Monday, January 25, 2010

They Used To Play On Grass

Our 4th round FA Cup tie at fortress Britannia was always going to be a stiff test, no matter what team Arsène put out. Sadly the only ones seemingly unaware of this fact were the eleven players in blue (that’s never going to sound right for the Gunners!), who spent the first half-hour of Sunday’s encounter, like frightened rabbits, caught in the intense glare of the Stoke City headlights.

At the Reebok the other week, Bolton’s close attentions only forced us to zip the ball around, at the sort of pace that the opposition couldn’t live with. Whereas on Sunday we appeared to be intimidated by Stoke’s “in yer face” intensity, with the ball becoming like a hot potato, as the Gunners all seemed to want to ‘get rid’, rather than risk being clattered.

The bods on the box suggested that Fabregas only played because Wilshere fell ill. Although Fab once again showed the sort of fervour that’s had him looking every inch the genuine article, as the Arsenal captain of late, few seemed inclined to follow our skipper’s lead.

Fabianski set the tone, with his timid failure to take responsibility and prevent Fuller scoring from Delap’s opening salvo, even before the first chorus of Delilah had reverberated around the Britannia. With Chelsea and Man Utd the only teams to succeed on Stoke’s turf this season, there’d have been no shame in this ad hoc Arsenal side losing on Sunday.

Yet this defeat left a bitter taste in the mouths of a 4,500 strong garrison of Gooners who schlepped up to the Potteries and who constituted nearly a quarter of a paltry 19k crowd. While so many Arsenal fans had made the effort to turn up, sadly, for the most part our team failed to do likewise. It was left to Denilson to crown a demoralising afternoon in downright criminal fashion, in the build up to Stoke’s second. The Brazilian’s lack of determination encapsulated a decidedly gutless Gunners display, as he just gave up on chasing down Sidibe.

Denilson looked like he was running through treacle, as he tried in vain to reel in the Stoke striker, but for him to plum give up the ghost was positively unpardonable. With Silvestre forced to forsake his post in the middle of the park in a last ditch effort to intercept the lumbering Malian, even if he had no chance of getting there, the midfielder should’ve continued breaking his neck, to try and plug the gap left by the veteran French centre-back.

If Sidibe hadn’t managed to put a precision cross on a sixpence, for Fuller to head home Stoke’s second, you never know what might’ve happened and Denilson might’ve just made it back in time to mop up the bits and pieces. But surely the lad knows you never just stop trying, least of all in the 78th minute of an FA Cup encounter. This wasn’t the first time that Traore was caught roaming up the left flank, inviting Stoke to spring a swift counter after the Gunners had gifted them possession with our slapdash passing.

I’m always caught unawares at our gaff, when the mechanical sprinklers pop up out of the pitch at half-time and gush water to maintain the slick surface that suits our flowing football. With so many passes failing to find their target on Sunday, I wondered if perhaps Tony Pullis had ordered that the grass be left uncut and unwatered to try and gain some advantage? But then it occurred to me that more than half this Arsenal side are used to playing in the reserves, on the slope at Underhill and on many other inferior surfaces, which lack the snooker-baize like consistency at our ground.

No there are no excuses for this defeat. We kid ourselves, hoping that such matches matter as much to the players, as they do to us on the terraces, but having removed my sentimental specs, in these mercenary times, the most we can hope for, is that they want it just a little more than the opposition. Evidently this wasn’t the case at the Britannia, as Stoke’s far superior hunger deservedly won the day.

Having shown so much promise playing with the kids, I’d been looking forward to Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ first-team bow. But where he’s looked imposing, appearing in every position on the park for the youngsters, he seemed far less conspicuous amidst the stout Pampas of the Potteries. Jay’s proved so versatile that his best position remains undecided. He had few opportunities to impress up front on Sunday, but having waited patiently for his big opportunity, I was disappointed he didn’t grasp the mettle and go that extra mile to put his mark on this match.

Meanwhile Theo was so inconspicuous that he might as well have not been there. Although he too saw little of the ball, it’s a mark of Walcott’s waning confidence that he didn’t come looking for it. Theo reminded me of myself as a schoolkid on those couple of instances a year when I was forced to play inter-house rugby. I bore a massive grudge about going to a posh school that played the Philistine sport instead of proper footie. On those rare occasions when I was obliged to join the egg-chasers, I was perfectly happy playing out on the wing, knowing that the quality of play between the backs was so poor that the ball would rarely ever reach me.

Sadly on this occasion Arsène’s three card Monte failed to do the trick. The introduction of Arshavin, Eduardo and Ramsey in the 68th minute was intended to inject some energy, just as Stoke were beginning to flag. But the home side didn’t oblige and judging by how reluctant Shava was to remove his Beanie hat, I reckon he would’ve been happier remaining on the bench, tucked up in his blankie!

I suppose I can only fault Sol Campbell’s much-hyped comeback for the fact that he ended up on the losing side. But with two aged, infirm centre-backs playing a rare 90 minutes, surely Wenger should’ve had the foresight to keep something in reserve, so as to ensure we weren’t stuck with Silvestre, limping out the last 20 mins. And it will rub salt in our wound if Cesc’s customarily committed performance leaves him plum tuckered for tonight’s trip to Villa Park.

I can appreciate Arsène’s need to prioritize at this crucial stage in our campaign. After two defeats in Manchester already this season, there’s some slight solace in Sunday’s loss potentially saving us from another long drive back from Lancashire, should we have lost to City in the next round. Nevertheless fatigue only becomes a factor once you begin to lose that winning momentum. Hence I’ve always been a firm advocate of putting one’s best 22 feet forward. With the Villa game the prelude to a two-week period, which will prove whether the Gunners are worthy challengers, or mere pretenders to the throne, the rotation which has resulted in the sacrifice of the second of four shots at silverware, will only be vindicated if the Wengerboys aren’t seen to be suffering from Sunday’s hangover?

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Definition of "Traumatic"....

.....driving all the way to Anfield to support the Totts, only to endure that load of old shite, followed by the devastating news that the Gunners have gone top (with a ten point advantage that's ended optimistic Lilywhite dreams for yet another disconsolate campaign).

Still at least these lasted into the New Year this time around. At this rate some of them might actually live to see the day when they get all the way through until May, before having such feint hopes mullahed :-)

In the meantime we Gooners can all rest assured that we'll still have our Spurs mates to keep us up to date with the goings on in Eastenders next season!

S'funny but only yesterday a pal of mine who works for a charity informed me that with the post-Xmas blues, the painful wait for a monthly pay packet and the problems for SAD sufferers with the miserably grey weather, apparently these next few days account for the highest suicide rate in this country.

It follows that the Samaritans should be taking out a full page ad in the Spurs matchday programme, with a dedicated Lilywhite Freephone number.

Not to mention the announcement of a new line of merchandise in the club shop, to include:
the Assou-Ekotto exhaust attachment
the Crouch collapsible chair
the Corluka Wrist Cutter
the Lilywhite length of rope
And the limited edition Blue & White Rohypnol, available in bulk orders only

Apparently there was also to be a David Bentley deathbed but this has somehow evaporated into thin air after leaving the manufacturers

All which come we a free Crowing Cockerel which crows a selection of popular tunes from the Last Post, to a variation on the club's anthem "Bill Nich's body lies a moaning in the grave....gory, gory Tottenham Hotspurs....and their soul goes limping on, on, on"

Poor loves! Never mind, there's always next season!


Come on you Reds
Nuff Love
Bernard

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Alright On The Night


Hi folks,

I dawdled over posting out the following diary piece, as I planned on expanding on it somewhat, but since it was written on Sunday night / Monday morning, to appear in today's edition of the Irish Examiner (with references to tonight's game against Bolton), I thought I had better get it sent out, before events this evening leave me needing to rewrite the whole thing :-)

Truth be told, I'm sad to admit that I never made it to the Reebok on Sunday, as this was the last day of my five week stint of work, doing the Xmas season with the ballet at the Coliseum. As a result, I am really excited about tonight's game and to be perfectly honest, although I will be just as desperate as every other Gooner to see us win, once I get to the ground, sitting here right now, after five weeks of feeling so deprived of my Arsenal pleasures and experiencing being a footie fan in the way that so many others are forced to do, merely grateful to catch snippets of a radio commentary whilst at work, I am just delighted to be able to get back into my usual routine, leaving from home, with all my customary accoutrements (terrace tranny, binoculars etc. etc). Although doubtless I will be late as usual!

By contrast, on Sunday I had to be in the theatre at 1pm for an afternoon matinée, which was immediately followed by the get-out, as we changed over shows from the Snow Queen to Giselle (Giselle is a much smaller show than the Nutcracker and Snow Queen and therefore, much to my great relief, I wasn't required to work for the final week of the Xmas season). But there was no way I could've gone to the game because the gruelling physical nature of the changeovers, from one show to another is the reason why we are paid the big bucks ("double bubble" ie. double the basic salary while touring) and so, while I could get away with paying someone else to stand-in for me for the odd show, it just wouldn't have been acceptable for me to have missed the get-out.

