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Tuesday 11 May 2010

Once More With Feeling

Hi folks,

The end of season report for the Irish Examiner always proves to be a mammoth chore, as I have enough trouble fitting my regular diary missive into a thousand words, let alone an entire season.

I made the big mistake of going back to the fixtures/results list in Sunday's programme, just to ensure nothing important had slipped through my sieve like memory. But all I achieved was that I ended up remembering hundreds more things to write about and before I knew it, I'd bashed out at least a couple of thousand words and still hadn't finished!

As a result I then spent several more hours pruning it down to a more acceptable size before daring to file it to the paper and by which time I was already late for work (nothing new there then!). After unloading four arctics full of scenery, I was so cream crackered that I'm only just now recovering.

I thought I'd add all the bits I'd edited out in this preamble but I know that if I get started, with a whole season to muse over, I will be tapping away at my keyboard all night and I'm getting a bit past burning the candle at both ends. So instead of it taking me another three weeks to get around to doing it, only for my missive to become irrelevant, I'm going to go with that I have and just this once try to live up to that "always leave 'em wanting more" expression.

Tagged on at the end are the unedited responses I sent in to the Observer, for their The Verdict column, if only to explain some of my answers. A WHU pal texted me to ask why I voted for the Trotters as the best away fans, as according to him Bolton only brought 300 to Upton Park. So I concluded that the paper didn't include the fact that voted for the Trotters fans who trudged all the way South in the snow, only for the game to be called off a couple off hours before KO.

Meanwhile to one and all, enjoy the summer, hope all your teams prosper in South Africa and more importantly, that all the Gunners involved come back healthy. I only wish that Ireland were going, although I guess I'm not half as gutted as my brother-out-of-law. Con has Thierry Henry to thank for the fact that he's not getting paid to go to the World Cup as part of the RTE contingent. Based on the "what if the shoe was on the other foot" suggestion, I imagined they might have begun to come to terms with their misfortune but apparently Thierry's name is still mud in Ireland and he isn't going to be forgiven any time soon. So if there's one certainty about South Africa, it is that there will be a glass or two raised in the Emerald Isle, if the French make a swift exit

Keep the faith


Once More With Feeling

The surprising sight of an obvious amount of empty seats belied Sunday’s sell-out attendance figure, with the absentees from the terraces a reflection of the apathy witnessed on the pitch in recent weeks. That so many fickle fans should forsake a last chance of a Gooner fix before the summer break was a telling indicator of our anti-climactic campaign.

Thus, despite being desperate for the point to avoid the embarrassing possibility of being leapfrogged by the Lilywhites, this was a depressingly subdued affair. While everyone went through the curtain call motions of an emphatic 4-0 win, I listened in enviously to the radio commentary from Chelsea, where they described the best ever atmosphere they’d experienced at the Bridge (which is no great shakes, considering it’s often as limpid as our library-like gaff).

As the flame of this campaign finally spluttered out, with the occasional hint of the sort of fantasy football that has been on the missing list these past few months, the stadium announcer reminded us that the players would be returning onto the pitch for the now traditional “lap of appreciation”. With so little to celebrate and the habitual premature evacuators already heading for the exits, they couldn’t afford to dawdle, lest they be left wandering around a stadium that was as desolate as our empty trophy cabinet.

The Gunner’s season has fizzled out in such a thoroughly disappointing fashion that it’s hard to equate the team that’s stumbled over the finishing line, with the same Arsenal side who caught all the commentators unawares, when we stormed out of the starting gate at Goodison. In fact I had to go back to my matchday programme to remind myself of all that early season euphoria.

It was all so unexpected, after the predictions prompted by Arsène’s customary reticence to raid an alleged war chest, left everyone expecting the Gunners to be the team most likely to do a Liverpool. With Vermaelen’s steely presence, at least our solitary new arrival proved an instant hit. But despite a stonking left-foot and leaping like a salmon, to contribute to the goals flying in from every angle, we could hardly expect Tommie the Tank to be a panacea at both ends of the pitch.

