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Saturday 29 April 2017

A Sentimental Last Stroll Down The Lane?

5p for a programme...those were the days!
Can anyone identify any of the autographs?
            It was previously rumoured that the reason Spurs hadn't announced any plans to acknowledge the demise of their dilapidated old ground was because they hadn't quite given up hope of playing there next season. However Friday's confirmation that their home games will be played at Wembley means that Sunday will definitely be the last ever North London Derby at the Lane and I guess there's no better excuse for indulging in a bit nostalgia.

            For the majority of Spurs fans, the intense level of bitterness felt towards the Arsenal is in direct proportion to the lifetime they've spent suffering in our shadow. The resulting fervent acrimony between the two sets of fans has ensured that younger Gooners have grown up believing it to be their birthright to be able to have nothing but scorn for "the scum" at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road.

            Yet it was only on shooting the bitter cold breeze, outside the Emirates prior to Wednesday's game that I was reminded that there was a time when the North London Derby was more akin to the Merseyside equivalent, where families with supporters in opposite camps could happily stand alongside each other on the terraces, without risking life and limb.

            Before all the tribal aggro began in the 70s and back when "boring, boring Arsenal" were still trying to grind their way back out of the shadow of the Lilywhites' Glory, Glory boys of '61, it was fairly common amongst North London football fans to make the trip to opposite ends of the Seven Sisters Road on alternate weeks.

            My old man wasn't a diehard Gooner, he simply enjoyed watching footie and apparently like many others in those days, he was often in the habit of going to the Arsenal one week and Spurs the next. In fact, back when Bill Nicholson's team (including the likes of Chivers, Greaves, Gilzean and Mullery) was that much more entertaining to watch than Bertie Mee's more dour outfit (of the likes of Radford, Graham, McLintock and Storey), I can recall my dad taking me to the odd Spurs away game!

            I often say that I only ended up a Gooner because my bony little bum was far more comfortable on the padded seats of the West Upper at Highbury than the hard wooden equivalent at White Hart Lane. Perhaps it was merely youthful rebelliousness, as there were plenty of Spurs fans in my extended family, many of whom would regularly harangue me about the insanity of me forsaking the flair football on offer at Spurs, in order to support the Gunners more prosaic game. 

            The fact that I played as a left-back as a kid might've made me more appreciative of the Arsenal's defensive traits and their ability to shut shop, but whether it was the famous Marble Halls and the stadium's Art Deco grandeur, or the camaraderie evident in the steamy, crowded cafe in the bowels of the West Stand, there was a certain "je ne sais quoi" that seemed to make going to THOF that bit more special than matches at White Hart Lane.

            Mind you, as far as I was concerned there was definitely one major attraction about White Hart Lane, as my old man was an extremely gregarious geezer who could charm the leaves from the trees. There was a steward in the West Stand at Spurs who regularly let him pass through this magic door, which led to the players car park. So while my programme collection from the late 60s, early 70s includes Arsenal programmes with autographs from the odd celebrity Gooner, who frequented the plush 100 Club in the West Upper at THOF, like DJ Pete Murray, I've got tatty old Spurs programmes covered in the spider-like scrawl of the star players of the day, sadly many of which are utterly unidentifiable.

            I feel extremely privileged to have been present for both of our historic title triumphs at the Lane and compared to the euphoric ecstasy of these two occasions, it's ridiculous to get too depressed about the prospect of throwing Spurs fans a rare bone of finishing above us, for the first time in over a couple decades. 

            In fact, as I was trying to console myself in a teasing text battle with one of my Spurs pals, they've grown so accustomed to being left trailing in the Arsenal's wake that so long as they don't end up winning the bloomin' title, it's likely to prove far more satisfying if their expectations are raised and they are fooled into believing that their time has finally come, only to have all this hope quashed, when normal service is (hopefully!) resumed next season.

            In recent years the level of animosity from Spurs fans has become so intense at the derby game on their turf that I've grown to view the short hop from Highbury to Tottenham with the same amount of enthusiasm as I would have for a trip to the dentist, with the principal ambition being to get there, get in, get out and back home with the minimal amount of suffering.

            If I had a nine-year old kid, I'm really not sure I'd want to be taking him to tomorrow's game, knowing I've seen youngsters literally brought to tears by the frighteningly aggressive hostility witnessed in and around the ground in recent times. Fortunately it was a different story back in 1971, when I'm embarrassed to admit that I squeezed into White Hart Lane with nearly 52,000 others (with just as many locked outside), with an Arsenal rosette on one side of my tiny little chest and a Spurs rosette on the other.

