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Friday 30 October 2009

We've Got Cesc Fabregas

G’day fellow Gooners (or at least I bloody well hope it turns out to be!)

I don’t consider myself to be an egotistical person, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I adore getting comments in response to my ramblings. Good, bad or indifferent (and even the illiterate ravings of opposition fans), it's extremely gratifying to receive the occasional confirmation that my humble efforts have been read. It’s great to see the “page view” counter ticking over, but it’s far more satisfying to have tangible proof that I’m not just prattling away for my own benefit (and perhaps for my dear old Ma, who, bless her, is 76 today, so very many happy returns Mum – I only hope the Gunners can reward you with a fitting tribute).

In response to the query, the photos shown of me and the missus in the header were taken back in the days when we had a few quid and were fortunate enough to be able to travel on several Exec trips all over Europe.

This was in the days of those Cup Winners Cup runs in the early 90s and it was great to be able to stay overnight, in destinations that one often wouldn’t think of visiting, if it wasn’t for us following the Gunners and to be able to get a little more flavour of these foreign climes, than when one flies in and out on the same day, on an organised outing, where, having been herded sheep-like, out of the airport, into a coach, into the ground and straight back onto the plane after the final whistle, one experiences so little local colour that one might as well have been to Leicester!

However, above all, the principal motivation for paying through the nose to travel on these Exec trips was the buzz of being able to travel on the same plane as the team. I’m probably still paying for the privilege, with all the debt I accumulated on my plastic. But having completely tapped out all such lines of credit to the max, to the point where it’s such a struggle to pay for our two season tickets that I’ve had no choice, but to lease Róna’s ticket out this season and with the cost of these Exec trips becoming increasingly prohibitive, eventually there came a point where we could no longer justify the expense.

So for example, instead of spending over 300 quid each to follow the Gunners abroad and spend one night in a hotel, we began to find better alternatives. Like the time we played PAOK Salonika a few years back, we found a last minute package holiday for a fortnight, for less than the cost of an overnight Exec trip and spent a couple of weeks on a lovely beach in Tolo, near Athens and hired a car to drive all the way up to the other end of Greece for the game.

These Exec trips would usually go from Stansted, I guess because it’s convenient for the team coach to get to from North London and the plane would be divided into three sections, with the team at the front of the plane, us fans in the middle and the media at the back.

Although they tried to keep the team separate, to ensure they weren’t hassled by us and the press and they were invariably whisked off on a separate coach from the airport, there was usually time, either when waiting at the gate for the plane, or waiting for their luggage to come off at the other end, when you could approach them for a brief chat and the odd souvenir photo.

I’ve loads of great anecdotes from these trips, most of which I’ve repeated many times already, but without doubt the best experience during any of these European outings was on our return journey from Copenhagen, after beating Parma to win the Cup Winners Cup, as Tony Adams climbed on board the plane with the cup in hand and passed it back to the fans. We were lucky to be in the second row of fans and so we got our obligatory photo (see above), before one of the travel club bods eventually came and spoilt all the fun, by retrieving the silverware. I don’t know what they were worried about, as the cup was hardly about to go missing in mid-air!

Arsène changed the arrangements for away trips in Europe and for a time, I believe those travelling on the Exec trips no longer flew on the same plane as the team. We also used to be able to rub shoulders with the players years ago, at Sopwell House Hotel, during the time when they were using the hotel facilities to change in, after the dressing rooms at the training ground burnt down. Yet as with the fences and electric gates at the new training facility, one gets the distinct sense that the powers that be at the club make more effort nowadays to ensure that the squad is segregated from the fans (and the media) and sadly, in my opinion, the opportunities to be able to actually meet them have become much fewer and further between.

I remember making one of Róna’s sisters day when we were up at Sopwell House one time, as I collared Tony Adams in the car park, as he was walking to his car and he happily agreed to speak to Grainne on my mobile. She was naturally blown away, initially believing that whoever was on the phone was pulling her leg.

During Thierry Henry’s time at the Arsenal, there were occasions when I got asked about getting him to sign something or other, perhaps as a present for an eager youngster and it would pain me to have to disappoint, by explaining that it was unlikely I was going to get an opportunity to obtain an autograph because unfortunately the chances of getting sufficiently close to players nowadays are so very rare.

I’m sure most every Gooner will know who Maria is and if you don’t know who she is, you will recognise the sound of her voice, having inevitably heard her bellowing “Come on you Gunners’ either at a game, or when watching on the box. I remember years ago, I used to wonder if it was a little boy, with a particularly loud voice, but actually Maria is a diminutive, elderly lady, a retired schoolteacher, who, as an utterly devoted Gooner, has made the Arsenal her life for many years.

It occurred to me when I was watching us play in Holland the other week and I heard the dulcet tones of Maria over the commentary on the telly, that it had been sometime since I’d registered the sound of her presence at a game. But by coincidence we bumped into her during half-time at Upton Park, where she told us that she’d travelled to Alkmaar on the Exec trip, on the same plane as the players and that on their return flight, apparently Cesc Fabregas got up and used the onboard PA, to say a few words to the more privileged of the travelling faithful.

I’m sure I asked Maria what Cesc had to say and she probably told me that he thanked them for their support and expressed his hope that we’d be able to continue following them, all the way to Champions League final in the Bernabeu, but if I’m honest, I have to admit that as a result of another "senior moment", I can’t for the life of me remember.

Nevertheless, I’ve an inkling that the actual details of Fab’s doubtless banal few words are not of any particular interest and for me, it’s not what he said, but the fact that he said them and I get a kick out of the thought that our club captain felt obliged to get up and fulfil his obligations as spokesman for the team. I only wish he could’ve done so for the benefit of everyone who travelled and not just the privileged few and the media rat pack at the back of the plane.

Then again, the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if Cesc was encouraged to speak, by someone from the press office, purely for the benefit of the press!

Meanwhile, if I am to make tomorrow’s midday kick-off, I had better get to bed and catch some much needed ZZZZs. However before signing off, in response to another comment, I want to make it clear that I didn’t intend to single out Senderos and Silvestre for special stick in my last load of waffle, especially after we’d just beaten the Scousers. I only wanted to express my serious concerns about Arsène continuing to play both these two players as our centre-back partnership in the next and hopefully any subsequent rounds.

Personally I was never particularly happy about Wenger signing Silvestre, as to my mind the French defender is past his sell by date (at 32 odd?) and personally, whenever he played for Man Utd, I always saw him as their potential weak link. Besides which, I can’t possible imagine that Fergie was ever going to flog Arsène a player who he felt could turn the Arsenal into potentially more serious competition for his own team.

That doesn’t mean to say I don’t respect Mikael, as word would have it that he’s seriously professional in the way he goes about his work and I would imagine that he’s a great example to some of the younger players. Yet I get the distinct impression that no-one is more aware of his own limitations than Silvestre himself and although he has undoubtedly developed coping tactics over the years, in order to deal with more talented opposition strikers and is unlikely to be caught dallying on the ball, trying to pass his way out of his own area, instead of smashing it safely into Row Z, for my money, I don’t like the message the club sends out when signing Man Utd’s cast offs.

Silvestre is more than capable of doing a job for us and he has the versatility and the experience to make quite a useful addition on the bench, but I would much prefer to see Arsène bringing on the likes of Kyle Bartley, or another of our promising youngsters, because we know full well that Silvestre is not going to benefit from the experience, being on the downhill slope of his career. You could argue that it made sense to play him as a senior figure, to act as a role model for all the younger players and perhaps this is a valid point but I just don’t see the point in playing him and Senderos together.

