these family-friendly, all-seater temples to the gods of Mammon.

In fact I couldn’t escape the symbolism as we approached Ninian Park, confronted by the old and the new, on either side of the road. In their delightful, lilting Welsh accent, the locals were rightly proud of the brand spanking, blue and white edifice, which appears to have risen from the car park opposite their dilapidated old ground, providing the Bluebirds with a home that fulfils all the stringent health & safety criteria, to ensure that their club is equipped should they ever manage to achieve promotion to the promised land of the Premiership.

Yet it was ironic to think that the vast majority of travelling Gooners had been attracted by the prospect of an increasingly rare opportunity (and the last at the old Ninian Park) to savour an old-fashioned football awayday. I wasn’t even aware that I could’ve paid an additional four quid for a ticket in the small seated area in our stand behind the goal. In fact, it’s bizarre to think that there were probably plenty amongst us who’d have been prepared to pay a premium on our reasonably priced £22 tickets, to be reminded how much more fun there was to be had from supporting the Gunners from a standing terrace.

Such a rare privilege (and doubtless the Cardiff fans unruly rep) seemed to have attracted all the old faces out of the woodwork. We travelled West in my pal’s people-mover, with the WAGlette daughter of one of our number accompanied by a South London lad who’s living the Gooner dream as a first-year scholar in the Arsenal Academy, having been part of the youth team set-up since he was in short pants, when a school trip to THOF aged 9 resulted in him signing schoolboy forms.

I could’ve spent the entire 3-hour journey pestering the poor lad with questions but I didn’t want to drive him potty. Instead I sat back to savour a reminder of how far away our current squad is from filling the boots of their more illustrious forbears, watching The Untouchables DVD (review of 2003/04). Although it’s great that a youth team member should make the effort to travel to watch the first XI, in truth I’m not sure whether he was more interested in the footy, or the totty!

With Reading having been relegated and no Premiership sides West of the capital, the drive along the M4 motorway has inevitable cup connotations, considering how many times we’ve made our way along it, to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. There’s also always seemed a certain symbolism to the fact that the French company operating the Severn Bridge toll, charge a seriously inflated £5.60 to cross the bridge into Wales, but that it is free to enter England in the opposite direction.

Having been complicit in the events that pushed Leeds to the brink of bankruptcy, perhaps Peter Ridsdale has learned to be more economically astute as Cardiff chairman. I could’ve probably purchased an entire row of seats at the 1927 Cup Final, for the four quid I was fleeced by his club for a mere matchday programme!

Meanwhile the Toyota Previa felt more like the Tardis, as I stood watching a scene straight out of the 1980s, as the Gooner hordes were frogmarched towards the ground, segregated from the locals by a line of yellow-jacketed riot police on either side, backed up by a clutch of meat-wagons with flashing blue lights and a few ferocious looking, barking Alsatians. Both the old bill and our fans displayed the sort of testosterone (and alcohol!) fuelled body language which made them all look like refugees from the cast of the movie “Scum”.

I don’t know how bad the local bad boys are, but to my mind it was all a little “de trop” and only served to ramp up the sort of tension which probably wouldn’t have existed without such an overbearing police presence. There’s something distinctly invasive about the way in which the police point their video cameras and their telephoto lenses at football crowds. I often feel that it’s an open invitation for certain idiots to act up.

Mercifully there was no sign of any aggro and we all crammed together on to the terracing behind the goal to holler our heads off for 90 fervent minutes, in the sort of concerted fashion which just isn’t feasible in the less confined environment of all-seater stadia. I’d persuaded a Gooner pal from the US to make a tortuous trip up from Devon on a pilgrimage to his first ever away game, telling him that he’d probably never get a better chance to taste the atmosphere of old. Zach was duly blown away by the experience. He couldn’t believe how many of the fans in our corner of the ground spent the entire game almost exclusively focused on baiting one another, rather than watching events on the pitch.