As a result, after the set-back at 1pm, where we merely sweep, mop and revert the scenery back to the beginning of the show, we had an hour and a half before curtain up and with the nephew of the master carpenter (both Hammers season ticket holders) working on my side of the stage, we sat there watching the Villa v WHU game on my iPhone (which reminds me, I had better cancel my subscription to Sky Mobile, as I only signed up in order to take advantage of the three months free offer while working at the Coliseum and I've absolutely no intention of paying an additional £6 per month for this facility, when I am already stumping up an extortionate monthly sum of over 70 quid to the Murdoch monopoly!).

The curtain came up on the show, just as the second half was starting and because I had various cues in Act 1, I ended up leaving my mobile with him, so that he could continue watching the game. However I was getting a little stressed out that the earlier game was going to end up using up all the juice on my mobile and that there wouldn't be enough power left in the battery, for me to watch the Arsenal match immediately after.

But as it turned out, I needn't have worried. My brother-in-law had very kindly given me one of these battery pack type cases for my iPhone as a birthday present, which he bought on a trip to New York and which is like having a spare battery to hand all the time (and with all the millions of applications to play with, boy do you need one with the iPhone!). This was a blinding present and perfectly timed, as it would've been ideal for the long days/nights in the theatre over the past five weeks, if it wasn't for the fact that sadly the bloody thing broke within a few days of having been given it. I guess Apple have the patent on the iPhone socket and I reckon the USB type socket on this thing must've broken inside it, as it feels as if this can occur a little too easily with the cable attached.

As a result, I spent most of the five weeks having to keep charging my phone, or turning off all the functions, during the days when there were matches on, so that I would be guaranteed to have some juice left come the evening, in order to keep abreast of all the footie news. But I only digress on this topic because I feel obliged to give a massive shout out to Mophie, the company who make the 'Juice Pack' case/battery for the iPhone, as when I contacted them by email to say that I'd been given it as a present and that it had stopped working within a few days but that I obviously didn't have a receipt, they merely asked me to forward them a photo of the serial number on the case.

However the camera on the iPhone isn't quite up to taking pictures of such small writing. Yet having sent them a very blurred photo of the serial number with the details typed out below, they immediately agreed to post me out a new one, all the way from Paw Paw, Missouri without me even having to return the broken one first! Although it seemed to take a somewhat circuitous route around the States, as I following it's progress via the UPS tracking service and then arrived in Stansted, only to be sent to East Midlands ten minutes later, I was extremely impressed when the case turned up on Friday, just in time for my last weekend at the Coliseum. You just can't beat some of these companies in the States (such as Mophie) for astonishingly obliging customer service!

The Snow Queen is a long, three act ballet and fortunately the game against Bolton kicked off during Act II, where we had absolutely nothing to do during this act and so with my radio earpiece in one ear, I was able to watch the beginning of the Bolton game via Sky Mobile on my iPhone, with the radio commentary about two minutes ahead of the TV pictures (which are amazingly good on the iPhone, much sharper and easier to watch football games on than many of the blurry images one gets with TV streams when watching on one's computer).

The main drawback with Sky Mobile on the iPhone is that you need to be connected to a wireless internet connection (as with the BBC iPlayer, since I guess the bandwidth isn't sufficient on the 3g network). Although there are several wireless networks available at the Coliseum (about six in total!), with one down in the canteen that doesn't need a password and two others for which I'd managed to inveigle the passwords out of people over the weeks (as everyone tends to be extremely protective of the passwords, knowing that the more people they hand the details out to, the less likely they are to get a good connection), these networks only show up as available in certain areas of the building. None of them work outside the building, where being such a hard core nicotine addict, I had to make frequent trips outside to have a fag and one of them worked sporadically on the side of the stage where I was working.

So for example on one day I would be able to watch the TV on my phone whilst waiting to do my cues and then the next day there would be no signal! But the dilemma for me was that when I was watching the football in the wings, beside the stage on my phone, knowing that an interval change was coming up and a certain period of time when I wouldn't be able to smoke a cigarette, one feels obliged to nip up the stairs and outside to get the nicotine levels up.

However on Sunday, my very last day in the theatre, soon after arriving I saw one of the locals struggling with two big bins, as he was going to empty them and having offered to help him, I discovered a door to the outside, where the main bins are located, that I wasn't aware of previously and realising that this was close to one of the locations inside that I'd been using previously, as a guaranteed spot close to the stage to be able to get a wireless signal, it occurred to me that I might at long last have found the perfect pitch, from where I could watch the footie on my phone outside the building, thus being able to smoke at the same time.

Hence I spent the first twenty minutes of Sunday's match in relative seventh heaven, watching the game on my phone, whilst puffing away to my heart's content. By propping the door slightly ajar, I could even hear the music from the orchestra sufficiently to be able to tell when the interval was coming up. With such a large stage crew and with very little to do in the interval change between Acts II and III, it was very hard to drag myself away from the game.

Having not worked on stage with the ballet for many years, I'd forgotten that one of the biggest problems is that if you are the least bit conscientious, you end up undertaking various little tasks, which mean that once you have done them for one show, that's it, you are lumbered with them for every single show and you are missed if you aren't there to do them. So I'd manage to aquire a job which meant I had to be on stage the second the curtain came down, or else there'd be a scream up! Having left it to the very last moment, I had to put my phone away and I spent the interval change trying to listen to the commentary via my radio earpiece. And with the radio in my pocket and the interference from all the electrical equipment in the building causing the commentary to fade in and out, I found myself virtually doing a little ballet of my own, as I manouevered around the stage, constantly having to turn my body in the direction where the signal was best.

Usually this interval change was over in five minutes because there was so little to do. But according to Sod's Law, in the one day I desperately needed it to be over for me to get back to watching the game, with it being the very last performance of this partcular show, it was decided that we would use the interval to start removing, breaking down and packing bits of scenery that were not required for Act III.

In his replica Arsenal shirt, I couldn't miss the other Gooner on stage from the local crew. But he brought my efforts to engage in a conversation about the game to an abrupt halt, when he advised me that he was taping the match and that he didn't want to hear any details. Unfortunately, although he'd specifically requested that I didn't tell him the score, I couldn't stop myself from letting out an instinctive whelp of joy when Fabregas scored the first goal. But I didn't need feel guilty about giving the game away for long, because as I stood there apologising to him, there came a much louder whoop from above, as the news of the Arsenal taking the lead had spread to the couple of Gooners up on the fly floor. So even if I had somehow managed to stay schtum, he would've know that the Gunners had gone a goal up by the exclamation from above.

Mercifully I was able to get back to watching the first 15 mins or so of the second half on my phone, before the final curtain came down. But then within seconds of the ballet dancers leaving the stage, after hugging and kissing in much the same fashion as if they'd just won a footie match, the whole place is a whirlwhind of activity as the rush begins the get the set out of the building. I did my best to listen to the remainder of the match and was fortunate to be able to hear the commentary on Merida's goal, as I ended up outside the building, on the back of the trailer, loading the set. However I didn't hear much leading up to this, as I started the get out with my earpiece in one ear, but promptly felt it would be prudent to remove it.

The theatre stage can be a particularly dangerous area during the get-out, with everyone in such a rush to get the work done and it's best to have one's wits about you at all times, to avoid any problems. I'm certain that it made no difference that I had the earpiece in one ear, but at one point, I was helping to push this massive house truck off the stage (which is built more solidly than most houses) and as I pushed from behind, I was watching the upstage edge and shouting at the chap pulling in front to be careful to avoid hitting these black metal frames that hang from the grid which are used for hanging the black cloth masking on (so folks in the audience cannot see into the wings).

We were used to pulling this huge truck on and off the stage about five times every performance and so although there's only a few inches clearance on either side, you get used to the fact that if it's close enough on one side, it will clear on the other. But as I was hollering at him to watch out that we didn't hit these frames on the upstage side, what he didn't realise was that the electricians had already moved one of the tall metal booms (on which they hang the lights in the wings) that we had to pass on the other side and although they'd only moved it a few inches, it was enough to cause a small collision, which ended with about five of us all rushing to stand on the bottom of this boom, to try and stand it back upright, as it leant into a thirty foot black flat.

These big black masking flats are weighed down with lead weights on the foot of wooden braces at the back and it was just very fortunate we were in the habit of taking the weights we needed to hold up other scenery and storing them on top of the weights holding up this flat and so there were several more weights on the bottom of this particular flat than the four that would normally be there, as otherwise when the metal boom had started to topple, instead of resting on the flat, it would've continued to fall (past the point where there'd be any chance of stopping it) and taken the flat with it and anyone in the vicinity on the other side might well have been flattened (although there are safety lines that should've prevented the boom going all the way over, there would've been nothing to keep the flat from going over!).