            The Spurs rosette had long since bitten the dust by the end of the evening, when we worked our way around from the Paxton Road to the West Stand, to join all the Gooners who'd taken over the stadium and we took it in turns to serenade the thousands who'd invaded the pitch. Glory hunter that I am, I suppose this was the night when any sense of split loyalties evaporated and mercifully I became a firmly committed Gooner.

            In view of there being more than a little sentimentality attached to tomorrow's outing, I hope you'll forgive me if I take the opportunity to give this particular anecdote one more run out (with apologies to anyone who's read it before). It was the 20th anniversary of my old man's passing a few days ago and it was amazing that my memories of that incredible night in May '71 were so fuzzy that it wasn't until the occasion of my dad's funeral, some twenty-six years after that I was able to fill in some of the blanks, thanks to a Spurs supporting lad who lived down the road, who was with us on the night and who I naturally found myself reminiscing with, when he came to pay his respects.

            Ian was (and still is) a couple of years older than me and with his old man working on the day, dad offered to take him with us to White Hart Lane. Going to football wasn't an outing that required military planning, months in advance back in those days, prior to era of football hooligans that sadly resulted in the advent of "all ticket" matches. The fact that one could turn up and queue for unreserved seating meant that going to a match was a far more spontaneous thrill.

            Growing up in Edgware, long before mobile phones, my old man would often walk back into the house midday Saturday and if he fancied going to a game at either Arsenal, or Spurs, we'd walk down to the main road and stand on the corner, waiting for anyone he knew to pass by heading to the match, so he could flag them down for a lift.

            I've heard several tales over the years of those who actually had tickets for the momentous meeting on Monday 3rd May '71, but who never made it into the ground before the gates were locked. I was extremely fortunate that my old man had "more front than Sainsburys" and with him having driven us up to White Hart Lane after school, the queue for the unreserved seating in Paxton Lane already stretched around the corner and along Tottenham High Road.

            It was Ian who reminded me that my dad had marched up to a copper and come out with a yarn about leaving his pitch in the queue just to fetch the two of us from school. I'm sure we wouldn't have made it into the ground, if he hadn't blagged his way in near the front and amongst my most vivid memories of that magical night was the mad rush, when the gates eventually opened and reassuring protection of my old man's arms, wrapped around the shoulders of the two of us nippers, as he shepherded us to into the turnstiles.

            In such extremely fraught circumstances, where only a win, or a 0-0 draw would suffice to take the title, I've a vague memory of the explosion of pent up euphoria when Ray Kennedy's header hit the back of the net, with only minutes left on the clock. But with this being the moment when Arsenal fans were finally able to consign Spurs feats of '61 to history and lord it over our North London neighbours, it was the tumultuous post-match celebrations and subsequent events which stuck most firmly in my mind.

            Having joined all the Gooners in the West Stand, chanting back and forth to those on the pitch, we eventually made our customary exit, through the door which led to the players car park. And as we're wandering around, with me in absolute awe, as my dad collared some of my heroes for autographs, who should pipe up asking if anyone was going past his parents' hotel, but the title winning goal-scorer, Ray Kennedy.

            Naturally my old man didn't need a second invitation and promptly offered Kennedy a lift and us two kids were left agog in the back of the motor, as I whispered to my mate "they're never going to believe us at school tomorrow!" I'm assuming from the "to whom" in the dedication, my dad might've suggested to Kennedy what to write, but the inscription of "to Bernard whom I travelled home with" has obviously ensured that this programme is without doubt my most treasured piece of memorabilia.

            I get seriously pissed off with all those Gooners who fail to appreciate quite how spoiled we've become in recent years. Fans of the vast majority of clubs must find our incessant whinging irritating, when they'd give their eye teeth to have enjoyed two decades at the top table, with the promise of Champions League football every season.

            The vast majority of Spurs fans haven't seen their team win the title in their entire lifetimes, while I've savoured SIX gloriously historic title-winning seasons watching the Gunners, including the icing on the cake of a second crown won at White Hart Lane in '04. Even in the unlikely event that Spurs should ever achieve a successful league campaign, it's doubtable that we'll ever have to endure the humiliating ignominy of it happening at our gaff.

            So perhaps their fanatical hatred is understandable, but any sympathy I might feel certainly doesn't extend to me wanting to gift them an opportunity to be able to crow even more than they are already, by winning our last ever meeting at the Lane. It would be most amusing if Chelsea slip up at Goodison in tomorrow's earlier KO, only for us to subsequently put a definitive spoke in Spurs title aspirations. Yet there's already enough riding on the outcome of this encounter and I'd prefer that the pressure wasn't ramped up even further, by Chelsea dropping points.

