You can keep your commercially packaged, glitz and glamour of the Emirates Cup, there’s something far more real and resonant about the annual curtain-raiser amongst the ramshackle environs of Underhill.
I recall a 7-1 schmeissing some seasons back, but although in recent years the footballing fare at this annual friendly has tended to be more somnolent than scinitillating, somehow a full-house of 5,000 Gooners are drawn back to Barnet’s sloping ground every summer, like moths to a flame.
I don’t want to get overly romantic about it, but for me, for some strange reason it’s an annual event not to be missed. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to get so up close and personal to our heroes, in an age where supporting the Gunners has become such a remote business, where although I’m privileged to be able to watch them perform in the flesh so regularly, more often than not, I require my binoculars to see the expressions on the faces of the ant-like icons, doing their thing in these cavernous modern temples to commercialisation.
I’ve never had the pleasure of a trip to Bloomfield Road and so perhaps Blackpool’s promotion will present us with an opportunity to step back in time, when we travel to play the Seasiders. But for the most part nowadays, the Arsenal players have become so closeted and so removed from the fans who pay their wages, that unless you happen to have a tuxedo and a spare 150 quid to spunk up on a charity dinner, the opening friendly at Underhill is just about the only guaranteed opportunity nowadays to actually see our heroes in the flesh, where the kids can wrestle one another to get in there for an autograph and the majority of players tolerate having arms thrown around their shoulders, for the hastily taken snapshot.
At Barnet you have the annual ritual where the players leave the stadium after the match, walking half the length of the pitch, from the dressing room to the exit where the team coach is parked, with hundreds of Gooners waiting patiently behind the barrier along the touchline, for this increasingly rare opportunity to reach out and touch our heroes. I don’t normally hang about after the final whistle, but on Saturday I had the excuse of being there with a mate’s son. So I ended up standing with them, whilst the youngster hung over the barrier with his clipboard, hoping his heroes would deign to put their scrawl on his paper as they passed.
Although many of the big stars are still to return from extended summer holidays, there was a respectable turn out of star turns at Underhill and in an age where footballers are so often accused of being spoilt brats, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by how much respect they showed to all the fans who’d bothered to wait, by patiently acquiescing to all their many demands for signatures and photos.
I don’t know, perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt and being one of the last out of the showers, maybe Shava was told to hurry up and get his arse onto the coach. Or perhaps the Ruski has a phobia about being touched and pestered by the fans. But of all the 22 players who turned out on Saturday, it seemed to me as if Arshavin was just about the only one amongst them who marched straight down the pitch, without stopping once to give a little back to his adoring public, while all his teammates (perhaps knowing that they weren’t going anywhere until everyone had boarded the coach) took their time to work their way along the touchline, trying to ensure that the vast majority of Gooners came away feeling more than satisfied with their metaphorical pound of Gooner flesh.
While we were standing there, someone nearby hollered out to Gerry Peyton to enquire as to the whereabouts of Manuel Almunia. According to Peyton, Almunia had cried off at the last minute, with a sore throat.
During the game, we’d noticed that Scezny was wearing the no. 1 shirt when he came on as a sub late in the second half and it was only when we realised that Fabianski and Mannone had been wearing shirts with different numbers on (their regular squad numbers?) that we jokingly pondered as to whether we could read any significance into this?
As they say “many a true word spoke in jest”, as the word on the Gooner rumour mill has since cast the aspersion that Almunia actually walked out on Saturday in disgust, having been informed that he was no longer the club’s no. 1.
Whether this means that the no. 1 shirt will be going to an as yet unnamed new arrival, or having failed in their (feeble?) efforts to purchase a viable replacement, the young Pole is to be given his shot, this remains to be seen.
Hopefully all will be revealed on the annual pre-season trip to Austria. Personally speaking, like everyone else, I was really hoping that with Wenger having finally acknowledged the goalkeeping issue, the club would go out and make a real statement, sparing no expense to buy the best available keeper on the planet. Mark Schwarzer might be a slightly improved model, compared to our current triumvirate of timid goalies, but to my mind he’d feel more of a half measure, than the sort of world-class player who’s arrival would really set the pulses racing.