Hence I did my best to inconspicuously yank the radio earpiece from my ear, the moment this incident happened, as although it had absolutely no bearing on the matter, I am sure that someone would've passed some sarcastic comment, suggesting that it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been concentrating on the footie!

I was therefore most relieved to end up outside on the back of the trucks, as aside from the fact that this saved me from the agony of having to schlep heavy scenery up the ramp all night (where actually it seems to be the walking back down which causes my knees most aggro), it meant that I could at least listen to the remainder of the match, without having to worry about others thinking I was a liability.

There's quite an art to packing a trailer with scenery, especially on the get-out, where you are trying to cram as much in as possible and at the same time prevent the delicate bits being damaged in transit, while the pieces are coming out of the theatre thick and fast and the rest of the lads are only concerned with getting it out the building as quick as possible, so they can go home. So in truth I didn't really take in what I was hearing in my ear, as it's more akin to circuit training, as one frantically loads these seriously heavy bits of scenery, whilst trying to avoid being scraped, poked or even impaled on the sharper bits of the stuff that's already been loaded.

Usually at the Coliseum we would continue loading and unloading (the next show) on and off the trucks until 10pm and then close the shutter and continue working on stage all-night. But mercifully because Giselle is a much smaller show and they had three days to put it up, the master carpenter decided to call it a night at 10pm.

I can't posssibly put into words how relieved I was, as I was already knackered by the time we finished the matinée and I was absolutely dreading the thought of having to be on my feet until the wee hours, then coming home and watching a recording of the game, before writing my missive for the Examiner.

Nevertheless, I was sufficiently exhausted that I still struggled to keep my eyes open long enough to watch a recording of the whole match. As had happened with the changeover of shows a few weeks back, I ended up staying up until all hours, as I kept nodding off watching the game and waking up and having to rewind it back to the last incident I remembered seeing.

I suppose it could've been a lot worse if we hadn't won, but it's hardly a fun way to watch football and is the sort of torture that eventually has you feeling just desperate to keep your eyes open long enough to reach the final whistle.

But then this decidedly long-winded account of Sunday's saga is only by way of highlighting quite how frustrating and unsatisfying it is, to someone who is used to watching almost every single Arsenal match live and in person, to have my Arsenal pleasures impinged on in this fashion. Don't get me wrong, I am more than grateful to the wonders of modern technology that have enabled me to watch live footie on my phone these past few weeks. And thanks to me being "wired for sound" I don't think there's been a moment during any of our games over the last five weeks when I've been out of touch for long enough, that I've had to hear some Arsenal news secondhand from someone else.

However after being forced to follow the Arsenal via brief bursts of viewing on a small screen on my phone and short snatches of radio commentary and then to have to write about it (albeit with the benefit of having recorded the game), whilst trying to create the impression that I was present in person but without actually telling any lies, I'm hoping my seriously long-winded account might give you some idea quite how delighted and content I am to get back to my old routine, strolling around to my seat at this evening's game.

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As it turned out, I failed miserably to get this posted out before leaving for tonight's kick-off (I hadn't factored in my promise to the missus to walk Treacle before leaving!) and so I guess I can't post this piece without passing some comment on what proved to be such an enthralling emotional rollercoaster ride, especially since I feel that the events of the first half an hour or so vindicated some of what I had to say below.

Again I felt that as is too often the case with home games these days, we started the match lacking the necessary intensity. You didn't need to be a brain surgeon to know that Owen Coyle will have sent Bolton out with the sort of team talk ringing in their ears that said their only chance would be if they could make up for whatever they might lack in ability, with work rate, hunger and commitment. But there was little evidence in those opening minutes from anyone in red & white that they realised what was going to be required in this game, as the visitors easily won every 50/50 ball and were first to every second ball.

Where at the Reebok, the way in which they pressured us and denied us time and space on the ball, this forced us to up our tempo and zip the ball around that much more effectively, for half an hour of this evening's home game, our lack of tempo and intensity meant that we ended up getting caught in possession and carelessly giving the ball away, as a result of being hurried into the pass.

I don't know the answer, but it appears to me as if we've grown so accustomed to playing a waiting game, patiently loitering around until the last quarter of the match, when we expect the opposition to begin to run out of steam and the space to appear as a result, for us to exploit that we have somehow forgotten the art of getting up a head of steam against weaker opposition and going for the jugular right from the off.

It didn't help this evening that both Abou Diaby and Denilson seemed to have been instructed to play deeper in midfield. Where at the Reebok it was a pleasure to see four or five players in red & white bombing on past the ball and into the box, this evening, all too often Eduardo was left too isolated, without anything like as many options for him to pass the ball forward and forced to run into a dead end of defenders.

But then with both midfielders hanging back, how was it possible for us to find ourselves faced with a four v four situation in our own penalty area. The match might have turned out far more than alright, but I am sorry, for the first 30 minutes or so, I was very disappointed with the way in which we were bested by Bolton as far as drive and commitment was concerned. We certainly didn't look like a team that had gone out there this evening determined to take top spot and prove themselves worthy title contenders.

And even when we started to tick and exert pressure towards the end of the first half and for brief periods during the second half, although the crowd found their voices and according to many it was the best atmosphere at our place since the Spurs game, the only players inspired to produce the sort of grit and determination that demonstrated they possess the necessary hunger to put the wind up the likes of Chelsea were Fabregas and Vermaelen (and perhaps Gallas). As for the rest, for much of tonight's game I found myself hollering out loud "show us that you REALLY want it!"

I suppose that in truth I am being a bit of a sentimental idealist and that nowadays, all that really matters is that you want it, just a little bit more than the competition. But while Bolton might be a poor enough side that we can recover from a 0-2 deficit to win 4-2, that's certainly not going to be the case every week.

Denilson has long since demonstrated his inadequacies when it comes to playing a holding role in midfield, as evidenced by his somewhat naive tackle to concede the penalty this evening, but Abou makes the Brazilian kid look competent in this position by comparison. I suppose Arsene asked Diaby to do this job because Bolton are such a tall, physical team. However not only does Diaby struggle to make his size count, with players all too easily brushing past him, but he's also poor in the air. However for my money, Abou's biggest weakness when it comes to playing him in the holding role is that whether it is his naivety in defence, or his inability to make his size count, players all too easily get goal side of him and as a result he far too often ends up conceding free-kicks because he's forced to try and recover his position, by making a tackle from the wrong side.

He can often get away with poking one of his long legs out and trying to prize back the ball anywhere else on the pitch, but with so many free-kick specialists around nowadays, we simply cannot afford to have him attempting to do so on the edge of our penalty area.

It seems to me that by playing Diaby in the holding role, Arsene is conceding that he is selecting his team to accommodate the attributes of the opposition and I don't think we need make this sort of concession against the likes of Bolton? As far as I am concerned Abou is completely wasted in this position and it's only worth playing him if he's given the license to roam forward so that hopefully we might benefit from his driving runs into the box and his dainty feet. But to my mind, he patently lacks the focus, consistency and the defensive ability to play the holding role and he seems to me more of a liability than an asset in this position.

I supposes he's young enough to learn the art, as after all, if memory serves (which sadly it often doesn not nowadays) Alex Song was equally naive in this position initially and was also far too often guilty of giving away free-kicks as a result of sticking a leg out to try and rescue a ball he'd lost, but I would rather see one of the "keen as mustard" kids given the opportunity to prove themselves because I don't really ever expect to get the sort of 'blood, sweat & tears" graft from Abou in this position that is often necessary.

There was a point in the proceedings this evening, after we built up a head of steam and created several opportunities (some of which I felt an Eduardo at the top of his game would've gobbled up!), when Kevin Davies headed the ball towards his own goal and instead of scoring an own goal, it bobbled harmlessly away off the crossbar and I announced that this wasn't going to be our night. I would've bitten off the hand that offered us a draw at this particular point in time, as it looked as if it was going to be one of those evenings when nothing would go our way.

But credit where it is due, as our perserverance finally prevailed and Thomas Rosicky eventually pulled one back just before the break, with a peach of a strike which should never have really beat Jaaskaleinen at his near post (I also felt that Manuel might've stopped that penalty, with him having guessed to go the right way and while Taylor gave it some welly, it wasn't exactly hit into the bottom corner). Perhaps we benefited after that from this being Owen Coyle's Bolton. After all the pressure that had built up towards the end of that first-half, if this had been Big Fat Sam's Bolton, I would've fancied the wily old sod to have sent his troops out to take the sting out of the game second half, using every trick in the book to slow the game down and to make it disjointed. Whereas perhaps Owen Coyle isn't quite such a cynical old goat (at least not yet!) and his Bolton side let us knock the ball around and build up some momentum.

