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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Is It Just Me?

G'day fellow Gooners

As someone who has been eating, sleeping and breathing Arsenal for as long as I can remember, in the past when we've been in with a sniff of a title at this climactic point in the season, I'd be pooping my pants at the prospect.

Sitting down to watch live coverage of last night's match at the Bridge, with the Gunners only three points behind the leaders with five games to go, I should've been a nervous wreck, kicking every ball, disturbing the neighbours as I bawled my head off at Bolton, frightening the dog and upsetting the missus, as she's always convinced that folks must think I'm referring to her with my caterwauling, screaming "You Cnut" every few minutes.

Instead of which, I sat there calmly watching the game, without once raising my voice to bellow at the inanimate box in the corner of the living room. Treacle spent the entire 90 minutes sprawled on the couch, twitching away as doubtless she devoured an entire carcass of bones in doggie dreamland, when normally she'd be cowering in a corner as a result of me not being able to restrain myself from screaming my head off.

The incompetent officials failure to punish the fairly blatant handballs didn't even trouble my blood pressure and as Chelsea accomplished their expected win, I couldn't even muster much enthusiasm when Kevin Davies came close to pinching a late equaliser. It's hard to put my finger on it, but there was a definite feeling of inevitability about Anelka's goal just before half-time and although this was far from an accomplished Chelsea performance, even if Bolton had managed to pull a goal back, you sensed that the Blues always had enough in the tank to take all three points.

In truth, I'm not sure why I bothered watching, because frankly, in contrast to some of the mouthwatering encounters over the past few weeks, Chelsea v Bolton was never going to be particularly high on entertainment value. But then I guess the fact that Murdoch's thieving conglomerate are fliching an extortionate eighty quid a month from my overdraft, including an additional tenner of my hard earned wonga for an ESPN subscription, means that I have to try and get my money's worth somehow.

I suppose somewhere in the recesses of the more optimistic bit of my brain, there was some faint hope that Jack Wilshere might feel sufficiently motivated to pull something out of the bag for the club he's grown up at. However I have to admit that if it wasn't for the fact that Wilshere was playing and if there was something more interesting on another channel, I would've been sorely tempted to turn over.

It's strange, as based on the wonderful feats of skill we saw from Wilshere in pre-season, if his progress had continued on it's expected path, I would've imagined he'd have remained at the Arsenal, where, with Fabregas now out for the remainder of the season, he might have had the opportunity to play a significant role in the closing stages. Whereas from the little I've seen of Jack's performances for Owen Coyle's side, although he hasn't looked out of place and certainly doesn't appear to struggle with the physical side of the game (was it John Terry Jack clobbered last night?), as far as his undoubted talent is concerned, he's struck me as something of a "little boy lost", unable to impose himself on matches to the point where he can make his ability count.

Perhaps it would be a completely different story if he was playing at the Arsenal, where our passing game suits his talents but I kind of suspect that there must've been an underlying motivation for sending him out on loan in the first place. I've always said that Wilshere's style of play reminds me of Joe Cole. In fact there's something about his movement on the ball which to my mind looks identical to Cole and as we've seen from Cole's somewhat sporadic career progress, he's the sort of stylish player who needs to play in a team that, if not built around him, is designed to accommodate his "libero" type role.

In truth I've not really seen that much of Wilshere in a Bolton shirt, but from the little I have seen and with Wanderers still struggling to ensure that they don't get dragged into the relegation dogfight, I must admit that I've wondered if Coyle is under some obligation to pick Jack in his first team (ie. that he was only allowed to go out on loan on the understanding that he would get first team football). Jack's apparent inability to impose his talent on the games I have seen, have left me thinking that in Coyle's shoes I would've probably opted for a less cultured footballer in his position and instead gone for a more practical, experienced old pro, to try and dig in, in games such as last night's match against the Blues. I haven't read any of the match reports but I wonder if the Bolton fans have actually seen evidence of what Wilshere is capable of since he's been there?

Meanwhile, back to my apparent apathy. Obviously I'm getting increasingly excited about the prospect of this evening's derby match. Having found an outlet for my mid-life crisis by way of my motorbike this past year or so, after one drenching too many, I have finally invested in some proper motorbike clothing. I might look like a belisha beacon and it certainly shouldn't be hard to spot myself on the terraces in my "hi-viz" jacket but I must give a plug to my motorbike couturiers Biker Gear UK as I am well chuffed with my new outfit. What's more, travelling to White Hart Lane on my motorbike with my crash helmet and my new armoured clothing, it will feel as if for the first time I will be suitably kitted up for the occasion :-)

I'm sure that like many other Gooners, I am somewhat astounded by Robin Van Persie's sudden return to fitness and will be more than a little shocked to see him involved in tonight's match. After all, after having been out injured for so many months, returning for the Derby match as his first competitive football since November would hardly seem like the most ideal situation, as one might've expected our Dutch striker's return to have been just a little more gradual, than for him to come back and be thrown straight into, what I hope will prove to be a cauldron of intensity at White Hot Lane this evening.

