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Monday 23 January 2012

Where There's Life, There's Still Hope

An elderly uncle passed away on Saturday and following several decades of familial animosity, I really didn’t fancy attending the funeral, for fear of forgetting exactly who it was that we were, or were not speaking to! Nevertheless, after enduring the torture of our humiliation at Old Trafford a few months back, the news of his imminent internment on Sunday actually left me contemplating whether a trip to the cemetery might prove less traumatic than another afternoon riding the Arsenal’s emotional roller-coaster.

Surely it wasn’t merely the prospect of missing out on my Ian Wright (lamb stew) Pie that swung this insensitive decision, even with the latest addition of Liam Brady Tatties (in red wine gravy) to the Piebury Corner menu? Then again, ever since the last of our full-backs went on the missing list, I’ve been heading around to most matches feeling far more enthusiastic about these pre-match culinary pleasures than I have for the prospects of a home win, with our recent harum-scarum rearguard.

Thus I was teasing my sister about the fact that she alone would have to “represent” at the funeral, whilst at the same time expressing my reservations about giving a first airing to this chi-chi Arsenal watch that she’d given me for my 50th birthday. She didn’t see the funny side, as I jokingly suggested that I’d burnt everything worn to Old Trafford earlier in the season!

This commemorative timepiece came in a very posh looking box, one of a bunch of prestige items produced to mark the Arsenal’s 125th anniversary. It’s stamped 74 of 1886 (the year of the club’s inception) but without any paperwork, I went online for more info (waterproof, how it works etc?) and naturally not to establish how cheap I've been, by comparison, with any of her pressies!

The “Deluxe CXXV Box” caught my eye in the online shop. Along with such matchday essentials as a tie, cufflinks and a cashmere scarf, you get a signed Arsenal shirt and this bellowed everything that’s wrong with the brazen commercial machine that’s become of the beautiful game. Time was that one had to earn a shirt signed by the entire Arsenal squad, by putting in endless hours, hanging around outside the training ground, or before and after games, whereas nowadays, they’re on offer to anyone who's happy to part with a paltry 600 quid!

With the club shop selling trinkets costing more than most fans’ season tickets, to the sort of punters who can afford Raymond Blanc’s 200 quid pre-match grub, on top of their £5 grand season tickets, exactly what planet does le Prof live on, when he comes on TV after a defeat to a mediocre Man Utd (also deprived of their fair share of significant individuals!) to tell us that he can’t justify buying players for the remaining ten days, until one of our full-backs returns to fitness.

In case Arsène hasn’t noticed, we’ve blown 9 points since the start of the New Year. Unless Wenger actually believes we’re about to beat Milan, Barca et al to finally win the bloomin’ thing, if those 9 points end up costing us our highly-prized pitch at the Champions League trough, his parsimony is going to look like a seriously false economy, when all the corporate high-rollers flee our luxurious facilities in their droves and the deserted environs of the Exec Boxes and Club Level become a difficult sell, when we’re hosting the Albanian champions on a Thursday night.

Le Prof’s scientific brain might not be able to compute such intangibles as the complete & utter mood dampener and the loss of momentum on Sunday, resulting from the replacement of the hungriest player on the pitch with the laziest SOB in our squad; but surely such basic accounting principles aren’t beyond him (and the board)? Arsène’s managed to work the oracle of Champions League qualification for so many consecutive seasons, without serious re-investment in the squad that perhaps he doesn’t fully appreciate the consequences of sliding past this significant tipping point; where we’d be left in the same Catch-22 situation as all the other mid-table dross, competing for second rate stars because we can’t attract the best, without the promise of the big stage.

After a first-half on Sunday where he’d battled in vain for high-balls surrounded by three opponents, with no-one in a red shirt within 20 yards, even if he’d managed to get a sniff, in Van Persie’s shoes, at his peak for perhaps a couple more seasons, I really couldn’t blame Robin for wanting to engineer a rapid exit. The worry is, if we’re destined to lose our one remaining genuine world-class star, without material reward to show for a veritable resurgence between now and the end of the season, the Gunners might already have reached the point of no return?