Such was the lack of expectation early doors that our self-inflicted demise at Old Trafford didn’t seem nearly so traumatic because it was such a pleasant surprise to leave Manchester feeling as if we had played Utd off the park. Although sadly it subsequently proved that this wasn’t quite the litmus test of quality that I’d imagined. Having lost Ronaldo and in the absence of Ferdinand & Vidic for such long periods, it was largely Rooney’s enthusiasm that enabled Man Utd to remain slightly less inconsistent than the rest of us.

Having notched up 50 goals by the start of November, Wenger’s failure to replace Adebayor didn’t seem nearly so negligent. Van Persie’s injury in a meaningless International was exasperating, but who could’ve predicted his long-term absence would have quite such a devastating impact. The writing was on the wall in the capitulation of Wenger’s ‘Time Bandits’ at home to Chelsea. But it was presence and personality, not physical size that was the principal issue. Chelsea have enough players who’ve been the distance, to be able to draw on their reserves of experience and impose themselves on matches, when the chips are down.

Fabregas is an undoubted winner and he stepped up manfully this season. The sight of Cesc scything through Spurs was a highpoint. Yet in truth, it was the example 'el Maestro' set, while captaining the team and somehow managing to keep us in contention through the dark mid-winter that was his most impressive feat, as the Gunners endured for the best part of 3 months without a recognised front-man.

For a manager who’s never taken a backward step, le Boss left us all agog, when Sol’s return turned out to be the sum total of our transfer window salvation. I’m happy to eat my derisive words, as Campbell’s been an absolute rock in recent weeks, without whom our irresolute ship might’ve capsized completely. Hungrier than players nearly half his age, he lends that ‘been there, done that’, unflappable presence to a young squad, where an ageist wage policy so often precludes against retaining our most experienced stars.

Following successive, comprehensive defeats against the top two, supposedly it was all over bar the shouting by the time Bendtner made his long awaited comeback. But we somehow clawed our way back into contention. Or perhaps complacency elsewhere resulted in contention coming back towards us? There was little of that early season joie de vivre in a succession of injury time triumphs, but where Eduardo’s traumatic GBH derailed the campaign before last, the disturbing sight of Ramsey’s distorted limb only seemed to stiffen our resolve.

With each passing match and in spite of our mounting injury woes, there was this growing optimism for an unlikely, against all odds outcome. No sooner was I suckered in, than fate contrived to throw a wet blanket over our false hopes with Birmingham’s last gasp equaliser at St. Andrews. Our season peaked with the ecstasy of clawing back a two-goal deficit against Barca, but it came at too high a price, with the loss of both Fabregas and Gallas.

One might’ve thought that there’d be no hope of redemption after Messi had made mincemeat of us in Spain and our demoralising defeat to Spurs had gifted our arch rivals the glimmer of the Champions League Holy Grail. But in this “just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water” season, the poetry of Van Persie’s 20 minute (albeit futile) cameo at White Hart Lane was a poignant reminder of the mediocrity we’d grown accustomed to in his absence.

Despite Chelsea’s teasing last invite back into the title party, Wenger inexplicably left Robin on the bench as our “easy run-in” took us up to Wigan. Where the Lactics nailed the lid firmly shut with a last 10-minute spell that’s right up there, as one of the most miserable denouements to a match that it has ever been my misfortune to endure.

In the cold light of day, considering the number of significant long-term injuries, we’ve not done so badly. You only have to contemplate the Scousers’ woes to put the Gunners season into some perspective. While I can’t exactly envisage Wenger breaking the bank to buy the likes of Buffon, hopefully the renaissance at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road and the way in which we’ve run up the white flag in recent weeks will at least force his hand, if only to guarantee bums on seats in the immediate future.

With so much promise on the horizon, it’s not that our squad requires wholesale change. But if Arsène is to tempt Fabregas to roll the red & white dice one more time, he’ll need to offer more than just Chamakh to share the responsibilities, when Cesc & co. return from their arduous South African adventure

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Tuesday 4 May 2010

Plus Ca Change

With a late KO at Blackburn on a Bank Holiday Monday, I assumed there wouldn’t be a train back to London that night. Nor could I find anyone else meshuga enough to want to accompany me on an eight-hour road trip in the motor, for such a meaningless encounter. The appalling levels of apathetic end-of-seasonitis evident elsewhere, in matches where there was much more to play for, didn’t exactly hold the promise of an entertaining reward at the end of an exhausting Ewood Park rainbow. And yet I’m the sort of masochist who revels in paying my Gooner dues, chasing just such a pot of fool’s gold, in the certain knowledge that such unglamorous outings are guaranteed to sort the genuine Gooner wheat, from the glory-hunting chaff.

