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Sunday 23 December 2012

All I Want For Xmas......

Hi folks,

Was it good fortune, or merely convenient that Olivier Giroud was left in London on Saturday, with him and Rosicky suffering from colds, as after Monday's result at Reading, surely it would've been impossible for AW not to have continued with Theo playing up front. Sadly we were not treated to a repeat performance at Wigan. I was pleased to see Arsène continue with this experiment (even if it is all merely a ruse to convince Walcott to sign a new contract)  because there's nothing that frightens defenders more than blistering pace and we've not benefited from this threat since Thierry took his leave.

Nevertheless, unfortunately Theo didn't leave me feeling convinced that he's about to devote himself to the Arsenal, as he stood around on Saturday, largely unemployed, waiting to receive the ball at his feet. Say what you will about the comparatively lumbering Giroud and the fact that the French centre forward is unlikely to develop into a "top draw" striker, but compared to Theo, Olivier is a far more willing grafter and I would've imagined that if he had been playing on Saturday, he would've soon grown tired of his lack of involvement and unlike Walcott, he would've gone looking for the ball, even if this involved him having to drop deep.

My main reason for not wanting Walcott to leave is because of what it says about our club if he does and that it would be confirmation of quite how far we've slipped in the natural pecking order of clubs. However AW's efforts to convince Walcott to sign a new contact to date don't exactly speak volumes for his strategic prowess. First he tried the big stick, by refusing to play him and now the use of the carrot of playing him at centre forward, it all feels a little desperate and perhaps too little, too late.

Whats more, I wonder if last week's big PR stunt was all for Walcott's benefit and if so, I am not sure Theo is so naive as to be influenced by the sight of our five English youngsters all sat round a table signing their new contracts. Apparently Carl Jenkinson's deal was agreed months back and much like Tony Adams, I envisage true Gooner Carl being willing to put pen to paper, no matter what his contract included. But it would appear as if the club saved the actual signing ritual for a suitable occasion.

I didn't have room below to refer to Thursday's Champions League draw. Malaga would've been the plum draw, not just for footballing reasons, but because personally I would've preferred the prospect of travelling to somewhere warm in the spring. Still, I am looking forward to an opportunity to make my first visit to an impressive looking Allianz Arena, Bayern's new home and it's far preferable to a return trip to the cavernous Olympic Stadium, where one inevitably ends up confronted by the trauma of the 1972 hostage tragedy as one walks past the largely unchanged scene of this outrage on route.

Sadly nowadays, one feels obliged to make the very most of every successive Champions League encounter, just in case if it might be our last for some time to come. And so I sat down to watch the live draw on the telly, with a list I'd prepared of various permutations of cheap flight alternatives to the eight possible destinations.

Interestingly, during their coverage of the draw, Sky Sports played a rare interview with Alisher Usmanov courtesy of CNBC. It's the first time I've seen the man speak publicly about his interest in the Arsenal and I have to wonder if this is a significant indication of an effort on his part to raise the stakes, as Usmanov seeks to apply some pressure upon the Arsenal board, by increasing his profile and thereby building upon the corresponding level of public support amongst the many red & white malcontents? 

Who knows if Usmanov's riches are any dirtier than those of Abramovich, or any of the many other fortunes sunk into football clubs in recent times by billionaire investors. His money is certainly not too dirty for the charities that have pocketed £120 million of his disposable readies! 

What I do know is that unless the Gunners can recapture the glory days in the near future, there will be plenty of Gooners who are likely to grow increasingly frustrated about the fact that we have this potential benefactor sitting on the sidelines, eager, but thus far unable to throw his substantial financial weight behind bringing success back to London N5, while our current owner sits in his Montana ranch, content to count his profits from the club, but seemingly unperturbed by and utterly uninterested in the Arsenal's silverware drought.

Meanwhile, the most stressful part of the Champions League draw is the period after the opposition has been decided, as one sits anxiously awaiting for the actual dates to be announced, constantly refreshing the Arsenal web site page, so as to be able to be quick off the mark booking flights, within minutes of the seeing confirmation of the fixture schedule.

All the budget airlines are wise to the Champions League draw nowadays and their ability to react to the instant increase in demand is reflected in the fact that all bargain fares disappear in a flash. Easyjet prices to Munich were originally under 70 quid but these shot up to £130 and were about £400 before the end of the day. Fortunately we were able to bag four flights on BA via air miles and I was left feeling quite smug when I checked out of curiousity on Thursday evening, flabbergasted to find the same flights were now priced at an extortionate 700 quid!

I now have to worry about whether my large stock of Camel filters (purchased on our trips to Schalke and Olympiakos) will last me up until March and then how I'm going to be able to maintain my nicotine addiction if we should end up exiting the competition against Bayern. I daren't even contemplate the impact upon my noxious smoking habits should the Gunners fail to qualify for the competition next season.

