Monday, May 26, 2014

Silver Anniversary of A Golden Gooner Dawn

I should've known far better than to tune into the depressing election news, with all the ominous portents of the increasing popularity of the far-right extremists across so much of Europe and the UK (fancy the French Front Nationale might give UKIP a run for their money as the new bully boys at the free lunches in Brussels). So for the want of some welcome distraction, I thought I might as well post the piece I've written in response to a last-minute request from the Irish Examiner, for a missive to feature alongside a tribute to Anfield '89 in tomorrow's sports supplement.

As ever, delighted to forsake the comparatively trivial world of politics, for the footie

COYG
Bernard

_____________________________________


Its mere coincidence for us Gooners to be basking in the glow of our first trophy in nine long years, as the silver anniversary of that magical Mickey Thomas moment rolls around. Yet with us now existing in an age where superstar footballers seemingly measure their worth to their employers in terms of obscene Bugatti style birthday presents, I find myself unavoidably harking back a quarter of a decade and focusing on the stark differences between then and now.

Doubtless Man City fans will look upon their first title win, after such a depressingly long sojourn in the doldrums as being no less dramatic. Yet there was an extraordinary convergence of such bizarre and tragic circumstances, electrifying the whole atmosphere of Friday, 26th May 1989 that will never again be repeated.

Moreover, with that momentous night subsequently proving to be something of a catalyst for the rampant commercialization of the beautiful game that has transpired since and with the technological revolution that now results in the sort of global interconnectivity, which is responsible for the micro-reportage of everything, occurring everywhere and which has subsequently changed the face of football watching, it’s evident that this monumental encounter eventually proved to be right at the fulcrum of two entirely different eras.

Those Gooners privileged to be present on the convoy of 24 coaches departing Avenell Road for an arduous 8-hour drive to Liverpool, were still bearing tickets printed with the original 23rd April date of the postponed match. This was supposed to have taken place on the weekend following the Hillsborough disaster, but with Merseyside (and all fans of the game) in mourning, Liverpool’s fixtures were cancelled for a couple of weeks, before resuming an increasingly condensed end of season schedule.

Even with a delayed kick-off, the Gooner charabanc was stuck in the congestion outside the ground, listening to the start of the game on the radio. But unlike in the past, where this would’ve undoubtedly resulted in the sort panicked crush to push on through the turnstiles, every travelling footie fan was still painfully aware of how often they’d been only a whisker away from being caught up in the same sort of shambolic mayhem witnessed six weeks prior.

Hence the majority of Gooners missed the wonderfully touching and perfectly choreographed moment after the Gunners took to the field holding bunches of flowers, as they all turned to present them to fans in all parts of the ground. This was symbolic of encounter taking place without any loss of the customary rabid fervor, but amidst an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Nowadays we’ve grown accustomed to the denouement of the season being engineered solely to suit the demands of the TV paymasters. But the Hillsborough repercussions resulted in this top of the table clash taking place on the Friday night, after Liverpool had already vanquished their local rivals in an all Mersyside Cup Final at Wembley the Saturday prior. Thus the entire footballing world was focused on this single top of the table title decider.

However, with the Arsenal having failed to win at Anfield in fifteen years and with the poor form that had seen us let a 19-point lead over our hosts slip through our fingers, the Gunners were intended to take to the stage as mere patsies against a positively rampant Liverpool, in what was expected to be the Scousers perfunctory Double-winning coup de grace.

So while most Gooners watched on, more in hope than expectation, mercifully George Graham was reading from a different script. With O’Leary in as a sweeper, Graham tasked his five staunch defensive lieutenants with stifling Aldridge, Rush and Barnes and silencing the crowd, in the belief that the longer the game remained goal-less, the more our chances of nicking a goal would increase as the tension mounted.

But we needed to win by two clear goals to clinch our first title in 18-years, an unheard of feat at fortress Anfield in those days and it wasn’t until Smudger glanced home Winterburn’s free-kick seven minutes after the break that we truly began to believe it might be on.

The absence of a clock anywhere inside Anfield resulted in Mcmahon’s infamously premature gesticulations to his teammates. Then Lukic tossed the ball out to Dixon, when we were begging him to hump it upfield. Dixon whacked it up the line to Smith, who found Thomas tirelessly surging into the box and Mickey made our decade by slotting it past Grobbelar.

Amidst all the euphoria that followed the unforgettable “it’s up for grabs now” moment, unaware how long was left on the clock, Rocky Rocastle admitted that his legs turned to complete jelly when the ref revealed he was only a minute away from fulfilling every Gooner’s wildest fantasy.