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Tuesday 17 January 2012

So Now I Know What Swan-Upping Entails

Hi folks,

Standing on the balcony outside Starbucks on Sunday afternoon, enjoying my pre-match mix of poisons, caffeine and nicotine, with a picturesque vista spread before me of the spider-like steel stanchions of the modern Liberty Stadium, rising above the tree-lined River Tawe, whilst watching the sun drop out of a clear blue sky, behind the green hills of the Swansea suburbs, this hardly fitted my mental image of the miserable Welsh industrial wasteland of the lower Swansea valley, blackened by century's worth of coal grime.

Doubtless this scenery appears a whole lot more cheerful on a crisp, sunny day but, in truth, considering I'd left home at half-past eight that morning, having misplaced my match ticket and uncertain how I was going to make the journey, I guess the setting was a bonus, as I was just grateful to be standing there, enjoying the view, with a duplicate ticket from the Swans' Box Office safely stashed in my pocket.

There was no need for a few jars before the game to be feeling a bit legless walking around to the ground, as the small suspension bridge was bouncing around so much that is must be an uneasy approach when properly plastered.

A tidy little ground (2nd smallest in the Premiership after Loftus Road), the Liberty Stadium is fairly typical of the economically built, homogenous modern arenas that appear to have been purchased from an Ikea catalogue and erected from a flat-pack.

Once inside, we were situated in the lower and upper tiers behind the goal that sadly, the Gunners struggled to find second-half and directly adjacent to the Swans' equivalent of their "singing section", who seemed to drown us Gooners out for much of the game, aided by what sounded like the percussive remnants of the local colliery band (nuff coal quips!).

Admittedly only a couple of thousand Gooners made the journey to Wales - according to the statto sitting in front of me on the coach, to play Welsh opposition in a league encounter for the first time since 1982 (considering I spent much of the eight hour round trip overhearing his incessant ticker-tape of trivia, I'm amazed that the odd piece of data failed to slip through my sieve-like grey matter) - but amongst the day's all too depressing aspects was the fact that, by comparison to our customarily raucous awayday contributions, sadly most of us were no less subdued than the vast majority of our side.

As yet, I'm unsure whether chanting "Thierry Henry" is likely to have a positive, or negative effect on those performing (or failing to perform!) under the threat of replacement by Titi. It certainly didn't appear to motivate Arshavin, but then Andrei appears largely oblivious to anything going on around him, away with the fairies in his own eccentric little world (judging by what I've read of his positively bizarre online Q & As, it would appear that this isn't just limited to his game time!). But then in Shava's shoes, I'd either be running my socks off, trying to stem the constant tide of criticism by proving everyone wrong, or I would've fast learned to block out the incessant cussing of the lazy Ruski SOB.

Yet even when Thierry made his inevitable second-half entrance, just past the hour mark, his reception was somewhat muted compared to last Monday night's amazing ovation. No matter how much I might coat off our own players under my breath, when they fail to perform, I take my supporting responsibilities seriously, so long as they're wearing the red & white - which is in complete contrast to watching a rare Arsenal game on the box and is the reason why being laid up in bed with flu for our outing to Fulham proved a far greater strain on my blood pressure, as I spent the entire 90 minutes upsetting my missus because she's convinced that the neighbours will all assume I'm addressing her, with my incessant stream of invective, with every error-strewn incident resulting in a liberal sprinkling of decibel breaking utterances of "You complete and utter cnut".

As a result, I find watching poor Arsenal displays on the telly far worse torture than being present in person, where I instinctively tend to increase my screams (pleas!) of encouragement, the worse a player performs. After busting the eardrums of the bloke in front of me for most of Sunday's game, as my increasing frustration with Walcott manifested itself in me begging Theo for all my worth, to show us something...anything, the poor feller actually turned around and expressed his appreciation for me having continued to show faith in our wasteful little winger, after Walcott left us all agape in wonderment, when he lifted the ball over Vorm and into the back of the net (little did he realise that up until that point I was so infuriated by Theo's piss poor showing, if I could've reached out and touched the little f#cker, I would've wrung his bloomin' neck!).