But enough of my waffle. Here's wishing everyone a great Xmas and a happy & healthy New Year. Eat, drink and be very merry

Come on you Reds


Ho Ho Ho

In case anyone failed to notice the arrival of the festive season (or a blue moon), Stuart Downing marked it’s arrival on Saturday by stunning Scousers with an actual goal. Soul, or no soul, the beautiful game will maintain it’s allure, so long as it retains it’s eternal ability to confound.
Listening to the radio in the car on route back from our ridiculously early kick off in the North-West, I simply couldn’t fathom how a star-studded Man City could make such a meal, out of overcoming the same statuesque Royals side that rolled over against us on Monday night.
After setting off at 5.45am, I made it up to Wigan by way of Stoke, where my pal Stuart donned his santa outfit, to join all the other Xmas crackers in fancy dress bashing out 5k park run in the pouring rain in Hanley Park, cheered on by a decidedly damp and only slightly less bonkers Donner and Blitzen (myself and his lad).
Following a brief pit-stop to freshen up with a shower at Sandbach services, Stuart was probably closest to the land of the living, by the time we joined the other 4500 Gooners at the JJB; where many of us turned up in hope and expectation of witnessing the same sort of energized Arsenal performance that we’d enjoyed at the Madjeski earlier in the week.
Arriving home from Reading on Monday night, I promptly sat down to watch a repeat of the game on the box because with Walcott finally fulfilling his wish to play up front, I hadn’t been able to work out whether the Gunners had miraculously begun to discover some real form, or if this was a bit of a delusion and that our 5-2 thrashing of the Royals was more down to the inept display of a side that had performed like obvious relegation fodder.
Considering their precarious position, Reading were surprisingly meek. Yet, nevertheless, you could sense a response to our humiliating cup exit in Bradford, by the way we tore into the Royals. Right from the opening whistle, Chamberlain charged at their defence with such drive and determination that he ended up filching the ball back from Cazorla’s feet before taking a pot shot. Perhaps for the first time this season, we set about the opposition from the start, with the sort of vim and vigour, which has been sorely lacking from all the low-tempo performances that have been devoid of this sort of intent.
If we’d finally managed to release the handbrake on Monday, most disappointingly it was firmly back in place come Saturday, as sadly we reverted to type, trudging about in the unabating downpour, back to relentlessly moving the ball sideways and backwards, with no one in red & white willing to take the game to the opposition and with none of them looking as if they really wanted to be there.
Although Wigan played their part in nullifying the likes of Cazorla. After McCarthy trod on the Spaniard in the opening moments and continued to bite at his ankles every time he received the ball, Santi soon began to acquire the demeanour of someone who’d have much preferred to have been left back in London with Giroud and Rosicky. McCarthy then turned his attentions upon our other main creative source, welcoming Jack Wilshere to Wigan. But unlike Cazorla, with his terrier like qualities, Wilshere wasn’t about to seek refuge on the ropes, but remained in the centre of the ring, to give as good as he got.
The fact that we clung on to grind out a victory, when in the past we’d have probably failed to keep a clean sheet, might be viewed as an indication of an increasing resilience. Yet in truth Wigan were hard done by, as our success was only due to the fact that we were slightly less slipshod than our hosts.
If they’d been more clinical in front of goal and Walcott hadn’t bought us a penalty from the utterly incompetent ref (as a match official, Jon Moss makes for a good bisexual drummer in an 80s New Romantic pop outfit), merely by getting goalside of his opponent, it might’ve been a miserable, empty-handed return trip from the North-West.
Instead of which we came home with the 3 points and a small, token reward for our support, by way of an Xmas card, handed out as we entered the ground, which included a £10 voucher for food & drink at any home game. Never mind a free voucher, at the very top of many Gooner festive wish-lists would be for the club to put an end to their farcical refusal to entertain the advances of Alisher Usmanov. Can you imagine any other club, but the Arsenal, taking such an intransigent stance, with a fan who happens to be one of the wealthiest men on the planet, willing to throw whatever it takes, from his seemingly bottomless pit of resources, in order to make our club successful?
Mercifully six points in a week has elevated the Gunners from the mid-table morass, back to the battle for 3rd and 4th place and enables us to go into the festive schedule with some momentum. But it highlights the fickle way in which the media machine has clubs constantly lurching from crisis, to the comfort zone, from game to game. 
Only last week, after the debacle at Bradford, Arsène Wenger looked like the proverbial little boy, trying to plug the Gunners leaky dyke, not with his fingers but with rolled up copies of his Excel spreadsheets, whereas suddenly he’s back to being courted, as the media sycophants admire the cut of our Emperor’s new clothes. Meanwhile those of us of a more considered nature and who’ve endured so many disappointing performances so far this season, beyond all the hype, sadly we know that le Gaffer remains stark bollock naked!
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Monday 17 December 2012

Champions League...Now We're Really Having A Larf!

