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Monday, 13 March 2017

Come All Ye Faithful

an extended wake, where sadly the deceased appears to be
the only one on the planet ignoring the Grim Reaper's call

            It was only when driving past the Marble Halls of THOF and I saw the gaggle of Gooners gathering, prior to Saturday's game, that it dawned upon me that there was another protest on the cards. But to be honest, it looked like a somewhat meagre turn-out and although they'd collected a couple of hundred more of the WOB, by the time they rounded the bend in Drayton Park and approached the steps of Highbury House on the walk to the new stadium, it was a fairly feeble looking demo, especially when compared to the nine thousand Imps fans who'd journeyed down to London N5 and who were all definitely "up for the cup".

            In fact, I don't ever recall seeing quite such a long queue for the away fans turnstiles at Entrance K in the past, as this seemed to stretch almost halfway around the ground half an hour before KO. It left the few hundred Gooners, who made up this half-hearted "Wenger Out" protest looking somewhat embarrassing by comparison. I had to laugh, when later the 9,000 Lincoln City fans were to be heard singing "Lincoln 'till I die" and "we support our local team", when you consider that the Imps average attendance is only 3,750 (and this is 44% up on 2016, presumably on the back of their impressive FA Cup run!). Yet credit to them, they all turned up, determined to enjoy and to make the most of their big day out.

#Impvasion queuing halfway around the ground
              And thank heavens they did, or else the Emirates might've been less library and more morgue like. When I reflect back upon so many of the incredibly atmospheric FA Cup quarterfinals that I've been privileged to witness the Gunners participate in over the years, frankly, from my perspective, there was something particularly sad about the way in which the Arsenal's home crowd failed so miserably to rouse ourselves and respond, to the fairly constant racket coming from the away end on Saturday.

              Admittedly I had my radio headphones in one ear and might've failed to notice at times, if the Arsenal's laughable, singing section were making absolutely any effort, but it seemed to me that when Theo eventually broke the deadlock just before the break, we couldn't even muster a tepid chorus of "1-0 to the Arsenal"!

              OK, so we were all a bit depressed, after our midweek Champions League humiliation and we'd all turned up fully expecting a perfunctory triumph, as the Gunners finally put paid to the non-leaguer's romantic cup run. Yet while one might've assumed that as a result of the peculiar circumstances, this would've been bound to put a bit of a dampener on proceedings, I would've at least expected something other than a wall of complete and utter silence from the home fans attending the library?

              It was a crying shame, as the Imps and their 9000 raucous fans deserved a more fitting climax, to an accomplishment that hasn't been achieved in over a century (with QPR the last non-league outfit to achieve the quarterfinals of the FA Cup in 1914). Yet it felt as if there were 51,000 Gooners turning up to an extended wake, where sadly the deceased appears to be the only one on the planet ignoring the Grim Reaper's call.

              It pains me to admit it, but when I subsequently witnessed the events on Sunday afternoon, where Spurs fans appeared to be positively revelling, in what was their last ever cup encounter at White Hart Lane, I was dead envious of the seemingly deafening crowd noise. And it's certainly come to something when I'm feeling jealous of the atmosphere created by the even more fickle mob at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road!

              On a similar note, standing outside our ground before KO on Saturday, I found myself debating whether the ultimate ignominy of losing to non-league Lincoln might possibly be preferable, to what is increasingly looking like an odds on encounter with either Spurs or Chelsea, in a Wembley semifinal. 

              Not that I hold with all that horoscope hogwash (even as a typical Scorpio!), but failing a "spacequake" type shift of seizmic proportions in the astrological heavens, which might reverse the Arsenal's fortunes in the coming month and mend the patently obvious disunity in the dressing room (not to mention the climate of uncertainty), at this present point in time, it's hard to envisage the Gunners turning out at Wembley at the end of April transformed into a "team" that's capable of progressing to the final.

              Let's face it, it seems as if this Wembley semifinal and our final outing to the dilapidated environs of White Hart Lane the following weekend looks set to not only define our entire season, but this might well be 180 (or 210) minutes of football which could be the curtain call for Arsène's two decade long tenure.

              Even if by some miracle, we manage to win the FA Cup and qualify for the Champions League by avoiding finishing below Spurs for the first time in 22 seasons and as a result, Wenger leaves the WOB up in arms as he changes his mind, personally I wish he'd announce his impending retirement now, so that the remainder of this season might be a celebration of an autocratic career in top flight management, the like of which we're probably never going to see again in the ephemeral modern game.

              Those Gooners who fail to appreciate the sort of dour football that we were accustomed to enduring in the era before Wenger, they won't understand why the idea of Arsène being hounded out of the club so distresses me. As much as I believe that change is utterly essential, such is my feeling of indebtedness to the man that anything other than respect and gratitude towards him, goes entirely against the grain. Wenger's earned the right to leave on his own terms and even if you happen to disagree, surely it's obvious that no matter how vociferous the WOB, there is no one at the club who's inclined to hand the obdurate old bugger his P45.

              Arsène's phraseology has always been very deliberate and from the recent subtle changes in his post-match comments, I'm of the opinion that he's currently not planning to extend his contract. In fact, with us sadly never having achieved the Holy Grail of Champions League success, after having fallen infuriatingly short these past two decades, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see fate kick us in the goolies, with Wenger going to PSG, spending a couple of hundred million and promptly swanning off into retirement with the big-eared prize in his back pocket!
Nuff Said!

