Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Anyone Gotta Light!

(then why not burn down the new stadium so Arsène can bolster our squad with the insurance!)

Hi folks

I was sorely tempted to start tapping away at my keyboard, when I eventually returned home late Saturday night, if only to vent my frustration in your direction, rather than lying in bed, mulling over my Arsenal misery. Mercifully, after such an exhausting outing, sleep soon came like a welcome friend. So hopefully I am now able to put our worst ever Premiership start into some proper perspective, instead of inflicting a long-winded rant on everyone.

At least my miserable day out didn't do too much damage to my pocket, as I didn't have to stump up an extortionate sixty quid on the train, thanks to being offered a lift in a Gooner pal’s people mover. Mind you if I was 'cream crackered', I can only imagine how tired he was, after having spent ten hours at the wheel. I'm not sure whether to feel grateful or insulted that John didn't fancy my driving for a stint at wheel, but I’m extremely grateful to him for having taking us all the way there and back

Another mate who couldn't make it to Manchester had given me his two tickets to see if I could find a suitable home for them and Femi, a Nigerian Gooner on the Arsenal mailing list who was flying into London on Saturday was contemplating travelling to his first ever away game. I'd explained that his Arsenal education wouldn't be complete, until he'd taken in an away match. But to be honest, I was glad he decided against it, as aside from the complicated arrangements, it was demoralising enough travelling up from London for such a dreadful result, let alone schlepping all the way from Lagos!

One of the spare tickets went to one of the six of us in the motor and I was hoping that I'd get rid of the other when we got to the ground. But we were delayed by so many traffic jams on route that we only arrived with a few minutes to spare and although I hung about outside right up until kick-off, there were no takers. However I am always loathe to walk into a ground with a spare ticket in my pocket and with so few stragglers outside, I didn't think it worth leaving it with a steward.

I spotted a couple of young black kids being hassled by an intimidating bunch of coppers and so I walked up to them and asked if one of them wanted to use my one spare ticket. The copper nearest me piped up "I didn't hear that", to which I replied "what's the problem, there's no money changing hands". It's absolutely outrageous that the old bill at some stadia won't hesitate to nick genuine fans who are merely trying to flog face value spares, while all too conspicuous touts can operate outside most every ground with apparent impunity.

As I hurried off to get to my seat, I overheard the copper continuing to question these kids "I thought you said you were meeting up with the person who has your tickets?" With our home form in some doubt until we settle into the unfamiliar surroundings of our new stadium, we're desperate for a consistent run on the road. While my charitable act wasn’t quite so pre-meditated, I was kind of hoping for an instant return on my good karma. I certainly didn’t expect this depressing defeat!

Once inside, it soon became clear that I would’ve been lucky to place the other ticket, as although it didn’t seem like there were many spare seats amongst us Gooners, I was surprised to see so many empty seats elsewhere in the stadium. I get the distinct sense that Sky’s wall-to-wall live broadcasts are finally beginning to have a more significant impact on attendance figures.

With the cyclical nature of football, I’ve found myself predicting that the Premiership bubble might be bursting these past few years. However after the boom in football’s popularity has seen Premiership clubs playing to mostly full houses ever since it started, the sight of so many empty seats at almost every live game on the box this season, might actually suggest that the high cost of tickets and the carpet coverage have eventually found the beautiful game’s breaking point.

I was amazed to see so many at Highbury…sorry, it’s going to be a while before I am able to break that habit….at our new stadium last Wednesday for what, at 3-0 up after our encounter in Zagreb, was basically a dead leg. However I suppose if there is a marked downturn in attendance figures, the Arsenal will be insured against it for some time, by nature of the number of pre-sold season tickets and the fact that every footie fan wants to check out our spanking new home

Our new gaff has a far more grandiose feel to Man City’s municipal facility. But considering it was built to stage the athletics in the Commonwealth Games and compared to a dilapidated Maine Road, it’s quite an impressive ground, not too dissimilar to our own. From inside, the main difference is that the curve of the upper tier leaves the majority of seats along the side, rather than behind the goal. Official figures suggest they sold 40 of the 48 thousand seats on Saturday, but to my eyes, although there weren’t many empty seats in the lower tier, higher up it appeared almost half full. This might serve as a warning for the future for the Arsenal suits.

I also find it hard to believe that the Arsenal managed to flog all the Club Level seats at the prices they are charging and can only imagine most have been paid for as a business expense (can you still write off such “corporate entertaining” against tax?). It was some sight seeing this vast arena, fairly full, under floodlights for the first time. However the criticisms continue to flow a lot quicker than my compliments.

Under the bright lights the bare grey concrete fascia on the front of each level looks even uglier than it does in daylight. I am amazed that the club has yet to flog any of this space for advertising, or tart it up with a lick of paint. Personally I think it’s the ideal area for some Arsenal-ification of our new gaff.

Although perhaps they already have on our side, the East side of the ground. I was relieved when we first went to the ground to see that the electronic advertising hoardings were only on three sides and not the one facing us as I find the bright flashing colours can be dreadfully distracting. However we wondered at first whether they just hadn’t got around to finishing. Whereas thankfully it would seem that this isn’t going to happen, either because the main camera position is on the opposite side to us, or so that the players and bench have unobstructed views or access.

It’s also a bit embarrassing to see so many of the Club Level seats empty when the game restarts after the break. I imagine many of them are still quaffing their complimentary drinks. While I’d guess others are too busy ‘networking’ with all the high-rollers, to bother about the game, as it would appear that there are some up there who can only justify the expense, by doing the bit of business which might see them garnering a return on their Gooner investment.

Such apparent disinterest in proceedings on the pitch is hardly likely to inspire the players and what’s more it leaves us wide open to all sorts of “prawn circle” piss taking. However what is a bit annoying for me must be a dreadful wind-up for those who’ve stumped up a small fortune simply for their fabulous view, only to find it being disturbed every few seconds by the constant trickle of those who eventually remember the reason they are there in the first place.

Mind you my typically tardy arrival for kick-off and my eventual return from sucking on a couple of fags in the stairwell during the break, to raise my nicotine level for the second half, has already resulted in several dark looks from those I disturb in my lower tier row. Although our seats are very luxurious and we enjoy more leg room than I can recall experiencing at any other stadium, most have already discovered that the length of the base of our seats means that you can no longer merely raise ones bum to let other pass, but have to stand up completely.

It remains to be seen how strictly the stewards enforce the no-smoking policy. There seemed to be a lack of consistency so far, as at the Villa game, there were absolutely loads of people smoking blatantly all the way along the upper tier concourse. Perhaps something has been said since, as on Wednesday everyone was congregating for a fag in the stairwells, with the stewards appearing every now and again to call a temporary halt to the habits of all of us disgusting nicotine addicts.

They tried to introduce a similar total smoking ban at White Hart Lane, but Spurs were eventually forced to relent when all the smokers also started to congregate in the stairwell at half-time, as this presented a serious health & safety risk, which, unlike their patrons self-inflicted lung damage, the club would be responsible for. So now the Spurs punters are only not allowed to smoke ‘while the match is in progress’.

To my mind this is worse than no ban at all at White Hart Lane, as was the case at Highbury. Instead of folk puffing away in the fresh air, the passive smoking problem is magnified, as the air within the tight confines of the concourse at half-time is utterly polluted. Whereas this wouldn’t be a bad compromise at our new arena, with such high ceilings and airy vestibules. What’s more it’s one which might well be needed before long, because if our bad form should continue, we’ll all be back on the fags within a month!

Peace & Love
Bernard

PS. I adored the Reo-Coker rumour in this Sunday's Observer, as West Ham's young captain appears to have stacks of the sort of "roll up ones sleeves" type personality that I've referred to in this week's piece. According to the article in the paper Reo-Coker has a buy out clause which entitles him to leave if any of the top three Premiership teams make a suitable bid, which would seem to rule out a 4th placed Arsenal? What's more it would be totally out of character for Wenger to spend the sort of money on a British youngster, which would buy him three experienced continentals. Go on Arsène, suprise us all and whilst you're at it, why not go for a "twofer" deal and get them to throw in an injured Dean Ashton!

--
e-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

Monday, August 28, 2006

Roll On The Champions League

Somehow our brisk walk back to the car on Saturday seemed so much longer. But then I guess that having not enjoyed a home win against the Arsenal for over15 years, City fans were more than entitled to savour their moment. Although it was a shame that so many of them missed out on this rare occurrence, as there were huge swathes of empty seats in the upper tiers of the Eastlands Stadium.

Those who were present certainly didn’t waste their opportunity to inflict on us the sort of waggery that had me zipping up my coat, over my colours and hoping this painful walk would be over as soon as possible. While I was doing my cowardly best to be as inconspicuous as possible, my Gooner pal couldn’t resist returning some friendly fire. Knowing the propensity of some overly boisterous Mancunian ‘boyos’ to want to send the southerners packing, I kept pace with my mate, while really I wanted to cross the road and pretend I had nothing to do with him!

It had taken us 5 traffic-ridden hours to reach Manchester and hunkering down in the back of the people mover for the return trip, I just wanted this awful day over. Ending the first, furious week of this eight-month marathon, eight points behind the leaders is the sort of lachrymose body blow, which must’ve had the North London Samaritans on overtime. In fact the way this season is panning out, with some already writing off our Premiership prospects, I might be best putting this phone number for the distraught on speed dial.

In spite of my black mood and arriving back past midnight, I still couldn’t resist enduring a masochistic replay in the company of Lineker & co. Watching the highlights was a strange experience. I’m still somewhat perplexed as to why we were playing in yellow, as the red and white of Arsenal against the sky blue of City is such a footballing classic. It conjures upimages from my childhood of titanic encounters involving such 70s giants as Radford, Graham & Mclintock versus Lee, Sumerbee & Bell.