            The Gunners need to prove that last weekend's gutsy display wasn't a one off, since the bare minimum that we can afford is a draw, if we're to come away from the Lane for the last time, with our pride intact. With the London Stadium such a far cry from the atmosphere at Upton Park and recalling how my football experience has deteriorated since departing THOF, I keep reminding my Spurs mates to savour their remaining matches because football as they know it will never be the same. Nevertheless, worryingly it appears as if Levy has taken lessons from our experience and with its single terrace at one end, I wonder if Spurs new stadium might not be nearly so sterile as our antiseptic arena. 

            Still we're guaranteed at least one season's worth of laughing at Tottenham, while they struggle to come to terms with playing at Wembley. It remains to be seen whether we'll look back nostalgically at the Lane in future, or whether we'll be glad to see the back of "the Shit Hole"? 

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Saturday 22 April 2017

Le Prof Pulls Out His Chemistry Set

            So just how excited are we all at the prospect of Sunday's Wembley semi-final outing? Perhaps it's the erosion of any last vestige of youthful exuberance that accompanies my advancing years (or merely a result of my increasingly decrepit memory), but personally I struggle to recall facing this familiar, end of season odyssey around the North Circular, with quite so much trepidation.

            It's hard to believe that it was only at the beginning of this same month that we managed to achieve an honours even share of the points with Guardiola's Man City. Then when we returned to our gaff only three days later, to produce some brief cameos of the most entertaining footie that we've witnessed from the Gunners in months, in nailing the Hammers 3-0, we were sucked in by the false dawn of a quasi-religious "born again" renaissance.

            Sadly this premature scent of a barn-storming, end of season resurgence had long since dissipated, perhaps amidst the pollution of all that traffic, as the team coach struggled to transect "the Smoke" to SE25. It was to be replaced by an all together more offensive whiff, as the Arsenal positively "stunk the place out" at Selhurst Park.

            After having to endure another irritating weekend's worth of football, where all the opponents of the teams above us seemed to roll over in an annoyingly meek manner, we were left impatiently waiting for a decidedly unappetising Bank Holiday outing to Boro. But it wasn't merely a win of any description that I was desperate for on Monday evening. 

            It felt as if any self-respecting Arsenal player should be positively desperate to be party to a collective response, to the accusations of a "lack of balls" cowardice, which were levelled at them with the fusillade of deservedly chastening criticisms that came in the aftermath of the defeat at Palace. This was an experience that couldn't have possibly proved any more humiliating (but a helluva lot more hilarious) if BFS had pranked his old foe Wenger with a friendly "wedgie"!

            So I found myself scrutinising Monday night's performance for evidence of some slight chink of Arsenal indignation; some signs of renewed resolve in their demeanour that might give me cause to feel more optimistic about Sunday's encounter. I mistakenly presumed that the players might feel some obligation to at least try to demonstrate that our leader is not an entirely spent force and that he's still capable of motivating his squad, to turn it up a notch or two when the chips are down.

            Sure, much like every other Gooner, I took plenty solace from landing all three points from our Riverside fishing trip, since these were essential just to keep us in the picture. Yet in order to garner a little confidence and momentum going into Sunday's game, we could've badly done with a more convincing display, rather than this somewhat fortuitous struggle to reel in a catch that's seemingly already doomed to relegation.

            While Wenger responded to our frequent moans about his tactical rigidity, by surprising us all with his team selection, it seems more than a little bizarre for him to be waiting until the end of April, to be experimenting with playing three at the back for the very first time in twenty years!

            In the past, our manager's point blank refusal to bow to public and media pressure has been viewed as one of his strengths, but the more cynical amongst up might ponder whether Monday's formation might've been the equivalent of "dad dancing", with Wenger suddenly feeling the need to prove that anything Pep or Conté can do, he can do better.

            I presumed this to be a "horses for courses" one off experiment, with Wenger loading up on centre-halves to deal with Boro's expected aerial threat. Yet when one considers that it might've ended up resulting in a far more miserable outcome, if either of Downing's decent crosses had been despatched, the performance hardly served as validation of our ability to effectively adapt to this particular tactical strategy.

            Others have questioned whether it might've been a dress-rehearsal for Sunday's game and I for one bloomin' well hope not, as I'm already terrified by the likelihood of Ramsey and Xhaka playing in the middle, where I fear neither is willing, nor able to produce the work rate necessary to provide our defence with sufficient protection. And surely the worrisome prospect of us being overrun by City in the middle of the park only becomes more acute, if AW includes an additional centre-back?