If I didn't know better, I would've said that knowing Capello was watching from the stands, Walcott was trying to work his ticket for putting his feet up during the summer, perhaps not fancying the idea of spending the entire month of June schlepping the length and breadth of Poland and Ukraine. Perhaps Theo's dim and distant hat-trick for England has secured a permanent pitch in the squad, or maybe his face just fits, as an increasingly rare footballer, with sufficient common sense to avoid the sort of lurid revelations that we've grown accustomed to in the tabloids, concerning the lurid exploits of the majority of his England team mates. But never mind Euro 2012 (as personally I'd much prefer it if all our players failed to gain a place in their respective national squads), on current form Capello has such a large selection of players, all producing far more consistent form playing out on the flank that it would be baffling if Walcott is preferred for the squad chosen to play against the Dutch in Feb.

It's hard to believe that the "unlucky Theo" that's returned in recent weeks, is the same player we were watching playing his best football in a red & white shirt earlier this season. Some even began to doubt their assertion that Walcott lacked "a footballing brain" and I started to question my own belief that the associated, all-important spatial awareness was an instinctive trait that the best players are born with and is something that can't be learned through experience.

But even at his infuriating worst, the one constant asset we could rely on from Walcott was his blistering pace, but in his past few outings there've been numerous instances where I would've previously staked the bank on Theo beating a less lighteningly-quick full back to the ball. I'm unsure whether this is an attitude issue and merely a bad habit he's picked up from the annoyingly indolent little fella on the opposite flank, or whether there's a more worrying underlying psychological issue, where Walcott's endless stream of injuries have resulted in a subconscious reluctance to turn on the after-burners all game long?

Perhaps like Michael Owen at a similar age, Theo has simply lost that yard of pace that is so crucial in a league where even the most lumbering defender is actually fairly quick? Whatever the case, with all Theo's other failings, it's a massive wind-up when he can't even be relied upon to be able to beat an opponent to the ball. Right at the minute, I'd much rather be watching a bustling, energetic Oxlade-Chamberlain, even if he's prone to similar mistakes, as at least the hungry, two-footed kid could be guaranteed to bust a gut, in return for being given his chance.

But amongst the afternoons biggest disappointments, was the overwhelming sense of quite how anaesthetised we all were by such a rapid descent into melancholia. We didn't even have time to savour the euphoria of Walcott's equaliser, before being numbed seconds later, as we switched off to concede what turned out to be the winner. At the same time you could've been forgiven for thinking that they'd secretly sprayed our terrace behind the goal with Prozac because at the very moment when the travelling Gooners were needed most, to try and inspire our team to recapture some of the momentum, we seemed to go completely schtum.

You could visibly see Swansea wilting in the last 15 minutes, with all the effort they'd previously expended and they were there for the taking, if only we'd had sufficient legs left to take advantage and I badly felt as if we failed to do our bit and were only a little less culpable for the eventual outcome than some of principal culprits.

I actually felt sorry for Koscielny, as considering he's been just about our most consistent player so far this season, of all our players, Laurent was perhaps most entitled to have an off day. Yet despite having a bit of a stinker by his high standards, he continued to storm forward at the death, as one of the few players prepared to make the effort to inspire those around them.

Similarly I had some sympathy for Miguel, as it's hardly his fault if playing at full-back doesn't come naturally to him and if he's got team mates in front of him who apparently aren't willing to take his inexperience into account, by being prepared to work that little bit harder to offer him more support. Yet unlike Djourou, who's centre-back instincts seem to take over whenever he advances past the halfway line, at least Miguel showed more of an appreciation of what a full-back's job entails. Poor Ignasi might not have really known what to do when he got into advanced positions, but he did at least show willing in taking his opportunities to get forward, even if all he achieved was to distract the Swansea defence and offer his team mates more space to operate.