I actually thought that they had a right to feel aggrieved about Willie's tackle in the build up to Cesc's equaliser, as from where I sat, it looked as if Gallas had gone over the top, but I don't believe there was any of the same cynicism we'd witnessed from some of the Bolton tackles and I might be seeing it through red & white tinted specs, but I like to think that it was just a case of Willie being late, rather than an attempt to inflict some retribution on Mark Davies. I also like to believe that this was evidence of Willie's 100 per cent commitment ie. his commitment was such that he had no chance of pulling out of the tackle despite the fact that the ball had gone and to my mind, it was the exact same sort of desire and determination that subsequently saw Fabregas force his way through to goal, where in trying to exert his will, Cesc was rewarded with a little good fortune in the way the ball bobbled in his favour.

After Coyle had spoken so much about the importance of keeping Cesc quiet, following Sunday's game, I was a little surprised that Bolton didn't pay our Spanish orchestrator a little closer attention this evening - what ever happened to "man marking" as this facet of the game seems to have gone completely out of fashion and if I was playing the Gunners I would be sorely tempted to man mark Fabregas, in the way "Boom Boom" Keown did back in the day, when oppostion forwards would come off the pitch afterwards to admit that he'd had stuck so close to them that they'd gone to the karsey at the break and half expected to find Keown standing behind them :-)

As for our third goal, following Tommy the Tank's attempt at curling in a free-kick from the edge of the penalty area on Sunday, we can't fail to be impressed by our new centre-back's ability with the ball at his feet. Again this evening I was impressed with Tommie's ability to get up early and hang in the air, in order to win headers against much taller players than himself, his sefless, tireless running, charging forward at times, when I don't ever recall him receiving a return pass, but he continued to make the effort, knowing he was drawing defenders with him to create space for others. This sort of work rate doesn't come in the job description for most centre-backs, but based on the skill he's shown with the ball, Vermaelen's amongst an extremely exclusive group of centre-halfs (considering our current striking plight, perhaps Arsene should give him a go at centre forward?).

Once we'd taken the lead, it seemed to me as if we were so relieved to have come back from 0-2 down, that it felt as if we were somewhat content to settle for the three points. In the twenty minutes it took before Shava scored the fourth, the fact that we didn't seem overly keen to drive on and commit men forward left me wondering if the players were particularly concerned about achieving the two-goal margin that would put us in pole position.

Mind you, when it finally came, the goal was worth the wait. A move which started with Gael Clichy's backheel and that included another backheel from Eduardo, was finished off to perfection, with Shava eventually enjoying a little good fortune, as he'd failed to push the ball past his opponent on every previous attempt and not only was it the best thing he'd done all evening, it was just about the only thing! In fact I thought Shava showed something of a greedy streak, which you might expect in and out and out front man, but which I wouldn't have thought such selfishness was in his nature and it was somwhat contrary to the Gunners team ethic, when a couple of minutes later he really should've put the ball on a plate for Theo Walcott to score, as a goal could've been a massive boost to Theo's confidence.

Moreover, considering we still had to sweat out a few more hairy moments, when any one of the balls Bolton hoofed in the direction of our goal could've bobbled awkwardly and resulted in us ending the night with a glimpse of the promised land, without actually reaching it, we would've all been cursing the diminutive Ruski's greediness if the game had ended 4-3!

Considering how things turned out, it proved a good game to bring Clichy back at left-back. Although I wasn't so sure about this early on, as Bolton seemed like a big physical test and Gael looked understandably short on confidence and I was concerned that his tentativeness might cost us. However there's no doubt that he's a more experienced defender than Traore and once his confidence is restored, Gael could give us so much more going foward (which we saw a hint of this evening).

And I guess I'll feel a whole lot less nervous going into the crucial fixtures we have over the next four weeks, with Clichy at left-back, than the thought of the possible cost of Traore's inexperience, as there's no doubt that our opponents will be more likely to target this flank if Traore's playing. As a result, no matter how this evening's game turned out, I suppose if Clichy is going to get back up to speed in time to play the likes of Man Utd and Chelsea, he needs games under his belt and therefore, I should've known better than to question le Gaffer because as always, "Arsène knows".

Mind you, at 0-2 down, I was thinking to myself that perhaps the one slight solace might be that a lack of goals could convince Wenger that he can no longer afford to prevaricate about strengthening the squad. Whereas by coming back from 0-2 to win 4-2 and leapfrog Chelsea into top spot, this might only encourage his continued procrastination, where he feels he's in a strong enough bargaining position that he only need buy at the right price, instead of feeling an urgent need to bring someone in at any price?

Still, all's well that ends well and we are top of the league, but for the life of me, don't ask me to explain how! I'm sure few Gooners could'v imagined we'd be here, when we left the ground after the 0-3 drubbing against Chelsea six weeks ago. But the great thing is that with the FA Cup this weekend, we will still be breathing the rarefied air at the summit come next Monday and all we have to do is to match Chelsea's result against Birmingham, when we go to Villa Park next Wednesday?

We couldn't possibly have a more testing month of matches ahead, but the longer we can cling to the mountain top, the more impact it's likely to have psychologically, both for us and the competition and if we can beat Man Utd when they visit in only in ten days time, it's going to make for one helluva an exciting occasion when we go to Stamford Bridge the following week. Hold on to your hats (especially that magic one, monsieur Wenger)!

Come on you Reds

Big Love

Bernard

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It’s hard not to harbour some hope of straddling the Premiership summit, subsequent to this evening’s encore with Owen Coyle’s side. However, after beating Bolton at the Reebok, I won’t be at all surprised if we end up blowing this opportunity, in what’s supposedly the easier of the two games in this anomalous double-header.

In our current injury-depleted guise, the Gunners seem more likely to produce the goods away from home. On Sunday, against a Wanderer’s side who were up for impressing their new gaffer and with the Bolton fans buoyed by having finally seen off Megson, for a far more acceptable manager, this resulted in there being an “in yer face” intensity to this encounter that forced the pace, right from the first whistle.

Whereas at our place, where our dirge of an Elvis lullaby hardly gets the adrenaline pumping, we seem to struggle to start matches playing at such a high-tempo, as we patiently prod the ball around, waiting for the opposition to run out of puff. At the Reebok, there were times when 4 or 5 in red & white were streaking ahead of the ball, but inhibited by the lack of tempo at our gaff, I often find myself bemoaning the lack of bodies arriving in the box

Evidently Cesc’s return on Sunday made a massive difference. Fab’s the maestro of Wenger’s orchestra, who gives the Gunners’ music its more incisive direction, making us effective, instead of merely pleasing to the eye. Yet it wasn’t as if Bolton were without chances and I’m certain Coyle will fire his troops up for their trip to the capital, doing everything in his power to try and prevent the return of the prodigal son beginning with a two-game losing streak.

With no-one expecting Bolton to better their home defeat, they have noting to lose and with Wenger continuing to ‘make do and mend’ with our underwhelming strikeforce; comprising of Eduardo, who’s still struggling to recover his sharpness, Arshavin, soldiering on with a sore right foot and an unproven Vela, I’m not exactly expecting the sort of “gimme” of a goalfest that Chelsea enjoyed against Sunderland.

The Blues sent out a message to all those of us who were hoping they might falter in the absence of the influential likes of Essien and Drogba. So in the event of us leapfrogging the league leaders, by beating Bolton again by a 2-goal margin, I’m not going to get too excited. Only the most wildly optimistic Gooner would bet against the patently obvious advantage of the depth of Chelsea’s resources. Nor will I be too disappointed if the visitors should poop our midweek party.

Never mind an assault on the peak, as far as I’m concerned, I’m more than grateful merely to be breathing the rarefied air, atop the Premiership mountain. In this respect the weekend’s results were significant, as with the Champions League pretenders all dropping points the previous day, when the league table flashed up on my TV screen on Sunday night, for the first time, I was too busy focusing on our circumstances relative to the top two and the table had been and gone, before I had a chance to glance down. I had to hit rewind button on the remote, to confirm that we’ve established a 7-point cushion between us the wannabees below.

Now if we’re still in contention in a month’s time, following successive fixtures against Villa, Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool and hopefully turning into the home straight with a squad approaching full strength, energised by those returning to the fray, fit and fresh for the run-in (with perhaps the odd new addition?), even my pessimistic self might begin to dream the impossible dream.

Nevertheless, no matter what the fates may hold in store for the Gunners, when you consider the Scousers anguish over events (both in the boardroom and on the pitch) at Anfield, the fiscal traumas at Old Trafford, the “financial doping” elsewhere and the fact that they can’t pay the wages at Fratton Park, such tumultuous times throw into stark contrast the miraculous tour de force of Arsène’s tenure.

Having overseen a revolution at the Arsenal, with reverberations that changed the face of British football, le Gaffer has gone on to steer the club through the stormy, debt-ridden waters of our ambitious new stadium project, maintaining a competitive course, despite severe financial restraints, while consistently providing the punters with the sort of breathtaking entertainment that has us drooling in our seats on a regular basis.