In sympathy with the mood of mutual respect, most of home crowd remained for the trophy presentation. A couple of Scousers sprinted the length of the pitch to unfurl a banner in honour of “Those that died”, while the ecstatic Gooners responded with the only fitting tribute, with a heartwarming rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

It wasn’t until alighting from the coaches on arriving back at Highbury in the wee hours and stepping into the sea of detritus in the street that it began to dawn on the travelling faithful the extent of the gargantuan booze-up that was subsequently portrayed in “Fever Pitch”.


The celebrations of the tenth anniversary in the old Clock End complex were somewhat spoiled by Man Utd, as everyone forsake a screening of the game, to watch the TV tuned to the enthralling climax of the Champions League final in the Nou Camp. But there will be no such dampener on the mood tonight, when I might well stroll around to a shindig at the Gunners Pub and raise a glass or two to Mickey, Rocky and all the other heroes, in what must rank as the most stalwart Arsenal side ever, in gratitude to them for sowing the seeds for the fabulous, trophy-laden entertainment that followed.

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Sunday, May 18, 2014

North London Is Red


It was an arduous task escaping the carnival atmosphere around Highbury, on my way to Wembley on Saturday. Opting for the next best thing, the many thousands who’d missed out on the gold dust of a match ticket were bursting out onto the streets, having gravitated to London N5, to savour the occasion at the live screening at our gaff, or to watch the game in one of the many gaily bedecked Gooner boozers.

This impromptu street party extended way past Finsbury Park and on up Stroud Green Road, nearly all the way to Hornsey. Much to my relief, having eventually picked a route through this positively overwhelming red & white mass of humanity, the pessimistic thought crossed my mind that if the worst came to the worst, this humungous Gooner hootenanny would rapidly degenerate into one almighty wake!

And it really couldn’t have got much worse in the opening ten minutes at that other Home of Football. We were all left so shell-shocked, with the stunned silence at our end of Wembley only broken by the sound of 25,000 jaws hitting the deck, as our dreams of the culmination of our trophy drought unraveled before our very eyes, quite so rapidly that I couldn’t really evaluate exactly what had transpired, until I returned home and watched the TV highlights, late on Saturday night.

Whether it was due to the pressure related anxieties of being such outright favourites and the toll of our long barren run, or a far too laidback, end of season complacency, it was evident that the Gunners weren’t totally switched on as this contest commenced, whereas Steve Bruce had lit a “nothing to lose” fire under the opposition’s backsides.

When the first goal hit the back of the net, we didn’t panic, but instead reassured one another that we at least had another 87 minutes to rectify matters. We also took some solace in the knowledge that going behind so early on did at least guarantee that we’d be saved from enduring the ennui of an encore of our decidedly sterile semifinal outing. However we were soon left gob-smacked, in utter disbelief, with only Kieran Gibbs’ goaline clearance denying Hull a centre-back hat-trick and preventing it from being game over.

With the Gunners having toiled industriously to earn our reputation as perennial big game bottlers, evidently in order to shed this unwanted mantle we badly needed a goal, double quick, to establish a foothold in this match. After having spent much of the latter half of the season hiding in plain sight, avoiding responsibility, it was faith restoring to witness Santi Cazorla grabbing the ball, absolutely determined that he and no one else was going to craft the gorgeous 17th minute set-piece.

Santi’s free-kick aside, for what this encounter lacked in additional, equally ecstatic instances of adroitness, it sure made up for in high drama. Although truth be told, I’ve been very poorly for some months and it required a massive effort just to make it to my seat at Wembley on Saturday. So I very much doubt it was in the best interests of my health for me to be put through the wringer in such a ridiculous emotional rollercoaster of an encounter. The palpitations were so strong when Kieran Gibbs blazed his sitter over the bar late on that it occurred to me to ponder on the proximity of the nearest defibrillator.

Yet despite gaining the momentum, after Koscielny had earned complete redemption by scuffing in his scrappy equalizer, I must admit that I began to fear the worst after we failed to press home this advantage during the 90 mins. The Gunners began dropping like ninepins during the brief break, suffering from cramp, while the Tigers feigned an absence of fatigue by remaining on their feet.

Mercifully, with an injection of extra-time energy from Wilshere and Rosicky, Arsène addressed this issue and for just about the first time in the game, the Gunners unsettled the opposition’s resilient defence, by going direct and making their superior talent tell, by taking them on with the ball.

It was fitting that Aaron Ramsey should finally decide the outcome, in such fine style and at long last shake the monkey off our back of not having won a trophy since the move to our new home. The vast majority of clubs exist without winning major trophies and it’s indicative of Wenger’s era of relative success that the absence of silverware had become quite such a big deal.