As for Philippe, I have always adored Senderos’ character and there was a time, a good while back, when I considered him to be perhaps the most likely candidate in the entire Arsenal squad, to possess proper captain material (or at least what I call proper captain material, which means the ability to lead in a vocal and demonstrative fashion, rather than having to suffer the sound of Arsène trotting out the standard “lead by example” excuse for the fact that his squad has been devoid of anyone capable of fulfilling the leader’s role in a more meaningful fashion).

I didn’t see much of Senderos playing when he played in Italy for AC Milan, but there were more than a few Gooners who were gobsmacked to hear he’d gone there on loan. I have to admit that this unexpected move brought a smile to my face. Yet on reflection, I can envisage Philippe faring well on the Continent, especially in Serie A because the style of football might suit him better.

When Italian teams concede possession, they tend to drop back into their own half of the pitch. As a result, the football in Italy tends to be far less frenetic, as they aren’t in the habit of playing a pressing game. As a result, with more time on the ball, I can quite easily picture Senderos being far more comfortable, without being in constant fear of being exposed for his undoubted lack of pace. And in truth, Philippe seems like such an amenable character that I would actually be quite glad to see him go and carve out a more impressive career on the Continent, rather than suffer seeing him castigated by insensitive Gooners, who will only remember him for the way in which he’s been positively decimated in the past by the likes of Drogba.

I also wanted to reply to the comment from someone who appears to covet a few more of Rafa Benitez’s signings than I do. In addition to Torres, I did actually mention Mascherano, only because the Argentinian is the finished article, compared to Alex Song, who’s performances though admirable, are still riddled on occasion with evidence of his continued naïveté (principally, as far as I’m concerned, evident in the way he continues to allow opponents to get goalside of him).

However who would want to sign Mascherano, a player who obviously appears to want to leave England and who I believe is going to be a source of great frustration for the Scousers this season, as how incredibly maddening must it be to see him completely run the midfield show against the likes of Man Utd, seeing him serve up a reminder of how influential he can be, compared to the majority of Liverpool’s other matches to date, where basically his lack of motivation means that he might as well have not bothered to turn up.

I also agree that there was a time when I admired Alonso’s range of passing for the Merseysiders, but I honestly couldn’t have seen him playing in a midfield pairing with Fabregas and so I am not sure how Arsène would have managed to play the two of them together. Besides which, I know that nowadays we have to accept the fact that the loyalty of professional footballers comes bought and paid with vast amounts of pound notes (or Euros), but I continue to be suspicious of any player who appears to make career moves based solely on the moolah, without consideration for professional pride and the best choice of clubs as far as their football is concerned.

I appreciate that their careers are short and that they have to cash in while they can and provide security for them and their families for the future. But to my mind, it doesn’t matter where top-flight footballers play nowadays; they are going to earn more than they could ever hope to spend in a lifetime, at any major football club. Thus I struggle to understand why a player would accept umpteen million to go and sit on a bench somewhere and get an occasional look-in, rather than take home one less sackful of spondulicks so as to be able to play the game they love every week.

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I also have some notion that if the club have to get involved in a Dutch auction to encourage a player to come to the club instead of going elsewhere, then to my mind, if the money is his principal motivation, then he’s most unlikely to consistently sweat blood, week in, week out, for a team he’s only playing for because of the pound notes.

Take Gareth Barry, for example. After playing for Villa for most of his career, in his shoes, I would’ve wanted to go to a club where I was most likely to win something. After all, he’s hardly going to be able to impress the grandchildren a few years down the line, by showing them his bank balance! Then again perhaps he’s deluding himself that he’ll be collecting medals at Man City in this lifetime?

Talking of Villa, did anyone else see the highlights of their Carling Cup encounter at the Stadium of Light in midweek? By some coincidence, Martin O’Neill has found another “septic” (Guzan) to play between the sticks, as Brad Friedel’s stand-in, who, after having seriously impressed during 120 minutes of football, amazingly went on to save four out of five spot-kicks.

Another name to catch my ear (again!) was that of Vladimir Weiss and while I didn’t see exactly what this youngster did to impress in Man City’s 5-1 spanking of Scunthorpe (as I only saw the goals shown on the box), the Slovakian lad definitely caught my eye in his performance for his country against Northern Ireland. With his dad being the manager of the Slovakian national team, surely nepotism would prevent him dropping his own progeny. Nevertheless I can’t envisage Weiss being particularly content to continue sitting on the City bench, missing out on regular match practice in the build to next summer’s tournament in South Africa.

But if I don’t stop wittering on, I will never make it to kick-off (and just how long-winded I can be, is evident from the fact that the derby is today, when it was “tomorrow” when I sat down to start this missive!!). I’m sitting here wondering if we’ll discover any more new murals have been put up, outside the ground, in advance of our match with the old enemy. As if those poor, long-suffering Spurs fans needed any additional reminders of just how dilapidated and uninspiring their own gaff is and how little history they have to glory in by comparison.

Come on you Reds

Peace & Love (in the vain hope of encountering such sentiments this afternoon, albeit I’ll gladly accept the exact opposite, if it’s a result of us giving the Totts the reality check of a right old tonking!)


PS. As for the request for me to put a link on IE, I'm afraid you've got me there, as I'm far too much of a techno-nincompoop to know what this acronym stands for (other than the browser Internet Explorer)? If you put me out of my misery and enlighten me and I'll gladly put the link up :-)

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Thursday 29 October 2009

We've Got Fran Merida

Hi folks,

I hope you’ll forgive me, but with my regular weekly diary missives I tend to avoid offering my own analysis (for what it is worth) of weekend matches, since I write these pieces on a Sunday/Monday, to appear in the Irish Examiner on a Wednesday and with games invariably having been analysed to death by then, elsewhere in the media, I try to come at it from a slightly more anecdotal angle.

But I’ve no such excuse this evening and so I apologize in advance for boring anyone, by repeating the exact same opinions that probably feature in a hundred other blogs!

I was delighted that Arsène didn’t compromise with tonight’s team selection. With the winners of our encounter with the Scousers only being two games, 180 minutes of football away from a Wembley final and with Wenger having made recent public assurances that the Arsenal would end up with something to show for this campaign, I’ve no doubt that there must’ve been some temptation to send out a slightly stronger looking side.

I know it’s easy for me to say, after we’ve earned a place in the quarter-finals, but win, lose or draw this evening, I would’ve been glad that le gaffer stuck to his principles. After so many barren seasons, Arsène is bound to be feeling some pressure to bring home some silverware bacon of any description whatsoever. But there are several reasons why Wenger shouldn’t let himself be influenced and bow to this pressure.

In contrast to the vast majority of high-profile matches that players are involved in nowadays, relatively speaking, Arsène has created a situation for his players to perform in a pressure free environment in the Carling Cup. It’s a “no lose” situation, as they win plenty of plaudits by beating the likes of Liverpool, but if we’d been beaten, it would’ve been no disgrace and no one would’ve been too hard on them.

Moreover, there’s a fluidity and a certain intuitiveness about the way we played tonight which makes them an absolute pleasure to watch. It certainly doesn’t look like a team that’s been thrown together for the first time, as with the backheels and the flicks, they look like players who’ve been playing together every day of the week. But the moment Arsène breaks up the vibe, by adding in some more heavyweight individuals, we’d be risking that special team spirit.

No matter who we draw in the quarter-finals, in my humble opinion, either Arsène plays the first XI, or he continues to keep faith with the kids, because otherwise the youngsters would be likely to feel so much more inhibited if Wenger tinkers with the make-up of the Carling Cup team and would undoubtedly defer to the more senior players, losing some of the confidence and the freedom that makes them so entertaining to watch at present.

