Monday, February 20, 2006

Gotta Have Faith!

Hi folks

You’ll be relieved to hear I have to make it snappy this week, as I’ve loads to do before we depart for Madrid in the wee hours of tomorrow morning -who knows, if the worst should come to the worst, perhaps I’ll be glad of the fact that I find myself nodding off in the Bernabeu tomorrow night and dreaming of an all together more enjoyable outcome :-)

There was good and bad about having to sit it out this weekend. Hopefully there will be no excuse for any tired legs in Madrid, although considering the lack of running around we’ve been doing in recent matches, the problem of lactate filled legs must be last on a long list of concerns!

It was also some compensation to see Man Utd fail at Anfield. Nevertheless this was a long way from the same Liverpool team we played on Tuesday, as the Scousers were substantially more fired up for their encounter with their old foes and while Utd struggled to create chances, much as we did, there was all the fervour that was missing from our encounter. I found myself feelling more than a little jealous that we never got to witness this sort of cup tie type commitment from a woefully tepid Arsenal.

After all, you could hardly imagine our Brazilian midfielder bruising a toe-nail, let alone breaking a leg in an Alan Smith type display of totally selfless bravery. Having sat on the bench for much of the season, Smith was so desperate to prove himself to his manager that he was literally prepared to risk life and limb. Whereas one can’t help but imagine that most of our senior players feel so secure about their place in the squad that they wouldn’t dare attempt anything so dangerous for fear of the implications it might have on their future earning potential!

However after our incredible run in the FA Cup in recent years, absolutely the worst feeling was to find myself joining in with all the speculation in the Internet about the other player involved in the salacious shenanigans touted in the News of the Screws (as – allegedly - it now seems to be taken as read that our own Ashley Cole was one of the two lewd larrikins), instead of contemplating our potential oppenents in the quarterfinals!

Watching coverage of the other FA Cup matches and the obvious evidence of vast expanses of empty terraces, despite the BBC production team’s best efforts to disguise the feeble turn out for the last sixteen of the oldest knockout tournament on the planet, I thought it a sad reflection on the modern game that this trashy tabloid can drag out this lurid tale and continue to sell a million more copies every Sunday, while success starved fans of clubs like Villa would rather stop at home for their most important match of the season.

We owe a vote of thanks to Wigan, as most Spurs fans are of the opinion they’ve now blown one chance to many of eastablishing a bit of a cushion and supposedly we are the team with the easier run-in. As far as qualifying for the Champs League is concerned we are fortunate that we’ve been so inconsistent in such a woefully inconsistent league. While the thought of having to cut his summer break short in order to play in the qualifying rounds in August certainly won’t be an added incentive to persuade Thierry Henry to stay, I can’t help but think that this is nothing more than he and the majority of his team mates deserve

If there was some solace to be found in events last week, it was the sight of the appreciative Scouse audience applauding off our keeper after Lehmann had stemmed to Liverpool tide so admirably. Somehow I couldn’t imagine an oppostion keeper getting quite such a gracious response from us Gooners at THOF?

If you’ve nothing better to do, you can actually view the entire short film I’ve mentioned below at:
http://www.channel4.com/film/reviews/film.jsp?id=111158

or you will find a link to this and some of the other matches I’ve mentioned on my blog

Meanwhile here’s hoping the Gunners can surprise me and everyone else tomorrow. No-one would be happier to be eating humble pie next week

Big Love
Bernard
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Gotta Have Faith

It’s been a long while since I’ve been quite so disappointed by an Arsenal performance, as I was by our dreadfully lame display against Liverpool. There are some deluded Gooners who are suggesting it wasn’t so bad. After all, if it wasn’t for the Scousers late goal, we would’ve pinched a precious point.

However I have to tell you that back on a sunny August afternoon in 1994, when the rebuilding of the Kop resulted in a reduced capacity at Anfield, I was amongst about 500 odd travelling fans who endured Robbie Fowler’s astonishing 5 minute hat-trick. Yet I experienced nothing like the embarrassment during the 3-0 drubbing that day, as I did watching the Arsenal last week. In all honesty I would’ve rather seen us mullahed by a similar scoreline (and we would’ve been if it wasn’t for the feats of our loopy German keeper), than suffer this sort of heartless and morale sapping showing, where we looked a beaten side from the moment Poll blew his whistle

Up until last Tuesday, I’d had it in my head that with two encounters against Liverpool still to come, there was still plenty of hope of us pegging the Scousers back. Sure with our current inconsistent form, perhaps all three points at Anfield was a long shot. But I was looking forward to the fact that we at least had an opportunity to give it a go.

After the boost of our late equalizer against Bolton and with the entire media world writing off our season, I was fully expecting to see a pumped up Arsenal side, desperate to restore some pride, by playing their way into some form. What’s more, only a week away from the most glamorous encounter of our entire season, one would’ve expected the Gunners to be grafting their socks off, to secure their place in the starting line-up.

However instead of the “death or glory” performance I was hoping for, we witnessed just about the most insipid 90 minutes of football of this entire lacklustre season. There was a clip shown on TV on Saturday that just about summed it up. Obviously poor Bobbie Pires had burned himself out with his half dozen tackles against Bolton. But unfortunately it took Arsène 80 minutes to appreciate that it was Pires’ shadow which turned up on Tuesday. Sending on Alexander Hleb with 10 minutes to turn our season around, with his sleeves pulled down over his hands (neither rolled up literally or metaphorically), the Belorussian’s body language was pessimism personified.

It is all well and good for Wenger to stick to his guns by always showing his unqualified support for his players in public but I often wonder if as a result, they exist in some sort of bubble, where they just don’t appreciate that the party line doesn’t wash with the watching public. No matter how many times our manager intones his mantra, it may ring true for a couple of the players who retain their youthful vigour but for the vast majority of Tuesday’s team, there’s hardly a soul on this planet who’d agree with Arsène’s suggestion that they “gave everything”.

I hate talking in clichéspeak but at the end of the day this is all that I expect from my team, the conviction that no matter what the outcome, they couldn’t have tried harder and have left everything out on the field of play. For me, absolutely the worst aspect to this game was the sight of our lot suddenly steaming in after Garcia’s goal, with only 3 minutes left on the clock, as there couldn’t have been more stark evidence of the sort of fervour that had been lacking up until then.

