Monday, 25 May 2009

We've Only Got One Song

Hi folks,

First things first. After the pleasant surprise following my last post, where I discovered that some of you must have the stamina to reach the end of my long-winded missives, as I received a couple of almost instantaneous replies, from Gooners looking to take me up on the offer that I tagged on to my post, about Róna's season ticket being available for next season.

However having hopefully found a suitable home for my spare, it would appear that contrary to my previous contention, there continues to be plenty of demand for season tickets, from those stuck in limbo, on a waiting list that barely moves each season, on account of the fact that like myself, everyone is loathe to relinquish their precious seats and in the event that they do, invariably they will find someone to pass them on to, rather than release them back to the club.

I recall flogging Ró’s ticket for one game this season, outside the ground, to a gang of Gooners who didn’t actually want to use her seat, they just needed the card to get in the ground, with one of their number having left a membership card in another jacket. They were telling me that they’d secured a number of season-tickets / membership cards for everyone in their little posse over a period of time, but that these were seats that had changed hands a sufficient number of times that none of them actually knew who the original names on their cards were!

I mistakenly assumed that while there might be a massive (40k) waiting list, the majority of this was made up by those who might have registered their interest originally, but who could be reluctant to lay out for a season ticket now, when they can see so many empty seats at the vast majority of the live Arsenal games they watch on the box. However, despite the evidence of Gooner eyes, all these empty seats are not really representative of the availability of tickets.

As can be deduced from the absolutely farcical attendance figures that are reported for each home game (where I believe the only time the attendance has dropped more than a couple of hundred below the 60k mark is when the visiting team have failed so flog their allocation, eg. Wigan), the empty seats represent (season?) tickets & Cub Level seats that have been sold, but which have gone unused and tragically it would appear that there are plenty of people who have paid for these seats, but who don't appear to go out of their way to try and ensure that they don't go unused.

How sad is this? When you think of the number of youngsters who would give their right arm to watch the Arsenal play live, or even the number of more neutral football fans who would be delighted to spend an afternoon enjoying Arsène's entertaining brand of Wenger-ball, it's downright immoral to think that there must be literally hundreds of Upper Tier and Club Level membership cards that are lying in a draw, accumulating dust for the vast majority of matches, merely because the person (apparently with more money than sense!) who laid out a substantial fortune for them, just doesn't feel sufficiently motivated to ensure that someone enjoys the benefit of them - doubtless because they can write the cost off as a legitimate business expense in many cases (I didn't know there were that many Gooners in the House of Commons!).

So while it has been fairly easy to find seats for many of the less high-profile games this season, it’s not nearly so easy as one might suspect. For example Stoke City are hardly one of the Premiership’s biggest draws as a visiting team, but with Sunday’s game being the last chance to see the Arsenal play for a couple of months, I was surprised to see quite so many empty spaces in Club Level and the Upper Tier. Yet I don’t suspect it would’ve been too easy to buy a ticket for this game.

Moreover, as the chap who wants to sit with me next season rightly pointed out, my circle of Gooners tends to be made up of people who are all privileged enough to have their guaranteed pitch for every game and in fact, although there might be plenty of tickets available for less glamorous home games when next season starts, there remains a massive demand out there amongst those Gooners who would dearly love to have a seat of their own for every single game, so that they can begin next season with a membership card in their possession that will just as easily grant them admittance to see us play both Hull and Man Utd, Burnley and Spurs, with none of the stress of having to sweat it out for a ticket for all the high-profile matches.

If this is the case then it occurs to me that there might be some of you who might be interested to know that I'm aware of at least another couple of pairs of season tickets that are available for next season at face value. One pair in the lower tier and they are even better value than my own seats (as they are a little closer to the halfway line) and another pair in the upper tier at a "relatively" reasonable face value cost of £1199.

As far as I'm aware, when we moved to the new stadium, there were quite a lot of people who decided to buy into the Club Level (because if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford them, the Club Level seats obviously offer the optimum viewpoint - in fact AFAIC, the offer of "equivalent" seats was farcical, as the nearest equivalent to our old pitch at the front of the West Upper was the centre blocks of Club Level which necessitated something like an £18,000 lay out per seat, with people having to pay four years up front for a four year contract for these centre block seats!!). However with many of these new Club Level residents being former season ticket holders at THOF, they also took up their option of the so-called "equivalent" seat to their old seats.

I suppose some decided to do this in case they discovered they couldn't afford to renew in Club Level at a later date, while others merely wanted to retain additional season tickets, to be able to use them for family, friends and I assume for themselves, in the event of them having to entertain the ubiquitous corporate punters in Club Level?

However in the current economic climate, there would appear to be many others like myself who are feeling the pinch and who cannot afford the huge expense of renewing season tickets that are no longer essential. But also like myself, they are loathe to relinquish their seats completely and they are also looking to find a temporary home for them.

So if there are any of you out there reading this who are seriously interested in obtaining a pair of seats for the entire season at face value, or should you know of anyone who is interested, please feel free to get back to me, so that I might put you in touch direct with the respective people. If I can put anyone who's after a pair of seats for the whole season, in touch with someone who's looking to place a pair, then I feel I'll be doing a good Gooner turn all around.

Also, as I pointed out to my prospective new neighbour, while "renting" a season ticket for our next campaign might not be quite the same as being offered ones own permanent pitch by the club, the fact of the matter is that because the whole season ticket business is such a closed shop affair, with tickets being passed around, rather than released back to the club, this opportunity is without doubt the best way of getting one's foot in the door, as I myself can testify. Once you are safely ensconced in a seat for the entire season, you tend to get to know those seated around you and this offers you the best chances of being connected to the grapevine, where you might get to hear about someone who's dad has unfortunately passed away, or is not planning on renewing for any other reason for the subsequent season.

I originally "leased" a seat for one season back in 1990 from a mate who was going to work in Hong Kong for a year. He ended up earning so much out there that he stayed and so having taken his seat for a season, I ended up renewing it the season after that and the one after that, until eventually it became my own. Also within a couple of seasons of sitting in the same seat, I heard that the owner of the adjacent seat was not planning on renewing and so there was no way I could pass up such an extremely rare opportunity, despite the fact that we couldn't really afford it. Thus within the space of three seasons, I went from renting one seat for a season, to having two of my own permanently!

I'm not suggesting that such fortuitous circumstances are going to befall everyone, but once you've got your foot in the door, you are likely to build up the relationships and the contacts with other Gooner season ticket holders that are far more likely to result in something more permanent than an annual letter advising you of your negligible movement up the lengthy waiting list.

Being as the deadline for renewals is upon us (Monday), if anyone is genuinely interested, be sure to get back to me ASAP (by email), with a phone number, so that I might put you in touch direct.

