Monday, March 31, 2008

The Ghost of Arsenal Past?

We’ve had such a miserable time up at the Reebok in recent seasons that after the extreme disappointment of the defeat at Stamford Bridge last weekend, it was perfectly understandable that there were plenty of Arsenal fans who thought better of revisiting this annual masochistic ritual.

Indeed, if my piece for the Irish Examiner was entitled “Armchair Talk” and I didn’t feel some responsibility to the readers, or to my travelling companions, I myself might have rolled over, when the alarm eventually pierced my consciousness on Saturday morning. After a long, hard week’s work, it took every last ounce of my loyalty to the Arsenal cause, to drag myself from far more pleasant dreams in the land of nod, to the unappealing reality of a rain-sodden, four hour schlep up to the North-West, for another laborious encounter with our Lancashire nemesis.

It was a shame the weather was so awful, as the convertible BeeMer we drove up in would’ve really come into its own with the roof down. But then my mate was nervous enough as it was, of incurring the wrath of his missus for misappropriating her motor, while she was sunning herself in Spain. We couldn’t travel in the people mover, as would normally be the case because apparently his wife had taken it. But this was the source of some amusement, when I enquired in utter astonishment as to whether she’d driven the Previa all the way down to Malaga, only for him to reveal that it had merely been used for the more modest trip to Luton airport.

With the fistful of spare tickets that my mate had been given by other Gooners, we wandered around the Reebok on arrival, in the hope we might be able to return them at the Box Office. I thought Blackburn was the only Premiership club where this was possible, but what with Rovers having such poor attendances, apparently even they’ve become pissed off with having to refund substantial sums of money, originally paid to the Arsenal.

In the hope of us making it all the way to Moscow, apparently there are plenty of Gooners trying to improve their prospects of getting a ticket for a European final, by bumping up their away match credits. But this must be proving an expensive business, as Bolton certainly weren’t giving any money back at the Box Office and there was little point lingering outside the turnstiles, with all those Gooners who were struggling to give away spare tickets.

The flyer I was handed for the forthcoming Amir Khan fight at the Bolton Arena promised more entertainment than anything on offer at the Reebok this season, as evidenced by the proliferation of posters around the stadium, offering season ticket holders additional tickets to see Wanderers play West Ham for only a fiver! Once inside, a glance at all the empty seats confirmed the need for these sort of ridiculously reasonable marketing deals and is further evidence that while the Premiership’s top half dozen clubs continue to rake in the readies, it’s not all roses elsewhere in the league.

Mind you it’s about time football fans started voting with their feet and it’s just annoying that I happen to support a southern club, with such an affluent fan base, that the Arsenal appear to be somewhat immune to the economical climate. I know full well that if I refuse to pay my thousand quid renewal (x two!), there’s a massive queue of fans eager to take my place. My Ma was telling me that a mate of hers is taking her to the Old Vic theatre tonight at a cost of 78 quid for the two of them. It’s patently obvious that something in society is ass about tit, when an activity widely perceived as a toffs past-time, is almost half the price of a sport which was once an affordable weekly working class pleasure!

Meanwhile it seems somewhat crass talking about money, following 90 minutes of the sort of entertainment which you simply can’t put a price on, where with hindsight many of those misfortunate Gooners who made the mistake of not travelling, might give up half a years salary, to have not missed out on what turned out to be the most thrilling away game of the season.

As an example of a relatively modern arena, the Reebok is a stark reminder of quite how sumptuous our new stadium is by comparison, with every (albeit expensive) seat in the house having the same luxurious amount of leg-room. By contrast, as one attempts to tiptoe along the cramped confines of even the more costly upper-tier rows at the Reebok, like a club-footed tightrope walker (especially after a few bevvies!), where inadvertently crushing the toes of ones neighbours is far more preferable to the prospect of a dangerous fall down the steep incline on one’s other side, I am always mindful of how much more dangerous these all-seater stadia would inevitably prove to be in the event of a fire, or some such similar emergency, than a standing terrace, where the seats wouldn’t be the greatest obstacle in getting everyone out in good time.

It’s hard to have sympathy for the precarious predicament of a club that didn’t have the good sense to hang onto their one and only regular goal scorer and I'm certain that there won’t be too many Gooners who’ll be disappointed if we don’t ever have to go back there again. But if this should prove to have been our Bolton swansong, it was one helluva way to bow out.

In the absence of Kevin Nolan (with 5 goals, their highest scorer after Anelka), you’d imagine that even the Arsenal’s leaky defence might hold firm against a team that hadn’t scored in 360 mins of footie previously. However as much as I adore Kolo Touré, he’s been playing at centre-back for so long that he’s bound to lack some of Bakari Sagna’s instinctive defensive tendencies at full back, as evidenced by the way in which Taylor managed to get his head on the ball for Bolton to take a surprising lead, from their only meaningful attack of the game.

However, to my mind, it was Diaby’s somewhat slothful demanour which was most to blame. But then once again we’re left having to ‘make do’, as Abou neither has the build or the instincts of a left winger. Aside from the fact that we’re deprived of ammunition from the left flank, because he needs to cut in on his right foot, I felt it was Diaby’s failure to track back which left Flamini with even more work trying to protect Clichy and provided Steinsson will all the time and space required to put the ball on a plate for the scorer.

After that, having failed to capitalize on any of our goal scoring opportunities, it seemed as if it wasn’t to be our day. Where Bendtner’s shot had deflected wide, just about Bolton’s second effort on goal was diverted into the net. But in the meantime Foy probably did us a big favour by sending Diaby off. No matter whether it’s us or the opposition, I hate seeing refs reach for the red card so robotically. I appreciate the need to try and prevent dangerous tackles, of which there can be little doubt Diaby’s was a prime example. But personally I don’t believe you can stamp them out completely, not without making football a less committed, not so full-blooded and thereby a far less thrilling spectacle.