It’s hard for me to express quite how soul destroying it is to be heading off to Madrid in such a morbid mood. I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to see the Arsenal play in the Bernabeu for so many seasons now, that I am struggling to get to grips with the fact that we’re finally going there, following an Arsenal side that appears shorn of all self belief.

There was a time when it didn’t matter if we were travelling abroad to support the mediocre likes of Morrow, Selley and McGoldrick competing against a star-studded Parma team. We had sufficient faith back then that, given enough grit and determination, we were capable of stifling any side and could always nick the odd goal over the course of 90 minutes.

However times have changed. Never mind the question of whether the current team have the “cahones” (or the lurid allegations concerning certain players’ preference for investigating this possibility in the flesh!), Wenger’s obsession with the beautiful game means his teams have never been built for containment.

Even with our first choice back four, it would be total suicide to send his side out onto the wide expanses of the Bernabeu, merely intent on stopping the opposition from scoring. Absolutely our only chance against Real rests on taking the game to the home team and playing in their half of the pitch. But considering the cloud of dejection that’s descended on the club in recent weeks, I would be pleasantly surprised if Arséne even entertained such an ambitious approach.

You will already know by now if we’ve embarrassed ourselves in the Bernabeu. But if our last chance of silverware is going to slip by, I’d much rather exit on a glorious 5-3 goalfest than lie down like lambs in a gutless game similar to last week’s nondescript 1-0.

Much has been made of the fact that there wasn’t a single player from these shores in the entire squad at Anfield. Personally I don’t think the inclusion of Ashley Cole or Sol Campbell would have mattered a jot, as Brits are no more likely to bring backbone to the party than any other player these days (and if the Red Top rags are to be believed, perhaps Poodle is more appropriate for some than Bulldog spirit). The absence of a genuine leader with the sort of strength of character to inspire and cajole the best out of those around him has been obvious all season. The longer this situation prevails, the more demoralised we become and the harder it will be to get the Gunners teenage talents into the winning groove, as instead of showing any respect, all our opponents increasingly approach the once mighty Arsenal as a soft touch.

It’s a self-perpetuating circle of decline, at a time when the club can least afford it. Perhaps all we require is a captain with some sturdy sea-legs, but with Arsène facing his stiffest task yet to try and turn this ship around, sadly he’s looking more like the obsequious Swede than the armour plated Portuguese.

However above all we must maintain our faith. Listening to all the griping Gooners on the phone-ins last week reminded me of a much darker time a decade or so ago. I participated as an extra in a crowd scene for a short movie entitled “Faith” which was being filmed outside Highbury. Such was the dearth of entertainment back then, that it was a feasible storyline to have a Gooner mounting a rooftop protest outside the club until they purchased a midfield playmaker. Thanks to Wenger we’ve been incredibly privileged to witness a wealth of world class players pass through the Marble Halls since the days of such banal mediocrity and we absolutely have to believe there’s still plenty more to come.

E-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Something Rotten In The State Of Wenger

I have to admit that I didn’t make it to Anfield tonight. Unable to con anyone into coming with me, I couldn’t face the drive on my tod and taking the train, staying overnight and as a result missing a day’s work tomorrow, was going to end up costing me well over 200 quid.

Usually I’d be sitting here feeling a little guilty, unable to escape the totally illogical notion that my absence had something to do with our defeat. However I have to tell you that I am dead relieved, as instead, I’d be feeling a complete fool for wasting so much money to watch this particular Arsenal side.

I don’t know about anyone else, but personally I would’ve much preferred to see the Arsenal lose four or five – nil, knowing I’d seen them at least have a go at the opposition. Instead of which we were forced to endure one of the most tepid performances yet this season (and in a particularly lacklustre season).

On the radio “Do I not like that” Taylor was doing his best to “big up” Liverpool for playing “expansive football”, leaving themselves prone to being hit by the counter attack. Well forgive me if I am mistaken Graham, but I can’t recall the Arsenal producing a box-to-box, counter attack all evening. We hardly got past the halfway line for most of the match.

Personally I can easily forgive players having an off night, but what I simply cannot countenance is almost an entire Arsenal eleven who all appeared to play as if they’d rather be elsewhere. Considering how crucial this result could prove, both in terms of our chances of qualifying for the Champions League next season and perhaps more imminent, the mood in the camp going into the game next week in Madrid, the fact that so many of the Arsenal team appeared so incredibly flat from the kick-off was absolutely unforgiveable.

OK so we were missing a few players and might have fared better if the likes of Van Persie were available. What’s more, some might even suggest that we would’ve escaped with a point, if Flamini hadn’t struggled so much with his duties at full-back and might even have prevented Luis Garcia’s goal if it wasn’t for the lapse that saw him forget to track the Spaniard into the six-yard box. But in all honesty, if we’d come away with anything tonight, I would’ve felt it was floodlight robbery.

Forgetting our inadequacies going forward, think back to Saturday’s game, where for at least the first forty-five, the Bolton players grafted so hard, harrying us on the ball at every opportunity and preventing us from having a moment to conjure up any kind of expansive football. Now compare that to this evening, where as the visitors, we allowed the home side all the time they needed in possession, exerting no pressure, instead strolling around watching the opposition.

To my mind it said it all, that in a game as important as this, the first controversial moment for Graham Poll came when he got a mouthful from Ljungberg. When in the past one would’ve expected a hatful of bookings by then because of tackles flying in all over the pitch, as players demonstrated how much they wanted this match. Instead of which we witnessed an apathetic Arsenal, demonstrating so little desire, it was positively embarrassing.

They looked a side who weren’t expecting to come away with anything from the moment Poll first blew the whistle and what bothered me most was the gung-ho effort for the last few minutes after the goal had gone in, which left us all wondering what they’d been doing for the previous 89 minutes.

To be honest when I looked at the bench, it was hard to pick a sub capable of having an impact on the outcome. Yet surely it should’ve been obvious to Arsène from the lamentable first-half performance that he needed to try something at half-time to make a difference after the break. Instead of which Wenger just sat there hoping (perhaps praying) we might just hang on to a point and only when it became patently apparent that the Pires we saw on Saturday, simply hadn’t turned up at Anfield, did he send on Hleb instead (and a big difference he made!). Poor Kolo Touré and Manny Eboué must be wishing they'd made a detour via Timbuktu!