Mind you the likes of Franny Lee and Mike Sumerbee were hardly giants in stature, but they had real presence on a football pitch, which is exactly what the Arsenal are missing at the moment. The replays of us hitting the woodwork and missing several chances, might lead one to conclude that we were merely victims of bad luck and a Thierry Henry who’s struggling to find some form. However, not for the first time, the highlights hardly told the whole story.

Once again the Gunners were guilty of overplaying, continuing to frustrate the hell out of those of us in the stands, as the pretty passing patterns produced so little end product. Yet in my opinion this is a symptom of Le Prof’s problems, not the cause. Our efforts to walk the ball into the back of the net are nothing to do with a supposed laughable obsession with goal-scoring perfection. It’s evidence that we’re lacking the sort of leaders who’re prepared to grasp the nettle and take responsibility in front of goal.

There’s ability enough in our first XI and on our day, we’re still perfectly capable of putting any team to the sword. But it’s in adversity that an individual’s true characteristics come to light and when things aren’t going the way of this Gunners side, without the odd moment of inspiration from Henry, one just doesn’t get the sense that we possess a player with the strength of personality to turn a game around.

Aged only 19, Fabregas is already capable of directing traffic and controlling the tempo of the game. Perhaps given time, the young Spanish prodigy will grow into the role of a player capable of rallying his troops. But as yet Cesc doesn’t have the sort of presence necessary to dominate the centre of the park, by displaying a point blank refusal to accept defeat.

I made the mistake of answering a call from a Gooner pal who pummelled my ears with such a vexatious volley, that if I wasn’t miserable enough already, I was positively suicidal by the time she’d finished. Although we had a good laugh after I told her that I was beginning to regret answering her call and she advised me that I was only bearing the full brunt because she’d been unable to vent her anger as all her other Gooner mates had turned their phones off.

As one does, they’d been debating in the boozer whether any of the boys in Arsène’s current squad would merit a first team place in Le Prof’s marvellous Class of ’98 (obviously with the exception of Henry, although on current form, I’m not even sure he’d be a certainty). It’s a salient point, as that team was well stocked with leadership qualities and if you compare the colossuses from that squad lining up in the tunnel, with their counterparts from Saturday, I know which team I’d find more intimidating.

It was this loss of stature after Vieira’s departure, which saw us taken for a soft touch last season. However there was a halo effect with our Champions League run that saw us regain some of our former respect towards the end of the last campaign. Instead of everyone wanting to take us on, our opponents approach to matches became much less ambitious.

Perceptions are very important and after only two games we’ve given away this advantage. Unless Wenger can find some way of rectifying this immediately, all future opposition will be encouraged by the way in which we’ll be represented in the media as no longer being such a force to be reckoned with.

With the publication of Ashley Cole’s book dependent on his departure, due to the fact that it’s so full of scathing comments about the club that’s fostered his career since Cole was in short pants, I’m convinced this antipathetic deal will eventually get done. But the two clubs hold each other in such contempt that I can’t help but wonder whether Chelsea’s refusal to blink first is a pre-meditated ruse, knowing full well that our precarious financial position prevents Wenger spending money he doesn’t yet have at his disposal.

As far as Reyes is concerned, aside from the destabilising effect of having a want away misery, moping around the place, I reckon we should cut our losses, as the winger’s value is hardly going to increase while he’s kicking his hubristic heels in the stands. Even if this leaves us without a natural left-footer and poor Justin Hoyte, playing out of position and rapidly becoming the boo-boys latest target.

Sunday brought mixed blessings. Our failure to beat Villa won’t be nearly so bad if O’Neill can continue to inspire his troops to take points from the competition. But I was gutted that Chelsea’s Carvalho was once again able to conceal his inadequacies from the officials. No matter how malevolent my feelings towards their manager’s arrogant attitude, it was hard not to respect Mourinho’s brutally honest appraisal of his team’s delinquent attitude in their defeat to Boro. However the arrogant one is in a unique and enviable position, where he can afford to piss off every single one of his players if he so pleased, with Petr Cech just about the only member of his swollen squad who’s not instantly replaceable.

It’s strange how times have changed, as I can’t ever remember a time when we Gooners were so delighted to see the still much despised Red Devils topping the table, making a mockery of the massive investment in Chelsea’s challenge. In the unlikely event of Man Utd pipping us to the title by 3 points, in retrospect, City fans might not be rejoicing about Saturday’s win.

Similarly the Sky Blues might not be such eager supporters of the ABC club (Anyone But Chelsea) but after pumping up the volume on Sunday, to hear the paltry few fans who bothered to travel to Blackburn, teasing “you’re going down with the Arsenal”, every Gooner on the planet will be joining most every other Premiership fan in praying for Chelsea’s downfall.

Meanwhile, roll on the Champions League!

--
e-mail to: londonN5.gmail.com

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

New Stadium-itis v New Manager-itis

Hi folks

It was a strange walking along Gillespie Road past the Arsenal tube on Saturday, after all these years and seeing the huge hordes heading in the opposite direction to usual. Having been fortunate enough to secure a couple of extra tickets, we met up with a mate who was over on holiday from France and who was bringing his thrilled to bits 12-year-old boy, a Marseille fan, to the match.

Heading along Drayton Park, to the South Bridge, for the obligatory photo opportunity in front of the concrete "Arsenal" letters and seeing the stadium through this youngster's eyes, there's no doubt that it's an imposing arena and a setting that befits some of the best players on the planet - mind you, I’d caught Le Championat round up on Channel 5 a couple of days prior and witnessing the wonderful talents of Ribery and Niang in Marseille’s win over Rennes, you could hardly label this kid’s footballing education as deprived!.

However hard as I try, I am struggling to fall in love with the new place. Obviously it will take time, but I can't ever imagine having the same emotional attachment to this concrete and glass footballing cathedral, as I did with Highbury. It'd not just the size of the place, as those of us who are long enough in the tooth will recall regular 60,000 plus crowds at Highbury in its pre-all seater heyday and I'm sure that in time the new gaff will grow on me. But compared to the glorious, art deco individuality of the Gunners' old home, I can't escape this sense that the new place is nothing short of an extremely functional, gargantuan cash register.

Thankfully the long queues at turnstile J at ten to three didn't prevent us making it to our seats for kick-off. I’m not sure if it was a coincidence, but the bloke behind us in the queue had flown in from Sligo that morning and I’m grateful to him for revealing that we not only didn't have to struggle with the onerous task of sliding our membership cards out of the very tight plastic pouch in our red wallets, but that you don't even have to open the wallet itself, when shoving it onto the bar code reader on entering the turnstile. Thus the convenient discovery that one can get the green light to enter merely by shoving the closed wallet into the gadget was a pleasant surprise. Doubtless I will spend the weeks to come, smugly telling everyone in front of me the same!

What I find most ironic is that obviously this extremely modern, unmanned, computerised entry system must have cost a small fortune and yet, after having stumped up for this state of the art entry system technology, that’s made the old-fashioned turnstile operators redundant, the club are still having to fork out for an employee to stand at every single entrance, to advise us foolish folk how to use it!

The match kicked off just as we took our seats and usually, from the first whistle, I'd have an almost blinkered focus on the proceedings on the pitch. However I know from those I've spoken to since, that I wasn't alone in finding it hard to concentrate. I guess the importance of a single Premiership match (even the very first one of the season) pales into insignificance, compared to what are still (in spite of Dennis' testimonial) my first impressions of the seats from which I might well end up watching the vast majority of my football, until such time as I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Having reacquainted myself with the faces of those in my immediate vicinity, my new Gooner neighbours, I found it hard to prevent my mind wandering, wondering about the whereabouts of all those people who've been such an integral part of my Arsenal world for so many seasons past.

Due to the swap which has seen us join the ranks of the new Highbury’s lower tier hoopleheads (as a big fan of the HBO TV series “Deadwood”, while I won’t sink so low as to employ c***sucker as a universal adjective, you’ll have to forgive me if some of the far more marvellously descriptive language finds its way into my vocabulary), for less than half the price that we were previously paying for our privileged upper tier pitches, there aren’t any familiar faces in the vicinity of our new seats.

This makes for a very uncomfortable, first day at school feeling, but I guess apart from those who chose their seats all together in a large group, it’s the same for the vast majority of us. Prior to the move, I’d spent most every home match amidst the exact same couple of hundred West Upper punters (give or take the odd intruder, or the occasional absentee) for as long as I can remember!

And most of those seated around us had been there long before we became a couple of relatively new kids on X block. I’ve never been the most gregarious Gooner and as a result, even after all these years, I was barely on nodding terms with all but my immediate West Upper neighbours. I never dreamed I’d end up missing some of them. Obviously I miss the people who I’ve sat with for such a long time and with whom I was in the habit of shooting the half-time breeze. However as I sat during the opening salvoes of Saturday’s encounter, scanning the stands through my binoculars, trying to recall where Ray, the bloke I used to sit next to, had told me his new seat was, I suddenly found myself conjuring up a mental checklist of my now extinct West Upper world.

Perhaps it would’ve been different and I might’ve been less distracted if we were playing against more high profile an opponent. Yet it was hard to comprehend that instead of paying my customary 100 per cent attention to events on the pitch, my mind was drifting off in contemplation of all the weird and wonderful idiosyncrasies that would no longer be associated with my Arsenal experience.