But that's more than enough of my whinging for one week and hopefully I've been waffling on for so long that I've timed it perfectly to coincide with an opportunity to cheer myself up with this week's podcast from The Tuesday Club

I'm sure I'm not alone in receiving teasing "mind the gap" text message from my Spurs mates, accompanied by the tube logo, but personally, after joining all the other Gooner sadomasochists to board the coach home from Swansea, I texted all my gloating pals back to advise them that after this disaster, they should all be aware that I will be 'signing off", until Easter at the very earliest :-(

Keep the faith


I should have known to stay in bed Sunday and I was half expecting to be back there, enjoying a lie-in before long, after heading out the door for the arduous schlep to Swansea, with no fixed travel arrangements (with the train option buggered by a less than alluring replacement bus service between Cardiff and Swansea) and without a match ticket, after tearing the flat asunder and failing to find it. I’m not sure whether to “big up” the Travel Club, or to curse them for very kindly affording me the opportunity to exhaust my share of good fortune in just getting to this game, after blagging a seat on one of the coaches and them offering to organize a duplicate ticket at the other end.

The more we Gooners have to endure the reoccurring nightmare of seeing the Arsenal’s season crumble to dust around our feet, the more I seek solace in the “Tuesday Club” podcast. This weekly offering of aural escapism is fast becoming an essential antidote, in order to dispel the cumulonimbus clouds of depression gathering around the Grand Canyon like gulf that now exists between us and Spurs. The belly-laughs resulting from this irreverent buffoonery offers a welcome opportunity to be able to put it all into some proper perspective.

Although ever since it was mooted therein by Alan Davies & co., I’ve been struggling with the inescapable dread that Thierry Henry’s perfect moment against Leeds, might actually prove to be the highpoint of this campaign.

As certain that I am that Henry’s enthusiasm must be a welcome counterpoint to those with less committed attitudes, I can’t help but wonder that if Titi hadn’t conveniently turned up, just as Chamakh and Gervinho disappeared off to darkest Africa, Wenger’s hand would’ve been forced into forking up for a more long-term solution to our obvious dependency on Van Persie; and perhaps while he had the chequebook out, le Prof might also have been encouraged to secure some full-back cover, or a loanee at least, to tide us over until the return to fitness of Sagna et al.

Instead of which, the euphoria surrounding the return of the Prodigal Son might just prove to be the required cover for our blinkered boss (or the board?) to continue on with the tight-fisted “make do and mend” attitude, enabling the club to keep their hands firmly ensconced into seemingly ever deepening pockets until the end of the season?

Such thoughts weren’t alleviated by the agonies of Sunday’s rare foray across the Severn Bridge. Most regular attendee at recent matches must admit that the Gunners have only just about been “getting away with it”, ever since Santos, the last of our recognized full-backs, bit the dust. Surely if it was possible to play the beautiful game successfully without full-backs, we’d have witnessed such an experiment elsewhere by now?

If I didn’t hold him in quite such high regard, I might contend that the fact that le Prof persists in ignoring such basic footballing principles is an extension of the sort of ‘walk on water’ arrogance, which one might attribute to his omnipotent presence, bestride the peak of the Arsenal’s ivory tower, after having achieved the remarkable (and much envied) feat of maintaining our relative shoestring challenge for so many seasons.

Although I can fully appreciate Arsene’s obligatory insistence on trying to deflect attention, by blaming Sunday’s defeat on yet another dodgy decision, this utterly intolerable encore of the exact same tactical naivety witnessed at Fulham, can’t help but leave one questioning whether le Boss is actually blind to our squad’s far more serious, underlying inadequacies.

While pleasing on the eye, Brendan Rodgers brand of open, expansive footie left me wondering how it is that the Liberty stadium has become such a fortress and why more talented teams have struggled to expose their limitations. However, you can’t win without control of the ball and credit where due, as at times it was positively embarrassing to be the biter bit, by the blur of movement of the Swans crisp, tidy passing that made our tentative and overly casual efforts appear so pedestrian by comparison.

Van Persie and Ramsey were the only two players in red & white that displayed the sort of vim necessary to make something happen. I’m afraid that in spite of Arshavin’s incisive assist and Walcott’s strike (where the majority of us behind that goal certainly wouldn’t have staked any money on Theo finding the back of the net!), neither of these two prongs to the Arsenal attack pulled their weight.

