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Sunday 31 May 2015

And Now The End Is Near?

It’s desperately infuriating on a daily basis, but about the only good thing about my increasingly decrepit memory is that I was thoroughly oblivious to the fact that, until Saturday, we had lost our last four finals playing in yellow. Otherwise this would’ve only added to the litany of other superstitious drivel (like us being lumbered with Wembley’s unlucky end) that was fuelling my anxiety in advance of the Gunner's grand finale.

And to think I could've flogged my seat
to pay for my season-ticket!
It would’ve been a big deal if the Arsenal had lost to Villa. Capping off our third place Premiership finish with such an imperious FA Cup performance and Sunday’s curtain-call of a Town Hall trophy parade was the perfect, extremely positive climax to this season’s campaign, leaving us going into the summer recess in a buoyant mood, feeling particularly optimistic about even better things to come.

But it would’ve been an entirely different story if we had blown it on Saturday. The knives would’ve been out for Arsène and some of his star turns and the vitriol would’ve been blasting out from the radio phone-ins, before I’d even made it back to my motor in the Wembley car park. Such is the precariously fine line between exalted glory and grotesquely exaggerated vilification. Le Boss knows the high-pressure vagaries of management better than most, with him always being only one bad result away from being re-cast as the Arsenal’s eponymous pantomime villain.

During the post-match celebrations we had the rare sight of Wenger striding out onto centre stage, to take a well-deserved salute in front of 25,000 euphoric Gooners. Le Gaffer might’ve been basking in the reflected glory, by way of sticking two fingers up at the media pundits, the fickle Gooner faithful and all those detractors who dare to dismiss him as a past his ‘sell by’ date anachronism. Or perhaps le Prof was merely savouring the fact that he’s got a couple of months respite, until his reputation is back in the crosshairs, when hostilities recommence with an encounter with Mourinho in the Community Shield.

I usually refrain from buying replica Arsenal shirts, as no matter what high-tech nonsense the manufacturers attempt to dress the fabric up with, it will always be nasty nylon to me and positively the last material I want next to my skin. But with the moths having made several meals out of most of the yellow clobber in my collection, I ended up investing in a replica shirt from the famous “5 minute final” in 1979. I picked this one because, mercifully, it was long enough ago that the shirts were still being made in cotton. It was pure fluke that prior to Saturday’s final this happened to be the last time we won a trophy wearing yellow.

It was great seeing the rosette make a comeback at Wembley but as it turned out I’d no need for any such fetishes and all my fears about being haunted by the ghosts of defeats against Valencia, West Ham, Galatasary and Paris St. Germain proved unfounded, with them all being promptly exorcised when only one team actually turned up at Wembley!

With the Arsenal such outright favourites and everyone talking as if the result of the Cup Final was already written in stone, I was terrified prior to kick-off that fate was about ruin our day. But Bill Shankley’s claims that football’s “more important than that” were immediately put into proper perspective. With Alfie Boe bellowing out the remarkably poignant words of “Abide With Me”, I sat down at Wembley to hear my pal’s tragic revelation that his brother had dropped down dead of a massive heart attack the day before. I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fragility of life in recent times and as a result, death I can cope with, but as we nervously joked with one another, losing an FA Cup Final on top of this, now that really would’ve been too much for anyone to bear.

Thankfully the Gunners did us all proud and this really was one result that was never in doubt. I’m still trying to work out whether our total dominance was down to our far superior ability, or Villa’s apparent stagefright. Nevertheless Villa’s last ditch defending left us all questioning the logic of leaving out Giroud, at least that was until Theo finally broke Brummy hearts five mins before the break.

If there was any fight left in the opposition, this soon evaporated with Alexis’ gobsmackingly stunning goal five mins into the second half. It was fitting that the Chilean crowned his season on the Cup Final stage, but once again it was Coquelin who caught my eye, as he bossed the middle of the park with Beckenbauer-like authority.

As North London turned red on Sunday, It might’ve rained our parade, but this did little to dampen Gooner spirits. Such was the peerlessness of Saturday’s performance that we will all be praying for the couple of additions that will enable us to kick on next season and truly silence our nouveau riche South London nemesis.