The geezer in front who’d grown into middle age, still sneaking a swift fag in his austere old man’s absence (though I could never be so cruel, I always wanted to offer him a smoke in his pop’s presence). The non-stop bogey muncher. Ok so one can get away with it in the privacy of one’s motor but I couldn’t fathom how this feller didn’t feel conspicuous, as he spent much of most every match plucking out the contents from his schnoz and then inspecting it on the end of his finger, as if it were a tasty truffle, before proceeding to chow down! The all too familiar phlegm rattle from behind which indicated one of the ancient old boys was about to clear his throat and which almost instinctively had the two of us ducking for cover, before casually adjusting ones headgear, hoping to have avoided a stray greenie!

Perhaps we were just fortunate to be in the open air, or merely downwind, as Ro and I have been at away games, where by rights we should’ve been knee deep in entrails, considering how often some miserable git kept dropping their guts. But while the matchday programme might’ve come in handy occasionally for fanning away the odd sulphurous stink, mercifully we weren’t at least plagued by the noxious gas of some phantom Gooner farter.

You’d think I might be delighted to have escaped the prospect of having my senses assaulted every other week by such disgusting sights, sounds and smells. However in all honesty I was always so focused on the football, that it is only now that it’s no longer, that I come to reflect on all such “corner of the eye” entertainment. Who knows, perhaps we have it all to come in our new locale. Yet even as a miniscule and particularly unpalatable part of the pleasurable West Upper whole, I am going to miss it all like hell!

As ever I could ramble on for several more thousand words, with particular reference to last week’s ricket, where I’ve since been set straight over my stupid over simplification of the calculation of the additional area of the new pitch.

I suggested that an additional 8 metres in length and 6 metres in width obviously amounts to 48 square metres. But I wasn’t about to argue mathematics with the Bachelor of Physics who has very kindly explained to me that the increased area of the new pitch is closer to an astonishing 1200 square metres (which according to the conversion yoke on my mobile phone amounts to around an extra13,000 square feet!)

However I had certainly planned on prattling on about my habitual exasperation over our patent failure to take advantage of all this extra grass. Theo Walcott’s terrifying pace would’ve been perfect for going around all the bodies that Villa got behind the ball. But as usual we continued to attempt to plough an incredibly frustrating furrow, right through the middle, making pretty patterns, in our eternal attempts to pass the ball all the way up to the flaming goal line.

Hands up who wasn’t moved on Saturday (several times) to scream “for f***’s sake shoot!” Hopefully we’ll see this rectified against Zagreb, as 3-0 up from the first leg, we’re hardly going to get a better opportunity, in a competitive environment, to practice the means by which we can use all our incredible pace and skill, to take advantage of all that extra space. Theoretically, at our best, we should be downright unstoppable on our new playing surface!

Meanwhile with a bit of luck this Champions League qualification romp will make any such whinging superfluous, so I thought I’d better post this beforehand.

Big Love
Bernard

PS. I also intended having another moan about the lack of Arsenal-ification inside the stadium (jaysus another Dubya-ism!). Everyone seems to have mentioned how bad the bare concrete looks below Club Level, but the coincidence I referred to above about the feller from Sligo was that I could only see two flags displayed in the entire stadium on Saturday. I actually spotted another one on MOTD which had escaped my attention, but on looking through my binoculars at the two I could see (one hanging from the Club Level balcony and the other from the upper tier towards the North End), I discovered they both belonged to the Sligo Supporters Club (

Well done lads. At least this was some indication inside the stadium as to whose ground we were playing at.

I’ve chuckled a couple of times at the Rory McGrath advert filmed at THOF and watching this, it might be old hat, but for the moment I would more than settle for the canon motif portrayed on the seats at the old gaff?
__________________________________________________________________

New Stadium-itis v New Manager-itis

After Ireland’s capitulation to the Dutch in midweek, some labelled the armed lunatic who’d confronted Stan Staunton, a patriot! Personally I think it’s a pity that Martin O’Neill couldn’t be persuaded to take the Ireland job. To my mind it was a missed opportunity for both national teams. But then I imagine O’Neill’s not the sort of “yes man” the English FA were after. Why else would they have settled for the wet blanket of McClaren, instead of the firecracker inspiration of the Irishman?

If it wasn’t for the confines of the technical area, keeping O’Neill’s powder relatively dry at the Arsenal’s impressive new stadium, I’ve no doubt we’d have seen the tracksuited figure exploding up and down the touchline on Saturday. It’s a sad fact, but O’Neill’s suitability for the Ireland job was evident in Villa’s doughty performance, as they proved his renowned ability to encourage the very maximum, from a relatively mediocre squad.

Proof of their new manager’s infectious enthusiasm was demonstrated by the tireless midfield endeavours of the likes of Gavin Mccann, in denying us the time and space in the centre of the park to do Villa any real damage. I returned home to look up Mccann’s CV on my computer, finding it hard to believe that this was the same player, who, along with mostly the same Villa squad, had been such willing victims of last season’s April Fool’s Day drollery, when O’Leary’s side offered so little objection to dropping their shorts for their 5-0 spanking.

My missus put it most succinctly at half-time on Saturday, as she wondered whether it would be new manager-itis, or new stadium-itis which was to have the most influence on the outcome.

Thankfully we’d already witnessed a couple of goals at our new gaff, during Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial. However Adebayor was prevented from inscribing his name in the record books for posterity, as the first ever Premiership goalscorer, when Manny’s header on the stroke of half-time was ruled offside. So it was all the more galling when we gifted Olof Mellberg an opportunity to carve his initials on the goalposts.

By playing with 11 men behind the ball, Villa appeared intent on merely avoiding defeat. Yet their limited ambitions didn’t preclude them from taking the lead. By the time it dawned on us that they’d neglected to read the opening day script, Villa were able to sit on their single goal advantage and make it all the more difficult for us to break them down.

After pussyfooting around for much of the first hour, the prospect of our guests rudely pooping our party suddenly inspired a renewed determination. But despite laying siege to Villa’s penalty area for the last half hour, we were banging at the door almost incessantly before Gilberto eventually kicked it in.

I never fully appreciated the importance of knowing how much time is left to play, until I spent much of Bergkamp’s testimonial constantly glancing at the time on my phone. While a clock is still conspicuous by its absence, at least the elapsed time is now apparent on the giant screens. These showed that there were only 5 minutes remaining when the Brazilian finally caused the net to bulge in front of the new North Bank. Our new home reverberated with a wave of euphoric relief, grateful that Gilberto had spared all our blushes.

Up until this point, with one goal disallowed and two cleared off the line, it’d begun to feel as if it wasn’t our day and we could’ve played on until midnight without breaking our duck. However having finally burst this dam and with Villa suitably deflated after being denied such a historic victory, we’d built up such a head of steam that if only time would stood still we might have stolen all three points at the death.

Still compared to the prospect of the embarrassing defeat that’d loomed so large until the last few minutes, most of us were more than happy to settle for a face-saving draw. Moreover any disappointment about this opening day anti-climax, was tempered by the delightful and long awaited discovery that young Theo Walcott’s natural ability was far more than just a myth.

Theo inspired the second loudest cheer of the afternoon when he stripped off his tracksuit with 20 minutes to go. His cameo appearance as a sub was the perfect antidote for all those who’d begun to lose heart. There was a buzz of expectation every time the ball arrived at Walcott’s feet and his youthful exuberance and positively electrifying pace sparked the reinvigorated assault on Villa’s goal, which resulted in the equaliser.

Moreover if I was feeling a little maudlin as we strolled back past the somewhat dilapidated looking shell of our stately old Highbury home, I was soon cheered by the sight of Spurs conceding a couple of goals up at Bolton. With the Blades taking two points off the Scousers, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad day. Although the cost of Saturday’s disappointment will only truly become apparent when we discover whether Martin O’Neill’s inspiration is sufficient to prevent Villa being demolished on their trips to Chelsea and Man Utd.

Any illusions I might’ve had about these two team experiencing similarly awkward opening day encounters, soon evaporated on Sunday, as Man Utd started the season with the sort of bang, which could prove a crucial boost to their confidence (with the likes of Carrick and Heinze still to come) and Chelsea positively strolled to victory against one of the few Premiership teams who, when inspired by the fearless instincts of their manager, can usually be expected to at least take the game to the Blues and cause them a few concerns.

It was frightening to see Adrian Chiles tot up the cost of Chelsea’s third goal on MOTD2. I’ve rarely seen Roman Abramovich more animated than his excited response at Cardiff last week, to an initial return on his £30mill investment on Schevchenko. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether the Russian mogul will have shown any reaction, when it was pointed out the players involved in Didier Drogba’s well-crafted goal had a combined cost of £107mill!

Even with the additional revenue from a whopping 76,000 capacity at Utd, or with the extra £2mill supposedly generated by every game at our new ground, I still can’t see how any club is expected to compete with the bottomless pit of Abramovich’s pockets.

Meanwhile we were the club who could’ve benefited most from the sort of goalfest on Saturday that might’ve settled all our fears about finding our feet at our new stadium. 3-0 up from the 1st leg, I’m praying there’s no sign of complacency this Wednesday. If we’re to feel at home by the time we play Boro, we might benefit by banging in a hatful against Zagreb.

With only 10 days of the transfer window remaining and with the futures of Cole and Reyes apparently still up in the air, we’re all hoping Arsène still has a surprise (or two!) up his sleeve. If he doesn’t, perhaps Wenger’s inclusion of Walcott wasn’t without motive, as Le Prof attempts to allay some of the concerns about the lack of depth to our squad. When you consider the summer spending of the vast majority of clubs, most of whom are merely trying to maintain their precious Premiership status, I can’t see how the Arsenal can possibly continue to deny the financial impact on Wenger’s budget, from the massive expenditure on the new stadium.