Having put this matter to bed, once and for all, it was brilliant to see Arsène and the boys being able to relax and enjoy themselves, in the glorious sunshine at Sunday’s trophy parade, surrounded by an ecstatic sea of red and white. Here’s hoping that they all come back next season, fit and healthy from their World Cup exertions and that with the aid of a couple of shrewd additions, the Gunners can go one better.



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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

Two for the price of one this week
Come on you Reds
Bernard
____________________________________

If you cast your mind back to last summer, there was an abiding mood of impending disaster. After Spurs had splashed the £100m that they’d received for flogging Bale (seemingly upon a scattergun targeting of a motley assortment of Moroccan waiters), we feared that the mob at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road might finally usurp our North London throne.

With many pundits concurring with Harry Redknapp’s perennial predictions of Spurs renaissance, most Gooners would’ve bitten off the hand of anyone who offered us the promise that we’d conclude this campaign taunting our Tottenham pals “it’s happened again”, with the Arsenal having such a fabulous opportunity to end our excruciating silverware drought on Saturday, while at the same time maintaining our highly-prized seat at Europe’s top table for a remarkable 17th successive season. I’m sure our neighbours would gladly convert to Islam, for the promise of being blighted in this fashion.

However, as they say, “it’s the hope that kills you”. After our worst fears were realised with our opening day defeat, the timely signing of Özil instantly put paid to all the pessimism. Without even kicking a ball, his arrival proved to be the catalyst that inspired all those around him to raise their game, leaving most of us in dreamland, as we sat bestride the Premiership summit for so long. Thus if we’re left with any sense of dissatisfaction, it’s due to having had this particularly precious carrot dangled in our faces for so long.

Hopefully Mezut will’ve grown more accustomed to the relentless rigours of the Premiership next time around and won’t need an unofficial mid-season break. But whether his contribution be great, or small, like Bergkamp before him, Özil’s touch is such poetry that it puts a £42m smile on the faces of genuine aficionadoes of the beautiful game.

While, sadly, our challenge evaporated in March, the Scousers were actually in touching distance of their first title in nearly a quarter of a century, before carelessly allowing it to slip from their grasp. Without the consolation of a Cup FInal, if Liverpool fans are left feeling eviscerated by their failure, by contrast our title aspirations always seemed something of a fanciful illusion.

Nevertheless, in such a remarkably unpredictable campaign, where the competition all appeared intent on gifting us the Premiership crown and with all the usual suspects set to attempt to boost their prospects, with football’s obscene version of the supermarket trolley dash this summer (despite the feeble constraints of FFP), who knows how long it might be before we’re presented with quite such a golden opportunity. It’s therefore somewhat inevitable that we’re left contemplating upon all the “if onlys” that might’ve guaranteed a more concerted assault this time around.

Pure fantasy perhaps, but obviously we’ve all dreamed of what might have been, if only we’d tabled a more sensible bid for Suarez, instead of trying to be so cute. Most will point to our injuries and the untimely loss of the influential likes of Walcott, Ramsey and Wilshere. Deprived of their impetus and utterly devoid of any pace, our previously youthful team suddenly appeared aged and far too leggy.

Perhaps we’d have witnessed a different outcome, if le Prof had managed to reinvigorate the troops in January, by bolstering our squad with more than an additional unfit body. Everyone but Arsène seemed patently aware of the desperate dearth of options in attack that left him springing the surprise of the completely untried and untested Sanogo, in our two most crucial outings to date.

From my perspective, I can’t help but feel that “parking the bus” and pinching an impressive victory in Dortmund in November contributed to our downfall. We received such plaudits for this display that we ended up dropping crucial points in subsequent domestic encounters, where we reproduced these same infuriatingly passive tactics.

As circumstances conspired to encourage us to ignore our more natural tendencies to try and impose ourselves on the opposition, this doubtless contributed to the perfect storm witnessed in a couple of utterly humiliating defeats. If it wasn’t for blotting their copybook with these calamitous aberrations, our defence would’ve otherwise been feted for keeping so many clean sheets.

Flamini might’ve been last summer’s best bargain, but for all his enthusiasm and commitment, it was a big ask for him to carry his colleagues. And despite the earnest endeavours of Arteta and Rosicky alongside him, they both now have a tendency to run out of steam. Meanwhile Cazorla was guilty of hiding his light under our waning midfield bushel, when we most needed him to shine.

With Ramsey signing off with such a peach of a volley at Carrow Road, we were reminded that he might’ve been a candidate for player of the season, if he’d enjoyed an uninterrupted campaign. It’s no coincidence that our late season return to form has coincided with our best players regaining their fitness. Even the ill-fated Abou Diaby has made a comeback, just in time to knacker himself again in the World Cup.