The efforts to over-protect players are symptomatic of this whole nanny state culture and to my mind the authorities have a much greater responsibility not to tinker with the beautiful game because it wasn’t broke in the first place (and no I wasn’t the hypocrite who was calling for Martin Taylor to be banned a couple of weeks back!). I find it utterly infuriating that this strict rulebook mentality has been forced on our referees, to the point where week in, week out the automaton in the middle is making decisions, which all too often ruin the event as a contest for all the watching millions. You couldn’t wish for a more blatant example of the tail wagging the dog.

Mind you, the Arsenal have a habit of performing better with ten men than the full compliment and combined with the two goal deficit, Diaby’s premature exit served to force Wenger’s hand. Usually le Prof will leave his side unaltered until the last 15/20 mins, but with half an hour remaining Arsène rung the changes, which proved to be the catalyst for an astonishing comeback.

I sneaked out at the break to console myself, by sucking on a cancer stick on the stairwell. At that stage I was so pissed off that I joked with my pals that I might get lucky and an orange-jacketed anti-smoking nazi might do me the small mercy of slinging me out and save me from the second half!

Considering that Bolton looked far more likely to score a third after the restart with a rapid succession of corners, if I’m honest our remarkable revival was probably more a mixture of some long awaited good fortune, combined with the home side’s implosion, rather than any really dramatic turnaround in the Gunners form. Fabregas’ passes were still going astray and be it with banjo or football boot, Van Persie was still struggling to hit the proverbial cow’s arse (and under such circumstances, all credit to Robin for stepping up for the penalty).

I hate having to reduce a 90 minute performance in a team game, down to an individual mark out of ten, but I am often obliged to do so for the Observer's "Match Verdict" column and it was only when it came to doing so on Saturday that it dawned on me that in spite of the amazing turnaround, there weren't any really outstanding individual performances. In the end I gave Theo an 8 for his considerable impact, along with Willie and the Flamster (although even Matty was not without fault, especially in the lapse in concentration that led to Bolton's second) and virtually everyone else a 7, except for Van Persie and Diaby who didn't really deserve more than a disappointing 6. However if I had my way, sod the points for artistic style, I would've given the entire team a 10 out of 10 for application and effort.

What's more, I’m pretty much convinced that the sparkling form we've been so patently lacking in recent weeks, will come with the restoration of a little confidence. Far more important on Saturday was that in the sort of torrential conditions which would’ve seen many a lesser team give up the ghost, we showed the sort of ‘never say die’ mettle which meant that we made our own luck.

The TV pictures suggested it was a stick-on penalty, but from behind the goal, I was fairly certain there was some pre-meditation in the way Alex Hleb invited the challenge. There were those around me who were subsequently knocking Walcott’s naivety, when Theo stayed on his feet instead of hitting the deck. But Foy was never going to give us another pen and personally I quite like the idea that a youngster is too focused on possession of the ball for the intrusion of such felonious thoughts.

With a Man Utd slump looking more and more unlikely, in the end Saturday’s result might only prove important in terms of a much-needed boost to morale, prior to Wednesday’s big game. Although considering the amount of effort involved, I can’t help but be a little concerned which of the two teams will line up without the disadvantage of some residual lactic acid in their weary legs. Then again, no matter what transpires during the remainder of the season, we might have enjoyed plenty of matches where the football was on a different planet to Saturday’s somewhat mediocre fare, but there will be few present who will forget their memories of such a magical afternoon.

There’s often some precious moments of mutual appreciation after such an exceptional encounter, which involves the sort of bonding both between the players and the fans that is beyond your humble correspondent’s descriptive abilities. I know the badge-kissing is an overabused cliché and is usually the precursor to a guaranteed summer exit, but no-one who witnessed the thrill on the faces of the likes of young Fabregas can question that there’s a commitment to the club, which transcends the size of their weekly wage packet. Whether the spirit of togetherness that was engendered by events on Saturday afternoon will prove sufficient to take us all the way to Moscow is another matter. But it sure won’t do us any harm and it is encounters such as these, which can forge an ethos whose effects might last long beyond May.

As an almost ever-present this season, it remains to be seen whether Sagna’s absence for this titanic trilogy with the Scousers will prove crucial. In truth it only confirms my belief that Arsène needs to be bold by putting our home advantage to good effect by playing two strikers. Even with Sagna I wouldn’t have had much confidence in our ability to maintain a clean sheet, especially with Torres on such a hot streak. As ever, our success will depend on our ability to outscore the opposition. While I may not be nearly so confident as I was prior to our meeting with AC Milan, I am hopeful that if we can contain Torres and co. to no more than a single goal, we can go to Anfield with everything still to play for. Then again if Fabregas rises to the occasion and Robin finds his shooting boots, perhaps we'll make Liverpool look like Premiership also-rans, rather than Champions League contenders?

In the car on the way back from Bolton, I pooh-poohed the lad in the back when he suggested he fancied the Toon to turnover Spurs. "Not at White Hart Lane" I rebuked, but then who could've imagined that the Lilywhites new messiah (in a long line of dodgy deities, whose water walking acts didn't quite work out!) would make such a tactical ricket, according to Lee Dixon on MOTD2. But then I guess Ramos has discovered that it's traditional at this time of year for Tottenham's squad to be more focused on which beach they'll be spending their summer on, than on their opposition. I certainly won’t be complaining if my predictive skills prove equally fallible come Wednesday and we kill the tie in the first leg!