Hi folks,

I only discovered on Sunday afternoon that the Irish Examiner weren't expecting a Terrace Talk missive from me this weekend (with us playing on Monday night) and I was already 515 words into the following piece, when they suggested I limit my submission to 500 words. So you'll have to forgive me if I've short-changed you on this week's diary entry, in my efforts to wrap the following up as succinctly as possible. With brevity hardly being my strong suit, this was quite a challenge. I also have to apologies if I've repeated some of the sentiments expressed in midweek but I definitely didn't want to get into yet another Wenger (Gervinho, Podolski, Ramset et al) bashing.

Knocking Wenger is tantamount to banging one's head up against a brick wall each week. The only pressure le Prof is under, is the pressure he puts on himself and that's probably one of the biggest problems at the club nowadays. AW is such an autocrat at the Arsenal that there is no one capable of making him aware of quite how stark bollock naked our Emperor appears, every time he comes out and publicly reiterates his belief in the quality of such a mediocre looking squad.

Can anyone ever recall an incidence of a board getting shot of a manager because he declines to dip into their ever increasing bank balance? Besides which, even if the suits at the Arsenal should begin to get a little twitchy, if the number of empty seats continues to increase in direct proportion to the number of goals conceded as an inevitable result of our positively moribund zonal marking system, can you honestly envisage the scene in which Gazides, the MD who was interviewed by Wenger for his job as our manager's boss, finds the cajones to pull club's greatest ever servant into his office, to advise him that his time is finally up?

In season's past, I wouldn't be panicking just yet, as I'd be looking at our next five Premiership fixtures, thinking that we should be perfectly capable of pulling our socks up by the time FA Cup 3rd Round comes along and that this will enable us to head into the New Year with a bit of momentum. Sadly nowadays we go into every game, praying our opposition might be more out of sorts than ourselves and with Reading having hit the bottom of the table over the weekend, you can bet they're not about to roll over for us on home turf tomorrow night.

As with any manager worth his salt, I fully expect ex-Gunner, Brian McDermott to target our obvious frailties at set pieces and you'll have to pick me up from my seat at the Madjeski in shock, if the Gunners finally remember how to take a game to the opposition and for once they pull their finger out before going a goal behind

Come on you Reds
Keep the faith

The only feint consolation in an exhausting seven hour round trip trek to Bradford in the freezing fog, to endure the sight of a full-strength Premiership outfit having their pants pulled down and their bare arses well and truly smacked by the lowly Bantams, is that whatever else transpires this season, it simply can’t get any more embarrassing for the Gunners than that.
The welcome we received in West Yorkshire was as warm, as the weather was brass monkeys. For those of the 4000 lunatic Gooner suckers for punishment who arrived early enough to bag one, there were free Santa hats laid out on our seats, as part of the effort made by our impoverished hosts, to try and create a big, cup final type occasion of their brief moment in the footballing limelight.
If I’m entirely honest, when I contrast quite how much our fans and the team would’ve taken the result for granted, if this game had run to form, with the euphoria of the fulfillment of a rammed Valley Parade’s not so far-fetched fantasies and a potential career highlight for many of the Bantam’s journeymen pros, I couldn’t really begrudge them their momentous night of giant-killing glory.
It wouldn’t have felt nearly so bad if we’d merely been victim to bad fortune, as opposed to this season’s most blatant demonstration of the obvious limitations of our current squad. Perhaps the most telling appraisal of an Arsenal team, with a cutting edge that is no less blunt than the likes of Torquay, came as were consoled by the jubilant locals on our miserable, hangdog trudge back to the motor.
They’d turned out on mass to support their team against the mighty Arsenal and they all seemed genuinely mystified and more than a little disappointed that a regular amongst Europe’s elite, containing an assortment of International stars, who cost umpteen millions more than the combined value of their entire squad, could produce no more threat and offer little more entertainment value than any of their regular 2nd division opposition. But then we’ve been asking ourselves this same question for far too long!
Whether Wenger’s team selection was a reflection of his desire to relieve the pressure, by throwing us a League Cup bone, or an effort to instill some much-needed confidence in our beleaguered troops, by banging in a few goals against lower league opposition, whatever the motive, le Prof’s plan seriously backfired. As I listened to the announcement of our line-up, while queuing for a hand-warming cup of Bovril, my prevailing reaction was not just surprise but I was left feeling more than a little cheated.
In recent seasons our League Cup campaigns have often proved a highpoint, a welcome touchstone to the real thing and a breathe of fresh footballing air, outside of the rarefied hype within the artifice of the Premiership bubble. Whatever the outcome, one could always rely on the refreshing pleasure of experiencing the eager “have a go” exuberance of assorted youngsters, with plenty still to prove. By comparison, after the madcap excitement at the Madjeski in the last round, it was unbearably frustrating to endure yet another low-tempo display, as we sat back waiting for our quality to win out, without anyone willing to grasp the mantle and make something happen.
Having been in touching distance of a day out at Wembley, the long journey home afforded plenty of time for the realization to sink in that the Gunners had just blown our best opportunity of ending our silverware drought. Moreover, where in the past one might’ve expected the sort of positive reaction to our humiliating cup exit, in five subsequent bankable Premiership fixtures, on current form the Gunners will inevitably make a meal out of the meekest opposition. It’s hard to believe that we’ll be travelling to Reading this evening more in desperate hope of some redemption, than in expectation.
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Friday 14 December 2012

