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Sunday 29 May 2011

Seeing a childhood Man Utd pal stump up three grand, only to suffer a mauling from Messi & co. – positively priceless!

Hi foks

It occurred to me that events over the past couple of days might be of sufficient interest to merit transcribing. So dependent on your point of view, I guess you could say it's a Bernie (as opposed to a Brucie) bonus. Who knows, the Examiner might end up printing it and then I'd be no better than those mentioned below, profiting from the misery of the Man Utd faithful :-)

On the basis that this will be my last missive for at least a couple of months - unless I can tempt fate to encourage Arsène to break the bank - here's wishing one and all a wonderful summer

Big Love


As an Arsenal fan, I assumed my footie season had long since kicked the bucket and all that was left, was for me to enviously watch events unfold on the box at Wembley this weekend, as an interested bystander. Albeit that much like every other Gooner, I was desperate for the consolation of a Man Utd defeat, which might validate the fact that we actually gave the best team on the planet a decent run for their money!

However when I received a plea on Thursday from my old mate Sean, a Man U season-ticket holder, who lives amongst the hordes of Surrey Reds in the Weybridge stockbroker belt, searching for a pair of tickets for him and his lad, prepared to pay up to £800 a pop, I had to empathize. If the Gunners were involved in the final, I’d have given my right arm to be there.

Although in saying that I was brought up with a strict moral code, drummed into me by my old man, whereby I’ve always refused to pay over the odds for football tickets and to never have any dealings with the pond scum touts, who make their living leeching off my fellow fans. But then my moral compass is not so relevant nowadays, as I’ve several affluent Arsenal pals who regularly make a tidy profit on their wheeler-dealings with Club seats and corporate packages at Wembley and the Emirates.

One of my mates doesn’t even use his Wembley Club seats when he goes to England games, preferring to sit amongst the real fans. But apparently his investment pays for itself, so long as there’s half a dozen sufficiently glamorous occasions for him to be able to flog them for an exorbitant price. And it’s hard to argue with his justification, as it’s not like he’s fleecing a month’s hard-earned wages from your ordinary punter and stealing food from the mouths of their kids.

Amidst the modern day culture of obscene (corporate) excess, invariably such inflated ticket prices are the exclusive privilege of those with limitless expense accounts, or with more disposable income than sense. They’re not victims of extortion, but willing participants in the sort of madness that’s responsible for pricing genuine fans out of the game, merely so they can enjoy the kudos of being able to say they were present on the night!

Having felt obliged to put some feelers out, I wasn’t the least bit hopeful of being able to help Sean out. The Examiner’s Man Utd Terrace Talk contributor informed me that tickets were going for £4k a pair and another pal told me he had ticketless punters over from the US, willing to hand over a helluva lot more than my mate.

By complete coincidence, I received a text on Friday morning from a colleague’s missus, asking if I knew anyone wanting her pal’s spare Wembley ticket for £1200. I guess with Sean growing increasingly desperate, he said he’d take it. But then someone conjured up a pair for £3k and with him wanting to share the occasion with his son and justifying the expense with the excuse that it was his 50th birthday next month, he decided he’d rather bite this batty-priced bullet than risk missing out.

However no sooner had I sent a text to my colleague’s missus to say Sean had paid £3k for a pair elsewhere, than the pound signs must’ve blinded her pal and his loyalty to Man Utd’s cause must’ve found it’s natural ceiling. I received a text straight back, to say that he might consider floggiing both his tickets for such a lucrative return.

I’m not knocking him, as I must admit that I might be tempted if the sale of a single ticket could pay for an entire season's worth of footie at the Emirates (albeit not at the cost of missing out on the possibility of seeing the Gunners win the Champions League!) but it did amuse me. I had the brainwave of putting him in touch with my other mate, with the wedged-up punters.

So having started out merely trying to come to Sean’s aid, suddenly I found myself as the intermediary in another convoluted transaction, where all parties would benefit, be this with Wembley tickets or huge wads of cash, apart from me (further proof that I must’ve been last in the queue when they were handing out the Jewish genes)!

Even my colleague’s missus got a touch, when she received a ton for all her texting troubles, after her pal bunged her a few notes from the large bundle of readies my mate thrust into his grubby mitts, after agreeing to pay £2.6k for his pair of tickets. I’ve yet to discover how much he sold them on for, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have schlepped all the way over to Dulwich unless he was on a handsome earner.

