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Monday, 4 May 2009

How We Get There, I Don't Care

G'day fellow Gooners,

It's far from the first time I've struggled to write a diary piece, knowing it will appear in the Wednesday edition of the Irish Examiner. Often in the past I've simply ignored the events due to take place in between the writing of my piece and publication, rather than the prospect of being left with egg on my face, but I could hardly do that in this instance, with the biggest game of out season taking place tomorrow.

By coincidence, as I sat here trying to work out the best way to deal with it, I had a call from the sports ed at the paper, who was pondering whether it might be best to hold the terrace talk feature over until Thursday. For a moment there, I had visions of being able to pay for a trip to Rome (if required) as a result of providing the paper with two pieces this week instead of one, but sadly that didn't turn out to be the case and instead he decided it was best to carry on as usual.

The worst thing as far as I'm concerned, was the prospect of having to squeeze all my rambling contemplations on the past ten days into such a small number of words. In the end I must've bashed out a few hundred more words than required and so as to avoid annoying the sub-ed, by lumbering him with too much work, I've ended up forwarding them two copies, a shorter second one, which still reads OK, but where I've simply chopped out most of the references to Saturday's trip to Pompey.

As one of the shorter awaydays, Pompey always attracts a healthy Gooner turn-out and with the good weather, many seemed to have had the sense to make the day of it. It seems that the mixture of the South coast sunshine and plenty of liquid refreshment was particularly conducive to the creative juices and so for the benefit of those of you who weren't present, but who I hope will want to join in, should any of what I thought were at least three new terrace ditties make their debut at our place tomorrow night, the three chants that were new to my ears, went something like:
(Que sera, sera) "Vela, Vela, our Mexican superstar, he's better than Cantona, Vela, Vela"
(Cantare) "Eboué, wohohoho, Eboué wohohoho, he comes from Africa, he's better than Kaka"
The third was a far more original and very catchy little adaptation of "I like to move it" which is a bit beyond me when it comes to putting it into any sort of written format, but which everyone will hopefully catch on to quick when they hear the sound of "Eboué...boué...boué. Na na, nah nah, na, na. Eboué...boué...boué "

As mentioned below, there was a wonderful mantra-like tribute to Sol Campbell, with a long, oft repeated rendition of "Double, double, double, Sol Campbell has won the double and the scum at the Lane have won f*** all again, cos Sol Campbell has won the double" for which Sol duly expressed his gratitude and which became a pretty constant theme the entire afternoon long.

I often fear that by giving an opposition player individual stick, we might be providing him with just the inspiration he requires to shove our insults back down our collective throats, but obviously Jermaine Pennant didn't react in such a positive fashion to the taunts of "Ashley's boyfriend" every time he came within proximity of our end of the pitch and Pennant was duly substituted at the break.

In truth, if Peter Crouch had been less profligate with a couple of goal gaping, one on one efforts against Fabianski in the first-half, it could've been a far more tense afternoon. But as it turned out, the light of the Pompey goal threat burned briefly after the break, with the introduction of Kanu and Utaka, but this was soon snuffed out when Carlos Vela scored our third and after this the game felt like a training exercise, as we passed the ball around almost at will and it wasn't long before the Premiership side with the youngest ever average age began "taking the piss", whilst we wound the locals up, by cheering every pass (and booing the odd misplaced one).

With the home side still on the fringes of the relegation mire, I would've been a bit disappointed if I was a Pompey fan at the lack of fight shown in front of their own fans and on the basis of such a relatively heartless performance, I wouldn't want to be counting my chickens, as it's not completely out of the question that they could be dragged back down into it.

From a friend of a friend, I'd heard that le Boss had given Manny Frimpong the nod that he'd be on the bench just after lunch. Although I guess that the majority of the youngsters would've expected to have had some involvement, by dint of the fact that they'd been chosen to travel with the first team party in the first place. But I assume the reason for not telling them that they were actually in the squad until the last minute, is so as to prevent them getting too excited and having a sleepless night.