Although they really didn’t miss much. After the home side failed to capitalise on their flurry of opportunities in the first 20 minutes, the Gunners began to take control, but for all our domination of possession and despite plenty of endeavour, sadly the match petered out into a bit of a stalemate.

My “septic” pal joked at the break about the extreme differences between a sporting event in the States and I must admit it was a rare pleasure to be able to openly suck on a cigarette, without having to skulk in the karseys, or to have to surreptitiously hide the fag smoke up my coat sleeve, for fear of being thrown out. Judging by the exotic odours in the air, nicotine wasn’t the only pleasure being taken. In my most humble opinion, the Welsh police might consider making marijuana smoking not merely legal, but obligatory, so that Cardiff’s more troublesome larrikins might enjoy an all together more chilled out atmosphere.

Perhaps young Aaron was trying just a little too hard to make a big impression, on his return to Ninian Park, as the lad couldn’t seem to put a foot right. It was eventually a relief to see Ramsey replaced by Diaby on the hour, as Abou’s presence in the middle of the park enabled us to put Cardiff under the cosh. Yet for all our toil, the Arsenal patently lacked the sort of inventive spark necessary to unpick the home side’s lock and so long as Enckelman stood tall in his goalmouth, it was going to take a genuine moment of wizadry to decide this match.

Especially when the home side’s ambition waned towards the end of the game. I assume the replay will earn the Cardiff players a bonus, as I can’t recall the last time I saw the home team taking the ball to the corner flag, at 0-0, with 5 minutes left on the clock, much to their fans chagrin. But then I guess we will both have to take comfort from the fact that our sides remained in the hat for an advantageous home draw in the 5th round.

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Wednesday 21 January 2009

To Hull And Back

Hi Folks

As usual, the limitations of the requirements of the Irish Examiner have forced me to be so discerning that I'm sure I've left out more than I've written about Saturday's outing. And as ever I planned on adding a long preamble before posting this out. But on the basis that something is better than nothing, I thought I'd better get it out now before the week gets away from me again

Here's hoping for the excitement of a good old-fashioned FA Cup tie in Cardiff this weekend

Come on you Reds

The dreadful weather made for a hair-raising drive home from Hull late on Saturday night. My hands gripped the steering-wheel in terror, as we crossed the open expanses of the Humber Bridge. In a howling gale and with the torrential rain leaving large amounts of surface water, along some dangerously dark sections of the A1, it was a case of “point and pray” as the car aqua-planed through the puddles at 70mph.

Mercifully we made it back to London in one-piece, around midnight, which was more than can be said for some Gooners. With no trains back to the capital after the late kick-off, my passenger would’ve also been stranded in the North-East overnight, if he hadn’t been fortunate to blag a lift back with me. Apparently he wanted to get home because his prospective in-laws had turned up for a surprise visit. I guess this was indicative of his impending nuptials. Give him a few years of “wedded bliss” and he’ll probably be delighted to have this sort of perfect excuse, to avoid returning home until after the in-laws have left!

Meanwhile under the circumstances, I was glad of the company and our return journey was made a whole lot more bearable, by nature of the two goals the Gunners had banged in, in the last ten minutes. If I’m entirely honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve never been to Hull’s KC Stadium, after an exhausting week at work, in which I’d already driven the best part of a 1000 miles, I would’ve been sorely tempted to stop at home and watch the live coverage, with my feet up in front of the box.

If any proof was necessary, the scheduling of this fixture was evidence of absolute disregard of the demands placed on the travelling fans. Yet after their surprisingly successful start to the season, with Hull currently dropping down the table like a stone, I guess that like myself, there were many Gooners who didn’t want to miss out on what might be their one and only opportunity to visit the KC Stadium. As I hauled my already aching backside back into the car around midday on Saturday, to head off on the 450 mile round trip schlep to the North-East, it felt like the sort of unglamorous, arduous football outing that comes under the category of paying ones Gooner dues.