He was also delighted because it meant he could stick two fingers up at some other greedy bugger, who was one of the fortunate few to receive two tickets for £300 in the UEFA ballot. Having heard in the media that tickets were going for £2.5k, he told my pal he’d rather go to the match than accept a penny less. So my intervention enabled my mate to send this unscrupulous tyke a smug text, suggesting he “enjoy the game”!

Barca’s performance might’ve been the epitome of the beautiful game but I wonder if he ended up regretting not pocketing a couple of thousand quid for this 90-minute privilege? And what of poor Sean, consoling his kid as they trudged out of Wembley, three grand the poorer. With Utd’s defeat putting him at risk of some merciless teasing, do I stand to lose out on my only chance of some material gain from this sordid business? Assuming he can still afford it, I’m not sure he’s going to be quite so keen to shout me for lunch.

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Monday 23 May 2011

Club Captain Or Barca's Grand Prix?

I was almost feeling envious of all those fans of the five clubs going into the final game of the season, balancing on the perilous precipice of Premiership relegation. So much so that I was half-tempted to stop at home and watch all the excitement unfold live on the box. In fact if our last away outing had involved anything more than a brief hop across the capital on my motorbike, to the Cottagers' picturesque riverside locale, I’m not sure I’d have mustered sufficient enthusiasm to make it there on Sunday.

Still, even as the gleam of Gooner silverware fades ever deeper into the sadly, increasingly inaccessible recesses of my decrepit grey matter, I imagine the fans of at least 16 (current & former!) Premiership outfits would give their eye-teeth to be supporting a club who’s manager has achieved the top four finish that’s guaranteed the Gunners Champions League footie for 14 consecutive seasons – surely Birmingham fans would bite the hand off that offered to swap their Carling Cup triumph for just one more crack at the domestic big time?

And as I breezed past the traffic on the Fulham Road and my view of the mutton dressed as lamb stadium that is Stamford Bridge, receded in my wing mirror, where their filthy-rich, but increasingly hard to please Russian owner would be imminently handing his cards to the seventh manager he’s employed in the past seven years, I was mindful of the fact that for all the baubles the Blues have picked up in recent times, Chelsea’s revolving door policy on managers who fail to deliver the big prize, is no way to run a football club.

Not that I’m overly impressed by the recurring nightmare of Arsène Wenger’s positively spineless nincompoops, limping over the finishing line, with all the other empty-handed also-rans, but it’s necessary to put things into proper perspective. After all, it was only a couple of months back when most Gooners were wandering around the Emirates absolutely agog, having to pinch one another to prove it wasn’t some fantastic dream that such an inconsistent Arsenal side were still in with a shout for all four trophies and the pundits’ favourites to trouble Fergie’s infamous sphincter with a spasm or two in the home straight.

Perhaps it was the burgeoning of so much false hope which has been our biggest problem and which is responsible for the mounting discontent over yet another “close but no cigar” season? Back at the beginning of this campaign we were all being brainwashed into believing that we were the team most likely to drop out of “the big four”. Mercifully the Scousers have trumped us for this dubious distinction. Yet despite Liverpool’s dreadful season (and their rescue from the brink of financial ruin), the red half of Merseyside is prostrating itself in gratitude for the second coming of their saviour.

But then I’m far from alone with my bi-polar sentiments, as I vacillate between the AKBs (Arsène Knows Best) and the Black Scarf Mob. As evidenced at Fulham, where having spent much of the afternoon teasing “We defended a corner”, our well tanked-up faithful reverted to a reaffirming 15-minute chorus of “We love you Arsenal”, before sending Arsène on his summer hols, with the plaintive cry of “Spend some f***ing money” ringing in his ears.

Never mind the smokescreen of our agitation over objectionable ticket prices, or the 6% hike in season tickets, as far as this Gooner is concerned, in a nutshell, the most galling “Where’s Our Arsenal Gone’ evidence of the demoralizing absence of spirit in this Arsenal side, was highlighted on Sunday. In contrast to the sight of Stevie Gerrard on the terraces at Villa Park, surrounded by the punters who pay his exorbitant wages, our club captain was conspicuous by his absence at Craven Cottage. It seems Cesc was busy supporting his compatriot at the far more glamorous Spanish Grand Prix, thereby ensuring there were at least a couple of Grand Prix in Barcelona!