Surely Wenger cannot honestly believe his team “gave everything tonight” and if he does, then I’m afraid Le Prof is more deluded than I thought! If it wasn’t for Jens Lehmann’s goalkeeping feats it would’ve been a total walkover. Perhaps the players might be able to offer some excuse in that their minds were elsewhere? I only wish I could believe this was our forthcoming trip to the Bernabeu!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Will You Be My Valentine

Hi folks

As usual I struggled to fit everything into a 1000 words below. Mind you some of you might have seen I've started contributing a post-match comment for the Observer's "The Verdict" column (I've been whinging at them that it's not available online!), where I get a call shortly after the game on a Saturday and have to fit my thoughts into a mere 100 words, which is virtually impossible for someone with such a severe case of verbal diahorrea as myself.

What's more I don't think I've ever been much kop at doing anything off the cuff, as like most people, I invariably end up thinking seconds after I've put the receiver down "if only I'd said" this that and the other! So I end up having to dash back and type something out (or for away games I've got my pad out and scribbled something down). I've copied this week's below, although I've left out my marks out of ten for individual players as I detest doing this because it feels decidedly unfair to translate 90 minutes of blood, sweat and toil (or shirking in some cases!) into a single figure. I've forgotten about the need for these marks out of ten each week so far but instead of spending all my time worrying about what to give each player whilst waiting for the call, I end up agonizing all night about whether I've been too harsh.

So far I've been cutting the likes of Larsson and Flamini plenty of slack, since it's hard to criticise a player who's grafting his socks off in such an unfamiliar role. Still this doesn't stop me and every other Gooner fretting because they both look suspect to being turned over at any time during a game. The best defences work like a well oiled machine where everyone instinctively know when to step up, when to drop off and when to cover each other. You can't expect to come into a side, moving from ones usual position in midfield to full-back without being responsible for the occasional inevitable cock-up, unless you've spent endless hours practicing the sort of boring defensive drills to the point where you run on automatic, because your every move is instinctive.

Apparently Kolo Touré and Manny Eboué are both back in the squad on Tuesday. I only hope Arsène doesn't leave them out of the starting line-up because he feels they need more rest. At their young age there should be no problem with them playing two matches in two days and under the desperate circumstances, I think most of us would have hoped the club had hired a private jet to fly them both back after the final of the African Nations Cup, so they could've at least made some contribution on Saturday. I was amazed last week when Pompey's Zambian player performed in Egypt on Tuesday and played for Pompey on Wednesday. Surely our need was at least as great as that of Harry Redknapp?

Watching Kolo & Manny play Egypt in the final was a sore reminder how much we could've done with both of them these past few weeks. I think Kolo was one of the pundits' choice for Man of the Match, while Manny could have easily won the competition for Côte d'Ivoire with a storming run into the penalty area in extra-time, which only lacked the finish to go with it. Mercifully Didier Drogba was guilty of missing a worse sitter and at least neither of them will be returning mentally affected by the immense pressure of having missed the crucial penalty kick.

It will be interesting to see what Wenger does at Anfield. Personally I would like to see him leave the current centre-back partnership of Senderos and Djourou and play Eboué in his usual position at right-back and Kolo at left-back. But I rather suspect Arsène will want to go for more experience in the middle and will therefore play Kolo with Senderos. And then it will be perm any one from four for the left-back slot and hopefully Manny, full of confidence from his exploits against some of the best on the planet, might be allowed to bring this to the party at right-back. I actually think this will be unfair on young Djourou, as the youngster has done nothing to deserve being dropped.

Myself I think the two Swiss lads work well as a partnership. A chap who sits a couple of seats from us was drawing comparisons with Ledley King and having said it, I can't help but notice that there are some distinctive similarities in their physical shape and the way they both move. With Djourou having the pace and Senderos the strength of personality, I think they make a great double-act. In fact Phillipe is perhaps the only member of the current squad with the sort of character that makes him genuine captain material (in my humble opinion)

Some people seem to have forgotten that Senderos was playing so well last season that he kept Sol Campbell out of the FA Cup Final and as a result Phillipe was first choice at the start of this season, with the Sol only risking injury as a result of splinters in the bum, warming the bench. However he's not been the same since Didier Drogba made a monkey of him a couple of time in only the second game of the season. I can't remember if there was any injury as an excuse, but if not, I am sure that getting dropped and being replaced by Pascal Cygan must've put a big dent in his confidence.

I was seriously hoping Senderos would put it all behind him by keeping Drogba quiet in the home game against Chelsea but sadly this was not to be and so at this point in time, it remains to be seen whether Phillipe is capable of developing the skill of all the best centre-backs, who are able to make up for their lack of pace against the nippiest of strikers, by being so adept at reading the game. I am seriously counting on Senderos being the real deal because there are so few candidates around these days in the Arsenal squad with his sort of demonstrative nature.

Personally I'd love to see Kolo replace Gilberto in the holding role in midfield, as I believe he's ideally suited to the Makalele type midfield enforcer role and we wouldn't have to worry about him waving a limp leg in the direction of the opposition like his Brazilian colleague. As I've mentioned below, I am convinced that Senderos wouldn't have been made to feel quite so foolish, so frequently this season if he'd received a little more support from the likes of Gilberto.

As my mate Nell pointed out Gilberto's best period at the Arsenal was when he was out injured for a long period and everyone began to believe we couldn't win a game without our "Invisible Wall". While he's been far from alone this season in looking like he's guilty of going through the motions, Gilberto's role is the one position on the park where a lack of a sufficient energy level just doesn't hack it

Freddie Ljungberg spent the entire fifteen minutes of half-time going through a warm up routine on the pitch. Personally I reckon he must've knackered himself out completely by the time he came on as sub for Diaby in the second half. At least this would be some explanation, since far from providing Le Prof with the answer, Freddie only produced more questions with one of his most anonymous performances yet.

However a side can cope with a player or two hiding when they're out on the wing (mind you, when FL8 moved into defense when Larsson went off, who could've possibly imagined at the start of this season that we'd end up watching a defensive line-up of Freddie at RB, Djourou & Senderos at CB and Flamini at LB !) but at the heart of the team, in an age where there are no easy games, there's just no way we can get away with a soft spine in the middle of the park.