I Schlepped All The Way To Bradford And All I Have To Show For MyEfforts Is A Free Santa Hat!

(having attempted to exorcise some of my frustration on the Arsenal mailing list, my reply to a post on the list  about AW's future, resulted in such a rambling and all too long-winded rant - nothing new there then - that I thought I might as well post it to my blog, in the event that there might be other sad buggers like myself, who based on recent events, really should get a life because as far as the Gunners are concerned, I fear that the prospects for the immediate future suggest that according to Gooner Jagger's immortal words, there really "ain't no satisfaction"!)

From my most humble perspective, what many seem to fail to appreciate is that there are basically only two possible ways in which Arsene will depart the Arsenal, either if he decides he's had enough, or if we the fans end up revolting to such an extent that his position becomes untenable.

Wenger has been working the oracle for so many years, maintaining Champions Lg qualification, even when the club's finances were stretched to the brink and the stadium build was in jeopardy and he's so obsessed with "value for money" that he's the ultimate dream manager, for any football club that's primarily focused on maintaining a viable, profitable business.

As a result, can anyone seriously imagine that there's a single suit at Highbury House who doesn't revere our leader to such an extent that they worship the very ground AW walks on and you are seriously off your rocker, if you believe that, even if there was the slightest element of the board losing faith in Wenger's ability to continue running the club at a profit, the likes of Ivan Gazides actually possesses balls big enough to tell Arsene Wenger that his time is up!!

Get real! Arsene will only leave when he chooses to, either because he's had enough, or because we end up making his position positively unbearable.

As someone who's schlepped to Athens and Bradford recently, I'm certainly no Arsène apologist, as his decisions, such as those to persist in showing such faith in the headless chicken Gervinho, remain infuriatingly unfathomable. Nevertheless, I am someone who would dearly love to see his reign at the Arsenal end in a high, rather than suffer the unbearable sight of the great man, sloping off into the sunset with his tail between his legs.

And the criteria I have always used to judge whether I feel Arsène's time is up is exactly who would we be guaranteed to be able to replace him with, at that precise point in time, where we could be certain of them doing a better job? How many of our competitors would be queuing up to take Wenger off our hands, albeit probably primarily nowadays because of his capacity to keep a club operating at a profit, while remaining within the new FFP rules. Finally and perhaps most significantly, quite how much my Spurs pals will rejoice euphorically on the day Arsene finally receives his P45.

The day my Spurs mates' attitude changes and they start to grieve at the prospect of Wenger's departure because they feel his replacement is more likely to ruin any remaining fantasies they have of finishing above us, this will be the day when I know Arsene has outstayed his welcome.

Moreover for those of you expecting a miracle in January, you might do well to remember that there will be a myriad of clubs, many in a far more precarious position than ourselves, with many prepared to gamble the shirt off their back, for some hope of salvation and as a result, willing to throw far more moola at potential answers to their problems than the value obsessed Arsène. Take the rumours about our interest in Huntelaar for example. Does the fact that he found the net against our positively porous, zonal defence, prove him capable of producing an immediate impact in the Premiership? Some might think him to be more of a "Giroud plus" than a genuine top draw signing ? But all of these clubs will be desperately seeking solutions from the relatively limited pool of talent available in the January window and whether it's physical or mental, many of whom would already be considered to be damaged goods!

As for Tuesday's debacle in Bradford, we can argue all day about the rights & wrongs of AW putting out such a strong side. With us not having a game until Monday, I suppose it was a typically logical decision on Wenger's part, but I was nevertheless surprised to see the line up and I'd be a liar to say that I wasn't a little disappointed.

