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Thursday 31 December 2009

We've Only Got One Song.....Sadly!

It was only as a result of a couple of extremely gratifying comments on last week's blog entry that I remembered I'd neglected to post out the missive I wrote Sunday night. Having written it for Wednesday's edition of the Examiner, I thought I might as well post it on Wednesday, before the Pompey match, as then I wouldn't need to amend it. But what with working such long hours these past couple of weeks, it was easy to forget.

So it might be a little outdated by now but I guess better late than never (a phrase that will undoubtedly end up inscribed on my tombstone!).

I was gutted not to be at Fratton Park, but I simply can't take the piss at work, having agreed to do this six week Xmas season at the Coliseum. I've got to be selective and pick my battles about which matches to try and slip away for. I should really flog my ticket for Upton Park on Sunday as we've got a matinée that afternoon, followed by an all-nighter, getting out Nutcracker and getting in Snow Queen and fitting it up (which I'm positively dreading as these are the two biggest shows in the companies rep), but I'm still clinging on to it in the feint hope I might be able to get there.

I ended up listening to the first-half of Wednesday's game on Radio 5 live Sports Extra, via an earpiece and my iPhone (with it being a digital station), whilst working on stage and fortunately I was able to keep a lid on my celebrations when Eduardo's deflected goal went it, as otherwise I might've ended up joining the corp de ballet on stage, prancing about with all the dainty dancers dressed as snowflakes!

Fortunately I was able to slip away immediately after the interval change, following the first act. It was suggested by one of my colleagues on the crew that I'd be home in time to watch the second-half. Yet while the motorbike is brilliant for bypassing all the traffic, in this freezing cold, wet weather, it takes me fifteen minutes to get all the gear on and off. So he jokingly suggested I do the interval change in my leather jacket, rainproof coat and trousers, fluorescent band, balaclava, two pairs of gloves and crash helmet. However, instead of being discrete about slipping away early, this might've put a few noses out of joint, by kind of advertising the fact. Mind you, it's not that uncommon that the local crew are so lagging after a long day nipping in and out of the boozer next door, that a crash helmet on stage isn't such a bad idea!

In the end, after a mad dash back, I did make it home in time for the start of the second half and all that effort was certainly worth it, if only to have seen Aaron Ramsey's peach of a goal. It's often the case that I can't work out what the opposition fans are singing (usually the warblings of many of those Northern monkeys), but it's often impossible to distinguish the chants while listening / watching on the box. You often can't tell which end the noise is coming from, let alone what they're singing and on Wednesday I thought I was missing out on the introduction of new material to the Gooner repertoire, until it dawned on me that it was actually the home fans seemingly making most of the noise, or should I say making the noise being picked up by the TV mics, as I've often attended games where subsequent TV broadcasts have failed to represent quite how vociferous we've been.

But I realised that much of what I was hearing was the Pompey fans taking the piss out of their own club's financial mismanagement and it was a real wind up not bein able to work out the words to many of their chants. Judging by this performance, Pompey don't deserve such staunch support. Although it's true that the much publicized problems paying the players' wages could well have been a big factor in the home team's dismal display, to my mind they played as if they'd already accepted defeat before even stepping onto the pitch on Wednesday night.

Mind you if the Pompey players couldn't score in the proverbial brothel, rumour has it that their manager can, as I was told that it was Avram Grant who was the subject of the scurrilous 'red top' story last week. Perhaps more worryingly for Pompey fans, it doesn't say much about the Israeli's management skills, that he didn't possess the motivational powers to gee his side up, to at least come out and try to win the second half. From the little I've seen of the South coast side this season, they've not looked as lacklustre as they did on Wednesday, but if they continue playing in this fashion, they'll be surefire certainties for the drop.

Perhaps with the Inland Revenue's winding up order and the wage problems, we caught them on a bad day (or a good one, from our point of view). Some might suggest that we should've been able to capitalise with a few more goals than the four we ended up scoring. We certainly should've avoided the lapse in concentration that cost us a clean sheet, but in truth, from here on in, all that really matters is the three points. Subsequent opponents aren't going to look at our last result and think it was flattering, they're (hopefully) going to feel intimidated by the fact that even without the influential likes of Fabregas & Van Persie, we still managed to score four goals and continue building some crucial momentum.

Now all we've got to do is to keep this up with Sunday's FA Cup encounter, thankfully against a West Ham side deprived of most of their midfield (including Scott Parker, who I've been particularly impressed with when I've watched the Irons recently). Carlton Cole is also a massive loss for them but Franco and Diamante have also looked quite useful. No matter what side Wenger puts out, we simply can't afford to be complacent because as Chelsea demonstrated with their dip in form, following their exit from the Carling Cup against Blackburn, resting star players and giving the youngsters a run out isn't anywhere near so important as maintaining that winning feeling.

Wishing all you Gooners everywhere a happy & healthy New Year (and hopefully a silverware laden 2010.. you never know?)

Come on you Reds

Peace & Love



With Aston Villa in such fine recent fettle, Sunday’s clash was always likely to be a stiff test. But when the Gunners lined up with our talismanic skipper on the bench, still nursing a tight hamstring, I have to admit that I feared for the worst.

Although I’m highly embarrassed to admit that ‘el capitaine’ wasn’t the only absentee at kick-off on Sunday. I imagine I’d a little more than most riding on this match, after stumping up a hundred quid to a mate to cover me at work in the theatre (someone I could trust not to mess up my cues in the matinee, for example so as not to bash one of the dainty ballerinas on the bonce, when operating the wings of an enormous prop owl).

Yet having set my alarm for Sunday morning, I guess that after grafting for two shows a day for the past couple of weeks, the fact that I’m no longer used to the gruelling nature of touring work, finally caught up with me and I somehow managed to sleep it out! To my horror, it was fifteen minutes before kick-off when I finally stirred.

After all the trouble I’d been to, in order to get to this game, I couldn’t possibly not make it. But instead of missing much of the first-half while scurrying around to the ground, I decided to watch it on the box and to bomb around there during the break. The way things subsequently transpired, this proved a most sensible compromise.

An in-form Eduardo might’ve instinctively stabbed home his early opportunity. Instead of which, Eddie’s tame effort was probably a matter of him trying too hard to make it count. Despite a lack of incisiveness, the first forty-five was anything but dull. Still I was delighted to be dashing out the door with the game still delicately balanced on a knife-edge at 0-0. Mind you, I’m not sure my arrival on the scene was quite so significant as Cesc’s second-half appearance!