Meanwhile, you can judge the hypothermic temperature of the parlous economic climate and the high level of disappointment in the immediate aftermath of the humiliating way in which the humidor was snapped shut so severely on our "close but no cigar" season, by nature of the fact that the first question on Gooner lips, these last few weeks has been "are you going to renew?"

To my mind, this has been quite telling, as in recent seasons, this question would've been utterly superfluous, as season-ticket renewal would've been automatically assumed as usual, unless incredibly extreme circumstances intervened to somehow prevent someone from being able to renew. However while many might have contemplated whether they can continue to justify the extortionate cost of their Arsenal pleasures, I've yet to come across a single Gooner who's willingly prepared to actually forsake their precious pitch, despite the fact that the consensus of opinion suggests that there should be an excess of supply over demand for tickets for the vast majority of games next term.

That is until a modicum of success and the resulting media attention has its inevitable effect on reducing the number of empty seats at each successive match and the glory-hunting Gooners, who were noticeable by their absence from a surprising number of empty Upper Tier and Club Level seats at Sunday's sun-kissed finale, come flooding back, claiming "Who me? I never miss an Arsenal match"!

Even though Róna isn't nearly so enthusiastic about going to games nowadays (and no this isn't on account of the additional few hundred yards walk to our new Home of Football!), I would've renewed her ticket without a moment's hesitation if we could afford to do so, just to ensure that we could continue going to games together occasionally. And on those occasions when she's equally happy stop at home and watch the match on the box, whether it be one of her family on a Gooner pilgrimage from Dublin, or numerous other Arsenal supporting friends and family, there's always someone who'd be only to grateful to be able to take her place.

However sadly my dire financial circumstances finally prevailed this time around, preventing us from being able to afford the substantial outlay for both seats for next season. Yet prior to finding the solution which presented itself subsequent to revealing details in my previous post, with my increasing panic over the impending approach of the 1st June deadline, it was suggested to me that I'd have a much better chance of finding someone who wanted a pair of seats and so perhaps I would be better off offering them both, instead of just the one, on the basis that I should be able to sort myself out with single ticket on a match by match basis.

While this might not be a problem for the majority of the fixtures, I certainly wouldn't fancy the stress of having to call in all sorts of favours for the gold-dust of a ticket for the half dozen glamour games (eg. Spurs, Man Utd, Chelsea). And even if this was feasible, I tried to explain that it's been twenty years since I was NFA (no fixed abode) at the Arsenal and I really don't fancy becoming "the wandering jew", laying my Gooner hat wherever I can find a home in our vast new arena for each game. I might not have anything like the same emotional attachment to the our new home of football as I did to THOF (and don't think I ever will!), because the new gaff will never have the same Gooner family feel of sitting with virtually all the same faces, game in, game out, season in, season out.

Nevertheless, as the seasons come and go, even a relatively oblivious, unsociable bugger like myself is beginning to realize that there are a few regular faces around us, with whom I am now on nodding terms. And with some of them feeling comfortable enough to dish out some friendly stick, on those rare occasions that I manage to avoid turning up a little tardy, we're starting to develop a bit of a rapport. With the couple of square feet of my precious thousand pound pitch only now beginning to feel like home because of such familiarity I would no sooner relinquish my seat at the Arsenal, than I would part with my right arm!

The vast majority of us Gooners with a serious emotional attachment to Highbury are all having to come to terms with the fact that we're never going to be able to recreate the same matchday experience at our new home. Yet as we grow accustomed to this entirely different interaction with the modern incarnation of the Arsenal matchday, I'm no less desperate to hand over my hard borrowed readies, in order to guarantee me my own little pieces of the new stadium’s terracing, from which I can enjoy another season of afternoons/evenings hollering my head off, supporting the Gunners.

I'm not so sure I like the cheapskate idea of merely renewing our current membership cards, as this means we're denied that childish, Xmas morning type thrill, on the day our new season tickets (membership cards) dropped on the doormat. However, even though our annual renewals are now nothing more than a relatively remote click of a computer mouse, sad as it might sound, no matter what the sacrifice involved, it's hard to imagine a better (legal) buzz, than the thrill of knowing that you've managed to ensure that the small rectangle of plastic in your pocket is your passport to another Arsenal campaign of footballing pleasure.

Finally, I really don’t enjoy writing this last diary piece of the season for the Irish Examiner, as the limitations placed upon me mean that I can do little more than reflect on matters in the most general of terms, without going into any detail. Thus I’ve delayed posting this piece out because I fully intended adding to it, all those paragraphs I was forced to delete, when I realised that my musings merely about the Gunners midfield, were going to result in me filing something that was twice as long as required.

Still I guess that Barca’s almost total domination of Man Utd in midweek was better evidence than any argument I could’ve made here about the relative strengths and weaknesses of our current squad. Our midfield might be some way from having the experience and the nous of Xavi and Iniesta, but their ability to influence the game didn’t appear to suffer from the lack of the sort of enforcer that we’ve all been crying out for.

One point I can’t help but ponder is that if it wasn’t for injuries and suspensions, their club captain (& Silvinho!) might’ve only made it on to the bench. To my mind the presence of Puyol was pivotal in this encounter. For all Arsène’s claims that he has a team of captains, where to my mind this merely confirms that none of our squad have YET to demonstrate themselves to have developed to personality or the presence to truly stand out as a genuine leader, the performance of Puyol, haring into the box on his aged legs late on, still eager to achieve immortality with a truly memorable swansong, despite the game already being won, I’ve rarely witnessed more definitive proof of the importance of an individual who acts as a focal point for all his team mates.

Bearing in mind, that in Rome on Wednesday we only saw the Catalan captain leading his team to glory. Such was Barca’s domination following Utd’s fruitless forays in the opening moments, that we didn’t get to see the Puyol who galvanizes his troops when the going gets tough

I’m sure I wasn’t the only Arsenal fan watching on Wednesday who couldn’t help but find themselves musing, perhaps illogically, on the possibility that an Arsenal v Barca final would’ve made fare more entertaining fare. But if I don’t stop now, I will doubtless continue on for another couple of thousand words, until the FA Cup Final is finished, when I’ll have another few thousand words to write, rueing several more “if onlys” and “what ifs”.

You never know, despite this season being nearly done & dusted, if the mood should take me, I might get around to posting one more missive, where I can get off my chest all the thoughts I didn’t have room to include below. Either that or I’ll save them for the preview for next season’s (hopefully more successful) campaign,

Four thousand words, without nary a mention of the marvellous achievements of Brady and Bouldie’s bairns, which culminated in a fitting 20th anniversary at Anfield the other night. I guess I’ve got to write one more diary piece, if only to do their exploits some justice.