With the game live on the box (and with me not feeling nearly so obligated midweek, as I do with weekend games, when having to write my weekly column on Sunday night), the principal reasons I enjoy attending such Carling Cup awaydays (or whatever it's sponsor is this week) quite so religiously, is the prospect of seeing a few kids playing in red & white, who are willing to give it a real go.

Moreover, you really had to be there on Tuesday night, to fully appreciate that after a decade of depressing misery, quite what a Cup Final occasion this was for lowly Bradford and the entire town in general.

I expected the Bantams to be so hyped up that they would steam straight into us, but I guess it wasn't so surprising that, after putting out a pretty much full strength Arsenal team (on paper!), the home side were sufficiently intimidated that they showed us far too much respect during the opening few minutes, timidly standing off our players, not daring to kick us up in the air with a tackle.

What really pissed me off is our complete and utter failure to recognise this and take advantage, as I could envisage the likes of Utd taking the piss from minute one, by tearing their lower league opponents apart. Sadly, where it might've been a different story with an injection of over-exuberant youth, our first team regulars started the game at the tragically low-tempo that we've grown all too accustomed to in recent times.

As a consequence, after pushing the ball sideways and backwards for the first twenty minutes, barely disturbing the Bantams' defence (while, by contrast, poor old Tommy Vermaelen appeared to completely crap himself every time the nippy Nakhi Wells came anywhere near him!), we completely blew any advantage we might of had with the home side's deluded perceptions of us as footballing giants, as we blatantly gifted them the time they needed to settle into the match, with the absence of any brilliance on our part presenting them with the opportunity to begin to sense that this Gunners side are mere mortals, who were no less beatable than bloomin' Torquay!

Frankly you don't need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate the complete absence of a cutting edge with the likes of Podolski and Gervinho playing up front (making Olivier Giroud look positively potent by comparison to these two anonymous twonks!). But in truth it wasn't so much a lack of effort which bothered me (as someone who's always harping on about being sufficiently gratified, so long as the Gunners put a shift in) but the fact that our now traditional lack of tempo prevented us from putting Bradford under the cosh.

Amongst my main criticisms of AW is that he's far too cerebral, setting far too much store in science and statistics but that unfortunately he has always seemed to be dreadfully lacking in the crucial ability to be in touch with the intangible emotional qualities that simply cannot be measured on an Excel spreadsheet.

For example, I suspect that if AW let Stevie Bould off his leash, he'd have been standing on the touch line bellowing at the players from the opening whistle, both encouraging and intimidating in equal measure, to try and get them to "take the handbrake off" and make the most of their superior abilities by taking the opposition on, whereas Wenger just stood there with his hands stuck in his duvet and his silent frustration etched in every new wrinkle on his ageing phizog

When ever we start a game at such a slow tempo, it's invariably impossible to shift up through the gears and put the foot on the gas, so as to turn up the heat. At least not without the significant sort of event needed to act as the catalyst for the necessary inspiration, namely the act of going a goal behind.

Even then, on Tuesday night, it was only as the desperation mounted and the clock ticked down towards our embarrassing cup exit on 90 minutes that we discovered the necessary motivation to throw the kitchen sink at getting an equaliser and we still lacked the guile and the craft to get behind the Bantams' rearguard, as their staunch efforts continued to limit us to long range efforts from outside the box.

And you stand their freezing your cods off on the Valley Parade terraces, having forsaken a day's wages to undertake a seven hour round trip drive on our dangerously foggy, icy motorways, wondering why on earth it took until the 80th minute for the Gunners to pull their collective finger out?

It's not that I'm complaining about our work-rate, as frankly on such a cold night, it's not as if any of them were going to be guilty of standing around idle for too long. Who knows whether it's down to a lack of belief, confidence, or merely due to complacency, but there's this thoroughly conspicuous lack of intent about the Arsenal's football nowadays, in all the utterly superfluous sideways and backwards passes (which invariably end up with me leaving the ground hoarse, after spending much of the match hollering "Sczczny's on"!) which results in the sort of impotence in so much of our play that leaves the likes of Bradford and every other opponent believing that we are there for the taking.

With a little more intent in Gervinho's game, he wouldn't have missed that sitter on Tuesday, as no matter how little control he seems to have, a player with sufficient commitment (eg. The cumbersome Grant Holt) would've barrelled into the six yard box, so that he, the ball and even the keeper if necessary, would've all ended up in the back of the net.

Now where I presume that Arsène stands there thinking that after such a glaring miss, "statistically speaking", according to mathematic logic, the Ivorian has just improved his odds of putting his next opportunity in the back of the net and thereby comes to the conclusion that he's best leaving Gervinho out there, even though his confidence is so shot that he's taken to hiding out wide on the wing and even his team mates have stopped wasting possession by giving him the ball, a more instinctive manager, like Mourinho for example, would've been so incensed at such incompetence that he'd have grabbed the board out of the fourth official's hands in his impatience to pull the numpty off the pitch! 