Complacency could prove our greatest threat at Wembley, with so many Gooners talking as if we need only turn up to beat Hull. While those who remain convinced Wenger is past his sell-by date will have mixed feelings about a euphoric climax to our season, believing that a long-awaited trophy will take the pressure off le Prof and only condemn us to several more "nearly men" campaigns.


For all our vocal pleas for Sagna to stay, I couldn’t blame him for wanting one last big payday. If we could convince Bacary otherwise and for once achieve the feat of avoiding such a significant spate of long-term injuries, Gooner hopes will spring eternal and we’ll spend the close season praying for the couple of shrewd signings that will enable us to kick on.

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

The Final Verdict

The unedited version of my responses for the Observer's The Verdict. 

After having watched Zabaleta's display in midweek, I was left wondering whether I should've been influenced by my brother-in-law to replace him with Coleman in my team of the season, but as Con said, I couldn't leave out the only Irishman and judging by the team printed in the paper, it seems most of their contributors concurred. 

The only other differences between my team and the one that's printed in the paper is that apparently the majority have gone for Kompany and Cahill, instead of Terry and Distin at centre back and where I've included Coutinho and Aguerro, others have chosen Gerrard and Sturridge. Whether through injury or complacency, personally I don't think Kompany has produced anything like the same consistency this season. If I'd been allowed to include any Arsenal players, I would've undoubtedly opted for Koscielny, especially after seeing some statistics this morning that suggest Kos has outperformed the City captain by some margin.
______________________________________________

- How was your season? (and a mark out of 10)
7/10 (should we finally bring our eight-season long silverware drought to a euphoric conclusion come 17th May!). Title hopes were always something of a fanciful illusion, but it was tragic that we suffered so many significant injuries, at such a crucial stage, since these certainly put the kibosh on any possibility of such fantasies coming to fruition.

- Who were the stars?
Ramsey's recent return has reminded us quite how influential he was, early doors. If it wasn't for Aaron’s enforced absence, he could’ve ended up as a prime candidate for player of the season. Koscielny, the unsung hero in a rearguard that would've deserved all the plaudits, if not for their humiliation in a couple of calamitous and highly costly aberrations. Flamini, who must rank as last summer’s best bargain, if only for his inspirational commitment and enthusiasm. Mezut Özil, despite pundits suggesting a minimal return on our massive £42m investment, like Bergkamp before him, our new German playmaker is poetry in motion, who’s worth the price of admission alone for genuine aficionados of the beautiful game.

- Who flopped? 
Le Prof for leaving us pondering all the “if onlys” with his failure to bolster our squad with something more than an additional unfit body and for our reliance on the completely untried and untested Yaya Sanogo in our two most significant outings to date. It was also sad to see Santi Cazorla hiding his light under our waning midfield bushel, when we most needed it to shine in mid-season.

- Who do you need to sign this summer? 
Everyone but Arsène seems patently aware of our desperate need for a striker (or two!). If Sagna & Vermaelen are on their way out of the door, our defence will be in urgent need of reinforcements and for all of Arteta's earnest endeavours, we badly require a DM replacement capable of maintaining sufficiently high energy levels for the entire 90 minutes.

- Best and worst away fans?
Best – Coventry, not just for their impressively large turnout, but for the unadulterated joy shown in the Youtube video of their halftime rendition of “Twist and Shout”, see:


Worst – Napoli’s Ultras for wrecking my favourite eaterie, in their entirely unprovoked attack on Piebury Corner

- And finally... which well-known song should be the soundtrack to your season review video? 
The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” where the famous “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” refrain is pertinent for those Gooners who despair of the likelihood of an FA Cup triumph and Champs League qualification condemning us to several more seasons of 4th place under achievement and serves as a "careful of what you wish for" warning to the ever-increasing contingent of those who seem convinced Le Prof is past his "sell by" date.

PLUS
Please include your Premier League team of the season (not including any players from your own team) in 4-4-2 formation, GK, RB, CB, CB, LB, RM, CM, CM, LM, CF, CF. 
And your manager of the season (not including your own).
Loris, Coleman, Terry (very begrudgingly!), Distin, Shaw, Coutinho, Bartley, Touré (Yaya), Lallana, Saurez, Aguero

Manager - Rodgers

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

From Russia With Anything But Love

As with the vast majority of my anecdotes, I'm fairly sure I've already used this one, in one of my two books and so if you've a better memory than me (not much of a feat nowadays with my colander-like grey matter), please forgive me if you've previously read this particular tale.

However, with the media constantly bombarding us with disturbing images from the Ukraine and with disconcerting reports of the sort of testosterone-fuelled aggression that appears to be terrifyingly reminiscent of the same sort of lunatic nationalistic fervour that was largely responsible for creating the unstoppable momentum, which resulted in political leaders careering headlong towards the two previous world wars, my thoughts inevitably turn towards the welfare of Vlad, the Gooner pal that I met in Kiev many moons back.