Mind you, it was interesting that he went with Fabianski tonight, as I was certain Wenger would take the opportunity to give Almunia a run out. Perhaps, by not playing Manuel, he’s merely avoided any chance of a goal-keeping performance which might put some doubt in his mind with regard to the line-up at the weekend. Far be it from me to second guess le gaffer, but I am assuming that the absence of Almunia tonight means that Wenger will continue to keep faith with Mannone (then again, this conclusion is probably the kiss of death for our goalkeeping godfather!).

I am also sure I am not alone in being totally perplexed as to why Arsène played Sylvestre and Senderos as a centre-back pairing. With Djourou a long term casualty, I appreciate that the choice is limited, but personally I would love to see the likes of Kyle Bartley given a first team opportunity. Phillipe Senderos comes across as a diamond geezer, but it seems to me that Arsène has long since written him off as first team material. Considering how disappointed we would’ve been to have exited the competition tonight, if Wenger’s only reason for sticking with Senderos is because he likes the lad and therefore wanted to take the opportunity to put him in the shop window, then for my money, this wasn’t the game to do that in.

Perhaps Arsène felt that with Gilbert and Gibbs playing at full-back, the pace of these two combined would be sufficient to make up for the absolute total lack of speed of our two centre-backs?

Frankly I wasn’t impressed with Voronin the first time I saw him play for Liverpool and he’s done nothing since to change this opinion. Also I have yet to see anything from Ngog, to suggest he’s going to set any Premiership fires and if I was a Liverpool fan, considering how susceptible tonight’s two centre-backs are to being attacked at pace (because basically they both have the turning speed of an oil-tanker), I would’ve been seriously disappointed with the Scousers fairly impotent performance, where the threat they posed to Fabianski was largely limited to a smattering of somewhat limp, long-range efforts.

I was shocked a couple of weeks back, to hear Graham Souness reveal on Sky’s Champions League coverage that Benitez has signed 67 players in his five years at the club. I suppose Rafa’s stock of Scouse credit is largely due to his success in Europe, but to my mind, this is a pretty damming statistic, which suggests that there’s an element of “the Emperor’s new clothes” about the levels of faith the fat Spanish waiter has engendered in the Merseyside faithful (to the extent that they were prepared to march through the Merseyside streets to show their support for their manager). My memory is extremely suspect at the best of times, but from what I can recall of six football teams that could be made up of all Rafa’s signings, I’ve only ever coveted Fernando Torres (possibly Mascherano?), but off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single other player that I would’ve been desperate to see play in the red & white of the Arsenal!

Nevertheless, Liverpool could’ve been a lot luckier this evening with the way the ball fell in a couple of goalmouth melées and with only a single goal advantage and those two at centre-back, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in absolutely bricking myself, right up until the final whistle, nerves a jangling every time the Scousers pumped the ball forward.

Considering the calibre of teams left in the competition, I can’t help but feel that Sylvestre and Senderos are a nightmare waiting to happen. Their luck simply cannot hold out indefinitely and eventually the two of them are going to end up seriously exposed by some pacy opposition capable of ripping this partnership to shreds. So for the sake of my blood pressure and the few remaining hairs on my head that have yet to turn grey, I sincerely hope that Arsène quits while we are ahead!

I’m not knocking Sylvestre’s performance as our captain tonight, as there were a couple of instances where his years of experience were a telling factor in a timely intervention. Likewise, I don’t recall Phillipe Senderos making any serious rickets – I do know we made some incredibly over-confident and downright suicidal efforts to pass our way out of defence and were extremely fortunate on at least a couple of occasions to have avoided committing hari-kari (one of the very first lessons I learned as a defender was not to pass the ball across my own penalty area!!) but while I believe there was more than one culprit, I don’t actually remember Senderos being guilty of any such mistakes.

On their own, I could accept either of these two centre-backs being involved, so long as they had a pacier individual alongside them. But together I am afraid they are an accident waiting to happen!

It could be that Phillipe’s biggest problem is that basically he’s far too intelligent. A centre-back’s greatest asset is their composure, especially under pressure. With the featherweight balls used nowadays, modern day centre-backs don’t have the same excuse as their predecessors, who, having spent their entire careers trying to get their head to high balls, or banging skulls in the process, could claim that they’d lost many of an already limited number of brain cells, to the damage done by the sort of old-fashioned leather balls that were capable of leaving an impression of the laces on ones forehead.

In general, I imagine that not being too intelligent is probably an advantage to a centre-back, as they don’t have the sense to appreciate quite how scared they should be of certain opponents. Or for example, in Anton Ferdinand’s case, perhaps his composure on the ball is not affected by his inability to appreciate that there is no centre-back gene for him to have inherited along with his brother.

Mikael Sylveste appears to be aware of his limitations and for the most part, he seems to have the experience to try and make allowance for his weaknesses and play to his strengths. Whereas unfortunately Philippe appears overly aware of his perceived limitations and although it was heartening to witness a couple of no-nonsense “row Z” moments this evening, when an opponent does get the better of him, it seems to have a lasting impact and you can tangibly feel that he is on edge, every time the same player takes him on after that.

I’m sure it wasn’t just the sound of our nerves I could hear jangling and the problem playing these two becomes compounded, as I felt that tonight the Scousers sensed how uncomfortable Senderos and this only encouraged them to put pressure on him, in hope of forcing him to lose control, or to risk a dodgy backpass and Senderos seem such a nice chap that I would hate to see a more accomplished strikeforce make mincemeat of him!

I wonder if Wenger’s team selection in the next round will be influenced by who we pull out of the hat in Saturday’s draw, as should we come up against the likes of Chelsea, surely he wouldn’t dream of risking Senderos against Drogba because we don’t need a crystal ball to know how this encounter would turn out!

Meanwhile on a more positive note, after having waited for some time to see Fran Merida justify the faith that has been shown in him and having been largely disappointed with his previous outings, I was delighted to see him shine (at least in the first-half) this evening. It was also great to get home and watch the highlights, to see Cesc Fabregas celebrating his compatriot’s goal on the sideline, with perhaps more enthusiasm than if he had scored himself.

I’m aware that Merida has yet to sign a new contract and you can understand the kid not wanting to commit to another five years waiting on the sidelines. But after having invested so much faith in the young midfielder, it would be awful if he went elsewhere, only for some other team to bear all the fruits of his fabulous education. Besides which, considering most in the know seem to view Fran as a potential alternative to Cesc, he could get his first team opportunity sooner, rather than later, if our club captain should decide that the time is right for a return to Spain!

Similarly I seem to think everyone present was suitably impressed with Eastmond and Gilbert. Truth be told, I haven’t seen much of Eastmond before now, other than his name being familiar from the reserve and youth team match reports in the programme. But I was under the impression that his natural position was at right back and if I’m correct, I felt he looked very comfortable with being asked to do a job in midfield.

Kerrea Gilbert also caught the eye, with his muscular and confident interventions at right-back. I’m glad that Sanchez Watt got another run out, albeit only for the last quarter of an hour. Then again, at the time, I wasn’t particularly happy to see Bendtner depart the field because if the Scousers had managed to score an equaliser and we ended up going into extra-time (or even penalties), I would’ve been much happier with Bendtner on the pitch rather than watching from the bench.

I’ve been critical in the past about the Dane’s arrogant attitude but all credit to the way in which Nicky has knuckled down to do the job his manager asks of him. Playing in this Carling Cup side, I could’ve previously pictured Bendtner sulking about being asked to play out wide, but I could have absolutely no complaints about his work rate this evening and his all-round contribution to the team.

