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Sunday 24 April 2016

You Schlep All The Way To Wearside And All You Have To Show For It Is A Lousy Point

At least it didn't rain!
Of all the remaining matches in the run in, our trip to Wearside looked to be the most likely banana skin. With Benitez having somehow brought Newcastle back from the dead and with BFS always reveling in any opportunity to get one over on Arsène, the Black Cats were bound to be well motivated to try and get something out of Sunday’s game.

On paper our trip to Man City is the most problematic. Yet whatever fate has in store for what is looking increasingly like a 3rd/4th place play-off (unless Man Utd are still to interject), one would fancy that the Gunners can at least be guaranteed to turn up for one last big, end of season hurrah at the Etihad.

However, after West Brom presented us with such a one-sided walkover at our place on Thursday night, I was worried whether the same starting XI could be relied upon to rediscover the sort of intensity required to turn over more resolute opposition, with Sunderland desperate to avoid the relegation trap door into relative obscurity.

Although Alexis was bristling with intent against the Baggies, as if by way of an apology for our side’s sedentary failure to see off the Eagles the previous weekend, sadly Sunderland had his number. I’m unsure if Chile has a tradition of bullfighting, but all that was missing was the red cape and the sword, to apply the coup de grace to his midweek matador impersonation. Yet while his twists and turns drew deserved “oles”, sadly they don’t impact upon our depressing goal difference and against the Black Cats on Sunday the Gunners uninspiring attacking sword was disappointingly blunt.

         Most matches at this time of the year tend to be at opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum. Either they’re testimonial-like strolls, where players of one, or both sides are already dreaming of their sun loungers (or International acclaim) and where one wished that the Pools Panel might’ve decided the result and saved us all the bother of turning up. Or they’re the sort of thrillingly dramatic, death or glory contests that has the world marveling at the competitive nature of our game.

Following another week of wall-to-wall, live TV matches, with the rush to shoehorn in the remaining games, the resentment levels amongst us Gooners continues to rise, as we are left with our noses pressed up against the window, covetously drooling over the haute cuisine being served up on the inside.

Sod the regime...Support the bloomin' team!
Spoiled Gooners mustn’t forget that this is the norm for fans of the vast majority of clubs. Yet the tide of anger over the Arsenal merely existing in our secure, cash-rich, comfort zone, continues to rise and the infighting grows ever more raucous. The increasingly galling bunch of banner-boy Gooners incite more outrage amongst the hardcore travelling faithful, as they ride this wave, with their futile pennants seemingly multiplying with each passing awayday, to the point where it’s bound to end in tears.

There’s little more infuriating than to contrast the dynamic way in which Spurs went about dynamiting the admittedly, less than fortress like walls of the Britannia last Monday night, with our uninspired assault on the Stadium of Light. To contrast Delle Alli’s zestful appetite to influence proceedings with the apparent indifference of the likes of Özil and Ramsey.

The long schlep back South was momentarily brightened by the crumb of comfort of the sound of “Are you watching Tottenham” echoing out from the radio coverage of the roof being raised, by the rampant goalfest at the King Power.  We’re fast having to learn to walk in the humiliating shoes, well worn by our North London neighbours for the majority of their downtrodden lives, where the only satisfaction to be had from our football addiction is the limited solace offered by such Shadenfreude.

Wilshere’s brief cameo was a bonus but there’s no hiding my disgust that he can offer too little, too late for the Arsenal, but perhaps just enough to ensure he’s on the plane to France in the summer. Another stand out effort from Elneny must annoy the WOB no end, with le Gaffer having unearthed another bargain diamond in the rough.

With, or without the confrontation caused by the bothersome banners, change will eventually come, but only at a time of Arsène’s choosing. The stubborn old bugger certainly won’t bow in the face of pressure from our feeble boo boys. A single Gooner running out on 75mins last Thursday night, busting for a jimmy riddle, hardly qualified as the rumoured “walk out” and the inertia that exists amongst our home audience isn’t the incendiary material necessary to kindle a revolution amongst our particularly well-heeled peasants.

It would be ironic if Wenger decided to walk, after we’ve already missed the boat on the most alluring replacement. But bearing in mind that Arsène is bound to have by far the greatest influence upon all decisions relating to his succession, I pray that he has the sense to recognize the writing on the wall, as it would be a crying shame to see the huge respect and all the goodwill eroded, by him wearing out his welcome.