Lee Dixon and Tony Adams as the pundits on Match of the Day 2, now there's a win double act if ever I saw one. With TA having had the piss taken out of him for apparently having holes in his shoes on his last appearance, he revealed that his patent leather pair on his "plates" on Sunday were a present from Alan "Smudger" Smith. It felt like a bit of an Arsenal love-in which made me somewhat nostalgic for the days of yore, when the Gunners were a long way from the sophisticated outfit that we've become under Arsène Wenger (albeit playing football to match!).

However I am sure even Tone and Lee would've been proud of Saturday's performance and it left me with a little hope that some vestige of the Arsenal spirit as we've always known it, still lives on, even in these far more mercenary times.
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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Monday, March 24, 2008

Wenger's Walked On Water.....So For His Next Messianic Trick?

Escape to the country - I've only included this pic, as of all the bloomin' games, my payment for the match at Old Trafford was refused and so I had to walk around to the ground on Saturday with a letter asking them to represent the payment. On my way back with the dog, I decided to wander into the tiny plot of land which I believe was the cause of so much aggro in the development of the new gaff, with it being some sort of nature reserve. Well let me tell you, photos do lie, as it's a somewhat dilapidated patch of grass, which isn't even big enough to let Treacle off the lead for a run, where for example a feature such as the "herb folly" was true to its moniker, as despite the pretty plant pictures on the board, there wasn't a single herb to be seen!
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It’s been a traumatic couple of weeks, watching the life-force drain from the cancer ravaged body of a mate of mine, day by day, until Laurie eventually departed this mortal coil in the wee hours of Thursday morning. Consequently it was a welcome relief to be able to lose myself in a crunch weekend of football.

Saturday’s results were a bit of a wind-up, with the likes of Sunderland, Reading and Blackburn making a mockery of the plaudits previously lavished on their opponents for taking points off the Gunners, with performances which now look to have been more a reflection of our own impotence than any inspirational resolve of these lesser lights. After such a lacklustre run against lower league opposition, “Grand Slam Sunday” couldn’t come quick enough, as far as I was concerned.

I even set the alarm on Sunday morning, which would normally be sacrilege on the one day a week when I like to wake at my leisure. But I had this wholly unrealistic notion that I might head off early to West London, so I could plot up in a pub near Stamford Bridge and watch the previous game in full, before a casual stroll to the stadium, rather than stopping at home and inevitably struggling to tear myself away from the TV and being left with a stressful dash across town, risking all sorts of stealth tax type fines, as I set off any number of the myriad of ‘Big Brother’ traffic cameras, in my efforts to try and make kick-off.

Inevitably I couldn’t kill the shrill sound quick enough. Jesus might have risen on Easter Sunday, but for me it was an excuse to roll over and be seduced back into the arms of Morpheus by the delights of that dreamy half-sleep, where everything is possible, even Theo Walcott scoring the winner in Moscow. It was a couple of hours later when I eventually stirred and ventured a big toe out from under the duvet, to discover I might as well have been in Russia. The temperature was more thermals and longjohns, than the customary t-shirts and shorts one hurries to dig out of the wardrobe at the first hint of Spring.

Ròna probably would’ve lit a fire, but there was heat enough for me emanating from the TV, as I sat back to enjoy the afternoon’s calorific hors d’ouevres from Old Trafford. Skrtel v Rooney said it all, as far as I was concerned. Yet while I wasn’t expecting the Scousers to pull off a minor miracle, I felt that their momentum of the past couple of weeks, meant that a draw wasn’t impossible.

If Fergie wasn’t, I’m sure Wayne might have been kicking himself at half-time for not falling over and earning a penalty in the opening moments. But as a lover of football, I had no choice but to admire an incident which epitomised Rooney’s entire performance. It’s nothing to do with being an “honest player”, as if he'd half a brain, Wayne would’ve hit the deck. The slow-motion replay portrayed a study in concentration, where good sense wasn’t about to impinge on Rooney’s utterly blinkered focus on putting the ball in the back of the net.

Steve Bennett might’ve given me license to leave the house at half-time for a more leisurely trip to Stamford Bridge, as all hope of Liverpool doing us a favour left the field with their diminutive Argentinian, but I wasn’t about to thank the over-zealous official. Who would’ve thought Ashley Cole might put a spoke in our title prospects in such an abstract fashion? As for Mascherano, he bore little resemblance to the relaxed pre-match interviewee, who referred to the potential contest with his close pal Tevez as “only a game”! There’s little doubt that in the current climate the feisty midfielder was a mug, but for my money his sending-off ranks along with the subsequent booking for Drogba’s goal celebrations at the Bridge, as a slightly more extreme case of the game’s tinpot tail wagging the football dog.

I’m awfully tired of hearing rugby practices cited as a model for the sort of example professional footballers should be setting for the youth of today. It is the passion that football inspires which makes it the world’s most popular pasttime (behind fishing?) and it’s the inevitability that our volatile sport will boil over from time to time which is part and parcel of the thrill of the beautiful game.

To my mind Alan Hansen had it right with his belief that Bennett should’ve been able to warn Gerrard to put a leash on their Argie Jack Russell, as I’m of the opinion that intent to harm a fellow professional is just about the only legitimate justification for the ref to ruin such a spectacle for the watching millions. Sadly the authorities fail to grasp the fact that the punters should be their primary focus and a red card should be a tool of last resort.

