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Monday 25 September 2017

Still Proud To Say That Name?

With the Gooner fanzine going the same lamentable way of virtually all printed media, with the exponential and seemingly infinite expansion of the internet, I feel privileged to be able to provide my own humble contribution to an edition, in sadly the last season that our arrival at the Arsenal on a matchday will be welcomed by that familiar invocation to "get ya Gooner!"

While I am all for saving more precious trees, personally I much prefer turning the pages of a tangible magazine, or a newspaper and I will never enjoy passing the time spent on "the throne" quite so much, when squinting at the small screen on a smartphone. Besides which, it's not nearly quite so useful when one glances up in horror, to discover that the last person in the karsey has left an empty cardboard toilet roll.

Considering that the Gooner has been in publication for the past THIRTY years, providing a public forum for Arsenal fans to make themselves heard and often proving to be an irritating, pestilent bulwark against the worst excesses of a board, which was previously infamous for being stone deaf to supporters views, I doubt the club's PR machine will be mourning the demise of the printed version?

As one of the last from that vanguard of the footie fanzine revolution that continues to appear in print, it's passing will inevitably prove to be yet another nail in the coffin of the beautiful game, as I always knew it; sadly just another straw on the back of the camel that sees our beloved club evolve into an antiseptic, anonymous corporate machine.


Still Proud To Say That Name?

Amongst all these buff athletes, the frail looking interloper
in the centre begins to appear more pensioner than professor
            Thumbing through the matchday programme during the halftime break on Spursday night, the other week, while looking to see if any of the opposition players were at all familiar to me, I was struck by quite how many of the Bundesliga outfit were listed as having been born in, or around the Cologne area.

            In these mercenary times, when star talent tends to change clubs more often than their underpants, in pursuit of ever more obscene pay packets and where sadly, totally committed, one club players have become the exception that proves this rule, this revelation about the Cologne side inevitably left me feeling nostalgic for a bygone era, a time when the taunt of “we support our local team” wasn’t merely applicable on the terraces.

            Nowadays, when I spy an exchange between the likes of Monreal and Kolosinac, through my binoculars, as the players are trotting off at the break, the question that often comes to mind is “what language are they communicating in?” Elite clubs have mostly become such a multi-cultural bouillabaisse of global talent that never mind my disconcerting doubts as to whether our current crop of players share a genuine affinity for the Arsenal, I’m not even sure they share a common lingo.

            No matter how much faux badge-kissing players indulge in, unfortunately the harsh facts of the modern day business of  “have boots, will travel” football are no longer much different to those of any other industry; where the vast majority of our heroes are always only a better offer away from packing their bags, to ply their trade elsewhere.

Not a Sherman but a Bosnian Tank
            It was interesting to witness how rapidly the Gooner faithful took Kolosinac to our hearts. With the Bosnian’s bullish style, all it took was a couple of barnstorming runs, for our muscular Tank to immediately nail down a place as a firm terrace favourite. This was perhaps symptomatic of quite how starved we’ve become of late, of players who’re consistently willing to put their bodies on the line, with the sort of “run until you drop” displays, which serve to demonstrate that the Arsenal and our results REALLY matter to them.

            We often hear the old guard amongst TV’s retinue of ex-pro pundits whinging about the common sight of the canoodling that takes place in the tunnel between opposing teams' players who have a shared history, or who are International colleagues. Yet you can’t turn the clock back, to the partisan animosity that was responsible for the rutting stag scenes of yesteryear, where for example the tension between the likes of Vieira and Keane was so fierce that it was almost inevitable that it would “kick-off”, when ever these two gang-bangers were in such close proximity.

            I can cope with all the kissing and cuddling, but I at least need to be able to kid myself that when the Gunners step past the white touchline, the very minimum that we can expect from them is a willingness to earn the sort of quantities of corn that might satiate the entire third world, by showing sufficient respect for the red & white shirt and sixty thousand mug punters; even if this only amounts to merely going through the motions, to make it appear as if the outcome means as much to them, as it does to all of us.

            Considering the apparent apathy culpable for our recent humiliation at Anfield, in Wenger’s shoes, I would’ve ordered the entire squad off the coach and frog-marched them all the way home from Merseyside, just so they’d have to endure the sort of physical torture that might’ve been the equivalent of our own mental anguish on the long schlep back to London.