Hurrying along Highbury’s deserted streets I heard it mentioned on the radio that, while it was business as usual for the Gunners, with Wenger having the lads in for training on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, Martin O’Neill had given his Villa side a couple of days off.

We can only speculate on whether this had any impact on the outcome of Sunday’s encounter. Even in the theatre business we get Xmas Day off and with all the other major leagues closing down for the festive period, you’d wonder if our lads might resent having no break whatsoever. Especially when most of the players in this Arsenal squad are at the sort of tender age where they’d otherwise have been up half the night waiting for Santa and along with what seems like every other kid in the country, desperate to get their grubby mitts on their new Wii games.

A stout but invariably stalwart Richard Dunne certainly doesn’t appear to have skimped on the mince pies. But when you contrast the ‘goals against’ column for Dunne’s former and current employers, the £5-million O’Neill paid to Man City was a blinding bit of business. Personally I was just relieved that one of our three left-backs has returned to fitness, as I’d envisaged a torrid afternoon for Sylvestre, being tormented by Young and Downing, if Traore hadn’t been available.

From what I’ve seen of their recent performances, I expected Villa to pose more of a threat going forward. The sight of John Carew always reminds me of his gut-wrenching goal for Valencia that deprived us of a Champions League semi. It’s only when seen up close, towering over the likes of Sagna, that you appreciate quite what a colossus Carew is. But he, Heskey &Agbonlahor all proved pretty ineffectual on Sunday.

After the success of their ‘smash & grab’ tactics against us last season, perhaps O’Neill was guilty of being overly cautious in his efforts to produce a repeat performance. Still the visitors toiled so tirelessly to deny us time on the ball that it was inevitable that their efforts would eventually take their toll, with the masterful introduction of Fabregas and Walcott having the maximum psychological impact.

Fab proved to be a ‘special team’ all on his own. Only last week I bemoaned the fact that we’re bereft of a Gerrard type player, with a personality big enough to singlehandedly grab tight games by the scruff of the neck. Our young captain couldn’t have provided a more timely response, with the way he wrapped up this most welcome of three point Xmas pressies, with Abou Diaby adding a bow on top.

As if we needed reminding, Cesc once again proved himself to be the conductor, capable of encouraging a veritable symphony from Wenger’s orchestra. We can but hope that this 28-minute cameo hasn’t taken too heavy a physical toll on his hamstring. However the euphoric scenes of jubilation on the terraces confirmed how essential his contribution was, to such a significant triumph.

Optimistic Gooners will claim it keeps us in the frame for a title push. Perhaps more importantly, so long as we remain the pundits dark horse for a title challenge, we’re definitely not being dragged back down into the dog eat dog battle for fourth below.

The Tigers’ laudable display inspired some false hopes but the prospect of Hull helping us to hang onto second was always an unlikely illusion. Surely we can expect Man U to kick on in the New Year, but in their current insipid guise, without some sort of dividend on the £32 mill invested in Berbatov, we’ve little to fear from Fergie’s mob.

We’ve once again witnessed a weekend of football where less acclaimed clubs have demonstrated sufficient quality and determination to upset the odds. Yet while we can catch anyone in a sprint, for all the current inconsistency of Ancelotti’s Blues, it’s hard to have total faith in us matching Chelsea’s strength in depth over the course of the entire marathon.

We might cope with Fab’s absence if Diaby can continue his fine recent form, but it remains to be seen how our defence holds up with Song away on ACN duty. As an almost ever-present this season, Alex has matured into his role as a muscular, protective screen in front of our back four. I hope he’ll forgive me if I pray for Cameroon’s premature exit from the competition, when his absence could prove as significant to us, as Drogba’s might be for Chelsea.

Meanwhile, I was chuffed to bits to be returning to work wearing a wide, smug smile. With everyone aware of my absence on Sunday, the level of mickey taking would’ve been absolutely unbearable if we’d lost. Then again, I must be grateful as this would’ve been small potatoes, compared to the sort of mirth to be had at my expense if I’d managed to sleep my way through the whole marvellous occasion!

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Friday 25 December 2009

All I Want For Xmas....(I'm still debating between a laptop or my two front teeth!)

Merry Crimbo fellow Gooners,

With my regular diary piece and a couple of half-term reports to write, whilst doing two exhausting shows a day with the ballet at the London Coliseum (humping scenery, not dancing, I don't have the legs for those tights!), I was worried about finding the energy, let alone the time to get anything written this week.

Mercifully the snow came to my rescue last Friday. I know it looks pretty, but I usually hate the snow, just because of the chaos that usually results and because I'm currently getting to work and back on my motorbike. I don't mind admitting that I'm terrified driving in the snow and ice on four wheels, let alone on two. Yet so far, a couple of hairy moments just getting out of Highbury Quadrant aside, I've managed to make it into town and back on the bike every day, still in one piece, if a little brittle as a result of the biting cold,

However the containers with the set of the next show, the Snow Queen, were due to loaded out from our stores in Marden, Kent on Friday but with the roads in Kent being so much worse than they were in London, no one could get to Marden to load the containers, let alone drive them back to London.

As a result, instead of spending Monday unloading three arctics and humping it all into the theatre, we were given the day off. As they say "it's an ill wind....." since I was able to write my diary missive without having to spend all Sunday night nodding out in front of my keyboard.

But having finished it and filed it to the Irish Examiner and then a couple of hundred words of a half-term report for Sunday's Observer, I must've gone straight back to bed, without getting around to posting it out to you guys. After the fit-up of the Nutcracker and two shows a day these past couple of weeks, my aching bones are beginning to remind me why I stopped doing shows with the ballet some years back.

My state of exhaustion is so relentless that I remind myself of a hamster I used to have as a kid, that spent it's entire brief life running around the wheel in it's cage. I get up at 11ish, to get into work for the reset at 1pm and then back home on the bike around 10pm, frozen stiff, with just about enough energy left to get umpteen layers of clothing off and crawl into bed. Thank heavens for my iPhone in order to keep up with my email during the day, as I've barely opened my laptop since this Xmas season started.

