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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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Unknown said...

In terms of the absence of a genuine winger who will whip the ball in like Young or Lennon, that just isn't the Wenger way. We must have the lowest ratio of headed goals of any Premier League side, which is a testament to the brand of football we play. But whether Arshavin can be relied on to score enough to keep us at the top is the main worry for me. I still think we'll be top 4, but it's going to be tight this year. I've put my money where my mouth is, something millions of other fans have no chance to do!

Anonymous said...

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On mine, it not the best variant