            Unlike the millions of far too entitled Gooners, who’ve been spoiled by the success we enjoyed during those glorious early years of Arsène’s tenure, I’m long enough in the tooth to appreciate that a lack of silverware is the default status for the vast majority of football supporters, for most of the time. A bad result is water off a duck’s back, but what I simply cannot abide is a lack of spirit. If the Gunners are going down, I want to see them doing so, losing their rag, getting sent off, demonstrating genuine anger, instead of merely rolling over and playing dead.

These kids still hungry enough to "carpe diem"?
            All Wenger’s title winning teams have contained a smattering of homegrown talent, or players who’re sufficiently imbued with the culture of our illustrious club to inspire amongst their team-mates that crucial extra few per cent of effort, which is essential to sustain a consistent tilt at a championship run. It is for this reason that we continue to hold out in hope of a miraculous renaissance from Jack Wilshere and are willing to show that little bit more patience with the homegrown likes of Alex Iwobi. Similarly, it’s frustrating to see patently committed Gooners such as Szczesny slip through the club’s fingers and we seek some solace in our Europa League embarrassment, in the hope it might offer a stage for young guns such as Nelson and Maitland-Niles to force their way into the first XI frame.

            I’m realistic enough to appreciate that the days are long gone when Charlie George could step off the terraces and the Arsenal can no longer be reliant on a red & white core to reserve our seat at Europe’s top table, but for me to be able to continue to invest so much passion into supporting the Gunners, I need to be able to believe in a side that isn’t made up entirely of the sort of mercenaries capable of washing off the disgrace of defeat, in the dressing room showers immediately after a game.

            While I find myself questioning whether our ageing manager is still capable of stirring the passions of the current squad on a sufficiently regular basis, possibly the most infuriating aspect of the interminable Wenger Out saga, is the dampener that all the banners put on the awayday ritual, the last vestiges of a show of mutual respect and admiration between the team and the travelling faithful, at the conclusion of away games.

            Aside from Arsenal players selfishly ambling back when we’ve lost possession, as if to suggest “it’s not my job to bust my balls in defence”, there’s little that is more disrespectful than the sight of the Gunners trudging off the pitch after a poor performance, with nary a nod to the commitment, effort and cost involved in travelling all over the continent to support our club. This was always one of the few remaining opportunities to commune with the players, to at least be able to maintain the misguided delusion that they share our commitment to the cause.

            If we’re not to accept that the continued corporatisation of modern day clubs means that football has increasingly become a job of work, in which the vast majority of players are merely clocking on and off, then surely it’s become that much more essential for us to be able to believe in players for whom the badge means just a little more than a bottomless pension fund?

            No matter how naïve of me it might be, my affinity with the current crop of players rests on being able to maintain the sense that we go into games against the likes of Spurs, Chelsea and Man Utd, knowing that there are still some out there in red & white who remain willing to put that little bit more on the line, knowing they’ll wake up on a Monday morning no less depressed than myself after a bad result.

            If social media has one saving grace, it does at least make our players vulnerable to the same sort of stick that we endure from friends and workmates. Yet with PR teams to deal with such trifles, as has always been the case, the only genuine means of the Gunners proving that they really care remains out on the park.

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Tuesday 19 September 2017

Never Mind Firing Fifties At Us From Our Lawn, The Arsenal's Armoury Now Includes Our Very Own Tank

Coming soon from a tank near you
So far this season I've started three customarily long-winded diary missives, which haven't been posted because they remain unfinished and they instead sit there, in draft form on my Blogger dashboard, nagging at me every time I open the page.

You never know, the Gunners might eventually win something slightly more impressive than the FA Cup and the Community Shield, thereby affording me with another opportunity to produce a book. In which case you lucky readers might yet get to see all my hard work :-)

Meanwhile, I thought I had better post something to my blog, before anyone starts wondering if my Arsenal related frustrations have finally boiled over, to the point where I might even have popped my clogs! Sadly not so far-fetched nowadays and I'm sure there were plenty of Gooners who had the Samaritans on speed-dial, whilst fretting about going back into work to face the music, following that utterly gutless debacle at Anfield?

Mercifully, we witnessed a contrastingly gutsy display against Chelsea on Sunday, where although upon reflection, when watching the highlights back at home, there was still plenty of disconcerting evidence, on the whole it was extremely refreshing to watch a "team" performance, in which the Gunners proved themselves willing and able to stand up and be counted.