If we really wanted a staid, sanitised sport played by responsible adults, we’d all be watching rugby and while it’s true that kids tend to mimic their idols, surely we’re not so naïve as to believe that the game at grassroots would be all sweetness and light, if only all our professionals were to mind their Ps and Qs?

I recall that rapidly abandoned experiment in the late 80s when they miked up Elleray for a Millwall v Arsenal match and we all heard Tony Adams calling the Harrow schoolmaster a “f***ing cheat”. By those standards, a zero tolerance policy on dissent would’ve left more officials on the pitch than players.

Meanwhile I was still sitting at home watching events at Old Trafford when Fergie made his substitutions, with 15 mins left on the clock. If Man Utd should go on to take the title, you only had to look at Sunday’s squad to appreciate their principal advantage with their bench crowded with players capable of having an impact on a big occasion, compared to a selection of inexperienced youngsters who might have a tendency to be overwhelmed.

It was more by luck than judgement that I made KO at the Bridge. Thanks to empty Easter Sunday roads, I’d traversed London and was parked up in 25 minutes. But a single jam on the Westway and I might just as easily have missed the entire first-half! I took my seat beside a bold young Gooner, spitting fire and brimstone, accentuating the absence of my own bellicose fervour. Then I suppose it would’ve been more surprising if the tragedy that’s been played out these past couple of weeks had not had some impact on my customary ‘life & death’ perspective. Win or lose against the Blues, it hardly rated as significant, compared to the thought of a two year lad who would never get to kick a ball with his dad! But then like all the best drugs, I was soon comfortably numbed by familiar footballing themes and within a few minutes of lambasting Ashley Cole’s alleged telephonic proclivities, nothing else mattered but this ‘must win’ match.

Despite Almunia being the busier keeper first-half, there was no mistaking the air of confidence amongst the Gooners gabbing on the concourse during the break. Didier Drogba seemed to be the only serious danger, standing between us and the possibility of inflicting Chelsea’s first home defeat in donkey’s years. Considering the Blues have managed to drag themselves back into contention, there was much half-time merriment at our end of the ground, at the revelations over the PA that Chelsea remains a small town in Fulham. The announcements about all the tickets available on general sale for so many of the remaining matches in the run-in resulted in an amusing chorus of “buy one, get one free”

Although sadly it was Chelsea who had the last laugh and Avram Grant in particular, as they scored twice within ten minutes of the home fans’ “you don’t know what you’re doing” tirade at the Israeli’s substitutions! Anelka’s appearance might have given our defence more to worry about than Drogba alone, but in truth it was the muscular Ivorian who was the main difference between the two teams.

On his day Drogba is an incredibly potent force, who, with his pace and physicality, is capable of ruffling the feathers of even the most composed centre-back. It was obvious how hard Kolo and Gallas were having to concentrate to contain him. If the ball hadn’t got away from Drogba when he got goalside of Gallas in the first-half, or without the pressure of a last ditch tackle early in the second, he would’ve likely found the back of the net a lot sooner.

At least we enjoyed the all too fleeting euphoria of taking the lead. Yet the gradual erosion of our confidence in recent weeks, left us looking like we didn’t know what to do with it. Forcing home our advantage isn’t one of our strongest suits, but an Arsenal side on song and in the habit of winning, would’ve at least made Chelsea work their socks off to rescue something from the match.

Having had our entertaining tag rubbed in their faces all season long, obviously the Blues were understandably ecstatic at ramming it back down our throats. Our passing game can earn all the plaudits on the planet but it all amounts to nought without the points.

Who knows what possessed Adebayor to agree to such a radical makeover of his barnet while on such a hot streak, as he hasn’t been able to hit a barn door since he lost his locks. After such a long layoff, Van Persie still needs more game time to regain his sharpness and the ever-willing Flamini apart, our our midfield failed to demonstrate the sort of urgency that one would expect in this ‘do or die’ encounter.

I was hoping this would prove the perfect stage for Fabregas to return to his sparkling best and that Cesc would be inspired to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. Instead of which, sadly we witnessed the continued absence of the drive and dynamism of the Arsenal side that is an irresistible force. I actually can’t remember the last swift counter where we carried the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, without stopping on the edge of the area to exchange umpteen passes and perhaps a chat about the weather which is just long enough to allow the opposition to regroup.

As a result we appear sufficiently ponderous and predictable that thwarting us has become merely a matter of getting enough bodies behind the ball. Undoubtedly, we'd begin to regain the dynamism with a couple of wins under our belt, but the most common complaint during our worst run of form in 9 seasons has been the absence of bodies in the penalty area whenever we advance. It stands to reason that you can’t play the ball forward without a team mate in front of you and it’s hard to recall the last time we saw the likes of Hleb, Fabregas and Flamini all advance past the edge of the opposition area, making late runs towards goal with the sort of drive and determination to beat the most obdurate of opponents to the ball.

I headed along the Kings Road afterwards to SW London’s best kebab shop, so that at least my outing wouldn’t be a total loss and as I stood queuing for my lamb schwarma, I pondered the likelihood of the resurrection of the Arsenal’s season. The choice of chilli or barbecue sauce on my kebab was a more perplexing dilemma than whether I’d be prepared to sacrifice Sunday’s points, for success in a potential Champions League semi-final. Not that it should be necessary, but the prospect of such sweet revenge should prove an added incentive to overcome the Scousers.

Perhaps being written off as title contenders will prove the perfect tonic but as Arsène undoubtedly turns his attentions towards that elusive European prize, it mustn’t be to the exclusion of domestic affairs. As unlikely as it may be, I will be devastated if Utd do slip up and we aren’t in a position to take advantage!

e-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Let Us All Pray!