Arsène was perhaps thinking that Sanchez Watt’s pace might trouble the tiring legs of the Liverpool defence and as they chased an equalizer, he might be able to expose them on the counter. As it turned out, Watt didn’t really see enough of the ball to have an opportunity to take the Scousers on and after the positively criminal way in which we’ve blown wins in our last two successive matches, we were all left holding our breath during the closing stages, praying history wasn’t going to repeat itself again. Especially as in this particular case it would’ve likely proved fatal if we’d conceded an equalizer late on, because we would’ve gifted the Scousers the momentum going into extra-time.

Mercifully, despite momentary scares, where the memory of our last two matches probably resulted in the somewhat frantic, decidedly un-Arsenal like way in which we “cleared our lines”, although we were on the edge of our seats, on the pitch they appeared to have everything under control. And it was ironic really that it took our youthful Carling Cup side to demonstrate to the first XI, how it should be done, taking the ball into the corners and seeing out injury time, without any of the sort of gung-ho attacks that could end in disaster.

I only hope that along with Fabregas, the rest of the first XI were there, to watch this lesson in how to see out a victory :-)

If the prospect of Saturday’s derby wasn’t excitement enough, we now also have the draw for the quarterfinals to look forward to. I suppose fans of every club will be hoping to pull Pompey, or in current awful form, Blackburn out of the hat, but personally I reckon we might do better to be drawn against a stronger side. For one of the lesser lights, a quarterfinal appearance in the Carling Cup could be the highlight of their season and in some respects I feel the youngsters are more likely to rise to a big occasion and another opportunity to embarrass a top side. It would certainly be fun to see the kids perhaps put an end to any chance Spurs have of getting a sniff of silverware!

Apparently there was plenty of testosterone in the air earlier this evening, around the away pub and the concrete Arsenal sign by the south bridge, but I imagine it was calmness personified compared to the likely atmosphere on Saturday.

I know one particular Gooner who chooses not to go to the derby game because he just doesn’t enjoy the horrible atmosphere that invariably materializes around the ground and although personally I wouldn’t miss Saturday’s match for the world, I know exactly what he’s talking about, as the hordes of police in riot gear, the helicopters buzzing overhead and the baying German-Shepherds (not to mention the odious behaviour of the scum from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road and I know that all clubs have their share of objectionable “fans”, it’s just that Spurs seem to attract so many more of them!) often make for a particularly unpleasant vibe about the place, one where you feel you just want to get in there, stuff ‘em and get home too gloat! Here’s hoping…..

Meantimes, all together now ”He’s got a twitch……”

Big Love


Monday 26 October 2009

Do we really have an appetite for a title challenge? Or will we be content to spend the duration playing also-ran leapfrog with the chasing pack?

Conceding a last minute equaliser against AZ Alkmaar might not prove to be a major calamity in the great scheme of things, but at the very least I was hoping it might serve as a hard learned lesson for our young side. However, sadly, the infuriating way in which we casually frittered away, what might prove to be a couple of decisive Premiership points at Upton Park on Sunday, would suggest that the Gunners gleaned little from our mishap in Holland.

Despite the recession-proof proliferation of roadworks, which are currently making life absolute murder for drivers in the capital and the fact that Stratford’s humungous Olympic stadium project has completely obliterated the succession of backdoubles that I first discovered nearly 40 years back, when my old man used to drive us to matches in East London, Upton Park remains a doddle of an away trip.

I knew it would be touch and go making the KO, if I stopped at home to watch the coverage of the Merseyside clash in its entirety, but the Scousers car crash season has made them compulsive viewing. I finally gave up on seeing Sunday’s earlier game through to its conclusion, when the ref added 5 minutes of injury time. I hopped onto my motorbike, hoping to hear the dying throes (over the engine noise) on the radio, with my headphones held firmly in my ears by my crash helmet. But I hadn’t made it past the end of my road, before the battery died (mercifully on the radio, not the bike!).

Thus I had to wait until I’d parked up right beside the Boleyn, to confirm whether it was a bunch of rowdy Scousers celebrating a second goal, or a riot of Cockney Reds, perhaps crowing over a Michael Owen equaliser, who were responsible for the huge cheer emanating from a Homerton boozer, as I barrelled past.

Upton Park is nothing like the intimidating arena of yesteryear, ever since they rebuilt the main Dr Martens stand and moved the pitch, so that the touchline is no longer literally in spitting distance from the terraces. Time was when visiting teams would draw lots, to decide who got the corners and throw-ins short straw.

Sadly, like the vast majority of Premiership stadia, it might’ve lost much of the intense cauldron-like atmosphere of old. But it’s not just its proximity, which ensures that West Ham continues to be one of my favourite awaydays. Thankfully the Hammers’ home has managed to retain something of that old-fashioned feel of a traditional ground, compared to many of top-flight’s more soul-less, concrete temples to commercialisation.

With Stoke having somehow snaffled a win at White Hart Lane and with news of Man City having dropped points against Fulham, it was all looking hunky-dory at halftime, as we’d suddenly been presented with a rare opportunity to establish some breathing space between us and the dogfight that appears to be on the cards, amongst the cotchel of clubs hoping to challenge for a highly-prized pitch at the Champions League tough.

We might only be talking in terms of a point or two, but psychologically, it could make a big difference for the Gunners to be perceived as being involved in a battle between the top three, leaving the likes of Liverpool, City, Spurs and Villa to play inconsistent leapfrog amongst the also-rans..

However with Carlton Cole making more than a nuisance of himself and his West Ham teammates working their socks off, to deny us the time and space to develop any rhythm in the middle of the park, most Gooners felt fortunate to be 2 goals to the good and I’m sure the Hammers must’ve felt hard done by.

In fact I initially feared for a soaking on the bike on the way home, when I felt what I thought was the odd raindrop on my head at the start of the second half. But then I always forget that there’s an upper tier above us in the Trevor Brooking Stand behind the goal. This is the Hammers’ “family enclosure” and perhaps the apocryphal tales from the bad old days leave me just a little paranoid, but with clear skies overhead, I certainly I hope it was rain, rather than disgruntled home fans showering us with something far more repugnant.

Meanwhile we might’ve also battered Blackburn, but Chelsea didn’t have to go behind twice in their romp against Rovers. As much as it sticks in my craw, I have to admit to an increasingly grudging respect for the efficient way in which they’re capable of dispatching lesser opponents, with an economy of effort, which really should serve to demonstrate the law of diminishing returns that applies to our lads infuriating tendency towards cruise control.

Instead of going for the jugular and putting the result beyond doubt, thereby allowing them to relax and enjoy a leisurely conclusion, we all too often end up paying the price of taking our foot off the pedal, leaving the pitch absolutely shattered both physically and mentally, after having been punished for our casual attitude and forced into fighting it out right until the final whistle.

Drogba and Anelka are developing a positively terrifying partnership and on current form, I can’t watch Chelsea without wondering what might’ve been, if it wasn’t for the limitless bankroll that blew Wenger’s efforts to sign Michael Essien out of the water. Perhaps Alex Song is set to develop into an equally influential player, but Arsène has admitted in the past that Alex isn’t a natural midfielder and while he learns his trade, wily opponents will continue to take advantage of his naïveté. While some might accuse his own colleagues of taking advantage of his willingness to work like a Trojan.

Not to take any credit away from the Irons resolve, as they could’ve easily folded but it felt more as if we shot ourselves in the foot on Sunday. I certainly can’t envisage either Chelsea or Man Utd letting the Hammers off the hook in such a slipshod fashion. Instead of establishing our credentials as potential contenders, we continue to lack the ruthless streak that is absolutely vital if we’re going to fulfil Wenger’s assurances of bringing home the silverware bacon this time around.