Personally I would prefer a little honesty and I’m pretty sure most Gooners would accept the reality of the situation, if the net effect of ensuring the club’s future for decades to come, is that we’re forced to tread water for a couple of seasons. What’s more I wouldn’t be too disappointed if as a result we end up with a squad that is largely made up of homegrown kids who’ll sweat blood for the cause, instead of foreign imports looking to make a fast buck.

e-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com
http://goonersdiary.blogspot.com

Monday, August 14, 2006

There'll be another one along in a minute

Me again

Much like London buses, you wait all that time, then three come along at once :-)

It's rare to get offered a "free lunch" from The Irish Examiner but much as we did last season, the four contributors to their Terrace Talk feature were invited out for a meal, where our answers to a wealth of questions makes up a piece in their pre-season Premiership supplement.

After eating at a poncey bistro opposite the Bridge last season, my efforts to persuade the Examiner journo that superior Italian food and the far more reasonable prices at Il Baccio in Blackstock Road (where they do a mean Melanzane Parmeggiana) would leave a whole lot more of his budget to be spent on alcoholic beverages, all fell upon deaf ears.

After agreeing to meet up at 6pm a couple of Fridays back, in Orsos in the Strand, I found myself caught up in a Friday afternoon journey from hell (which is a story on its own), after offering to pick some friends up from Gatwick. When I eventually phoned this chap at 8pm to see if it was still worth me coming, I was much relieved when he suggested I "take a raincheck". I'd actually told him previously that I might have to leave prematurely for a party in Turnmills in Clerkenwell Road, where my first cousin and his partner were celebrating their civil union ceremony.

Murphy's Law prevailed as ever. Róna and I are both such incredibly unsociable buggers that these days we hardly ever tear ourselves away from the gogglebox to go out of an evening. Thus with two appointments on the same it was almost inevitable that fate would intervene and I wouldn't make either. I was concerned about making it to my cousin's shindig for fear of coming in for some homophobic stick from the rest of my family. But having blown out the dinner, I was so exhausted that I immediately passed out in the armchair and slept straight through until sometime the following morning.

I was concerned that I might have earned myself a black mark for not turning up for the Examiner dinner, when the Scouser contributor had made it all the way from Liverpool and I believe the paper's European pundit had even flown over from Italy. At least I wasn't alone, as Man Utd fan, Richard Kurt is always conspicuous by his absence from such encounters and as a result the two of us were tasked with providing written responses to all the questions.

Needless to say I ended up writing far too much as always but in this instance it worked out in my favour, as I received an e-mail on Friday advising me to send an additional invoice to the Examiner, as the journo had kindly taken all the material I'd written about the new stadium and concocted another piece entirely on a separate page!

Then I began to panic as I was due to write my first contribution for my regular column and while I was able to find the Q & A piece on the Examiner web site see: http://www.examiner.ie/irishexaminer/pages/story.aspx-qqqg=sections-qqqm=arena-qqqa=sport-qqqid=10337-qqqx=1.asp without a copy of this Premiership supplement I wasn't able to see exactly what bits he'd used in this other piece and I was fretting about repeating the same sentiments. Mercifully a copy arrived in the post Saturday morning and while it was a bit annoying to read something with my name against it that didn't for one minute sound like it had come from my mouth (or my keyboard), I wasn't about to complain because as Ró would say, the unexpected income was "better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick"

Having hardly written a word all summer, suddenly I was back up to full throttle straight from the off, as I also received a request from the Observer for a preview of the season ahead from a Gooner's perspective, for their "Verdict" column. Sadly no moolah for this one, just a little kudos and a plug for the blog (the income from which will soon enable me to retire, after nearly 37,000 hits have earned me the grand sum of 414 cents :-), as I guess there are any number of Gooners who'd be only too glad to contribute in my stead.

However despite forwarding me an example from last season of the sort of thing they were looking for, surely anyone familiar with my War & Peace like length of work will know quite what an impossible task they were setting, asking me to preview the season in under 200 words :-)

I took so much time answering the first set of questions for the Examiner and was so late in getting them back to him, that I might as well have picked the answers to the last few questions (promotion, relegation etc) with my eyes shut, as I found myself left with five minutes before I dashed off to work on Monday morning, frantically scanning over all the comings and goings of the summer, to try and ensure that I ended up with answers that weren't a completely unconsidered opinion.

In the past I've given answers to such questions in the hope that by doing so I was guaranteed to put the bok on whoever I'd plumped for (eg. like picking Spurs as the team most likely to break into the top four :-). I can remember feeling slightly smug about the fact that I'd made the correct choice for the first Premiership managerial casualty, in the French fella at Pompey. Although there was nothing clever about my method of choosing the team with one of the most impatient chairman - maintaining a similar logic for this season selection.

As for the promotion prospects, I think I plumped for Soton merely in the hope that Bradley Wright Phillips might do the business and to date Crystal Palace are living up to my prediction. But heaven only knows how I came up with Cardiff (perhaps based on the presence of the ambitious Sam Hamman?). It was only after I'd sent my reply that it occurred to me that I'd failed to consider the possibility that the likes of WBA and Birmingham might go straight back up.

With Brum beginning to look like the Arsenal reserves, with Steve Bruce having acquired the loan signings of Bendtner, Muamba and Larssen since I wrote the response below, doubtless along with every other Gooner, I will be following their progress with great interest.

Meanwhile I should warn you that I've repeated various sentiments in both responses and have probably produced a combination of the two in this week's diary piece. So I'd imagine you'd be bored to tears and definitely have far too much time on your hands than is healthy, if you find yourself reading all three in full :-)

Big Love
Bernard

PS. I should know better by now and have no one to blame but myself, but the worst thing about sending in too much copy is that you all too often end up with something being printed that's the complete opposite of ones opinion. For example in the piece to the Observer, under "Ones to watch, I've said that the derisory reaction to Theo Walcott's inclusion in the England squad might have put the dampeners on his career, then commenting that Wenger's inclusion of Randall and Traore in the first team squad during pre-season would suggest Arsène wants to watch these to teenagers. I've also added my feelings about Man City's Micah Richards (compared to Curtis Davies), but the limitations of space have meant that I'm left feeling frustrated when the paper has quoted me as selecting Walcott, Randall and Traore
____________________________________________________________________


Hopes/fears for this season for United/Liverpool/Arsenal/Chelsea?

Obviously my hopes are for a more competitive Premiership climate, in which the principal contenders aren’t saying their “das-vi-danyas” before Xmas

I fear that unless a few decorative touches are introduced at Ashburton Grove, to establish some sense of the Arsenal’s illustrious history, we Gooners will be watching our football in a wonderful, albeit sadly utterly soul-less, Yankee style corporate cavern. For the moment, the big screens apart, I’d settle for the slightest indication inside the stadium that this is the new home of the Arsenal FC (oh yes....we are also all hoping for some sort of timepiece!). Most present at Bergkamp’s testimonial are assuming the stadium is an unfinished symphony (but unlike Wembley, a functional one!). Although there’s a contradictory school of thought which suggests that the absence of the slightest sign of an AFC motif (some red paint aside), is part of the architect’s minimalistic vision?


Did we learn anything from the World Cup?

We learned that a major domestic scandal immediately prior to the competition is most advantageous to one’s chances of winning.

We learned that England’s performances (& in particular their penalties!) were the absolute personification of their platitudinous and prosaic management.

Sadly we can’t receive RTE over here, or else obviously I would’ve been watching the far superior coverage offered by my bro-in-law, Con Murphy. However from the televisual offerings in the UK we learned that Martin O’Neil is by far in a way the most entertaining and honest pundit – did anyone else see his rib-tickling, derisory half-time comments, as to what on earth anyone was doing watching the 3rd and 4th place play-off!! I’m also convinced it won’t be long before we learn what a major ricket England have made, by employing the incredibly mundane Steve McClaren, instead of the proven motivational force that is this much more loveable Mick

Not to mention England’s costly lesson, whereby they would’ve been far better off paying for the child minder in order that the baba might be left back home with his playmates, instead of schlepping the poor lamb the length and breadth of the Fatherland



Player to watch for United/Arsenal/Liverpool/Chelsea

Midfielder Mark Randall caught my eye with some nifty footwork at the Arsenal’s Members Day shindig and Armand Traore made his presence known with a couple of bone crunching challenges during Denis’ Testimonial, which must’ve raised eyebrows amongst the Ajax lads. It seems Arsène agrees, as the two 16 year olds were included in the squad which went to the training camp in Austria. However with Randall being a rare English teenager, don’t be surprised to see him spending the season out on loan at somewhere like Reading, until eventually he realises that he’s not quite foreign enough for Wenger’s fancy!

(as for the other clubs....who cares, although until he was subbed on Sunday, I thought the Scousers new full back looked quite lively)



Player from each club who’s past their sell-by date

With Sol sold and Dennis departed, the more pertinent question at the Arsenal these days is “who has yet to reach puberty”!!

Chelsea – Chopper Harris
Liverpool – Ron Yeats
Man Utd – George Best (sorry bad taste!)



Player that you are most looking forward to seeing in the Premiership 2006/07

I guess since he’s our only summer purchase so far, it’s got to be Rosicky, if only to establish if he’s an adequate replacement for Robert Pires and unlike the one goal wonder John Jensen, the Czech won’t prove to be a one World Cup game wonder.

I am also looking forward to seeing whether Steve Sidwell can cut the Premiership mustard. I believe the carrot topped midfielder was voted second best player in the Football League last year and this was no surprise, as he’s such an incredibly committed youngster that I was sad to see him go. While his amazing attitude was appreciated at Highbury, ultimately I understand that it was felt that Sidwell lacked sufficient natural ability to break into our first XI. It will be interesting to see whether Sidwell’s efforts on the big stage will leave Wenger & co. regretting letting yet another homegrown lad leave the club to seek first team football elsewhere.