In fact most of us were wondering why Wenger took of Diaby. I get the feeling from the way in which Diaby has hardly played 90 minutes in any of his appearances so far, that Wenger feels the need to try and break the youngster in gently, perhaps because he doesn't feel Abou can cope with the pace of Premiership football without a build up to 90 minutes. But I am sure I am not alone in thinking I would've much preferred to see Arsène play a tired Diaby for 90 minutes than the hair tearing frustration of watching Gilberto wander around the pitch, rarely winning possession and on the odd occasion when he does, producing a careless pass which presents the ball straight back to the opposition.

If there's been a principal cause for our inconsistency on the road this season, it's been the lack of grit and physical presence in midfield. Obviously this has resulted in everyone pointing the finger at the sale of Paddy, but my personal feeling is that even though he spent his last couple of seasons treading water, Vieira was capable of papering over the cracks in this Arsenal side without really breaking sweat. And so in his absence, the problems that were always present have become that much more apparent, as the opposition became increasingly bold and every side wanted to have a go at us because of their belief and our lack thereof without any real physical presence in our soft centred side.

The other main difference between then and now was that previously we didn't really need to worry about conceding goals, because we were more than capable of outscoring any opponent and with this in mind, I am not sure where Van Persie was on Saturday, but I sure hope he's back for our trip to Anfield.

While Jose Reyes is a player of undoubted natural ability, he appears to lack the instinctive genius of true footballing greats, the sort of quality that just can't be taught. I've not seen Jose play for Spain but I assume he's quite effective when utilised in a position where no brain power is required. I envisage Reyes flying down the wing and whipping in dangerous crosses for the sort of striker who patrols the penalty area. If he did this for the Arsenal, invariably there would be no one in the box for him to cross to and while Jose is gifted enough to get himself into good positions, all too often he seems to make the wrong decision when he gets there.

Jose Reyes certainly ain't the sharpest Sabatière in the knife barrel (see by comparison how Cesc Fabregas can already speak English fluently, while Jose still needs a translator - but then Pires is still struggling to hold a conversation after all these years, although in his case I'm sure it's laziness more than anything else) but Wayne Rooney proves the theory that you don't require an IQ to become an outstanding player. However there's an undoubted intelligence necessary, a perception of the players around you and an ability to appreciate football as if it was a chess match in which one is always thinking three moves ahead. It's a rare asset that a footballing god is either fortunate to be born with, or is destined to remain a mere professional mortal like the vast majority.

Hopefully we might see Van Persie blossom into one such heavenly being, but sadly I've seen little to suggest Reyes is ever going to scale such celestial heights.

As for all the salacious gossip which has occupied the tabloid press in recent weeks, I pride myself on thinking I am above such titillating tittle-tattle. I actually stopped buying the News Of The Screw some time ago. I think it was when this trash filled tabloid acted as agent provocateur in exposing the rugby player (was it Dallaligio?) as a fiendish pot smoker, that was the straw which broke this particular camel's back.

Nevertheless none of the other comic book red-tops are any better. Although I kid myself that I buy the Sunday Mirror for the missus, I am not above taking it to the karsey to glance at the latest gossip and so I am no less guilty than anyone else of giving them license to print such scandalous libel, slaughtering the lives of innocent individuals along the way. In truth I could really only justify taking any such trashy tabloids to the loo if I was to make use of them as toilet paper!

However I guess I don't ride sufficiently high on my righteous horse to rise above all the recent ridiculous allegations completely. When you consider the sort of constant teasing that has gone on in recent weeks, with first Spurs fans taking the piss out of Sol Campbell, with the sort of outrageously disgusting ditties which only deserve oxygen to demonstrate quite how low the Spurs scum will sink (personally no matter how much enmity I felt for an individual, even in jest I could never wish anyone "hung from a tree with HIV") and now us Gooners giving it back to them in spades, subsequent to all the rumours about Jermaine Jenas being one of the players in the NOTW story, I found it most amusing when I received an e-mail from the Irish Examiner's resident Man U fan, with a link to a comic cartoon that portrays Jenas, Will Young and Ashley Cole as the participants in the pervy goings on.

Now I wouldn't dream of suggesting there's a grain of truth to any of these sordid insinuations but it would indeed be ironic if those involved turned out to include players from both teams and so I've only included the link for its comedy value:
http://media.putfile.com/NOTW-Story---The-video

Meanwhile there'll be at least one extremely grateful Gunner if all the stories about football players sexual preferences end up focusing on someone else. Most enlightened folk find it absolutely unbelievable that the Age of Aquarius has waxed and waned without having absolutely any impact in the world of football. The only surprising thing about the lurid allegations in the NOTW is that they've not happened up until now. If its an actual fact that 10 per cent of the male populations is gay, then it stands to reason that the ranks of professional football are absolutely crammed with several closets full of frightened pooftas (s'cuse the decidedly un-PC terminology)

Those of us who are long enough in the tooth to recall the incessant stick suffered by poor Justin Fashanu, of the sort that must have contributed to him eventually taking his own life, you will also remember that it was quite tame compared to the bilious hate filled language of the modern day barbarians. "You couldn't score in a brothel" sounds positively sweet compared to the sort of songs being dreamed up by the very worst of the Spurs scum.

Sadly as a result, it's patently apparent why any professional footballer would be absolutely petrified of being publically "outed" because it would be absolutely unbearable for any of them to have to try and perform each week whilst being slaughtered by several thousand heartless fans

Meanwhile it seems to me that we wouldn't need to be worrying what any of our players got up to of an evening, so long as they're getting plenty of satisfaction out on the pitch. So let's all hope they're making plenty of whoopee come Wednesday

Big Love
Bernard



_____________________________________________________________


Will You Be My Valentine?

The bloke who sits beside me returned from his halftime libations on Saturday with a handful of Liverpool tickets. It seems that there weren’t many takers for the trip to Merseyside this Tuesday. The prospect of a 10 hour road trip involves taking at least half a day off work and then you are hardly going to be particularly bright eyed and bushy tailed for a full day’s graft after getting back in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

What’s more many will already be testing their employer’s patience and perhaps their partner’s, with next week’s trip to Madrid. Mercifully I don’t have a boss to answer to, as I’ve always marvelled how committed Gooners manage to arrange all the time off work to follow the Arsenal around this country and much of the Continent.