Fortunately a traffic and trouble free drive North resulted in me arriving in Hull half an hour before kick-off. Thankfully the rain held off until the second half, but as I sat in the parked car, listening to the dying throes of the afternoon’s earlier encounters on the radio, trust Man Utd and Chelsea to put the dampener on my mood, with their crucial last minute goals. As we exited our respective motors, both myself and the Tiger’s fan, parked beside me, bemoaned Man Utd having the luck of the devil.

In an age of decidedly bland, homogenous football stadia, where it’s hard to distinguish one ground (with its almost obligatory adjacent retail park) from another, by comparison, the KC Stadium has quite a distinctive and attractive feel to it. With no history between the two clubs and their fans, of the sort that often involves long harboured grudges, I got no sense of any animosity inspired by the sight of my Arsenal hat & scarf, as we all hurried towards the ground, huddling together, doing our best to use each other as windbreaks, from the biting breeze blowing in off the North Sea.

Wearing their black and amber colours, the Tiger’s fans swarmed from all different directions, like bees, eagerly anticipating the prospect of the sweet delicacy to be found inside the Hull City honey-pot. After a lifetime of less tasty lower league fare, it feels as if the Tigers are just grateful to have their noses in the Premiership trough (forgive me for mixing my metaphors) and to be entertaining the likes of the Arsenal. Having already humbled their more illustrious opposition in our previous meeting at our place, I got the distinct sense that they’d have been delighted to get anything out of this game.

In spite of the last gasp goals at the Reebok and the Bridge, there was much merriment amongst us Gooners behind the goal at the KC, with the news that for his next trick, Harry Houdini had our North London neighbours propping up the entire Premiership table, as we teased the Tigers that they were “going down with the Tottenham”.

Shorn of all their early season bravado by a succession of defeats, the home side posed a far less formidable test than the team that beat us back in September. Although I held my breath every time we conceded a free-kick around the area, or whenever Geovanni was in shooting range, in truth, for all their earnest endeavour, Hull posed very little threat to Almunia’s goal.

Nevertheless, with this Arsenal side’s propensity to shoot itself in the foot with our defensive failings, our recent spate of 1-0 wins has done little to assuage the sense of foreboding that one goal isn’t going to be enough. Mind you, I never imagined a previously dependable Gael Clichy would develop into the principal culprit. Watching Armand Traore rampaging down the flank for Pompey against Spurs on Sunday, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wondering whether we made a ricket letting him go.

Hull were perhaps guilty of showing us a little too much respect and we looked to be in control of the game, until Clichy failed to close down Mendy, to thwart the cross which resulted in their equalizer. The goal lifted the home side and their fans and once again we looked in serious danger of letting what should’ve been a fairly routine away win, slip through our grasp.

As the rain started to pour down in sheets, the KC pitch became no place for the feint-hearted. But as has proved to be the case in several games of late, Hull had expended so much energy, trying to deny us the time and space to hurt them that it was inevitable that fatigue would begin to take its toll. With the added firepower of Bendtner up front and aided by the build-up of lactic acid in defensive legs and the delicate promptings of Van Persie, we suddenly looked far more potent going forward.

Having been handed more responsibility, Van Persie seems to have matured considerably in recent times, compared to the more selfish hothead, who in the past has managed to thrill and infuriate in equal measure. Robin was amongst the first to come over and throw his shirt to the fans at the final whistle. Whereas, by contrast the immature spoilt brat that is Bendtner appeared to make a show of marching straight off the pitch, with the sort of body language that suggested he’d no intention of showing his appreciation to those fans who’d given him the bird in previous games.

Although I very much appreciated the display of grit and determination that earned us the three points on Saturday, I’d have much preferred to have cruised to a stress free victory for once and Bendtner’s antics aren’t exactly indicative of the sort of team-spirit and togetherness needed to reclaim the position of genuine contenders.

Whatever might transpire in the transfer market (and I’m definitely not holding my breath), our manager gives me the sense that the good ship Arsenal is in a holding pattern, whereby we’re merely doing our best, under trying circumstances, to hang on in there, until our squad is bolstered by the return of those players capable of creating some real momentum.