I'd like to believe that the Arsenal kids are not so blasé or too "big time" that they are not blown away by the thrill of being included with the first team squad. This was not the Carling Cup, but a proper Premiership game and I like to think of the buzz they must've enjoyed when joining in with the big boys and being handed a shirt for the first-team proper. Hopefully it's the moment when they begin to feel that they've really cracked it and judging by the fact that Manny was phoning all his mates (including the WAGlette daughter of one of my pals), he must've been very excited.

In replacing Theo Walcott, Amaury Bischoff enjoyed a 25 minute run out, although I have to admit that I can't recall the French/Portuguese midfielder making much of an impression playing out wide on the flank. I believe Fran Merida had one decent effort on target, when he replaced Bendtner for the last 12 minutes (although I would guess that Bendtner would've preferred to have remained on the pitch with him having a chance of scoring his hat-trick).

However we've seen quite a bit of Mark Randall (as has Arsène) and to date, sadly we've yet to see Randall really grasp the mettle whenever he's been given the opportunity and although he's undoubtedly a talented kid, such pressure-free opportunities to throw the youngsters into the Premiership fray are so few and far between, that you would want a cultured player like Randall to make some effort to really stamp his mark on the match, by doing something memorable (like Wayne Rooney's explosion on to the Premiership scene, with his stunning thirty yard strike against us - was that Rooney's debut for Everton?), rather than allowing the occasion to pass him, playing it safe, with a few simple sideways passes.

As a result, I would've much preferred to have seen Frimpong given a look-in, especially since I was able to relate to what must have been an anti-climactic feeling of frustration, at having been given his shirt, but without getting an opportunity to get it dirty. Frimpong has impressed whenever I've seen him perform for the Arsenal youngsters. There's something of the Michael Essien, about the all-action, sturdy midfield dynamo. It must have been disappointing for young Manny, as I imagine his mobile phone must've been hopping after the game and it couldn't have been much fun revealing to all his friends and family that sadly they wouldn't be seeing him appear for the first time on MOTD that night

If you are looking for impressive energy levels, Francis Coquelin is yer man and it was a pity that the French kid didn't get a run out either. I've yet to see enough of Bischoff to have much of an opinion either way, but Coquelin impressed me, right from the very first time I saw him perform in a pre-season game at Underhill. Admittedly there are plenty of rough surfaces still to be polished off before Francis can begin to fulfill his promise.

Yet unlike many of the Arsenal youngsters, who've been at the club since they were in short pants and who've had sycophantic agents pandering to their egos all that time, convincing them that their progress to the first-team squad and a lucrative contract would be theirs by right, there's a hunger about Coquelin, which might lead one to conclude that after making the big leap from the modest environs of the French second division, to the Premiership big time, he is perhaps just a little more appreciative of his opportunity and is therefore perhaps just a little more desperate than some of his peers, to prove he has a right to be here.

Give me the drive and determination that results from an insatiable hunger to prove oneself, any day, over some of the more naturally gifted kids, who already believe they are G-d's gift to football and who stroll about the park, showing little desire to sweat their bollix off to prove themselves, as a positvely essential cog in a team game.

In the knowledge that many of these kids have reached a stage, where each and every match they're involved in can make or break a career, the majority of us would give our right arms to be in their shoes and we'd be prepared to sweat every last drop of blood, in order to ensure our progress. Naturally there are those who must suffer the negative effect of nerves, but there's a nonchalance amongst some of the youngsters nowadays, which I assume results from them being cocooned in a comfortable footballing bubble from such an early age, that they no longer have any appreciation of quite how privileged they are, until reality slaps them in the face with the revelation that contrary to all the boot-licking BS, they simply don't have what it takes to make the grade. It must come as a major shock to the system of so many aspiring superstars, who I imagine must spend the rest of their days wondering what might've been, if only they'd demonstrated the sort of determination witnessed in many of their perhaps less gifted but more driven colleagues.