I’m all for seeing the Gunners strut their stuff, but after stumping up the best part of 50 quid to stand behind a goal, it feels downright disrespectful for them to be arrogantly playing keep ball, as if they expect the opposition to lie down and present us with a win, without ever having to break sweat. When forced at the death into demonstrating too little drive and determination, too late, this only highlighted quite how flat-footed we’d been up until then.

This might’ve felt more like a defeat than a draw, but there was at least the silver-lining of the point that puts our North London neighbours back in their rightful place in the build up to this weekend’s derby. I’m looking forward to a more committed outing on Wednesday, from a Carling Cup side hungry to catch their manager’s eye, with the likes of Gibbs and Almunia both capable of ousting their counterparts come Saturday.

I’ve always been a big fan of Gael Clichy, as even when he’s been prone to the odd defensive error, I’ve adored the energy he’s brought to the team, with his inspirational lung-bursting runs late on in games. However he’s been far more reticent about getting forward of late, but of far greater concern has been his apparent vulnerability at the back, which might well have proved even more costly if it wasn’t for Tommie the tank pulling out all the stops.

While I can accept Gael getting turned over occasionally by top-notch opponents, it’s totally unacceptable to see him falling down on the job against relative journeymen and with both Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore breathing down his neck, should the likes if Gibbs produce a half-decent display against the Scousers, then this would present Arsène with the perfect opportunity to leave Gael out for a few games, giving the young French full-back a chance to rediscover his appetite and the sort of zest that was once synonymous with his performances.

As for the keeper situation, this is far trickier. I’ve advocated that Arsène should stick with one or another, rather than changing horses in mid-stream (now there’s a strange expression….what are the horses doing in the river in the first place?). Manuel Almunia is likely to get an outing in the Carling Cup and after Vito’s cock-up on Sunday, in palming the ball straight into Carton Cole’s path instead of getting a stronger hand to the ball and putting it into touch, should Almunia impress against the Scousers, Wenger is bound to be tempted to reinstate his more experienced keeper.

I’m glad it’s le gaffer who has to make this decision, as although Almunia is unlikely to let us down, we are all patently aware of his limitations and he’s never going to be the sort of dominate presence that’s needed in the Gunners penalty area. I’m yet to be convinced that our Godfather of a goalie has this capacity either, but in Mannone’s case, he might continue to develop into a more dominant personality. However can we continue to afford the occasional cataclysm while we wait to see if he grows into this role.

Considering it’s just about THE most important position on the pitch, surely the only conclusion we can draw from the fact that neither Arsène, nor anyone else for that matter, knows who our best keeper is, that this would imply that we’re actually having to “make do” with all of them and that if we really want to be considered as serious contenders, we need to go out and break the bank to bring in a goalie who everyone recognizes as the world-class business?

Despite it happening right in front of my eyes, I had to wait until I returned home to watch MOTD2 on Sunday night, to see how Van Persie’s last gasp header failed to find the back of the net. But if we were left feeling gutted, it can’t have been half as agonizing for us, as it was for the posse of premature evacuators who gave up on the home team with perhaps 20 minutes left on the clock. I know we’d been encouraging them that “You might as well go home” once the Gunners had taken a two goal lead, but I didn’t really imagine that they’d follow this suggestion, as the mass exodus from their seats in Dr Marten’s stand, directly to our right, inspired the now customary response of a chorus of “Is this a fire drill?” from us Gooners.

I half expected them all to come dashing back in when Carlton Cole pegged the first back for the Hammers. But if they’d rushed off to beat the crowds on the tube, believing there to be nothing worth staying for, it’s hard to envisage the look of disappointment, when they subsequently surfaced from the underground, to discover they’d missed the highpoint of their season to date!

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Monday 19 October 2009

You've Only Come To See The Arsenal

I know I said that the more illustrious the opposition, the more I fancied Ireland’s chances but my worst fears were realised when Blatter’s dodgy draw threw up France, as I would’ve much preferred for both countries to have progressed through the play-offs.

I’m confident that Trapattoni’s Boys in Green are capable of giving the French a run for their money. Although there’s something of a conflict of interest, ultimately, I can but hope that Arsenal fans will end up indebted to the Irish, for ensuring that the likes of Gallas, Clichy, Sagna, Diaby and Nasri are all guaranteed a restful summer, with their feet up!

They’re bound to be two incredibly tense and close fought encounters in November. But then the stakes are so high nowadays, in almost every match, that it’s no wonder there was such a kerfuffle about Saturday’s beach-ball assist at the Stadium of Light. Considering that no one, including the officials, seemed aware of the rules, we can only begin to imagine the sort of brouhaha that would result if a similar incident occurred at the business end of the season.

Meanwhile there was an awful déjà vu moment, when Liam Ridgewell took Theo Walcott out, in the opening blows of a typically bruising encounter with Birmingham. Lee Probert might’ve sent Wenger to the stands at Old Trafford, for harmlessly venting his wrath, but I spent much of Saturday’s match castigating the ref for failing to offer our players anywhere near the same level of protection that was afforded to the Old Trafford water bottles.

Football fans aren’t exactly renowned for their sensitivity but the Brummies hardly endeared themselves by chanting “There’s only one Martin Taylor” while Walcott was receiving treatment, lauding the (mercifully absent) player responsible for shattering Eduardo’s leg.

Nevertheless on seeing a replay of the tackle that’s left Theo sidelined (yet again!) with knee ligament damage, it’s obvious Ridgewell played the ball first, ploughing into Walcott with the follow through. It was a fairly typical “let them know you are there” type challenge and if it’d come from one of our own defenders, I would’ve been applauding his full-blooded commitment.

In an age where defenders are already denied the opportunity of picking a striker’s pocket with a perfectly timed tackle from behind (where they skilfully hook their leg around their opponent, instead of going through them and taking the ball by obliterating his Achilles!), we have to guard against the game becoming overly protective, to the point where it eventually becomes a non-contact sport.

Compared to the combative standards of old, you rarely see a “dirty” game nowadays and it infuriates me that the “by the book” type officiating so often results in refs spoiling the match as a contest, for the millions of viewers, by needlessly sending players off. As delighted as I was to see Man City drop points at Wigan on Sunday, a red card should be an option of last resort, not merely the inevitable result of a couple of mis-timed tackles.

I hate to hear Arsenal fans whinging about the overly physical attentions of the opposition, as we have to accept that teams such as Birmingham are bound to come to our place, intent on making life as uncomfortable as possible, by making up for in effort, what they might lack in natural ability. Only Joe Hart’s fingertips denied Theo the perfect response to being clattered by Ridgewell, as he dusted himself off and attempted to hit the Brummies where it really hurts with a great effort on goal.

Besides, as Arshavin ably demonstrated when he eventually wrapped up the 3 points with our third goal, with our diminutive Russian ominously waiting in the wings, you’d have to be downright bonkers to precipitate his involvement in the game by intentionally injuring Theo!

In Mannone’s boots, I’d have probably also claimed I’d been impeded, in an effort to deflect attention away from his somewhat feeble fumbling, to deny the thuggish Bowyer an opportunity to turn the game back into a bit of a contest with Birmingham’s goal a few minutes before the break.

With the advantage of the use of their arms, I always find it hard to comprehend how a keeper struggles to get above the opposition striker, but if Vito’s to become the godfather of the Arsenal goal, he needs to learn to be more dominant in these circumstances and at the very least get a good fist on the ball.