In the meantime, considering the effort involved in getting to games such as these, in the absence of Gary Lewin (who in the past would’ve pointed players in the direction of the travelling faithful), someone needs to sit Bertie Big Bollix down and remind him of his obligations….I was going to say “who pays his wages” but then nowadays that would mean him wandering over to applaud the TV cameras!

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Saturday 17 January 2009

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off To Hull Gooner Meshuganas Go!

Hi folks,

If I had a more sensitive ego, I might feel a little disturbed that I could’ve dropped off the face of the earth these past 10 days, with seemingly no-one (other than my dear old ma) noticing the absence of last Monday’s weekly missive.

I didn’t post the following piece when I wrote it because I didn’t have sufficient room to mention the fact that I’d taken an American Gooner to his first ever live Arsenal game last Saturday. Then on Tuesday night, Zach (my new “septic” pal) accompanied me to the FA Youth Cup game at Underhill and I’d intended making a few comments about his impressions (and the fact that the kids gave Wolves a bit of a footballing lesson on the infamous Underhill slope, with Jack Wilshere confirming his undoubted class and that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, as a serious looking injury to Rhys Murphy resulted in Gilles Sunu coming on in his stead and scoring a hat-trick! – allez Gilles!)

In fact I could’ve and should’ve written another piece entirely on the week’s events, but I’ve been so busy with work that I’ve been far too cream-crackered by the time I arrived home each night, that I’ve not had the energy to even open my laptop.

I’m supposed to be leaving for Hull in five minutes and so there’s not really much point in posting the following, but just in case there is anyone out there (other than my Mum) who missed me, I might as well send it now, or never.

After yet another week in which I’ve driven the best part of a 1000 miles, I can’t actually believe I’m so bonkers as to get back in the car to make the long schlep up to the North-East. If I’m entirely honest, with the game being broadcast live on Setanta, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve never been to the KC Stadium (and with Hull seemingly sinking like a stone, after their surprising early season success, and that I might never get another chance), I would be sorely tempted to stop at home and put my feet up for the day.

Still I guess it’s one of those games that goes down as “paying one’s Gooner dues”. Although I bloody well hope our efforts deserve some decent reward?

See some of you on the motorway

Peace & Love

With all that’s transpired in the past few days, from Rafa’s Keeganesque moment, with his hilarious rant about ol’ Red Nose, followed by the Scouser’s failure to score against Stoke, to Chelsea’s capitulation at Old Trafford, it felt as if this was a weekend of some significance, as far as the top of the table is concerned.

Meanwhile, with Martin O’Neill’s side keeping up the pressure in Saturday’s lunchtime KO, by taking all three points against the Baggies, come 3pm we knew that we couldn’t afford an upset against Megson’s decimated Bolton. I’ve regularly moaned in the past about Arsène’s reluctance to tinker with his team, until the last 15/20 minutes. But after we’d barely warmed Jasskelainen’s gloves during the first hour of Saturday’s bitterly cold affair, the fact that le Prof decided to replace Diaby and throw Carlos Vela into the fray for the last half an hour, demonstrated that he was patently aware that nothing less than a win would suffice, if we were to cling to the coat tails of the top four, rather than finding ourselves dragged down into the dogfight taking place below.

With Vela taking up a position out on the left flank and Nasri moving into the middle, it wasn’t so much what the diminutive Mexican did with the ball that changed the game, but that compared to the languid, loping, but ultimately lacklustre efforts of the lanky Diaby, Carlos’ energy and his unbridled enthusiasm lent this encounter the sort of dynamism, which had been sorely lacking up until then.

The again, as is often the case with teams that come to our place with such limited ambitions, they work so hard to smother the Arsenal’s attacking threat (you only have to look at the 73/27 per cent possession stats to appreciate that Bolton spent the majority of the 90 chasing the ball!), that they inevitably begin to flag towards the closing stages.