I guess I should be grateful that Arsène Wenger’s team is considerably more tenacious than the Arsenal’s not-so faithful, or else the entire 60,000 crowd might as well have joined the premature evacuators, taking their leave with ten minutes left on the clock on Saturday. Almost as disappointing as the prospect of dropping more, potentially crucial points, against yet another patently inferior outfit and the likelihood that Man Utd were about to leapfrog us, was the mood amongst our crowd when Middlesborough took an unexpected lead, with just about their one and only worthwhile counter-attack during the first 45.

It winds me up something rotten, when the same fans who sit on their overpriced seats, silently waiting for victory to fall into their laps, without being prepared to work for it (sadly, much like the majority of our team), suddenly find their voices, in order to vocalize their utter and all too ugly contempt, for the very same players who’s arses they were prepared to kiss only a couple of weeks back.

Usually the one good thing to come from the feelings of injustice about the perceived incompetence of the officials is that it is often guaranteed to stir our somewhat somnolent crowd into stoking the atmosphere up a good few notches and thereby giving the Gunners some momentum. But as we grew tired of taking our frustrations out on ref Mike Halsey, it disheartened me to hear some of the more fickle Gooners turning on our own.

I was no less angry at the way in which we’d been passively prodding the ball around the edge of the Boro penalty area during the early stages, expecting an opening to be offered on a plate, with Matty Flamini just about the only Arsenal player demonstrating the sort of drive and intensity necessary to force the issue - it was therefore no surprise that the Flamster earned the most money for Sport Relief this weekend, covering more ground than any Premiership player, as the league’s most industrious grafter! However I’ve never believed in balling out our own players. Part of our remit as “supporters” is to try and inspire those in the red & white to sweat blood for the Arsenal’s cause. Whereas I hardly think that some of the disgusting racist drivel hollered in their direction on Saturday was likely to provoke a positive response.

And when you consider that a team which was written off before the season began, as the team most likely to slip out of the top four, is still clinging to a title challenge (albeit by our fingertips) and in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, we Gooners can’t really grumble. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, individual culpability is not really appropriate for what appears to be a collective malaise.

I never imagined too much self-belief could be a problem, or perhaps we’re seeing a touch of complacency, or arrogance raising its ugly head. But despite our domination of possession in much of the past four games, we’ve appeared somewhat impotent until we’ve gone a goal behind. For some reason we seem unable to apply ourselves from the opening whistle, with the same sort of fervor we’ve witnessed in the closing stages, when we’ve grown increasingly desperate to avoid dropping points.

It will be no surprise if we end up sharing the spoils in a nervous contest next Sunday, with both teams too afraid of losing to risk too much – a flagrant fate tempting effort to ensure I’m proved entirely wrong, by a thoroughly successful goalfest! I’m confident we’re capable of raising our game and more than holding our own at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford.

Yet for us to continue to have a say when it comes to the Premiership prize-giving in May, Arsène needs to find a means to inspire the sort of vim and vigor from his troops, to be able to subjugate the lesser footballing mortals from the first minute to the last, by bringing their San Siro style ‘A’ game (where A stands for application), to more mundane encounters against the likes of Bolton, Everton and Sunderland. They need to display the same sort of desire that drove John Terry to be first to the ball, to head home the Blues goal within ten minutes of the start, rather than waiting for the clock to tick down before pulling their collective fingers out.

In addition to the inappropriate outbursts of the fickle few, what I found equally annoying was that as Saturday’s game wore on and it began to appear increasingly likely that the title race was slipping from our grasp, instead of joining me, as I jumped incessantly from my seat to urge our lot not to accept our apparent fate, it was as if the entire stadium was enveloped by an air of resignation.

I don’t know how anyone can leave before the last kick of such a delicately balanced contest, especially when we were going for it with ‘all guns blazing’. The trickle, which rapidly develops into a torrent of those trying the beat the queues at the death, isn't particularly encouraging. You can’t help wondering if they know something we don't. But then we've witnessed enough last gasp goals this season to know better.

Mind you, it was my missus’ first game back since a worrying bout of pneumonia. With Róna still being somewhat fragile, she thought it best to avoid the crush at the end and ironically she was halfway along Highbury Hill, when Kolo eventually conjured up an equaliser. Naturally I was straight on the phone to her after, to moan that if I'd known her exit was the precursor to an Arsenal goal, I would have kicked her out ten minutes earlier, so there was time enough for a winner!

I adore these demonstrations of our side’s “never say die” qualities and I only wish more of our fans were equally inspirational. If the swings and roundabouts theory holds water, then we must be storing up a positive avalanche of good fortune for some unfortunate victim/s in our remaining fixtures.

I was at the hospital bedside of a dying pal during the week. The doctor didn’t expect him to survive after he took a dramatic turn for the worse and a female priest who appeared on the ward asked if his wife wanted her to say a prayer. Laurie’s condition was so critical that it felt more like the Last Rites. But I will never again pooh, pooh the power of prayer, as I was flabbergasted by the miraculous way in which he’d rallied the following day.

However I was a little gutted, as if I’d known the nun had a direct line to the Almighty, I would’ve asked her to put in an increasingly necessary good word for the Gunners!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What's a jewish princess' favourite wine?

"I havent got a thing to wear", whereas for Arsène Wenger........

You couldn’t wish for a more stark contrast between a sexy, midweek Champions League encounter, amidst the glamorous Milanese environs of the San Siro and a murky Sunday afternoon mudbath, on the brown field bog of the JJB. But before siding with Le Prof, in laying all the blame for Sunday’s bore draw on the unsatisfactory circumstances, we might do best to look a little closer to home for culpability.

