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Saturday 26 December 2015

"It's Only A Stupid Game!"

(right to left) Don Howe, Bob Wilson, Frank Mclintock,
Tommy Baldwin, John Radford, Terry Neil, Bertie Mee.
What value this bunch at today's batty prices?
After Monday night's excitement. it's taken a couple of days for me to calm down, for the adrenaline to stop pumping and for me to be able to put matters into some proper perspective. Despite the fact that I consider myself to be far too old, jaded and world-weary to be suckered into getting too carried away, on a wave of optimism, driven by all the media hype, when the final whistle blew on Monday night's triumph, along with 57,000 other Gooners, I swallowed hook, line and sinker the "yes we can" mood. I'd just about recovered my more customary sang-froid, when I found myself turning on the telly upon arriving home on Weds night, only to discover "Fever Pitch" showing on one of the movie channels.

Although my increasingly colander-like memory might be so lamentably shot that I often struggle to recall who scored, even before I've departed the ground nowadays, there's some small solace in the fact that I can watch any movie that I might've already enjoyed and if I've seen it more than a couple of weeks prior, I can savour it again, almost as if watching for the first time.

With the infinite number of TV channels and wall-to-wall movies, one can probably find such a hugely popular film as "Fever Pitch" being broadcast from somewhere on the planet, pretty much any time. Thus I suppose it's hardly an omen to find such a sentimental ouevre adding its own particular warm glow, to the thousands of other overly schmaltzy repeats that form the traditional dross offered up by the broadcasters, as the veritable opium of the masses, for us all to vegetate in front of over the festive period. Nevertheless, with it's extremely nostalgic memories of '71 & '89, it was more than enough to get my Gooner blood up again, just as I was beginning to return to being my old curmudgeonly self!

There's nothing quite like a brush with one's own mortality to put the significance of footie into some proper perspective and yet with two such iconic Goliaths of the beautiful game as both Jimmy Hill and Don Howe sadly shuffling off this mortal coil in such a short space of time, there's some hint of the last few days of 2015 ushering the end of an era.

I wrote a half-term report blurb last week, for the Observer's customary "fans' network" feature but I mistakenly thought it would appear in Sunday's paper. Having subsequently discovered it's for publication this weekend, I was left feeling particularly stingy and was wondering if I should increase my 7/10 mark for our illustrious manager, after Arsène's apparent tactical coup on Monday night.

Then again, it will make a very pleasant change to find myself dammed for such feint praise, instead of enduring the customary tedious castigation of le Prof by the hordes of the WOB. "It's all gone quiet over there" and I get extremely pissed off at the likes of the loudmouth yob Piers Morgan pitching himself as our spokesperson. I'm not such a liar as to suggest I don't resent the fact that he might've sold just a few more copies of his slim publication Va Va Voom than my own humble collection of diary missives from 2003/04.

I've never got around to actually reading Morgan's novella, but I seem to recall hearing how our committed No. 1 fan frequently comments on his appreciation of the TV coverage of our performances (as opposed to the likes of Alan Davies, who, if I remember correctly rejected the recording schedule of Jonathan Creek because of clashes with Arsenal fixtures). Moreover, one of the very few memories not to have fallen through the gaping holes in my grey matter, is from the summer before our last (or our penultimate?) season at THOF, when my pal in the box office revealed that only two new season tickets had been issued and apparently, one of which had somehow been wangled by this glory-hunting, gobby self-publicist! Should Arsène actually go on to orchestrate the sort of prestigious success that might prove a well-deserved prelude to his retirement, there'd be a massive added bonus, in seeing exactly how Piers Morgan would dig himself out of his disrespectful hole.

Meanwhile, I had the right needle on Sunday because not only did I think my blurb in the Observer had been bumped by the coverage of the sad demise of Jimmy Hill (AKA "the Rabbi"), but with us playing City on Monday night, I had no Terrace Talk column to write for the Irish Examiner's Monday sports supplement; and to cap it all, it felt like a complete chutzpah that the paper ran a piece related to a match my dear old dad took me to at Highbury in Sept '72, when surely it should've fallen to me to offer my own account, as a ten-year old sitting in the West Upper that day, watching as a fiercely contested 0-0 draw between Bertie Mee's Double Winners and Bill Shankley's Scousers was interrupted by an injury to one of the linesmen. Everyone in the ground heard, as a call went out over the PA system, asking for any qualified referees to make themselves known to one of the stewards.