Still it took the vim and vigour of Vela and the direct use of his pace to expose the Wanderer’s weary legs and by releasing the kinetic energy of this coiled up spring, it had a positively infectious effect, both on and off the pitch. I doubt it was Vela’s electricity that powered up some of our failing floodlights, but it certainly fired up a previously subdued audience.

By coincidence, I’d only just been complaining during the break about our crowds (and Premiership fans in general) tendency to be reactive, rather than pro-active nowadays. As if to prove me wrong, we seemed to suddenly wake from our slumber and the nightmare of seeing our season disappear down the plug-hole of a 0-0 draw, to roar the Gunners on to grabbing that all important goal.

Perhaps our so-called capacity crowd only opened their gobs and began to get involved, in an effort to get the circulation going, before losing all feeling in their extremities. But at least they turned out, which is more than can be said for many of our posh punters. Considering all the Club Level seats are already paid for (at up to £175 a pop!), it seems a positively criminal waste, to see such a conspicuous number of empty seats up there. Still no matter what the inspiration, mercifully the ramped up fervour resulted in a far more atmospheric and exciting last 30 minutes.

In truth I couldn’t fathom why it took the Gunners so long to turn the screw and lay siege to the Wanderers’ goal, considering Megson was forced to field such a weakened side. Watching Diaby and Denilson during the first half, both of our central midfielders might’ve been allocated the holding role, such was their reluctance to join the attack. But there was no one for either to hold, especially after Elmander had limped off.

The visitors’ increasingly limited ambitions resulted in a bizarre moment after the break. Their substitute striker clipped the ball forward, only to decide not to bother chasing it, when it dawned on him that none of his team-mates had the slightest inclination to venture past the halfway line with him.

As if to affirm the Gunners fall from grace, highlights of the Villa game featured first on Match of the Day that night, while we were condemned to the ignominy of the final slot. This was after the Goal of the Month competition, which included Van Persie’s stunning strike against the Scousers, along with Diaby’s goal at Villa Park.

The latter being so memorable because it was one of the few times this season that our midfield has exploded into life, arriving in the box at pace, in advance of our strikers. Sadly for the most part we seem to have lacked the spark of such incisive runs from midfield, content to merely prod the ball across the face of the opposition’s area, waiting in vain for the massed ranks in front of them to part, to allow us to pick out that killer pass.

Kolo Touré continues to look a shadow of his influential former self. Although they often amounted to little, I fondly recall Kolo also inspiring the crowd and his colleagues, with his trademark, lung-busting runs from the back. Not that I’d kick a player of Arshavin’s quality out of bed, but I hardly imagine the Ruski having the strength of personality necessary to galvanize the Gunners on to greater (any!) glory.

Then again, as others have rightly pointed out, there are only a couple of players in our current first XI who could hold a candle to Arsène’s team of Invincibles and at the end of the day, no matter how you stitch it together, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. In light of the increasing tension on the strings to that purse, with the onset of "hard times", I'm hoping Tuesday's FA Youth Cup encounter will hold promise aplenty of a bright, red & white future.

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Wednesday 7 January 2009

Not Holding My Breath in Highbury

Hi folks,

I'm a little gutted, as Alex Fynn, who's recently co-authored a new book entitled "Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Super-club" with my good pal (and Gooner ed) Kevin Whitcher, is giving a talk at the Birkbeck College this evening at 6pm, which should prove interesting. But sadly I very much doubt I will make it back to town in time from the ballet's stores in Kent (the downside of having to commute to the country!).

Still so long as I'm back home in good time the following Tuesday, to make it to Underhill for the 7pm KO of our FA Youth Cup game against Wolves, as I'm looking forward to this match. That's the thing with being a genuine footie fan, there's invariably some little spark to keep the fire burning bright and for fans of the vast majority of football clubs, it's only competitions like this that they have to cling to, for some small hope of success.