I can well recall sliding about on similarly sticky and far worse playing surfaces in my youth. In fact, as a left-back, I actually relished such conditions, knowing I could win the ball with a well-timed slide tackle, without risking a nasty grass burn on the bum. However in the event of playing on such a boggy pitch, you didn’t need to be Einstein to appreciate the value of a coach’s advice to avail oneself of the few remaining blades of grass out on the flanks.

Quite frankly I find it utterly unfathomable how we’ve ended up challenging for honours, with a squad that doesn’t appear to include the option of a single natural winger within our ranks. Moreover I know not whether Arsène was remiss in his neglect of such a schoolboy strategy, or the likes of Hleb and co. were naïve (perhaps to the point of arrogance), but it was agonisingly painful having to endure their frustrating efforts to plough a somewhat impenetrable furrow through the mire, as they remained steadfast to twinkletoes principles, instead of adapting their tactics to best suit the less than ideal conditions.

In these high-tech agricultural times, you’re likely to find a more predictable playing surface on Hackney Marshes than the JJB. Yet up against our superior passing outfit, the home side were hardly going to profit from a snooker baize like pitch and when you consider that there were only 4000 less through the turnstiles at Wigan Warriors last rugby league home game, than the 19.5k present on Sunday, for a club with limited resources, the economic argument for a groundshare becomes glaringly obvious.

As they say, the conditions were the same for both teams and with the Steve Bruce expressing his gratitude to his managerial mentor across the weekend media, it was a pity that the favourite “whine” that was offered in return, proved to be of the corked sort, which only lends credibility to the archetypal image of the Southern Softie, fair-weather footballers who can only produce the goods playing on a pristine pitch, preferably with the sun on their backs!

Wenger has been manager long enough to know that part and parcel of winning the Premiership marathon is the ability to produce a side with sufficient mettle, not merely to survive in the face of adverse circumstances, but a steel-chinned team capable of flourishing, no matter how many haymakers fate has to throw at them.

It doesn’t feel right having a pop at the lads, in a week when we’ve positively revelled in one of the most peerless European performances it’s ever been my privilege to witness. Perhaps a somewhat subdued “after the Lord Mayor’s show” lacklustre display was inevitable, from players who’s adrenal glands had been working overtime to fuel last Tuesday’s highly-charged triumph.

No matter what twists and turns are to come in the climax to this campaign, the memories of our magical night in Milan will endure, undiminished. The Gooner invasion of the bars around Il Duomo left me commenting on the fact that I recognised so few regular awayday faces. However aside from the obvious attraction for a few glory-hunting liggers, the inter-continental mélange of accents around me only underlined English football’s global fan base. In addition to a few mates who’d travelled from as far afield as Texas, Cairo, Holland and Germany, the 5000 strong contingent was comprised of Gooners from all points in between.

Considering how many of the day-trippers had enjoyed an extremely long day, supping a traditional liquid diet, it could so easily have turned ugly. But one of the most pleasing aspects to the party mood, was the sense of a common bond between the two sets of supporters, with us both being such aficionados of the beautiful game. Despite enduring what was basically a season-ending defeat, the home fans not only had the good grace to express all due appreciation to the victors, but a Gooner pal who remained in the city the following day told me that they were shaking his hand, to compliment “il grande Arsenal”.

The San Siro’s turrets are one of the most striking features of this imposing stadium. I could’ve done with an oxygen cylinder on the seemingly eternal march up to our seats in the gods. But on eventually being allowed to depart, the red & white procession winding it’s way down the spiral walkways, with the “you’re not champions any more” chant, echoing out from these endless concrete chambers, is a sight which will live long in the memory.

I was hoping such a majestic performance might give us the sort of momentum, whereby a swaggering Gunners display would leave a lowly Wigan trailing in our wake. However where I can accept one bad day at the office, maybe even two, three in succession is a trend that suggests something is definitely amiss. While we might not have left our chin exposed, the evidence of recent Premiership encounters might lead one to some worrying conclusions about our beloved club's soft underbelly?

In spite of the widespread recognition for all he’s achieved and the fact that Wenger walks on water as far as most every Gooner is concerned, you can’t help but feel that it will take the affirmation of a Champions League title for Arsène to be truly inducted into the managerial hall of fame alongside the likes of Fergie, Clough and Shankly.

Another memorable image from Milan was the sight of Fabregas leaping into le Gaffer’s arms to celebrate his goal. Never mind all the paper talk of a preposterous pay rise, it’s evident that theirs is a far more cerebral relationship. Thus I can’t help but wonder if, on some level, the signals that Arsène sends out are responsible for the sort of marked increase in intensity that we witnessed against AC?

A British spine certainly hasn’t enabled the Scousers to recreate the European magic on a sufficiently regular basis in the Premiership and perhaps it’s merely a fact of modern day football life that the ‘galacticos’ not only attach more kudos to the big-eared European prize but that they simply can’t replicate the same increased levels of fervour for the relentless demands of domestic footie.

From my part, having staked such a well-earned claim for a major role in the run-in, with our efforts over the past eight months, it would be criminal to put all our eggs in the Champions League basket and merely let the Premiership race get away from us, at the sound of the last lap bell. Especially when you consider quite how influential the fickle finger of fortune can be in any two-legged Euro contest.

Assuming we can apply ourselves sufficiently to beat Boro and unless Gary Megson can favour us with a minor miracle by taking points off Man Utd in midweek, we will be a point behind Utd by the time we travel to Stamford Bridge. Messrs Gerrard and Torres appear to have hit the sort of purple patch which should present Man Utd with a stiff examination and it might well prove to be a decisive afternoon.

