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Sunday, 20 March 2016

One Swallow Doth Not A Summer Make (especially when it's made to stick in ones craw)

With it's ancient wooden terracing, the increasingly decrepit environs of Everton remains one of my favourite awaydays of the season. The jocular banter with the Scousers is a refreshing contrast to the venomous aggression encountered at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Rd. Yet we must savour our visits to these glorious, ancient stadia, positively bristling with history on every single blade of grass, while we still can.

With the construction work on the new stand on the red side of Stanley Park throwing an increasingly oppressive shadow over Goodison and with the Toffees now having the backing of the Iranian billionaire (ironically who's millions the Gunners somehow couldn't find use for!), sadly it won't be too long before Goodison inevitably goes the way of Upton Park, White Hart Lane and the remainder of our traditional football venues.

Then again, there's no denying the correlation between my fondness for such venues and the frequency of memorable Arsenal victories thereabouts. Never mind false dawns, we're firmly in the region of "false sunsets" as we fast approach Easter and we've witnessed far too many of both, for me to get too carried away, after turning over a Toffees side that simply wasn't at the races on the day.

With Gabby looking like an accident waiting to happen, Saturday's win might well have only engendered more false hopes. Yet I can't help but adore the Argie's hot-blooded, wholly committed attitude, even if it does end up with "no angel" Gabriel in hot water. It's such a welcome change from the apparent on-pitch indifference of some of his team mates. When I think of yesterday's team selection lining up against their opponents in the tunnel, I fancy that they cut a far more intimidating physical presence than the more diminutive looking Arsenal XI that began this campaign and I simply can't envisage the current line-up being bullied out of a game, by anyone.

As for my constant "bête noir" about the lack of leadership, we are far from the only club to suffer on this account because sadly the mercenary nature of the modern game means that there is no longer the proliferation of the sort of staunch characters that we were accustomed to in days of yore.

The eight-year old Gooner Iwobi
Nevertheless, Alex Iwobi has been a Gooner for the vast majority of his young life and you only have to witness the added zest and vitality that Alex lends to the team, to appreciate that this homegrown prodigy inevitably wears his Arsenal shirt with a lot more pride than some of our more highly-paid imports.

I want this in my Arsenal team and where I suspect I might differ from our not so glorious leader, is that I'd be willing to sacrifice something in statistically proven ability, for the enthusiastic spirit of a player who truly cares. Whilst Wenger was left moaning about our fans' fealty, forget the glory-hunting Gooner tourists, at the end of the day, the one thing demanded by the hard core travelling faithful is the ability to continue to kid ourselves that we are watching an Arsenal team that feels the pain of defeat, just as much as we do.

Watching Iwobi haring about the pitch, as if the game is a matter of life and death and Gabby giving a mouthful to his colleagues, whenever he feels anyone is slacking, it is the lack of just this sort of intensity and attitude that's responsible for our frustrating season of under-achievement (so far?).

There's bound to be a few more twists and turns, but with only eight games still to play, I can't honestly envisage us overhauling the eleven point gap between us and the worthy leaders. However if we can finally put a consistent run together and at least exert some real pressure, by winning all of our remaining games, it will be interesting to see if this will inspire sufficient faith for Wenger to get the majority of the fan base back on side.

It certainly doesn't help that we've got "banner man" and his motley crew, rocking up to every game, hoping for the Gunners to fail, merely to vindicate their somewhat futile protests.

Although they might look the most daunting encounters on paper, I'm not too concerned about our three remaining away games, as I'm confident that the circumstances at all three of these outings will be sufficient to inspire an equally motivated effort, as the one we've just witnessed against Everton.

However, in the face of our fickle home crowd and against opponents whose ambitions are likely to be limited to avoiding defeat and who won't afford us the opportunity of the sort of open game that we enjoyed at Goodison, it is our five remaining home matches where we are likely to have to prove we have sufficient mettle.

As supporters, our job is to offer support, not to be the source of the sort of dissension that puts a dampener on yesterday's celebrations, leaving the team feeling uncertain if it reflects on their loyalty to le Gaffer, by coming over to celebrate with the tiny, but extremely visible group of protesters.