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Monday 25 May 2015

Anyone for tennis!

The fact that the Observer ended up editing out much of my overly loquacious comments in my "end of season" report meant that I was able to reuse many of them below. But at least I've posted this week's missive, instead of lazily sending out a link to the shortened version in the Irish Examiner.

I fancy that although Jack Wilshere's stunning strike was truly something special to behold, the fact that it topped the charts, above the likes of Charlie Adam's effort from inside his own half, in MOTD's Goal of the Season, is more testament to the numbers of internet savvy Gooners and our efforts to ensure a sufficient number of clicks and tweets to win Jack this annual accolade. Nevertheless, even if Jack's goal against the Baggies wasn't the very best, I think everyone present yesterday will agree that our first-half display was some of the most entertaining football we've witnessed all season.

I did my utmost to avoid reports of the celebrations in Chelsea today and I certainly hope we don't blow our opportunity to trump these with our own trophy parade next weekend


Thanks for your get your chequebooks out!
            The Gunners signed off with a sumptuous first-half of mesmerizing football against the Baggies, thereby guaranteeing that they’ll be wearing their flip-flops for a few weeks longer this summer, not having to don their football boots and psyche themselves up so soon, for such an immensely influential Champions League qualifier.

            Having grown accustomed to the necessity of negotiating this life or death crapshoot, after scraping over the line into the top four in recent seasons, it will be interesting to see whether this most pleasingly significant consequence of our 3rd placed finish has a positive impact on our next campaign.

            Mind you, with Walcott and Wilshere both seemingly pulling their fingers out, in order to put themselves in the frame for  next Saturday’s Wembley finale, Theo’s hat-trick and Jack’s vicious volley put the kibosh somewhat on what I was planning to say.

More talented young genes than you can shake a stick at!
            Prior to bringing the Premiership curtain down with the sort of beautiful football that had the crowd appreciatively billing and cooing, the previous three home games without a single Arsenal goal amounted to the driest spell on home turf since 2011. If the season had petered out with a similarly lamentable display, instead of Sunday's sparkling first-half performance, I’m not sure many Gooners would’ve lingered on after the final whistle, for the now obligatory “lap of appreciation”.

            Yet it would’ve made for a certain symmetrical conclusion, with us finishing off this season with the same pitiful rash of dropped points against lesser opposition that we endured at the commencement of this campaign. After securing our passage into Champions League proper for an astonishing 17th successive season, with a slender 1-0 win over Beksitas back in August, this was followed by our worst start to a domestic season, since we were passing “the Dutchie on the left-hand side” (back in 1982).

            There’s no hiding from the disappointment of our title ambitions evaporating before the leaves had even turned brown. With fisticuffs breaking out amongst our own travelling faithful, as the enmity between the AKBs and the WOB (Arsène Knows Best and Wenger Out Brigade) reached boiling point, at times it felt as if it was only the instant, energized impact of our very own Duracell Rabbit, Alexis Sanchez, that was almost singlehandedly keeping the club afloat.

            The consensus of opinion suggests that it was the manner of our victory up at Man City that was the cornerstone of our remarkable turnaround in 2015, where a more mature and uncharacteristically conservative triumph indicated that the Gunners might’ve finally appreciated the failings of our more traditional gung-ho tactics.

            Truth be told, as is more often the case with the beautiful game, it was a mere stroke of good fortune that proved to be “the magic bullet”. Arsène was left with such a dearth of defensive midfield options when Arteta’s season hit the long-term injury skids that he had little choice but to recall Coquelin back from his loan spell at Charlton. Almost overnight, Le Coq went from being a mere benchwarmer at the Valley, to suddenly becoming our Makelele-like midfield lynchpin, the absence of which has long been pointed to as the primary cause of us being the Premiership’s “nearly men” for far too long.

            Yet as Franny firmly established himself as the most essential player on Wenger’s teamsheet and the midfield enforcer responsible for us finding a consistent run of domestic form that engendered false hopes of a title charge in the last furlong, it was our premature exit from the European stage that was undoubtedly this season’s most devastating low-point.