Meantime, here’s hoping the Toffees can chew up Chelsea and spit them out this afternoon, just to make a wonderful week full of sensuous Schadenfreude complete

Keep the faith
Bernard
____________________________________________________________________



The positive aspect to the media’s efforts to promolgate the recent rumour linking Wenger with Real Madrid was that it proved a wake-up call for all those Gooners who’ve started to take the great man’s efforts for granted. Even the perennial whingers seated around us at Sunday’s curtain call against the Potters were begrudgingly admitting that the club would have to go a long way to improve on the current incumbent: “who’d we replace him with…Sam Allardyce!”

At the shareholders Q & A last week (which was nothing like the hostile salvo suggested in the media – as unlike all the journos who revel in inventing such negative nonsense, I was there!), Arsène revealed how he understood that he was facing his stiffest test, at the start of the new stadium project. Unlike other clubs that have nosedived as a result of the consequences of such massive investment off the pitch, le Prof is rightly proud of maintaining a team capable of competing at “the top, top level” throughout this period of upheaval, with the light at the end of this tortuous tunnel shining on a stadium fit for footballing kings, a training facility that is the envy of many, while hopefully still preserving the sound financial foundations that will guarantee the Gunners future.

Such a judicious, long-term managerial vision might not be fashionable amongst an “I want it now” generation, where we are all used to living beyond our means and worrying about the consequences tomorrow. I’m sure the vast majority of success hungry managers wouldn’t have given a monkey’s about where the Gunners might be in twenty years time, after they’d mortgaged the club’s future on the sort of multi-million pound gambles, capable of feeding the insatiable monster of the fans silverware obsessed gratification.

We can’t underestimate how fortunate we’ve been to have a man at the helm of the club during such a pivotal point in the Gunner’s history who’s had the courage of his own conviction and who’s happily put himself up there these past few seasons, to be shot at by the media and the more fickle radio phone-in ranters, singlehandedly shouldering the burden of expectation that’s been inflated by his earlier success, without ever looking to shift the blame onto the board, or his fragile young squad. While other more unscrupulous managers might’ve been leaking tales to the tabloids left, right and centre, to ensure the world was made fully aware of the sort of miracles that were being expected of them.

Nevertheless, as we reach that increasingly onerous time of the year, where I’m expected to conjure up a couple of grand, in order to guarantee our seats for another season of footballing pleasure, along with every other Gooner, I would like to see the increased prospects of a more tangible reward, than just the promise of a bright future.

The best laid plans of mice and managers oft gang awry and Arsène admitted that it was a blow to lose the limited amount of experience in the Arsenal midfield, with the summer departures of Flamini and Hleb and the loss of Rosicky for the entire season. Right from game one, the writing was on the wall, as while Samir Nasri is undoubtedly a skilful footballer, he was never going to bring to the party the sort of stature and physical presence that our lightweight midfield was crying out for.
You only had to look at the TV pictures of the unintimidating presence of the team lining up in the tunnel prior to a game, to appreciate why the humble likes of Hull and Stoke fancied having a go at us. In truth our Premiership race was already run in losing 5 of the first 14 encounters, before Alex Song’s physicality helped to shore up our positively porous midfield.

Yet with Song having reverted to centre-back in the past couple of games, we’re reminded that Wenger was forced to use him as a defensive midfielder because he didn’t really have anyone else in the squad who fitted this bill. Denilson continues to blossom, but I have my doubts whether he’ll ever quite have Fabregas’ creativity, or the dogged destructive talents, to be that vital ball winner to complement all our ball players.

Another diminutive, ball-juggling deity would’ve hardy topped most Gooners Xmas wish list, but I got the distinct sense that Shava arrived in the January sales, more as a panacea to fan pressure on the Gunners purse, than as a specific piece in the Wenger jigsaw. Mercifully Arshavin looks set to prove that he’s far more than a placebo and perhaps Arsène’s biggest ricket of the season was to deny the Ruski his big day out at Wembley.

With hindsight, it was more good fortune, than good football which took us to two semi-finals and perhaps being within touching distance of the big-eared prize, Wenger committed the cardinal sin of forgetting to focus one game at a time. Another “close but no cigar” season was made all the more painful due to the humiliating way in which the humidor was snapped shut so severely in both semi-finals. Still, if Villa hadn’t run out of steam, we might’ve struggled to qualify for the Champions League!

Hopefully there a cotchel of potential leaders amongst the kids who are about to cruise to an FA Youth Cup victory at Anfield on Tuesday, on the 20th anniversary of that magical Micky Thomas moment and so I guess that unlike the vast majority of clubs that are destined to end every season, entirely empty-handed, we must be grateful for small mercies.

The ultimate litmus test is one’s preparedness to once again put oneself into hock up to the eyeballs, in order to pay for renewals and like all those freeloaders in the media who claim that they’d be prepared to put their hands in their pockets to watch the Arsenal, I remain convinced that in an insecure world, the return in terms of unadulterated footballing pleasure ensures that a season ticket at the Arsenal is one of the soundest investments I’ll ever make!

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Bouldie's Bairns, Bogus Waiting List

G'day fellow Gooners,

I thought the most impressive thing about last night's performance by the kids was that they managed to make a supposedly impressive LIverpool youth side look so damn ordinary (with Amoo on their right flank just about the only Liverpool player to come away with any credit)

I must admit I was a little concerned when our midfield dynamo, Manny Frimpong, limped off so early on, but as others have said, we witnessed a similar effect as the one we've seen in the first XI, where playing Fabregas further forward prevents him having the same sort of impact on the game, as Cesc has when playing in the middle of the park. It was only when Frimpong went off and Wilshere moved back to partner Coquelin at the heart of the Young Guns midfield that our "midfield Mozart" truly started to influence the game with his incisive passing and his perceptive football brain.

The other player who really impressed me was Kyle Bartley at centre-back, as apart from our youngsters defence having the sort of composure that's so often lacking in the first XI's panic-stricken backline, Bartley also appears to have a great range of passing and a decent touch for a defender. What's more it was an absolute joy to see him and Ayling going forward for set-pieces and really troubling the Liverpool defence. I really can't remember the last time I saw anyone from the first XI going for a header in the box with genuine belief and commitment. I'm sure that Bouldie must've been positively "kvelling" with pride when Jay Emmanuel-Thomas scored from a near post flick-on (in case anyone is too young to recall, Bouldie must've lost much of his hair when partaking in this particular party-piece)

Watching a recording of the Setanta broadcast, it was great to see the likes of Fabregas, Walcott, Gibbs and Ramsey all watching on from the stands (although I have to wonder just what part of AW's high-energy, broccoli based dietary regime is made up by the bland, char-broiled Arsenal burgers that Cesc was seen chowing down on at the start of the evening - and does the club captain have to pay, or does he get a work discount?)

