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Monday 22 April 2013

Surely must be headline of the day?

Why bother?

Incited by this all too rare comment on Sunday's missive, I felt inspired to offer you lucky Gooners some more of my insightful thoughts, as so many of these are denied to you by the constraints of the 600 odd words that are wanted from me by the Irish Examiner each week.

Never mind the fact that our lumbering French centre forward is not now and will never be a top draw talent, it's not as if we're overly blessed with target man options and after seeing $amir Na$ri escape without even a caution for an almost identical challenge at White Hart Lane yesterday, you have to wonder how on earth ref Andre Marriner can justify sending Giroud off.

Who knows quite what an impact this is going to have on our efforts to finish in the top four? Hopefully we'll witness Walcott, perhaps even Podolski, or a goal glut from midfield as others step up, to pick up Olivier's all too sluggish slack. But if Giroud's red card at the Cottage should end up costing us Champions League football next season, Marriner will have earned himself serious promotion in my personal "Come the Revolution" league of football officials to be lined up against the wall.

I actually thought Marriner had pulled the red card out by mistake, when Sidwell went over the top of the ball on Arteta after only ten minutes. For a moment there it felt as if the ref  had decided that having already produced the red, he might as well flash it. And do you think for one minute that if Marriner hadn't sent Sidwell off, he would've been quite so quick to grab his opportunity to redress the balance at the death, by giving Giroud his marching orders?

Personally, I believe that if this pompous ref had any real feeling for football, from having actually played the game as a lad, he might've been more inclined to keep all twenty-two players on the pitch, by merely booking Sidwell for his momentary, if exceedingly rash bout of over-enthusiasm so early on in the proceedings. I've always despised the sort of automaton officiating, which doesn't allow referees to use their discretion and to give more weight to the all important question of intent.

For example, there can be argument about Luis Suarez' lunatic efforts to chow down on Ivanovic's bicep. For all his indisputably talented gifts, the Uruguayan animal is Mike Tyson bonkers and deserves to have the book thrown at him. But as an ex-Gooner, the ginger destroyer Sidwell was just desperate to make his mark in the match and it was just unfortunate that this mark proved to be the imprint of his studs on Mikel Arteta's shin.

Yet football is and always should remain a contact sport, despite the best efforts of over-zealous officiating and you simply can't eliminate these sort of dodgy tackles completely, without removing the element of passion and total commitment, which separates the beautiful game from ballroom dancing and all those other safe weekend activities, from which its participants will never be in danger of suffering a serious injury.

Few Gooners would've complained if Marriner had had the sense to merely show Sidwell a yellow and instead use the opportunity to try and ensure that the Ginger's rush of adrenaline didn't get the better of him. Besides which, the ref's application of a soupcon of common sense and a few words in Sidwell's shell-like to encourage him to calm down, would've been likely not only to benefit the 25,000 fans packed into Craven Cottage and all those millions watching around the planet, with the upshot of a far more entertaining, open contest, but the Gunners would've also likely ended up with all eleven on the park and without the rope of the resulting suspension, hanging around our necks as a potential death knell for any remaining end of season ambitions.

Customarily, encounters between us and Fulham tend to produce far more entertaining fare than was witnessed on Saturday. But subsequent to Marriner's premature intervention, Fulham's numerical disadvantage only encouraged our hosts to sit back in their own half and invite the Gunners to break down the massed ranks of their two rows of defence, with the home side only venturing a rare forage forward.

Whereas in truth, we'd have doubtless enjoyed a much more exciting outing if it had remained 11 v 11, without the wet blanket being applied to the Cottagers ambitions, which denied us any opportunity to hit the home side on the counter and which ultimately made for such a tame affair, with Fulham happy to sit in front of their goal and watch us push the ball from one side of the park to the other, for much of the remainder of the afternoon.

It was the total lack of tempo to our play and the resulting absence of any incisiveness which made it such a mundane and instantly forgettable match, other than for those all important three points. One assumes (hopes and prays!) that there might be just a little more adrenaline pumping through red & white veins by the time we step out at our place against Man Utd next Sunday.

I came away from Craven Cottage thinking that as with last season, Champions League qualification is likely to end up being achieved, sadly not by the team that wants it the most, but is more likely to be denied to side that hasn't honestly demonstrated sufficient quantities of desire to deserve it. However if I felt angry on Saturday about the obvious absence of the sort of intensity that might indicate that this Arsenal squad are supremely motivated to retain their highly-prized seat at European football's top table and that perhaps they have instead become far too blasé about competing in the game's most glamorous competition, this sense of irritation soon abated during the snoozefest of Sunday's equally anodyne displays.