In the past, an Arsenal side that included debutantes like young Eastmond in a pivotal midfield role, might’ve been bullied into submission by Sam Allardyce’s Bolton. But there were promising signs on Sunday that our squad is beginning to develop some much-needed character and the sort of unity of purpose that enables us to win both pretty and ugly, no matter the individual components. Although the sooner Gael Clichy gets back into the groove, the better, as Bolton won’t be the only team to target Traore’s flank and we badly miss Gael’s lung-busting energy.

Needless to say, inconsistency (complacency?) elsewhere has kept us in contention. But nonetheless, in the absence of the likes of Van Persie and Bendtner, when I consider, on paper, the more potent looking front lines of some of our opponents, I’m more than a little incredulous that we’re managing to maintain our momentum. Then again, nothing should surprise me in a ‘stranger than fiction’ season. Or did I hallucinate that it was Tommie Vermaelen (an Arsenal centre-back!) who was only a whisker away from curling a free-kick into the top corner on Sunday?

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gunners Haven't The "Hampsteads" For Chewing Up Toffees

Hi folks,

Me'thinks Santa must need a hearing aid, since I certainly didn't whisper Sol Campbell in his ear when I sat on his knee and told him what I wanted for Xmas. Perhaps I tugged at his beard too hard, as I didn't get a new Macbook, or a world class keeper!

Personally I pray that Gallas and Vermaelen remain fit and that even if we sign him, Sol proves superfluous. At least he didn't do a runner from the dressing room, after his first-half outing for the reserves at Upton Park last night, as he did the last time he played against West Ham in an Arsenal shirt. However I can't help but feel that if Sol is currently looking strong and fit, it's all a bit of a thin veneer and that underneath, psychologically, the man's a little flaky?

In truth, I'd much rather see the likes of Kyle Bartley coming through the ranks and given the opportunity to prove whether he can cut the mustard, instead of us taking a backward step with Campbell. If we end up needing to play Sol, I fancy he's going to look calm and composed, like the world class centre-back we know him to be, so long as everything is hunky-dory, but I worry that if he ends up being exposed for a lack of pace and we concede a couple of goals, we could witness the big man crumbling before our very eyes and it wouldn't be a pretty sight!

With Sol having trained at the club for the past couple of months, I can understand Wenger's "better the devil you know" logic, but if as a result of injury, we're forced to use Sol in any crucial games, against top notch opposition, I am going to be no less terrified about what might transpire than if Senderos was playing. Its bound to be frustrating for the kids, as careers have been made in circumstances where we've been forced to throw a youngster into the fray. Still we can but hope that this situation doesn't arise and Sol spends the remainder of the season bringing an air of calm, composed authority to the Arsenal dressing room, without ever actually taking a step out onto the pitch.

Meanwhile I can't seem to find it on the BBC web site, so as to offer you a link, but there was a great interview with Shava on Football Focus on Saturday. In fact the whole program was well worth watching, as with only two Premiership games on Saturday, the entire show was almost exclusively dedicated to the Gunners.

In the interview with Arshavin, when asked about the problems he has experienced with the move from Russia, Shava told how he has had difficulty with the parking and bank accounts, as he's previously been used to parking his car wherever he wants and that apparently he has only ever dealt with cash in the past!

My respect for the diminutive Ruski has rocketed after subsequently reading an interview in which he tells how he's been struggling with a pain in his right foot in recent weeks, to the extent that he's avoiding using it in training, but has continued to play despite the injury, because he appreciates that his presence is essential at present, with so many other influential players out injured.

In an age where professional footballers tend to cry off at the first sign of the slightest niggle, putting personal interests and their own longevity, before the needs of their club, it is indeed extremely refreshing to hear of a player who's prepared to continue playing, through the pain barrier, out of a sense of duty to the club.

If Arsène is in the mood for taking backward steps, then never mind Sol Campbell, what about Mathieu Flamini? If it is true that Flamini is interested in a return to the Premiership, because he's not getting regular football with AC Milan and is only being used as cover at full-back, he's likely to want to be playing high-profile footie, in order to try and nail down a spot in the French World Cup squad. And if, according to the gossip in the red-tops, it's true that Spurs are sniffing about, surely Mattie would much prefer a return to the right end of the Seven Sisters Road?

Moreover, with Arsène being so seriously deprived of any cover for Alex Song in the holding role in midfield, Flamini would be a welcome addition to a squad that he should've never been allowed to leave in the first place!

While we might have dropped two points against Everton at the weekend, at least we've got one over on David Moyes, with our latest signing (according to reports in the tabloids), having pinched the Bolivian under-21 skipper from under their noses and snapping up Samuel Gallindo. Apparently the Toffees failed to tie up a deal with the youngster after he'd trained with them on Merseyside. He then headed to London and spent the day with the Gunners, where Arsène promptly arranged for him to put pen to paper on a contract before taking him out for a slap up meal to celebrate!

With the wonders of the internet, you can view a somewhat sketchy showreel of the South American wonderkid on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHLiJEbX_gw and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgZJiUWvVvs but I look forward to seeing what the attacking midfielder can do in the flesh.

At least this means that the Gunners have done some business during the transfer window, even if this has only been to sign an aging has-been as cover at centre-back and a promising youngster who might be one for the future. Over the past couple of days my tickets for the games at Bolton, Villa Park and the FA Cup 4th round match at Stoke have all turned up in the post, providing evidence of the fact that we've got fixtures coming thick and fast over the next few weeks, which are bound to test the resources of the current Arsenal squad to the full.

Still with a supposed £35million hardly burning a hole in le Gaffer's pocket, I'm not exactly holding my breath, waiting for him to splash the cash and strengthen the team in those areas that seem obvious to everyone, but le Prof!

Big Love
Bernard
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Considering we were 1-2 down as the clock ticked past the ninety minute mark and in light of the fact that it’s been a pleasant surprise to be slip, sliding into the New Year, in touching distance of the Premiership summit and with so many significant absentees from Saturday’s encounter with Everton, I suppose we shouldn’t really complain about Thomas Rosicky rescuing a palliative, last gasp point, from the jaws of a demoralising defeat.

Nevertheless, with Man U’s mundane outing at St. Andrews being the only other Premiership match to survive the arctic conditions, I couldn’t escape the sense that we’d been presented with a prime opportunity to steal a march on the competition and we’d blown it, big time.

I’d have absolutely no axe to grind with this two-point setback, if I felt that the Gunners had gone out there and produced a ‘carpe diem’ type display, that abounded with the sort of vim and vigour of a bunch of players who are acutely aware of the hunger, passion and commitment necessary, in grinding out the performances to prove their genuine title challenging credentials.

Perhaps it’s slightly naïve of me to be expecting these sort of ‘eyeballs out’, big-hearted displays that I recall from my heroes of yesteryear, in these far more mercenary times. Much like the grit and the salt required to keep the roads open, there’s certainly been a shortage of this sort of ‘hearts of oak’ fortitude, in the somewhat complacent efforts of the other two main contenders in recent weeks. Still, so long as our mollycoddled modern superstars are more ‘up for it’ than the opposition, we can continue to kid ourselves that it means as much to them, as it does to you and me!

Sadly this wasn’t the case last weekend. Arsène might think he can make it so, merely by intoning his “spirit and belief” mantra enough times, but some of Saturday’s pictures told a different story. Watching the highlights again on the box, when Pienaar left Almunia gormlessly wafting a glove at thin air, as the South African winger lifted the ball over our goalie, for what looked to be the winner, from the camera angle behind the goal, Samir Nasri appeared to be the only player in red & white breaking his neck to get back (probably because Pienaar was his responsibility and Samir was guilty of letting the youngster get goalside of him in the first place!), while all his team mates had given up the ghost. What if Almunia had got something on the ball, or it had rebounded off the post?

Don’t get me started on Denilson collapsing to the ground a few moments later, as if he’d taken a bullet in the belly from a corporate sniper, targeting our Brazilian clay pigeon from Club Level, thereby presenting the Toffees with an opportunity to seal the victory. Mercifully Vaughan lacked the same composure as Pienaar and slammed the ball into Manuel’s midrift. At the time I was cursing the precious seconds ticking away as Denilson was being treated and stretchered off, but this was nothing compared to the sort of abuse he’d have suffered if he’d had gifted Everton a third goal. Perhaps he’s not the brightest spark in the Arsenal squad, but it should take something as debilitating as a bullet, to prevent even the most brain dead footballer from remembering to put the ball into touch, or passing it to a team mate, before dropping to the deck.