It seems a bit churlish to be complaining about anything, after such a supremely poised display by Bouldie's bairns, but I couldn't help but groan in frustration at the sight of Gilles Sunnu doing a Drogba, cynically going down after some contact on the edge of the box, when you'd hope that at their tender age, on reaching the point where they're through, one on one with the keeper, they'd want to be staying on their feet and trying to bury a potential goal scoring opportunity, instead of playing the odds and settling for a set-piece on the edge of the area.

Also I know Rhys Murphy's earning a reputation as something of a goal poacher, but I'm not sure I agreed with Sunnu's substitution, as at that point in the game, with the Scousers a little stretched, trying to save their blushes, by achieving a less embarrassing scoreline, Murphy lacks Sunnu's searing pace and I wondered if the French lad might be that much more likely to leave leggy Liverpool defenders trailing in his wake, taking advantage of the ball over the top. But then who am I to be questioning SB?

I recall in an earlier round against Wolves at Underhill, Murphy was stretchered off early on and Sunnu came on to score a hat-trick. But I seem to recall leaving with the impression that his hat-trick wasn't a result of stunning skill on Gilles part, but that he was blessed with "right time, right place" good fortune.

Meanwhile I reckon the only position Jay Emmanuel-Thomas hasn't played during this cup run has been in goal and I know the Young Guns captain only began to turn it on second-half, but there was a lesson there for Abou Diaby about doing a job for ones team. Jay seems so incredibly versatile that I really don't think they know his best position. Despite his quick feet, he's so big and strong that he seems a little wasted playing out wide.

I have to admit that I was a little surprised to see an old-school defender like Bouldie opting for a zonal system in defence, but then I recall being similarly shocked the last time I cornered Martin Keown on this topic, as I automatically assumed Boom-Boom was bound to be a 'man for man' man, when I asked him to explain to me the reasons why so many seemingly learned managers opt for a zonal system. But he basically dismissed my enquiry, as if to suggest that one simply has to accept that if someone as astute as AW opts for a zonal defence, then obviously it has to be the best option.

My feeling has always been that when a defender marks an area, instead of an player at set-pieces, when an opponent enters a defender's particular zone, the defender is at a disadvantage, as he's trying to jump from a standing start, against someone who's converting horizontal speed into vertical height and the player attacking the ball is bound to get the jump on a zonal defence because he's got a bit of momentum. But again, what do I know and so long as a zonal defence works on the night, I'm not going to complain

If I'm entirely honest, I was just a little disappointed that after such an incredibly dominant performance, we didn't put the result completely to bed (perhaps with one more goal). I don't know about anyone else, but I kind of got the impression that once we'd scored the fourth, we became a little casual, when I'd have loved to have seen evidence of more of a killer instinct, of the sort that would've left all the Scousers knowing there was no point turning up next week.

However having heard a barmy statistic about no youth team coming back from a three goal deficit in the second leg, to win the cup since the fifties, I guess I should be feeling a little more secure. I just hope that the scoreline doesn't influence Bouldie's team selection next Tuesday in a negative fashion, with him believing we only have to hang on to what we've already got. Hopefully we will go out and take the game to Liverpool at Anfield, as if we sit back and invite them on, in front of a partisan home crowd, should the Scousers score early, it could be a long, nerve wracking evening. There's me....always the optimist :-)

Finally, as 1st June draws nigh, I'm beginning to panic about our season ticket renewals. I'm not having a moan, as if I'm entirely honest, at £995, relatively speaking I reckon when it comes to a blinding view for ones buck, we've got just about the best value seats in the gaff. However with an additional 170 quid odd per ticket for the additional cup games (over and above the 7 included in the price) this season, the total for our two seats next term comes to the best part of two and a half grand.

With Róna not having anything like the same emotional attachment to the new stadium and with us not having a clue how we're going to come up with the cost of both tickets (barring me digging out a sawn-off and a stockinged mask!), she's suggested I could lease out her ticket for the season. I wouldn't have the chutzpah to ask anyone to pay for this season's extra cup games, but after putting out a few feelers, I've not had a single tickle to date. I know that there are plenty of other season ticket holders in a similar boat who are currently considering their options, but we're told that there's a waiting list for season tickets which numbers 40,000 and in which case, one would've expected any available seats to be snapped up in an instant, never mind having to tout them on the internet.

So if anyone fancies a blinding pitch for all (or perhaps part?) of next season, halfway between the halfway line and the away fans corner, in the lower tier, for the face value cost of a "mere" 995 quid (some calculate this cost in terms of category A,B matches etc, but I prefer the old-fashioned method of dividing the cost by the number of game, which works out at just over £38 per match for the included 26 games) please don't hesitate to get in touch. I guess the ideal "tenant" would already be deaf in their right ear, as I'd have no worries of the litigation that might result next May from any such an affliction, after spending a season enduring my incessant hollering. Moreover, according to tradition, in the absence of my missus, any new occupant might have to suffer me instinctvly grabbing hold of their hand for the more tense moments. But when we win the league next May, I promise you won't be obliged to sit on my face :-)

Big Love
Bernard

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Monday, 18 May 2009

Over, But Definitely Not Out!

Hi folks,

In answer to the couple of queries amongst last week's comments, as I've mentioned below, I was fortunate to attend the Shareholders Q & A with le Gaffer last Thursday, after a shareholder mate of mine allowed me to use their invite. So a couple of you were correct in your belief that it was me who was see on on the broadcast on Arsenal TV, putting the penultimate question to Arsène.

It was interesting, as Wenger took a couple of questions about the club captaincy at the beginning of the session, with one shareholder wondering if the fact that 8 or 9 Arsenal players had worn the captain's armband in just this one season, had somehow demeaned the honour afforded to victorious club captains of yesteryear, like Frank McClintock and Tony Adams. In response Wenger suggested that it could be viewed as a positive, that there were 8 or 9 potential captains in our present squad. He also referred to his belief in collective responsibility and went on to describe two types of captains, in terms of one who's highly-visible in the media, making all the right noises at the appropriate times and the more reserved type, who might be less vocal, but who demonstrates his leadership capabilities in the manner in which he conducts himself, both on the pitch and in the dressing room.

Personally I've always sensed that Arsène doesn't set too much store in the captaincy. His habit of handing out the armband to whoever happens to have seniority in his lime-up that day, leads me to conclude that he views it more as a token recognition of time served, rather than having any great expectations that the wearer will automatically adopt a role as the obvious team leader. Perhaps AW chops and changes captains according to whoever happens to be the elder statesman on the day, in the hope of seeing one of his players blossom with the additional responsibility and suddenly demonstrating the sort of leadership qualities which hadn't previously been apparent.