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Wednesday 20 April 2016

Murder By Numbers

Hi Folks,

Feel free to jump to the Irish Examiner's less long-winded version of this week's missive:

Or if you've nowt better to do, or are in need of a cure for insomnia, my rambling waffle below is bound to do the trick :-)

Considering it's been all over social media, by now, I doubt there are too many people who've yet to see the Tweet that includes a photo of someone sprawled across some of the many empty seats at Sunday's game, but it seems that for me and so many other Gooners, this was one of those "worth a thousand words" images that encapsulates both the apathy and the apparent arrogance, which leaves so many of us wondering exactly where our Arsenal went?

Bearing in mind that many of the ancient anecdotes are genuine and that there was honestly a time when the old North Bank at THOF, or the Clock End was regularly so ridiculously rammed that if one was caught short during a game, making it to the karsey, or having any chance of returning to one's much cherished terrace pitch was so impossible that the only option was to take out one's Johnson and do one's best to avoid peeing down the back of the legs of the bloke standing in front.

Sure we've all grown accustomed to more civilised surroundings nowadays, but quite how far removed are the fervent, sardine-like setting of yesteryear, where there always existed a two-way relationship, with the atmosphere from the stands inspiring events on the pitch and vice-versa, from the sedate, far too spoiled, modern day theatre audience, where everyone sits back and demands to be entertained, in return for the extortionate cost of their seat.

Sadly the Arsenal's audience nowadays refuses to generate any sort of atmosphere, unless events on the pitch elevate the mood. For me and many other travelling Gooners, this is the principal reason I attend away matches so religiously, for my regular fix of atmosphere. I'll often shout myself hoarse at home games, but invariably my humble efforts are in vain and far too frequently the atmosphere at our place is so lamentably lame that it leaves me longing for the wave of noise the would genuinely leave the hair on the back of one's neck standing to attention. Worse still, our glamorous new stadium is now so renowned for it's unsupportive supporters that away fans up and down the country have taken to taunting their unenthusiastic hosts with the standard "just like The Library" refrain.

Against the Eagles on Sunday, as the Gunners grew increasingly frustrated with our opponents throwing their bodies in front of the ball and thwarting our leaden-footed, tippy-tappy efforts to pick an intricate path through the most congested part of the pitch, the desperate need for some inspiration from the terraces, to encourage them to raise the tempo of our game, has rarely been more evident. And yet much like our unintuitive manager, either we failed to sense this need, or perhaps more accurately, we simply couldn't be bothered and struggled to even raise a rousing chorus of the customary "Come on Arsenal".

Even when the Gunners have produced a positively sparkling home performance, I often look around at the dispassionate faces of those silently trudging away from the stadium, thinking to myself that a stranger would struggle to work out which team had just won.

With our record of qualifying for the Champions League for the past 17 successive seasons, we've grown so accustomed to being involved in football's most illustrious tournament, whilst being increasingly deprived of any genuine belief in our ability to achieve the elusive success that would finally silence the smug Blues fans taunts of "you'll never sing that song" that we Gooners have become far too blasé about finishing in the top four. 

Where the fans of the vast majority of other Premiership clubs would give their eye teeth for a single opportunity of Champions League football, we now take it for granted to such an extent that to my mind, our silence on Sunday patently demonstrated that both supporters and players alike, no longer want it badly enough!

Following the misery of blowing another couple of points on Sunday, frankly against piss-poor opposition who, with virtually nothing to play for in the league, will be tuned over by any of our hungrier competitors, we had to endure the agony of seeing a positively rampant Spurs burn down the walls of the not so fortress-like Britannia. The energised end of season efforts of the likes of Lilywhites and the Hammers demonstrates quite how motivated such teams are, by their managers dangling the carrot of the possibility of achieving a seat at Europe's top table.

Whereas by complete contrast, judging by our unenthusiastic crowd and the team's laborious performance against Palace on Sunday, one gets the distinct impression that we expect to retain, by right, our richly rewarded pitch, for a red & white snout in the Champions League trough, without ever having to really pull our finger out to earn it.

The problem is that the increased TV revenues have resulted in the improved overall standard of our competitors, to the extent that there are now various other clubs eyeing Champions League football as a genuine objective, when in the past this has been a mere pipe dream.

