Atmosphere wise, the short trip to Fulham is always one of my favourite outings of the season, as with Arsenal fans being allocated the entire Putney Stand, the craic in our stand behind the goal at Craven Cottage is invariably up to ninety.
Sadly the cost is even higher. I found myself in a seat directly behind a mate and his six-year old son. At an extortionate 98 quid for their two tickets (behind the goal!), this hardly constitutes a cheap day-out.
The perceptive pass from Fabregas and the exquisite take and finish by Van Persie, for the only goal of the afternoon, was the solitary memorable moment. Aside from a stalwart, ‘they shall not pass’, Man of the Match performance from our 3rd choice keeper, on the pitch, there was little else to write home about.
However watching the little ‘un standing on his seat for the entire match, tugging at his embarrassed old man’s sleeve, demanding clarification of the lyrics every couple of minutes and gradually gaining sufficient confidence to raise his little arms and participate in the incessant cacophony coming from our end of the ground, it was obvious he was having a ball.
I’ve no doubt his afternoon of communal singing will live long in this lad’s memory. Although I’d love to be a fly on the wall, to see the expression on his mother’s face, when the light of her life walks in and serenades his ma, with an example of his newly acquired knowledge of terrace tunes “he’s 5ft 4, we’ve got Arshavin, f**k Adebayor!”
You know you’ve arrived in one of the more affluent parts of South West London, from the moment the programme sellers fleece you for a hefty £3.50 for a matchday program. It wasn’t so long ago that one could stand on the terraces at Craven Cottage for less than this! But then in an age when the likes of Fulham are forced to try and compete with the footballing behemoths, who benefit from grounds with more than double the Cottage’s limited capacity, you can’t blame them for doing their utmost to milk their relatively small crowds for all they’re worth.
In the week which saw the official opening of the luxury apartment complex that has become of the Arsenal’s former Home of Football, it felt quite poignant to be walking along the length of the ancient, Grade II listed frontage of Fulham’s main Johnny Haynes Stand (the oldest stand in the league, dating back to 1905, with its original wooden seats), knowing this had been saved – for the time being – from the rapacious grasp of the property developers.
With Premiership football increasingly taking place in largely homogeneous, antiseptic modern arenas, where nothing changes but the colour of the plastic seats, it’s most pleasing for sentimental fans such as myself, that quirky, proper old-fashioned football grounds like Craven Cottage continue to survive.
Saturday proved an afternoon for sentiment, as the Gunners slipped away from SW6 with all three points in the bag, following a well below par performance, where we gifted the home side far too many opportunities to deny us this rare reminder of a bygone era with a “1-0 to the Arsenal” result.
Time was, when if the Gunners went a goal ahead, away from home, you could bet the house on us being able to shut up shop and squeeze the life out of the remainder of the match. However a slender single goal margin is never enough for Wenger’s side and if it wasn’t for the characteristic ineptitude of Zamora (surely a necessity, rather than the choice of a manager as intelligent as Hodgson?), or the unexpected excellence of Vito Mannone – with a name more befitting a Sicilian mobster, perhaps Mannone made Bobby an offer he couldn’t refuse? – we would’ve undoubtedly been heading back to Highbury with our tail between our legs.
I’ve heard some positive whispers about Wojciech Szcz….the Polish kid, who tended goal against West Brom but have no prior knowledge of our Italian stallion. However aside from the communicative hesitancy on Saturday that resulted in an early collision with Gallas, since his baptism of fire in Belgium, Vito put a foot wrong. By singing his praises I’m guaranteed to be putting ‘the bok’ on him and obviously by the time you read this, Mannone will have had a ‘mare against Olympiakos. But his continued presence in the starting line-up has lead to a good deal of speculation about the alleged throat infection that’s laid Almunia low these past 3 weeks!
If there’s any substance to such rumours, I’m delighted. Almunia’s a likeable enough geezer, but it would indicate that Arsène has at long last come to terms with the fact that all the tinkering in the world with his outfield players counts for nothing, without a commanding presence between the posts.
Manuel might well be a decent shot stopper. But until such time as the Arsenal line-up is blessed with a keeper capable of dominating his area, who exudes the sort of composure that provides our centre-backs with the reassurance of knowing exactly what is and what isn’t their responsibility, our defence is always going to display the air of vulnerability which offers encouragement to opposition strikers.
It remains to be seen whether Wenger’s in-house solution can solve this problem, but it will come as a massive relief, just to know that le Prof has finally recognised that the absence of a world-class goalie is always going to be the ultimate stumbling block, in any effort to mount a serious title challenge.
Meanwhile, along with the much welcomed addition of a couple of new ‘chansons’ to the Gooner repertoire, Saturday saw the confirmation of Eboué’s redemption, easing the young Ivorian’s insecurities as his name rang out, while he and his fellow subs spent much of the second half warming up on the touchline below us.
With Shava marking his return with a bit of a stinker, the diminutive Ruski was eventually replaced by Rosicky. But the rest of our midfield wasn’t really ‘at the races’, seemingly relying on the graft of Alex Song for all the donkey-work. Diaby is capable of impressive work on the ball, but without it, far too often he switches off, leaving our defence exposed, as he fails to track his opposite number.
Vito’s valiant display was deserving of a clean sheet, but fatalist that I am, I was convinced that all his hard work would end up undone, by a last minute fumble. Thus as the floodlights came on, I was far too nervous to be able relax and enjoy the serene backdrop, as the swans floated gracefully by on the river, with the waters of the Thames reflecting the sumptuous colours of a blood red sky, as the sun dipped over the horizon. There aren’t too many football matches with the added value of a real-life Turner landscape.
It was a shock to hear that Chelsea had lost to the same Wigan side that capitulated against us the previous week, but this result at least proves that Ancelotti’s team are human. Who ever happens to be wearing the keeper’s jersey in the coming weeks, if he isn’t going to be equally over-worked, in a succession of encounters that we’ll be expected to win, against less glamorous opposition, Arsène is going to have to get the troops fired up, ramping up their focus and intensity. Otherwise we’ll be counting on our luck to hold out, but are more likely to end up catching the Blues’ cold.--
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