Wishful thinking – Fernando Torres, Yaya Touré !
Bollix, if I'm gonna daydream, I might as well go for it - Lionel Messi



Best signing of the summer (to date)

In order to best answer this one, I’ve just been through the list of Premiership ins and outs to refresh my memory as to who has gone where. However running through the entire list, apart from the obvious candidates of Schevchenko and Ballack (and it’s impossible not to be cynical about the motives of those players coming to Chelsea, as with little to prove, it always occurs to me that they are hardly coming here to run their socks off week in, week out?), there are hardly any new arrivals who have me green with envy, wondering what they might have done at Highbury...whoops, that’s one old habit which is going to die hard!

Obviously it is hoped that Thomas Rosicky will prove to be the signing of the season, but I certainly haven’t seen enough of him to pass judgement. Considering Newcastle paid £12million less than Chelsea blew on bringing Damien Duff from Blackburn a couple of seasons back, I guess the Irishman has got to be the bargain buy of the summer and after two seasons spent treading water, warming the bench at the Bridge, if Glenn Roeder can revive the winger’s appetite for football, rather than focusing on the size of his wallet, then it could prove to be a shrewd move.

Kevin Keegan rated Bradley Wright-Phillips a better finisher than his brother, but with his fee undisclosed, it’s difficult to know whether it was a wise move on Southampton’s part. However I look forward to finding out and enjoying the unadulterated expressions of joy from his father, if his progeny proves himself a Premiership winner. At least Wrighty won’t have to waste so much time waiting for his brother to get a look-in at the Bridge.

If, as looks likely, Michael Carrick ends up at Man Utd, this could prove to be the best bit of business ol’ Red Nose has done in a long while. I am still annoyed that we didn’t buy Carrick from West Ham when we had the opportunity. I recall hearing an extremely bitter sounding Harry Redknapp describe how he was on the verge of bringing Carrick to Pompey, until interest from the Arsenal scuppered the deal completely. Then Patrick Vieira finally made up his mind to stay and overnight our interest evaporated, as we no longer required a replacement midfielder.

I assume Martin Jol had no choice in this matter and it will be interesting to witness whether he has spent the Carrick income wisely. Naturally I hope all his purchases will prove to be complete wasters, but the rotund Dutchman has definitely earned my begrudging respect in his brief time at Spurs. Of all the exciting talent in the Ivory Coast squad, Didier Zakora would have been some way from the top of my “most wanted” list, but based on Jol’s track record to date, I won’t be surprised if he and Dmitri Berbatov do the business for Spurs.


Biggest issue facing supporters in the 2006/07 season

As far as the Arsenal are concerned, in my humble opinion, the biggest issue is without doubt the corporate-ification of the club (jaysus I sound like Dubya!).

Compared to the succession of catastrophic cock-ups at Wembley, there’s little doubt that the Arsenal’s new stadium is a resounding success. It’s been finished on time, in budget, giving thousands more Gooners great views, comfy seats, loads of leg room etc. etc. However at this point in time, having made ones way through the modern, unmanned turnstiles, aside from the two big screens, there is absolutely no evidence of anything inside the stadium whatsoever to indicate that this is the Arsenal. Many believe that this is merely a result of the rush to get the stadium opened and there are still some finishing touches to come with the internal decorations. But there are also those who suggest that the stadium is as intended and the absence of any sign of an Arsenal motif is all part of the architect’s minimalistic vision.

Obviously, in time, it is bound to begin to feel more like home. However for the moment, it might be a wonderful, modern arena but compared to all the history and sentiment attached to our old stately home around the corner, the new gaff seems to be absolutely devoid of any soul. I have never been to watch any live sport in the United States but I get the distinct impression that Yankee sports fans would feel right at home in the Emirates Stadium.

Moreover in the marketing of the stadium to date, it has felt as ever, as if hoi polloi have been completely taken for granted. They could have afforded us a mere square foot of concrete terracing with no amenities at all, at a price higher than every Premiership club and still we’d have been queuing up in our thousands, clamouring to hand over our hard-earned cash for a season ticket that offered a precious live pitch. Meanwhile I suppose we should be counting our blessings, as we find ourselves watching our beloved Gunners in one of the best, if not the best, stadia in the country for the same price as we were paying last season. Although I’m inclined to believe that it won’t be too long before they begin to take advantage of us by hiking up the prices for us plebs.

However up until now, confident in the knowledge that the majority of the ground would sell itself, the club has focused almost exclusively on marketing the stadium to all the high-rollers. And what I find astonishing is the fact that, in London at least, there appears to be an inexhaustible seam of seriously affluent football supporters.

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it but from the evidence of Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial, it would appear that the club’s PR department has not been gilding the lily in their assertions that the eight rows of the exclusive Club Level section has been sold out entirely. The seats in the two centre sections are only available on four year contracts, so to obtain one of these privileged pitches, it was necessary to stump up an astonishing £19,000. At £4,750 per season, these seats work out at £183 per game! The remainder of the Club Level seats were available with annual contracts but for some reason the corner seats were the cheapest, at ‘only’ £2,500 per season. Whereas to sit behind the goal, with a lousy view of what’s occurring at the other end of the pitch, it costs £3,250, a mere £125 per game, for the 26 games which are included in the price of our season tickets.

I played a part in convincing one of my wealthy Gooner mates that is was worth his while forking out a £38,000 fortune for himself and his son. After all it is only a fraction of what he needs to find to pay for his new Ferrari and I argued that in his shoes, I wouldn’t think twice about the possibility of securing myself the best view in the stadium, as in years to come, he might end up kicking himself if he’d passed up the opportunity, only to end up at the back of a long waiting list. Doubtless my encouragement wasn’t entirely without motive, as my pal travels abroad a lot and so I’m hoping I might eventually get the odd chance to experience how the other half live.

Meanwhile, having become a member of what some have dubbed ‘the prawn circle’, one might think he’d be the very last to be grieving about the demise of what was once the working man’s game. He told me that it was painful paying all that money but that there was a certain sense of security knowing that those seats were theirs for the next four years. However even he was dismayed by the club’s over the top efforts to cash in on the corporate spondulicks, as he detailed how he’d been receiving incessant correspondence to encourage him to invest a further sum in their “meal package” for the season, before they all sell out!!

Apparently these meal packages range from a burger and chips, to a four course blow out. However I found it most amusing that these meal packages do not include a regular reservations at the new ground’s Raymond Blanc restaurant. Perhaps seats in the Michelin starred restaurant are reserved for the really rich, as there’s an even more exclusive Diamond Class package at the Emirates Stadium, whereby I understand punters are required to pay £25,000 per season, again with a four year contract that requires an outlay of an unbelievable £100,000.

I just can’t believe that there are so many Arsenal fans with so much disposable income and I can only imagine that along with the ring of corporate boxes between Club Level and the Upper Tier, the vast majority of these ridiculously expensive seats at the new stadium must have been bought by the companies of those who are able to write off the astronomic expense as corporate hospitality.

However I can’t help but find it funny to think that these hundred grand high-rollers can look down their noses at all the Gucci Gooners, whose investment of a mere £19.000 leaves them rubbing their noses up against the window of the Raymond Blanc eaterie. I am reminded of that famous comedy sketch with John Cleese, A.N Other and Ronnie Corbett, with the John Cleese character stating “I’m not sure about the offside rule, but I look down on them whilst gorging on my Raymond Blanc grub” and the Ronnie Corbett character “After supporting this club for forty years, I will be left looking up at both those fraudulent fans when they get tickets for the Champions League final and I don’t”!

In truth I can’t really complain, as we’ve swapped seats with some Gooners so that they have taken our upper tier seats and we have their lower tier seats. As a result our two seats in the lower tier have ended up costing less than the £1875 cost of one seat in the upper tier. Nevertheless I was chatting to A West Ham fan the other day who was telling me that he’d just paid something like £150 to renew his son’s season ticket at Upton Park. Whereas any concessions at our new ground are limited to what is bound to be an oversubscribed family enclosure. No doubt if they had the facilities and the affluent fans, the Hammers would also be milking them to the full, but I can’t help but feel a little envious that the East London club is at least feigning some interest in maintaining a social conscience.

Naturally I was a few weeks late in stumping up for my season ticket renewals. Having tapped out all my credit cards with all the football expenses these past few seasons, it took a huge effort to amass the renewal cost in cash. As a result I was desperate to hand the readies over to the Box Office some Saturdays back, before the sum was depleted once again by some financial crisis, or other. When I pointed out to the chap at the Box Office window that there wasn’t a box to tick for cash, I was abruptly informed “that’s because we don’t take it and besides you are too late!”

Knowing there was no point in trying to make my case to this particularly miserable bugger, I was about to pick up my envelope and walk away, when he beckoned me back with a decidedly derisory nod of the head, as if to say “oh go on then, I’ll do you the big favour of relieving you of a couple of grand of your hard borrowed money”! However he only accepted my payment on the express understanding that I was made fully aware that (according to him), the eight week deadline for payments was necessary because it took that amount of time to produce the new swipe card memberships and so long as I appreciated that our membership cards were not going to arrive in time for the first couple of games, which meant that we wouldn’t be able to gain admittance without them.

As it happens both our membership cards arrived in plenty of time and we’ve already used them to get in to Bergkamp’s testimonial. Yet it felt as if this ignorant git derived some sort of pleasure from his efforts to put the wind up me. As I walked away from Highbury for the last time that Saturday morning, I wondered where else in the world would one be treated with such utter contempt as an employee attempted to belittle ones efforts to hand over a large sum of cash?