Doubtless there must plenty of TV viewers who’d love to be at Anfield in person, drinking in the live atmosphere. But there are probably few who truly appreciate the sort of commitment and the sacrifice necessary for the most staunch footie nutters.

Many a marriage has floundered because the better half hadn’t fully appreciated that they’d be involved in a bigamous relationship for ten months of the year, sharing their partner with thirty odd players in a football squad. You could argue that the bond between the club and its supporters is much stronger than a marriage, since divorce just doesn’t even exist as an option. What’s more, most are a little wary about admitting it, but I’d guess that few Gooners went home after Saturday’s game, to experience anything quite so ecstatic as the elation felt when the ball finally hit the back of the net in the 93rd minute!

Such salacious metaphors were most appropriate for this particular match. The Arsenal’s feeble fumbling during the first 45 minutes of foreplay, ensured that by half-time most Gooners at Highbury would’ve been happy to cry off with a headache, in the hope of rolling over and at least getting a good night’s kip. However the improvement in the second-half saw us spend the last 20 minutes suffering the torture of a totally exhausting conquest, eventually reaching a point where, as a result of Bolton’s desperate but doughty defence and the goal defying feats of their keeper, we wondered if we were destined never to reach climax.

Some were already heading for the exits, believing Wenger’s Arsenal side in dire need of some footballing Viagra in order to satisfy the faithful. While the rest of us were just about ready to give up the ghost, when the least likely amongst Highbury’s harlots finished us off in fine style.

It’s strange because in light of the sort of amazing success the Arsenal have enjoyed in recent seasons, I could’ve never imagined a mere equalising goal against Bolton galvanising us Gooners into such a euphoric state. While plenty were more than happy to settle for a point, the greedier amongst us were hoping that there might even be just enough time for us to come again and take all three.

It remains to be seen whether Gilberto’s goal and the point it earned will prove to be crucial in the great scheme of things. Yet it’s importance can be measured in quite how gutted we would’ve been and the melancholy mood which would’ve enveloped the club if we hadn’t managed to score.

I’m sure the inept officiating was a factor, but it seems I tempted fate in last week’s piece, as Gooner patience finally gave out on Saturday, when, I believe for the first time this season, the boos rang out loud and clear as the players left the pitch at half-time.

However in our results driven society, where football supporters aren’t exactly renowned for their solidarity when things go awry, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the rare sensitivity demonstrated by Arsenal fans thus far. Few Gooners have got on the backs of players like Flamini and Larsson for the occasional ricket, as it’s appreciated that they are being asked to graft their socks off in an unfamiliar role. Similarly we’ve suffered the odd lapse in concentration, or manifestation of a lack of experience from Senderos and Djourou, without too much gnashing of Gooner teeth because this young Swiss centre-back pairing has shown incredible promise for the future.

By and large, most Gooners remain incredibly grateful for the privilege of watching the most wonderful football Highbury, or any other stadium for that matter, has ever seen in recent seasons. But the senior squad members have traded on their stock of goodwill, to the point where it’s eventually been exhausted. The fact that he’s spent the most time on the pitch probably doesn’t help his cause, but Gilberto’s perhaps the most obvious scapegoat and so I’m not sure it was a coincidence that the Brazilian ran away from the North Bank after scoring his astonishingly skilful goal

From what I’ve gleaned from the surprising result at the Riverside (where suddenly our 2-1 defeat doesn’t look quite so awful), Chelsea suffered from the fact that Essien, Makalele’s replacement as midfield enforcer, was forced to withdraw to left-back. With Bridge loaned out to Fulham and Johnson not even in the squad, at least it’s evidence that perhaps “the special one” ain’t quite so prescient as many would have us believe.

Yet this match lends credence to the crucial role of the holding player in the centre of the park in the modern game. Watching Gilberto dangling a limp leg out, in an ineffectual attempt to thwart a Bolton attack, I can’t help but surmise that the majority of our defensive inadequacies, have all too often been exposed due to the lack of protection they’ve been afforded from the players in front of them.

I have to tell you, that as one of his loudest critics, I must give credit where it’s due to Robert Pires. You could hear the sound of gobsmacked Gooner jaws hitting the floor all around the ground, at the sight of Pires actually getting stuck-in. Possibly the penny has dropped, or the more cynical might suggest that, coming off the bench for Reyes, Robert was merely making the most of the window dressing, which was about as subtle as a ‘come and get me’ plea on eBay!

Up until Saturday there were only 3 games all season where we’ve come away with something after going a goal down (and one of those was Gilberto’s last gasp goal at Doncaster!). So it was great to witness this rare fight back. Yet most will be left wondering why the intensity of the last 30 was lacking for the first hour of the game.

The Gunners are going to need to be on their game for the entire 90, if we are going to get anything out of our trip to Anfield. All but the hardiest of the Highbury faithful will be watching from the comfort of their living rooms, rather than risk yet another awayday disappointment. Now if we were 4 points behind Chelsea with a game in hand, instead of Spurs, it might be a different story. I only hope my missus can forgive me for spending Valentines night shouting at my only other true love.
________________________________________________________

For The Observer's The Verdict column:


The little girl sitting with her dad in front of me was crying that she wanted to go home at half-time; well she was far from alone. A sarcastic groan greeted the customary showing of the first-half highlights on the big screens. There weren’t any! In fact the club have taken to firing t-shirts into the crowd at the break with an air-pressure cannon that could take someone’s head off. It was the most excitement we’d had up until then, Admittedly we Gooners ended with broad grins, utterly elated over the injury time equalizer. Yet most were left wondering why we couldn’t bring the intensity of the last 20 to the rest of the game?




E-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What A Difference A Game Makes

Hi folks

Really we should be reserving judgment, at least until Saturday's encounter with Fat Sam Allardyce's side, as it's seems like an eternity since we last recorded consecutive wins. But our first away win since Boxing Day was always going to have a positive effect on the gloomy Gooner mood.

Things would've looked even brighter if Spurs had stumbled against Charlton at the Lane on Sunday but I guess we can't be greedy and once we get our own house in order, hopefully everything else will fall into place (or more's the point, Spurs fall a few places :-).