Vlad now resides in the eastern city of Luhansk, where pro-Russian thugs have recently taken over administrative buildings, demanding a referendum, according to reports I've seen on Al Jazeera tonight. Therefore, presumably with the prospect of more violence on his doorstep, I've been worrying about Vlad's safety and recollecting more peaceful times, when the two of us first met.

With Vlad being a member of the Arsenal mailing list, I arranged to hook up with him when I travelled to the away leg of our Champions League encounter with Dynamo Kiev, back in the days when Arsène's teams were accustomed to winning trophies and Dynamo's front line included the impressive likes of Shevchenko & Rebrov (I think there were subsequently several wisecracks about them mistakenly purchasing the wrong striker at White Hart Lane).

I should really refer back to my own book, as my memory has doubtless dimmed with the passing of time and I will otherwise probably be guilty of gilding the lily somewhat, but from what I recall, Vlad and I made our way to the Valeriy Lobanovskyi stadium on the evening before the match itself, in order to watch the Gunners train on the pitch.

You need to bear in mind that despite having supported the Arsenal for many years, Vlad had never actually seen them perform in the flesh and I suppose the same was true for many folk in Kiev, since there was a substantial turnout that night. However with me having the excuse of my weekly column in the Irish Examiner, I was determined to blag my way in as a member of the press, so as to be able to attend the pre-match press conference.

Vlad was understandably nervous but I gave him my piddly little Cannon camera and assured him that he would be able to accompany me as my photographer. However obviously I'd neglected to think this sham through and so when we arrived at the ground and I asked Vlad to explain our circumstances to the local coppers, they told him that I needed to produce some form of accreditation.

The only thing I had on my person with a photo on it was my England Supporters Club membership card (long since lapsed) and so with as much confidence as I could muster, I passed this to the plod, in the hope that their ability to read English was matched by their incomprehension of the spoken word.

I must admit that I was more than a little nervous about the possibility that folks have been shot for far lesser crimes than attempting to pass oneself of as a footie journalist in Kiev (and I'm sure we can all think of more than the odd genuine member of the media rat pack who deserve lining up against a wall!). But while I wouldn't have been that bothered if they'd seen through my farcical guise, I would've been very disappointed for Vlad, as there would likely be many more opportunities for me to hobknob with our players and manager in the future, but for him, this might well prove to be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Mercifully, somehow my England Supporters Club membership card did the trick and after joining the few thousand people freezing their cods off, watching the Gunners train, we not only wangled our way into the press conference but we were also able to rub shoulders with the players as they made their way to and from the dressing room.

If I can find them, I will dig out the evidence to verify this tale, by way of the photos that I took of Vlad, with his arm draped across the shoulder of some of our heroes and decorate this post with them at a later date (yeh sure, as I always attest, if procrastination was an International sport, I would be England captain!) - or if you are that desperate, please feel perfectly free to buy my book as I'm fairly sure that I included one of the photos of Vlad with the Gunners in there.

I distinctly recall the nightmare of having to choose the pictures for my two books, since I presume that printing colour photos is a particularly expensive part of the publication process. I spent an eternity trying to whittle my pics down and squeezing as many as possible into the far too limited number of pages. On the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words, if I'd had my choice, I would've included as many pages of photos, as the far too numerous pages of words!

And by the same token, despite having to discard loads of amazing photos, for example from the many we took of the Town Hall parade at the end of the season (here's hoping we finally have a trophy to merit a long awaited repeat procedure this month?), I simply had to include one of the images of Vlad because his face truly was a picture of incredulity, since he was so blown away to find himself standing side by side with so many of the Arsenal's stars.

Sadly this is not such a common event nowadays, with access to the Gunners so restricted that we must content ourselves with the limited contact via the auspices of Twitter. But back then it was still a fairly regular occurrence (especially with my Irish Examiner credentials). Nevertheless, such was the vicarious thrill of being able to savour this memorable occasion through Vlad's eyes that our evening proved incredibly satisfying and far more memorable than the miserable defeat in the pouring rain the following night.

I still have my obligatory souvenir, by way of my Astrakhan Ushanka (Russian army hat) which gets an outing to keep my ears warm at matches whenever the temperature plummets (and which has probably been feeding an army of moths in our wardrobe for the past decade or so!). Yet while the number of Champions League outings has proved so profuse in recent years that it's become nigh on impossible to distinguish one European jolly from another, I will never forget the trip to the Ukrainian capital, if only for this absolutely wonderful incident and the intense pleasure of being able to provide Vlad with such a marvelous experience.

Be sure to keep the head down that holds these memories Vlad and to ensure that you and your loved ones stay safe during such disturbing times.