I’ve no concerns about us raising our game against our principal rivals. Yet no matter how well we acquit ourselves, I rather fancy we’ll all end up taking points off one another over the coming weeks. It might sound a little glib but ultimately football is a simple game and the Premiership silverware will be deservedly earned by whichever side is most motivated to prevail in ten successive cup finals. On recent evidence, our lot rapidly need to get the blinkers on!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Written Off At The Media's Peril!

It's funny, as when I sunk into my seat on the plane at Bergamo airport late last night (or early Wednesday morning), before slipping off into a satisfied sleep, to dream of quarter final trips to warmer climes, I turned to the bloke sat beside me to smugly pronounce that I'd got it spot on in the missive I'd written the previous day.

However it was only on reflecting on matters this afternoon, that it occurred to me that while I might have filed my piece to the Irish Examiner on Monday, for their Wednesday sport's supplement, in my haste to get everything sorted before leaving for Luton airport, I'd neglected to post it to my blog, or mail it out to anyone else. So to ensure it's not just readers in Ireland who realise quite how perceptive I am, I have tagged it on below. But then on the basis that I've been writing this column for seven seasons now, I suppose the law of averages demands that I've got to come good once in a blue moon :-)

Having stayed up on Monday night because I was too paranoid about going to bed, for fear of not waking up in time to make the 5.30am check-in, if I'm entirely honest, there was a point about half an hour before I'd planned on leaving, when I was hardly thrilled to be travelling to Milan. In fact I actually turned to the missus and said that in some respects I was actually dreading the prospect of such a tortuous trek.

If I could've teleported to the San Siro for the match, there wouldn't have been any such hesitation, but after so many years of following the Arsenal around Europe, the thought of leaving in the middle of the night for a match at 8pm the next day, with virtually everyone predicting a dismal outcome, I couldn't help but feel somewhat ambivalent about what was likely to be an utterly exhausting outing.

Needless to say, one of the first of many texts I received, as we savoured our majestic triumph in Milan last night, whilst being kept in after the match for a typically inordinate amount of time, was a message from my missus, to remind me of my reluctant mood on departing, as Ro enquired "bet you are glad you went now!"

And she was right, as in truth I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Although I'd told everyone that I was quietly confident, knowing that on our day we had absolutely nothing to fear from AC and that to the contrary, it should be Milan who ought to be bricking it (and didn't they play like that!), I knew very well that there was always a possibility that this might've been 90 minutes of football that wasn't destined to go the Arsenal's way.

Nevertheless, although I've not been able to afford to travel to any of the Champions League awaydays so far this season and only managed to make it to Milan courtesy, believe it or not, of a Spurs mate who owed me a few quid and although I couldn't really justify losing out on what proved to be two days wages, instead of one (since after arriving back at 4am, I literally conked out on the sofa and woke up at 11am, still wearing my coat, when I was supposed to have been working down in Kent!), along with five thousand other Gooners who turned up in Milan from all four corners of the planet, by hook, or by crook, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss the opportunity of being there in person to see if the Gunners could be the first English side to put one over the European Champions in their own back yard.

I always felt that victory in this game was in the Gunner's heads, as on paper, it seemed patently obvious that we should be able to prove ourselves younger, fitter, hungrier than the majority of Milan's has-beens. However I don't think many of us could've predicted quite what an incredible performance Le Prof was about to pull out of the old magic hat. It's hard to recall quite such an accomplished 90-minute display from the Arsenal since we beat Real in the Bernabeu. A Gooner pal of mine who remained in Milan after the game told me that he had AC fans coming up to him today, to shake his hand and offer all due respect to "il grande Arsenal".

In fact one of the most enjoyable aspects to yesterday's outing was to see AC fans showing their appreciation to the Arsenal, applauding both the team off the pitch and with mutual gestures of appreciation between both sets of fans, in a spirit of great camaraderie. Considering how many Gooners has spent a long day drinking in the centre of town, it could've easily been a completely different and somewhat uglier story.

Meanwhile we couldn't let the evening pass without reminding everyone what had just taken place and I am just pissed off the battery on my mobile died before the night was out, as I would've loved to have videoed the scene, when they finally let us out of the San Siro and all five thousand of us wound our way, round and round, two or three of those concrete turrets, marching all the way down from the gods on the same interminably long walk we'd made getting up there earlier in the evening. Albeit that at least this time it was downhill all the way, with all the pre-match nerves and stress having been replaced by the sort of unbelievably satisfying feeling that left everyone grinning from ear to ear. It made for an amazing sight, as umpteen spirals of the concrete walkways echoed to the tune of "you're not Champions any more" and naturally "we're on our way......."

For me, the spirit in the Arsenal dressing room right now, was summed up by the wonderful way in which Cesc leapt into Arsène's arms to celebrate his goal. I only hope we don't experience any sort of "after the Lord Mayor's party type hangover, at the somewhat less glamorous surroundings of the JJB on Sunday, as if we can carry the triumphant mood and the undoubted confidence boost into the title race, hopefully, as they say, we'll be running round Stamford Bridge/Old Trafford with our willies hanging out (although my own grandad ensured that the second line of this little ditty doesn't apply to me - apparently prior to being a first class gentlemen's cutter, he used to circumcise elephants in the African jungle, where the wages were terrible, but he didn't half get big tips :-)

Come on you Reds
Bernard

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Apparently there’s little point in me travelling all the way to the San Siro on Tuesday, nor schlepping up to the JJB this weekend, as according to much of the footballing media, we Gooners might as well throw the towel in! Well personally I’m never happier than when everyone else is writing the Arsenal off.