Even if it might indeed be time for a change, such inappropriately timed behaviour is only offering succour to our enemies, by leaving the Arsenal looking like a disunified outfit, where we are too busy fighting amongst ourselves to be fully focused on the task at hand. No matter which side of the Wenger in/out fence one sits, there's a time and a place for publicly venting your viewpoint and this certainly isn't after a crucial victory up at Everton because whatever the impact, it definitely is not positive!

Instead of which we should be getting behind the lads and at least giving them every possible chance of making a fight of it (I'm taking it as read that we will overhaul Spurs, since I simply can't begin to consider the nightmarish consequences of gifting my Spurs pals such unimaginable gloating rights!)


One Swallow Doth Not A Summer Make 
(especially when it's made to stick in ones craw)

Following quite such a depressing week, with the Gunners lamentably spineless FA Cup capitulation and our almost inevitable Champions League demise, the doctor couldn’t possibly have ordered a more perfect tonic than 3 points, a clean sheet and a man of the match display from young Alex Iwobi at Goodison.

Despite doing ourselves justice with a creditable performance against the Catalan side, one sensed that Barca played well within themselves and that they were always capable of going into overdrive, if we had ever seriously threatened their progress.

Having travelled back from Spain and virtually straight up to Merseyside, for yet another early KO on a Saturday, we all feared for the possibility of a hangover from our fruitless efforts at Camp Nou. And yet straight from the kick-off against Everton, it was evident that only one team had turned up; while, in the absence of the midfield glue of Gareth Barry, our hosts looked like they’d not only lost their shirts at Cheltenham, but any sense of the intensity and the appetite necessary to win a Premiership match.

If only the Toffees had half the enthusiasm
of their infamous "Speedo"
While I might temper the joy of overcoming the daunting hurdle of a trip to Everton, in quite such a comprehensive fashion, with Martinez’ comments about it being the Toffees worst 45 minutes at home all season, what was most pleasing is that with us having flattered to deceive for so long, we might well have finally witnessed the first glimmer of a Gunners side that’s actually capable of doing the business.

Too little, too late perhaps, since even if the Foxes should falter on the run in, with a third successive 1-0 win at Palace there was no sign of them bottling it and Ranieri’s team is far too good for the sort of wholesale collapse necessary to gift us a last ditch tilt at the title.

Although it would undoubtedly be a victory for football, if Leicester should go on to achieve the unthinkable, it’s a bit of a dilemma for us Gooners. On the one hand, I listened to the radio commentary from Selhurst Park, praying for the Leicester loss that would make it a perfect afternoon; on the other hand we’re terrified of them leaving the door open, only for the worst-case scenario of Tottenham sprinting through it!

Yet as the Premiership’s pedigree bottlers, I’m still hopeful that Spurs are the team most likely to blow it. What matters most is that we keep ourselves in a position to best take advantage when they do.

Absolutely the only positive aspect to the past few miserable weeks has been the emergence of Iwobi and Elneny. But I feared that they both might suffer permanent damage, by their association with what has, up until now, looked like a catastrophic climax to this season’s campaign. With Elneny having been thrown in at the deep-end against Spurs and Iwobi being blooded against the best team on the planet, whatever one’s view on Wenger, you have to give our manager some credit, for his willingness to take such massive risks.

Mercifully Arsène’s gamble appears to have paid off big time, as the team that took to the field at Goodison has suddenly been transformed into an entirely different proposition, to the one that’s buckled in the face of inferior opposition in recent weeks. With a solid base of Coquelin and Elneny protecting our back line and the pace and dynamism of Iwobi and Welbeck, to take full advantage of any opposition dawdling, the Gunners appear to be a far more powerful and crucially, a much more balanced outfit.