Whereas sadly we Gooners have become so spoilt in recent years that it would appear as though many of us really don't appreciate quite how good we have it. What would fans of our perennially unsuccessful North London neighbours give to be in our shoes, fifth in the table with the exciting prospect of the knockout stages of the Champions League to come!

In fact we've become so incredibly blasé in recent times that seeing how sullen and dreadfully uninspired the majority of us were at Saturday's match, I have to admit to feeling just a tiny bit envious of the atmosphere generated by the Pilgrim faithful, sardined into the corner of the ground on my left, witnessing how highly-charged they were by the buzz of their big day out in the 3rd round of the FA Cup.

It's said that you never really appreciate something until it's gone. Well I certainly hope that this doesn't need to be the case for the majority of us Gooners.

Meanwhile I certainly hope Jack Wilshere gets to play next Tuesday, as I'm looking forward to watching him run rings around players of his own age group

A happy & healthy New Year to one and all
Peace & Love

PS. I was tempted not to post this week's missive, as I wasn't feeling particularly inspired when I wrote it on Sunday and was concerned that I might be beginning to sound like a broken record. What's more, with all that's going on in the world at the minute, everything else seems a little trivial. The problems in the Middle-East certainly put the difficulties of our midfield into proper persepctive, but since I've no solution to offer for the one, I might as well give my two pennies worth about the other

Although it’s true that plenty of Gooners are probably still sunning themselves in more clement climes, in the current parlous economic circumstances, I’m sure this only partially accounted for the conspicuous number of empty seats at Saturday’s FA Cup 3rd round tie. Hopefully this will have at least meant that the proliferation of predatory, pond scum touts outside our ground, will have taken a hiding, as indifference caused many of our more fickle fans to stay away in their droves. It seems the prospect of an encounter with lowly Plymouth Argyle just didn’t light the fire necessary to persuade folks to freeze their backsides off on the terraces, on a brass-monkey afternoon.

The same certainly couldn’t be said of the fervent Pilgrim faithful, who packed out the 9000 odd seats in their corner of our ground, determined to make the very most of their big day out. Thankfully they gave voice to the sort of raucous racket, that lent the afternoon just a little of that old-fashioned FA Cup tie atmosphere and without whom it would’ve likely been a far more insipid affair.

In fact, after it seemed as if we’d killed the game off, with two quick goals immediately after the break, I was almost pleased for the visiting fans, when Duguid pulled one back. It was no less than Plymouth’s hard graft deserved and it at least gave their fans something to shout about. However it meant that we were left on the edge of our seats, unable to relax properly, until Van Persie put the result to bed, scoring a third with his “chocolate leg” five minutes before the end.

In truth I would’ve much preferred the outcome to have been decided a lot sooner, not just for the positive effect it could’ve had on our confidence level, but because Wenger would’ve been able to send Jack Wilshere on, for more than just a token run-out at the death.

Wilshere turned 17 on New Year’s day, but subsequent to his extremely impressive, early-season forays in the Carling Cup, he’s spent so much time on the bench, that I imagine some might’ve mistaken our baby-faced prodigy for the club’s mascot. Moreover, considering they at least get a kickabout during the pre-match formalities, the mascots have probably had more pitch time!

Admittedly, the massive ovation Wilshere received when being introduced on Saturday was also related to the relief felt by many, to see the back of Bendtner, who’d had a bit of a mare, even by his second-rate standards. Nevertheless the reaction towards Wilshere and the fact that we’re prepared to cut an extremely enthusiastic youngster like Kieran Gibbs (who came on for the injured Sylvestre) so much slack, compared to how quick we are to slaughter the likes of Eboué, is indicative of how desperate we Gooners are, for Arsène to accelerate the ripening of some of the fruits of our homegrown production line.

In the absence of the injured Denilson, this FA Cup interlude offered le gaffer a timely opportunity to experiment in midfield, giving Ramsey a rare run-out in the starting line-up, alongside Diaby, in his preferred central role. Ramsey has endeared himself to the fans with his willingness to shoot on sight and I’m sure the Welsh lad would relish an opportunity to be able to do so on his return to Ninian Park in the next round. However Diaby also looks far more comfortable with the ball at his feet, going forward and I’m not sure he’s suited to the holding role, especially since, for such a tall man, he doesn’t appear to be able to head the ball for toffee.