               Meanwhile, with inane social media already twittering away about the WOB's arrangements for next weekend's banner protest versus the Baggies, this is hardly going to prove a positive force, for getting everybody on side and fully focused on the task at hand. If we're to redeem any pride from the remainder of this season, surely we'd be better off presenting the sort of unified front that might enable us to achieve a collective push to clear every remaining hurdle on the finishing straight?

               Instead of which, we're now seeing the infighting and the disunity on the terraces being reflected on the pitch. The fall-out from the rumoured fracas at London Colney was evident on Saturday. Whether he was gesticulating at Gibbs for failing to go on the overlap, or at Giroud for one reason, or another, Alexis spent most of the ninety minutes waving his arms around in frustration. Until Theo finally eased the tension, by finding the back of the net (courtesy of a deflection) just before the break, up until then it was the non-league outfit who had the only decent effort on goal. 

               One could be forgiven for wondering which of the two sides was the top flight club, when Arnold went past Koscielny in the penalty box with worrying ease and very nearly elevated the Imp army into paradise, if it wasn't for Petr Cech pulling off a smart save. Such was the Arsenal's inability to impose our superior ability until almost the last kick of the half that the Gunners' increasing frustration and the chasm that's recently been exposed in the dressing-room camaraderie was patently evident in most of our players' downbeat body language and the obvious lack of intensity necessary in a cup quarterfinal.

Have to forgive Imps' over-eagerness, it's not
every week they get to swap shirts with Mesut Özil
              On the radio they told how the Cowley "Dynamic Duo" had approached the game by breaking it down into nine ten minute segments. If this had been a boxing match, basically Lincoln had almost reached the halfway point, without the Arsenal having barely laid a glove on them! Considering to what extent Özil began pulling the strings after the break, I guess we should be grateful that the Ox was forced to limp off with "a tight hamstring" but Walcott and Bellerin were about the only two players in red and white who deserved any credit for their first-half efforts.

               I guess Lincoln should be lauded, as they definitely didn't allow the occasion to get to them and certainly managed to avoid showing us any respect, breaking the game up at every possible opportunity and thereby ensuring that we had no chance of developing any rhythm.

               However, having subsequently seen the dismissive way in which Spurs mullahed Millwall on Sunday, in a nutshell the Gunners failure to find our mojo until the second-half against Lincoln, compared to the way in which Spurs were camped in the opposition's half from the opening whistle of their quarterfinal, this was incontrovertible evidence of the contrasting moods in the two camps being reflected on the pitch.

               Over the years, one of my Spurs mates has constantly moaned about Daniel Levy's mismanagement and yet they flashed up a screen on Football Focus on the Beeb on Saturday, showing how virtually all of Spurs first choice players, with the exception of Alderweireld have been secured on long-term contracts. Whereas the Gunners are at imminent risk of losing our only two genuine world class players for little, or no money!

               With virtually all the cards being in the player's hand (or more accurately the hand of their agent) nowadays, the moment their contract has less than two years to run, when one considers that this can result in them eventually walking away on a free transfer, instead of being sold for the sort of obscene sum that at least provides the selling club with the wherewithal to be able to try and replace them, it seems to me that failure to avoid such a disadvantageous position amounts to gross ineptitude of the MOST costly nature by the management.

               One has to qualify any reference to David Dein with the rider that the Gunners would've likely ended up playing at Wembley today, if he'd had his own way. Nevertheless, no matter that he might've been a bit of an egomaniac, ever since Dein's enforced departure none of the corporate suits charged with running our club bleed red and white blood, in the same devoted fashion as the man responsible for bringing Wenger to the club. Gazides might be a competent corporate type, but he's not a genuine Gooner, a one-club man like Dein. Some gossip that I heard years back left me assuming that the Arsenal was merely a stepping stone and that Ivan would eventually end up going back to run the MLS in the States.

               Without Dein as Wenger's sidekick, to remove the immensely time-consuming responsibility of constant transfer and contract negotiations from our coach's plate, Arsène soon became a complete autocrat at the Arsenal, with absolutely no one to remind our emperor that under the zip he was always fiddling with, he was all too often stark bollock naked.

               Yet so long as the club's coffers continued to be replenished with such relentless consistency and our value for money obsessed leader parsimoniously played with his transfer kitty, as if spending his own money, the suits at the club have complacently refrained from interjecting upon Arsène's isolated ivory tower. Those clamouring for Wenger's exit might want to bear this in mind because there are no other manager's at this level in world football with such total and utter authority. When Arsène eventually takes his bow, we won't only be left having to find a new coach, but who exactly will end up wearing the other managerial hats that most of the list of potential replacements will be accustomed to being able to delegate to others?

               Don't get me wrong, since there's absolutely no mistaking the almost funereal "end of an era" mood that's enveloped the Emirates in recent days and as I bump into familiar Gooner faces around the ground, it feels as if we've just received news of the impending demise of a close family member. While those who've known nothing else, can't wait to holler "the King is dead, long live the King", others who well recall the dark, prehistoric days prior to Wenger are somewhat more circumspect, as for the first time in twenty years, we look into the unknown Arsenal abyss with righteous trepidation.

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