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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Monte Carlo Or Bust

Hi folks,

Having written the following missive on Sunday morning, I didn't want to tempt fate, but with Spurs and Southampton having since joined Man Utd, in the teams challenging for Champions League qualification that have dropped points this weekend, it makes Saturday's victory against Palace appear all the more significant.

On the basis that I fancied Liverpool might begin to come on strong, once Daniel Sturridge returned and the fit again striker began to get some wind in his sails, obviously a draw at St. Marys probably would've suited us best. However, Coutinho's stunning strike aside, I was decidedly unimpressed with the Scousers' performance. By contrast, based on their very entertaining form in this encounter, the Saints currently look far more likely to present a threat of a top four finish than Liverpool.

But then Southampton didn't play on Thurs night and as has been the case to date, there is always a considerable risk of a detrimental impact upon their Premiership performances for all those teams involved in the Europa Cup. Why playing a Thurs/Sun schedule should prove any more taxing than a Weds/Sat schedule for Champions League participants remains a baffling mystery. But if we are favourite to finish in third place, with Man Utd and Southampton both able to put their feet up and watch, while other sides are playing European football in midweek, I fancy that one of these two will profit from the continued involvement of both Liverpool and Spurs in Europe's Mickey Mouse competition.

With Ward-Prowse the latest young talent to come off Southampton's extremely impressive production line, they are obviously doing something right down on the South Coast. But it's not just the Saints' youth development that is responsible for their recent elevated status. As so often seems to be the case when a foreign manager first arrives in this country, Southampton appear to be profiting from the "honeymoon period", where Keoman's insider knowledge of Dutch football (and working in Spain and Portugal before that) has enabled Southampton to pick up emerging talents at comparative bargain prices because they are able to buy players who've yet to appear on the radar of the global game.

Koeman will soon lose this advantage, but by then, his feats at Southampton might well result in him moving up the managerial ladder. But with Pochettino having tread this path before him (albeit, on the face of it his move from Southampton to Spurs is currently looking like a step down!!), perhaps this is the Saints model and they'll be looking to bring in another foreign manager who can maintain the club's ability to profit, both on the pitch and in financial terms, from the insider knowledge he brings with him from abroad.

Watching the Saints stylishly pass their way around the statuesque Scousers on Sunday, it struck me that it was only a couple of months ago that everyone (including me) was raving about a relatively unknown signing from FC Twente (despite 25 caps for Serbia), Tadic. I presume from the fact that he was only on the bench against Liverpool (along with Schneiderlin, the player many Gooners wanted AW to sign last summer), Tadic's form must've dipped, but playing in his stead they had another Serbian that I've never heard of before, a loanee from Benfica, Duricic.

Interestingly, much as was the case when we were still perceived as a selling club a few seasons back, players such as Lallana and Lambert haven't quite been able to replicate the form that earned them their move to Liverpool, suggesting that it was the team structure at Southampton that brought the best out of them.

If the Saints should go on to achieve the remarkable feat of qualifying for the Champions League, in spite of the "fire sale" of their best players last summer, the resulting increase in their revenue is only likely to increase their ability to maintain the existing model of what appears to be a superbly well managed club. When one considers the catalogue of calamities that have afflicted other sides such as Newcastle and Villa, with a catchment area of far more fans and who are perceived as much "bigger" clubs, Southampton seemed to have produced a modus operandi, which must be the envy of many.

With the talented-looking likes of Carles Gil added to a relatively strong spine comprising the likes of Guzan, Vlar, Delph and Benteke at Aston Villa, if the fiery Scot Lambert was unable to motivate this lot, I'm unsure Tim Sherwood will fare any better. This weekend's results only reinforced my feeling that the seemingly very healthy and resolute team spirit at Burnley and Leicester is in stark contrast to the uninspired apathy responsible for the poor form of Villa and QPR and with the attritional nature of the ensuing relegation battle, I won't be at all surprised if this ends up being the crucial factor.

Meanwhile, in light of recent events, it would be remiss of me not to comment on the rash of racist incidents that have received such widespread attention (despite knowing that my views are bound to provoke criticism from the PC brigade!). As despicable as they were, the incident with the Chelsea fans on the train in Paris and the West Ham fans on route to Spurs will have come as absolutely no surprise to any regular football goer.

You only have to scan the faces in the crowd at absolutely every match shown on Match Of The Day on a Saturday night for confirmation that in spite of the commendably multi-cultural nature of this country in modern times, the football terraces remain a (last?) bastion for the white British male. Sure there are far more women going to football regularly nowadays and mercifully, at least some Premiership clubs have attendances that are increasingly reflecting the diverse ethnic makeup of the population.