            If as I suspect, Wenger reverts to his more standard formation, I imagine that I'm far from alone in questioning whether "two wash-bags" Bellerin will receive a recall at right-back. It's rumoured that Hector has been carrying a knock recently and I certainly hope that this is the case, as it would at least provide Hector with some excuse for his lamentable dip in form and it offers some hope that the disturbing sight of Sane leaving him for dead might just be a one-off aberration.

            Rather than Hector carrying the psychological baggage of the Man City wide man getting the better of him, into next season, I think I'd want him to be challenged on Sunday to go out and prove his mettle. In fact the club could do a lot worse than sitting the entire team down and force feeding them recordings of their forbears more memorable displays, by way of a much needed reminder of the sort of resolve, the 100 per cent committed attitude that's expected of them come Sunday.

            The Ox appeared to be just about the only energised Arsenal player against Boro, willing to take responsibility to run with the ball and at least make something happen. But even he seemed to run out of puff, or enthusiasm, as he slipped into comparative anonymity, along with his colleagues second-half. Will Wenger take a risk on Alex maintaining his energy level for 90 minutes on Sunday. Or will Walcott get the shout, knowing he might contribute little overall, but is at least capable of popping up with a goal? In truth I fancy that all such selection quandaries will not prove nearly so significant as the attitude of the starting XI.

            When I contrast the Gunners utterly tame efforts of late, with some of the engrossing Champions League encounters in midweek, it seems to me that leaving aside the question of sufficient quality, it's been the woeful lack of intensity to the Gunners efforts that's been the most obvious difference. In the past I've invariably been able to kid myself that our players were at least willing to make it look like the outcome mattered to them. But watching a positively distraught Neymar, blubbing his eyes out after Barca had exited the competition, I simply couldn't envisage any of our lot as having been equally distressed after they were trounced by Bayern.

            Never mind the daunting prospect of proceeding to the cup final, I'm absolutely desperate for us to win, or at the very least to produce a performance in which they do themselves proper justice on Sunday, if only to be able to carry some confidence into the North London derby. If, in addition to finishing below Spurs for the first time in a couple of decades, we have to face the ignominy of losing our last ever encounter at White Hart Lane, I'll have a depressingly long summer's worth of piss-taking to look forward to, from all those puffed up Spurs pals who'll be keen to make the most of their rare bragging rights.

            I'll be only too delighted to end up having to eat these words, but watching Spurs batter Bournemouth last Saturday, it didn't exactly appear as if Pochettino's side are about to produce an encore of the way in which they ran out of steam last season. With the Spuds 2-0 up after only twenty minutes, the game already looked done and dusted as a contest and on TV it sounded as if the atmosphere evaporated as the first half wore on; to such an extent that the only noise being picked up by the pitchside sound effects mics was that of their Argie manager bellowing at his team to maintain their high-intensity fervour.

            Equally revealing was that unlike the Gunners far more sedentary displays, there was no sense of Spurs smugly sitting back on a three goal lead and it was hard not to be impressed, watching our neighbours continue to work their socks off, as they pressed for a fourth goal in the 92nd minute.

            As we all know, mercifully form can go straight out the window when it comes to a derby game but it's precisely this sort of hunger and determination that the Gunners are going to need to match (and which has been on the missing list for most of the season), if we're to have any hope of taking them down a peg, or two and putting a spoke in their Premiership hopes, thereby calming the rising panic about a last gasp title charge.

            Even if we're to end up failing, so long as the Gunners give us a performance to be proud of. I'm already dreading the short trip to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road far more than would normally be the case and I couldn't bear the thought of putting myself through such an ordeal, only to watch an uninspired Arsenal side that rocks up expecting to get turned over.

            Sunday's semi-final is crucial in this context because it's essential that we produce the sort of impressive display that inspires some hope. Otherwise I might end up sitting here, seriously wondering if I'd be better off cashing in the gold-dust of my White Hart Lane ticket, putting the cash towards my season ticket renewal and allowing some other mug to suffer a sado-masochistic adieu to Spurs dilapidated old home.

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Thursday 13 April 2017

Fit To Wear The Shirt?

            I intentionally avoided joining the chorus of condemnation resulting from Monday night's capitulation at Selhurst Park, but after watching some of the contrastingly competent displays in the Champions League these past couple of nights, I've been left struggling to hold my tongue.

            There was me mistakenly believing that the Gunners had hit rock-bottom in our abysmal defeat to the Baggies, hoping that our players would find themselves sufficiently shamefaced that this disaster might serve as an educational benchmark, of the almost inevitable outcome when one fails to turn up for a game in the competitive environs of our domestic campaign.