There was a moment in midweek, when Walcott wasted an opportunity with a heavy touch in the box. It occurred to me that Theo will never compare with the supreme quality of the triumvirate at the other end of the pitch. Moreover, it was obvious on Saturday quite how much Iwobi and Welbeck relish playing together and when you contrast this with Theo’s apparent reluctance to get on the ball in return for his £160k per week, perhaps we’d be better off getting rid (how Walcott rates an England call up is beyond me!).

After such an impressive result, it’s irritating that the media spotlight is drawn to the small fracas resulting from one idiot and his “time for a change” banner. Far better for the Gooners to be rallying around the vocal insult to our absentee owner than to foster a mood of disunity, by attacking Wenger, at a time when we all need to be pulling in the same direction.

Not that the “sticks and stones” are likely to have registered with Stan, while he counts his riches at his $725m Texas ranch, paid for with his returns from the Arsenal. Sadly no such protests will persuade Kroenke to walk away from his cash cow. Our American owner sets the tone for a commercial organization that’s content to plod along, reaping Champions League rewards every season.

No matter what might be said to the contrary, about the Arsenal’s ambitions, it’s evident in the way we’ve performed all season that there is no one at the club overly concerned of being left out of a job, should we end the season empty-handed. The complete absence of the sort of insecurity that exists at every other professional football club must inevitably filter down and result in a certain level of complacency.

For once I welcome the respite of an International break and hopefully the lads will feel they owe le Gaffer an eight game effort that will at least ensure that we avoid the ultimate ignominy, of ending up finishing behind our own increasingly noisy neighbours. In the meantime, I for one would be grateful for a much-needed timeout in the unwanted distraction of the unrelenting argument about Arsène’s future.

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Sunday, 6 March 2016

For Whom The Bell Tolls?

The Kids Are Alright
Played in front of a relatively humble crowd of 3,000 Gooners and a smattering of extremely hardy Scousers, Friday night’s hors d’ouevres of an FA Youth Cup quarterfinal at THOF2 might’ve been world’s away from “perhaps the biggest North London derby ever”. Despite the brass monkey weather, it was an enjoyable 90 minutes and unlike Saturday’s high-profile clash, it won’t have taken at least another year off my life, due to the unhealthy toll of so much excruciating stress.

Moreover, there were plenty of high-pitched kid’s voices, to accompany the ubiquitous caterwauling of the ever-present Maria (the eccentric retired schoolteacher, who most Arsenal fans will have heard bellowing out on the box over the years). There’s always something far more genuine about a family crowd turning out on a freezing cold night, to watch some affordable (free even!) footie.

Unlike the Premiership’s increasing proliferation of tourist glory-hunters, they certainly hadn’t paid £250 to a tout for the principle purpose of posting photos on social-media, so that they can smugly be “seen to be there” by all their Facebook “friends”! Those who turned up were rewarded with the privilege of watching the bandy-legged Jeff Reine-Adelaide strut his stuff, with that same animalistic grace of Thierry Henry.

We may have progressed to the Youth Cup semis, but as with Saturday’s midday main course, it was “just like watching the Arsenal” in the way the young Guns constantly attempted to walk the ball into the back of the net. Whereas Spurs seemed so fired up by their opportunity to lord it over us, for the first time in the majority of their fans’ lifetimes that they snatched at every single opportunity to try and take advantage of Petr Cech’s absence. If Aaron Ramsey had been equally eager to get a shot off, remarkably we might even have won this dramatic derby game right at the death.

Without Cech and Koscielny and with Spurs full strength line-up, I predicted that we’d need to score at least 3 goals to win at White Hart Lane and with us hardly being in prolific form and following a week where we’ve had the Samaritans on redial, there was less optimism and more gallows humour amongst the lunatic Gooners, risking life and limb to go to this game.

As a kid I fell out of love with the beautiful game during the worst of the hooli-years because the prospect of getting stabbed on a Saturday afternoon didn’t strike me as a healthy infatuation. Believe me, it is my WORST nightmare, as life wouldn’t be worth living and I still cling to the belief that Spurs will eventually bottle what might prove to be their one and only tilt at the title. Yet for peace and pity’s sake, it is probably only some Spurs success that might calm the rising tide of bitterness, which is largely responsible for the venomous vitriol vented upon us visiting Gooners.