Arsène’s post-match response was a superfluous reminder that he’s not about to spend for spending’s sake. But it is at least an improvement on the categorical denials that have put the dampener on recent summers. After seeing the stunning slalom effort that went into the Arsenal Ladies efforts to save our silverware blushes on Saturday, if it’s true that both Fabregas and Nasri are angling for an exit from our leaky ship, then perhaps we should settle for a sex change.

Although it’s been said several times before, hopefully the incontrovertible evidence of our capitulations on Tyneside and the Totts first triumph on our territory in 17 riotous seasons will have at long last convinced le Gaffer that all is not right in Wenger World. Whether it’s down to there being some substance to the rumours of so many extra-marital shenanigans, it’s patently obvious that there’s not enough love in the air on the pitch.

It doesn’t really matter to me if we make a couple of multi-million marque signings, or if the fallacy of Arsène’s “Promised Land” budget still only stretches to more from the bargain basement, so long as we don’t go again next term without turning over some of our disaffected dud canons, for some serious artillery.


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Monday 16 May 2011

A Fitting Tribute To Another Spineless Season

(with apologies for repeating the odd analogy from last week's missive for the benefit of my Irish Examiner column)

So here we Gooners are again, the uninvited guests with our noses enviously pressed up against the pub’s frosted windows, missing out on all the jollity of yet another end of season “lock-in”.

I celebrated Newcastle’s late equalizer at Chelsea on Sunday, as I dashed out the door to the Emirates with the glimmer of hope of having something to play for against Villa.. At the very least I expected the Gunners to turn up for the curtain call of the last home game of the season, if only for the self-serving purpose of preventing Man City from leapfrogging us and leaving our players facing the premature curtailment of a summer spent lazying around on a beach, with them forced to return a couple of weeks earlier for the potentially cataclysmic banana skin of a Champions League qualifier.

Never mind paying their dues, by putting on a bit of a show for all of us poor put-upon punters. But then judging by the surprisingly obvious number of empty seats at the Emirates on Sunday, I guess that unlike this particular muggins, plenty of our more fickle faithful had seen the writing on the wall, following the previous weekend’s pitiful defeat at Stoke, seemingly knowing far better than me that there was little point in them bothering to turn up, to watch a team that’s far more focused on what factor sun-tan lotion to pack in their suitcase, than they are on crossing the Premiership finish line with some pride still intact.

At 0-2 down to a dreadfully mediocre and managerless Villa and with so little evidence on the pitch of the sort of desire necessary, to provide us fans with even a flicker of faith in the scant solace of a stirring fightback, it was the customary announcement of a farcical full-house attendance figure and the utterly fictitious total for the season, which was the straw that broke the back of so many dissatisfied Gooner dromedaries. Knowing how deep we’ve had to dig into our threadbare pockets to contribute to such profitable figures, this announcement provoked the most raucous response of the afternoon, as all our pent up fury and frustration with yet another “so near but so far” season was targeted towards the directors box, with a vitriolic chorus of “6 per cent, you’re having a larf!”

It’s debatable whether the disapprobation of the plebs registered with chairman Hill-Wood, above the clink of their Cristal-filled champagne glasses and the clatter of the cash-tills in our 200 quid a head Club Level eateries, as the board celebrated the culmination of another “sustainable” season. Yet it certainly felt like a more effective means of expressing our displeasure at the club’s focus on keeping the bank balance in the black, than the negligible evidence of natty scarves of the same colour, worn by a smattering of the 500 odd Gooners who joined the BSM (Black Scarf Movement) protest march before the match.

Although I might fully concur with many of the sentiments expressed by the BSM online, the simple answer is that the Arsenal have followed the money, along with all those other clubs that aspire to a seat a football’s top table. Myself I’d give my right-arm to still be enjoying the more intimate environs of Highbury but I accept the inescapable reality that if we hadn’t had the foresight to climb aboard the corporate gravy train, we’d be struggling along with all those other clubs currently playing catch-up.