After so many consecutive seasons of Champions League football there are plenty of Gooners who seem to take our involvement in this competition for granted, believing it should be gifted to us as some sort of g-d given right. As desperate as I am to see us finish above Spurs, easing either our neighbours, or the nouveau Blue scum towards the ignominy of the Thursday/Sunday drudge of the Europa Cup, after schlepping around the Continent for so many seasons, in search of that elusive big-eared prize that continues to leave a glaring gulf in the Gunners honours list, I have to admit that I'm not quite so anxious to see another mediocre Arsenal squad make it under the wire just by the skin of our teeth, merely to participate.

If the limit of the ambitions of the Gunners infinitely "sustainable" business is merely to make it past the qualification rounds, to the hefty six-match profits of the Champions League group stages, only to fall every season at the knockout hurdle because we simply don't have the financial muscle to seriously compete with the big boys, then less partisan types might propose a sensible argument that it's high time we let someone else give it a go?

Meanwhile, after watching our two competitors turn out on Sunday in an equally laidback fashion - with Tottenham seemingly intent on sleepwalking through 75 minutes of their game at White Hart Lane, only to suddenly wake up to the fact that only fifteen minutes remained to claw themselves back from the brink, by resuscitating yet another season that was almost dead and buried and Chelsea casually gifting away the couple of points that continues to make everything appear fairly interesting (to a Scouser outfit, who without Suarez, even make our squad look quality ridden!) - I'm suddenly reminded that other than those teams battling for their Premiership lives in the quagmire at the bottom, much like the remainder, the three London sides are guilty of resting on their laurels, seemingly culpable of the same sort of smug complacency that always seems to prevail at this time of the year, in these mercenary modern times.

While the pundits endlessly pontificate on the potential permutations and us poor mug punters sit here chewing our nails down to the quick, I'm afraid I can't avoid the dreadfully cynical spectre of all those overpaid stars who are far are more interested in studying their holiday brochures than the fixture lists!

Ultimately it looks ever more likely that the Gunners fate is likely to come down to the outcome of Spurs rearranged encounter at Stamford Bridge in a couple of weeks time, when at least one our two competitors is guaranteed to drop points. If the Gunners can somehow contrive to keep our end up, even if this does only amount to ending up a mere Per Mertesacher header away from the wrong side of those gossamer thin margins between success and failure, hopefully the Gooner faithful can rest assured that at least one of our two rivals can be guaranteed to cock it up?

My Spurs mates assure me that mine must be a minority opinion (perhaps others will let me know?), but I've so many Spurs pals and knowing quite how much Champions League football would mean to them, on the basis that Everton are increasingly unlikely to interject the London monopoly on 3rd and 4th place, at this point my ideal scenario would result in the Gunners finishing in 3rd, Spurs in 4th and Chelsea continuing their Europa Cup sojourn in 5th.

Then again Spurs failure to secure an invite to the Champions League party might just be sufficient motivation for their simian-like star to make his White Hart Lane exit and I must admit that it would make a pleasant change for once, for us to be able to enjoy a close season, taking the piss out of Tottenham for cashing in on the sale of their best player, instead of us having to suffer this decidedly uncomfortable shoe each & every summer!

Cone on you Gunners

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Sunday 21 April 2013

Mind That Gap!

There are few better football grounds to visit on a glorious afternoon than Craven Cottage, with it’s Riverside backdrop framed against a picture perfect blue sky.  It was a gorgeous day for all those Gooners who arrived via their riverboat cruise on the Thames, all turning up well-oiled and with a couple of drunken ditties to add to our terrace repertoire. The game itself almost seemed incidental, or at least that’s what one might have assumed, judging by such a thoroughly uninspiring display.

Based on our infuriatingly meager return from corners and set pieces, Fulham, with their Viking Goliath Hangeland in situe, was one of the last places I’d expect to go to, nick a set-piece goal and grind out a “1-0 to the Arsenal”. But grind out a win we did, which is really all that matters at this stage in the season.

Nevertheless, such a flaccid performance doesn’t augur too well for those of our remaining four fixtures in which we’re likely to require a stark improvement, if we’re to avoid a seriously anti-climactic end to our largely disappointing season. Le Gaffer blamed nerves, but I’m not so sure, since from where I stood in the Riverside Stand behind the goal, it felt as if we were watching two teams who didn’t want to have to graft any more than absolutely necessary.

I had to laugh at all the hoo-ha about Mo Farah’s supposed Marathon payday. When you consider the monk-like dedication and sacrifice involved in scaling such double Olympic Champion heights, compared to the glamorous celebrity lifestyles of all those Premiership stars, who earn more every week than Mo did for bashing out his half-marathon on Sunday, it’s utterly farcical that Farah was subject to any criticism.

Meanwhile there were few signs of Mo Farah-like focus and determination in Saturday’s stroll in the sunshine and while we might have got away with it at the Cottage, the likes of Man Utd and a Wigan side, clinging on for dear life to their top-flight status, are unlikely to succumb to such woefully insipid stuff. You wouldn’t have known which of the two sides had the extra-man advantage for most of this match and when Andre Marriner eventually evened the odds, the ambivalent reaction to Giroud’s dismissal and our French striker’s resulting three match suspension, just about summed up Gooner misgivings about our lamentably mediocre looking squad.