            More fool me because as Theo Walcott unwittingly revealed in his post-match remarks regarding Palace "wanting it more", sadly it seems as if there's very little shame remaining, amongst the obscenely rewarding upper echelons of top flight football and apparently the little shame that does exist soon evaporates, by the time players arrive home and wrap themselves in the comforting consolation of their Croesus-like bank statements.

            Meanwhile, before I begin venting my wrath, we Gooners should never forget quite to what extent the slings and arrows of the Arsenal's fortunes need to be viewed from the perspective of how outrageously spoiled we've all become over the course of Wenger's long tenure. Unaccustomed as we are to being the laughing stock of British football and to the merriment being had at our expense, we still need to remind ourselves that barring about four other teams, fans of virtually every other club in the country would be only too delighted to find themselves chasing Champions League qualification (albeit an ever waning chance!) and a Wembley semi-final outing at this point in the season.

            As much as we might belittle the consolation prize of Wenger's astonishingly consistent achievement of a top-four finish, both fans and players alike seem to have grown to believe that we have some sort of divine right to a seat at Europe's top table. In a similar vein, our record of success at Selhurst Park is such that we turned up on Monday night seemingly expecting the Eagles to roll over and present us with the three points on a plate.

            In the past I can recall revelling in those occasions when Palace have survived a relegation battle, in the certain knowledge that they'd provide us with a guaranteed six points the following season. Yet while we've usually been able to trust to the enhanced talents, afforded to us by the Arsenal's vastly superior resources, Palace have rarely proved a pushover on their home patch and we've invariably needed to earn the right to return to North London with all three points.

            Moreover, with Sam Allardyce having seemingly suffered over the course of his enduring slog of a managerial career with the weight of a substantial chip on his shoulder, related to his perception of the increased (and often unmerited) respect afforded to foreign managers, there are few opposition managers who relish more a rare opportunity to put one over on le Prof than BFS.

            Much to my dismay, the current malaise at the Arsenal appears to run so deep that right from the opening forays on Monday night, where we witnessed the slovenly fashion in which Alexis gifted Palace possession with his first three touches of the ball, it seemed patently apparent to me that the club was guilty of a gross dereliction of duty, in neglecting to impress upon our players the likelihood that they'd be leaving Selhurst Park with diddly squat (other than their tales between their legs), unless they at least showed willing to pull their collective fingers out.

            I've been watching the Gunners play for long enough that one comes to accept the fact that every dog has it's day and every unbeaten run comes to an end, eventually. Yet it was the manner of Monday night's defeat that was so deeply disturbing. It's said that one learns a lot more about players in defeat than one ever does when they are winning and 0-3 down still with 20 mins to play, my instincts told me that this was an Arsenal side who've grown so accustomed to taking Champions League involvement for granted that they've lost all sense of what it means to be cast into the relative anonymous European wilderness of the Europa Cup.

            That is unless they've already given up on Champs League qualification and are intent on avoiding the ignominy (and the apparent disadvantageous impact upon one's domestic campaign!) of regular Thursday night footie, by finishing low enough to ensure we avoid Europa Cup qualification!

            For if the Gunners were truly fearful of missing out on Champion's League footie then surely we would've witnessed more of a reaction? In a similarly calamitous predicament, the forceful characters from the Arsenal sides of yesteryear would've been bellowing their anger at one another and would've been taking their immense frustration out on the opposition, likely getting themselves sent off for kicking an opponent up in the air. At the very least they would've been pulling out all the stops, to try and get the travelling Gooners back onside, by at least providing them with some cause to proudly affirm their fealty. 

            I fondly recall defeats in the past, where we've spent the last fifteen minutes relentlessly proclaiming "we love you Arsenal" because despite having failed, it's not been for the want of trying and we've watched them throw the kitchen sink at the opposition, leaving us all with the sense (no matter how misguided) that our players respected the shirt sufficiently to at least make the effort to show quite how much the outcome mattered to them.

            Thus it was the abiding sense of apathy amongst the Arsenal on Monday night that was most distressing and which left me feeling that our club is in desperate need of a major shake-up, both on and off the pitch.

            I hear all these names being bandied about as potential replacements for Wenger, but if I'm honest, I've not watched enough of the football played by their assorted current and former employers, to be able to attest to anyone's ability to fill Arsene's shoes. Additionally, while we are all crying out for change, few Gooners seem to appreciate the likelihood that Wenger will probably be the single most influential voice, when it comes to selecting his replacement. So even if the staid, PR conscious suits on our board were willing to risk the club's reputation on appointing the sort of hot-headed, heart on his sleeve, emotive manager that many Gooners would prefer to see on the bench, it's hard to envisage such a character earning Wenger's seal of approval?