In the absence of Schwarzer and in the knowledge that we have witnessed that Fabianski and Mannone just don’t appear to have the sort of presence necessary, to make them viable long-term candidates for the job, then I feel that we might as well give Scezny a go. Never mind about experience, to my mind being a top class keeper is largely about confidence and personality and whether he’s 19 or 90, either he’s going to have the ability to dominate his area, or not.
I’m not sure the young keeper even had a shot to save, in the short space of time he was on the pitch on Saturday. If you didn’t see the game, I’m sure you can find any number of blow-by-blow accounts on various other blogs elsewhere, without the impediment of my premature Alzheimers. From the little my sadly addled brain retained of the afternoon, it was great to see a fresh-faced Arsène marching onto the pitch before the game, in buoyant mood, without the haggard expression and the hundreds of worry lines that we’ve grown accustomed to with his end of season demeanour.
First impressions of our new centre-back weren’t particularly promising, on seeing a Barnet striker get goalside of him as the Frenchman was caught napping on at least a couple of occasions. But then my mate said to me that Vermaelen’s first appearance in the same fixture last season wasn’t particularly impressive (although I’m sure I remember Tommy doing something in that game which gave me cause to be optimistic about our new arrival last summer).
As for Marouanne Chamakh, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that the Moroccan didn’t play in the first half, because as is often the case in this fixture, all the changes at the break result in the game becoming so disjointed in the second half that it’s very hard to give any sort of honest appraisal of his performance. In truth, all I can say is that I only hope the Moroccan lad devotes nearly as much time to learning his trade on the pitch, as he undoubtedly does to styling the sticky up bit in the middle of his barnet!
The opening ten minutes of the first half were full of promise, as we looked like running rings around a team that’s three divisions below us. It took Shava only 90 second to expose the gulf in class, as he meandered past Barnet’s statuesque defence, who all appeared to stand and admire Shava’s opening goal after only 90 seconds. Jack Wilshere put the second on a plate for Jay Simpson to pass the ball into the net, which was due reward for fifteen minutes of domination that defined Barnet’s uphill struggle (both metaphorically and literally in their case).
We had to wait until a few minutes before the break for the third, but it was one to savour and undoubtedly the move of the afternoon, a typical Arsenal team goal, to match anything the Spanish did in the World Cup, admittedly only against lowly Barnet but an absolute joy to behold and as the saying goes, “worth the price of admission alone”.
After Shava had struck the bar with a stunning curling strike from the edge of the area, moments later the Ruski played in Wilshere down the left and again Jack unerringly found an unmarked Jay Simpson at the far post who in turn found the back of the net.
I can’t tell you much about the defensive capabilities of Havard Nordvelt, as aside from the fact that Barnet’s first-half forays up the slope were so few and far between, we spent the first half sitting in our designated seats in the Community Stand, a small stand in one corner of the ground and in our seats at the back, we had no view at all, whenever the play ended up in the right-back’s corner of the pitch! The Norwegian lad looked confident enough whenever he made a run directly in front of us down the right flank, although I commented that it’s hard to imagine hollering out “Come on Havard”!
You can’t fail to be impressed by Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, no matter where he plays on the pitch, because he’s such an awesome specimen, who if he wasn’t playing football could probably be a heavyweight champion in the boxing ring. Mind you I get the impression that this is Jay’s biggest problem, because as yet no-one seems quite sure what position he’s best suited for. Doubtless Jay’s quicker on his feet than Nicholas Bendtner, but to my mind he still seems a little wasted playing out on the right flank where he was in the first-half on Saturday, when he could have a more influential role, dominating the middle of the park?
Considering there’s healthy competition for the left-back slot, I was a little disappointed in Armand Traore because we saw him bursting down the left with his trademark energetic runs in the opening minutes of the match and then he appeared to stop at home for the remainder of the opening period, when he could have been terrorising the Barnet defence. In truth I would’ve expected him to be doing a little more to try and impress le Gaffer.