I'm not about to go overboard, as ultimately we dropped another two points. But getting to away games (especially early KOs on a Sunday) requires such an onerous amount of effort on my part nowadays that I must admit to having struggled to get myself going and out of the door, in good time to make kick-off on Sunday, burdened as I was by my reluctance to find myself facing the recurringly depressing prospect of the moment when one exits Stamford Bridge and the stream of dejected Gooners is forced to reintegrate with the piss-taking Blues fans (for the 6th successive time!).

This annual ritual has become so humiliating in recent years, each and every time the Gunners have only turned up at Stamford Bridge for the time it takes to wave the white flag that as I sat in the living room on Sunday morning, stressing about whether I'd left it too late to make the trip to the Fulham Road, in sufficient time to find a parking pitch near enough to the stadium to be able to manage the walk there (and back!), wondering whether I really wanted to put myself through the seemingly almost guaranteed torture of yet another demoralising day out in Chelsea.

I'm sure I wasn't alone with my dark mood, as when the social media tom-toms told of the team news an hour before KO, even my most optimistic Gooner pals were struggling to put a positive slant on Özil's injury and Alexis' omission from the starting line-up, with sarcastic comments such as "how many goals will we be behind, before Wenger brings him on?"

Our annual outing to Stamford Bridge has become such a masochistic ritual that the only debatable result of the day is whether the rain will hold off and whether or not I manage to find a decent parking pitch! Nevertheless, amongst the limited number of certainties in football, is the inexorable fact that no matter how long a run of miserable defeats endures, it's inevitable that it will end at some point. 

And for each additional season that one suffers the soul-destroying ignominy of a battering at the Bridge, the cumulative agony is such that it becomes that much more impossible to duck out of enduring this encounter, due to the exponential increase in the fear of missing out on the euphoric moment when the tables are turned and the feeling of ecstasy is made that much more intense, on account of all the anguish that has gone before.

With this overexcited Gooner
getting thrown out, I guess it rates
as "premature ejeculation"?
Unlike Shkodran Mustafi and many Gooners at the Bridge, I didn't make a fool of myself. With me being almost directly in line with the official who put such a dampener on our delirium, I spotted the lino's offside flag almost simultaneously to the ball finding the back of the net. Yet while we came oh so "close but no cigar" to experiencing the eruption of unconfined joy of the goal that might have secured the victory needed to erase all those nightmares of seasons past, as we all know, there's only a gossamer thin line dividing those two impostors of triumph and disaster. If Pedro hadn't fluffed his lines, when one on one with Petr Cech first-half, it might've proved an entirely different story!
I don't think it's biased of me to suggest that we had the best of the limited number of goal-scoring opportunities on Sunday. Yet if Chelsea had scored first, I fancy that the memories of past defeats would've come flooding back and the Gunners would've capitulated in customary fashion.

I've often criticised Petr Cech and the perfectly understandable timidity that appears to prevent him from dominating his penalty area, on account of his reluctance to risk sticking his head in, where it might hurt; in contrast to the "no fear" bravura evident from so many of his peers, who aren't burdened by the psychological baggage of a previous skull fracture. However, credit where due, since if Cech hadn't stood up long enough to produce the doubt in Pedro's mind, which resulted in a rather feeble effort (aided by Koscielny's determination to apply pressure), not only would a goal have decided the outcome of this game, but this would've also reopened the floodgates of "Wenger Out" hostility that are bound to swing wide open with each and every bad result.

If Cech had gone down too soon and Pedro had scored, this one single moment would've left us trailing the league leaders by seven points, after only five games, with the Gunners going into every subsequent Sunday game following a Europa League outing, in fear of a below par performance. Upon such fleeting moments can an entire season stand, or fall.

Prior to leaving home on Sunday, I sat watching a montage on Sky Sports of goals from Arsenal and Chelsea games gone by. There was such a sparkling collection of stupendous goals of all sorts, from both teams that anyone watching this programme would struggle to believe the disparity between the two teams in recent times. Yet what struck me most, whilst being reminded of the multitude of goals that we've conceded against the Blues, was the complete and utter lack of protection provided for the Arsenal defence, with us freely inviting the opposition to get at our back line, with the sort of ease and frequency that so often left our defenders scapegoated as the principle culprits for our defeats.