What's more, one could make an argument that if our fans can't be bothered and the team aren't sufficiently motivated by the prospect of merely participating in a competition, while lacking any real conviction that we are in it to win it, perhaps it's high time for a less nonchalant club to take a turn at giving it a real go?

Let's face it, as far as all the WOBs are concerned, surely failure to maintain his incredibly consistent qualification record for the Champions League is likely to prove the most effective means of easing Arsène out the door? Moreover for all those who are dissatisfied with the way in which the club is being run, the short, sharp shock of being deprived of Champions League income is likely to be the only eventuality that might stir the suits from their dividend receiving, comfort zone?

Then again, why will I not be surprised if we end up stumbling over the finishing line, scraping Champions League qualification by the skin of our teeth, as has been the case for the past umpteen seasons, only to be back in the same trophyless boat next April, whinging like a broken record.

Meanwhile, from a "careful what you wish for" point of view, we Gooners need to take a cold, hard look at quite how spoiled we've become, in the covetous eyes of the fans of all those football institutions such as Everton, Newcastle, Villa etc. etc who'd all be dancing in their seats and doing the conga around their stadiums to be suffering the Arsenal's woes!

And please don't get me started on the reported attendance of 59,961 on Sunday. Can anyone explain the point of continuing to maintain the obvious falsehood of reporting ticket sales as attendance figures, other than a feeble attempt to try and perpetuate the feelgood propaganda?

With the Baggies having even less to play for then Palace (as the Eagles were at least vying for a run out in their Wembley semifinal outing), we damn well better display more desire and determination on Thursday night, by way of an apology for Sunday's apparent sang-froid. 

I'll gladly (well not so gladly!) endure dropping points, so long as I'm satisfied we've thrown the kitchen sink at trying to secure all three, but there's nothing more infuriating than the sense that our players exist in such a secure comfort zone that they're merely going through the motions and not even sufficiently perturbed to at least feign the act of playing their hearts out.


Murder By Numbers

The infectious apathy evident in the large numbers of empty seats at the Arsenal on a lazy Sunday afternoon was perfectly summed up by the “also ran” half-time interviewee on the pitch. As Bertie Mee’s first signing, Colin Addison’s name rang a bell, but with all of 28 performances in his single campaign for the Gunners in the sixties, it felt symptomatic of our season that, amidst the infinite ranks of ex-stars and world renowned celebrity Gooners, the club couldn’t find a a less obscure candidate to drag out of his complimentary seat for this regular slot.

Sadly Sunday’s encounter proved a disappointingly somnolent finale to such a fabulously dramatic week of football. When I’d mistakenly assumed that the upshot of Dortmund’s surprise defeat at Anfield and the increasingly looming spectre of the Euro permutations that might end up depriving us of our customary consolation prize of a 4th place Champions League slot, would at the very least provide the motivation to prevent the Gunners spluttering over the finishing line, with our France bound Internationals all merely going through the motions.

I must admit that there was some relief in being a neutral, watching Thursday’s heart-stopping, “football…bloody hell” Jurgen Klopp love-in. Yet having witnessed successive nights of televised football, in which Man City, Man Utd and Liverpool all managed to breathe some life back into an exciting end of season denouement, there was more than a little regret involved in being nothing more than an interested bystander.

So in some respects, from a straw clutching, glass half-full perspective, perhaps we should be grateful for Bolasie finding the back of the net for the first time since November, to result in the Eagles’ 81st minute smash & grab, Our meagre return of a single point from such a dominant display against Palace does at least inject some added spice into our remaining five outings.

Instead of chugging along on Spurs” coattails, praying for the miracle that might result in them tripping up, suddenly we find ourselves playing to avoid the ignominious threat of the poisoned chalice that is Thursday night, Europa Cup football. Yet after the Gunners have squandered 12 of the past 21 points that we’ve competed for, in this, the most unpredictable Premiership season to date, we really shouldn’t be surprised by any such eventuality.

In responding to the question in his Friday press conference as to why he’d selected Ospina against West Ham last weekend, Wenger explained that “if you look at his numbers, they are absolutely exceptional”. Yet the psychological impact of omitting our more imposing No. 1 was not the sort of instinctive understanding to be gleaned from the data.