Similarly Thomas Rosicky was relatively quiet, perhaps feeling aggrieved that he’s not still lounging in the sun alongside some of his teammates. While Jay Emmanuel-Thomas looks a hulk of a man when seen up close, we noted that this might be something of an illusion in their very fetching new kit (for a traditionalist like myself), as with their shirts outside of their shorts, this kit seems to elongate their bodies and even Rosicky looked relatively tall on the pitch, while with his shirt tucked in, Shava looked as diminutive as ever.
I hear good things about Manny Frimpong and how dedicated the youngster is, compared to many of the Arsenal youngsters, who sadly think they’ve nothing left to prove as soon as they graduate to their first flash sports car. Manny didn’t disappoint on Saturday and didn’t look out of place. Hopefully his earnest endeavours will be rewarded with him being given an opportunity to prove himself in the remainder of pre-season. Often the pecking order for the line-ups out in Austria are a good indication of where the youngsters stand and whether they’re in with a chance of earning their first team stripes.
We moved during the break and were fortunate to find three seats in the main stand, not wanting to endure the restricted view of the goal the Gunners were attacking second half, but it wasn’t as if there was much action to miss. As I said, with a complete changeover of players, there was very little fluidity to the football after the beak, with Theo sadly only continuing where he left off last season, by getting down the right flank several times (or should I say “up the right flank” considering they were playing against the considerable slope second half), only to end up putting a cross over to an invisible teammate.
It was great to see Johann Djourou back in the saddle. His return at centre-half after such a long absence is almost like a new signing. I couldn’t for the life of me work out who was playing alongside him but thanks to the Arsenal mailing list and the marvels of my iPhone, I soon discovered this to be Catalan youngster, Ignasi Miquel. I have to admit that I’d not heard of this lad before (although he played several times for the U18s and had a couple of reserve outings last season) and with him barely being tested by Barnet’s limited goal threat, I can’t really offer an opinion on his ability.
Chamakh and Barazite ran around a bit but I can’t really recall either of them doing anything of any note and if I’m perfectly honest, if he hadn’t been in the right place to pounce on a defensive error and score the final goal of the afternoon, I could’ve easily forgotten that Samir Nasri was playing!
Still while we all turn out for the Barnet friendly with a feint hope in the back of our minds of seeing one of the two new arrivals, or one of our talented array of youngsters turning in the sort of blistering display that might fill us full of optimism for the forthcoming season, in reality, with all the players still needing to shake the suntan lotion baked sand from their rusty limbs, this fixture isn’t really about the football.
It’s more about a reconvening of the Gooner faithful, an opportunity to try out some new chants and above all, for far too many Arsenal fans, it’s a rare opportunity for a family day out, where folks can actually afford to take their kids to watch the Gunners play live. Unbelievably, a season ticket for the under 14s in the main stand at Underhill costs the princely sum of 25 quid, a season’s worth of footie for a fraction of the price that we’d pay to take a child to a single Premiership match! I know that one invariably gets what one pays for, but it pains me to admit that if I had kids, I’d be wanting them to enjoy the live experience at affordable grounds like Barnet or Watford every other week, than sitting indoors, going goggleyed in front of their Playstations every Saturday, waiting for a once a season treat to see the Arsenal .
Seemingly our latest import from Bordeaux has already got his own song, with a “Chamakh, Chamakh, Chamakh” variation of the “attack, attach, attack” chant. Michael “Shirts” Farmer also entertained us with a personal rendition of a Thomas Vermaelen chant to the tune of Bob Marley’s “We’re Jamming”, while we were waiting for the players to appear afterwards.
I’ve included a couple of pics just to give you a flavour of the post-match melée. There’s a few more friendlies with a trip to Crawley tomorrow and Welling on Saturday, but with the squad off to Austria, I guess these matches will only involve those left behind. Then there’s a game against Dagenham & Redbridge on the Wednesday before the Emirates Cup and Wimbledon on 7th August, but sadly, for all these fixtures, the Arsenal web site states it’s “highly unlikely that any First Team squad players will be involved.” Shame!
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