Clever editing perhaps, but the MOTD team couldn’t resist a cut-away to a bored (smug?) looking Almunia on the bench. Personally I feel Mannone has earned the right to keep the shirt for now, but whatever decision Wenger makes, he must stick with it. Competition for places is healthy, but above all, a defensive unit requires the consistency to develop an intuitive knowledge of one another. Moreover, with goal-keeping mistakes so costly, knowing the slightest slip-up could result in being consigned to the bench for the duration, such tension is almost inevitably going to manifest itself in an attack of the jitters.

It seemed as if Abou Diaby had taken his captain’s program notes to heart. Referring to the goals we’ve conceded, Fabregas commented “as a unit we need to switch on more, react quicker when we lose the ball” and it was a pleasant surprise to see Diaby getting involved at both ends of the park. Abou’s probably not used to putting in quite such an earnest shift, as he faded towards the death, but for all his all-round contribution, he was my man of the match.

Truth be told, our hard to please home fans were spoilt by the way in which we sliced and diced the Midlands side and took a 2-goal lead so early in the game. Such was the increasing mood of frustration around me as the second half progressed that I had to remind myself that we were in fact winning!

Until Bowyer spoiled the party by pulling one back, I imagine everyone was expecting another “fill yer boots” goalfest. Instead of which, we ended up on the edge of our seats, in permanent fear of breakaway equalizer, until Shava settled our nerves and enabled us to relax, by regaining a two-goal cushion five minutes before the final whistle.

Earlier in the afternoon, obviously I was up out of my chair, whooping with delight when Villa took the lead against Chelsea. But on reflection I was wondering if it might suit us best for Villa to be beat, or for both teams to drop points in a draw. Most surprising was the absence of Chelsea’s former “do or die” spirit, as they appeared resigned to their fate in the closing stages.

What with the Scousers dropping more points, Man Utd hardly producing the most convincing of performances and Adebayor reverting to more anonymous type for Man City, I’m suddenly daring to wonder whether the Gunners are capable of the sort of consistency, that might enable us to set our sights a little higher, leaving other to focus on the precious 4th place squabble.

With a glut of stunning goals, we’ve hardly been starved of entertainment at our place to date and so don’t exactly want for the distraction of the “Arsenalisation” process of our new stadium. Obviously anything is better than the vast expanses of anonymous grey concrete, but as someone who will always retain a certain resentment towards the new arena, as a result of it being responsible for me having been denied my much beloved, former Home of Football, I have to admit that I was originally quite cynical about the work that’s been going on there recently.

I assumed that it would be little more than an exercise in window dressing. But I’m only too delighted to admit that I was wrong and since I’m led to believe that our new MD has been the principle motivating force, I am grateful to Ivan Gazides , because his efforts have ensured that I am gradually warming to the new place. After a couple of seasons of relative indifference, I’ve suddenly discovered a sense of pride about the new gaff.

Obviously it’s going to take some genuine history and a proper atmosphere, before it really begins to feel like home, but the works in progress are certainly helping. I’m eagerly anticipating going to each home game now, just to discover the latest developments. With the board having seemingly shown complete and utter disregard for the average punter up until now, by blowing all the budget on the parqué floors, glass chandeliers and ice sculptures, necessary to encourage all the affluent high-rollers to part with anything from £2k to £100k for their Arsenal pleasures, it’s refreshing that they’ve adjusted their focus.

However if I’ve enjoyed wandering around the lower tier concourses at half-time - let’s face it, with my tardy track record, I’m never going to arrive early enough to check the place out prior to the game (funnily enough someone said to me in advance of Saturday’s match that I had better get there early, or else we’d be 3-0 up before I took my seat and although I missed kick-off, I was relieved I arrived when I did, as another five minutes and I would’ve missed both goals!) – finding evidence of the Gunners illustrious history writ large upon the walls, with displays portraying the records of our hat-trick heroes, or the Invincibles and with other formerly nondescript concrete walls, now covered with funky Gooner murals (replicas I believe of those previously drawn in the Arsenal tube station), it’s nothing compared to the emotions that our stirred in me by the eight massive murals going up outside the ground.

The third of these went up in advance of Saturday’s game, so in addition to the original one showing Bastin, Adams, Brady & Henry on the North side, we now have two new ones on the South side portraying Bergkamp, Wilson, Hapgood & George and Seaman, Drake, Rocastle & James. With 12 Arsenal greats up there already and 20 more to come, there’s going to be endless debates about who should and shouldn’t be included, but I’m glad to see that the choice has not been overly weighted in favour of more familiar, modern day stars.

As a mate suggested to me the other day, there is something very Arsenal about these murals, as by the time all eight are finished and with a ring of 32 Arsenal heroes linking arms around the entire ground, guarding the place against all and any intruders, I believe our new gaff is going to end up taking on a thoroughly unique and distinct identity.

Perhaps I’m an architectural Philistine, but to my mind most modern stadiums are all rather dispassionate variations on the glass, steel and concrete theme. Whereas, much like our gorgeous old gaff, hopefully by the time this process is finished, we’ll have a home we can all be proud of, that is immediately distinguishable from any other of its kind on the planet.

With the weight of all that history staring down upon our current squad, here’s hoping they can continue to produce the sort of football to do the feats of their forbears proper justice.

Big Love


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Wednesday 14 October 2009

Nuff Respek Ivan

Hi folks,

As someone who has always felt that watching the Arsenal would never be quite the same at the new stadium because of my deep-rooted emotional attachment to the old THOF, I have to admit that the new gaff is growing on me.

Or should I say, it's growing on me, now that at long last the club have focused on spending some money on something other than the parque floors, glass chandeliers and ice sculptures, purely for the benefit of their most affluent high-rollers (which aren't exactly football as I've always known it!).

I have to admit that I was seriously impressed the first time I looked up to see the first mural at the North End of the ground, at the West Brom game a few weeks back, as it did look great. It seemed to have the texture of translucent fabric and since I usually approach the ground from across the North Bridge, it's an extremely striking image that I'm confronted with as my first view of the place.

Instead of lingering in my seat at half-time, I've spent most of the home games since then wandering around the lower tier, to catch my first glimpse of all the effort going on inside the ground, to transform the large grey expanses of concrete into a more interesting visual experience. But then quite frankly that wouldn't be hard, as no matter how splendid the surroundings in the Diamond Club, Club Level and the Exec Boxes, quite frankly up until recently the rest of the stadium has been dull as dish-water, with an anonymity about it that only contributed to the problems I was having accepting the place as my new Arsenal home.

But I love the fact that this is now a work in progress and that there's something new to discover at every match. Last time out, I didn't have to spend the entire break scurrying around the length of the lower tier concourse, scouring the walls for evidence of the latest addition. A crowd had gathered at the wall opposite the entrance to my block, Block 18, to study the latest adornment, a role of honour listing all the Arsenal's hat-trick heroes.

Although I'm certainly not old enough (thank heavens) to have seen any of the earlier ones, it was great reading though this long list, reflecting on those from the 70s onwards, recollecting some of the amazing goalfests I've been privileged to be present at.

Considering how often I've moaned about how anonymous I've felt at the new place, as just one of 60,000 mug punters, compared to the Arsenal family vibe of old, where so many faces of fans and stewards alike were familiar enough to at least be on nodding terms, how much better is it now to be able to tell a mate to meet under "the Hat-Trick Heroes, instead of using a number, letter or colour as a location.

However as we all know, to some extent this is all just window-dressing, as it's some genuine history and a proper atmosphere that the place really needs, in order to feel more homely. And yet whatever it is, this is nevertheless a million times better than the drab blank walls of before!

So when I heard from a mate who queued up for Liverpool tickets on Monday morning, that there's a second mural up outside the ground, I simply had to make a small detour down Benwell Road to the roundabout on Hornsey Road on my way home this evening, to take a look for myself. I parked my bike up beside the canons in front of the main entrance and took these couple of pics.