Similarly against Palace on Sunday, it felt as if this was a team playing in our manager’s analytical image, as if this match was going to be won not on the pitch, but on an Excel spreadsheet, with the Arsenal’s far superior “numbers”. I’m sure we beat Palace hands down, in every respect statistically speaking, except the all-important one that counts!

We’ve seen it all before, against those sides that come to our place with such limited ambitions, with the Gunners waiting far too patiently for the weight of their superior ability to tell, as we try to pick the lock through the heart of the massed ranks of the opposition, without anyone assuming responsibility, or having the inspiration to attempt an alternative ploy.

Mind you, I can’t recall seeing a keeper lobbed by a header before and as the shortest player on the park, it was a pity that nearly all Alexis’ opportunities arrived on his bonce. Yet the Chilean’s customary determination aside, Elneny appeared to be just about the only other player sufficiently motivated to try and make something happen. While their team mates were all waiting to notch up another win, according to the weight of their superior statistics

If our old dog has anything to learn from the Foxes remarkable campaign, it is that "the numbers" are far from the be all and end all. But then even Arsène’s staunchest advocates are beginning to wonder if a genuine appreciation of the less tangible, more intuitive aspects to the beautiful game are beyond our scientific prof’s purview?

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Sunday 10 April 2016

Is There A Collective Noun For Fat Ladies?

If only we'd been similarly "on our toes" for the entire 90 mins!
Hi Folks, 

I filed the following missive to the Irish Examiner prior to today's games but much to my chagrin the results barely merited making any changes.

You'll have to forgive me for failing to post last week's piece, but it was as much as I could manage just to make it to the Watford game, let alone bash out 800 words on Sunday and I certainly wasn't up to doing any more. If anyone is still interested, you can find the Examiner's edited version here:

The significant impact of our failure to beat the Irons was evident when I tuned into Sunderland v Leicester on the box this afternoon, as this was the first time that I'd found myself watching the Foxes in absolutely no doubt about about who I was up for. With all hope of a miraculous comeback for the title now out of the window, my only interest was for Leicester to continue their unbelievably impressive march to their first ever Premiership trophy, so as to ensure that there's no hope of this season getting any worse, with Spurs adding the unthinkable insult of removing "Have you ever seen Tottenham win the league..." from our already limited terrace repertoire, to the agonising injury of finishing above us for the first time in twenty years!

I also have to admit that with our neighbours achieving a six point cushion over us, with their first victory over Man U in many a moon (which in reality might as well be seven points, when you take their far superior goal difference into account), even my conviction about them being guaranteed to bottle it is fast beginning to wane, as with the finishing line looming ever larger, our prospects of overhauling the enemy are looking increasingly unlikely.

It's all well and good piling pressure upon our competitors by playing first at the weekend and winning but it's not nearly so pleasurable dropping points and then being forced to watch everyone else gain ground. The truth of the matter is that if a team travels away from home and manages to score three goals, there's simply no excuse for failing to bring home the three point bacon.

Let's face it, it certainly caught us with our pants down, but it hardly took a stroke of tactical genius for Slaven Bilic to decide to throw Carroll into the Irons' starting XI because if we were going to match our hosts with the ball on the deck, on his day, there's no beating the lanky Geordie in the air.

As it turned out, despite the seemingly insane decision to leave Cech on the bench, aside from Ospina's punched clearance that lead to our hosts' third goal, our Columbian goal minder didn't do a lot wrong. Far worse perhaps is that le Prof is the sort of manager who's renowned for trusting his players to get on and do their jobs. 

Yet watching the likes of Payet and Lanzini proffered the freedom of Upton Park to play cross after cross into the box, almost totally unopposed and putting balls on a plate for Carroll, it seemed obvious to me that what was really needed on Saturday was the sort of old-fashioned, sheepskin coated, loudmouthed manager who would've been bellowing at our boys, from the moment he saw Carroll's name on the team-sheet, right up until kick-off, to remind them of the crucial need to bust their balls to stop the supply to the big lad, at source. Come back Terry Venables, all is forgiven :-)

Meanwhile, what hope have we of maintaining the pressure on our sworn enemy, when we're so busy arguing amongst ourselves. If I wasn't such a coward, I might be tempted to take a flame to the latest "Au Revoir Arsène" banner, if it makes another appearance at Sunderland because the ability of a couple of fans to make themselves the centre of attention is really beginning to grate. We witnessed a wonderful game of football at West Ham on Saturday, but these selfish idiots deprived us all of our ability to show our appreciation because it was obvious the players were uncomfortable about coming over and applauding in front of a banner that's an affront to their leader.