Doubtless I’d be feeling far more aggrieved if I hadn’t had the good fortune to swap our expensive Upper Tier pitches for far more reasonable Lower Tier seats when we moved home, as I’d certainly be feeling the pinch of any increases if I was paying nigh on double what it costs us nowadays. But with 2.5% rise in VAT accounting for much of the price rise, from my personal point of view, the remainder hardly amounts to profiteering and is a bit of a red herring compared to the real source of Gooner indignation.

I don’t imagine there’ll be any voices raised about ticket prices at Old Trafford this weekend. Moreover, if it wasn’t for the momentary cock-up between Sczczny & Koscielny that cost us the Carling Cup Final and which has left the dust gathering in the Gunners’ trophy cabinet for the 6th successive season, I very much doubt we’d be seeing any protest marches!

In fact, as much as it pains me to see the ordinary working man, woman and their offspring increasingly priced out of their beloved pastime, after shouldering the large burden of the beautiful game for a century or more, with forty thousand still on the waiting list at the Arsenal, I’m certain most economists might argue that our season-tickets must be under-priced?

Meanwhile, as the clamour for le Boss to bust into the club’s coffers reaches a positively deafening crescendo and the rumour mill gathers it’s manic, media-driven momentum, I’m not nearly so bothered by specific comings and goings as I am by the prospect of suffering another stagnant summer amongst the playing staff. If Sunday’s defeat and the resulting lap of dishonor was telling in one respect, it’s that sadly the constancy of our squad simply hasn’t resulted in the sort of determined team spirit one might expect, amongst a group of players that have endured the same Groundhog Day experience together.

Instead of which, the lack of turnover manifests itself in the complacency that accompanies our stars' security of tenure and the contentment coming from the top, so long as our snout remains in the Champions League trough. Either it’s the carrot of Arsène chancing upon players with the personality and experience to inspire some backbone amongst the Arsenal's current bunch of invertebrates, or the stick to cure such smugness by way of a P45!

Keep the faith - as it could all be a whole lot worse supporting the likes of West Ham, or even all those spoilt Kings Road Newbies with their knives out already, after the disappointment of not repeating last season's Double!

Come on you Reds

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Sunday 15 May 2011

Man Utd Circumnavigate The Globe, While The Good Ship Gooner Idles Around The Harbour

(better late than never!)

Hi folks,

After fulfilling my obligation to file my weekly missive to the Irish Examiner on Monday, the fact that I haven't got around to posting it out until now is perhaps symptomatic of the feeling of disillusionment following last Sunday's abysmal display up at Stoke.

I've never forgotten the comment I received on an end of term report from one of my teachers, more than forty years back in primary school, who referred to me as "a speedboat idling around the harbour". While I might have lingered to explore every inch of that harbour in the interim, it seemed an appropriate analogy for the Gunners, following such an unsatisfying season, where perhaps more than any of the past half-dozen campaigns (considering the mediocrity of the competition), we are all left feeling that we "could've...should've done better"!

The reminder of that awful feeling of being left shivering on the pavement, outside the pub, staring enviously through the frosted windows, for a glimpse of the jollity on offer in the end of season "lock in" really struck home when the weekly edition of the Examiner's football supplement arrived in the post midweek, with it's headline "On their perch - United on the brink of historic 19th title: P3, 4, 5, 6, 7" and obviously watching events on the box this afternoon only served to rub my face some more in what might've been.

Nevertheless, you have to put these events into some perspective, as the vast majority of fans go through their entire lives supporting a club, knowing full well that they might never savour that precious moment of seeing their team win a major trophy and with only four pots on offer each season (I suppose five if you count the Europa Cup), in truth we should count ourselves very fortunate that we have realistic expectations of silverware each season.

And so while I might agree with so many of the sentiments expressed by the Black Scarf Movement, I have to wonder that if it wasn't for the cock-up between Sczcny & Koscielny which cost us our first trophy in six years, would they still be planning a march on the Emirates tomorrow? What's more, with the Gunners having sold our soul to the corporatisation (if there is such a word) of the beautiful game on our departure from THOF, we've made our bed and sadly we now have to lie in it. It seems to me that while events in the Middle East might have served to inspire the ordinary man to make the effort to have their voices heard, when it comes to a football club that continues to have the ability to sell one's season ticket to any number of punters prepared to take our place, until such time as the Club Level punters begin to boycott their 200 quid pre-match grub, the vociferous complaints of the rest of us plebs are tantamount to pissing in the wind!