However, le Gaffer would never be heard denigrating his squad, or their attributes in public. Yet it seems to me that in the absence of any obvious leadership candidates in our current squad, he's forced to rely on the principles of collective responsibility that they share amongst themselves. There was a brief moment at last week's Q & A where he near as damn admitted as much. Having left it almost to the very end of the session to return to the subject, I suggested (although doubtless not nearly so lucidly, as there's a distinct sense of disconnection between my gob and my brain, whenever I try to speak off the cuff in public) that when I looked around at the players trudging off the pitch at half-time in our two recent, devastating defeats, it was obvious that their heads had dropped and I couldn't envisage any of them having the strength of personality, or the character traits necessary, to truly rally their team mates, by instilling in them the determination and the belief to be able to turn things around.

Bearing in mind the extremely young average age of Arsène's current squad, I asked him whether he thought we might benefit from having a leadership figure, with the presence and stature of the likes of Puyol or Terry. Perhaps I was mistaken, but it seemed as if our manager dropped his guard momentarily, by admitting "what team wouldn't benefit from this sort of leader", before qualifying this by stating that the two quick goals scored by Man Utd were such a mighty blow and left our lot so crushed that no-one, or nothing could've succeeded in lifting their morale.

Arsène may never admit as much and will continue to try and convince us that his team can overcome with multiple captains on the pitch, but I rather suspect that he'd be no less delighted than the rest of us, to discover someone with the sort of ideal personality to be "the daddy" on the pitch. The problem being that these sort of players just don't grow on trees. You can count the Premiership's genuine leaders on the fingers of one hand and they are all homegrown!

So Arsène could try to draft in a little more strength of personality and bolster the more timid members of the Gunners squad, with the sort of players who have the presence and stature necessary to command both fear and respect in equal measure, when lining up with the opposition in the tunnel prior to a game, but in truth no matter the size of the obscene transfer fees and the hyper-inflated wage packets, these will never buy us that "die for the cause" determination, which the likes of Carragher, Terry and Neville have been steeped in since they were in short pants.

Gary Neville may not have the same intimidating aura as Roy Keane, but even in the absence of Utd's current club captain, there are a sufficient number of strong personalities in Fergie's squad for them to be able to stand firm, when it look as if the wheels are beginning to come off. There's no problem with the Arsenal's ethos of collective responsibility when we are going great guns, but it's been blatantly obvious for several seasons now that this squad is devoid of that rock of stability needed to be able to build a bridgehead when things begin to go awry.

There was a time when I thought Philippe Senderos might have what it takes, personality-wise, but sadly it seems Phillipe couldn't make up for in character, for what he lacks in basic ability. I've yet to see anyone in red & white since, who's come across as having anything like the necessary outgoing personality on the pitch to carry it off as a genuine leader of men. I ask myself if I had the misfortune to walk into a boozer full of Spurs fans with the Arsenal squad, our captain should be the one player I'd instinctively want to be hiding behind when the fists start flying. Whereas sadly these days I'd probably be wanting a piggyback from Theo, to ensure I didn't get left behind, in the dash for the door!

There were complaints at the Q & A that following Kieran Gibbs' costly slip against Man Utd, none of his team mates came over to put a reassurring arm around the youngster. Wenger contended that Van Persie did actually make an effort to console Keiran. I can't honestly recall seeing Robin assume the responsibility for trying to boost our young full-backs seriously deflated morale. But I do remember being similarly disappointed a few days later, at the forlorn sight of Kolo lying on the deck staring at the grass, after having inadvertently turned the ball into our own net. Instead of anyone rallying around to try and pick Touré up both physically and psychologically, his team mates turned their backs to prepare for the restart.

If Wenger knows that the attributes which we've been most found wanting for when the chips are down, are not available to purchase off the shelf, then perhaps he's correct in trying to carry on regardless, in the hope that what doesn't kill his young squad, will make them stronger and that they will eventually discover the necessary spirit of togtherness, as a result of what they've been through.

However I for one will be going to Friday's first-leg of the FA Youth Cup final, not primarily interested in witnessing evidence of the same brand of football being played throughout the club. As happy as I would be to see Jack Wilshere running rings around the Scousers and demonstrating that he might soon be ready to challenge the likes of Arshavin for a first XI place, I will be far more excited if the likes of East Londoner Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Manny Frimpong (who despite playing for England youth teams was born in Ghana and who has something of the all-action, box-to-box energetic style of his compatriot, Michael Essien about him), Bolton born centre-back, Kyle Bartley (apparently a gentle giant who needs to acquire more of a mean streak), or in fact any of this extremely promising bunch of youngsters are showing signs of the sort of confident, extrovert and vocal on pitch persona, that might be combined with a do or die commitment to the Gunners cause, to mark them out as potential fast-track candidates for the captaincy of the first team.

Sadly it seems to me that in an era where these prodigies are made all too acutely aware of their multi-million pound value at such an early age, with a coterie of agents and assorted liggers prepared to do their every bidding, it's rare to see any of those at the very top level, tearing about the pitch with total 110 per cent commitment. Perhaps their young egos are massaged so much that they feel they've little to prove, or perhaps the intense hunger one might expect at a point in their lives where 90 minutes of football can make or break a career, is inhibited by the fact that they've becomes far too focused on selfishly protecting the tool of their trade, to be throwing themselves about the pitch in any sort of reckless fashion for the cause of any one club?

I was watching one of those marvelously nostalgic (at least for those of us old enough to remember the respective era) "Time of Their Lives" episodes on Sky Sports a couple of weeks back, where three of Bill Shankly's Liverpool side from the 70s spoke of one of their colleagues coming out for the second-half with a broken collar bone. Apparently his only concession to his injury was that he avoided taking throw-ins! Such selfless devotion is a million miles from these mollycoddled modern times, where players are prepared to limp out of crucial encounters to be wrapped in cotton wool because they're suffering from such a critical affliction as tight hamstrings!

Meanwhile I must point out that contrary to some exagerrated reports, Wenger didn't slaughter our home fans at this Q & A session. After commending our typically staunch travelling support, he merely reflected that at a time when such a young side is most in need of the home fans, to boost their morale, we could be more supportive, instead of getting on their backs by haranguing them. Our manager was merely voicing the concerns of all those of us, who feel that the extra twenty odd thousand capacity at our new gaff seems to be made up almost exclusively of the sort of nouveau football fans, who are far quicker to criticize if they don't get an instant return on the extortionate price of their match ticket, than they are to get behind their team. They don't seem to appreciate the football "supporters" unwritten contract, which necessitates keeping the faith, through thick and thin and where the highs of success are so much more rewarding, for having remained resolute through the despairing troughs of defeat.