As a result, doubtless I'll be spending most of Xmas day in bed, expending the very minimum amount of energy possible and then I'm back into the theatre for two shows on Boxing Day. I have to keep reminding myself "just think of the money" in order to drag myself in every day and I'm absolutely over the proverbial moon to have found someone to cover for me doing the matinée on Sunday so that I can go to the Villa game.

It's cost me a hundred quid to persuade someone else to take my place for four or five hours, but it will be worth every penny if we win. Should we lose, it will be a double whammy, as not only will I have to cope with the agony of a significant Arsenal defeat, but I will inevitably suffer until stick from all the other lads on the crew when I go back on Monday morning, after having paid someone else a ton in order to watch the Gunners get beat!

Nevertheless, I simply cannot put into words what a pleasure it will be to be able to get up on Sunday and go to the game, in accordance with all my regular game day rituals. It's easy to take the pleasure of watching the Arsenal for granted, when one goes to every single game. But there's nothing like a bit of Gooner deprivation to remind me quite how much I revel in my live Arsenal pleasures, as working through this Xmas season with the ballet has returned me to the sort of relationship that the vast majority of football fans have with their club, which although no less devoted in many cases, it is far more remote, where one has to make do with secondhand snippets of news and goal updates and if really lucky, seeing a live game on the box.

While I can endure it for a six week Xmas season (knowing that hopefully I'll have compensation by way of a far more healthy bank balance), I simply couldn't cope with such deprivation on a permanent basis, since for a fully fledged Arsenal junkie like myself, it's akin to trying to satiate my need with a Methadone type substitute, which never quite hits the spot.

In order to watch Saturday's game against Hull, I had to miss the 6pm reset, when we reset the scenery back to the beginning of the show following the afternoon matinée. But I was actually considering if I might be better off plotting up in a nearby pub and watching the whole game on the box. I was debating whether this would be a better option because I would at least be able to see the entire game, as I knew that if I went to the match, I would have to leave at some stage during the second half, in order to be back at the theatre by curtain up.

As I pondered my dilemma aloud, certain that if I went to the game, the laws of Sod & Murphy would guarantee that the match would be balanced on a knife edge until the moment I left and that all the goals would be scored whilst I was driving back to the theatre on the bike (and I can't even get radio reception whilst driving my motorbike because between the engine noise and the resulting interference, I can't hear a word), it seems that my mates on the stage crew all know me better than I know myself, as they all assured me that there was absolutely no point in me debating the matter, since when it came to it, there wasn't a cat in hell's chance that I was not going to go to the game!

And obviously they were correct but it was very weird because I am so used to my regular ritual for home games that the strange circumstances completely threw me. Carefully cruising past all the traffic on my bike in the icy conditions and parking up almost right outside the ground, I might've arrived early for once, but I was without my binoculars, my tooth rotting sweeties (which have long since become my nicotine substitute), tissues and all the other crap that usually fills my pockets on a match-day.

I was just grateful that Denilson scored the first goal just before the break and although the game definitely needed the spark of the Nasri provoked kerfuffle just before the break, with my timing being so tight, I could've well done without any further delays and while everyone else around me was turning the air blue, screaming at Hunt, Barmby and the other Hull players, I was bellowing at ref Bennet, just to get on with it!

At least with so many empty seats there on Saturday, I was able to find a pitch close to the aisle, after the break, so that I could slip out without having to disturb everyone in my row. But being a natural worrier, I'd already started panicking about getting back to the theatre before the second half had kicked off.

Hard as I tried to keep my head down during the dress rehearsal of the Nutcracker (as some of the other lads like doing the cues because it makes them feel important), I got lumbered with this cue right at curtain up, where a lump of scenery weighing a couple of tons get rolled off stage, with only a couple of inches clearance on either side and where I'm strategically placed to prevent it wiping out a brace which is holding up a thirty foot black flat on the side of the stage.

With me being well out of the habit of doing shows, I'm dreadfully paranoid about forgetting my cues and I've nightmare visions of me strolling back from having a smoke, a few minutes into the show, only to find this flat has fallen down and taken out half the punters in the front few rows of the stalls!

By the time the second half kicked off on Saturday, I'd started worrying about a million "what ifs" eg. what if my bike wouldn't start, or I got caught up in some sort of gridlock on the way back and so since I couldn't concentrate on the game anyway, I headed back to the theatre some time before Eduardo found the back of the net for our second. At least I heard the commentary on the radio as I was walking back to the bike.

As it turned out, there was no traffic on the way back into town and I actually got to see Diaby score the third, having signed up to the three months free offer on the Sky Mobile application on my iPhone. I calculated that it was worth installing this application to watch Sky Sports on my mobile just for the purpose of watching the footie in the theatre during the Xmas season, so long as I remember to cancel the bloody thing, before Sky add another six quid a month to my already extortionate monthly payment to Murdoch's mafia - which with us having Sky Plus, an extra box in the bedroom and me adding my broadband service and now ESPN on top, now amounts to an agonizing 85 quid a month).

In fact this was the first opportunity I had to actually make use of the Sky Mobile application and I even got to see Theo fluff his lines, when he should've had the composure to chip the keeper to score a fourth, before being forced to leave the theatre's canteen (one of the few locations where I can log on to the wireless internet connection) with the "beginners" announcement over the theatre tannoy, indicating the start of the show.

With both Eduardo and Vela not exactly oozing with the sort of confidence needed to strike the fear of G-d into opposition defenders at present and while they're both quick over those first few yards, neither of them are blessed with Theo's terrifying pace, I've wondered why Wenger hasn't tried using Walcott as our point man during the current striker crisis, spearheading the Gunners' attack, in the position that the boy made his name at, while playing for Southampton?

Wasn't the plan always supposed to be for Theo to learn his trade out on the flank but for him to eventually take over Titi's mantle as the Arsenal's main goal threat? Although if I don't stop waffling on, I'll still be tapping away at my keyboard come kick-off on Sunday!

Meanwhile my apologies for the delay in posting Sunday's missive. If any of you actually missed reading it, you have my mother to thank, as I can rest assured that if I ever neglect to post my piece out, I have at least one loyal reader, my dear old ma ("not so much of the old" I hear her say) to remind me that it hasn't been received.