While Wenger puts his faith in science, waiting for the law of averages to have its say, a more emotionally sensitive manager would immediately recognised the need to alter the status quo and to take immediate action, both to serve as a warning to all concerned that there is some "cause and effect" consequences of such a complete f#ck up and to give an all too comfortable opposition defence something different to worry about. Sure this alternative approach might well prove to be no more effective but it at least leaves everyone feeling as if we've tried to play all our cards, instead of constantly and stubbornly sticking with the same hand until it is too late.

Santi smacked his stunning extra-time shot from outside the box with more than enough intent and when such a deserved effort failed to dip under the bar, you kind of sensed that our search for silverware bobbled away off the bar with the ball. 

I really don't want to relive the emotional trauma of the penalty shoot-out, suffice to say that with the Bantams' confidence from the penalty spot, we should've known full well that we couldn't afford to let them get that far. In our failure to put them to the sword, or in Bradford's heroic efforts to thwart us during 120 minutes of football, I have to admit that when Dean eventually blew the whistle that took us to the dreaded crap shoot of spot-kicks, there was some small part of me that felt that the locals deserved their long awaited moment of glory and would be far more appreciative of it than we would, in making such a meal of rolling over lower league opponents.

What's more, we were made to feel most welcome in Bradford. They might've taken the maximum advantage of this rare opportunity with the exorbitantly priced, four quid programmes, but we'd paid a paltry "macaroni" (25 quid, or a pony for the uninitiated amongst us), by today's extortionate standards, for a prime pitch, bang on the halfway line and they'd even been so kind as to throw in an Xmas pressie of a free Santa Hat on the seats of those of us who arrived early enough to bag one.

Set amidst streets of the sort of terraced Victorian housing that looks like a scene straight out of Coronation Street and built on the sort of slope that leaves the more imaginative amongst us wondering if it was constructed on top of a coal mine slag heap (forgive my historic inaccuracies, as I suspect Bradford was built on woollen mills rather than coal mines but doubtless I was akip in the corner dreaming of being Charlie George, during that particular history lesson?), Bradford has the feel of a proper old-fashioned football club.

Amongst my old man's Bernard Manning type racist material back in the 70s was an oft repeated crack about dialling 999 in Bradford and them calling out the Bengal Lancers. But unlike so many other traditional footballing epicentres around the country, like Leicester and Birmingham, where the glory might be faded but sadly the racism remains far too entrenched, there is some sense that supporting Bradford City FC is a far more inclusive experience for its massive Asian community, as absolutely all the locals of every hue and creed seemed "up for the Cup"

Thus as much as I would've preferred for Santi to have saved us from the excruciating agony of the shoot-out (as we blew our semi-final berth by going 0-2 down, only for Sczczny, the redeemer, to restore our belief but in vain, as TV5 extinguished it again!), despite all this angst, I couldn't help but feel a little pleased for the locals as a rammed Valley Parade savoured their moment in the limelight, especially after witnessing the way in which all that euphoria was sucked out of that stadium as we burst the bubble of their league cup fantasy with only three minutes left on the clock.

Perhaps the most telling appraisal of the obvious limitations of our current squad was heard from the Bradford fans that we chatted with, on the miserable, hangdog walk back to our motor after the match. They seemed genuinely mystified and more than a little disappointed that they'd turned up to see the mighty Arsenal and that a team from the upper echelons of the Premiership and a regular amongst Europe's elite, had failed so patently to produce the sort of entertainment they'd been expecting. 

As was the case against the Baggies on Saturday, apart from the odd all too rare glimpse of artistry from the likes of Cazorla & Wilshere (not forgetting Francis Coquelin surprising us all, with our holding midfielder's single and very nearly successful effort to demonstrate the art of attacking to his more recalcitrant team mates, with his mazy run into the box, as a precursor to le Prof baffling us all once again, by replacing our best player on the park thus far?), the Bantam fans were more than a little mystified how it could be possible that a collection of international stars, costing umpteen times the couple of million quid value of their more humble squad, could produce a display so utterly devoid of class that the Gunners were no more effective than any of their 2nd division opposition.

But then we've all been asking ourselves the same question, for far too long now!

I thought a couple of locals lasses were being sarcastic when they told me that they'd happily take Gervinho (perhaps they weren't talking football, but it's not as if his elongated forehead is an indicator of our empty-headed striker's gene pool contribution towards an over-developed brain - although at least he's got plenty of space in this void to stuff his gloves - and there are plenty of more attractive players to idolise as a sex god!). I said that I'd happily swap him for my Santa hat and we'd already been given that for free!