Arsène has also come in for criticism for the recent rumours linking him with the Real Madrid job. To my mind it would be far more likely that the tabloid media have spun this gossip to give it some mileage, rather than it being some Machievellian warning from our manager, a shot across the bows of all the ungrateful backstabbers, to remind them that they should be careful what they wish for. As far as I can tell, Wenger's only crime has been that where in the past he has only ever answered questions about managing other clubs with a straight bat, stating his intent to honour his contract with the Arsenal, on this occasion he caught an edge (and who knows if it was a googlie of a wuestion) when responding that the project of Madrid chief Perez would interest any coach.

Then again, in light of the number of the absurd comments of the past couple of weeks, it wouldn't be so surprising if Arsène was beginning to wonder if his efforts are no longer appreciated by disloyal sections of the Arsenal's audience (as opposed to genuine Gunners' supporters). After all, we all need to "feel the love"!

Myself I hope that I remain in the majority, with my conviction that "Arsène still knows" and I pray Friday will produce a healthy turn out at our place, to roar the kids on, to a decisive first-leg result in the FA Youth Cup, so that they can relax and enjoy a fitting celebration of the 20th anniversary of that Mickey Thomas moment in the second-leg at Anfield next Tuesday and be rewarded by returning with something to at long last occupy the unused men's (boys) team trophy cabinet which has sadly remained utterly barren ever since we moved to our new home. Here's hoping they can bring back what might turn out to be the first of many?

Keep the faith
Big Love
Bernard
______________________________________________________________________________________


It would’ve been some consolation if we could’ve pooped the Old Trafford party on Saturday. On the pitch, we seemed mainly intent on leaving some decidedly masculine reminders of our age range, on Patrice Evra’s shins! Yet fearing the sort of rout that ended Igor Stepanovs’ Arsenal career some seasons back, the majority of us were just grateful to see the Gunners salvage some pride, enabling us to come away from Old Trafford with our dignity intact, having given Utd a decent run for their money.

Nevertheless I was disappointed that we were so toothless in the final third. Nasri failed to have the sort of significant impact he’d had in the reverse fixture and it certainly wasn’t Arshavin’s most influential encounter to date. Sadly even our subs failed to offer the expected impetus up front, with Theo no less anonymous against O’Shea, than he was against Evra a couple of weeks back and despite his alleged huge ego, Bentdner didn’t appear to have the balls to take the Utd defence on.

If I owned an Arsenal share, I’d be forced to flog this investment just about now, in order to be able to afford our season ticket renewals. But I was fortunate to be able to attend a shareholders Q & A session last week, with our esteemed leader, as proxy for a pal of mine. Both here and in the build up to the match at Old Trafford, Arsène pointed our attention to the fact that the Gunners are only 3 goals short of the 67 scored by Saturday’s Champions, using this as evidence to contend that we are no less potent than Utd going forward and that it’s the anomaly in the number of goals conceded that has cost us most dear.

However I’ve always retained a healthy distrust of statistics, whereas I worry that monsieur Wenger will spend his summer focusing on our 21 game unbeaten run and other more meaningless benchmarks, like Manuel Almunia’s 8 game clean-sheet record at our place, to the point where he might convince himself that the Gunners weren’t that far short of the mark.

In truth, when all is said and done, the only really telling number is the potential 15 to 21 point gulf between us and the title-winners and it’s not the quantity of goals that counts, but the capacity to score the ones that really matter. It feels as if we’ve been moaning about our defensive lack of composure and our vulnerability at set-pieces, since the demise of the fab back five. Although Alex Song’s assured display as Kolo’s centre-back partner on Saturday was something of a broadside for the Hangeland bandwagon, even if this was Utd at their most unambitious. Yet the important difference being that in the past we’ve invariably been able to compensate for defensive errors, with the calibre of players up front, capable of conjuring a rabbit out of the hat when most required.

Some might point to Adebayor’s poor return of only 10 league goals, but the Togonator notched up 24 last season and I’m convinced it can’t be a coincidence that we’ve been starved of silverware ever since, Henry, the club’s most prolific striker ever, was able to rely on the likes of Ljungberg and Pires to shoulder some of the goalscoring burden, with both banging in 15 odd from midfield. Whereas this season, we’ve only had 6 each from Nasri and Arshavin (4 at Anfield) to add to Van Persie and Bendtner’s meagre 9 goal tallies, with the remaining 20 league goals spread throughout the entire squad.

Perhaps it would’ve been a different story, if our diminutive Russian had started the season and not been cup-tied in Europe. Hopefully in future Andrey (and perhaps A.N. Others?) might offer that single inspirational moment, which could’ve made all the difference in our abysmal Jan/Feb streak of goalless games. Any lingering hopes of a challenge petered out and without Villa’s subsequent spectacular collapse, we might have struggled to even qualify for the Champions League, as we began an instantly forgettable run of four successive 0-0 draws (at home to West Ham, Sunderland and Fulham and away to Spurs) 5 points behind Villa and 8 behind the leaders. By the time we travelled to the Hawthorns at the beginning of March, 6 points separated us from that crucial fourth place qualification for the Champions League, while Utd had disappeared some 16 points into the distance.

Hopefully the inevitable rumours linking our manager with Real Madrid might shock some sense into those misguided Gooners who’ve lost patience with Le Prof. While other clubs have buckled under the burden of debt from new stadium developments, I can’t honestly see Wenger walking away, just as he comes within touching distance of an opportunity to realize his vision. What’s more, as far as I’m concerned, Arsène’s credit is good for at least another couple of seasons. Compared to the vast majority of clubs, it’s hardly as if we’re exactly suffering, while watching this “work in progress”. I only have to imagine the delight on the faces of our rivals, the day Wenger eventually departs, to remind myself quite how fortunate we are to have him.

I’ve wanted a keeper capable of dominating his area ever since Spunky retired but it’s not an entire spine that this squad needs, as some might contend, since we’ve ably demonstrated that on our day, we are a match for absolutely anyone. But to grind out 3 points against the “park the bus” tactics of the lesser lights, or to triumph in adversity, we need to discover some real backbone of our own. I was envious of Jamie Carragher’s double-barreled assault on his “lackadaisy” full-back on Sunday. Such steely attributes are unlikely to be available off the shelf, but having supped defeat’s bitter draught so young, perhaps maturity will foster the iron-will necessary to turn this team into genuine winners?