I know many will jump to Theo's defence because he's had so little game time, having been out injured and I know that we are all so desperate to see Theo succeed that we're inclined to be a lot more patient with him than any of the other players and to continue making excuses for the lad. However if I'm not mistaken, Theo will be getting the key to the door this coming March and approaching the ripe old age of 21, it's about time for him to start earning his corn.

Hopefully, all it will take is a run of successful games, for Theo to get some wind in his sails. However, although he's undoubtedly blessed with all the tools in his locker, I can't help but wonder if Wenger's reluctance to put such faith in him is related to the evidence of my own eyes which is an elephant in the room that I'm finding increasingly hard to ignore and which perhaps suggests Theo is never going to quite cut the mustard because he's a sandwich short of that all-important, instinctive, spacial awareness picnic?

People, including me, talk about Walcott's bad decision making and the fact that he tries to take players on, when he should be passing the ball and passes the ball, when the opponent is there for the beating. However, as anyone who's played the game will know, the truth of the matter is that you don't really make decisions out on the park, as for the most part you just do.

Football is a spontaneous game, often played at such pace nowadays, that unlike chess for example, there is no time for conscious cause and effect, flow-chart type analysis. With the ball at one's feet, at the very most, you might have an opportunity for a brief glance up to see where your team mates are. It's for this reason that we often see players pass a ball into an empty space because it's where they expected their team mate t0 end up.

The very best footballing brains belong to those players who somehow mange to retain an unconscious picture in their heads, a map of where all the combatants are at any point in time and where they can find space, without having to look up from the ball, having already computed all the various permutations from their glance around the park before receiving possession.

The problem is that there is no exercise routine that can teach this sort of talent, as it's innate and I can't help but wonder if this is why Theo impressed playing in front of goal because for a striker, the only choice is to shoot or pass. But from what we've seen of him out on the flank, while he might learn the art of looking up before playing the ball, I yet to witness any evidence of Theo having that instinctive awareness of what's going on around him, so as to be able to cut the ball back to the edge of the area, to a point where he senses Fabregas' run will end up. I seriously hope I'm wrong and that Walcott has it all and it's just a matter of confidence, or game time which will prove the key to unlock his latent abilities.

To be honest, right now, I'm not that bothered if Theo makes it into the England team for the World Cup and in truth, it might serve us better if he doesn't end up played out and injured this summer (or as Tevye would say in Fiddler on the Roof, "on the other hand", we might benefit from the boost to Theo's confidence of tearing apart the best defences on the planet?). But when it eventually comes to it, I am sure it will be a whole lot more interesting for me if there's some Arsenal relevance to stir up my interest in England's exploits in the summer.

After his England hat-trick, I don't think Capello will need much excuse to take Walcott to South Africa, but based strictly on their current form, in my humble, unbiased opinion, he's a long way behind Lennon and Young because his competitors both offer the guarantee of some end product.

If both Theo and Ashley Young start on Sunday, it will be interesting to be able to make a direct comparison. If Young produces a performance similar to the one against Man Utd, he's likely to give Sylvestre a torrid afternoon and with this in mind, I hope we've one of our three, somewhat fleeter footed left-backs back in time for Sunday's game. Admittedly Young usually has someone to aim at once he gets down the flank, with Villa having the burly likes of Carew and Heskey up front and while many of his balls were wayward, every single time he got forward against Utd, he either put a ball into the box, or went for goal himself. Whereas sadly, you can usually count on the fingers of one hand, the number of times when Theo's possession of the ball actually amounts to anything.

Myself I will just be delighted to be there on Sunday. As I've said below, it's a biggie because we badly need to extinguish the possibility of Aston Villa posing any threat to us, before Martin O'Neill's bandwagon gathers any further momentum. Meanwhile if I don't stop waffling on I will still be tapping away at my keyboard come kick-off on Sunday, so apologies for the delay in posting out Sunday's missive. If any of you actually missed reading it, you have my mother to thank, since I can rest assured that if I neglect to post out my weekly diary, I have at least one loyal reader in my dear old ma ("less of the old" I hear her say) to remind me.

So without any further bearded quips about Villa, Chelsea and Man Utd getting stuffed with the turkey, here's wishing you all a merry Christmas and a happy & healthy New Year to you and all yours

Come on you Reds
Big Love

In light of our relatively poor recent form and the ridiculous rash of injuries, I reckon that much like myself, most Gooners will be pleasantly surprised to be sitting down to our turkey with only a two-point deficit on Man U and six behind the league leaders, with a game in hand on them both.

It is said that the table never lies, nevertheless, it still feels like something of a false representation of the facts because the Arsenal have looked anything but genuine contenders in recent weeks. Which is perhaps the biggest wind-up, since with both teams above us seemingly intent on frittering away points like they were going out of fashion, there’s rarely been a better opportunity for a concerted title challenge.

I’d love to optimistically predict that the Gunners are girding their loins for a big title push in the New Year. But in all honesty, as things stand at the present, I am just grateful that our decimated squad continue to cling to coat-tails of the top two.

In spite of the flattering 3-0 scoreline, we looked far from convincing for much of Saturday’s fractious encounter with Hull. Myself I was just glad to be there, having braved the icy, arctic conditions to make a mad dash to the stadium on my motorbike, in between humping scenery in the matinee and evening performances of The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum, the ballet’s traditional Xmas fare.

Which is more than can be said for many Gooners, as the disappointing sight of so many empty seats suggested that this was perhaps the lowest attendance to date for a Premiership game at our new gaff. But we can only speculate on this point, so long as the club continue to brazenly report false figures, by repeatedly announcing a 60,000 plus attendance, which might account for the number of ticket sales but which bore absolutely no relation to the number of bums on seats on Saturday.

The empty seats and a decidedly laboured first-half performance contributed to an even more subdued atmosphere than normal. Never mind the media making a mountain out of the Nasri molehill, in my eyes the Frenchman was our unwitting saviour, as the resulting handbags just before half-time were precisely what was required to eventually ignite the touch-paper and spark up this damp squib of a contest.

Credit to the Tigers, as they worked tirelessly during the first-half, getting bodies behind the ball to thwart all our efforts to pick an intricate path through the heart of their defence and for a while there, it felt as if it was going to be another frustrating afternoon. However thanks to Denilson’s timely intervention just before the break, the Gunners were able to relax somewhat and aided by the fact that Hull were forced into showing a little more ambition after going a goal behind, we began to find the space to ping the ball around with more incisiveness.