Seven thousand per cent inflation!!!
You have to bear in mind that going to football was a distinctly different experience back in the days before the advent of the smart-phone and all the other forms of modern day technology that we all now take for granted. Barring the odd anorak with a terrace tranny and the old-fashioned means of revealing the half-time scores at all the other top-flight matches (in a long-forgotten world where every game kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday!), where one required the details beside ref Ken Aston's column inside the matchday programme (eg. A. Aston Villa v Chelsea, B. Derby v Leeds etc. etc) in order to be able to interpret the scores shown under the letters in a row of boards at pitch-side, in opposite corners of the ground, back then one spent 105 minutes in glorious isolation, focused solely on events on the pitch, with a hand-warming half-time cup of Bovril and the music of the marching Metropolitan Police Band, as just about the only other distraction.

That is unless one happened to be connected to the terrace tom-toms, by being close enough to someone with an old-fashioned transistor radio to receive updates on any other significant matches, so that you didn't fall victim to the sort of Chinese Whispers that so often resulted in misinformation spreading around the ground like wildfire.

So when a geezer eventually appeared from the tunnel in a sky blue tracksuit (coincidence that this was in Coventry colours?) to run the line on the opposite side of the pitch to us, I'm assuming it was only the trademark beard, which revealed to an astonished crowd that this was actually Jimmy Hill. I just wish I had a more detailed memory of the afternoon, as I'm certain Hill must've come in for some hilarious stick from the residents of the East Lower.

As for Don Howe, I really don't have a clue as to the details, but have always thought that the Gunners made a massive mistake in not making the most of his legendary coaching know-how. After Howe returned to the Arsenal as a youth team coach (1997?), I've always assumed that his sergeant major style of drilling a defence into an extremely disciplined unit, didn't exactly gel with our new manager's "zen and the art of football maintenance" approach to the game. Perhaps the new broom believed that with Howe barking out orders on the touchline, he was too "old school" to be part of Arsène's more sedate revolution?

However I am certain that it will be evident in the tributes from all the game's great and the good, quite how revered Don Howe was as a coach and not only did it feel as if the club failed to do right by such a loyal servant, by putting him out to grass when they did, but when I think of our defensive frailties post the fab back five, we might well have benefited if Howe had still been on side.

I recall the firm grip of an ageing Frank McLintock bruising my arm, as he demonstrated the art of marking touch tight, when I asked him about Arsène's penchant for zonal marking, when I was fortunate to have Frank sitting beside me, at a celebratory Gooner dinner at the Ivy (back in the days when we were in the habit of having something to celebrate!!). I'm certain Howe would've been open to new ideas, as he was a real student of the game, but I can't help but wonder if he'd have had any truck with zonal marking?

I'm under the impression that there's a consensus of opinion that with Bertie Mee's back seat management style, it was coach Don Howe who played a significant role in our Double success in '71 and captain McLintock was convinced that Howe's methods of endlessly drilling a defensive unit, to the point where they were sticking their hands up for offside in their sleep, would've ironed out all our defensive frailties very quickly.

Having myself somewhat miraculously avoided being in a position to welcome Hill and Howe at the pearly turnstiles, I've recently made such progress with my own recovery that Monday night was the first time I've managed to walk around to the ground and back again after, in the past eighteen months. Watching the Arsenal has always proved exhausting because one becomes so engrossed, mentally kicking every ball and making every save and tackle; and with the Gunners rarely ever being a side to do absolutely anything the easy way, most matches tend to be so stressful that I'm invariably left completely cream-crackered, come the final whistle.

Also, considering I've always muttered under my breath in the past, at the killjoys who can often be heard bellowing out "Siddown!" at anyone obscuring their view by standing in front of them, I've had to make a concerted effort to avoid becoming one of them. But I fret about missing a crucial moment because I can no longer jump up out of my seat quick enough, when folks in front of me in the East Lower are up and down like jack rabbits, whenever the ball comes down our end of the pitch.

In the past I was in the habit of turning down the occasional kindly offer to sit with some mates in Club Level because I prefer my own seat in the lower tier and there is at least some atmosphere generated by us plebs in the "cheap" seats. Also, whenever I've been in Club Level, I've felt so ridiculously self-conscious of disturbing the peace and quiet, when hollering out my habitual encouragement that this inevitably inhibits my cries of "allez Laurent" and "gehen Mezut" (I envisage my pals in Club being told in no uncertain terms "don't you dare invite that noisy bugger back again!").