There was hardly a surfeit of highlights to show during half-time at the City game. It was only when a mate mentioned travelling by train to Blackburn, that I suddenly remembered that instead of replaying our single effort on target, the big screens revealed details of a surprising Travel Club train trip. It’s been some years since the infamous “Football Specials” formed an integral feature in the awayday landscape.

These charabancs comprised the slowest and most dilapidated carriages amongst British Rail’s entire rolling stock. The sort that couldn’t possibly end up more trashed than they were already. The catering facilities consisted of a mail wagon at the rear, where a steward protected by a wire mesh enclosure served Polyfilla rolls from a couple of postage sacks, lovingly prepared with a nondescript slab of either ham or cheese. The alcohol ban on official outings meant that if we were lucky, this stale fare was made slightly more digestible, when washed down with a can of pop.

However my curiousity as to whether such spartan facilities might have improved in the interim wasn’t about to be satisfied. In looking up the details on the Arsenal web site, I discovered that the train had been cancelled due to a lack of interest!

Up until recently, Ewood Park was the only ground in the Premiership, where one could obtain a cash refund on unused tickets. Sadly Rovers have wised up since. Otherwise there’d have been a long queue of Gooners with wads of tickets at the box office on Monday, wanting refunds for all their mates who’d had the sense to stop at home.

Instead of which, it should the players digging into their own bulging pockets, to offer recompense to all those staunch fans who stay the pace to the bitter end, enduring the sort of tepid, uncompetitive fare that’s a blatant breach of the trades’ description act.

Still, while the participants might be more focused on working on their tans, or self-glorification in South Africa, this doesn’t stop the media from turning up the heat, in their concerted efforts to hype up the climax of this campaign. As the pundits discuss the various permutations for the denouement of all the remaining unsettled business, doubtless my disillusionment is a direct consequence of being an uninterested party in this debate, as demoralised Gooners once again find ourselves with our noses pressed up against the window.

Circumstances which are made even more galling, knowing my Spurs mates are gearing up for their crucial clash against City tonight. Considering I can’t recall the last time our season was over before theirs, I suppose I shouldn’t really begrudge them this rarity. If there was some slight solace to Monday’s defeat, it’s the resulting possibility that our final encounter against Fulham won’t feel nearly so flat, if we are left going into this game still needing a point to guarantee us 3rd place.

The only other comfort in our increasingly embarrassing efforts to scrabble over this uninspiring hurdle is that this half-hearted malaise appears all-pervasive throughout the Premiership. It’s hard to equate our lacklustre mood of late, with the remarkable optimism that abounded early doors, when the pundits were made to eat their words, while we plundered goals with such gay abandon. If the flame of this campaign hadn’t petered out in such a thoroughly disappointing fashion, Arsène might’ve been able to paper over the cracks. Not for the first time, I’m left hoping that our irresolute form in the finishing straight will at least force le Gaffer’s hand, in addressing patent inadequacies along the spine of our squad.

Encouraged by the feats of the likes of Sanchez Watt at Leeds, Emmanuel-Thomas at Doncaster and Jack Wilshere at Bolton, it seemed as if every other player mentioned on the box the Saturday before last was an Arsenal loanee. With Fergie having already secured three of his summer signings, I sure hope Arsène has something up his sleeve. Perhaps the suits will be twisting his arm to ensure the maintenance of their highly-prized Exec Box & Club level revenue streams?

It’s not that we require the sort of wholesale revolution that might be necessary at Anfield. The inconsistency shown by all the other runners & riders suggest that this season was a missed opportunity. Yet the source of my greatest frustration is that despite the makings of a competitive squad, there’s little, or no apparent sign of progress. With the exception of the void that appeared up front following Adebayor’s departure, the deficiencies that exist today are no different to those that we were whinging about at the beginning of this barren run. Instead of remitting next week's missive, I might just as well perm any one from four of the respective end of season reports from our recent unrequited campaigns.

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