Abou Diaby’s second half display was cause for optimism, as the leggy midfielder’s driving runs into the box provided our attack with just the sort of momentum that’s been on the missing list of late. But there’ve been instances in the past when Abou’s conjured up the sort of consummate cameo display that’s lead us to wonder whether he might just be the catalyst that will produce the long-awaited explosion of the Wenger boys’ bounty.

I believe it was almost exactly a year ago when Abou last produced a similarly impressive contribution, as we took a two-goal lead up at Villa Park on Boxing Day. But he needs to reproduce this form once a week, rather than once a season, as otherwise these rare glimpses of Diaby’s ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, only become increasingly frustrating.

I reckon we'll be needing Abou to step up again in Sunday's significant encounter, if we're to restore the natural order of things by beating Villa. Any other result is likely to offer Martin O’Neill’s side further belief in their ability to mount a serious top four challenge.

With the sale of Richard Dunne, Mark Hughes seemingly swapped the heart and soul of his Man City side, for the disruptive egos of the likes of Adebayor. In the meantime, while City were making all the headlines, O’Neill has quietly gone about the business of building a proper, old-fashioned football “team”.

We were fortunate last time around, when Villa’s threat to our precious Champions League spot evaporated at the business end of the season. But I wouldn’t want to be relying on a repeat performance because Villa now look far more resilient and the Gunners need to be the masters of our own destiny.

Hopefully there might be a silver lining to the long queue of players outside the Arsenal treatment room, as they should be returning to fitness, fresh and eager to play, just as others are beginning to flag. If we can keep ourselves in the frame until then, anything’s possible.

It could be argued that the Champions League is likely to be the Gunner’s best bet, as this Arsenal side appear far more suited to performing on the European stage. Personally I would’ve much preferred to have drawn either of the two Milan sides. I would’ve been more confident of us running rings around some of the ageing legs of Inter and AC, as a mouth-watering main attraction, rather than going into a game against a talented Porto team as favourites and being somewhat overshadowed by the other matches.

Still I’m certainly not complaining, as unlike the Scousers, at least we won’t be sitting down to dinner on Xmas day, with nothing more to look forward to than the brandy on our Xmas pud!

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Friday 18 December 2009

Never Mind The Rain In Spain, What About the Snow In Highbury?

G'day Gooners,

I've not had an opportunity to post my diary missive up until now, as I've been so busy with work the past few days. It's been several years since I last did an Xmas season with the ballet. Aside from the fact that working on the six week run of two shows every single day, impinges far too much on my Arsenal pleasures, while the mind might still be willing, sadly my body is no longer up to the gruelling physical nature of the work.

The problem is that the extremely long hours and the resulting "double bubble" wages (double basic salary for touring work) makes the work sufficiently lucrative that it's extremely hard to refuse when offered. In fact a few years back, after the last time I did an exhausting all-nighter fitting up a show, I was left such a complete and utter physical wreck that I made a point of requesting that the master carpenter didn't bother asking me any more, so as to avoid the dilemma completely. All the money in the world is of little use to me, if earning it leaves me so incapacitated that I can't even get out of bed to get down to the cashpoint to spend it!

However it seems sufficient time has elapsed since I last made the mistake of accepting the offer of any touring work, for me to have forgotten quite how agonizing these all-night fit-ups can be. What's more, I kind of felt somewhat more obliged than usual, as we've lost a couple of stage crew and I know full well that if my mate (EEC definitions have seen his job description change to that of "chief mechanist" in recent years, but to my mind that's nowhere near as impressive as "master carpenter") must be scraping the barrel, if he's asking me because with my tardy time-keeping travails, why would anyone want me, when they can employ someone who arrives on the button every day.

I guess Dave puts up with my habitual tardiness because he knows that I'm always willing to make up the hours (and more if required). But my habitual tardiness can put some of the other crew members' noses out of joint (especially if they're long gone when I'm clocking up hours t make up at the other end of the day). Knowing he must've run out of people to ask, I thought I'd be doing him a bit of a favour and besides which, I must admit that I'm so tired of being in debt all the time, that the thought of getting my head above water, financially speaking, was a major factor in my decision.

But then as I've discovered in the past, the lump sum one is expecting to accumulate over the course of an Xmas season rarely ever really materializes because the job is so incredibly arduous that you tend to feel entitled to spend the money, after having worked so hard to earn it and it invariably ends up being frittered away on things.

Perhaps worst of all is trying to fit my Arsenal world around the work, especially when I'm writing my weekly column for the Irish Examiner. With the feature my piece appears in being entitled "Terrace Talk", I always feel a bit of a cheat, on those rare occasions in the past when I've been forced to write about matches that I've not been present at in person.

When the possibility of me working over Xmas was first mooted, I looked at the fixture schedule and was pleasantly surprised that it didn't appear quite so hectic as usual and on first glance, it didn't seem as if I was going to miss many major clashes. I'm hoping that I might be able to pay someone to cover me for the odd show, so I don't end up missing all the games over the next six weeks. However with the Nutcracker fit-up (the tradtional Xmas fare) starting at 11am last Sunday, there was absolutely no question of me going to Anfield and so I ended up listening to the commentary on the radio, whilst working on stage, grateful for the small mercy of being able to get reception, surrounded by so much concrete and a multitude of potential electrical interference that one finds in a theatre.

The lads up on the fly floor, 30 odd feet above the stage, from where they operate the flown scenery and the cloths, they must've had a radio on the go, as the Gooners up there were shouting down the odds with each of the three goals. But working on stage can be very dangerous and even with all the incredibly OTT, stringent health & safety regulations nowadays, accidents are still not that uncommon. As a result, wearing an earpiece in one's ear is a definite no-no and so I had to be very discrete and couldn't really concentrate on the commentary, as I had to be seen to be paying attention at all times to what was occurring around me on stage.

Still the stagehand in charge of my side of the stage is a Liverpool fan and I certainly made sure he knew all about it when Shava scored what turned out to be the winner. Fortunately I was tasked with fetching some props from the ballet school on Monday, in a van and so while the rest of the lads continued working through until after 3am, I would've jumped for joy if I had any energy left, when my pal turned around at midnight and sent me home.