Come on you Reds
Big Love

Man Utd Circumnavigate The Globe, While The Good Ship Gooner Idles Around The Harbour

With as many Man Utd fans milling around Euston on Sunday morning, as there were Arsenal & Chelsea, hundreds of us without reservations were all left behind when the 11.20 to Manchester (via Stoke) pulled out of the station. I must admit, I was sorely tempted to turn around, get an immediate refund on my 57 quid fare and return home to put my feet up and watch Sunday’s encounters unfold on the box, instead of standing around the station, sweating about getting on the next train, knowing it would be touch and go whether I’d make it to the Britannia Stadium in time for kick-off.

As it turned out, I made it to Stoke in plenty of time to puff away outside the ground and restore my nicotine level prior to the game, which was fortunate because in their current inconsistent guise, watching the Arsenal involves the tension of a guaranteed two pack a day smoking habit! Naturally I ended up walking out of the Britannia an hour and a half later, following what must rank as one of our most abysmal performances of the season, wishing I’d followed my first instincts to give up on my outing, rather than being such a sucker for punishment, so I might have saved my hard-earned wedge and all that wasted effort.

I’d been working on a gig for the ballet at Buckingham Palace (of all places) the previous day and while listening to the disjointed bursts of radio commentary from Old Trafford, courtesy of the wi-fi connection on the train back to London, I began calculating how many sections of back-breaking, steel-decking I’d carried into the Queen’s humble home, to cover the cost of my infuriating schlep to the Potteries.

My endeavours certainly involved a whole lot more toil and sweat than several Arsenal players seemed prepared to expend on the pitch on Sunday and at the end of the day, considering the huge sacrifices necessary to follow one’s club up and down the country nowadays, win, lose or draw, my only demand is the satisfaction of knowing that our overpaid heroes at least have the common decency to return this compliment.

Not the lackadaisical nonchalance of a Nicholas Bendtner who lopes on after the break at 0-2 down as if he owns the place, when all the Danish striker really owns is the delusion of his own ability. Or the all too lily-livered promptings of the likes of Arshavin and Walcott, playing pass the parcel with the ball, to ensure they weren’t in possession when the music stopped to receive their hosts traditional welcome (where a clattering has replaced the oatcakes on Tony Pullis' Potters menu).

I was increasingly desperate for the Gunners to pull back the deficit, if only so we might respond to the Stoke fans’ amusing taunts of “Arsene Wenger, he didn’t see that” or “2-0 to the rugby team”, with our own riposte of “he did see that” or “3-2 to the football team”. Yet while I might’ve been as guilty as everyone else at pointing the finger of blame at Djourou’s costly defensive lapses, we couldn’t exactly feel hard done by, as there was a timidity to all our possession, an apparent unwillingness to take responsibility and a resultant lack of incisiveness, which hardly had us peppering the home side’s goal.

In fact you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the Gunners who were guilty of conserving their energy, or preserving their fitness for Saturday’s FA Cup Final. Whereas by contrast Pullis appeared to have pulled off the trick of creating the air of insecurity that inspired all his troops to produce a performance which might nail down a highly-prized place in Stoke’s starting line-up for their prestigious day out at Wembley.

For all his talents, the last two chalk and cheese displays of Wenger’s team stand as testament to the fact that while the Gunners might be able to rise to the big occasion, Arsène doesn’t posses the sort of intimidating personality to ensure that his players are far too afraid of incurring his wrath, should they dare leave the field having given anything less than 100 per cent.

But then the Gunners are far from alone in this respect. I watched West Ham struggle to secure a point on Saturday and I had plenty of sympathy for the Hammers fans, as you’d never believe this was a team fighting for its Premiership life. So as much as it pains me, “nuff respek” to the old warhorse Fergie, as even in an era of self-serving mercenary stars, the man still possesses the aura to galvanize a particularly uninspiring Man Utd side for the games that really matter.

Meanwhile, as the end of the Arsenal's damp squib of a season draws nigh, our dreaded season ticket renewals dropped through the letterbox on Friday. For all the high-class entertainment, all I really want in return for my 1000 quid investment, is some evidence of the sort of commitment that will enable me to continue to kid myself that the club means as much to our players, as it does to me.