What's more, thankfully the fact that there are so many successful black players at most clubs and the fact that in these more politically correct times, overt expressions of racism are no longer perceived as acceptable in the public domain of a football stadium. Nevertheless, the terraces were always infamous back in the 70s, as fertile ground for dissemination of fanatical racism. The likes of the National Front and the BNP were founded by and largely made up of football hooligans.

Mercifully these Neanderthals may have been shamed into no longer throwing bananas and offensive racist chants have largely been silenced on a matchday. However the ignorant, uneducated xenophobes responsible for the disgusting behaviour of yesteryear haven't simply melted away. Sadly they are still there, in far greater numbers than many would care to admit but for the most part they've learned to curb their offensive behaviour, to the extent that the authorities and commendable organisations such as the Kick It Out campaign, can all pat themselves on the back, in the mistaken belief that everything in the football world is hunky-dory.

With the crowds on the football terraces representing a microcosm of (albeit mainly white) society, if there's racism prevalent in society, it will inevitably find expression amongst our football crowds. I've no idea about any actual statistics on the subject, but I would guess (and am grateful) that compared to many Premiership clubs, the crowds at our games are probably amongst those with the highest number of non-white fans.

However the numbers of black and asian fans attending matches continues to be far too small but this is hardly surprising. With football fans having deservedly earned their racist reputation back in the 70s, no matter how relevant this is today, if I was black or asian, I would be loathe to take my kids to a match, knowing there was a risk of their tender ears being subjected to offensive chants, especially when I'd feel obliged to set them an example, by standing up to such behaviour.

There's been many an occasion when I've following Arsenal abroad and I've felt seriously embarrassed to be considered as a member of the same tribe, when I've been in the presence of Gooners who's behaviour has been so appalling that I've been ashamed to even have my love of the Arsenal as the one thing I have in common with these creatures. In many instances, when I've been accompanied by my missus, she's made a point of informing everyone that she's Irish, not English, such has been her dread of being mistaken for one of these xenophobes.

Yet to my mind, the truth of the matter is that no matter how "right on" we claim to be and no matter how much we deny it, we are all prejudiced to a greater or lesser extent and as far as I'm concerned, anyone who refuses to admit this is either stupid, or a liar. The vast majority of right-minded people do their best to master their innate prejudices and to ignore pre-conceived bigotry and stereotypes to be an even-handed and tolerant human being, but to suggest these don't exist with cliched claims that "some of my best friends are black, gay, jewish etc. etc" is just pure foolishness.

Being jewish, there've been literally hundreds of instances supporting Arsenal on the terraces when I've bristled at various "Y*ddo" chants, but I've only ever really taken offence in instances, for example, when I've been in the Gunners Pub and pissed up Gooners have started singing "Gas 'em all". However my opinion on the subject is much the same as my feelings about fouls on the pitch and that is that it is "intent" which is of paramount importance. I know many people disagree, but I firmly believe that you disempower the racists by removing these words from their offensive armoury, by bringing such terms as "y*d" and "n*igger" into such common parlance, to the extent that they no longer have any racist connotations.

Besides which, I feel we are getting into very dangerous territory when we start introducing blanket bans, as exactly where do you draw the line between acceptable banter between fans and outright racism. Admittedly the sight of those fans pushing that poor black guy off the train in Paris was utterly disgusting, but then if there are racists amongst every clubs' fans, sadly Chelsea have always had more than their fair share of such ignorant morons. However the latest furore in the news about the West Ham fans singing anti-semitic songs on their way to White Hart Lane is more than a little OTT. Not to mention somewhat ironic, in view of the fact that it was probably on another carriage of the exact same tube train that some wag Irons fans were filming their own spoof video of how West Ham fans welcome a black man onto a train.

Unless I'm mistaken and for those who might be unaware, I believe the video catches the last line of a chant that goes (to the tune of "We'll Be Running Round The Mountain") "We'll be running round Tottenham with our willies hanging out, singing "I've got a foreskin, haven't you". Speaking as a jew, personally this tickles my puerile sense of humour and the only thing that offended me was the fact that they tagged "F*cking jew" on at the end. I've also laughed and taken absolutely no offence at the My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean chant, which goes something like "My one skin lies over my two skin, my two skin lies over my three, my three skin lies over my foreskin, oh bring back my foreskin to me".

Obviously such taunts are targeted at Spurs fans because they revel in their "Y*d Army" moniker and I'm convinced that there isn't the slightest anti-semitic intent in these terrace ditties, If you are going to ban these, does that mean we're going to get thrown out for singing "Where's your caravan?" at Irish players, or "Do you take it up the arse" at any player who's perceived as being a bit camp? Those folks throwing their toys out of the pram and climbing on their moral high horse in outrage over the re-surfacing of this issue (as it has and always will exist as an issue) need be careful to avoid a sense of humour bypass.