Still the more the football needle swings from a sport, towards big business, sadly the more inevitable it becomes that the ordinary fan is priced out of the game, as clubs increasingly focus on cashing in on the corporate market. Long term clubs like the Arsenal should bear in mind that it has always been the atmosphere which makes football and British football in particular, such a spectacle. However since it has always been the committed, lunatic fans like myself who are prepared to participate in creating that atmosphere, if the fanatical plebs end up priced out of the market, it’s hard to imagine the prawn circle punters paying such fortunes to sit in a silent stadium.

Similarly I have some fears about the long-term future of football, where big business becomes the be all and end all. Since the introduction of all seater stadia, it has been the visiting fans who invariably generate any atmosphere. As we edge ever closer to the advent of a European super league that might spin even more money for the fortunate few, I find myself marveling at how fellow Gooners manage to afford to travel to so many matches abroad. I am actually still paying for season tickets from a few seasons back on my Premiership credit card and with an ever mounting deluge of football related debts, I am eventually being forced to accept that I simply cannot make it to every single match in future. I’m concerned that the increase in the frequency of matches abroad might eventually result in demise of the travelling fans, so that we end up with a sport which is similar to those on the other side of the Atlantic, with an almost exclusively home crowd and which is a helluva long way from the beautiful game as I’ve always known it.

Could something like the Italian football scandal happen here?

Nothing is impossible, since everyone has their price and Roman Abramovich has pockets which are more than deep enough. Nevertheless, with the exception of Chelski, unlike in Italy, British football is not governed by an oligarchy of super powerful industrialists/politicians like Agnelli and Berlusconi. These tycoons’ tentacles are so widespread that I’d guess that the beautiful game is just a reflection of the “he who pays the piper, calls the tune” type corruption which is endemic across the board, in most aspects of Italian society



Quality of refereeing in the Premiership. Rank awful or much ado about nothing?
Use of technology/rule changes

Much ado about nothing. I watch a lot of test cricket during the summer months and modern technology has been used to great effect with the third umpire, Hawkeye and all the other advances which have combined to increase ones enjoyment of the sport. However much like the philistine sport played with an egg shaped ball in the US, the commentators in cricket have endless dead air to try and fill and if we weren’t looking at a wagon wheel of where the batsman had placed his shots, as an aficionado of Test Match Special on the radio, I would be listening to the plummy sounding voice of Blowers as he described which double-decker bus was heading down St Johns Wood Road, or what flavour cake had been sent in by a listener for the TSM crew to enjoy with their tea.

By contrast, footie is a fast paced sport that doesn’t lend itself to referring every contentious issue to a second referee with a TV monitor. Personally I am from the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school and the only argument I have is with the constant tinkering with the offside rule, to the point where the officials have an impossible task trying to decide instantaneously whether a player is active, or inactive, or which particular phase of play is which. In my humble opinion the only change should be the simplification of the offside rule, as these days the inconsistencies are unbearable. Moreover the vast majority of linesmen are so intensely focused on doing their offside duty that they are usually totally oblivious to all other aspects of the game, even when an incident takes place under their very nose.

Perhaps in generations to come, the referee will evolve into a bird like creature with an eye on either side of his head. Until such time as an official is capable of looking in two different directions at once (ie. at the player striking the ball and the position of the strikers running to receive it), mistakes are inevitable.

In fact inept officiating is part and parcel of what makes our game so beautiful. It’s what makes it possible for two supporters to have sat side by side in the stadium for 90 minutes and then spend umpteen subsequent hours in the pub, arguing as if they’d been watching entirely different matches.

Sadly I think change is inevitable, as along with every aspect of a sport whose beauty diminishes in inverse proportion to the vast sums of money swilling around the upper echelons, unfortunately football is ever bigger business. And in business, mistakes and the vagaries of the fickle finger of fate are unacceptable! Time was when it was accepted that an obvious error which caused a defeat, would even itself out over the course of a season and supporters and participants alike were resigned to this swings and roundabouts system. However with the advent of so many technological innovations, supposedly we now have the means to eliminate the element of doubt. Therefore those with the most to lose as a result of any mistakes, are calling for the introduction of various equipment to aid the officials.

I could perhaps accept the limited use of goal line technology. However how many times have we sat watching an incident replayed from every possible viewing angle, only for each of the studio pundits to be left expressing a different and opposing opinion!

Meanwhile I would be bang up for the introduction of any system which was designed to prevent Premiership officials becoming personalities in their own right and for referees to be able to return to using their common sense, instead of automatically brandishing red and yellow cards, according to FA directives. My most common complaint about referees in recent times has been about their insistence on stamping their authority on matches. All too often I’ve found myself watching a match which hasn’t involved a single “dirty” tackle, but having officiated to the letter of the law, the referee has made a rod for his own back by booking several players early on and suddenly the man in black manages to ruin the match for both teams, the spectators and the millions watching on the box, by sending someone off as a consequence of two innocuous incidents.

Not only is it downright wrong that the one man in the middle so frequently ruins the match for everyone else, when a word in a player’s ear would’ve been perfectly adequate, but as a result, all too often it is us poor paying punters who are punished, as the subsequent suspension finds us long-suffering fans stumping up a fortune for our tickets, only to find our favourite stars stuck in the stands, instead of entertaining us on the pitch.

I’ve heard calls for the introduction of an orange card, to give referees some leeway before issuing a red, or a sin bin, as seen in ice hockey. However there would be no need for such substantial tinkering with the rules, if our referees were merely allowed to apply some common sense by issuing a warning before booking a player and by saving their red and yellow cards for incidents that involve real intent.

Although one can’t help but wonder about the decisions made by some specific refs (Graham Poll?), if the revelations about the scandal in Serie A tell us something, it’s that we should be counting our blessings that by and large, at least the mistakes made by officials in the Premiership are honest mistakes.


Should something be done to restrict the number of overseas players in the Premiership or introduce a salary capping system (both ideas floated in the past 12 months)

While I applaud the good intentions of some of these ideas, as I for one would love to witness an Arsenal side which included more (or in fact any!!) English/Irish players, for the most part once again my feelings are governed by my “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. In the past we’ve seen efforts to limit the number of foreigners challenged in the courts and eventually free trade and market forces have prevailed. Moreover while a salary cap might aid the less well-off clubs and create a more competitive Premiership environment, at the end of the day the big boys and the members of G8 are able to veto anything that isn’t in their interest, by means of the leverage they have with the threat of forming a breakaway European league



If you could change one thing in the Premiership . . . what would it be?

As above – bring about the return of common sense refereeing, where refs were able to establish a dialogue with the players on the pitch, issuing a warning as the action of first resort, rather than a yellow/red card, so that all the fans and the millions watching on TV are less likely to have our afternoon’s entertainment completely ruined and to be deprived of the stars that we stumped up such substantial amounts to watch.

Alternatively....the reintroduction of a standing section of terracing in Premiership stadia



Away trip that you are most looking forward to?

Despite Fratton Park being a decrepit p***hole, Pompey is a perennial favourite because the atmosphere and a return to facilities from the dark ages often gives one the feeling of a proper old-fashioned footie match.

Glad to be going back to Vicarage Road. Aside from the fact that Watford’s sensible ticket pricing policy usually guarantees a great family day out vibe, an almost certain three points and the size of the Gooner contingent gives it the feel of a home game – I know of quite a few Arsenal fans who are season ticket holders at Watford because they can’t afford to take their kids to see the Arsenal every week. Doubtless the fact that I have to drive almost past my Ma’s front door has a bearing on this decision, as a pitstop on my way home means I’m guaranteed a good nosh up.

We’ve had some marvelous encounters with the Blades over the years, which rarely seem to pass without plenty of drama. However a trip to Bramall Lane is a must, if only to hear a hearty rendition of what must be a contender for the best terrace tune:-

You fill up my senses,
Like a gallon of Magnet,
Like a packet of Woodbines,
Like a good pinch of snuff,
Like a night out in Sheffield,
Like a greasy chip butty,
Like Sheffield United,
Come thrill me again,


Predictions for:

Premiership top four?- Chelsea, Arsenal, Man Utd, Liverpool
Club most likely to break through into top 4? - (unfortunately) Spurs – although hopefully I’ve just ruined any chance they have :-)
Three to be relegated? - Watford (sadly), Fulham, Wigan
Three to be promoted? – Southampton, Crystal Palace, Cardiff

FA Cup winners? – Arsenal
Carling Cup winners?– West Ham
Champions League ?- Real Madrid
First Premiership managerial sacking ?– Chris Coleman

____________________________________________________________________

and my far too wordy contribution to the Observer's "The Verdict" column:




Hopes & Fears?

Habitually the first home game of a new season feels like a homecoming, a reconciliation for the first time in a couple of months with ones footballing family, the same Arsenal fans that I’ve sat amidst for so many years. However this is a start to a season like no other for us Gooners. We’ve had a dry run with Dennis’ testimonial. An opportunity to check out the view from our seats at the new gaff and a grand one it is at that.

Hopefully there are still some finishing touches to be added inside our state of the art new stadium (a timepiece for one!), to give it more of an Arsenal feel. You can’t fail to be impressed on approaching the imposing landmark, that’s landed on the Highbury skyline like a Star Wars spaceship. It hollers out its credentials as a stage that befits a footballing superpower. Doubtless it only needs to acquire some history before it begins to feel like home. But for the moment it’s a somewhat soulless agglomeration of concrete, steel and glass. A mammoth machine made specifically for milking the corporate cash cow with supreme efficiency, with Club Level pitches at up to £173 a pop apparently all sold out!

The only similarity with Highbury is the snooker baise like green surface at its heart. But it’s the regularity of the beats which are my biggest concern, as obviously I fear for the palpitations of the sort of new stadium-itis that’s afflicted other sides subsequent to a move. Hopefully the players will feel more at home than I do and with all the pace in Arsène’s youthful side and an additional 6 metres in width and 8 metres in length on our new pitch, in theory it should prove a much harder proposition for our opponents to prevent us scoring by getting all eleven behind the ball.