At such a critical time, when we should be loyally doing all in our power on the terraces to inspire the troops to play for the shirt, these so called "supporters" are a complete contradiction in terms.

Keep the faith

Is There A Collective Noun For Fat Ladies?

Once more, but with not nearly enough feeling!

With Saturday’s encounter being our last ever London derby at the Boleyn, there was absolutely no way I was going to do the sensible thing and stop indoors to watch the game on the box, despite having been struck down by a debilitating lurgy last week. I’ve been making the annual pilgrimage to Upton Park for so many years that I’d have needed to be literally on my death-bed, to miss out on this eagerly anticipated opportunity to bid the Hammers’ dilapidated football temple a fond farewell.

Mind you, compared to the end-to-end intensity of the utterly thrilling spectacle on the pitch, with it being yet another abhorrent, early kick-off, unfortunately the atmosphere on the day didn’t quite live up to my expectations. But then as I keep trying to forewarn my West Ham pals, sadly they won’t fully appreciate the extent to which the Hammers’ world is about to evolve, until they’re ensconced in their far more glamorous, but lamentably sterile new home in Stratford and like the Gunners, they suddenly discover that the soul of their club has been ripped out and replaced by a corporate cash register.

Call me a sentimental old fool, but as Upton Park goes the way of the spiritual homes of Highbury, Maine Road, Roker Park and all the other traditional bastions of the beautiful game being swept away by the irresistible tide of commercial progress, I become increasingly emotional, knowing there will soon come a time when the modern day product that is the EPL is exclusively confined to suitably profitable, but tragically anonymous and antiseptic arenas.

Sure clubs like ours continue to organize choreographed displays of red and white plastic bags, to con the TV audience into believing that the big match atmosphere prevails. Yet when one contrasts this with the sort of genuinely moving rendition of YNWA witnessed at the Scousers’ game in Dortmund in midweek, the Arsenal’s contrived efforts are so obviously counterfeit by comparison, as to leave me enviously coveting the matchday atmosphere of yesteryear.

Mercifully the entertainment on offer on Saturday was so engrossing that there were no frills necessary to fan the flames of this fervent contest. Although I can appreciate Wenger wanting to keep faith in a winning formula, all talk prior to kick-off focused on his confounding decision to leave a fit Petr Cech on the bench, especially when Bilic had cleverly opted for including the Premiership’s most accomplished aerial presence in his starting XI. Not that Andy Carroll exactly needs any more spring in his step but I’m certain Carroll must’ve been enthused at the sight of Ospina on our teamsheet, instead of the more imposing physical presence of Cech.

With Ospina having already picked the ball out of his net twice before the Gunners began to find their mojo, only for the Hammers fans to be rightly incensed to have both goals ruled out by customarily incompetent officiating, we knew that we were extremely fortunate to find ourselves two-nil up and cruising, only a couple of minutes away from the break. But it was the Arsenal’s stuttering season in microcosm that we couldn’t hang on to this lead until half-time.

For all the tactical nuances of top flight footie there are certain simple truisms, such as the essential need to deny the supply to the big lad in the box that remain constant at every level. Albeit we all assumed Arsène had lost the plot, when his answer to this problem was to leave us chasing the points in the last 20 mins with no one, other than Ramsey to defend in the middle of the park, having removed both Coquelin and Elneny.

I'll get my flame thrower!
Ultimately a draw was probably a fair result but the single point does neither side any favours. Sadly, yet again, instead of being able to celebrate a cracking game of football, a couple of publicity-seeking individuals poisoned the post-match mood, by inciting more disunity with their new anti-Arsène banner. There’s nothing wrong with slating our absentee owner, with their other “Love Arsenal, Hate Kroenke” escutcheon, but lambasting our leader in front of his troops certainly doesn’t count as showing loyalty to the Gunners’ cause.

Up until now, the only essential objective has been to overhaul Spurs but suddenly we’re forced to contemplate the encroaching Mancunian threat. Playing first at the weekend is advantageous when one wins, but only offers succour to the competition when one fails to maintain the pressure. However the lifebelt of Champions League football is unlikely to save us from drowning in the face of the tsunami of finishing below Tottenham.
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