With each passing season of Spurs being forced to play second fiddle, their rancour rises and their fuse shortens, to the point where plenty of Gooners choose to refrain from making the short trip to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Rd in recent times and wouldn’t dream of inflicting this ugly atmosphere upon their kids.

         I’m unsure I’d be quite so eager to attend, if it wasn’t for the infirmity that enables me to avoid all the aggro outside the ground, by availing myself of the disabled entrance. Yet for all able-bodied Gooners, the hostile mix of the Lilywhite Neanderthals’ testosterone levels and outdated, overly zealous TSG police tactics ensures that White Hart Lane is the one remaining fixture on the calendar, where an eruption of violence is always on the cards.

         On the upside, the enemy’s close proximity does at least afford me a rare opportunity to watch some of the build up on the box. Albeit that if I’ve got all the time in the world for Ian Wright, I was relieved to rush away from the rabid ravings of the plastic celeb fan, Piers Morgan. It’s ironic to hear Morgan slaughtering our manager, when he was only attracted to becoming a season-ticket holder by the glory Arsène brought to the club.

Having nailed his colours to the Arsenal’s mast in such an ostentatious fashion, my instinct is that Piers is mostly pissed off with the reflected ignominy of our repeated failures and the fact that he’s on the receiving end of so much stick from his celeb pals. If you can’t take the heat mate, f*** off out of the kitchen, as a supporters lot is a lifetime of agony, only interspersed with rare moments of ecstasy for the fortunate few.

It is the exact opposite of Morgan’s analogy of an analogue Arsène, compared to a digital Pochettino that’s Wenger’s principal weakness. Throwing Elneny into this white-hot cauldron for his Premiership debut proved a good call but it was the one unpredictable curve ball available to Arsène, in response to all those who’ve cast him as an impotent OAP. Moreover, compared to Wenger’s customary, passive watching brief on the bench, with the home fans too caught up in the tension of Saturday’s occasion to be taunting him with the usual paedophile chants, it felt as if le Prof was trying to prove that he’s no less hands-on than his opposite number, by jumping up and down like a Jack rabbit, matching Pochettino’s touchline coaxing.

However sadly Arsène is a data analyst, compared to those who’re better equipped to act more on instinct. As evidenced by the way Spurs steamed into us and bullied us off the ball from the get go, while Mertesacker & co. stumbled around as if they’d just been dragged from their beds, after a night out on the tiles. Wenger’s “feng shui” approach doesn’t allow for the red-hot poker up the backside that was needed to remind the Gunners not to dawdle on the ball, as if this was merely another run of the mill match.

Can we go home now.....Please?
I’d hoped Ramsey might feel liberated, freed from his central role, but there were many around me who wanted to string Aaron up, as we looked in serious danger of being battered, until we somehow conjured up the opening goal. If only we could’ve packed up and gone home at half-time, but sadly we had to wait for the almost inevitable ritual of the Gunners shooting ourselves in the foot, during the seven minute spell where we went from looking as if we might comfortably cruise towards the finishing post with a passable impersonation of experienced Champions elect, to returning to being the Premiership’s habitual hapless nearly men, as we went from 0-1 up to 2-1 down.

         At least we left with our pride still intact and hopefully Alexis’ long awaited contribution might get him back in the groove, but ultimately this honours even result favoured our hosts. While Wenger was left moaning about how he broke his dressing room silence, supposedly to try and remind Coquelin that he needed to be cautious, by contrast Pochettino reacted in advance to the red card writing on the wall, by removing Lamela from the fray after his contretemps with Alexis, but crucially, prior to him to earning an early bath.

Wenger could do with learning from the delightful humility of Ranieri’s “diddledee diddledong” antics. Without some sort of miraculous return to form that might ensure we don’t finish this season empty-handed, I wonder if he’ll hang around, to become no less bitter than my Spurs pals, or if he’ll have the sense to walk before he’s used up all his remaining credit of Gooner good grace?

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