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics

Hi folks,

I've just returned from the Q & A session with Arsène Wenger that was held at the club this evening for the benefit of around 100 odd shareholders. I only happened to be there as the proxy for a pal of mine, as to be totally frank, if I was in possession of any Arsenal shares at present, I'd probably be forced to flog them in order to pay for our all too imminent season ticket renewals! The event was recorded for Arsenal TV and I believe it's aired at 9pm tomorrow evening (Friday) but I assume as with everything on the Arsenal channel, there will be plenty of repeats. It's well worth watching, as Wenger was asked several questions for which we all wanted answers (eg. why Arshavin didn't start in the FA Cup semi-final)

It was only as Arsène reflected on our season and attempted to put things into some perspective that I realised I'd neglected to post out this week's Irish Examiner diary piece. With the great man having given voice to some of my own thoughts and with some of the questions that he answered reflecting my own concerns, it seemed appropriate to send it out in advance of the broadcast of the program, if only for the benefit of my own smugness :-)

What's more, with some misguided Gooners having been sharpening their knives these past couple of silverware-starved seasons, I suppose it was inevitable that these would be drawn and aimed at Arsène's back, no sooner had our prospects of the big-eared prize disappeared over the horizon. So having felt obliged to jump to his defence in this week's piece, it wouldn't be right for me not to let it see the light of day.

Meanwhile for those who've moaned about me harping on constantly about the fickleness of our home support, le Boss also made a point of differentiating between our staunch travelling supporters, compared to the crowd at home games, where he believes that with such a young side, it has never been more important for us to get behind them, rather than on their backs.

BTW although Arsène was typically supportive of his squad (even Adebayor!) with his customarily blinkered efforts to deflect all criticism (and it would be foolish of us to expect anything else when AW speaks in public), he did make some effort to reassure us that he would be splashing the cash this summer....so let the speculation commence?

If there is some consolation for us to take from the events of the past couple of weeks, it is that if we had gone on to make either of the finals, or somehow pipped Chelsea to third place, it would've only had the effect of papering over the cracks of the current squad's deficiencies. Whereas with the embarrassing manner of our defeat to Man Utd, even the most biased Gooner would struggle to deny our obvious weaknesses.

However Arsène was quick to point out this evening that for all the potency of the Man Utd strikeforce, they've only scored 67 goals this season, compared to our 64 and on browsing through Sunday's matchday programme, whilst sitting on the throne these past few days, I noticed various references to several similarly positive statistics this season (eg. our unbeaten run, Almunia's clean sheets, away goal record etc).

Those of us who watched all of these games in person will know that no matter how much of a positive slant one puts on such statistics, they don't really tell the true story of something of a damp squib of a season, where the Gunner's flame has only truly burned bright during all too brief cameo moments.

Therefore I can't help but have some concerns that as Arsène spends his summer analysing all such information down to the Nth degree, he will end up coming to the conclusion that the current squad are only a whisker away from having what it takes, when we'd want him to be banging down Hill-Wood's door to get to the cheque book!

Big Love
Bernard
___________________________________________________


For most football supporters, a "close but no cigar" season, including two semi-finals and qualification for the Champions League, would be considered a relatively successful campaign. Yet judging by the recent shameful displays from the not so staunch sections of the Arsenal’s audience, I can’t envisage too many Gooners lingering to express their gratitude, when it comes to the now traditional trudge around the pitch at our last home game in two weeks time.

Arsène Wenger set the bar so high, with all the success that followed his arrival at the club that far too many of our spoilt rotten fans now seem to fail to appreciate that it is an inevitable fact of life that the vast majority of sides are destined to end virtually every season empty-handed. Turn the clock back a couple of months and most Gooners would’ve bitten your hand off, just to be guaranteed to finish above Villa in that precious 4th place. Whereas the absurd levels of displeasure being expressed following last weeks’s abject failure to reach a European final in Rome and Sunday’s subsequent capitulation, might lead one to conclude that le Gaffer has been transformed from one of the most respected managers in world football, into an utterly clueless Mr Magoo!

Let us not forget that this is a man who in the eyes of most people within the game, is singlehandedly responsible for changing the face of Premiership football. If you put the events of the past few seasons into proper perspective, in truth the fact that Wenger’s managed to merely maintain a veneer of competitiveness, is no less a feat than his former glories. All around us other clubs have either gone out and actively pursued a sugar-daddy investor, or have mortgaged themselves up to the hilt, so that they could spunk up millions in vain attempts to try and play catch-up with the top four posse, or merely to avoid the dire consequences of losing their place at the Premiership trough, while Arsène has been expected to work miracles on a comparative shoestring.

If le Prof is under pressure now, as fans lose patience with his failure to deliver those all important silver pots, for me the fault lies with the club, for feeding our expectations instead of dampening them down. Instead of spouting all this “ringfenced” rubbish and repeatedly insisting that their parsimonious manager had plenty of money to spend, in my humble opinion, it would’ve been much better for them to have admitted that the new stadium project was going to put a strain on our resources which would necessitate a period of belt-tightening. We could’ve coped with that, if we knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel, where we would come out on a sound financial footing, with a stadium to provide us with the sort of spending power to match our competitors. It certainly would’ve been preferable to trying to kid us that we’ve been starting every campaign on a level playing-field with the competition, leaving us bitterly disappointed because we’ve come up short once again.

Arsène has received plenty of criticism for his rigid refusal to deviate from a policy of producing our own teenage star turns, instead of splashing the cash to buy experienced talent off the shelf. But le Boss is no fool, he must know only too well that a winning team requires a blend of characters. Personally I don’t believe his is some sort of crusade to force the rest of the footballing world to bend to his will, but that he’s merely been making the very most of his rather limited resources. A quick glance at the two benches last Tuesday night, comparing the likes of Berbatov, Tevez and Giggs, with Bendtner, Vela and Eboué was all the evidence one needed of the Gunners struggle to punch above our weight.

Despite Arsène’s best empirical efforts, football is far from being an exact science. You buy the best available individual ingredients (or attempt to grow your own) and throw them into the melting pot, in the hope that this will produce the sort of chemistry that results in a tasty team. Setting aside the complaints about individual inadequacies, for me, the most patently obvious deficiency in our last two thoroughly depressing outings has been a lack of character (both on and off the pitch!). This is a quality that can’t be measured in all our manager’s statistics and it’s appeared to be a blind-spot of his, ever since he belittled the captaincy by handing it out as a carrot, or merely as a recognition of seniority, rather than using the armband to identify leadership traits.

When this team’s talent takes centre stage, we’re capable of giving anyone a run for their money. But it’s how one reacts in adversity which is the true mark of character and watching the players drag themselves back into the dressing room at break in our last two defeats, it’s been evident that our squad is sorely lacking, when it comes to players with the strength of personality to impose their will on their team mates and inspire a comeback.

Perhaps Stan Kroenke’s ambitions will negate the effects of a recession and provide Wenger with a real war-chest this summer, rather than an imaginary one. But buying players is a relatively easy task, compared with the problem of unearthing the grit and determination necessary to triumph in the sort of backs to the wall encounters that are the mark of genuine contenders.