In the past, you would take a sleeping bag in to the theatre for the fit-up, knowing that you probably wouldn't get a chance to go home for a couple of days, until the show was completely up and running. But EEC regulations have put an end to these sort of punishing practices, as mercifully we're now obliged to take something like an 11 hour break after a certain amount of time, so he had to send me home to ensure I could drive the van on Monday.

But this actually meant that I ended up getting back around 1am and struggling to stay awake long enough to watch a recording of the game on the Sky Plus gadget. I've never been a big fan of ballet, as I find the dancing far too stiff and unnatural, but I do enjoy some of the musical scores, until I hear them two times a day, every day, for several weeks. The worst thing about doing the Nutcracker at Xmas is that there is absolutely no escaping Tchaikovsky's music, where ever you go, be it on the telly, in shops, absolutely everywhere. I had to rewind the recording of the match a couple of times towards the end, as I was so exhausted that I kept nodding out and I actually thought I was having a nightmare, when I finally got to the end of the programme and the closing titles included a montage of our little Russian's performance, shown with a backing track of a well know bit of the bloomin' Nutcracker.

I set my alarm for 7.30am, in order to write my diary piece before leaving to fetch the van, but it would appear that I've reached an age where my dog-tired body will no longer accede to the demands I'm forced to place on it and after turning off all five alarms (one on the landline, four on my mobile!), I still managed to sleep it out and it was gone 9am when I eventually dragged my aching bones out of bed.

As a result, I very much doubt the following diary piece is up to my usual standard because I was forced to rush to get it finished in time to be able to get these props delivered to the theatre, for some much needed repairs before being used in the show. Although they've been threatening a new production of the Nutcracker for the past couple of years, I think the company has been performing this particular production, designed by Gerald Scarfe (of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" fame) for the past seven Xmases and so much like myself, the entire set is looking somewhat tired.

The show opened on Wednesday night and although I did my best to keep a low profile during the rehearsals on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, in order to avoid getting lumbered with too many cues (points in the show where the crew are required to operate the scenery), I was never going to get away completely scott free. After all, they're not going to pay me to stand around for two shows a day, just doing the interval change. The more cues I have to do, the more my presence on stage becomes essential and the harder it is for me to get someone in to cover me (without there being any potential disasters).

Fortunately, although I'm involved in various bits of scenery shuffling on and off stage, I've only been allocated the one specific cue, where I'm tasked with operating the flapping wings and the moving eyes of this enormous owl shaped clock, standing behind this piece of scenery, moving a steel arm up and down for about five minutes, as directed when to start and stop by a cue light (ie. hopefully someone could come in and do it for me if necessary).

Mind you, there are a lot of kids involved in the show and I am terrified of clonking one of them with the metal wings on the downward stroke and I imagine that if I end up getting someone else in to replace me so I can go to a game, I'm bound to be paranoid that this will be the one night when one of these young dancers gets too close!

I had no choice but to blow out the trip to Burnley, which was a big disappointment as I don't think I've been to Turf Moor for many years and I still have my Soccer Stars albums from the days when Burnley where an established top flight team back in the early seventies, including the likes of the archetypal comb-over merchant, Ralph Coates, before he transferred to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road. Although on current form, it looks as if I might have another opportunity to visit Turf Moor next season.

As far as the actual performance was concerned, if I was going to miss a game, I guess this was a good one. Or at least that was what I deduced from watching the decidedly drab highlights on Match of the Day and then again on Sky's Football First. I was gutted when they apologised on Sky that the highlights were somewhat limited due to technical problems but in hindsight it would appear that they couldn't have missed much because there was so little action of any note.

It's true that Burnley have managed to thwart plenty of other decent teams on their home turf but with Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool all winning on the night, from what I saw of the game on the highlights, I ended up feeling more than a little gutted that we didn't give it more of a go and pose the home team more of a problem, as I don't really feel we made Burnley work particularly hard for their point.

It's funny, as thankfully our match was chosen for live commentary on Five Live and so I was listening to it during the show and I remember that Vermaelen conceded the penalty, just as I was about to operate the owl. But then I suppose I have to try and look on the bright side, as this piece of scenery is located right on stage, with me hidden behind it and if we'd scored at that point, instead of Burnley, I'd have been unable to resist a little celebration and this could've proved highly embarrassing, because I'd have probably been unable to resist a little jog of joy and either I might've been caught "in view", or my cigarettes, or my mobile phone might've fallen out of my pockets and as we shuffle the thing off a few second later, imagine how mortified I'd have been to have left a packet of Camel Filters sitting in the middle of the stage!

I'm loathe to comment on matches based on what I've heard or seen on the highlights, as I know full well that these can often paint a false picture because, for example, you aren't aware of the work that's gone on off the ball. Nevertheless, I think it's fairly safe to say that Theo Walcott was largely (or "smallely"!) anonymous.

Watching Villa v Man Utd on Saturday, the one thing I noticed about Ashley Young was that almost every time he broke down the flank, he ended up putting a cross into the box. Admittedly many of his crosses were wayward but the law of averages dictates that if you put enough balls into the box, eventually someone will get on the end of one of them. Mind you, sadly Theo doesn't have the hulking bit target men such as John Carew and Emile Heskey to aim for, but it does bother me that he rarely ever gets this far and all too often ends up conceding possession because of bad decision making.

The same was true watching Aaron Lennon in midweek against Man City, as he positively terrorized poor Silvinho with his pace and invariably put a ball into the box, or penetrated the
penalty area himself and created an attempt on goal. Obviously Theo needs to get some games under his belt but as the Gunners one and only England representative (not that I'm particularly bothered), for my money, he's got a lot to do to leapfrog these two into the squad on current form.

Meanwhile Chelsea adopt a different approach and I was impressed with the driving runs of their defenders against Pompey. I very much doubt Alex is blessed with anything like the pace of Walcott, Young or Lennon, but still he powered into the box with a combination of pace and strength and the sort of determination that meant that once he gathered a little momentum, he was impossible to stop, in the build-up to him putting the ball on a plate for Anelka to score Chelsea's first.