THOF was so special because with it's marble halls and it's grand Art Deco facade, as a football ground, the place felt truly unique and as someone suggested to me yesterday, there's something very Arsenal about this whole "Arsenalisation" process of the new gaff, as even with my extreme bias, I reckon that when all eight of these murals have been completed, it's going to look truly spectacular, with 32 Arsenal greats of past and present, linking arms, almost around the entire ground (now if they could only obscure the annoying airline adverts, it would be close to perfect!).

I'm not the greatest fans of modern architecture. Sure our new stadium is an imposing landmark on the North London landscape, but at the end of the day, as far as I'm concerned, it's merely another variation on the glass, steel and concrete theme. It looks good, but compared to THOF's Art Deco lines, emotionally it leaves me cold. But when all eight murals are finished and up on the walls, our new stadium will be like no other football ground on the planet and you won't need any architectural knowlege to know it's the Arsenal, as it will become instantly recognizable to every football fan in the world.

In light of our financial circumstances and with the enormous debt resulting from this massive project, after blowing all the decorating budget solely for the benefit of all the big spenders, it felt as if the Arsenal board were in no real hurry to make the place more homely for the thousands of ordinary season-ticket holders. I guess it wasn't a priority because they knew that lick of paint or no, we'd renew every season and even if we didn't, there would always be a queue of Gooners willing to take our place.

Many have suggested to me that it's been our new MD, Ivan the not so terrible, who's been the driving force behind all this work. So even with the problems they're experiencing, with the serious downturn in the property market and the struggle to flog all those flats, Gazides has made the Arsenalisation of our new home a priority and the work goes on apace.

Thus the "septic" is certainly winning friends and influencing people as far as I'm concerned.

Monday 12 October 2009

Anyone Else Suffering Gooner Withdrawals?

Hi folks,

For those in the North London area there's a premier screening of the Gooner Review DVD at the Phoenix Cinema, in East Finchley tomorrow night at 9pm. Further details can be found at The Gooner Review web site. With Paul Kaye (Denis Penis) providing amusing links for a review of last season, which has been broken down into ten most significant moments, as described by the likes of Bob Wilson, Amy Lawrence, Nick Hornby, Tom Watt and a selection of familiar Arsenal fans, including yours truly, I can't think of many better ways to get a Gooner fix on a Tuesday evening, than watching / listening to 85 minutes of Gooner gabble.

Sadly being a public cinema, you won't be able to follow Paul Kaye's advice to "sit back and spark up a red & white bifta" but with him and Perry Groves apparently present to introduce the evening, we should be able to expect a giggle or two.

Meanwhile I'm delighted that the club didn't decide to take advantage of the fact that we drew Liverpool in the next round of the Carling Cup and kept ticket prices at the decidedly reasonable rates of 10 and 20 quid. If the club were as mercenary as we are occasionally guilty of making them out to be, they could've easily turned a tidy profit by charging such a attractive encounter at regular prices.

I only hope that this will ensure the same sort of audience that turned up for the match against the Baggies in the last round, with thousands of parents being able to afford a rare opportunity to take all their offsrping to an Arsenal game. These Carling Cup encounters have developed a completely different (somewhat slightly higher-pitched) atmosphere as a result of this recent tradition, with its very own 'raison d'être' as a means of offering a whole new generation of Gooners their first enthralling taste of the live match atmosphere.

Myself I've always argued that the price reductions make sound economic sense, since surely any potential loss of matchday revenue must be a relatively negligible sum, compared to sort of income the club can expect to generate, by way of ticket sales, merchandising etc over the course of a lifetime of all those young Gooners who's devotion to the Arsenal cause is signed, sealed and delivered by their first ever pilgrimage to The Home of Football II.

However I have some concerns that the level of interest in our high-profile encounter with the Scousers is such, that many of the tickets might not find their way into the hands of the more regular Carling Cup goers. Having given a mate the details of this morning's General Sale of tickets for this particular match, he duly turned up at 9am to queue for an hour and a half, until tickets went on sale at 10.30am.

He revealed to me that within ten minutes an announcement was made that the £10 tickets for the Lower Tier had sold out completely and he was annoyed because there were many people pushing in to the queue in front of him, supposedly having had their places held for them by a mate. Obviously I imagine that there was plenty of traffic on the Ticketmaster web site from the time they went on sale, but I can't help but wonder how many unscrupulous pond scum touts jibbed in at the front of the queue and snapped up the maximum ten tickets, in the hope of making a bit of a killing by scalping their ill-begotten gains?

Still as I consoled my pal, even up in the gods of the Upper Tier (from where I actually watched the WBA match), there are no bad seats in our new stadium, as the views from everywhere are spectacular (even if a pair of binoculars become are an extremely useful asset once one gets beyond the first dozen or so rows in the Upper Tier) and relatively speaking, in an age of extortionate ticket prices, he's had a right result, being able to buy three tickets @ £20 for approximately the same total price that would normally be charged for one!

With the visit of Birmingham and trips to Alkmaar and Upton Park to come before we play the Scousers in a couple of weeks time, there's plenty of football to be played in the interim. But I'm already looking forward to seeing how the likes of Wilshere, Bartley, Frimpong, Watt, Barazite and co. fare against Benitez' boys.

However if anyone else is hoping to do likewise, I'd suggest pulling your finger out pretty sharpish, assuming the match isn't already a complete sell-out!

Come on you Rip Roaring Reds

Big Love


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By the time the Arsenal trot out to play Birmingham on Saturday, sadly our goalfest against Blackburn will be a distant memory. We definitely could’ve done without this irksome domestic interruption, just as the Gunners were beginning to discover their mojo.

Yet with the likes of Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Song, Fabregas, Rosicky and Bendtner, all maintaining the feelgood factor in successful outings for their respective countries (even Senderos bagged a brace for the Swiss!), they should all return in a buoyant mood and as a result hopefully for once, we won’t suffer any adverse effects from this International break.

Even if the 20 players on International excursions return from the four corners of the globe unscathed, it’s no mean feat for Wenger to ensure that all his troops instantly regain the necessary blinkered focus. Especially when the media appear to have developed the nasty habit of abusing utterly unfounded gossip, or availing themselves of the sort of unguarded remarks that can often result when players are beyond the stultifying reach of their own club’s paranoid press officers, or digging up dodgy translations of the same, in their eternal struggle to fill endless reams of column inches during the domestic interlude.

Players might all claim not to read the resulting claptrap. But they’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind, to be completely unaffected by the tabloids attempts to titillate readers, while the collateral damage could result in an RSJ-sized wedge, being driven into the solid foundations of even the most robust of team-spirits.

As gutted as I will be when the fateful day does eventually dawn, personally I’m resigned to the prospect of Cesc Fabregas eventually returning to ply his trade on Spanish soil. Despite his clichéd badge-kissing display the other day, I’m certain his loyalty is to Arsène, more than the Arsenal. But the disadvantage of le Prof having purloined him from under Barca’s nose at such a tender age, is that Cesc is always going to possess a perfectly understandable yen to want to earn the sort of credibility in his home country that colleagues such as Xavi and Iniesta enjoy, by playing for one of the Spanish giants while still at his peak.

With time still on Cesc’s side and with him feeling sufficiently indebted to his mentor to want to repay the faith that Arsène showed in him, by way of some sort of tangible return, obviously I’m hoping that this won’t be for some time to come. But by the same token, the day we do achieve the objective of winning a major honour, this might well prove to be a double-edged sword, whereby Fab feels his debt is “paid in full” and takes it as his cue to exit the Arsenal stage right.