            Max Allegri seems to be flavour of the month as far as the media are concerned and while I might know next to nothing about the Italian manager, watching Juve's performance against Barca on Tuesday night, I was immediately struck by the regimented, disciplined way in which their defence limited the opportunities offered to Barca's prolific MSN. For much of the match it was as if Juve's two banks of four were attached to one another, like two bars of men in a game of table soccer, all moving machine-like, in complete unison. What I wouldn't give for just a little of this sort of supremely well-drilled defence at the Arsenal!!

            In distinct contrast to the Gunners, I can't recall a single incident where Juve's two warhorse centre-backs were left exposed, without assistance, to being exploited by Barca's more fleet-footed strikeforce. Moreover, on the rare moments when the likes of Neymar or Suarez posed a risk in the penalty area, I was struck by the absence of panic and the composed way in which they were able to nullify the threat, knowing that even in the event of failure, Barca still had to beat the imposing, authoritative presence of Buffon. I don't watch much Italian footie, but it was evident that Juve defend in the same staunch fashion of our own former fab back four, who's parsimony gave rise to the "1-0 to the Arsenal" anthem.

            And with one of these sat alongside as Wenger's assistant for some time now, I must admit to being utterly mystified, when it comes to Stevie Bould's apparent inability to drum even the most basic of defensive principles into our current defence. Even with my sadly, rapidly failing memory, I can still recall the cries from the touchline for me to "stay on your feet" when I played as a full-back some forty years ago. OK so there are moments when a defender has to risk all and commit themselves to making a tackle, but witnessing Mustafi, a World Cup winning International, diving in quite so recklessly over by the touchline on more than one occasion (even after he'd been booked!!), where his opponent posed little threat, such ignorance of the most basic defensive principles just about sums up the unforgivably reprehensible, slipshod attitude of this Arsenal squad.

            In a similar vein, we're accustomed to seeing the pitch at our place well watered before games and at halftime, so as to provide the slickest possible playing surface, to best aid our passing game. But it's hardly a closely guarded secret that opposing teams do all in their power, within the rules, to negate any such advantage, by not cutting the grass, nor watering the playing surface when hosting ball-playing sides. And yet watching on Monday night, it was as if the Arsenal players were completely oblivious to the possibility that the ball wouldn't run as quickly on the Selhurst Park pitch. Perhaps it was just pure laziness that accounted for the infuriating number of times players in a yellow shirt lost possession, waiting for the ball to come to them, instead of moving towards a pass which had been under-hit, doubtless on account of the increased drag from the pitch.

            Admittedly, in isolation, such complaints are minor issues, compared to the lamentable lack of motivation and the woefully casual attitude of a team that was devoid of the intensity necessary to triumph in any Premiership encounter. Yet they are the sort of schoolboy failings that one would just not expect of a top-flight professional outfit that's supposedly spent the entire past week in preparation for this 90 minute encounter. As a result I can't help but wonder if they might be symptomatic of the extent to which the malaise at the Arsenal is so deep-rooted, where Arsene's long tenure has resulted in his staff taking their eye off the ball, complacently going through the motions, week in, week out, season in, season out?

            For me, it's not so much a question of whether or not Wenger is capable of turning around such weighty paddle-ship, following a decade of treading Premiership water. For me the problem is that Arsene lacks the same ruthless streak of the likes of Fergie because the man is far too loyal and as a result the stubborn old bugger is never going to throw the baby out with the bath water. So I have to believe that a complete regime change is essential, if only because this is the only way in which we're likely to witness the sort of total transformation of our squad that might result in an entirely different team within the space of a couple of seasons.

            There are several players who might benefit from a move and who we might end up regretting letting go, should they come back to haunt us, as they find their careers reinvigorated elsewhere. But sadly, the complete absence of any sanction at the Arsenal has enabled this stultifying aura of complacency to pervade the club, to the point where I could only envisage the majority of them achieving anything with a renewed challenge elsewhere. As far as I'm concerned, nothing short of a huge clear out and a complete turnaround of the playing staff is necessary to facilitate a squad full of players with plenty to prove and who perform with the constant insecurity of knowing they either shape up, or are shipped out.

            Who knows, this might well result in a disastrous period of transition. I don't know about anyone else, but personally I've reached such a low point, with my exasperation at the complete lack of gratification from watching an Arsenal side full of players who shirk responsibility, content to play sideways and backwards that as far as I am concerned absolutely anything would be better than the prospect of enduring the mere maintenance of this tediously tame status quo, amidst an abiding atmosphere of acrimony on the terraces.