How often in the past have we been forced to endure the clichémeisters of TV punditry criticising the Gunners for "leaving the back door wide open" in Wenger's relentless pursuit of entertaining the Gooner faithful. In his comments on Match Of The Day 2, Danny Murphy might have us believe that we've turned the page and that defensively speaking, Arsène has suddenly put the Arsenal world to rights, out on the training ground. You'll have to forgive me if I'm somewhat more circumspect. If Ramsey and Xhaka go on to produce a run of equally consistent performances and can stifle the flow of the likes of City and Man Utd and prevent the league leaders from exposing the limitations of our defence, I might become a believer.

However, with Cesc Fabregas left relying on the accuracy of his pinpoint passes and something of a shadow of the sort of player who in the past might've singlehandedly carried Sunday's contest and with Chelsea losing the battle in the middle of the park, until Bakayoko was introduced after the break, this encounter didn't prove to be quite as stiff a test as I was expecting.

The annual ritual of the squad photo was all over social media during the past week and looking at the pictures, I couldn't help but feel that seated amidst all these buff athletes, by contrast Arsène has the appearance of a frail, elderly interloper. He cuts the sort of unimposing figure who leaves me struggling to imagine him motivating this bunch of players. Is Wenger capable of encouraging the best out of them with his force of personality? Does the departure of the Ox lend weight to the suggestion that the old bugger no longer retains the sort of illustrious aura required, to inspire a willingness to run until they drop? Perhaps this perception is a hangover from my disappointment at the apparent apathy that we witnessed at Anfield. As my old man might've said , if you can't motivate a team for an outing on Merseyside, only three games in, it really is "och and vey"!

Still, after having endured enough negative opinions in August to last us a whole season, I much prefer to focus on the positives. Even if I was terrified of the one mistimed slide tackle from Mustafi that might've left Morata bearing down on Cech's goal, it was great to see the German centre-half leading by example, snapping into the tackle and denying Chelsea any time on the ball. And with "the Tank" as our new talisman, it was brilliant to see them all encouraged by the tone set by Kolosinac and at long last witnessing the Gunners doing some bullying at Stamford Bridge, instead of always being bullied.

From our vantage point in the corner of the ground, it seemed evident that it was Alexis who provoked David Luis into the reckless tackle that resulted in the red card. Luis foolishly lost his rag following Alexis' assorted efforts to ruffle his feathers all the way along that flank, until the irresistible Brazilian force met the immovable Bosnian object.

While we all questioned the sanity of starting with Iwobi, Wenger was perhaps mindful that while Bellerin offers a positive contribution to our attack, the Spaniard continues to struggle to find the necessary focus and concentration in defence. Watching the highlights of the game later that night, I was somewhat mortified by the sight of Hector leisurely ambling back, while leaving Koscielny busting his balls to try and catch up with Pedro. 

As pleased as I was with Kozza's attempt to apply pressure, with his last ditch effort to at least throw his body in front of the attempt on goal, I want to see this same level of commitment from all of our players, all of the time. In his performances to date Hector has appeared happy enough to bomb forward, in his efforts to grab the spotlight and some of the glory, but he seems to struggle for 90 minutes of consistency, when it comes to the more selfless defensive graft.

Hopefully a few more clean sheets will help to improve the confidence level and the spirit in the dressing room; but I do worry about Alexis' incessant whinging and that his public displays of disparaging contempt at the apparent ineptitude of some of his colleagues, might be the source of the sort of disruptive strife that could fracture the mood and which might not make for an entirely contented camp?

It was disappointing that Jack Wilshere didn't even make it onto the bench on Sunday. I'll be delighted if Jack gets a run out against Doncaster on Wednesday night and if he can remain injury free for long enough and be able to motivate himself sufficiently to force his way back into first XI contention. With Cazorla out for the foreseeable future and in Özil's absence on Sunday, personally I remain unsure that a partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka can provide sufficient creativity in the middle of the park. Obviously this pairing has more defensive responsibility, but contrast their inventiveness with the potential for flair football from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva.

With Alexis having struggled to have any impact to date when played in a central role, it seemed downright barmy to send him on to replace Lacazette. We all felt that Welbeck should've found the target with his headed opportunity early on, but with Danny having hit good form, I hope his groin strain won't leave him sidelined for long. Yet his retirement on Sunday at least offered an opportunity for Alexis to move to his more effective position on the left, when Giroud came on. Personally I would've liked to see how Lacazette and Alexis might've fared, playing together, but having sent Olly on, it was frustrating that we totally failed to play to his aerial strength at any stage.