As far as I can see, this is the problem with our current line-up because the opposition only have to get enough bodies behind the ball for us to be left spending the entire ninety minutes, patiently passing the ball around the edge of their penalty area, rarely every creating an opening for an attempt on goal. As a natural centre back, it might not be exactly instinctive for Alex Song to charge forward, but from the evidence of what we've seen to date, Tommie the tank Vermaelen doesn't need an invitation to do so. And we all know William Gallas is not afraid of making his presence known in the opposition penalty area.

Yet for what our more attack-minded players lack in muscle, they more than make up for in ability and pace and yet none of them appear to possess the sort of confident personality needed to try and grab a game by the scruff of the neck, by manufacturing an attempt on goal by means of their will power alone. In fact it's ironic that sadly the only players on the park in an Arsenal shirt with such attributes to their personalities, all happen to be defenders by trade.

Given the confidence boost of a few goals and perhaps the likes of Eduardo or Vela could become more ambitious and similarly the same might be true of Arshavin (although I've reiterated my thoughts on Shava below). I never imagined I'd be so desperate to see an Arsenal side that was able to avail itself of the swaggering belief of Bertie Big Bollix Bendtner, but at this present point of time, in the absence of the Dane and the Dutchman, it seems to me that it is a problem of personalities that is the principle cause of our apparent impotence up front, far more than the size factor.

It was no surprise that the Gunners threat on the Burnley goal became almost non-existent after Fabregas' exit from the field of play, as although Cesc isn't the most extrovert character, he's the one player in the Arsenal squad who's become so certain in his ability that he has the confidence to try and bamboozle lumbering centre-backs with his guile.

This might all change with a couple of high-scoring games, but in the meantime, our apparent inability to create goal scoring opportunities is only such a major concern, due to the fact that we can't rely on keeping things tight at the other end of the pitch. The consequences of Manuel Almunia's failure to dominate his area and his lack of communicative skills were once again apparent in Wednesday's game. But I'd best not get started on our poor goalie, not if I want to catch up on some much needed ZZZZZs before getting back on the Nutcracker treadmill tomorrow.

Here's hoping the weather doesn't prevent me getting to work tomorrow, as I'm growing increasingly concerned about the prospect of being snowed in, the closer we get to Saturday. With the game against Hull being a late KO, I've calculated that I should be able to get away from the afternoon matinee in good time to make it to the match, provided I can avoid traffic delays by travelling on my motorbike. If the snow settles, I will be so terrified riding the bike that I'd better take a change of trousers with me!

Doubtless I'll reveal all in next week's missive

Come on you Reds
Big Love


The consensus of Gooner opinion seemed to be that it was fortunate Glen Johnson did us the favour of putting the ball in the back of the Scousers net on Sunday. Up until that point we’d been so impotent up front that it looked as if we could’ve been playing until midnight without troubling Pepe Reina’s goal!

After a week in which the dressing room code of silence was violated, to reveal the mad antics of Tony Pullis and Jim Magilton, you would’ve thought that our captain might’ve been more discrete, than to reveal specific details of his manager’s half-time rocket. In hindsight, I find it a bit worrying, since the results of Wenger’s haranguing were hardly dramatic and we didn’t exactly play like a team possessed after the break.

Personally I felt that we benefited from the fact that having taken the lead, Liverpool’s level of commitment and focus dropped considerably and perhaps our own lack of goal threat was responsible for the home side growing a little complacent? It was patently obvious that they were more “up for it” than us first-half and doubtless this was the principal cause of le Prof’s ire.

After Saturday’s surprising results had left the door slightly ajar, it would’ve been positively criminal, if the Gunners had been guilty of not doing their utmost to try and force it open, putting ourselves back in the frame as potentials title challengers. But then, as always, the margins between success and failure are wafer thin.

I can’t help but feel that if Gallas had brought Gerrard down at the Kop end of the ground, Howard Webb might’ve been influenced by thousands of Scousers appealing for a penalty. Instead of us ending the weekend absolutely over the proverbial moon, to be going into the hectic festive schedule with renewed hope, only two weeks after our title prospects were supposedly dead and buried by the Blues 0-3 thumping, it might’ve been Arsène suffering the sort of “Emperor’s New Clothes” scorn of the media, rather than Benitez.

Nevertheless, considering this was Rafa’s preferred first XI (since the “fat Spanish waiter” would appear to be saving the coronation of his “little prince” Aquilani, for a time when the Scousers’ season is completely over!), as a Liverpool fan I would have some serious concerns about their second half demise.

Shava’s strike was worthy of all three points, but there was a time when taking a slender, single goal lead at Anfield would require the visiting team to batten down the hatches, to prepare themselves for the onslaught of a veritable barrage. Moreover, in light of the fact that the gung-ho nature of this Arsenal side has meant that we’ve proved somewhat suspect in our ability to squeeze the life out of a game and see out a result, I have to admit that I was, quite frankly, amazed to make it to the finishing line so comfortably.

The media might’ve built up Sunday’s encounter, as the clash of ‘the bridesmaids’, but in truth, compared to a bona fide feast of footballing entertainment the day before, it was a bit of a damp squib. But I’m certainly not complaining, since the fact that Arsène’s entertainers produced a demonstration of the art of winning such a significant clash, with performance that was well below par, might at long last be seen as a sign of our increased maturity. Or perhaps we were merely competing against a Liverpool who’ve acquired the losing habit?

As delighted as I am that this result has edged us back into contention and perhaps more crucially, prevented us from slipping down, into what’s bound to be an incredibly nerve-wracking dogfight for that all-important fourth place, on a realistic note, sadly the frailties of our injury ravaged squad are no less apparent. Almunia certainly didn’t win friends and influence Gooners with his feeble flap in the build up to Kuyt’s goal but I’m hoping that the more I tempt fate with my assertions that Arshavin can’t continue to carry the team as a lone striker (Southampton fans must be wondering why on earth Wenger doesn’t give Walcott a go up front?), the more he’ll continue to make me eat my words!

Yet as Chelsea have demonstrated with their failure to win, ever since their ‘inconsequential’ Carling Cup exit, you simply cannot overstate the importance of that winning momentum. While I’m yet to be convinced we possess the depth of squad to match Chelsea and Man Utd in the long run, if we can build on Sunday’s victory and string together the sort of consistent number of wins needed to instil some genuine belief in our ability to mount a challenge and make the most of what looks like being the most volatile Premiership in many a moon, anything’s possible!