Admittedly it was somewhat demoralising to be a goal behind at home to Villa on Saturday and to hear the news that 2-0 up at the Cottage, Man Utd had brought on Rooney and Ronaldo. Its hard to deny the evidence that on paper, the strength in depth of the squads of our two principal competitors sees them better equipped to cope with the relentless pressure of the run-in.

You only have to look at Gael Clichy, who's been a model of consistency all season long and who, along with the likes of Sagna and Flamini, have been the unsung heroes of our campaign so far. And yet in the past couple of games Clichy has been guilty of the sort of uncharacteristic errors, which might lead one to conclude that the youngster could do with being left out for the odd game, in order to recapture the sort of verve and focus that made him such a potent force in the autumn. However we all endured the disastrous consequences at Old Trafford a couple of weeks back when Arsène tried to leave out this crucial triumvirate.

Nevertheless, if winning trophies were merely a matter of amassing a suitable number of players, surely Liverpool wouldn’t be languishing in 5th, 15 points off the pace. So while it might prove a factor, Man Utd’s ability to be able to rest their star players doesn’t necessarily make Fergie’s side the sort of sure-fire certainties for the title that many in the media would have you believe.

For my money, the most decisive factor is momentum and while it can’t be disputed that we’ve faltered in recent weeks, if we can triumph in the San Siro on Tuesday, it could prove to be just the sort of springboard that would get out title challenge back on track.

However it's going to require a marked improvement on Saturday’s somewhat lacklustre display, if we're to succeed against the wily Ancelotti’s campaign hardened veterans. Our encounter with Villa was always likely to be an awkward proposition and even against an Arsenal side on song, there was a possibility that we might drop points against them.

Arsène suggested that we were still suffering from a hangover, after the tragic events at St Andrews last week and I sincerely hope that he’s correct, as from where I sat, I was concerned that it could be a touch of complacency, or even arrogance that was perhaps the principal cause of our failure to force Villa onto the back foot. Reading our captain’s programme notes at half-time, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were perhaps suffering from the distraction of Tuesday’s trip to Milan. There were periods early on in the game where, instead of pressurising the opposition and denying them time and space on the ball, we appeared to be guilty of standing off them, as if we were just a little too certain that our superior ability would eventually win the day.

Yet self-belief counts for little, unless it is matched by the necessary application and there’s enough quality in Martin O’Neill’s team for Villa to create problems against any opposition, let alone one that’s lacking 100 per cent focus. It would be laughable to suggest that I’m a xenophobe, with my own Heinz heritage (57 varieties), but when it comes to this stage of the season, I have to wonder if we’re not disadvantaged by the possibility that some of our players attach a good deal more kudos to the Champions League than the Premiership and that as a result, they might be far more inspired by the prospect of proving themselves on the glamorous European stage, than they are by the unrelenting demands of a title challenge?

Meanwhile it would be an injustice not to give O’Neill’s side the credit they deserve, as the Irishman’s tactics on Saturday only reaffirmed the respect I have for him. The vast majority of Premiership managers come to our place with decidedly limited ambitions and by playing with a lone striker, they invariably end up inviting the sort of pressure that has been a feature of so many of our home games. By contrast, with the brick sh*thouse that is John Carew and lightning pace of Agbonlahor, Villa had a sufficiently potent outlet both to enable them to retain the ball going forward and to prevent us from being too gung-ho, as we were forced to chase the game.

In fact, I am sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that the longer the game went on and the more we were forced to throw caution to the wind, considering how little we’d troubled Carson, I felt Villa were far more likely to score a second from a swift counter, than we were to equalise.

Whereas I’ve no such respect for the Villa fans, who provoked an understandably outraged reaction in our corner of the ground, with a distasteful chant about Eduardo walking like Heather Mills! Although in some respects I wish they’d have been more vociferous, as aside from my belief that such reprehensible behaviour invokes bad karma (as I’ve always felt whenever I hear the paedophile chant), I’m sure our players might’ve been stirred into a similarly concerted response, if they’d actually been able to comprehend the Midlanders, nasal Brummy drawl – I immediately knew what they were singing about from the vehemence of the response (until his progress was blocked by half a dozen burly coppers, one particularly incensed, doubtless pissed up Gooner charged around the perimeter, intent on taking them all on singlehanded) but even sitting in such close proximity I couldn’t make out the words of their unseemly ditty.

I hope they were all suitably shamefaced when within a few minutes we showed them how to behave, as Davies was stretchered off the field, to a refreshingly sporting round of applause.

Meanwhile this wasn’t the only lesson meted out on Saturday afternoon. In response to the groan from behind when the official held up the board showing 3 mins of injury time, I turned around to suggest that we could continue all night without getting an equaliser. However if my head had given up the ghost, my heart was screaming otherwise and I simply couldn’t believe how many of the 60,000 crowd were heading for the exits, apparently having already accepted our fate.

I’ve given up hoping that some of the less committed Gooner faithful might learn from this last-gasp lesson but I just can’t imagine how it must’ve felt to have endured 90 minutes of frustration, only to miss out on that incredibly intense moment of euphoria because of trying to beat the queues at the station?

Myself I was thinking of my Corkonian pal, who had brought his lad for his first pilgrimage to the Arsenal and I was merely relieved that instead of heading home with his head on his chest, the youngster’s trip had been made complete in one magnificent instant.

From the sort of fortitude we’ve witnessed several times this season, if Wenger’s young Guns have demonstrated one thing, it is that you write us off at your peril!