Personally I feel that Marriner has done Giroud a favour, as the lumbering forward doesn’t really deserve to be playing on the same park as a player of Van Persie’s prowess and in some respects I’m grateful that we’ve been saved by his suspension from having to suffer the ignominy of this comparison next Sunday.

Although we’re going to have to find some goals from somewhere, if we're to maintain our Champions League challenge. Many would prefer to see Podolski played through the middle, but I’ve seen little from Podolski’s tentative cameos to suggest he’s willing to put anything on the line for the Arsenal but his end of season bonuses! I rather suspect that Wenger is more likely to go with Walcott, but sadly up until now this ‘devil we know’ has done little to prove his “main man” assertions up front.

In fact, obviously by complete coincidence, Theo has been consistently anonymous ever since he signed his new contract. But I liked the way Walcott was grabbing the ball at set-pieces against Fulham, even if they did all prove ineffective. Not that he was exactly having to fight off Cazorla, Rosicky, or a queue of other takers, but this did at least imply a willingness to take responsibility, which is precisely what our ‘after you Claude’, crab-like sideways football is crying out for at present.

There’s some solace in Spurs victory over City, as mercifully this should mean the title will be settled before Man Utd turn up next Sunday. But it looks like Champions League qualification is going down to the wire and with neither Spurs or Chelsea willing to gift us this highly-prized reward by default, befittingly, the Gunners are going to have to earn it!

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Wednesday 10 April 2013

Let Us Play

Personally I’ve only got the one religion, the Gunners and I’m grateful that at least nowadays my chosen footballing faith is largely devoid of the sort of fanatical divisiveness that results in other religious extremists being responsible for so much of the world’s wanton death and destruction. Nevertheless, unfortunately Saturday morning proved to be one of those rare instances, when I was forced to attend an alternative temple, not wanting to upset one of my Spurs pals, by selfishly blowing out his son’s barmitzvah.

I might’ve been feasible for me to make it to the Midlands in time for KO at the Hawthorns. But instead of a risky mad dash up the motorway to the Black Country and the potential wrath of my pal for slipping away from the synagogue prematurely, I lingered for the fervent supplications of my Lilywhite mates regarding Gareth Bale and their own simian-like prophet’s speedy return to fitness, before a leisurely stroll around to our own stadium, to join a couple of thousand Gooners watching a live beamback of the Baggies game, amidst the plush environs of the Arsenal’s “Prawn Circle”.

Compared to its evergreen state these past forty years, the recent strangely mutable nature of the North London landscape was made manifest last Thursday night, as by contrast to our customary indifference, we Gooners prayed for the continued distraction of Spurs’ Europa Cup involvement and the subsequent euphoric eruption across all social media, concerning a mounting injury crisis that couldn’t have possibly been scripted better from our perspective.

Meanwhile all that really matters at this stage of the season is for the Gunners maintain the pressure and thus far we’ve managed to keep up our end, by reeling off the victories. Albeit that we’ve been fortunate in our last two games to have met the utterly dispirited Royals and a Baggies side seemingly having already put their feet up, satisfied with their mid-table security.

I was hoping that Saturday’s long awaited hint of some Spring sunshine might prove the catalyst for the Gunners to begin to produce some classy entertainment but our encounter with West Brom started off as such a low-key affair, as if both teams were principally focused on not losing the game and neither laidback outfit demonstrating the intensity of a team that was desperate to bag all three points.

I’m somewhat reluctant to pass judgement based on the TV coverage shown on the screens dotted around Club Level because with the cameras tendency to follow the ball, one lacks the overall perspective offered by being there in person. What’s more, for some strange reason, watching on TV always proves to be a far more stressful experience. I’d hoped that this might be alleviated by being sat with a large audience of Gooners, but in typically reserved British fashion, my fellow fans politely applauded every positive moment and groaned and moaned with every gaffe.

So as I sat squirming in my seat for 90 minutes, kicking every ball, there was actually little difference to watching a game indoors. With the Gunners seemingly doing their utmost to gift West Brom an opportunity to drag themselves back into the match over the last 20 minutes, by the end of it, I was bellowing frustrated blue murder at an inanimate black box, just as if I’d been sat at home in my armchair.

The postponement of Chelsea v Spurs has presented us with an opportunity to steal a march on our rivals by winning all three matches before Spurs next league outing. Yet if Saturday’s TV perspective offered one pointer, it is that Fabianski is bound to eventually come unstuck as a result of his lack of authority. And judging by the body language of the likes of Sagna and our positively flat-footed midfield, who failed to put any pressure on the ball as we desperately clung on to our victory at the death, we could badly do with the impetus offered by the return of the commited likes of Wilshere and Jenkinson.