            I hear folks complaining that Alexis isn't a team player, but no matter what your opinion, surely it can't be disputed that the Chilean is just about the only Arsenal player blessed with the attitude of a winner. He might all too often be guilty of losing the ball, but he alone is willing to take players on and to try and make something happen when it's stalemate elsewhere. I can totally empathise if Alexis is intent on leaving, as I've watched over the course of each season, as match by match Sanchez' smile has been wiped off his face and his joie de vivre has evaporated and he's become ground down by his team mates apparent reluctance to let rip, with them all unwilling to risk anything, contentedly going through their more safe, mediocre motions.

            Perhaps it's related to the fact that Alexis comes from such an impoverished background that he continues to appreciate being so richly rewarded for doing something that he loves, when his labour of love is more of a job of work for all those that have never known such hunger and who tend to take their privileged position for granted? But when this one player who's willing to at least try and impose himself on a game begins to hide out on the wing as he did on Monday night, then you know for certain that the Gunners are bang in trouble.

            Faced with a three-pronged attack of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott, one would've assumed that the Eagles' greatest fear would be the thought of being exposed to such blistering pace. Yet such was the complete lack of tempo and intensity to our play on Monday that I can't recall a single instance of us breaking at speed to avail ourselves of our most potent threat. Surely such a total failure to bring this asset to bear constitutes the team's patent inability to put a gameplan into effect?

            As one of Granit Xhaka's greatest critics, I have to admit that he alone conjured about just about the only couple of decent, incisive forward passes all night long. Perhaps Xhaka might prove to be a slow burner and he will progress in his second season, but personally I feel he's the sort of player who might prosper in the less frenetic environment on the Continent, but who appears to lack the speed of thought, the composure and to date, the talent to flourish in the Premiership. Yet no matter whether or not Xhaka has the innate ability necessary, as far as I'm concerned he's not blessed with the attitude, the essential drive and determination that's vital for someone to produce the intensity required to be effective in such a pivotal role, as the Arsenal's fulcrum in the middle of the park.

            When one considers that we started this season with such an over abundance of talent in the middle of the park that Jack Wilshere wanted out, frankly it's hard to believe that we've been left reliant on the limited creativity offered by a partnership of Xhaka and Elneny. Do we think that Wenger is any the wiser as to his first choice pairing in this position? The moment I realised that these two had retained their places in Monday night's starting XI I wondered who was going to pick the lock of the Palace defence, as such is their reluctance to try and impose themselves upon proceedings that we are left relying on an increasingly rare Ozil cameo, or Alexis forcing the issue.

            Moreover, such is Xhaka's apparent unwillingness to break sweat that Elneny is left having to do all the hard graft. And if these two struggled to contain Palace and failed to provide our centre-halfs with sufficient cover amidst the tight confines of Selhurst Park, I dread to think to what extent Man City might be able to make hay, exposing our defensive frailties on the wide expanses of Wembley?

            But before that we've another potential banana skin at Boro on Easter Monday. If some results should go our way over the course of the weekend, it will be interesting to see if the Gunners have the capacity to bounce back and take some advantage. Surely if there was one team you would want to be facing, in the hope of our positively porous defence rebuilding some much needed confidence, it would be the goal shy Teesiders?

            Should we flounder again at the Riverside on Monday, it's likely to prove uncomfortable journeying around the North Circular to Wembley the following Sunday, full of trepidation at the prospect of being tonked by City and worse still the utter dread of surreptitiously sneaking down to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road the weekend after, with a team that (it depresses me to admit!) appears unfit to wipe Spurs boots at present!

            Testament to quite how bad things are for us Gooners at present can be judged by the fact that my Spurs mates (more of whom seem to be coming out of the woodwork with each passing day) are now so confident of finishing above us for the first time in 22 seasons that instead of taking the piss, they're able to wind me up even more as they've taken to sympathising with me.

            If we end up embarrassing ourselves against City, the sound of a couple of thousand Gooners venting their fury at Selhurst Park might prove peanuts compared to the possibility of 30,000 turning on the team at Wembley. Mind you, I'd almost be inclined to sacrifice the prospect of an FA Cup Final appearance, in return for a mere token, meaningless triumph against Tottenham, but where I could hold a victory, in a memorable last ever outing at the Lane, over my Spurs pals for time immemorial

            I wonder if Wenger has circled 1st May as the date to reveal his intentions, hoping he can announce a contract extension on the back of the ecstatic celebrations of an unexpected Derby Day victory, or alternatively where defeat might finally persuade le Prof that there's absolutely no hope of redemption this time around?