Meanwhile there was much mirth as the FA Cup threw up its customary anomalies. I must admit to being surprised to hear of Kolo Touré’s transfer request, as I simply couldn’t imagine the Ivorian wanting to play for another club. Yet if it was related to some interest from Man City, if Kolo hadn’t withdrawn his request before the weekend, doubtless he would’ve done so double-quick, after witnessing the mystifying, tragi-comic double act of messrs Richards and Dunne up at Eastlands.

Fuelled by endless, usually unsubstantiated media speculation, the January transfer window invokes so much anticipation, that it inevitably proves to be an anti-climax. I’d certainly love the vim and vigor that the likes of Stephen Ireland would lend to the Arsenal, but I honestly can’t imagine him figuring on Arsène’s radar. Besides we’re hardly short on attacking midfielders.

Based on his track-record, I won’t be the least bit surprised if le Prof resists the substantial pressure to pull the cheque book out. Although unlike in seasons past, when clubs have been forced to pay a substantial premium, to prize players from their existing contracts during the January window, there’s never been a better opportunity to take advantage of some of our competitors’ financial plight. However Arsène is hardly an impulse buyer and so as to avoid any disappointment, personally I will be ignoring all the transfer hoo-haa, until I actually see a new player standing beside Wenger in an Arsenal shirt.

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Thursday 1 January 2009

Sadly Another "Could Do Better" Half-Term Report

Thankfully I received a copy of my Scouse colleagues mid-season musings earlier this evening, otherwise I might well have forgotten all about the fact that I was due to file my own half-term report to the Irish Examiner. Having checked the email, I discovered that the deadline was New Year's Eve, so since I forwarded it to them at 23.59, I've met this obligation and somewhat miraculously, I've even come very close to meeting their 750 word requirements (or at least that is, close by my overly verbose standards!).

That means I didn't have room to comment on what I believe to be the absolute codswallop about Kolo Touré leaving the Gunners - which sounds to me as if they've turned a rumour about Kolo and Gallas not getting on well, into a fictitious story about his imminent departure. Kolo has always come across as such an incredibly inoffensive human being that his idea of expressing his displeasure would be to not include Willie in his Xmas card list!

I also don't give any credence to any of the stories in the media about the various tranfer targets Arsène is supposedly after (at least not until I see them standing there in an Arsenal shirt!). My guess is that Wenger will probably have some player that none of the tabloids have mentioned in mind, but if he can't get him for the price he wants to pay, as has been the case in the past, he won't have any qualms about keeping his chequebook in his pocket.

So my advice would be for us all to ignore all the far-fetched rumours and expect nothing, so as not to be disappointed and then if we do end up doing any business, it will come as a bonus.

Meanwhile if I've expressed any of the sentiments below in a previous missive, please accept my apologies, but having written this entry, I thought I might as well post it, for all you other boring old buggers who've nothing better to do on New Year's Eve

Mind you, one would have to be brave to be jumping in the fountain in Trafalgar Square (assuming it's not frozen over) in this brass-monkey weather.

Oh for the lunacy of youth, when I remember the invigorating feeling of swimming in the Serpentine on a similarly hypothermic New Year's Day with all those other nutters. As I recall, myself and a mate came out of the changing rooms and we both ran to dive in before we got too cold and changed our minds. Having dived in, swum a length and clambered out, you can imagine where we told the bloke to go, who was standing there with the TV news camera and who asked if we'd mind doing it again!

A Happy & Healthy New Year to one and all
Peace & Love
It’s been an extremely frustrating first-half of the season for us Gooners, with the gloss taken off memorable triumphs against the likes of Man Utd & Chelsea, by far too many lacklustre displays against the Premiership’s lesser lights. Still I guess we should be grateful that we haven’t quite been left for dead, so long as the other 3 title contenders continue to suffer from a similarly inconsistent malaise.