For some reason, the Gunners weren’t at the races on Saturday. Surely they must’ve known that Moyes was going to use the six-goal, opening day humiliation as motivation, to inspire the Toffees to try and gain some retribution? Right from the off the visitors were first to every 50/50 and winning every second ball. There seems to be a disconcerting pattern developing, whereby we appear to start matches at a low tempo, as if we’re playing a waiting game, patiently expecting to eventually take advantage when the opposition run out of steam. All too often it takes for us to go a goal behind, before we attempt to stir ourselves from our torpor.

It always seems to come back to the fact that we’re found wanting for big game personalities, the sort of leader out on the park who’s capable of recognising that Saturday’s game was going to be no stroll in the park and turning up the heat on his colleagues, so as to raise our intensity level to match the opposition’s. Gallas will often get a fly in his ear after the damage has been done and charge forward to try and show his team mates how to do it. I appreciate this lead by example expression of Gallas’ desire that the Gunners shouldn’t be undone. Yet it seems to me that without the sort of demonstrative personality who parks themselves centre-stage and shows that you can’t come into my house and take charge of the remote control, sadly we’re often going to struggle to impose our ability in such fervent encounters.

Still it could’ve been a whole lot worse, as I could’ve ended up paying someone a hundred quid to cover me at the theatre, only too watch us get beat and I guess we must be grateful that unlike the vast majority of fans, we had a game to go to! When I awoke Sunday morning to discover that most of the snow and ice had melted, it seemed farcical that the game down the road at Upton Park had been postponed. To my mind the Stoke chairman’s quote about “wanting” to play their game against Fulham spoke volumes about the utterly scandalous lack of will to play the rest of the weekend’s Premiership fixtures, with the weather a decidedly feeble excuse for those clubs with other agendas. Mind you, I guess we should be used to it by now, as there’s no better country for hyping winter snowfall into a dramatic disaster of Tsunami like proportions!

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Slip Sliding Away



Hi folks

I checked in with the AFCi web site at lunchtime to see whether this evening's game against Bolton had been postponed and found that the club were stating that the game was still on, but they advised for us to check back mid-afternoon, for a final decision.

I was on stage in the Coliseum, finishing the final touches of the fit-up of (coincidentally) The Snow Queen ballet at about 4pm, when one of the local crew advised me that the game had been postponed. I guess that with the snow coming down at a substantial rate at that point in the afternoon, this was perhaps the principle factor to force the club's hand in making the decision to call the match off.

It was a difficult predicament, as whatever they did, they were bound to end up causing displeasure to some folks, but personally I think that if they felt that the game was able to go ahead earlier in the day, they might've been panicked by the heavy downfall into deciding to call it off and if they'd waited a couple of hours, the snow would've stopped, without any more of it settling (on the roads at least).

Moreover, when you consider that most of the travelling Bolton fans would've either had to have left at lunchtime or earlier and that the vast majority of home fans wouldn't be leaving for the game until later in the afternoon, or early evening, having said that the game was going ahead right up until after lunchtime, I reckon that they might as well have left the final decision until around 6pm, as calling it off at 4pm was too late to stop Bolton fans travelling and by 6pm, they might've made a different decision.

As usual, it's not the pitch that's the problem, but the surrounding areas. Although the photos of the stadium suggested that the terraces were clear of snow, I imagine that is was the concourse areas around the stadium that were the club's biggest concern.

Myself I always find it a little amusing how almost every time is snows in this country, it becomes such a massive drama and the rolling news channels go into overdrive, as if the entire country is in danger of being flooded by a bleedin's Tsunami! However it's a sad fact of life that we've become such a litigous nation that the Arsenal have to consider the chances of the club being sued should someone slip on the snow and ice, as a principle factor in making their decision as to whether the game should go ahead.

It's akin to the radio tales I've been hearing about the shopkeepers who are afraid to grit the pavement in front of their premises in this weather because if they do put grit down and someone ends up falling over, they have a case to sue, whereas if the business owners don't bother doing anything, it's not their problem and as a result, they are afraid to take any action to ensure folks can go about their shopping!

Mind you, the folks at the Britannia Stadium last night didn't appear to give a fig for such petty concerns, as evidenced by the wonderful TV pictures last night, showing a youngster having great fun, sliding down the snow on the terraces at Stoke, before the game versus Fulham went ahead despite a relative snow blizzard!

Watching what was a positively storming second half last night, with an absolute wonder volley from the Yank in Fulham's front line, as they tried to pull themselves back from a three goal deficit, I thought to myself that hopefully the fact that this match had taken place, it might end up being held up as the example that would force everyone else to play their games, instead of postponing them all, on the basis that if they managed without any problems in the worst of the weather, then surely so could everyone else.

However (fortunately for the Stoke and Fulham fans) perhaps it is the case that the more emotive powers that be at Stoke are more in tune with the desires and needs of their fans and the tiny hardy band of travelling Cottagers, compared to sort of mature "businesses" that have becomes of the majority of Premiership clubs, who would've perhaps turned to level-headed lawyers for a decision, based solely on the possible financial consequences?

There was a point around lunchtime this afternoon, where I was hoping that the game against Bolton tonight would go ahead and our rehearsal of the Snow Queen at the Coliseum would get cancelled, so that I could go to the game without any bother. However then when the game got postponed, I thought that the laws of Sod & Murphy would absolutely guarantee that there was no rehearsal, just to wind me up a little more.

As it turned out, the only concession to the bad weather by the ballet, was to arrange for taxis to take everyone home after the rehearsal at 10pm. Obviously ballet is deemed an essential service and the show must go on! Mind you this was no small gesture, as with over 100 dancers and I guess at least 30 odd stage crew, wardrobe mistresses etc. etc, travelling to all four corners of the capital and beyond, it must've cost them a fair few quid.

Thus, as much as I would've liked to cash in on our three points for our game in hand this evening, in the end I was quite relieved, as not only should I be available to go to the rearranged fixture, but hopefully so will Alex Song and a far few others amongst the Arsenal squad who are currently unfit (although by then we might have a whole heap of other injuries to contend with?), thereby perhaps improving our prospects of beating Bolton.

Then again, so long as we keep winning, I want the games to continue coming thick and fast, to build on the momentum that I hope we are beginning to gather. What's more, I was hoping that tonight's match would give us an early opportunity to prove we can cope without the presence of Alex Song, as the longer we have to wait to play without him, the more that will be made of it in the media and as a result, the more chance the players have to focus on the issue.

Meanwhile, I imagine that some regular readers might be getting a little tired of hearing me whinge about the way in which my current stint working on the Xmas season at the Coliseum continues to impinge on my Arsenal pleasures. With this in mind, I didn't even mention the saga of this weekend past in my diary piece below. Besides, with only a 1000 words to play with, there's definitely no room for me to digress and I couldn't have possible described what transpired in less than a few thousand words at the very least!

Nevertheless, although brevity has never been exactly my strongest suit, I will do my best, as I can't let the details of the hardest ever diary pieces in my entire ten years of weekly ravings, slip past without relating some of the details.

Somewhat selfishly (but then it wasn't as if tickets were so hard to come by for Sunday's game at Upton Park, in light of the fact that West Ham were sending emails out to all their members to try and encourage a decent turn out - unlike the Arsenal, West Ham season tickets do not include any Cup matches), I hung on to my match ticket, in the feint hope that I might be able to slip away from the theatre and dash to East London on my motorbike.

Despite the fact that the master carpenter at the ballet and his nephew (also on the stage crew) are both Hammers season ticket holders, usually my boss wouldn't mind if I made my excuses and slipped away from Sunday's matinée, as I could've got one of the local crew (employed by the theatre, whereas we work for the ballet) to cover my cues during the show, because he understands that I have my weekly column to write for the Examiner. Unlike the rest of the ballet's stage crew, I don't normally tour with them and am only working on this Xmas season because they were short-staffed and where the rest of the crew are used to putting everything else on hold whilst the company is performing, I have other commitments which have to be accommodated.

However this weekend was the changeover from Nutcracker to the Snow Queen, the two largest (and heaviest!) shows in the companies entire repertoire and this meant that the moment the curtain came down after Sunday's matinée and the dancers had cleared the stage, all hell broke lose, as everyone steams in, to try and get the show down and out of the building and the new show unloaded and in, before the shutter had to come down at 11pm that evening (due to constant complaints from local residents). If I'd gone to the game, I would've been guaranteed to miss an hour or more of the "get-out" and since this is the hardest bit of work we do and the main reason we get paid the big bucks, I would never have even dreamed of asking to miss any of it.

I guess I was half hoping that my WHU supporting mate might take pity on me and suggest I got to the game and just get back as quic as possible. But then he's in a bit of an invidious position, as he can't be seen to be showing favouritism and there would have been some noses that would've been put seriously out of joint if I was getting paid for an all-nighter, whilst missing out on some of the hardest work.

So not only did I not get to go to the game but I only got to listen to snatches of the live radio commentary. If I recall correctly I listened to most of the first-half, while the matinée was on and it was half-time when the curtain came down at the theatre, with West Ham 1-0 to the good.