            Many Gooners are convinced that Arsene intends to linger for at least another season, but if the Gunners should continue on such a depressingly steep downward curve, surely there must come a point where the level of disapprobation from the terraces will be such that even he and the seemingly impervious suits at the club will find the clamour increasingly impossible to ignore.

            Meanwhile, I was no less aggrieved than anyone else by the Gunners abject failure to demonstrate their commitment to the Arsenal's cause and the complete absence of anyone playing in a yellow shirt showing some balls on Monday night. Yet bearing in mind our "victory through harmony" (Victoria Concordia Crescit) motto, instead of spoiled Gooners spitting out our dummies, perhaps we'd be better off taking a leaf out the book of the 30,000 Boro fans who turned out to loyally support their uninspiring side against Burnley last weekend, despite being six points adrift at the foot of the Premiership, facing the increasingly looming spectre of relegation and the dreaded drop back into the comparative obscurity of the Championship? 

            Our loyalty should be to the Arsenal's cause, rather than to that of its relatively ephemeral existing employees and perhaps there's far more kudos to be had from serving notice to the club's more disrespectful mercenaries of what it means to proudly renew our unspoken contract to maintain our unstinting support through both thick and thin.

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Tuesday 4 April 2017

The Long Goodbye

            Usually I’d be positively bristling with anticipation at the prospect of getting around to the Arsenal, in the gorgeous Spring sunshine, following the comparative purgatory of a fortnight’s International break. Yet while the world battles the lack of empathy that’s been labelled “compassion fatigue”, we Gooners are suffering from “Wenger fatigue”, with us all fed up to the eye teeth with the pernicious aura of uncertainty that’s crippled our beloved club.

            A clash with a Man City side, intent on proving their superior purist pedigree should be cause for celebration, compared to all those other opponents who come to our place solely focused on snuffing out all hope of footballing entertainment. Yet with us going into Sunday’s game lagging a terrifying twelve points behind Spurs and with none of the current top four sides appearing to be in imminent peril of the wheels coming off in the finishing straight, it feels as if the vast majority of our fans have succumbed to a sense of apathy about our fate.

            I assumed that our utterly dispirited displays prior to the break might give rise to a far more significant turn out for the now customary pre-match “Wenger Out” protest. Yet Sunday’s demo appeared equally feeble as the humble gathering prior to our last home game against Lincoln. In spite of the sentiments of our chairman, which were splashed loudly across a traveling billboard concerning our manager’s accountability to the fans, I get the distinct sense that the bulk of the Arsenal faithful have resigned themselves to the futility of our position as punters. We’re merely the herd, to be milked as regularly as possible, for all our worth!

            Visiting City fans were enjoying the embarrassing spectacle of some of the more vociferous protestors offering out those Gooners who were giving vent to their support for Wenger. My instincts are that failing some sort of cataclysmic climax to this campaign, it’s already been decided that Arsène will extend his contract and the board have merely delayed any announcement to this effect, in an effort to try and time it, so that there are minimum opportunities for public expressions of outrage from all those Gooners who are clamouring for change.

            While the visiting fans made some effort to add a little atmosphere to Sunday’s proceedings, the remainder of the stadium was even more library-like than usual, with the home crowd seemingly content to sit back and watch the remainder of our season play out. Prior to the game, much of the speculation out on the concourse concerned how quickly the crowd might turn, if we conceded early and another humiliating defeat was on the cards.

            When Sane left Bellerin floundering in his wake and opened the scoring within five minutes and with Xhaka and Coquelin seemingly woefully inadequate in the middle of the park, it briefly looked as if City were capable of inflicting a cricket score. It was exasperating that it once again took for us to go a goal behind, before the Gunners pulled their collective fingers out, but I guess we must be grateful for the entertaining, end-to-end battle that ensued; especially when you consider that it took place amidst the sort of tepid atmosphere that might more normally be associated with  the sort of unsatisfying, end of season, testimonial type affair.

            Ultimately a single point each only benefits our top-four competitors, but a significant defeat would’ve inflicted disastrous psychological damage upon our semifinal prospects. Sunday’s draw does at least offer some hope of us being able to rebuild our severely bruised morale. Besides which, 1-2 down at half-time, I would’ve bitten your hand off for a point, after seeing Gabriel going through an earnest warm-up. In light of how we’ve capitulated the last couple of times that Koscielny has been forced to limp off, I was positively terrified, as my worst fears were confirmed with his substitution.

            I pray his retirement was precautionary as with the games coming thick and fast, we’re going to need all hands on deck. And according to recent evidence Koscielny is the one player that we can least afford to lose, if this squad is to have any hope of doing their bit to affirm that our emperor isn’t in fact stark bollock naked.

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