Still after reading about young Theo Walcott's first goal for the reserves in this morning's papers, I am sure I'm not far from alone in feeling a whole heap more optimistic than I did this time last week (not hard, when you consider I had the Samaritans on fast dial!). Up until then the Arsenal were having a dodgy season, as "a team in transition" - such a meaningless expression since every team is in "transition" until they win something and for some this is a very near permanent state!

However when Sol walked out last Wednesday, on top of our first defeat at home to the Hammers in umpteen years, it was as if this was a signal for the flood gates to open for all the "Arsenal in crisis" stories. Taking a realistic view, fifth in the league, with a glamorous last sixteen game against Real Madrid to come in the Champions League and about to move to a marvelous 60 thousand seater new stadium, oh how many other Premiership would love to have our troubles!

Meanwhile thankfully Gooner glasses are suddenly beginning to appear half full, especially if we can finally begin to build on our away win against Birmingham. The way this season has panned out, most of us would now gladly settle for sneaking into the Champions League, finishing higher than Spurs and looking forward to the opening game at the new gaff, with a young squad that's shown signs of promising a future that could be every bit as bright as our recent past.

Although it's hard not to cling to some fantastic Champions League fancies, simply because we've so far saved all the good fortune that appears to have evaded us in the Premiership, for our European encounters. Mind you Gooner gal, Amy Lawrence brought a little reality to this far fetched dream with her piece in Sunday's Observer putting a dampener on my reasoning that if Liverpool were able to win it last season, why not us.

Ever since the season started I've had this feeling that so many years of under achievement might finally benefit us. With our worst ever team on paper, we were for once off the radar as far as all the pundits favourites were concerned and as a result we might avoid much of the pressure which has previously proved so fateful because expectations have eased considerably. However unless Abou Diaby truly fulfils his early promise, almost instantaneously, the big difference between us and Liverpool is that we are without a Gerrard type talismanic leader on the pitch and in this teams recent incarnation, we've failed abysmally to come back from a goal down, let alone three.

After watching a pretty strong Real Madrid side drop out of the Copa Del Rey following a dreadful performance, the Galacticos hardly look like they are firing on all cylinders. Although like us they now have nothing else but the Champs League to play for and Real are just one of four of Europe's finest sides, between us and our fantasies of the big-eared trophy

Still you never know, apparently it still remains "a funny old game"

Big Love
Bernard
_______________________________________________________

What A Difference A Game Makes

The Arsenal’s lamentable record on the road this season has resulted in a totally understandable loss of enthusiasm amongst many travelling fans. The majority are on the ‘Away Match Ticket Scheme’, whereby in order to guarantee getting into the most glamorous fixtures in the football calendar, we’re forced to commit ourselves to tickets to every single away match. Whether you want them or not, the tickets turn up in the post and the dosh gets deducted from your credit card.

If it wasn’t for the outrageous liberty of having already been taxed for an extortionate 42 quid, for a lousy seat behind the goal, I’m sure there were quite a few Gooners at St. Andrews on Saturday who might not have bothered schlepping to Birmingham. I myself might have wavered, if the game was being shown live on the box. But then I’d feel a bit of an impostor. The whole point of this column is to try and impart a little flavour from the terraces that can’t be found elsewhere and I can hardly take the pulse of the hard core Gooners, from the comfort of my armchair!

Still with my missus still sunning herself in Tenerife, at their annual gathering of the Dublin coterie of the o’Murchú clan, getting to the game was plenty of aggravation. Mercifully my Ma undertook dog-sitting duty. So I dropped Treacle off and drove to Watford Junction. Arriving with only minutes to spare, I dumped the car in a drop-off area. But you can’t get on to the platform at Watford without a ticket. So I was forced to stand there tearing my hair out, in a painfully slow queue, unable to believe that I was watching the electronic notice board indicate that my train had pulled in and departed again, before I could purchase a ticket!

At least this meant I was able to move the car and it was well worth the 6 quid car park fee, rather than spending the rest of the day fretting about the possibility of a 40 quid parking fine. However I was then panicking as the next train was due to arrive only 20 minutes before KO. Even if I caught a cab from New Street station I couldn’t afford any delay.

With the dreadfully unreliable rail network, especially at weekends, few Gooners had risked this train. But I found a couple of familiar faces to share a cab with. I was so surprised to find myself outside the ground with minutes to spare, that it felt as if I should get the taxi to do a few laps of the disgustingly ugly, concrete colossus of the Bullring to ensure I was traditionally tardy. As ever the subject of conversation in the cab turned to outrageous cost of our tickets. As about the worst culprits in the Premiership, few Gooners will be aggrieved if Steve Bruce’s side should be relegated.

Sunderland supporters visiting St. Andrews in a couple of weeks will pay 17 quid less than us for the exact same crappy view and with most clubs grading ticket prices in a similar fashion these days, it must cost us fans of the high profile clubs considerably more over the course of an entire season than the majority of supporters.

Despite the fact that it’s incredibly unfair, I guess we’ve grown accustomed to the manner in which Premiership clubs increasingly take the mickey, out of the immutable loyalty that makes a mockery of all the usual laws of supply and demand.

Mind you plenty of long-suffering fans stayed away from St. Andrews on Saturday. Even though it wasn’t live on the box, it was far from a sell out and the same must’ve been true elsewhere, as the TV cameras couldn’t avoid vast areas of empty seats, almost everywhere except Old Trafford and St. James Park - and the expanses of uninhabited terracing evident in the coverage of Serie A and La Liga suggest a similar story on the Continent. Whilst others might not make such a public display, I’m certain many can sympathise with the Boro fan who was so desperate to return his season-ticket to the prospective England manager. There was a poignant malevolence to his aggressive manner, as this was a perfect example of the sort of passion, that’s so obviously missing from Mclaren’s side.

I conveniently ignore the fact that I can no longer afford my footie addiction. But hopefully there will soon come a time where no amount of conveniently placed effects mics or strategic camera angles, will be able to disguise the fact that more fiscally responsible fans are being forced to stay away in their droves. Moreover the round-the-clock TV coverage is long past saturation point and since Murdoch’s media monopoly became the Premiership’s paymaster, it’ll only be when the empty stadia start to impact on the viewing figures, that clubs might be forced into a fairer pricing policy, having finally plumbed the depths of out previously bottomless pockets.