I have to admit, that as I joked with some of the other lads, there were times on Sunday when I seriously wondered whether I might be better off hoping for West Ham to win, as then at least our guv'nor would be in a good mood and might let us go home early (so he could watch the highlights of the match!). Contrary to any number of health & safety guidelines, most of the crew are used to me working on stage with radio headphones wrapped around my head. Most of them are glad to have someone to keep them up to date with the scores of all their favourite teams and I only stick an earpiece in, every now and again, when there's an opportunity to do so without me being a danger to myself or anyone else.

We were in the middle of breaking up this massive house truck, at a stage where two people are required to stand beside two upright metal sections to ensure that they remain upright, while the rest of the house truck was unbloted, broken up and carried out. I think my WHU pal was being kind to me, allocating me this job, as it meant I was left standing there, waiting while everyone else around was busy and able to listen to the commentary. As it so happened, we equalised while I was standing there, with what sounded like a good goal from Aaron Ramsey and naturally I let out an exuberant yelp, which needed no explanation, as everyone on stage knew that it meant that the Arsenal had just equalised.

But when Eduardo scored what proved to be the winner, only five minutes later, I thought it best to keep schtum. Not only did I not want to rub it in for my mate and his nephew, but I didn't want to have everyone else getting on my back for being responsible for putting the boss in a bad mood.

However the head fly-man at the Coliseum is a Gooner and there's at least one, or even two Gooners working alongside him. I believe they must've had a TV on and were watching the game, live on ITV, up on the fly floor, forty odd feet above our heads. Or at the very least, they had a radio on with the live commentary and so as I heard the commentator describe Eduardo's goal in my earpieces, the entire stage crew heard the exclamation of joy coming from above our heads.

It was obvious from the downhearted expression on the master carpenter's face that he didn't need telling that his beloved Hammers had just gone a goal behind (in a former, far less civilised incarnation, as a young hoolie associate of West Ham's infamous ICF, my boss ran with the sort of unfriendly mob who used to leave business cards on their victims which stated "Congratulations. You've just been introduced to a member of the Green Street Café Society"!).

Standing making sure this metal structure remained upright, but being right in line with the ice cold blast, blowing down the ramp from the open shutter, I was growing increasingly numb from both the cold and the fact that I was stuck standing in one position for so long. When me and the chap holding up the other side were subsequently left for a further fifteen minutes, I was beginning to wonder if I was being punished by my mate, for the Gunners taking the lead and I could sense bad vibes coming from the bloke beside me, as if was beginning to feel that he was an innocent victim in the consequences of a game he couldn't care less about.

Some time later, when we'd eventually been released as the time came to let down the structure we'd been holding up and plenty of stamping and rubbing had begun to restore some feeling to my numb arms and legs, this same chap asked me if the game had finished yet, to which I replied that it was still 2-1 to the Arsenal, with four minutes of injury time to play. At the time I thought he wanted to know if the match had finished up 2-1 to the Arsenal and it was only some time later that it occurred to me that he might actually have been having a snide pop at me and was actually implying that we were involved in a dangerous bit of work and wasn't it about time that I put my radio away.

From where he was standing alongside me, he could see the headphones around my neck but couldn't see that I didn't have either of them in my ears and I in fact had to stop and put an earpiece in my ear to see if the game had finished yet, in order to answer his question. I'm sure some of the lads must talk behind my back, moaning about how dangerous it is for me to be listening to the radio whilst working on stage, but it's no different to when some of the lads have the in-house Motorola earpieces in their ears, to hear the cues being called. Not to mention, it's far less dangerous than all those times when, as one of the few people in the theatre business who doesn't drink, I've been just about the only sober person on stage, with so many of the others more than a little worse for wear from having spent so many hours in the pub!

Additionally, as I made sure to point out, I always take the earpiece out of my ear whenever we're doing anything that requires me to pay attention (as you need to have one's wits about you when there are bits of scenery flying in and out all around you), basically because if anything ever goes wrong and a heavy lump of scenery begins to break, or fall down around us, I want to be the first to hear the warning "run!"

After the shutter came down at 11pm, we carried on working, building the Snow Queen until 4am and it was about 5am when I finally flopped out on the couch and put the Sky Plus recording of the game on. I'd taped the hour long highlight package and the whole live match but instead of being sensible and watching the former, I tried to watch the entire game. However I really couldn't keep my eyes open at this stage and I kept nodding out and kipping through the second half and waking up to find the recording had finished, or waking to find I'd missed the Arsenal goals and having to rewind it back to half-time.

With my diary piece to write, I don't like commenting on games I've not been at in person, but I definitely didn't want to pass judgement without at least having seen the whole game on the box. Persistent bugger that I am, I must have started watching the second half about twenty times and it was about 9.30am before I finally managed to stay awake long enough to see Eduardo's winner and the final whistle.

With every fibre of my body aching from grafting through a gruelling all-nighter and with at most, only about an hour of sleep, slumped unconsciously in front of the TV, I still had the following diary piece to write, so that I could file it to the Irish Examiner, before heading back to the theatre for 2pm and another eight or nine hours of more agonising "collar"!

Consequently, I was quite surprised that the end result was the least bit lucid. Whereas usually my diary missives are an absolute labour of love, in this particular instance, I was just relieved to get it done. I will leave it to you to decide whether it's a decent read.

A happy & healthy New Year to you and all yours
Big Love
Bernard
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Ah the magic of the FA Cup eh? With the TV tail wagging the football dog, forcing games to be spread out over the entire course of the weekend, so that ITV can squeeze every last drop, out of their paltry domestic coverage, it’s no wonder the competition continues to lose more of it’s sheen with each passing season. I feel quite nostalgic for the days when the enduring images of the first weekend in January were those steamy pictures of a half-dressed team of giant-killers, huddled around a dressing room TV at 5pm on a Saturday, whooping with delight at the continuation of their dream, as the balls were drawn out of the hat for the next round.

The disappointing sight of so many thousands of empty seats up and down the country, on what was once guaranteed to be one of football’s most exciting weekends of the season, suggests that the current guardians of the oldest knockout competition on the planet aren’t particularly competent. Some might point to a recession as a significant factor, but I always thought that hard times and football attendances increased, in direct proportion, as footie fans were all the more desperate to escape their woes and lose themselves on the terraces.

Nevertheless, despite the FA Cup’s ever-waning lustre, mercifully it invariably manages to retain some residue of the romance of old, as an annual testament to the lemming like response, when it comes to this country’s much beloved tradition of honouring the underdog. Don’t get me wrong, I spent my Saturday evening being regaled by radio tales of the 72 coach loads of fans travelling to Wearside, when apparently 1500 is a big crowd for a Barrow home game and the trans-Pennines travails of the York City team coach and their fans, some of whom endured such a tortuous trip that they eventually made it to Stoke, just in time for the final whistle!

Yet with genuine upsets so few and far between nowadays, I guess we cling to these anecdotal tidbits as the last vestiges of FA Cup enchantment. At least Leeds ensured that it wasn’t an entirely upset free weekend.

In the media’s efforts to hype up the Old Trafford encounter, I was asked to comment on whether I miss Leeds Utd. But the distaste I once had for Don Revie’s “dirty Leeds” side of the 70s has largely given way to ambivalence. Thus I responded with the allegory of an ancient joke about the priest, standing at a graveside, expecting someone to say a few kind words about the deceased. Eventually he loses patience and pleads for a volunteer from the mourners. After a further, lengthy period of silence, finally a voice pipes up from the back “his brother was worse”!

I didn’t dare revel too much in Man Utd’s demise at the time, for fear of tempting fate to serve up a similarly depressing experience for our own youngsters. Although I did find myself wondering if there was any significance to the fact that Fergie seemed to fail to inspire his troops into producing a ‘fire & brimstone’ second half response?

Meanwhile at Upton Park, Arsène’s selection of a strong defence was perhaps indicative of his desire to ensure the Gunners maintain our momentum, after witnessing the ramifications of the run of poor form that followed Chelsea’s Carling Cup exit. Alternatively, with nine first team players out, perhaps our backline was dictated by necessity, not choice? The obvious lack of cover at centre-back, should Gallas or Vermaelen get crocked is a problem which might give credence to the rumours of a return for Sol Campbell.

After training with the Gunners to maintain his fitness these past few months, I’ve heard on the grapevine that Campell was at the training ground on Monday for a medical. But then with the modern day health & safety madness, for all we know, this might just have been to ensure Sol’s fit enough to conduct stadium tours! If it proves true, the timing would be slightly ironic, considering Sol walked out on the club, halfway through an embarrassing defeat to the Hammers.