Still unlike all those Gooners who were forced to endure yet another humiliating Gooner experience on the box, at least we didn't end up returning from Bradford entirely empty-handed

Keep the faith 

Monday 10 December 2012

Bring On The Bantams

I’m mad for my football.  Least it was warm in Athens and I came back with a carrier bag full of cheap fags. But if travelling a couple of thousand miles to watch last week’s load of old tosh against Olympiakos wasn’t sufficiently batty, then sacrificing a day’s wages to schlep up to Bradford in this bitterly cold weather, for the depreciated denizens of the Capital One Cup, must surely rank as positively certifiable?

After all these years, it’s pretty much an automated response for me to turn up to support the Gunners. Yet compared to how eager I was to drink in the high-class entertainment that we were enjoying, whilst being spoiled by the more rewarding early years of Wenger’s reign, never mind our players, nowadays I find myself reflecting on whether I’m merely going through the motions.

Such was my limited enthusiasm for forsaking the far more cozy environs of our flat, to freeze my cods off on the terraces (and I would’ve done, without the aid of my trusty longjohns!) that I didn’t get out of the door until ten minutes prior to kick-off of our crunch encounter with West Brom. In the past I would’ve nearly induced a heart-attack by hurtling around to the ground, for fear of missing out on a flurry of goalmouth activity in the opening moments.

I suppose it’s a reflection on quite how far the mighty have fallen that I wasn’t about to get into a lather about being late on Saturday. There were already 5 minutes on the clock by the time I took my seat and I didn’t even bother turning to my neighbour, to enquire what I had missed. After all, sadly most of our recent matches have tended to start at such a low-tempo that we end up playing amongst ourselves for at least 10 minutes, before anyone even dares take on the opposition.

Our guests might have lost their last couple of games and my tardy arrival might’ve coincided with Liam Ridgewell limping off. Nevertheless it’s hard to believe that such a surprisingly docile West Brom, could be the same over-achieving Steve Clarke outfit that’s been the Premiership’s surprise package to date, soaring to 5th in the table. But I’m not complaining because if ever the Gunners needed the leg-up of meeting the Baggies on a “bad day at the office” it was Saturday.

Under less stressful circumstances, it would’ve been great to see Cazorla stand up and do a Robbie Fowler, dismissing our penalty claim. Sadly such momentous sporting gestures aren’t exactly encouraged, amidst the obscenely high stakes of the modern game. It will also be a shame if Santi ends up branded as a result, with his card marked, along with the likes of Suarez and Bale, to the point where opponents can take a frying pan to his head, without worrying about conceding a spot kick.

Besides, despite being camped in the opposition half, we were making such hard work of breaking the Baggies down that it was a massive relief when Cazorla conned the spot-kick from the laughably incompetent ref (to be fair, everyone in the ground, bar our guests, thought it was a stuck-on penalty claim) as we hadn’t looked like scoring up until that point.

I heard Ray Parlour admit on the radio that it was a blatant dive and I was fully expecting the karmic reward of Arteta cocking up the penalty, but mercifully it would appear that cheats can prosper in the Premiership. Up until now, I’ve been impressed at the way Cazorla has ridden challenges, rather than hitting the deck. But in this instance, our desperation for success, deserved or not, is such, that the Spaniard would’ve been the principal guest at a 50,000 lynching, if he’d declined his ill-gotten gain.

At least the goal resulted in the game opening up and where we’d looked like a team of complete strangers first-half, after the break, for the first time in ages we savoured some all too brief glimpses of sort of graceful artistry between Cazorla and Wilshere that does at least offer a glimmer of hope.

Meanwhile, presumably having been informed of his ricket, the hair-brained ref spent most of the second half trying to right his wrong, with a succession of unfathomable decisions. It was therefore ironic that we should end up benefiting from the most significant of these, as he ignored the foul in the build up to the second penalty.

The Ox did well bursting into the box, but overall Alex has been decidedly disappointing, thus far wasting the opportunity Arsène has afforded him, to demonstrate Theo’s dispensability. But how much longer must we suffer Gervinho’s headless chicken impersonation, before our stubborn manager finally admits that compared to the incompetent Ivorian striker, Walcott looks world class.

Saturday’s much needed victory would appear to vindicate Wenger’s decision to leave half our team at home for the midweek trip to Olympiakos. Albeit that there was little evidence of the benefit of fresh-legs during such a dull first-half display. Chelsea may have exited the Champions League, but perhaps their 6-1 victory will have kickstarted their spluttering league campaign, as you can only build momentum by winning games. But we’ll have plenty of time to reflect on our defeat in Greece and the logic of fielding a team too weak to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to win our group, over a long cold winter

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Sunday 2 December 2012

Blowing In The Wind

The league table never lies. The Gunners are marooned in the doldrums of 10th place because based on our recent run of dreadfully pallid displays, that’s exactly where we deserve to be. Most disconcerting is that where in the past there’s always been promise aplenty of better to come, in a calibre of player capable of putting wind in our sails and breathing some life back into our season, there appears to be a lamentable level of apathy, arrogance and a basic lack of quality amongst our current incumbents. Thus it’s hard to envisage exactly where the inspiration is going to come from, for a resurrection from mid-table mediocrity, no matter how Arsène shuffles our current pack.