Having never had to step over the crucial banana skin of Champions League qualification before, the collective sighs of relief subsequent to our success in Croatia on Tuesday night could’ve whipped up a tornado, as we were terrified of a catastrophic European curtain-raiser. Yet Marseille have managed to quell our buoyant mood, as many of us had assumed the income from Cole and Reyes was earmarked for creative flair of Ribery, until what appears to be a bizarre display of umbrage over the Frenchman’s public statement concerning his imminent departure. Ribery is ruled out from contributing to any other clubs European campaign until the spring, after Marseille brought him off the bench for the last 20 mins of their match against Berne. Still, never mind the larger pitch, the last 16 of the Champions League might be a long way off, for the legs of players involved in qualification matches when their competitors are still enjoying the cricket?

Ones to watch?

The derisory reaction to his inclusion in the England squad might have put the dampeners on Theo Walcott’s career but since “Arsène knows” I suppose we should be keeping an eye out for the another couple of babes in arms who’ve been promoted to the first team squad, midfielder Mark Randall and French full-back Armand Traoré. As for elsewhere, while many moan about Curtis Davies’ hugely inflated price tag, personally I’d quite fancy Man City’s Micah Richards. I’m praying he doesn’t end up yet another addition to Martin Jol’s English legion.

Boo-boy?

Poor Pascal Cygan is about the only target in the Arsenal squad for the unjustified japes of Highbury’s....sorry, old habits and all that.... The New Home of Football’s (no free advertisements here!) terrace jesters. However I have to admit that before the “Legends” turned for the second-half of Bergkamp’s testimonial, with Pascal’s presence amidst all those teenagers, one could be forgiven for thinking the kids were having a kickabout with their granddad! Boos or cheers, I’ll be happy to discover we haven’t departed the Highbury Library, only to end up moving to the Corporate Mortuary!

Where will you finish in the league?

Our season could end up depending on us being able to remain in contention, just long enough for our lot to feel less like they are the visiting team than our opponents. Having escaped the tight confines of our extremely narrow old pitch, I am extremely excited by the potential prospect of putting all comers to the sword if we should prove capable of taking full advantage of the additional 48 square metres of turf (although in order to do so, it might help if we saw the reintroduction of the art of running down the flank to corner flag, instead of wrong-footed wingers who insist on cutting in with the ball?). I’d feel a lot more confident about answering this question in a couple of months but for the moment, let’s just say that if we should finish above Chelski, I will be more than satisfied.

Who will be Champions?

With such a wealth of talent in such depth, it’s hard to look beyond the Blues retaining the trophy. Although with absolutely nothing to prove, I can’t honestly imagine the likes of Ballack and Shevchenko have taken up residence in the Kings Road with the intention of grafting their socks off. It will indeed be interesting to witness whether their mighty gob of a manager can maintain the hunger necessary to succeed in a third successive marathon. If Mourinho can continue to motivate his mercenary hordes on a miserable wet winter’s eve in Wigan then he’ll have earned my begrudging admiration. Meanwhile despite the unfair advantage in this age of Abramovich and no matter how misguided, until such time as reality bites with the first big disappointment of the season, surely even the most pessimistic amongst us is entitled to retain some belief in our team’s ability to bring home the Premiership bacon

Who will be relegated?

Perm any three from six. Obviously the three promoted teams must be favourite for an all too brief opportunity to bury their snouts in the Premiership trough. I imagine the pragmatic business heads that control both Watford and Reading will prevent them mortgaging their futures so their respective managers can spunk up the sort of spondulicks necessary, in what might still prove to be a fruitless attempt to maintain the dream. However as unlikely as it may be, for geographical reasons alone I’d like these two to avoid the drop. Watford is almost like a home game for many Gooners. Moreover my Ma lives on route home from Vicarage Road, so for me it’s not only an almost guaranteed three points but also a great post-match nosh. For the not so affluent fans, the cost of taking the kids to the Arsenal regularly is far too prohibitive these days - a half-time burger at the new gaff is four quid and a burger meal (plus chips and a drink) an extortionate seven quid! As a result I know of more than one Gunners’ fan who, in order to maintain the matchday traditions they enjoyed as a child, they buy season tickets at Watford, where three of them can go for less than the cost of one seat at Arsenal prices!

Hate figure?

I know there are plenty of fans of other clubs who find Le Prof’s TV appearances particularly irritating. However to my mind Wenger’s short-sighted foibles are a direct result of a credo which requires him to display unwavering loyalty to his charges in public at all times. While I am afraid that for me there is only one football personality who winds me up to such an extent that I want to put the boot into the googlebox and with the cyclical nature of our swings and roundabouts sport, I will derive no end of entertainment from “the arrogant one’s” eventual downfall.

Bring It On

Hail fellow Gooners well met,

After umpteen seasons slaving away over these diary missives, it becomes an ever more strenuous struggle to avoid repeating the same sentiments ad infinitum and for me to come up with anything interesting, or original. Often at this time of the year, me and my fragile ego end up sitting here wondering if anyone would really notice if I stopped mailing out my long-winded, weekly posts

in this particular instance I was feeling somewhat embarrassed. After churning out my diary entries week after week, including several pages on a trifling Coca Cola Cup trip to Doncaster, it's hard to believe that I've yet to transcribe my experience of perhaps the two most significant games in the entire history of the Arsenal. In truth I couldn't possibly do justice to the last game at Highbury and our first ever Champions League final, within the limitations of my Irish Exmaner column. So I've spent the months since May waiting for a moment when I had sufficient time and enthusiasm to produce something of the sort both occasions merited. Thus for someone who, if procrastination was an international sport, I'd be England captain, naturally I've not got around to doing it....yet!

However if ever there was a start to an Arsenal season with a wealth of original topics for me to babble on about, this is it. Thus doubtless I've infuriated the Examiner sports ed by filing the piece below which is twice as long as required. But just about the only reason I'm sitting here now, adding a diary entry to my blog and sending my piece out online, is a direct result of an e-mail I received from my good pal Fred Merrill, or at least he is now, since he wrote to enquire as to why I hadn't begun my weekly missives, as he was missing his regular fix.

If it wasn't for Fred, I would've probably started writing my Examiner pieces and childishly avoided mailing them out, until someone mentioned the matter to me, thereby massaging my ego sufficiently for me to feel that someone was reading my efforts. Otherwise it begins to feel like I am talking to myself and we all know what that means :-)

Peace & Love
Bernard
___________________________________________________________________

Bring It On!



Róna never fails to be amazed by my ability to be entertained by twenty-two men and a ball. She once enquired if I could sit and watch football around the clock. In light of all the awful abominations that we’re confronted with, on a day-to-day basis, on this cockamamie planet, I could quite easily seek permanent refuge in the escapist pleasures of the beautiful game.

I’m no great fan of international footie. Yet this didn’t stop me from watching just about every single encounter in Germany this summer, including a 3rd and 4th place playoff, where a flustered Gary Lineker was forced to gainsay Martin O’Neill, to try and salvage the half-time viewing figures, as the refreshingly frank pundit pondered what on earth any of us were doing watching such an utterly meaningless match.

However since the moment the final whistle blew on the World Cup, I’ve hardly glanced at a back page, or kept myself abreast of any of the boundless transfer gossip. Admittedly, for the past month or so, we’ve had the distraction of the horrific, but nonetheless compelling, wall-to-wall live coverage of the war in the Middle East. There’s a certain sense of ghoulish voyeurism, watching live pictures of the projectiles flying through the smoke filled sky, knowing they might be about to inflict death and destruction on some unsuspecting victims. Yet it’s all the more compelling viewing for those of us who can only try to empathise with friends and family, cowering in the bomb shelters.

Pre-occupied with war, cricket and athletics, I was asked for some Premiership predictions the other day, when it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have a ‘scooby’ about any of the summer dealings. Perhaps it’s a subconscious soccer safety valve to guard against overkill, as from the moment I tuned into Sunday’s Charity Shield, I was transfixed. It didn’t matter that this wasn’t the Arsenal; my eyes were glued to the screen, like a greedy addict who’d been starved of his footballing fix.

Obviously we were amongst the 54,000 excited Gooners who descended on our grandiose new ground a couple of weeks back, delighted to have the long summer months of soccer sobriety interrupted by Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial We’d all received a computer print-out of the virtual view, when purchasing our season tickets, but I was incredibly anxious to experience the real thing.

Mercifully there’s a couple of large club crests adorning the concrete walls, in addition to the enormous neon signage, obsequiously branding the stadium in the name of our new sponsors (and if I spend the seasons to come conjuring up all sorts of contrivances to avoid calling our new ground by its given name, it’s because sadly I’ve nothing to gain by giving this Arabic airline even more advertising space!).

Driving past the building site at least a couple of times every day, I was delighted to discover that the most conspicuous finishing touches included an enormous “Arsenal” in six foot concrete letters that I assume is designed to stop fans spilling out off the South Bridge, onto the road. However since it appears that away fans will be entering from this end of Drayton Park, even if they remain undamaged, the pristine white surface is a positive invitation to visiting graffiti artists.

Additionally the two long black cast-iron canons at the base of the steps to the main entrance in Hornsey Road, are perhaps my favourite touch, as just about the only connection to the club’s historic origins, in an otherwise totally modernistic landscape. Nevertheless one can’t fail to be impressed on approaching this imposing agglomeration of concrete, steel and glass. It’s a leviathan landmark, that’s landed on the Highbury skyline like a Star Wars spaceship, hollering out its credentials as a stage that befits a footballing superpower.