Despite appearing in our nondescript white strip (which is only slightly less abhorrent than the abomination of a blue kit), we managed to build on that “winning feeling” by coming from behind to beat West Ham on Sunday and earn ourselves, hopefully a less problematic trip to the Britannia later in the month than the one York endured last weekend. In light of the incredible amount of hype, there’s always so much anticipation surrounding Jack Wilshere’s rare first team outings that I imagine the lad must feel the weight of expectation for him to produce the goods and it’s perhaps not surprising if he buckles somewhat under this burden. Especially when he’s thrown in with the likes of Merida (who has yet to really demonstrate the full scope of his ability). Personally I’d much prefer to see Jack given an opportunity to shine amidst a proper first XI.

Yet again Arsène timed the introduction of Diaby and Nasri to try and take advantage of the fact the Irons had expended so much energy, that they were bound to begin to flag. Our bench looked like a bunch of experienced pros compared to the home team’s subs, who highlighted the limited resources afforded to Zola by the Hammers parlous boardroom plight.

The fact that Eduardo beat Upson in the air to score the winner with his head should prove a shot in the arm for the Croat’s confidence, as he begins to recover his ‘fox in the box’ instincts. I pray Eddie continues to show such sharp goalscoring form as we approach Wednesday’s long-awaited match with Bolton. Not only will it prove a massive anti-climax if we don’t make our game in hand count, but with it being the first game following Song’s departure for Africa, it’s crucial we put a marker down and quash any thoughts that we might not cope with Alex’s absence.

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Friday, January 01, 2010

Glass Definitely Half Full For Us Gooners

You lucky bleeders get two for the price of one this week and for once this one is hot off the press, as I only filed an edited version of this half-term report to the Examiner this morning.

With this being a time of peace & goodwill to all, we should be sparing a those poor wretches who are less fortunate than ourselves. But sod the Scousers, I've got better things to do and there only purpose is to remind us quite how grateful we Gooners should be, as we turn the corner and head into the home straight, still in their with a shout for domestic glory (if perhaps a tad optimsitic) and with Porto to beat for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals.

If the pundits predictions had come to pass, it would be us in the Scousers miserable shoes, suffering tabloid tales about the imminent exit of the likes of Fabregas and Van Persie, in place of the endless gossip about Torres and Gerrard. So we should be grateful for this small mercy and the fact that Arsène Wenger's Gunners remain the principle exponents of the beautiful game that all those freeloading "experts" claim they'd be prepared to pay to watch play (although in spite of the bogus attendance figures, the sight of an increasing amount of empty seats might suggest otherwise?)

So I guess from this point of view, it's all good and while I won't exactly be holding my breath, with the transfer window about to open, it might even get better

Happy New Year
Bernard

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Gooner expectations were inevitably inflated by an early season glut of goals. Instead of being a flash in the pan, the opening day goalfest at Goodison Park seemed to set the tone, as the free-scoring Gunners were finding the net from all over the park early doors.

It was suggested that our success was founded on the fact that Van Persie had created a new role as a “false 9” and that by dropping deep, our Dutch striker was dragging the opposition around, thereby affording his team mates the space in which they could make hay. Although I reckon this was over-analytical tosh and that Robin is just averse to the constant clattering received by a conventional leader of the line. Doubtless these deductions derived from those same pundits responsible for the mood of pessimism prior to the season, with their predictions that the Arsenal would be the team most likely to drop out of the top four.

Two defeats in Manchester, either side of yet another interminable interruption for World Cup qualifiers, failed to take the wind from our sails. Despite our defeat against Utd due to Diaby’s inadvertent own goal and the fact that Fergie’s side have gone on to prove themselves far from invincible, few teams will toy with Man U like we did at Old Trafford and there was enough promise in this display to maintain the buoyant mood.

Whereas against Man City, we seemed to fall victim to the pre-match hype and all the various side issues. We’re already hearing complaints on the radio phone-ins about Adebayor’s indolent displays for City and as a potential disruptive influence in the dressing-room, I understood why Arsène decided to cash in on the Togonator. Seeing Kolo Touré wearing the sky blue of City was far more difficult to comprehend. Kolo’s been such an integral cog in the Wenger machine, that it was hard to come to terms with the fact that we would never again see the Ivorian inspiring the Gunners, with a driving run from defence.

Still if Arsène’s track record with purchases isn’t exactly 100% perfect, he’s proved an absolute master with his timing, when it comes to flogging some of our favourite stars, with no room for sentiment, if he can maximize the return on a player he perceives as expendable.

Besides which, we now have a new hero at the back. With 5 goals in his first 11 games, not only was it wonderful that there was cause for excitement about corners for the first time in years, but Tommie ‘the tank’ Vermaelen also brought a mighty powerful dig to the Gunners’ dance, scoring a couple of stonkers from outside the area. Despite not being exactly the tallest centre back at 6ft, Thomas gets up well and seems to hang up there, on his 100% commitment. Not only are he and Gallas menacing at set pieces, but far more importantly, as permanent fixtures at the heart of the Gunners backline, they’ve forged a genuine partnership.

There’s no definitive formulae to the making of a centre-back marriage. Personally I always felt that the principle problem with Gallas and Touré was that they were deprived of a consistent, communicative keeper, with a dominant personality. Sadly Arsène appears content to make-do with our present triumvirate of goal-minders. Although Almunia, Fabianski and Mannone have all shown themselves to be decent enough shot-stoppers, for my money all three are too timid to ever truly develop the imposing presence that we’ve been crying out for between the sticks, ever since Spunky was spent.

In the meantime, although I will reserve judgement until the end of the season on whether Tommie is truly the real deal, it augurs well that Gallas appears to have upped his game and our defense is looking a whole lot less insecure than it’s been in recent seasons.

As a result, we cruised though the Champions League group stages, after a high-profile opening week qualifier with Celtic, which appeared far more disconcerting on paper than it proved to be in practice. The biggest disappointment about the demise of our perennially impressive Carling Cup kids in the quarterfinal against moneybags Man City was that we wouldn’t get to see more of the promise they showed, in their earlier wins against West Brom and Liverpool. Yet having won our European group with a game to spare, le Gaffer could afford to reward them with the valuable experience of a taste of the big time, against Olympiakos in Greece.

Few Gooners realised quite what a bitter blow the long-term injury to Van Persie would prove to be, compounded by the fact that it was dealt whilst on International duty. With Bendtner also on the missing list, our attack suddenly looked extremely one-dimensional, with absolutely no variation on the “tippy-tappy” footballing theme.

If the optimists amongst us had begun to harbour hopes of being genuine contenders, these were shot down in flames by the reality check of the 0-3 calamity against Chelsea. Personally I don’t subscribe to the “men against boys” post-mortem, as it’s no such much big players, but big personalities that we require.

Victory against Aston Villa was vital, so as to ensure we continue being spoken about in the same breath as Man U & Chelsea, rather than being dragged down, into what’s likely to prove a white-knuckle scrap for fourth. We might have paid a high price in terms of our skipper’s impaired hamstring, but at least Cesc has made me eat my words, by proving he has the “cahones” to come on and singlehandedly grab a crucial game by the scruff of the neck.

Having flattered to deceive since arriving at the club, could it be that Diaby has finally found some consistency, to combine with his undoubted ability? If Abou can continue to impose himself on matches, we might manage in Fab’s absence. But as our player of the season so far, losing Alex Song might be more problematic.

Song might still be slightly naïve compared to the likes of Mascherano, but he’s matured into the holding role in our midfield at a rate of knots and being deprived of a like-for-like replacement, I reckon it’s down to all of his more diminutive teammates to up their defensive responsibility, if we’re to compensate for Alex’s absence.

There were ominous portents in Man U’s impressive performance against Wigan and although we’ve largely performed in fits and spurts without really firing on all cylinders, the fact that we’re learning the art of taking all 3 points in matches where we might’ve previously slipped up, suggests a growing maturity.

Perhaps le Prof will add another string to our striking bow in the January sales. Otherwise we’ll be counting on Arshavin and the rest of our diddy front men to keep us in the frame until we return to full strength.

Personally, I would’ve preferred a high profile clash with one of the ageing Milanese sides, instead of a tricky start to the knockout stages against a talented Porto. But we all wait with baited breath for Shava to unleash his abilities on European football’s biggest stage. While on paper we don’t appear to have the depth in strength to match Chelsea in the domestic marathon, mercifully football remains “a funny old game”.

Many might contend that our miniscule pass masters are perfectly suited to a less physical, less frenetic assault on the elusive big-eared prize and that the Champions League is Arsène’s best bet of fulfilling his promise to end our barren four season run. In a “show us your medals” world of measuring a man’s worth in terms of tangible tin pots, I would dearly love to witness this crowning glory, where the career of one of the game’s true all-time“greats” receives its much deserved validation.

Whatever fate has in store, considering the gloomy pre-season forecasts, while Gooner ingrates focus on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, true Wenger-ball devotees remain content to see out the duration tormenting those deluded devil-worshipers down the road, with the agonizing adage “that’s entertainment!”


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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com