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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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Anonymous said...


Bern said...

Much appreciate you bothering to comment as it's most gratifying to hear that my humble efforts are appreciated.

The £100 was worth every penny and I only wish I could pay again tomorrow so I could go to Pompey. But it would mean me having to miss two shows and sadly I have to be selective, as I can't take the piss and go to every match during this six week Xmas season.

The problem is that what in the past might've looked a relatively easy run-in (second half!) on paper, nowadays almost every Premiership side has one or two quality players and as a result, on their day, they are capable of producing the ability and the determination to make life seriously difficult for more illustrious opponents.

AFAIC it's all about momentum now. We've all seen what happened to Chelsea after a weakened side lost to Blackburn in the Carling Cup. Tomorrow's trip to Pompey is a perfect occasion for us to show how up for it we are because we badly need to build on Sunday's win.

It would be criminal to beat Villa 3-0, only to blow it at Fratton Park. But so long as we can avoid the complacency seen from Chelsea and Man Utd and we show the necessary commitment, who knows what might be possible?

Anonymous said...

brilliant again bernard. your blog always hits the spot as they say. i read every one of your blogs but rarely comment and id hate for you to feel as if your talking to yourself.

great win last night and for the first time in a couple of years i feel that we can really win the EPL this year.

happy new year bernard and once again thank you so much for your wonderful blog

tony x

'holic said...

Just popped by to wish you a happy new year, and thanks for some great reading in the last year, Bernard.

All the best to you.