As every other visit down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road, tonight's match will be no less traumatic and I will come away from there no less hoarse than usual, having invested every last ounce of nervous energy into ninety crucial minutes of football. Nevertheless, I can't help but question whether perhaps my enthusiasm is waning with the passing years, or could it just be the fact that I am struggling to buy into Arsène's conviction that our decimated squad are genuine contenders.

Maybe it's just the repercussions of our demolition by Barcelona that have left me feeling somewhat blue. It's not so much the sense that the Spanish side were a superior footballing outfit (which they obviously were against the eleven who played on the night) and how much I covet some of their talented stars, but more a case of how envious I am of the makeup of the Barca squad. Quite frankly, I'll be surprised if Fabregas doesn't try to angle a move to Spain this summer and Wenger won't be able to deny him if he wants to go. Moreover in all honesty, it's getting harder and harder to make any sort of cogent argument against his return to Spain, from Fabregas' perspective.

You have to wonder how much more fervent and committed tonight's Derby game would be, if both the Arsenal and Spurs squads were made up of a dozen homegrown players and half a dozen who were borne and bred at either end of the Seven Sisters Road. The counter argument would be that neither team would be in their current elevated Premiership positions without the multi-national makeup of their squads.

Nevertheless, I can't help but look at Barcelona's side and wonder how much more excited I would be, watching an Arsenal squad play every week, where I knew that for the majority of players, their desire for the club's success matched my own passion. Where I could rest assured that there was a homegrown core of players who were desperate to achieve something at the club they'd grown up at and who wouldn't feel anywhere near the same enthusiasm for winning trophies at any other club.

No matter how much players nowadays might try to proclaim their commitment to the cause, you know full well that in truth, they're committed to no one but themselves and their own selfish pursuit of wealth and glory. When I heard the story of Adebayor being in a local tattoo parlour and being told about the tattooist's Gooner mate who has a museum's worth of memorabilia and subsequently turning up at this geezer's house and spending the evening going through all his collection, I was touched, thinking that here was a player who truly had some special feeling for the club. It wasn't the first time that I ended up disillusioned with one of our players and I am sure it won't be the last.

With their superior goal difference, I guess we'd need Chelsea to slip up twice for us to have a chance of winning the title over the next few weeks and while I quite fancy that the race is a long way from being run, I think the real reason I'm struggling for my customary fervour in this sort of circumstance, is the fact that I've seen so very little from our squad in recent months to suggest that they have the look of genuine Champions.

Mind you, if the Gunners have got to cast off the disappointment of our Champions League exit, surely this can't be any harder than the task facing Tottenham, as their fans must've been so certain that their season was going to culminate in a May day FA Cup Final. Doubtless many of you will have already seen the amusing jokes doing the rounds, but for the benefit of anyone who hasn't:-
"For sale on eBay: 20,000 Spurs FA Cup Final 2010 t-shirts, 3,500 "Ossie Is On His Way To Wembley" mugs, 5000 Spurs "Champions League 2011" hoodies. Please contact Harry on tel: 0800 one nothing, one nothing, one nothing"

If we can take advantage of their semifinal hangover, we'll be back breathing down the neck of the league leaders, seemingly with every chance of making up the ground over the last four matches. I should be walking around with my portable defibrillator to jump start my heart every time it stops over the coming month. But bizarrely it doesn't feel necessary because the prospect of us winning the title just seems so unbelievable.

There you go. I've done my utmost to tempt fate, by writing myself into an embarrassing "foot in mouth" situation, whereby I'll be left taking it all back, after the Gunner give the old enemy the sort of hiding that leaves us all waking up tomorrow morning believing that a title challenge is really on. It's over to you lads

Come on you Reds
Big Love

PS. Sounds like I won't be the only one left with my foot in my mouth. Although he should be more than used to the taste of his own toes by now, as in trying to reassure everyone that Fabregas won't be going anywhere this summer, apparently that old duffer Hill-Wood has said that Cesc wouldn't even be guaranteed to get in the Barcelona team! I guess there's no more cast iron guarantee that Fab is off than our chairman's promise!

Following the massive anti-climax of last week’s Champions League exit, I was grateful that Spurs comical FA Cup curtain call presented us Gooners with a relaxing, stress free weekend. Between the Grand National, the golf and wall to wall footie, including live coverage of “El Clásico”, it was the equivalent of an armchair sports’ fan’s nirvana, plotted up in front of the box, not having to move a muscle from midday, to midnight, other than some frantic thumb work with the remote control.

Watching the massed ranks of Madrid’s quarter of a billion quid’s worth of individual footballing talent, being made to look so mundane by the buoyant Barca collective, as the Catalan side cruised into La Liga’s box seat with a decisive 0-2 drubbing in the Bernabeu, only served to confirm that there was absolutely no shame in our increasingly unequivocal European exit.