Personally I’d prefer to see the little Ruski quarantined away from our squad because I firmly believe his lack of commitment is infectious. Besides which, such miserable defeats wouldn’t feel nearly so painful, if they proved to be a learning curve for the far hungrier likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain, rather than enduring the same mistakes, time and again, from more experienced old-lags, who are set in their error-strewn ways.

Hopefully we can raise our game as hosts to Man Utd next weekend. Even at their most mediocre, it’s hard to believe Fergie won’t target our flanks. Without sufficient effort to support the shortcomings of our stand-in full-backs, or them taking the pressure off by pushing forward, we might be better off committing hari-kari!

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Wednesday 11 January 2012

Sound Economics My Arse!

There were more than a few Gooners cursing the dispensation from the Moroccan FA that enabled Wenger to select Marouane Chamakh in the starting line-up on Monday night. We can’t wait to see the back of our lamentably ineffectual front-man. Nevertheless the FA Cup 3rd round came as welcome respite from the relentless anguish of a frustrating Premiership campaign and a much-needed distraction from the looming shadow of depression, cast by the prospect of kicking-off our game against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday, potentially lagging a daunting 12 points behind the Lilywhites.

Not to mention our delight in finally seeing Oxlade-Chamberlain earning a run out. Although despite the energetic youngster being hungrier and more eager to please than many of his more complacent colleagues, in truth it was very hard to see where a goal was going to come from for the first hour of this lacklustre affair, against a Leeds side whose ambitions were solely limited to smothering any threat.

Still at least Chamakh’s inclusion and the resulting absence of goalmouth action, set the stage perfectly for Thierry Henry to appear off the bench on 68 minutes to a massive ovation and serve up a reminder only ten minutes later, to his team mates and the watching millions, of precisely how it should be done. Spielberg himself couldn’t have scripted it better, as Titi pounced on his first and solitary opportunity, by calmly curling the ball into the bottom-corner, with the sort of composure that had been sorely lacking up until that point.

It was a beautiful and poignant moment, as the ghost of Xmas past popped up in the penalty area, with a much-needed moral boost for the Arsenal’s future (or at least as far as securing our place in the 4th round of the cup is concerned). Obviously Thierry’s brief eight-week sojourn at his spiritual home isn’t going to solve all our problems. With umpteen players out on season long loans and with Coquelin the latest to fall victim to the apparent curse on the Arsenal’s full-backs, Wenger was forced to scrape the bottom of our teenage barrel, with the diminutive Nico Yennaris coming on as our only remaining cover at right-back.

At least with his handful of reserve team outings, I’d heard of Yennaris, which is more than can be said of our reserve keeper, Argentinian Damian Martinez. Like grim death, we Gooners continue to cling to the hope that if we can just keep ourselves in the frame, until such time as our squad begins to return to full-strength, we might yet surprise some of the pundits. But the longer we wait, the more injuries expose our gossamer thin squad, to the point where Wenger is left with no choice but to throw entirely untried ankle-biters into the fray.

I’m not against this “sink or swim” method of testing a teenager’s mettle. To my mind, it makes for a far less unbalanced side than when Arsène tries to force square centre-back pegs, into round full-back holes. However, as we set out on what’s likely to be a nerve-wracking effort to reel our neighbours back in (with a Spurs squad that looks positively deep by comparison), it’s hard to be optimistic, knowing our fate might rest in the hands (or at the feet) of such inexperienced kids.

In the knowledge that we can count on the likes of Rosicky and Benayoun for little more than 30-minute cameo contributions, it’s hard to witness our increasing tendency for sloppy, fatigue-ridden football, as a seemingly inevitable consequence of our unstinting dependency on midfield stalwarts such as Ramsey and Song.

In spite of the fact that friends were struggling to give away spare Club Level seats, Monday’s attendance, or more accurately, ticket sales were reported at the customary 60k mark. Unless Arsène dips his toe into the transfer market to bolster our squad, it will be hard not to feel cheated because, as someone who was perfectly happy at our Highbury Home of Football, the new stadium was sold to me, on the basis that the additional revenue would afford us the financial clout to be able to compete in the transfer market.