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Just Deserts?

You know how dog owners often come to resemble their animals, well I’m afraid that our team seemed to reflect a large majority of our fans this evening, with a display both on and off the pitch that was entirely lacking in character.

Believe me, I’m not knocking the club for making an effort to make the occasion special, by shelling out for all those flags and on the basis that I was expecting to find cheapest possible, little plastic Chinese imports, I have to admit to being quite impressed. Yet considering how devoid our new stadium usually is of such colourful displays, I couldn’t help but harbour some sense of resentment that it all felt just a little artificial.

Normally Champions League games at our gaff are those occasions when the ground feels least like MY football club, as so many of the seats in the immediate vicinity seem to be occupied by complete strangers and large sections of the Upper Tier are occupied by the besuited punters who’ve managed to purloin a ticket courtesy of UEFA’s corporate partners. You can seen them all being led down the stairs by a red jacketed steward at the break, like neatly dressed sheep, all heading for the trough in roped off sections of Club Level.

However tonight most of the regulars were present around me and it was as if “for one night only” our ground was to be transformed into a partisan cauldron of colour and noise. And so it proved, for all of eight minutes, as the team responded to the intense, cacophonous atmosphere of those opening moments, with exactly the sort of high-tempo start that was necessary, if we were going to rattle Man Utd with an early goal.

Sadly, if ever confirmation was needed that this was something of a superficial hoax, it came when every last drop of energy evaporated, as Keiran Gibbs had the misfortune to slip over and Ji-Sung Park clipped the ball over Almunia into the back of the net (with credit to the Korean, as he still had plenty to do following our full-backs mishap). There was me foolishly believing that our new Home of Football had finally found its voice and no matter what the outcome, we were set to roar the team on, as if our very lives depended on the result, providing the team with the sort of genuine 12th man support that’s not been seen since we departed Highbury.

Yet no sooner had the goal gone in, than the ground reverted to being more mortuary than library, with Ronaldo showing no mercy, waiting only a further three minutes, before the arrogant gobshite conned the ref into awarding the free-kick from which he read the Gunners the last rites! It was something akin to the events in Las Vegas a couple of nights earlier and if it had been a boxing match, the ref would’ve saved us from further punishment by diving in to stop the fight.

0-2 down after only eleven minutes and with four goals being such a tall order, some of the Gunners’ young heads were bound to drop and so when our support was most needed, all those unusually vociferous gloryhunting Gooners who’d been giving it their all when hope abounded, suddenly fell silent. What’s more, as I studied the team as they trudged off at the break, with their chins dragging along the turf, I looked around for the sort of characters who might stand up in our dressing room to demand “I ain’t having this” and I’m sad to say that there doesn’t appear to be a natural leader amongst the lot of them, with the sort of mental fortitude necessary to act as the rock around which the rest of his team mates could rally.

So with a crowd that’s only prepared to react to events on the pitch, rather than inspire them and a team devoid of any players with the sort of presence and stature necessary to galvanize the Gunners into producing any sort of serious attempt at a fightback, a miraculous comeback was hardly on the cards.

With the game already lost, I seriously hope Keiran Gibbs sustained some sort if injury that merited him being withdrawn, rather than Arsène doing serious long-term damage to his confidence by making him the scapegoat. Because if there was some sort of silver lining to such a demoralising display, it was that if this side had made it to the final, it would’ve merely papered over the cracks of what has basically been a pretty mediocre Champions League campaign.

Although we have proved on several occasions that on their day, this Arsenal side has the ingredients to take on and beat the very best, it’s hard to recall one occasion this season when the Gunners engine has been perfectly tuned and running on all eleven cylinders.

Adebayor discovered tonight that after having spent almost the entire season loping around with his head up his backside, banking on a big money move in the summer, he simply can’t produce form and fitness on demand for the big occasion. And having returned to the fray from an injury-troubled spell, Van Persie was little more effective.

Myself I would’ve settled for us coming out for the second half to win back some self-respect and although admittedly the longer the clock ticked on, the more open we were to the swift counter, if ever we needed a lesson in the sort of incisiveness that has been sorely lacking while we impotently pass the ball around amongst ourselves in front of the opposition, it came with the death knell of Utd’s third.

Only moments earlier I’d been vocally abusing the little gurrier Rooney as a “fat granny shagger” but as much as it pains me, I can’t help but have the utmost respect for the lad’s footballing ability. A depressingly ineffective Theo Walcott could do well to take a lesson or two from the way in which Rooney needed only the briefest of glances up, as he was barrelling forward, to know exactly where to put the ball on a plate for his annoyingly gifted Portuguese pal. It went against the grain, but I honestly couldn’t help but put my hands together in admiration when the ugly little turd was subbed soon after.

If the on pitch massacre wasn’t bad enough, I had to endure the abject surrender of some of the occupants of the seats around us, as they walked out with half an hour on the clock. Exactly what sort of “supporters” slink shamefully away from a Champions League semi, leaving THEIR team still struggling to cling to the last vestiges of pride, amidst the ultimate ignominy of their own fans doing a cowardly runner, certainly not my kind!

Who knows, perhaps the kids will go on to lift the FA Youth Cup and in so doing, demonstrate that there are several youngsters ready to make the big step-up. Yet we’ll be extremely lucky if more than one or two prove themselves ready made first-team material and like I say, if there is any consolation for missing out on a Champions League final, it is that surely Arsène cannot continue kidding himself or us that this Arsenal squad has sufficient depth in strength, compared to the multiple options available to our competitors.

A quick glance at the two benches tonight answers most questions and makes a complete mockery of the oft touted claptrap that the clubs move into property development has been ringfenced so as to avoid effecting the Gunners spending power:
Berbatov, Tevez, Giggs, Scholes, Da Silve, Evans v Bendtner, Eboué, Vela, Silvestre, Denilson, Diaby

The worst of it is that it could be that we will once again have to endure another all-English Champions League final, wishing that both teams could lose. Although I will have some sympathy for Darren Fletcher if the whistle-happy Italian official lacks the humility to admit his mistake and denies him his chance to appear in the final. I guess instinct took over, but in truth it would’ve been better for Fletcher to have given Fab a free run on goal rather than risk an unwarranted red card, as even if Cesc had scored, it was hardly going to effect the result.

Although I’ve had a fancy Chelsea will beat Barca, we can but hope that Titi will do us all a favour tomorrow night, so that we can at least have a team to be up for come 27th May!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

How We Get There, I Don't Care

G'day fellow Gooners,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Monday, 4 May 2009

How We Get There, I Don't Care

G'day fellow Gooners,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come on you Reds
Bernard
____________________________________________________________________________



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com