            Such is the Arsenal’s habit of carelessly finished second in the Champions League group stage and being expected fallers at the first knockout hurdle against a Galáctico outfit that it felt as if fate had finally favoured us with a “leg up” towards the big-eared prize, when we drew moneybags Monaco out of the hat. Sadly the Gunners were guilty of throwing Lady Luck’s consideration straight back in her face, with our devastatingly naïve capitulation on home turf against this mediocre French mob.

            This particular defeat highlighted the most obvious deficiencies in our squad. Coquelin’s form might’ve temporarily quelled the eternal clamour for a midfield behemoth, but when Wenger hooked Giroud, to save our French centre-forward from further embarrassment, compared to all our competitors who have a choice of four strikers, we possess a positively laughable lack of attacking options.

            However it’s Arsène’s infuriating efforts to solve our goal-minding issue on the cheap that must rank as le Gaffer’s most obvious blind spot, with his seemingly endless string of half-decent shot-stoppers. With the likes of De Gea, Courtois, Lloris and Hart amongst the glut of great goalies contributing 10, 12 points per season to their club’s cause, surely it must eventually dawn upon even our old dog that he needs to go out and spend whatever it takes to buy us one of the best in the business?

Nevertheless, it seems a tad churlish of me to be chucking my toys out of the pram, when most footie fans would give their eye-teeth for a top three finish, never mind wearing our yellow ribbons to a Cup Final encore in the very merry month of May.
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Monday 18 May 2015

It's Happened Again....

Hi folks,

Forgive me for not having posted a diary missive for some weeks but with successive Monday night matches, I've not had a column to write for the Examiner since the bore draw against Chelsea and before that, I've been lazily posting links on Twitter and Facebook direct to my published piece in the paper.

In fact Sunday deadlines for the Irish Examiner have meant that late KOs, especially away from home on a Sunday have become the bane of my life, as I find I can't really enjoy the game because I'm stressing about filing my column. Consequently, I take some of the credit for the Gunners improved second half performance at Old Trafford. I decided to do the journalistic thing of trying to relieve some of the pressure, by bashing out some copy at the break.

Needless to say, I ended up having to start again from scratch come the final whistle, but I like to think that the fact that I had prematurely decreed "our disappointing capitulation at Old Trafford" was largely responsible for what followed in the second half.

As ever, the limitations of my eight hundred words below preclude me from being able to expound on some of the points that struck me during the first hour of this encounter, as I prepared to lay into the Gunners for a second successive sorry display. In truth, I have absolutely no insight into actual events, but I get the distinct impression that AW and LVG are world's apart in their management styles. 

Doubtless Arsène's approach isn't anything like as random in practice, but one gets the impression that there's little attention to the sort of tactical tweaks to counter the opposition's strengths, eg. making provisions for Fellaini and the likelihood of him pulling onto the back stick to maximise his height advantage over Bellerin and Monreal. One could be forgiven for thinking that Arsène's unassailable belief in our boys ability means that for every single game, le Gaffer just sends them out there to get on with it.

By contrast, I get the impression that LVG is something of a stickler for his attention to detail, aware of Man Utd's limitations at present and doing all in his power to counter any perceived failings in his side. For example, I couldn't help but notice the disciplined way in which the likes of Young and Valencia hugged the touchline every time Utd went forward, in an effort to stretch our defence, in the hope that Falcao and co. might find the resulting holes.

We also witnessed one inventive set-piece, straight off the Carrington training ground and considering the endless amount of hours the Gunners spend at London Colney, I find it somewhat flabbergasting and wonder exactly what it says about our team and Arsène's training methods that we seem to lack the ingenuity to ever come up with a variation upon a set-piece that doesn't involve Cazorla, Ozil etc. hoofing the ball into the box?

Finally, although it doesn't look set to last (if the latest claims in Marca are to be believed?), if there's one most obvious contrast between these two teams, it's between the sticks, where it is De Gea's decisiveness and his speed of thought, compared to the hesitant prevarications of Ospina that is the difference between a definitive world class goalie and the Gunners infernal string of keepers, who unfortunately have all amounted to little more than half-decent shot-stoppers.