Having timed our walk, I was happy to discover that we need only leave home ten minutes before KO, instead of five. Yet as our route takes us past our beloved old home, doubtless there’ll be mixed emotions in the months ahead, as we watch the builders develop the site into a sordid piece of prime real estate (although I’m sure it wouldn’t be nearly so painful if one of the £250,000 apartments wasn’t so far from our all too shallow pockets?).

Believe it or not, along with everyone else, we turned up early for once, expecting mayhem to ensue at the unmanned turnstiles. I recall the inaugural Premiership game at Man City’s new ground, where we had to queue for duplicates because our tickets hadn’t turned up in the post. One of the stewards wandering along the lengthy lines, reprogramming tickets with a handheld gadget, told us an amusing tale of how the queues were bolstered by all the bozos who’d held their tickets up to the electronic reader at the turnstile and in turning to their pals to marvel at the wonders of modern technology, they’d managed to miss their 20 second window!

However astonishingly there was no such aggro at our new gaff, as everyone gained entry to the ground like clockwork, leaving all the more time to relieve us of the entire contents of our wallets for refreshments, with beer at an extortionate £3.20 a pint, burgers 4 quid and a barmy 7 quid for a burger meal (+ chips and a coke)!

Traditionally the first day of the new season feels like a family reunion, turning up after all those years, hoping that neither of the two old buggers behind us have popped their clogs and scanning all the familiar faces for signs of any new intruders. Whereas, having swapped our posh West Upper pitch, to sit near the halfway line with the East Lower hoopleheads (for less than half the price!), by contrast Dennis’ testimonial felt like the awkward first day at a new school.

Everyone was looking around, nervously sizing up their new neighbours, bearing in mind that you might be sharing the most emotional highs & lows with these strangers for umpteen years to come. While I tried to break in the family in front of us gently, dampening down the decibel level for a match where the result didn’t really matter, I wonder how enamoured they’ll be with me, after their lugholes have endured 90 lung busting minutes of my bellowing on Saturday?

Although money, or the lack thereof, had been the principle motivation for our move, after being in such close proximity to the pitch for all those years, we didn’t fancy paying such a fortune for upper tier seats that were so far removed from the action. Yet having discovered at the Member’s Day shindig that the upper level wasn’t quite so distant as I’d imagined, not that we really had a choice, but I’d been fretting ever since about our decision to swap.

In a perfect world I would’ve plumped for a little more elevation. But we couldn’t have seats further back, without moving away from the halfway line. In truth, with the marvelous sightlines in these modern stadia, there isn’t a bad seat in the house and we were both delighted to discover that we’re amazingly close to the action. We’re close enough to the pitch to truly feel the force of an earth shuddering challenge before us. What’s more I now have even more cause to delude myself that I might be able to influence play, either with my constant stream of encouragement, or by my efforts to intimidate the linesman.

It was also a pleasant surprise when we turned around and discovered we were in hailing distance of a couple of our old West Upper pals, who’ve stumped up a whopping £19 grand to sit amongst the Gucci Gooners in the front row of Club Level. Any feelings of envy were eased by the thought that for £38 per match, we’ll be sitting on the exact same seats, with the same luxurious amount of leg room (compared to most every other stadium), only the diameter of a centre circle away from those who might be more than a little miffed to watch a dull 0-0 draw for a jaw-dropping £183!

In addition to the absence of any sort of timepiece, the most common complaint was that there isn’t a single Arsenal motif in evidence anywhere inside the stadium - intimidating or otherwise! If it wasn’t for the predominant use of red (seats and walls) and the info on the two giant screens, you could be absolutely anywhere. Hopefully this will have been rectified when Saturday comes, so that as a prelude to a 3 or 4 goal drubbing, visitors will be in no doubt that they are about to be demolished by the mighty Arsenal.

Meanwhile setting aside all my concerns that the support of the vast majority of us mug punters is to be taken for granted (so what else is new?), inside a mammoth machine that’s specifically designed for milking the corporate cash cow with maximum efficiency, I’m praying that the most influential statistic about the new stadium will prove to be the additional 48 square meters of playing surface.

For us fans, it’s going to take some time and the acquisition of some history and a few good memories, before it begins to feel like home. The only similarity with Highbury is the snooker baize like turf at new stadium’s heart. It remains to be seen whether this beats with the same regularity, without the palpitations of new stadium-itis that’s afflicted other sides subsequent to a move. Consequently the first couple of games could prove to be more crucial than ever.

So long as Wenger’s youthful team can remain in contention until such time as they begin to feel less like the visitors at Ashburton Grove, than our opponents, then we could be in for an exciting season ahead. Having escaped the incredibly tight confines of Highbury, where it was so hard to break down opponents with limited ambitions, playing with eleven men behind the ball, with all our pace and youthful vigour, we could prove an entirely different proposition on our new pitch, if we can take full advantage of the additional 6 meters in width and 8 meters in length.

I might not have had my ear to the floor this past month but despite the fact that the competition has been splashing the cash, I very much doubt Wenger’s lack of transfer activity has resulted in any unrest. In all honesty most Gooners are still basking in the glow of Thierry Henry’s contract renewal. Embittered Spurs fans aside, is there another player in this country whose decision to continue to grace the Premiership would’ve received such unanimous approval?

Personally I won’t be unhappy if we should end up getting Gallas for Ashley Cole. Ever since some labeled Cole as “the best left-back in the world”, he was no longer the hungry youngster with everything to prove. Whereas in his role as a utility player, I felt that Gallas’ ability as a centre-back was under appreciated by Mourinho, It'd therefore be ironic if he arrived at the Arsenal, only to be asked to fill in at left-back.

In the protracted row over the amount of recompense, some suggest both clubs are waiting for the other to blink. But considering the level of animosity that exists between all parties and Chelsea’s peerless purchasing power, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re toying with us, in the hope that Wenger ends up missing out on his targets.

I’m amazed Real are quite so keen to acquire Jose Reyes. Wenger’s supposed exclusive interest in Baptista last summer must’ve waned in the interim, as apparently he’s been offered his choice of either ‘the Beast’ or Robinho. Perhaps Madrid feel they can make better use of Jose’s ability, by getting him to hare down the wing and whip in crosses from the byeline as he does for the national team. Whereas Reyes ineffectiveness in an Arsenal shirt has resulted from his dreadful decision making and his inability to raise his head whilst running.

Basically the winger is woefully short on brainpower but then Robert Pires isn’t the brightest spark but this didn’t prevent him from perceiving the most effective use of the ball, by picking out an incisive pass. I was sad to see Pires go, as despite his advancing years and an apparent lack of motivation, players of his calibre, capable of coming off the bench and influencing a match in a single move, are few and far between.

Myself I will be pleasantly surprised if we recoup anywhere near the ridiculous fee we paid for Reyes. There’s a consensus of Gooner opinion that believes Wenger’s only interested in the readies because they’ve already been earmarked for Ribery. Myself I wonder whether the diminutive midfielder possesses the necessary strength and desire to be able to create the time and space necessary to produce all his trickery, amidst the frenetic and physical climate of the Premiership. However it’s begun to look less likely that we’re going to find out. It would appear that Ribery seriously pissed off Marseille and their fans with a surprise, live TV statement about his imminent departure.

Surely Marseille can’t be planning to keep the lad if he’s intent on leaving. Thus on the face of it, it would seem as if it was a bizarre act of spite to bring Ribery off the bench for the last 20 mins of their UEFA Cup qualification match v Berne, thereby ensuring the midfielder is cup tied. I’ve yet to discern whether this is for the entire season, or only until the spring, since some seem to think he could play for another club in the last 16 of the Champions League? Whatever the case, as far as Marseille are concerned, it’s as if they’ve been prepared to wipe a few million Euros off Ribery’s value, merely to impose their will and demonstrate their ultimate control over the player’s destiny!

Watching Sunday’s Charity Shield, myself I’d love to have a midfield enforcer of the calibre of Sissoko, who’s impressed me ever since his first performance against us. As for more creative players, the ridiculously inflated cost of Michael Carrick is a succinct explanation of the dearth of British players in Wenger’s squad. It’s hard to believe that after a couple of seasons in which Carrick hasn’t exactly set the Premiership alight, Spurs have sold him for almost 7 times the amount they paid West Ham. However I’ve not stopped seething over the fact that we could’ve acquired Carrick for relative peanuts compared to the £18.6 mil.coughed up by Fergie..

I’ve never forgotten the fact that, according to Harry Redknapp, Carrick was on his way from West Ham to Pompey until we supposedly scuppered the deal by expressing our interest. Arsène was desperate to plug the gaping hole that was about to be left in his midfield by Patrick Vieira’s imminent departure. But we made the mistake of persuading Paddy to stay for another season and within the space of 24 hours, Carrick was suddenly surplus to our requirements.

After having reigned supreme, at least in North London for the last 30 years, it’s been hard enough having to endure the fact that under Martin Jol, Spurs have finally managed to mount a serious challenge to our dominance, with the aid of Michael Carrick. Personally I’m inclined to agree with those who believe the Scousers are the team most likely to threaten Chelsea’s dominance over our domestic league this season. It’s hard to argue with Liam Mackey’s contention that the Blues might take their eye off the Premiership ball, as they concentrate on the Champions League. However I can’t imagine how galling it will feel, if a Carrick inspired Man Utd make all the running and manage to snuff out our own threat.

However I’ve always loathed this prediction malarkey and the possibility of making a complete fool of myself. So as the Arsenal commence a season unlike any other in our entire history, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m even more reticent than usual (reticent...moi...now that's an oxymoron if ever I heard one!!), as I reserve judgement until I’ve witnessed which way the Premiership cookie crumbles over the first couple of games.