Meanwhile unlike all those sensible Gooners who'd taken into account the inevitable problems caused by the Bank Holiday traffic and who'd either travelled down early, or who'd let the train take the strain, we only set out three and a half hours before kick-off. By the time we'd dropped Treacle off at my sister's, who'd kindly accepted dog-sitting duties for the day and headed North-West of London, to Watford, to collect a ticket for my Septic Gooner pal, Zach, who was desperate to include at least one more Arsenal awayday in his condensed Gooner indoctrination of the past couple of months (after having enjoyed his initiation into a proper terrace atmosphere on his first awayday to Cardiff), it was around one o'clock when we found ourselves gridlocked on the M25, not yet having escaped Hertfordshire.

Not taking into account the nightmareish quality of the traffic, the Tomtom gadget was optimistically suggesting an arrival time of 2.45, but not at a rate of 2mph, so eventually I made the decision to head even further North-West along the M40, in the hope of eventually cutting across country via less busy A roads. With the GPS subsequently adjusting our arrival time to 3.05pm, I was forced to put my foot down, despite being only one 3-point speeding offence away from a potential ban.

We actually made it to Portsmouth well before kick-off but by the time we'd crawled the last couple of miles, I was forced to drop Zach off as close as possible, so that he would at least make it for KO, before heading off to dump the car. I thought I'd had a right result, parking up yard from the ground, in the car park of the club shop, but having taken a few minutes to krooklok the steering wheel, get all my accoutrements out of my bag (radio, binoculars, pack of sweets to suck on instead of a cancer stick), hide the copy of the Gooner which might make the car that much more unwelcome, I was just about to lock the door and walk away feeling quite smug, when a yellow jacketed "you can't park here mate" jobsworth appeared. Cursing the fact that he'd waited so long to give me the bum's rush, I had to jump back in the motor, only to dump it a hundred yards further around the corner, after deciding against the pay by phone car park, which probably would've taken until half-time just to register and a pavement pitch which would've left me blocking in several irate locals (especially considering the fact that at 0-3 down and down to ten men, the home fans hit the road long before the final whistle), I took the chance of leaving it down an alley, by the back entrance to a factory, hoping it would still be there on our return, without a ticket or a clamp.

Nevertheless, with near perfect timing, I'd literally found Zach and my seat, seconds before Nicky Bendtner rose salmon-like to softly head the ball into and out of David James grasp.

It was an exhausting effort, after a long arduous week, but it was well worth it, if only to experience the healthy dose of optimistic atmosphere which abounded amongst the Gooners on the ramshackle terrace behind the goal. Zach was on the phone to his folks back home on the way back, absolutely revelling in the fact that he'd just enjoyed an afternoon at what ranks as just about the Premiership's most derelict stadium. Playing a fairly typical game of half-time hide and seek with the stewards, as I tried to suck on a sneaky fag in the karseys, I suggested to him that the sort of health risk that constitutes Pompey's disgusting toilet facilities, must be a something of a novelty for him.

There were still several minutes left on the clock when Pamarot was shown the red card for shoving Shava to the ground. But this might as well have been the final whistle for many of the home fans, as a sufficient number of them took this as the signal to make for the exits, that we responded with an impromptu chant of "is this a fire drill", followed swiftly by a sarcastic chorus of "your empty seats make more noise"

Although we struggled to exit Pompey, with so many of the home fans having got a head start, mercifully we enjoyed a fairly traffic free journey back. But after fetching and walking Treacle (with my missus having abandoned me for sunnier climes, to spend a couple of weeks with her family in Tenerife, as they all fly out from Dublin for this annual gathering of the Murphy clan - hopefully I might join them one year, when the dates don't coincide with the climax of the football season!), I eventually flopped onto the bed, with just about enough energy left to stay awake long enough to watch MOTD, knowing full well that the matchsticks have yet to be made that would've been strong enough to prop my mince pies open until 4am for the boxing.

I didn't realise until watching the highlights of our game that Shava had been given the captain's armband. But then I suppose that at 27, the Ruski ranked as a senior citizen compared to the tender ages of the majority of his team mates. Perhaps it was this responsibility which inspired his desire to set such a sportsmanlike example, with his attempt to indicate that he had not been brought down for a penalty.