The way in which De Gea decisively snuffs out threats on his goal, while remaining on his feet and at his most imposing, forcing opponents to fret about having to do something special to beat him and his speed of thought in his distribution, so often playing a crucial role in Utd's ability to turn defence into attack, by rapidly springing the counter-attack and taking advantage of opponents who are forced to chase a game, these are some of the attributes that spread an aura of calm and composure throughout the rest of the team, as the presence exuded by a world class keeper liberates everyone playing in front of them, knowing that even if they cock things up, their keeper is likely to rescue them from any lasting embarrassment.

The contrast between De Gea and Ospina only served to highlight the sadly, enduring disadvantage of AW's failure to bite the bullet and give up on his seemingly infinitesimal efforts to install someone between the sticks on the cheap and instead go out and do (or more's the point PAY!) whatever it takes to obtain the very best "world class" goalkeeper.

As for the Gunners, our painful lack of width at Old Trafford was nothing new. It's an inevitable consequence of the fact that we have such a large clutch of midfield players, who all deserve inclusion in the team and who all ideally want to inhabit the middle of the park. As I've said below, the transformation when Walcott came on and Aaron Ramsey occupied his preferred position at the heart of our midfield was remarkable. 

Ramsey will never be a touchline hugging winger and I presume that even if he's willing to do a job for the team out on our right flank, rather than be left on the bench, he's always likely to be less effective as a square peg, in a round hole, even if the dip in his performance is occurring at a subconscious level. To be honest, I'm fed up of the way in which we always seem to be trying to shoehorn all our talent into the team, instead of buying players to fill the specific gaps in our squad.

Don't get me started on Carl Jenkinson. Apparently the form of the Corporal and that of Creswell, the Hammers other full-back has been the only bright spark at the Boleyn. But on what basis can Arsène try and convince Carl to follow his dream of a successful career in London N5, only to return and find himself behind Bellerin, Debuchy and even Chambers, in the right-back pecking order?

But then I really shouldn't be whinging. The fact of the matter is that we Gooners are so spoiled that we don't know we're born, when we contrast the level of entertainment and the achievements that we enjoy with the endless misery of the vast majority of other clubs.

Keep it under you hat, but an offer of a spare ticket resulted in me venturing down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road on Saturday, to see how the other half live. Despite beating a team of Spurs rejects 2-0, the highpoint at White Hart Lane was Brad Friedel's on pitch retirement announcement at half-time!

Perhaps I should keep schtum, for fear that the Arsenal might put up our prices, but my Spurs pal revealed that he was forced to stump up an extortionate £1950 on Friday, to renew his West Upper season ticket. I imagine their season tickets only include a mere couple of cup ties, compared to our seven, on account of the fact that they're not expected to be involved in any more! But it was worth going to White Hart Lane, if only to remind myself quite what good value my lower tier seat at the Arsenal is at "only" £1095.

I keep reminding my mate quite how much I miss THOF and that it is nevertheless worth renewing his seat, as if they ever get around to building their new stadium, he will miss White Hart Lane when it's gone. But never mind Spurs eternal failings on the football pitch, truth be told, having grown accustomed to the comparatively luxurious surroundings at our new stadium, my bony old bum couldn't possibly endure the cramped and uncomfortable conditions at Spurs all season long.

Compared to the intimidating and ugly atmosphere of our annual derby encounter, it's not nearly so horrible going to Spurs as a comparative neutral and I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that it's somewhat nostalgic, as my old man often took me on alternate weeks to Highbury and Spurs as a kid. But as if to confirm quite how outdated White Hart Lane is, I discovered that there is no disabled access to the West Upper. I didn't realise that I couldn't get up there via the lift at the disabled entrance that I've used to access the away seats in the corner of the South Stand for our derby matches. I eventually found that I needed to go through the directors entrance to get to the only other available lift.

Even then, this only took me up to the high-rollers restaurant at the level of their directors box and I still had to negotiate a flight of stairs and through a door at the rear of the club shop on the concourse to get to my seat. If it wasn't for a kindly lady in the lift, I would've never found this circuitous route. Recognising a familiar face coming down the stairs towards us, after he'd passed I enquired of this lady "what's the name of that comedian?"