With Arsenal players dropping like flies in advance of last Tuesday’s mammoth occasion, initially our additional injuries only stoked the optimistic flames of hope, for a ‘backs to the wall’, against all odds outcome. But the eventual appearance of Silvestre in the starting line-up felt like the final doom-laden coup de grace. In an irony-filled season of over-achievement, this was the moment when it dawned on most Gooners that Barca was going to be a bridge too far for our devastated squad.

I suppose that in truth, the absence of so many star turns (Fabregas, Van Persie, Arshavin, Song, Gallas et al) was always likely to have an inhibiting effect. But perhaps the biggest disappointment was that the Gunners appeared not to have learned their lesson from the first leg. Without Pique and their talismanic skipper (Puyol might look like a 70s rock star and is nearly old enough to have been one, but what I wouldn’t give for a leader with his imposing presence in the Arsenal ranks!), Barca’s unfamiliar looking defence were ripe for being rattled by a fast-tempo, Premiership style, pressing game.

Instead of which, we were once again guilty of allowing our hosts far too much time on the ball, shadowing players in possession, instead of ‘putting them under’ and gifting them time to settle, so they could calmly pass it out from the back for Javi and Messi to weave their wonderous magic. Mind you, in Song’s absence, there wasn’t exactly a superfluity of tackle relishing Gunners on the pitch!

However, after somehow taking the lead, flabbergasted when the flat-footed Dane reacted faster than anyone else to poke home the rebound, it might’ve been a different story if Diaby had passed right, instead of left on the counter a few moments later. The Catalan giants might have struggled to recover from conceding 2 in such quick succession…sure and our lanky midfielder might’ve outshone Lionel Messi, dream on!

Looking for some slight solace, I found a missive from Nov 2005, where I stated that Messi had replaced Kaka as my favourite player. It took no great insight from myself, or the several million others who watched in absolute awe, as accompanied by Eto’o and Ronaldihno in their pomp, the diminutive Argie deity lit up the Bernabeu, slicing and dicing their derby opponents that day in a 0-3 demolition that even had the Madrillistas applauding the enemy off the pitch (I assume Marca was referring to the more civilised locals, rather than those who’d been lambasting Eto’o with racist abuse!). Now this really was Barca at their mercurial best.

Whereas it bugged me to hear the pundits bigging up the Catalans as “perhaps the best club side ever” based on the mincemeat Messi made of last Tuesday’s opposition, an Arsenal line-up that was always likely to come off second best. Without a leader out on the park, driving us forward, trying to restrict the home team to playing in their half of the pitch, we stood back and admired our hosts. This might as well have been an invitation to Messi to conduct the Gunners’ Requiem mass. Sadly Lionel duly obliged having us hung, drawn & quartered with Arsène’s head on his wall as a trophy, in the space of his 20-minute hat-trick masterclass.

Meanwhile should Barca make much harder work of Mourinho’s aging Inter, or Bayern’s 3-trick pony, this will prove a true reflection of the gimcrack efforts of the Gunners supporting cast, in the absence of so many leading men. If the Spanish side are destined to be crowned kings of Europe in Madrid come May, we might prostrate ourselves at Messi’s talented feet, but no less a factor in Guardiola’s success is the atypical team ethic, engendered in a dozen or so homegrown stars, half of whom are Catalan borne & bred.

True enough, Barca have sufficient spondulicks to poach some of the best talent on the planet, but if I’m envious it’s because their current squad is in essence the complete antithesis of the Galactico ethos and a model Arsène might try to emulate, if the Gunners are ever to develop a winning mentality, in these mercenary and ever more miserly times.

On paper Chelsea are the only one of the three squads that have the look of genuine title contenders and Man Utd’s draw on Sunday only lends weight to this argument. Yet I suspect that the Blues’ conviction and commitment might come under scrutiny over the course of the last four weeks. Much like ourselves and the majority of other Premiership clubs, it takes little to shatter the wafer thin veneer of unity, compared to deep dressing room bonds forged since childhood, combined with the added inspiration of a nuclei of players whose genuine local pride makes such a sham of all that shameless badge kissing.

After our demoralising mauling in Spain, the question is whether the Gunners can rediscover the spirit and determination necessary to capitalise on any unexpected results, with no better test that tonight’s match at White Hart Lane. I’ve been teasing my Spurs pals for weeks, with the ultimate ‘rock & a hard place’ poser - what if they play Chelsea on Saturday, needing a win to pip City to that highly-prized Champions League pitch, but knowing it might be handing us the title on a plate? Doubtless it would be Man Utd who’d be most likely to profit and on current form Man City pipping them for 4th.

Nevertheless, taking into account all the adverse circumstances, I’m just delighted to have reached this stage in the season, still able to savour such delicious wet-dream fantasies

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