I’m unsure if opponents have sussed out that the Arsenal’s passing clock cannot tick, so long as they apply sufficient pressure upon the mainspring of Miguel Arteta. Or if we simply can’t afford to carry passengers like Gervinho and Podolski, leaving only 8 outfield players frustratingly, flailing in vain for incisive creativity, against the far more integrated likes of Laudrup’s Swans. At times during the first-half on Saturday, the Gunners’ laboured impotence compared to our guests’ elegant fluidity, was so embarrassing that many of the tourists might’ve been forgiven for thinking that the teams had already swapped shirts.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and on the day of a relatively unimpressive “We Want Our Arsenal Back” protest march (exactly which Arsenal…the dour doctrine of George Graham, Terry Neill’s single FA Cup in 7 seasons?), it was somewhat ironic that Swansea should turn up, to remind us of the graceful geometery of an artistic passing game that was previously responsible for making the Gunners the preferred choice of viewing for all aficionados of the beautiful game.

It always infuriates me when Arsène’s post-match mitigation includes the “physically jaded” absolution for such lifeless dross. With 60% of the season still to come, Swansea showed no signs of tiredness. Fatigue is so rarely a factor for teams buoyed by success that surely it’s obvious this is a mental issue. Moreover, by pointing out our players’ proximity to his fabled “red zone” and reiterating this in the media, the problem becomes self-perpetuating, as le Gaffer gives them license to perform as expected.

Mercifully we discovered sufficient energy second half to muster some attacking threat, but we were devoid of momentum during the first forty-five. Our limited time in possession was solely dedicated to passing the ball sideways and backwards. No-one was willing to take the opposition on, as we sat back, waiting for Swans to part, like the waters of the Red Sea and present us with an open invitation to approach their goal. After all, why should we tax ourselves further, when our lord & master is waiting in the wings with a ready-made excuse?

Our squad should be forced to join my stage crew for two shows in the theatre on a Saturday, followed by an all-night changeover, for a taste of real exhaustion. In return for the obscene rewards these fit young footballers receive, I really don’t think it’s unfair of us to demand that they bust their balls for 90 minutes a couple of times a week.

Yet no matter how badly we perform, the Gunners are “my” bad and I don’t hold with booing our own. Instead I stood to begrudgingly applauding the Swans at the final whistle. Sadly their slick, stylish performance only served to highlight quite how far we’ve fallen from this perch, as a result of the year, on year decline in our squad (and we’ve got to do it all over again with Swansea, but at their place in the FA Cup!).

However football has and always will be cyclical and most fans only have their memories, or their fantasies of mere fleeting moments of glory, to tide them over endless seasons of forbearance. The Gooner contingent amongst those fickle modern footie fans who demand instant gratification, can’t comprehend the fact that we are now paying our dues, for having savoured such a gratifying period of the most entertaining brand of the beautiful game that it has ever been my privilege to witness these past 40 years and which was the envy of football lovers everywhere.

It’s only because Arsène set this bar so high that the likes of the Black Scarf Movement are throwing their toys out of the pram now (frankly I’ve yet to even see a black scarf at an Arsenal match!). They mask their anger in rants about the corporatization of our beloved club. Yet in truth football is all about results and if this Arsenal side is ever going to be capable of stringing a run together, you can be sure it would silence all such white noise.

I don’t disagree with some of BSM’s basic tenets, but I’m not about to join them pissing in the wind. So long as there remains umpteen thousands waiting to grab our season tickets, as ever, the board will continue to pay the same token lip-service to our wishes. Besides, how many of those marching on Saturday in favour of a seat on the board for Red & White holdings, were also amongst the “Love Arsenal, Hate Usmanov” sheep, protesting back in 2007 against accepting the Uzbek’s ill gotten gains?

As much as I might despise it, football is big business nowadays and we might as well be protesting against the invention of the wheel. Sadly there is no going back to shanks’ pony, no matter how cuddly and intimate life was back at Highbury, compared to the cold, clinical machinations of the corporate behemoth that has become of our club.

Here’s hoping the weather in Athens is better, as I’m not particularly optimistic about the footie!

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Saturday 1 December 2012

Sounds far more like my kinda protest–-sign-up-now/