No she didn't say Soldado, as it was none other than Michael Mckintyre. I was tempted to grab him and request the obligatory "selfie", if it wasn't for the fact that I was so pooped by this stage that he'd have been forced to linger for at least five minutes, for me to be able to catch my breathe and get the words out.

Enuf enemy waffle

It's Happened Again....

Theatre of Dreams indeed....even Theo scored

Pooping Man Utd’s last home game of the season party was always likely to prove a stiff test, especially after ramping up the pressure upon ourselves, following Swansea’s infuriating “smash and grab” last Monday night.  Having struggled to string a pass together in the opening forty-five at Old Trafford, mercifully the Gunners gave a much improved account of ourselves after the break, with a display that appeared to be deserving of at least a positively crucial point.

As we’ve learned to our great cost in recent seasons, you can't over-estimate the importance of a top three finish, thereby avoiding putting a spanner in the works of pre-season preparations, by having to be involved in a Champions League qualifier. These qualification matches are SO insanely significant, with the financial and all the other implications of defeat so overblown that there are inevitable consequences upon a Premiership campaign from the entire club having to psyche itself up so early on.

Consequently, after our last gasp capitulation to the Swans, I was left thinking that “it serves them bloody well right” if such a lacklustre performance was to end up being the cause of the premature curtailment of our players’ summer pleasures, getting them out of their flip-flops and back into their football boots far sooner than should’ve been the case.

My suspicion was that our game in hand played a considerable part in the lamentably indolent and unexpected conclusion to our winning streak because we started last Monday night’s game with the sort of lack of intensity that suggested we had all the time in the world to secure the points necessary to avoid a fourth place finish.

Mind you, on a more positive note, this defeat did at least force us to refocus on the task at hand for the trip to Manchester. It might’ve looked like the Gunners were merely going through the motions, with a first half performance without a single shot on goal for the first time in ten years, but we eventually managed to raise our game, to the point where we didn’t just look like winning the “race you back to London”.

Never mind the three points on offer against Sunderland in midweek, it would’ve been disastrous if both Manchester sides had won the day and we’d ended languishing in fourth. With Santi having a bad afternoon at the office, constantly conceding possession in the middle of the park and with Aaron Ramsey annoyingly anonymous in his starting position out wide on the flank, thankfully for once le Gaffer didn’t leave it too late to answer Gooners half-time haranguing for the introduction of Wilshere and Walcott.

The results of Arsène ringing the changes couldn’t have been more instant as Aaron was suddenly pulling all the strings, incisively spraying the ball around like Stevie G in his pomp. I suppose I couldn’t let this missive pass without some sort of nod to his retirement. My facility for recall might be well on the wane, but even if I’ve long since forgotten Gerrard’s ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, the Scouse talisman deserves huge respect as one of the last of a dying breed of “one club men".

By contrast, Walcott’s impact might have been equally unimpressive as his other rare cameo outings this season, but even if his equalising goal was thoroughly unintentional, it made for a pleasant change for Theo to be cast as the hero for once, rather than the villain of the piece. Who knows, with his opportunity to stake a claim for inclusion in the Wembley drama to come, perhaps this will prove to be just the sort of slice of luck that will boost Walcott’s battered confidence and see him finish this campaign with a bang, rather than a whimper (frankly Theo needs it, if he’s to have any leverage in his contract negotiations!).

It was huge fun interrupting LVG’s on-pitch tribute, with a hearty chorus of “Que Sera” but with a patently mediocre Man Utd there for the taking while they remain a team in transition, it would’ve been marvellous to hand out a tonking and lay down a psychological marker for next season. Yet under the circumstances, we were most relieved to be returning to the capital with the point in our back pocket that will enable Wenger to rotate the squad, safe in the knowledge that we only need one more from the two matches to come this week, to avoid spoiling our holidays.

It certainly didn’t appear as if Villa’s players were playing for their Cup Final places, with their six-goal slaughter at St. Mary’s. But with such healthy competition on the Gunners’ bench, I bloomin' well hope we can maintain the positive mood in advance of the big finale, by giving both the Black Cats and the Baggies good cause to be very afraid.

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