Meanwhile, I don't want to make up for my complete lack of diary posts to date in this one missive, by waffling on ad infinitum! Even though it wasn't the win that we all craved, it was nonetheless marvelous to finally come away from Stamford Bridge feeling like we'd dealt a blow to the Blues and taken a decidedly positive step forward for once, as opposed to that all too familiar trudge back with our tails firmly between our legs.

Bring on the Rovers come Wednesday

CFC not quite so carefree
            Traversing London for a trip to Stamford Bridge felt like a decidedly tame affair, after having run the gauntlet of 20,000 German storm troopers on Spursday night. However with this being the first of five awkward awaydays, immediately following our midweek Europa League adventures, there was no mistaking the significance of Sunday’s encounter, as a third successive defeat on the road might well set a calamitous tone for our entire season.

            Despite our FA Cup and Community Shield success against Conte’s side at Wembley, horrific memories of recent humiliations at the Bridge made for a less than optimistic mood, which was hardly bolstered by the pre-match revelation that neither Özil nor Alexis featured in the starting XI.

            I could perhaps understand the logic of including a workaholic Welbeck, with Alexis sadly still such a long way from firing on all four cylinders. Yet as demonstrated, in an otherwise dire display against Cologne in midweek, even when at his worst, the wantaway Chilean is still capable of conjuring up that one inspirational moment of world class genius that Sunday’s encounter was crying out for, in order to unlock the Blues miserly defence. By contrast, seemingly shorn of all last season’s confidence, Iwobi’s benign display against the Bundesliga outfit, left us all baffled by his selection and Wenger only compounded this apparent error, by failing to acknowledge Iwobi’s impotence until his 80th minute substitution.

            Without the psychological baggage of our abysmal record of late against top six opposition and our lily-livered performances at the Bridge in particular, I was counting on the likes of Lacazette and Kolosinac, as the most likely source of a “game changing” contribution. In truth, if I was a Chelsea fan, I would’ve been disappointed by the home side’s failure to try and take more of an advantage of the Gunners recent fragility on the road, by steaming into us with a little more intent right from the off.

            However as the two sides felt each other out in the opening stages, there was a cagey timidity about them both, which spoke volumes as to their limited confidence levels to date and the fact that (with the exception of the Azerbaijanis!) neither outfit has produced the sort of prolific flowing football coming from the Mancunian competition.

After our embarrassing capitulation at Anfield, most Gooners would’ve gladly settled for the draw against Chelsea that might at least enable us to redeem some much needed pride. And it was somewhat refreshing to see a Gunners side set their stall out, focused first and foremost on not throwing the game away.

Kolosinac’s “tank” nickname couldn’t be more appropriate and the Bosnian’s rugged style of football seems to be rubbing off on his team mates, as the Gunners have finally begun to remember how to push back. Albeit that this was the source of much frustration in our corner of Stamford Bridge, as ref Oliver appeared to be suckered into awarding free-kicks, every time Morata and co. hit the deck at the slightest physical contact.

            We spent most of the first-half paying homage to our subs as they stretched their legs on the sidelines directly in front of us. Not that our obdurate manager was about to be influenced into introducing some more firepower at the break, by our adoration of first Alexis and then Giroud. By contrast, the only reference to Walcott was by way of teasing Hazard “you’re just a sh*t Theo Walcott”.

            It was perhaps indicative of the Premiership’s direction of travel, where the fear of defeat has become so incredibly intense that the two most talented players, Hazard and Alexis, were both left parked on the bench. While neither player was deemed sufficiently responsible to graft for 90 minutes, both managers eventually called on their star turns for a 20-minute cameo, in the hope they might take advantage of flagging limbs and convert one point, into three.

            As pretty much our only source of any creativity, Aaron Ramsey was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet first half and Lacazette left us all flabbergasted when he somehow contrived to miss the rebound. He’ll fast need to learn that in a performance of so few genuine chances, you really can’t afford to fluff your one and only line!

            Wenger never fails to confound with his “give with one hand, take with another” substitutions. Yet while we might’ve failed to sufficiently trouble Courtois, there was plenty of consolation in the resilience shown at the other end of the park and with far less arduous opposition to come, the point earned from an all too rare clean sheet affords us some much needed confidence to build on.

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