Heaven knows, we are going to need all the good karma we can get over the next 24 hours, as the news that Van Persie is going to make it to the starting line has kind of been balanced out by fact the Rio Ferdinand will also be fit for tomorrow night.

I'm sure I won't be the only Gooner suffering from increasing nervous tension the closer the game gets and if we're suffering butterflies in the pit of our bellies, we can only imagine the vampire bats gnawing away at the players stomachs. I'm just praying that all our apprehensive anxieties don't make for an evening where everyone sits there suffering in silence, but for once we all make a concerted effort to do our bit, by bringing something of the wonderfully fervent racket which raised the new roof at Fratton Park on Saturday.

If ever we needed to lend the Gunners the advantage of the sort of 12th man support that's been sorely lacking at our place up until now, tomorrow night is it. Whether we're destined to make the Champions League final, or not, myself I will be satisfied so long as we've given it all we've got and we can walk away tomorrow night knowing we've left it all out there on the field of play, with the players having worked their socks off and with us having sung ourselves hoarse, with no feelings of regret, neither in the dressing room, nor on the terraces, wondering what might have been, if only we'd raised the sort of ruckus, which might've sucked the ball into the back of the net, or which might've proved sufficiently intimidating to extinguish all Utd's optimism the moment they walk onto the pitch.

Perhaps it's something on a vain hope, considering the sort of besuited coporate atmosphere our new stadium usually seems to adopt on Champions League nights, but if ever we needed too turn our new gaff into the sort of cauldron of positive energy, where nothing but the prospect of a two goal win against Utd seems possible, it's now.

All you geographically challenged Gooners can rest assured that I'll be doing my bit, we can but hope that I am pleasantly surprised to find myself surrounded by 55 odd thousand likeminded individuals prepared to do theirs, rather than the customary theatre audience, who come to sit back in their expensive, comfy seats and spectate, rather than participate

Come on you Reds

Knowing that you’ll be reading this missive on Wednesday, when either we’ll be basking in the reflected glory of Tuesday night’s truly memorable turnaround, or be wallowing in the frustration of yet another anti-climactic end, to another “could do better” season, makes it a particularly awkward piece to write.

Obviously in my heart I want to believe in Arsène’s optimistic claims that
it’s still all up for grabs and we’ve seen enough strange results in recent weeks to give us plenty of hope. The unpredictable nature of football remains one of its most endearing qualities. Yet in my head, all logic tells me that we blew it at Old Trafford, with our failure to trouble Van Der Saar, in order to secure that crucial away goal.

The best that can be said is that we travelled back from Manchester feeling grateful that we were still in with a shout, knowing that Man Utd would be rueing a missed opportunity to put the tie to bed. But I couldn’t help but feel somewhat distraught, because we’d failed to do ourselves justice, as Arsène appeared to have repeated the very same mistake he made in the FA Cup semi, in his efforts to try and select a team to thwart the opposition, rather than simply putting his faith in picking our most in-form XI.

It’s been a while since I can recall being so brim full of nervous anticipation in advance of a match. Bumping into several old faces as we waited under the Sir Matt Busby statue with someone’s ticket, it felt as if Gooners everywhere had been drawn to Old Trafford, like moths to a flame, in eager expectation of a titanic contest, including a gang of Gooners from Tralee, who made themselves known to me.
If football matches were decided by the energy and enthusiasm of the respective fans, the 4500 odd Gooners would’ve walked this game, as the buzz in our corner of Old Trafford, leading up to the opening whistle was brilliant. It seems I got my wish, with Man Utd starting the game at the same high-tempo that had served us so well at Anfield. But where this had encouraged the best out of our passing game against the Scousers, we seemed to adopt a siege mentality against Utd, as if we were trying to repeat the shut-out Chelsea had achieved in the Nou Camp the previous night. Yet we quite patently lack the defensive resilience of the Blues and as every Gooner knows, this Arsenal side’s best form of defence is to attack. But for much of the first forty-five we didn’t retain enough possession of the ball to escape out of our half of the pitch.