COYG
Big Love
Bernard

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

On checking my programme prior to Sunday’s final home game of the season, I noted the statement that the players would remain on the pitch following the final whistle for their customary lap of appreciation, rather than disappearing off to the dressing room before returning to fulfill this obligatory display of mutual appreciation. I must admit that it did occur to me to question whether this decision had been taken for fear that there might have been none of us left in our seats, if there’d been a delay before the players returned onto the pitch.

I also read Le Prof’s comments in his programme notes about us looking more dangerous at set pieces and these seemed particularly prescient when, despite the opposition’s rugby style roughhousing at corners, Giroud bullied the Baggies defender to get his head onto Cazorla’s corner, deciding this result after a mere 14 mins, in just about the only significant moment of a typically dour end of season affair.

In fact such was the festive mood that the beachballs were out on the terraces early doors, obviously entertaining fourth official Phil Dowd more than events on the pitch. And they might as well have been playing with one of these, considering most of the participants minds already appeared to be more focused on their beach entertainment this summer.

Nevertheless, despite this non-event of a contest and the reports of there being large numbers of seriously miffed Gooners, who’ve yet to be offered a Cup Final ticket in the ballot, there was little, or no evidence of any of the vociferous dissension that’s been increasingly evident on the Interweb all season long. Oh for the scrupulous days of yesteryear, when Arsenal supporters were guaranteed a seat at Wembley by a club that limited season ticket sales to the number of Cup Final tickets.

We enjoyed more entertainment post match, from all the little darlings amongst the sizable herd of the players’ progeny, shepherded onto the pitch by their dads. Aided by a win, on a gloriously warm afternoon and the possibility of ending our silverware drought in a couple of weeks time (not to mention the remarkable feat of retaining our seat at Europe’s top table for a 17th successive season, for all the mockery of Arsène’s 4th place prize!), the staunch show of support as the players strolled around in the sunshine, to the tune of “Bakari Sagna, we want you to stay” all seemed considerably more enthusiastic than many of the more perfunctory and less deserving end of season rituals in recent years of frustrating under-achievement.

Mind you, I’m none too keen on the prevailing mood of all those who seem to have decided that the Gunners need only turn up at Wembley to secure our first trophy in nine long seasons and I pray our players are not infected by this air of complacency come 17th May, as I couldn’t possibly bear the thought of us catching a resulting cold, in a repeat of the League Cup debacle against the Brummies.

In contrast to the Toon fans protesting about Pardew last Monday night, the “Arsène out” brigade were noticeable by their absence this weekend. Unlike Abou Diaby, who returned from the “missing list” for the first time in 14 long months. With his bad luck, I was waiting for the hapless Diaby to hurt himself merely warming up as a sub!

While Wenger’s critics might contend that our club’s cash cow will merely be papering over the cracks with the upturn in our end of season form, the consensus of more optimistic opinion on the other side of this coin seems to suggest that if we can manage the minor miracle of keeping the likes of Diaby fit for more than the odd game, along with other influential players such as Walcott, Wilshere, the Ox and Ramsey, we might only require a couple of shrewd signings and the increased influence of Mezut Özil as our midfield playmaker grows more accustomed the rigours of Premiership football, for us to be able to offer a more genuine title challenge.


My litmus test for our leader’s tenure has always been whether Tottenham fans would be glad to see the back of Wenger. As this season’s finishing line hoves into view, I can’t help but think about quite how ecstatic our old enemy would be, to be enduring such woes at White Hart Lane.

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 e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

All Still Up For Grabs....

... and after seeing Man City roll over at the Etihad this evening, I thought I had better get this posted out, while it still remains that way :-)

Not that I'm being overly pessimistic because at our best and on our day, our first XI are capable of giving anyone a run for their money, even Bayern Munich. Sadly in the absence of the energetic midfield hustling of Aaron Ramsey and deprived of the threat of Theo's pace, you would have to admit that on paper, the daunting German outfit looks favourite for this game over the two legs.

Mercifully football is played on grass, not on paper and with us going into tomorrow night's game, buoyed by Sunday's Cup triumph, provided we've not already used up all of our good fortune (and it certainly feels as if we continue to be owed a large slice of which, after so many long years of lady luck's unrequited love), I for one sense that we're going to have every opportunity to overturn the odds and prove the bookies wrong for once.

I certainly hope our lads were watching events in Manchester this evening. That's assuming that they weren't otherwise occupied "schtooping" glamour models. Although in truth, while I can totally appreciate that his indignant missus fully deserves her entitlement to try and squeeze Olivier's seemingly limited amount of grey matter back up into his bonce from whence it currently appears to reside, by means of inserting his genitalia into a vice, am I not correct in believing that there have been various eminent sporting coaches (boxing?), who've espoused the benefits of a good despunking before sending their charges into battle? 