Even with the aid of my binoculars, I am more than used to being able to see sweet FA at the other end of the ground at away games. However our Highbury library only offers a maintenance dose for my addiction and I need to get my regular fix of real footie atmosphere by attending away games so religiously.

At St. Andrews I overheard the wife of a couple in the front row complaining about the awful view. They subsequently moved to some empty seats in front of me and when our new Togolese striker bundled his first ever Arsenal goal into the back of the net, she was cracking up about it costing so much and coming all that way, only to have to wait to see it properly on TV!

I tried to impress upon her that the important thing was not whether she’d seen it or not, but the fact that she was there. Additionally, unlike all the gutted Gooners who didn’t bother travelling to Brum, she’s amongst an exclusive club of a couple of thousand of us, who can say we were present to laud Thierry Henry on the occasion of his landmark 200th goal. Thankfully Titi waited until the second half to score his goal and suddenly all our complaints about ticket costs evaporated and the penny finally dropped for this relatively new disciple, as you simply can’t put a price on the privilege of witnessing the mesmerising magic of the maestro, almost within touching distance.

Southern fans are notorious for being more fickle than their Northern counterparts and yet whilst we all whinged in private that for his £100k a week, the least Campbell could’ve done was to turn up and offer the youngsters his support. Nevertheless following a week’s worth of tabloid torture, it warmed the cockles of my heart to hear us running through the entire repertoire of Sol’s songs, throughout the game, demonstrating our undiminished support for out centre-back. It’s the same story with Wenger, who’s built up such a stock of Gooner goodwill, that unlike other clubs in a similar boat, I can’t once recall him or his team being booed during a largely dismal season.

I for one was mighty relieved to see us revert to 4-4-2 away from home and it was a brave move to send out such a young and inexperienced side. It remains to be seen at the Reebok whether we’ve really turned the corner, as young Abou Diaby does his best to fill Paddy’s sizeable footwear. The song of the day points to most Arsenal fans favourite for our prospective upturn in form “Diaby, wohohoho. We signed him from Auxerre, he’s every-f*ckin-where. Diaby….”

E-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Invisible Wall? Humpty Dumpty more like!

Considering that we actually didn't perform too badly in Wednesday's debacle against West Ham, where we had countless efforts on goal without a sniff of good fortune, compared to the Hammers, who seemed to have three bloomin' chances and hit the back of the net with each of them and on the basis that the babies in Wenger's current crop were once again without doubt the best of a bad bunch and didn't deserve to end up on the losing side, while the senior squad members were guilty of the crime of going missing the moment things went against us in the match (sadly an all too frequent occurrence these days), for me the Arsenal's current plight was summed up most succinctly (although no doubt it'll take me a few thousand words to tell you about it!), when without a bye or leave, Ray my West Upper neighbour just got up and walked out without a second glance, as Etherington's goal hit the back of the net on 80 minutes last Wednesday.

Now I've never been able to target Ray in the past, as I tease all the other "leave early to beat the traffic" type Gooners. Then again, taking the piss out of such kettle "part-timers" is more than a little bit hypocritical, coming from a black pot with my tardy arrival habits!

Ray's not in the habit of exiting THOF before the final whistle and the only other time I've seen him walk out before the end of a game was against Man Utd at Old Trafford, where, while everyone else spent the second-half slagging off poor Igor Stepanovs as their principal scapegoat, he and his mates were already halfway back down the motorway, having walked out at half-time with the score already 5-1 (I think?).

So when Pires actually pulled one back on 89 minutes on Wednesday, I turned to the bloke who sits beside him and said that Ray would be absolutely gutted, if we ended up getting the point he'd been prepared to settle for at 0-2 down at the break and he'd missed it, having walked out in disgust after conceding a third

But I sympathised entirely with his sentiments, as I'd done exactly the same last week. As usual I was tuned into the earpiece from my terrace tranny during the Wigan game and when Jason Roberts mugged our two central defenders at the death, whilst everyone else in the North Bank was still contemplating the away goal ramifications, I was up and out of my front row seat, heading home to check on Treacle (our spoilt pooch), after freezing my cods off for 120 minutes, absolutely indignant that we'd been done up like kippers as a result of an inexcusable last gasp lapse in concentration.

However this was hardly a risky sacrifice, as there were only seconds left on the clock. Whereas on Wednesday there was another ten minutes to go. Yet while Le Bob did manage to pull one back, I think that for me, without doubt the most depressing factor this season has been that game over inevitability about it all, whenever we've gone a goal down

I've been watching footie long enough to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with relative good grace. But what I simply can't abide is the apparent lack of spirit, the patent absence of hunger and passion. We've sacrificed a substantial proportion of the traditional Arsenal values during the Wenger era. Yet we've been more than duly compensated by the incredible entertainment we've enjoyed in their stead.

Nevertheless I grew up on a diet of typically gritty football for which the Arsenal were once renowned. I had to suffer the piss taking of my Spurs relatives for years for choosing the dour brand of the beautiful game, over the far prettier but ultimately hapless fare on offer at White Hart Lane. Looking back I always find it hard to put my finger on it. There was this air of opulence at Highbury, the smell of old money in the Marble Halls and all the history that came with it. Yet perhaps it was ultimately just the fact that my bony nine year old bum preferred the padded seats, instead of fidgeting for 90 minutes on the painful wooden ones found at Spurs.

Still I like to think that my choice (as in those days my old man would often take me on alternate weeks to see both teams play) was based on my attraction to the Arsenal's "never say die" spirit, our trademark steadfast refusal to accept a dodgy hand dealt by the fickle fingers of fortune, until the final whistle eventually sounded the battle's end. This is where I learned never to leave before the end, despite my old man's best efforts to literally drag me out by the hand.

And this is what I find most disappointing, as I can forgive footballers anything, even the combination of a lack of pace, one footedness and limited natural ability of poor Pascal Cygan, so long as I am confident they've left it all out on the field - to the extent that I can feel confident that the result matters as much to them as it does to me.

At least against WHU on Wednesday there was a rare demonstration that there was a little fight left in the Arsenal dog after going a goal (or even two) down. Whereas sadly this was decidedly absent in the FA Cup against Bolton. In the past, if we were unfortunate to concede an 84th minute goal, at least we'd be guaranteed there’d be a little hope left in a six minute onslaught, which would have us glued to the seat in hope of some last gasp redemption

Can you imagine Martin Keown suffering the opposition wasting time, holding play up by the corner flag? Plug would've clattered both ball and man into the stands before you could ask "how long?"