Meanwhile, if I’m honest, I imagine that like the vast majority of Gooners who’d written off the title only a fortnight ago, I can’t believe our good fortune. As I sat here on Saturday night rejoicing in Martin O’Neill’s Villa putting one over on Man Utd, I wondered if I might end up regretting it. The Gunners are going to need to be at their best to quash the threat of an in-form Villa at our place Sunday week, but for the moment I’m most grateful to be looking up, instead of over our shoulders!

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Monday 7 December 2009

Please Will Someone Let The Dogs Out

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against bad losers, as it’s the distaste for defeat that makes determined winners. Still I wanted Wenger to shake Mark Hughes hand last Wednesday night and prove himself to be the bigger man, instead of demonstrating the same lack of stature that some would have us believe is a crucial weakness in this Arsenal squad.

Supposedly Hughes had insulted Arsène, calling him an onanist. I’m reminded of the ancient tale of the kid who’s father caught him playing with himself in the bathroom, warning his son “Don’t do that, you’ll go blind”, whereupon his quick-thinking progeny piped up “Can I at least do it until I have to wear glasses?”

Despite Hughes’ allusion to the cause of our leader’s dodgy eyesight, considering the fact that he regularly has to endure the positively slanderous taunts of several thousand fans singing the “packet of sweets” paedophile chant, I can’t honestly believe Arsène took this personal abuse to heart. No I fancy his rancour runs deeper than that. Perhaps the insults were just an excuse for le Gaffer’s display of disrespect, when in truth it’s his disdain for ‘financial doping’, which is what he’s really railing against.

If this is the case, then I can appreciate how galling it must be, to have to try and work the oracle every season, fettered by budgetary restraints (despite the suits best efforts to kid us otherwise!), in the face of ever increasing competition from the likes of Man City, with a ‘money no object’ sugar-daddy prepared to continue pumping limitless millions into the pursuit of the Holy Grail of footballing glory.

Mark Hughes has always possessed that 100%, heart-on-the-sleeve commitment of an infuriating, ‘love to hate’ figure, ever since he lead the line for Man Utd. He could just as easily end up a victim of the obscene vagaries of modern football, as a beneficiary, since the pressure for him to produce a return is so much greater, with fathomless resources at his disposal.

Obviously, he’s hardly top of Arsène’s Xmas card list, but in his fit of pique, it seems to me as if le Prof is sending out all the wrong signals, giving his young squad carte blanche to throw their own toys out of the pram, every time they feel hard done by. For all the wonderful entertainment, that makes the Arsenal by far in a way everyone’s favourite team to watch, we’ll continue to struggle to win friends, so long as this unsportsmanlike undercurrent prevails.

But unlike the X Factor, football isn’t a popularity contest and Arsène is such an incredibly obstinate bugger that when that clarion of public opinion, the media, casts him as the villain, it only serves to make our manager that much more determined not to yield. While I have the utmost respect for his unflinching self-belief and I appreciate that it’s an integral part of what makes him the Gunner’s most successful ever gaffer, there are times when I can’t help but wonder if his ability to fly in the face of overwhelming evidence is also his greatest weakness.

Although Shava ran out of steam somewhat in the second-half against Stoke, it was perhaps to be expected, considering the wee fella had run his socks off during the first 45. However for the most part, our Ruski pocket rocket did a grand job filling in as the front man on Saturday. Nevertheless, this was only Stoke (no disrespect intended) and I can’t agree with those who suggest Shava is the solution to the problem posed by Van Persie’s long-term injury (at least not until, hopefully, he leaves me with my foot in my mouth, after another 4-goal fiesta at Anfield!).

I see the diddy man as a Ljungberg/Pires type player, hopefully contributing a commendable double figures goal tally, occasionally leaving us all agog with the odd astounding match winner. He’s definitely a doughty little cookie, but I can’t envisage him carrying the Arsenal on his diminutive shoulders, with the unstinting strike rate of a 20 plus goals a season striker.

In his programme notes, Arsène responded to the endless reams of media speculation, with his stock statement about only shopping during the January sales to buy someone who he believes can “add something to the team”. For 25 minutes on Saturday, it felt as if it was going to be another ‘if it wasn’t for bad luck, there’d be no luck’ afternoon. But with Shava doing his best to corroborate le Gaffer’s notion that our injury-ravaged squad can cope, in truth, we should’ve been 3 goals to the good by the break.

The Potters are no Chelsea, but Tony Pullis had done his homework. I guess, in the Premiership at least, we’re going to have to get used to patiently waiting for the Gunners to pick an intricate path through the compact hordes at the heart of opposition defences, so long as we have no means of posing an alternative problem. Our superior ability might enable us to break down the vast majority of teams, but this lack of variation is making life far too easy for the opposition, while they need only focus on the one task of getting bodies between us and their goal.

Sitting down to enjoy coverage of events at Eastlands on my return, only served to underline our inability to tax Chelsea’s defence, as Man City proved them far from invincible. But with the approach of the silly season and the intensification of white noise on the transfer bush telegraph, I worry that Wenger’s stubborn streak will cause him to continue to try and force the Premiership to bend to his will, instead of addressing this problem.

“I will not buy just to satisfy the press” he reiterated in the programme and the louder the clamour grows, on the evidence of seasons past, the less inclined he might be to pander to the demands to splash the cash!

As Man Utd demonstrated on Saturday, by beating the Hammers so comfortably with half their defence missing, it’s a sides ability to rise to the challenge in adversity, which marks out the men from the boys. Despite such a surfeit of talent, Van Persie’s absence has highlighted that for the moment at least, our squad is bereft of ‘big time’ personalities, who, irrespective of their physical stature, have the capacity to impose themselves at pivotal moments, thereby emboldening all around them to bring the full weight of their abilities to bear.

We’ve witnessed all too brief glimpses of what these Wenger boys are capable of and perhaps the likes of Arshavin will come to the fore and reignite the fire that’s been dampened in recent weeks. But without this catalyst, the obvious missing ingredient in Arsène’s experiment, I fear we’ll continue to splutter through the season, with our best hope being for us to blow hot enough for a concerted cup run.

Saturday’s results added the feintest whiff of fuel to a tantalizing title dream, but you know you’ve undergone a more realistic expectation readjustment, when you find yourself leaping out of the armchair on a Sunday, revelling in the Schadenfreude of Spurs misfortunes!

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