Whereas, nowadays I will bite my pals hand off whenever offered a pitch upstairs because matches are so much less exhausting, without having to constantly jump up out of one's seat. My missus is in the habit of very kindly driving me, around the corner, to home games and then picking me up as close as possible to the south bridge afterwards. But with her being otherwise engaged, dropping off the grandkids on Monday night, I ended up having to walk around to the game. I even managed to make it up the stairway at Highbury House, without the usual panic attack at the summit, where I usually have to stop and catch my breathe.

Amongst the most irritating consequence of my health issues is that I haven't been able to enjoy a pre-match pie from Piebury Corner for the past 18 months or more, as this had become a ritual, ever since Scots Paul first began serving up their tasty grub. Rona can't drive around that way because there are too many pedestrians in Gillespie Road and if I walk around, my heart is pumping so frantically by the time I get to the bottom of Avenell Road that I'd need a half an hour sit down, before I could entertain digesting anything.

And up until now, I'm usually so shattered after matches that it is a great relief to be able to fall into the motor and be driven home. Aside from the recent remarkable progress in my fitness, which is directly attributable to this sadistic dominatrix, posing as my physio, who appears determined for me to become a fully paid-up member of the Village People with my twice weekly sessions at the amazingly well-equipped facility of the YMCA gym in Great Russell St., I guess it was all that adrenaline coursing through my veins that resulted in me texting my missus, to relieve her of chauffeur duties for the night, telling her that she could remain in her slippers and PJs and need not come to fetch me.

It was perhaps a little ambitious of me, as my neighbour at the Emirates almost had to push me up the last little hill on the way home. Yet although it's still somewhat of a struggle for me to walk and talk simultaneously, I soon realised that one of the other rituals that has been sorely missed, is the ability to shoot the breeze and dissect the game on the way back home (not to mention that it's a great help to be reminded of all the incidents that I've already forgotten!).

The Piebury Corner stall had sold out of pies by the time we reached there, so I at least didn't feel quite so disloyal for trying out one of the other relatively new food stalls in Gillespie Rd that seem to be raising the general level of grub on offer outside the ground (mercifully, as they are still serving up the same expensive crap inside the stadium!).

Prior to the game, standing outside the Club Level entrance, debating our prospects with a couple of pals, we noticed that they were using a hand-held metal detector to scan everyone entering Club Level, but that the stewards at the regular turnstiles had no such devices (or at least there was no sign of them at turnstile J).

For those who remain unaware, the increased security arrangements since the tragic events in Paris amount to stewards standing on the approach to the external stadium concourse, asking fans to open their coats and then (perhaps my face is familiar to them?) a relatively cursory search by more stewards before entering the turnstiles.

Whatever the case, IMHO it really doesn't feel as if the heightened security measures are likely to save us from the most determined terrorist and if they are only scanning fans entering Club Level with metal detectors, I can't help but wonder if it's all for show? As my mate headed off to enter Club Level, he joked "I'm alright Jack" and so obviously it crossed my mind to wonder if this is a case of the club being more concerned about protecting the safety of their high-rollers than the rest of us?

Standing outside, I also made the discovery that there were at least four difference matchday programmes, with a choice of Mezut, Olivier, Laurent or Alexis on the front in their Xmas jumpers. I thought this was a first (as I heard them talking about it on Radio 5), but I'm told that the club did the same last Xmas and although it is a novel idea, I feel some sympathy for the determined programme collectors, who'd need to pay an outrageous 14 quid, in order to collect all four.

Mezut, Alexis, Laurent & Olivier...which one
would you want coming down your chimney?
Meanwhile, there was a rat-ta-tat-tat on the glass windows, from inside the Club Level entrance, where my pal was proudly holding up against the glass, the collection of programmes that he'd obviously blagged from the pretty Emirates girls who hand them out to Club Level residents, since the £3.50 price is included in the thousands that they pay for their seats. Personally, it's force of habit which keeps me buying matchday programmes, as it's another couple of hundred quid over the course of a season and the price has gradually crept up to a point where, with it being the best part of a fiver, it's no longer a negligible expense. But there are times when I've found myself frantically running around inside a stadium, trying to find a programme seller, when I've found myself inside the ground and having forgotten to buy one because I'm terrified we might end up losing and it would feel like it was all my fault!

Having prattled on for far too long already, without even getting to the actual game, I'm sorely tempted to trash this post and start again. But I've written it, so I might as well post it and if I don't fall asleep, I will bash out a second missive before heading off to Southampton tomorrow.

Until then, here's wishing everyone a wonderful Xmas and a happy & healthy New Year

Eat, drink and be very merry
Big Love

Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part One)
......(with such a load of complete dross on the telly!!) Part Two to follow....... (unless I nod off in the meantime :-)

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