But then I guess this all comes back to a lack of leadership. I think Arsène has twice made the error of awarding the captaincy as a carrot, instead of rewarding the sort of character who might use it as a stick with which to encourage their team mates to play to their full potential

It's easy to point the finger at the sale of Paddy as the principal cause of all our current problems and it is indeed true that this squad has been left devoid of the focal point of Vieira's immense physical presence at the heart of our midfield. Perhaps Paddy would've prevented this season's calamitous inconsistency. Perhaps not?

My feeling is that in his last two seasons treading water at Highbury, Paddy was only helping to paper over the cracks. I'm not one for recalling the stats, but I can't imagine there were too many games where we were forced to try and turn the match around after conceding goals

To my mind we were and still are a fair-weather team, capable of producing the sort of marvellous football that few sides can live with when everything is going in our favour. However it seems as if it’s only been this season that suddenly the opposition have begun to find us out and to quote Gooner gal Amy Lawrence (see the Observer) “les poulets have come home to roost”!

I’ve heard several pundits picking the bones out of our defensive errors. But while Sol and Senderos have played like complete strangers, they’ve both been exposed by the lack of protection in front of them, as our World Cup winner has looked less like an “Invisible Wall” and more like Humpty Dumpty !

Ironically Gilberto’s best period at THOF was when he was out injured last season and suddenly all the loudmouthed hindsight pundits were singing his praises, suggesting to those of us who’ve never quite understood exactly what he does, that our poor performances were proof positive of how much we missed his presence.

I’ve studied the enigma that is Gilberto, giving him more attention than most in the Arsenal squad, as I’ve tried to comprehend the arguments of those who’d contend he offered essential but ultimately inconspicuous protection. Last season I often commented that I’ve never seen a player who was quite so capable of this amazing feat of achieving a successful challenge, yet somehow failing to come away with possession of the ball.

Meanwhile watching the Brazilian in recent weeks, one of the most bemedalled members of the Arsenal squad, I’ve been less bemused and more infuriated by the sight of Gilberto dangling out an ineffectual leg in a vapid effort to prevent the opposition’s progress.

To be honest there’s a sense of relief about poor Sol Campbell’s plight (as they say in yiddish, I should have his £100k a week “tzores”!). If there’s any truth to the salacious gossip that Campbell is cracking up under the pressure of feeling that the possibility of him being “outed” in the tabloid press is always imminent, then at least this would explain where his head’s at, since it’s quite plainly not been in control of his physical faculties in recent weeks.

Then again, despite the amusing images I’ve had of the Highbury suits desperately scanning the small print of Sol’s insurance policy with a fine tooth comb, searching for the get-out clause which would cover them in the event of a psychological breakdown, as opposed to a physical one, as far as I am concerned, ever since I witnessed Senderos and Djourou’s centre-back partnership in the demolition of Boro, I’ve been convinced that this could be the Arsenal’s future and on the basis that Sol was already on the downward spiral of his career beforehand, we should be allowing the two youngsters to develop their partnership.

I am sure that when Kolo returns, hopefully this weekend, in spite of the contributing factor of the feckless protection in front of them, our recent defensive errors will ensure Kolo is returned immediately to our back line. Although I am inclined to wonder if Kolo isn’t one of the few players in the Arsenal squad capable of providing the crucial grit, which we’ve been found so wanting of in our midfield

As it stands at the moment we’ve suffered watching our side crack each week because there’s no backbone running down the middle of Wenger’s invertebrates and it’s the senior players frailties that show then up as totally spineless

I am no xenophobe. I could care less where players come from and hopefully when Diaby adapts to the pace of the Premiership, he’ll prove to be the panacea for all our Paddy-less problems

However Arsène has always complained about the fact that his choice of buying players was limited to foreigners because of the over inflated market prices in this country. Yet if you look at the current Spurs squad (and perhaps it was Arnessen who takes the credit prior to being poached by Chelsea?) with the likes of Carrick, Lennon and Huddlestone - who having seen him play in the England U21s, I haven't understood why Huddlestone’s had to wait so long for his Spurs debut? - they've managed to achieve a backbone of British players without breaking the bank

Some would point to our failure to purchase Carrick as a potential replacement for Paddy. I’m yet to be convinced. But I would've loved to have seen him and some more players from these shores within our squad.

I doubt Wenger’s crop of kids would’ve got anything like the sort of exposure they’ve received lately, if it wasn’t for recent circumstances. And so while we are now blessed with this bunch of extremely promising youngsters, the other distinct group of elder professionals amongst the first eleven have existed in a comfort zone for far too long. They might have dropped in and out of the starting line up, but ultimately their places in the squad have been so secure that elements of complacency have been bound to creep into their game

Whereas I think if you look at the other four teams above us (perhaps with the exception of Man Utd), you get the distinct feeling when watching them play, that the vast majority are working their socks off to impress because there are players waiting to replace them. Even watching the likes of Blackburn I get the sense that there's an edge to the players game due to competition in their squad (perhaps I'm stretching the imagination here)

And if you go through the other clubs, taking the likes of Julian Gray, Jermaine Pennant, Jerome Thomas. David Bentley, Steve Sidwell, Graham Stack - you could make a good case for a half decent eleven of the youngsters who've left THOF of late

I only hope that Pennant doesn’t get an opportunity to prove this particular argument tomorrow. But more than this I can’t bear the thought of Wenger’s Arsenal side going to St. Andrews and handing the home side a substantial psychological advantage, by suggesting that our far more talented team need adapt their game to counter the line-up of far less adept opponents. For a devoted aficionado of 4-4-2, I’ve already suggested Arsène might be losing the plot if Le Prof once again makes the mistaking of being drawn into slugging it out with a brawler, when we should be dancing our way around this bunch of losers and bamboozling them with our punching speed

Amy Lawrence got it spot on when she reversed the line in my last blog entry and I sincerely hope that for once we can begin to turn it around for real tomorrow, instead of us having to suffer another 90 minutes of a Gunners side “stinging like a butterfly and floating like a bee!!”

Until we can ditch those dead unlucky shirts and get back to playing in our proper colours…come on you Redcurrants

Big Love
Bernard