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Monday 2 May 2011

Springtime for Arsenal

Sunday’s triumphant victory over Man Utd was tinged with the bittersweet regret about what might have been, if only the Gunners had been able to reproduce such an accomplished display on a more regular basis. Moreover there was little satisfaction knowing we’d kicked the door of the Premiership title chase open, only to offer Chelsea the chance to drive though.

Nevertheless I was so desperate for the Arsenal’s faltering season to end on a high note (or at least out last significant encounter) that I was fully prepared to pull out all the superstitious stops. The omens seemed auspicious on Sunday morning; from the moment all four of Sky’s journo pundits plumped for a Man Utd win. But when the time came to head around to the ground, the thought occurred to me that perhaps I was to blame for our recent miserable run, by altering my habitually tardy traits of old and arriving in good time for the previous few games.

Having made a conscious decision to don the exact same attire I’d worn to Bloomfield Road, the last time we’d enjoyed success against Blackpool, thankfully I heard the news of Cesc’s withdrawal on the radio just as I was heading out the door, thereby affording me with the excuse to dawdle a little longer, while I went back to change my Fabregas t-shirt. On the radio they were already speculating about whether our captain had played his last game for the club. So I didn’t feel appropriately dressed, potentially expressing my support for the Arsenal’s past, when I should be showing my faith in a propitious future.

Who knows whether Cesc truly tweaked a hamstring, or if his criticisms in the Spanish press caused him to be excluded (and if Arsène has agreed to let him return to Spain, can Barca stump up sufficient spondulicks)? Whatever the case, from my point of view, Cesc's absence proved providential, with it seemingly timed to coincide with Aaron Ramsey rising Phoenix-like from the flames of Ryan Shawcross’ savagery,. It afforded a midfield triumvirate of Ramsey, Wilshere and Song an opportunity to finally come of age, without them constantly looking to our incredibly talented but disaffected captain for evidence of leadership.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve witnessed far too many false dawns over the past half dozen seasons for me to go overboard, following this single goal victory over such a relatively mediocre incarnation of Fergie's Champions-in-waiting. I’m sure that if a single point hadn’t been sufficient for the visitors, psychologically their approach to the game might’ve been a little less unadventurous.

However this good old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal” was a win which will have warmed the cockle’s of le Gaffer’s increasingly overtaxed heart. With the vultures of the media gleefully gobbling at the once again ravaged remains of Wenger’s vision and with le Boss visibly wilting in the face of the pressure for him to accept the folly of his failed experiment, his young charges finally produced the sort of spirited, faith-restoring goods to placate his critics, with a poignant reminder that indeed “Arsene Knows”!

I only hope that this “too little, too late” triumph isn’t the sort of delusory fuel that will encourage him to carry on regardless. Leaving aside the obvious frailities responsible for falling at the last fence in this and successive failed attempts to finish the Premiership course, I've always argued that the principal missing “do or die” ingredient of a winning “team” spirit simply can’t be purchased off the shelf.

Apart from the obvious euphoric instant when Ramsay’s shot left Van Der Saar flailing in it’s wake, personally speaking, it was Koscielny’s second-half cameo which was most inspiring, as our intrepid centre-back pinched the ball and went charging up the park, with a presence and a determination to influence proceedings, which was positively Tony Adams like.

Yet despite the burgeoning evidence, in the wholly committed attitudes of the likes of Sczczny, Koscielny, Wilshere and Ramsay that Arsène’s green-fingered endeavours are finally beginning to bear fruit, yet another barren season stands as testament to the need for Arsène to accept that he simply cannot afford to continue tending the Gunners garden entirely single-handed.

If you hark back to oft quoted aphorism about the necessity for either changing the manager, or the team, every five years, then it seem evident that changes are required both off and on the pitch. To continue the horticultural analogy, unlike all those misguided idiots, who want to dig over the entire ground and start from scratch, I firmly believe le Gaffer's great project will begin to bear silverware laden fruit, if only he'd turn for some help from the sort of Arsenal agronomists who are capable of ruthless pruning and tender watering in equal measure.

Meanwhile, as weary as we might be with our years of wandering the wilderness, awaiting our arrival at the Promised Land, Sunday’s victory does at least offer a glimpse of the sort of footballing milk & honey we might enjoy on arrival, if we’re patient enough to keep the faith.
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