Nuff waffle


Monte Carlo Or Bust

The Eagles fans' worthy, but me'thinks somewhat futile cause!
            It was interesting to hear Arsène Wenger describe Selhurst Park in his pre-match press conference as "an old-fashioned stadium with soul". I wonder if by implication le Gaffer concurs with all those who feel that the anodyne environs of our comparatively luxurious arena are sadly somewhat soulless?

            I never enjoy digging out my passport to cross the Thames into the darkest reaches of “Sarf London”. Traversing the capital is always a tiresome task, but the turmoil of the Crossrail development and the constant upheaval of the city’s road and rail network, only adds to my contention that it’s quicker and far less taxing to travel to Birmingham than to Palace.

            Nevertheless, as one of the few grounds to retain the intense atmosphere of old (but mercifully without the nasty undercurrent we experience at White Hart Lane), it’s an obligatory awayday outing. Albeit that Palace’s dilapidated facilities remains a bit of a dinosaur in this day and age and it’s a bit of a chutzpah charging forty quid for the letterbox perspective one endures in the Arthur Wait Stand, constantly dodging around the posts holding up the gantry and the roof, which obscure one’s view the moment the ball goes above head height.

            What’s more, with all the money washing around the Premiership nowadays, you would’ve thought Palace would be able to fund the cost of a decent playing surface. According to one of the locals, their pitch has only recently been relaid and I dread to imagine how bad it was beforehand! Perhaps it’s an intentional tactic to try and limit their technical disadvantage against sides such as ours, but it’s hard to understand why Palace's pitch is worse even than the likes of Hull, where they at least have the excuse of having the surface regularly churned up, as a result of their groundshare with a rugby club.

Olivier salutes the adoring faithful - if he
maintains his strike rate we'll love him
almost as much as he loves himself!
            Metaphorically speaking, Selhurst Park's dodgy pitch certainly made for a more level playing field on Saturday. As did the way in which Pardew’s side set about us, with an intensity and a physicality that was obviously intended to spoil any possibility of the Gunners being able to conjure up some decent entertainment.

            As a result, this encounter was a bit of an anti-climax, following on from the promise we’d witnessed in our performance against Boro. Admittedly, we did our best to shoot ourselves in the foot and we were all left with our heart’s positively in our mouths, as the Arsenal were only the width of the post away from blowing three crucial points, with virtually the last kick of the game.

            However, leaving aside the hectic last few minutes of Palace’s “Hail Mary” efforts at the death, the perfunctory way in which the Gunners went about taking the lead with a penalty in the opening minutes and then securing a second, with just about the only meaningful first half effort on goal, only moments before the break was quite encouraging. It felt more like watching an efficient Chelsea win, than a customary edge of the seat Arsenal triumph.

            This was despite the fact that I spent much of the match cursing the way in which the likes of Welbeck was muscled off the ball, when he should have sufficient strength to stand his ground, or bemoaning Mertesacker’s worryingly ponderous performance. Perhaps our World Cup winning centre-back and the rest of the team are growing a little too accustomed to taking advantage of Coquelin’s continued willingness to cover every blade of grass, as the French youngster singlehandedly fulfills the entire team’s quota of tackles.

Or "Let your boots do the talking". Seems one Gunner at least
was absorbing Sebastien Foucan's motivational bon-mots
            Per certainly didn’t appear to have profited from the bizarre pep talk by French freerunning guru, Sebastien Foucan at London Colney last week, with the sort of leaden-footed display of a player who’d had a Quaalude slipped into his pre-match Lucozade. The Gunners also displayed a shocking naivety in messing up our opportunity to keep a clean sheet. Instead of comfortably seeing out injury time by taking the ball to the corner flag, we were infuriatingly guilty of gifting Palace possession for their goal and again, when we came so close to being punished by a last gasp equalizer.

            Still I don’t think we’d have seen the Mezut Özil who arrived at the club, muscularly holding off an attacker to see the ball out for a goalkick and there were some positive signs in Saturday’s victory, of the efforts to replace the Gunners infamously soft underbelly with a more staunch six-pack.
More muscular perhaps, but Mezut
couldn't get off the pitch quick
enough when his number came up

            It could be argued that we have profited from Ramsey’s injury, with Cazorla’s relishing his increased responsibility at the base of our midfield diamond and Arsène is faced with the interesting conundrum of reintroducing Wilshere without marginalizing Santi. Yet with crucial games coming thick and fast, hopefully with the likes of Wilshere and Walcott eager to return to the fray, we’ll benefit from our wealth of options.

            It’s about time our pre-eminence on the pitch over Man Utd was represented in the table but as delighted as I am by our Premiership upward mobility, after Saturday’s frenetic hurly-burly, it will be good to get back to the more cultured climes of the Champions League, with the promise of a far more pleasing on the eye encounter with Monaco on Wednesday.
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DrShaglove said...

Bernard. This is absolutely brilliant. BRILLIANT!