So while Thierry’s timely return to the fold managed to lift everyone’s spirits on Monday night, it’s also likely to add to burden of expectation resting on Henry’s broad shoulders. It hard to believe that the entire future of the Arsenal’s “sustainable business model” over the coming weeks, might be entirely dependent upon the contribution of our former hero and the continued strike-rate of Robin Van Persie. Sound economics my arse!

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Tuesday 3 January 2012

The Cracks Begin To Show At The Cottage

Hopefully the method in Le Prof’s madness will be revealed come May, but in the meantime it’s hard to appreciate the logic of sending Frimpong out on loan to assist Mick McCarthy in rotating 5 players for Wolves second game in 48-hours, while le Gaffer was forced to field 9 of the same fatigued combatants from the Gunners’ gossamer thin squad at Fulham.

The craic is always up to 90 at Craven Cottage, with travelling fans occupying the entire Putney Stand behind the goal. As such a firm favourite on the awayday calendar, I was all the more gutted to be bedridden with a debilitating lurgy, missing out on all the entertaining hi-jinks. Sadly it’s a barometer of how fearful we are of Spurs good form, when nearly all the terrace banter is focused on our neighbours and Harry “he pays tax when he wants” Redknapp’s impending date with the Inland Revenue.

Yet watching a rare Arsenal display on the telly was a reminder of how damaging to the health this can be. I’d hoped that the Gunners might’ve learned a lesson from leaden-footed efforts of all those who’d frittered points away over the hectic festive period. But sadly not, as there was an incredibly frustrating air of inevitability to the outcome at the Cottage, once we’d failed to kill the game of in the first-half. It seemed patently obvious that a slender single goal lead wasn’t enough to prevail against the determined talents of Dempsey, Ruis, Dembele, Zamora and co., but instead of trying to force the issue, we made the fatal and somewhat arrogant mistake of attempting to rest on our laurels.

I felt most sorry for Koscielny, because as just about our most consistent player so far, he’d more than earned his moment of glory. And after Sczczny’s feats to keep us in the game, our gutsy young keeper definitely didn’t deserve to end up as the villain of this dissatisfying piece.

Wenger’s teams have never been designed for “shutting shop” even when at full strength, never mind with our decimated defence and a flagging midfield. The truth of the matter is that we’ve been riding our luck, eking out the results, ever since we lost the last of our recognized full-backs to injury. But this didn’t diminish the strain on my blood-pressure, while I bellowed my exasperation at an inanimate box as we blew the 3 points, knowing that Spurs could have 9 more points in the bag (three home games) before we next travel to Swansea!

Nevertheless if you’d told any Gooner three weeks into the calamitous start to our campaign, or even in mid-October when we were floundering in 15th place, that we’d be turning the corner at the halfway mark, having clambered right back up to 5th, there would’ve been few complaints. Until the unfortunate demise of all four full-backs, we were making an extremely good-fist of our resurgence.

Hopefully with Titi chomping at the bit, the hero’s return will offer a much-needed boost to morale. But even at the height of his powers, Henry couldn’t paper over the huge fissions in this Arsenal squad. We can but pray that le Prof might learn from the defeat at Fulham that he simply cannot continue to rely on playing square pegs in round holes on either side of the park.

It hasn’t gone without notice that Henry’s brief sojourn will end with our trip to the San Siro and the Derby game against Spurs but I hope all the hoo-haa surrounding his arrival won’t deflect from our desperate need for more permanent relief for Van Persie, before the burden of goal-scoring pressure begins to take its toll on Robin.

Meanwhile the consensus seems to believe that so long as our competitors continue to be blighted by inconsistency, if we can somehow cling on to their coat-tails until we’re capable of fielding our strongest XI, there could still be a happy-ending to this campaign. Although evidence of Gooner expectation adjustment is demonstrated in the fact that our unrequited thirst for silverware has all but been forgotten, in our anxiety about finishing above Tottenham.

Deluded optimism perhaps, but if we should fail to finish in the top four, then I guess we’ll just have to go and win the bloomin’ Champions League!

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