After all, while I might believe there is nothing Cesc can’t afford on his current multi-million pound wages, that would suddenly become attainable by doubling his salary in Euros, there has to come a time when he’s entitled to look out for no. 1. Still I’m certain there’d be a whole heap more professional satisfaction to picking up a trophy as captain of the Arsenal side he’s grown up with, compared to being drafted in to join the plethora of superstars collecting regular domestic baubles at Barca.

Besides which, the lad is far too much of a “mensch” to leave his mentor in the lurch, by taking his leave unexpectedly And yet Arsène simply can’t expect to continue selling his prodigy the promise of this vision on an indefinite basis.

In the meantime we’ll simply have to avoid taking the tabloid bait, as these rumours resurface on an increasingly regular basis, while the behemoths of Barca and Real continue to jockey for the inside track on this eventual coup. Otherwise instead of savouring Fab’s remaining seasons at the Gunners, we’ll end up like pitiful Gooner Chicken Lickens, walking around waiting for the sky to fall in!

Meanwhile I wasn’t remotely tempted to part with hard cash to watch a meaningless England performance on the Internet at the weekend (albeit a hugely significant encounter for the Ukranians). Mercifully we had live coverage of the Boys in Green to provide my Saturday footballing fix, even if it did mean taping “Strictly”. In truth, Italy were always likely to top the group by snaffling a result if required at home to Cyprus on Wednesday. Nevertheless such thoughts were of scant consolation, when Gilardino sucked Croke Park dry off all that euphoria, as Ireland switched off to gift the Azzurri a last gasp equaliser.

Even with FIFA’s best efforts to fix it for all those countries that have unexpectedly failed to gain automatic qualification by suddenly introducing seeding, most Ireland fans would’ve happily bitten off the hand that offered the current squad the opportunity of competing in a two-legged play-off for a place in South Africa next summer.

No matter which nation fate (with a little help from Sep Blatter!) throws up as Ireland’s opponents in Friday’s draw, I can’t help but feel that even without a command of the lingo (although in bringing his post-match interview to an abrupt halt, Il Trap understood well enough to be antagonised by the perennial Andy Reid question!), the old silver fox is blessed with just the sort of, ‘by any means necessary’ footballing nous to ensure the lads finagle their way over the finishing line and in some respects, the more illustrious the opposition, the more I will fancy their prospects. If the denouement to Saturday’s match was agonising, it’s likely to have been a stroll in the park, compared to the unbelievably intense emotional journey of the 180 minutes of football that is to follow!

Monday 5 October 2009

Many, Many Happy Returns

I’m no fan of early KOs and I only have a short stroll around to the ground. It seems that very few Blackburn fans bothered to make a crack of dawn schlep down from the North-West, but for all those Gooners travelling from far and wide, who might’ve been forced to forsake their Sunday lie-ins, their efforts were well rewarded, with a veritable smorgasbord of a footballing Sunday brunch.

The Gunners produced the sort of sumptuous display that leaves you feeling sorry for the relative paucity of entertainment on offer elsewhere. Thierry Henry certainly picked a good afternoon to introduce his little girl to the Arsenal, but I was more than a little surprised watching MOTD on Sunday night, to see that his ex-teammate, Patrick Vieira had made the mistake of going to Stamford Bridge instead.

Personally, I always blame that dirge of an Elvis song, “The Wonder of You” for the Gunners failure to come out of the traps at home games, with sufficient focus and intensity. Of all the millions of uplifting, energetic tunes that might’ve got the players adrenaline pumping as they’re standing in the tunnel just prior to a game, we had to settle for a downbeat, romantic lullaby, that’s more likely to put them in a coma. Come the revolution, the Arsenal employee who’s accountable for this obvious faux-pas will be first up against the wall, along with those responsible for scheduling matches with such utter disregard to the travelling punters.

Meanwhile 55,000 seething Gooners had hardly taken their seats, when Mannone and Vermaelen were caught cold by Robinson’s hoof into the box. Yet time was when a team like Blackburn taking an early lead at our place would be a precursor to an agonizing afternoon, spent tearing our hair out in frustration, as the massed ranks of the Rovers defence rebuffed all attempts to pick an intricate path past them and virtually walk the ball into the back of the net, only to reclaim a single point.

Whereas nowadays, scoring an early goal against the Gunners would appear to be akin to yanking the tail of a sleeping tiger! You could sense Tommie the Tank’s determination to atone, for allowing Nzonzi to out-jump him and head home Rover’s opener. As Vermaelen charged forward to intercept the ball, 17 minutes in, there was a moment when he turned to appeal for an infringement. But I adore what it says about the Belgian’s character that instead of standing there stamping his feet and shaking his fists, like many a petulant Premiership player, he sensed the ongoing momentum of the move he’d started and strode on to receive a return pass, before spanking the ball past Robinson from outside the edge of the D.

When a defender blasts in a goal from distance, these tend to be memorable moments, by nature of the fact that they only happen once in a blue moon. But if we were wondering whether his screamer against Wigan was something of a fluke, our £10 million centre-back went and reinforced his cult-hero status by proving otherwise. While Thierry and his pretty little progeny applauded from the stands, both showing all due appreciation of the sort of consummate finishing that was once Titi’s trademark in an Arsenal shirt.

Vermaelen has brought much to the Arsenal party, not least a positively infectious appetite for the game. OK so our defence continues to be exposed from time to time and Alex Song could do with a little more support, in his bustling efforts to act as the bulwark for our backline. Unlike Marie Antoinette, Arsène admitted post-match that we can’t have our cake and eat it, since it seems inevitable that some elements of defensive security will be sacrificed on the altar of le Prof’s footballistic philosophy. Still I’m all for giving the opposition a goal start every week, if we’re guaranteed quite such an emphatic response!

In this sort of form, the Gunners are an utterly irresistible force going forward, capable of breezing past the most obdurate of defensive objects. Despite some great results, Cesc Fabregas has been a little off the boil prior to Sunday’s game, guilty of casually giving the ball away far too often. But as if to mark his mentor’s 13th anniversary, Cesc conjured up a simply devastating display, scoring one and putting three on plate, with passes of perfect precision and pace that all strikers must dream of, enabling Van Persie, Arshavin and Walcott to bury the ball past the beleaguered Robinson, without even breaking stride.

It was just what the doctor ordered, for Theo to come on at 4-2 up and score with almost his first touch of the season. By which time Rover’s uncouth mad cow of a manager was either suffering from lockjaw, or he must’ve frantically masticated his way through his entire stock of chewing gum. Each additional Arsenal goal also resulted in another crease in the furrowed brow of Ronald Koeman, the AZ Alkmar manager, as he scouted his next Champions League opponents. It’s no wonder, as the Gunners might want for a 30 goal a season striker, but we’re becoming an increasingly formidable proposition. Even if it’s possible to nullify all of our five attacking goal threats, our new centre-back will slay you with a stonking sucker punch.

Abou Diaby blows so hot and cold, that like the British weather, he’s capable of displaying all four seasons in one afternoon. Still the fickleness of some of our home fans never fails to astound. Some behind me still found time to berate the French midfielder, while the majority of us gloried in a goalfest, that was good enough to take us into yet another annoying International interruption above the Scousers in 4th place and breathing hard down the necks of our North London neighbours.

Doubtless I’ll be as gutted as the next Gooner, if we’ve nothing tangible by way of trophies, to show for all our efforts come next May. Yet the vast majority of teams would be grateful for the merest sniff of any of the four available silver pots. Silverware or no, so long as we continue to savour the privilege of such high-calibre footballing pleasure, I’ll gladly raise a glass to le Gaffer’s next 13 years!

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