So from a strictly partisan point of view, on the basis that Giroud came out and scored (again!) against Palace after his illicit 3am exertions in his Four Seasons Hotel room the night before, instead of banning and fining Gunners for sneaking ladies in for a late-night fusilade, perhaps we should be asking why Le Prof isn't out there procuring for our main man on a more regular basis (and while he's at it..... :-)?? At least this would enable Arsène to produce some proper statistics on the subject, in order to analyse the benefits of such pre- or post match shenanigans on one of his many spreadsheets!

But if I'd been a City fan watching them play Barca at home this evening, I would've felt bitterly disappointed by the seemingly timid way in which they went about this match. You would've thought that after spending billions of pounds, amassing such a vast array of footballing talent, this would have at least afforded Pellegrini and his players the sense that their team need fear no one, providing them with the "cajones" to go out and take on the likes of Barca?

Personally I was looking forward to watching an entertaining hors d'oeuvres, to whet my appetite before tomorrow night's main course and I was a little gutted to see City sit back, like so many of Barca's underdog patsies before them. One might've thought that Pellegrini of all people would know that unless you go out there to unsettle Barca's rhythm by taking the game to them, it's almost inevitable that opponents will eventually succumb to the Spanish side's sublime tikki-takka.

Pellegrini has impressed me up until now with the way in which he's carried himself and I assumed that after having endured assorted defeats to Barca during his time in Spain, "the Engineer" would positively revel at finally having an opportunity to line a team up against them on a level financial playing field. 

But to the contrary, after watching City's uninspiring efforts, I had to wonder if the defeat was partially due to the psychological baggage Pellegrini brought with him from Spain, whereby he's been too accustomed to the underdog mentality of merely attempting to thwart the mighty Catalan giants, to even consider giving them a drubbing? And this accounted for him sending out an overly cautious line-up that was far too focused on denying Barca a goal, when he should've instead sent out a team that was more capable of concentrating on scoring their own. 

Consequently, when this tactic inevitably failed, in the time honoured fashion of so many victims who have fallen before them, having gone behind and suddenly having to try and change tack completely and take the game to their guests, City were completely buggered, with it being so much more likely that they'd be undone, as Barca picked them off on the counter, as they began to flag later in the game.

Win, lose of draw tomorrow night, I truly pray that we don't attempt the same sort of performance that produced a great result in Dortmund. If we get beat, we get beat, there's no shame in losing to a magnificent outfit like Bayern, but I will be bitterly disappointed if we go down without a fight, showing the German side too much respect and sitting back and inviting them on, instead of taking the game to our opponents.

Obviously I don't expect us to go gung-ho and it's more likely to be your standard cagey European fare at this high pressure point in the competition, but while it might be acceptable to grind out a result away from home, defending for our lives in our half of the park, Bayern are in our house tomorrow night and it is therefore behoven of our full backs (and anyone supposedly playing out wide) to play in their half of the park, pressing on down the flanks and preventing their full-backs from bombing forward all night.

Negredo made some effort against Barca, but not until Na$ri came on as a sub for City, did I get the sense of one of the players in sky blue looking to try and grab the game by the scruff, when the rest of his colleagues had performed for most of the ninety as if they'd been infected by their manager's inferiority complex.

I've managed to bash out all this without a single reference to the ignominious comments of the Chelsea manager, but perhaps therein lies a clue to superiority complex which has played such a significant part in Mourinho's short term success in his assorted posts. Ah but building an entire dynasty....now that's an entirely different and far more enduring achievement.

After being discharged from hospital last Tuesday, following fairly major surgery, I was forced to stop at home and watch the Man Utd match on TV. But it's very hard to endure watching a home game on the box, listening to the sound of the stadium announcer wafting through our living room window and amongst the many reasons I attend most every match with such religious devotion is because for some strange reason, it's always far less stressful watching the Gunners play in the flesh, than spending 90 minutes screaming blue murder at an inanimate screen in the corner of our living room. 

It would've been sensible for me to have continued to stop at home for Sunday's game, rather than putting myself at risk amongst 60,000 people coughing and spluttering and passing on their germs and I was debating right up until Sunday morning whether I should go or not. But it proved such a glorious afternoon for watching football, that when it came to it, Rona would've had to tie me down to the armchair to prevent me from wandering around to THOF2 come KO time.

And boy am I glad that I made the effort, as I simply can't imagine how devastated I would've been, if I'd ended up missing out on the experience of being there for such an enthralling afternoon of knockout cup football right on my doorstep. Mind you, as someone who's not exactly known for sitting quietly at football, I have to tell you that it was nigh on impossible for me to stick to my promise to adhere to instructions to remain schtum for the entire 90 minutes, for fear that my customary screaming and shouting was bound to end up with me literally busting a blood vessel and being carted off on a stretcher!