Although, as I write, based on what we’ve witnessed to date, I doubt that even the most optimistic amongst us will covet ambitions of the Arsenal mounting a genuine title challenge. As things stand, I imagine the majority of us would be content with a return of the traditional status quo and a reaffirmation of our top four pedigree, hopefully combined with the opiate of a decent cup run to mollify the masses.

With the tabloid press going into overdrive as the transfer window opens, the Gunners are being linked with a myriad of potential targets. The arguments in the North London boozers extend on long into the night, over who le boss needs to buy. But the truth of the matter is that time and again, this Arsenal side has demonstrated their ability to compete with the best in the land.

So while I won’t dispute the more obvious deficiencies in our current squad, it seems evident to me that the principle factors responsible for the least impressive first-half of a campaign during Wenger’s tenure, are not something that can be cured by merely throwing money at the problem, by way of blowing Arsène’s alleged £30mil. war-chest.

It’s ironic that we’ve consistently punched above our weight ever since Wenger arrived and that it’s only now, with the revenues from the new stadium raising the club up to the level of genuine heavyweights (that is if the board’s rosy perspective of the impact of our substantial property portfolio is to be believed!) that Arsène finds himself on the ropes for the first time.

However perhaps it’s a newly acquired “big club” mentality that’s contributed to our capricious form. There could well be elements of arrogance and complacency involved in the profligate way in which we’ve blown so many points against the likes of Hull, Sunderland, Stoke, Man City and Boro.

Nevertheless Wenger has never been under so much pressure to splash the cash. But having spent more than enough time in seasons past, waiting in vain for the Sky Sports News ticker to dispel the post Xmas blues, by flashing up details of a mega-bucks signing, I won’t exactly be holding my breath. According to his parsimonious nature, I really can’t envisage le Prof spunking up a substantial fortune for a stopgap midfield orchestrator to fill-in for Fabregas. Besides, it’s not as if our squad is exactly short on dainty ball-players! Additionally I don’t see Arsène being drawn into a Dutch auction, at a time when excess demand and extremely limited supply (of genuine quality) guarantees seriously inflated transfer fees.

Arsène has often expressed his concern about bringing in star players (with egos to match their wallets) and the potential effect on the delicate balance of personalities in the dressing room. To my mind, football management is hardly rocket science, but an instinctive knowledge of human alchemy is vital, when it comes to blending together disparate ingredients into a solid unit, where the whole is far greater than the sum of the individual parts.

There are times when I wonder if Arsène is a little too analytical and perhaps lacks something of this instinctive quality. As far as he’s concerned our players possess all the necessary attributes and although I might moan about our need for a natural winger, or a Gilberto or Flamini type water-carrier, in games that go our way, we’ve proved ourselves capable of getting the job done.

But when our backs are up against the wall, as has been the case all too often this season, the imbalance in our youthful line-up positively screams out to many of us. It seems to me that we’re crying out for the sort of catalyst who’s capable of offering both the carrot and stick inspiration, to encourage the best out of the rest of them.

I wouldn’t turn down the likes of Arshavin, or Arteta but the attributes we really need aren’t available “off the peg”. I believe Arsène needs to look within, if we’re to rediscover some of that “Good Old Arsenal” spirit, to some of the youngsters who left us all open-mouthed, in awe of their scintillating early season Carling Cup exploits.

Such home-grown solutions would be guaranteed to rekindle the fire in the sort of Arsenal “supporters” who tell me that they can’t be bothered to watch us on the box, or who suggest they won’t be renewing their season tickets, should we continue on, in the current vein. It says a lot about the spoilt nature of the Arsenal’s modern day audience that 5th in the table and the knockout stages of the Champions League can engender such apathy and dissatisfaction. I guess they’d have long since bailed if we were in bottom of the Championship Charlton’s shoes!
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