A more pro-active manager might’ve begun to ring the changes, as within five minutes of the kick-off it was evident that Arsène’s gameplan was not working and from my perspective, it was not a matter of if Utd were going to win, but by how many! Yet le Prof has always adopted a laissez-faire approach, perhaps trusting to the game’s inevitable swings in momentum and preferring to keep faith with his players, rather making any reactive tactical changes which might be perceived as a sign of weakness.

We couldn’t have done more from the terraces, to try and stir the team out of their seemingly suicidal inertia, since it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before we’d eventually succumb to Utd’s relentless pressure. It’s hard to recall Abou Diaby previously ever producing more than a couple of cameo moments and he definitely doesn’t appear to possess the intense industrious nature needed in this sort of frenetic contest. Where Nasri had found time to dictate play in the Boro game in his more withdrawn midfield role, he was completely overwhelmed on Wednesday. Moreoever, playing in a more advanced position, Fabregas had no chance of exerting any influence, until we escaped our half of the pitch and with Adebayor’s inability to hold the ball up, we struggled to build any of the forward momentum that would enable Cesc to have some impact.

Most Gooners are of the opinion that Adebayor has merely been marking time at the club this season, before a big money move (considering a likely massive devaluation on the astronomic sums being touted last summer, I imagine they must be kicking themselves for not cashing in on his form last season!). Yet even if he was bang up for Wednesday’s showpiece semi, you simply can’t turn form and fitness on at will, like a tap and there were a couple of instances where his inability to outpace Ferdinand or even Vidic to the ball were very telling.

Still largely thanks to Almunia’s heroics, the fat lady’s appearance has been postponed for another 90 minutes and with an early goal on Tuesday night, there’s no knowing what might transpire. My fancy for an Arsenal v Chelsea final hasn’t been extinguished but I’d be feeling a lot more confident if like the Blues, we only had to focus on beating the opposition, rather than fretting about denying them an away goal.

However the optimistic cacophony coming from us Gooners behind the goal at Fratton Park on Saturday was confirmation that hope springs eternal. Be it inspired by belief, bravado, or merely making the most of a last opportunity to give our Euro medley a vociferous run out, we enjoyed a noisy 90 minutes. Considering all the times I’ve been soaked on that dilapidated open terrace, it was indeed ironic to find myself shivering in the chill of the shadow cast by the relatively new roof, instead of soaking up some rays on a sun-drenched afternoon.

It didn’t become apparent until I saw it repeated on TV later that night, but I adored Shava’s sporting attempt to set the ref straight about it not being a penalty. Sadly such gentlemanly gestures are all too few and far between in the high-stakes world of the business that has become of the beautiful game. If we’d been 0-1 down, I’m sure we’d have all been on his back for being so honest and I can only imagine the resulting ire, if the diminutive Ruski had taken his chivalry to the extreme, by chipping the undue spot-kick into the keeper’s arms.

The Fratton Park love-in might not have been quite so friendly if Sol Campbell and his defence hadn’t been so hospitable, but as if in tribute to what could well be his last season, we spent much of the afternoon singing Sol’s praises, repeating mantra-like, the chant that reminded us all of our former captain’s silverware laden glories (which must be a refreshing contrast to the disgusting diatribe Sol suffers from the fans of his other former club).

The contrast in the two team was highlighted in two successive free-kicks at either end of the pitch, where Pompey erected a wall comprising of Campbell, Distin, Crouch and Kanu, which was the equivalent of the famous Spinnaker Tower, compared to the five foot nothing schnips lined up to protect Fabianski’s goal.

Notwithstanding the injudicious timing of Stan Kroenke’s boardroom shenanigans, in advance of our biggest game of the season, myself I will be satisfied, so long as we give it a real go against Man Utd in the second leg, instead of affording them the sort of respect that appeared to dictate Arsène’s team selection at Old Trafford. Yet whether fate and good fortune aids our progress to the final, or our season is destined to finally flounder in glorious failure, Saturday’s performance by a Premiership side with the youngest ever average age, was a pertinent reminder of the promise of the Wenger boys’ bright future, a bunch of hungry teenagers who might yet have their say in the outcome of this season’s title race?

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