I think there was one point where I couldn't stop myself from attempting to bellow "pressure" at one of our players over on our flank in the first half, in an effort to encourage him to close down the Liverpool player with the ball. But due to the fact that it hurts too much to shout (not to mention laugh, blow my nose, brush my teeth and wipe my arse!) right at this present point in time, my customary holler came out instead as a feeble squeak and so at least this encouraged me to put a cork in it for the remainder of the match.

I'm hoping that the weather tomorrow night is not too inclement, otherwise Rona might end up handcuffing me to the bedstead to prevent me from going to the game and in my current parlous state, I'd end up with neither the promise of football nor any sexual gratification!

But hopefully I am going to make it around to there, come hell, or high water to watch an even more scintillating triumph than Sunday's? And while I'm encouraging everyone else to get behind the lads and scream and shout on my behalf, to be our twelfth man tomorrow night, I should perhaps temper this with the warning that while in my case the 20-40 Camel filters might well be a contributing factor, Gooners everywhere might want to be cautious about maintaining their anonymity when supporting their team too vehemently on home turf, as you don't want to end up like me and wake up one morning to find that your club have exercised a somewhat harsh punishment for shouting too loud at the Emirates, doubtless halving my decibels by extracting one of my lungs!


COYG
Bernard
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It's All Still Up For Grabs.....



There wasn’t a lot of optimism in the air prior to kick-off yesterday, especially after the cup draw had proffered our guests the additional motivation of a potential Merseyside derby in the quarterfinals. In fact I’d fully prepared myself for writing a miserable, doom and gloom filled report, fearing for the couple of successive defeats, which might have left our season looking completely in tatters come this Thursday morning.

Yet after Suarez and co. had sliced and diced our defence, twice in the opening five minutes and could have easily taken a two-goal lead, but where in contrast to our mauling at Anfield, the Scousers failed to make the most of both opportunities, perhaps it should’ve dawned on me that this was destined to be our day.

Whether it was the chance to redeem themselves after last weekend’s embarrassment, or their appreciation of quite what a pivotal encounter this might prove to be, in terms of the mood in the camp and our psychological well-being in advance of Wednesday clash with what many will regard as the best team on the planet, you only had to see all the fist-pumping and heart-thumping going on, as the players savoured their well-deserved ovation at the final whistle, to appreciate that they were no less euphoric about the result than the rest of us.

If you compare the calibre of the teams left in the FA Cup with the cream of European football that’s still involved in the Champions League, it could be argued that as the eternal pragmatist, Arsène should actually be selecting our best XI for the domestic competition and leaving anyone in need of a breather on the bench against Bayern this Wednesday because it’s patently obvious which way lies the easiest route to ending our trophy drought.

But then Wenger wouldn’t dream of pitting his wits against Guardiola with one arm tied behind his back and if he hadn’t rested Giroud against Liverpool, we wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunity to witness the apparent transformation in Yaya Sanogo, who suddenly looks like an entirely different creature to the timid rabbit caught in the glare of British football’s frenetic headlights, in his extremely brief early season cameo.

Although there was a whisper about the possibility of Wenger selecting the French striker, having not seen hide nor hare of Sanogo since August, it was no less of a surprise to see him thrown into the fray instead of Bendtner, for what might well have proven to be a massive make or break moment in his fledgling Arsenal career. Yet I for one was delighted that Bendtner wasn’t even included on the bench, since to my mind the Dane’s prima-donna attitude stinks and I’d much prefer to see him quarantined off from the rest of the squad, unable to infect others with the poison of his apparent disaffection.

Considering it’s not exactly been a common occurrence in recent years, I was gutted that the Gunners failed to make the most of our midweek opportunity to kick Man Utd while Moyes’ side are quite so down and following the humiliating assault on our confidence at Anfield, I was terrified at the prospect of containing Liverpool’s rampant front line with a weakened team.

I was just walking through the turnstile when I heard news on my radio of Kevin Doyle scoring his first goal for QPR. But while Gooners everywhere having been baying for blood because of our apparent transfer window ineptitude and what appeared to be a blatant failure to offer our emaciated squad the psychological boost of bringing in some more (fit!) bodies, perhaps by pulling Sanogo from his sleeve at this precise point in time, we’ve just discovered how our manager has continued to maintain his equanimity, while all about him have been questioning his sanity.

Up until 4pm yesterday I too was pondering whether it was feasible for this Arsenal squad to continue fighting on all three fronts, whereas following 90 glorious minutes of fabulously entertaining FA Cup football, suddenly anything is possible once again!

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