Thursday, October 28, 2010

Outta Toon

G'day fellow Gooners,

I've been getting very slack of late, filing my missive to the paper on a Monday morning and failing to post it out, until it ends up being out-dated by events in midweek. Truth be told, I've been forced to become just a little more self-disciplined, as the sports ed at the Examiner will no longer accept my typically (overly)loquacious pieces and unless I restrict myself to an acceptable number of words, he'll just send it back to me.

As I result, on those rare occasions when I do manage to limit myself to anything less than a mere 800 words, I'm invariably left feeling as if I've omitted so much of what I had to say that I'm loathe to post out my piece without adding a preamble including some of the more salient points.

With procrastination being the thief of time, suddenly it's Thursday and I still haven't got around to doing it. Everyone tells me that I'd be better off sending out shorter posts anyway, but since I don't earn anything from my blog, there is no real incentive for me to split my missives into separate posts, in order to generate more traffic and besides, after ten years of writing my weekly diary pieces, I'm pretty certain that if I was producing my War & Peace like efforts for anything other than my own self-gratification (and in the vague hope of offering a little flavour to a few geographically challenged Gooners), this would be bound to become a chore rather than a pleasure and would be likely to lose something in the process.

Meanwhile I'm now in a position where it would feel farcical if I sent a post without referring to events at St James Park last night and so I guess I'd better get on with it...

As a member of the Away Ticket Scheme, I feel somewhat obliged to go to every away game, with my tickets turning up automatically in the post. I'm sure that if I wasn't writing my weekly column for the paper, I'd probably pass on the occasional exhausting schlep around the country, but both for the benefit of myself and others, my column gives me the excuse that I simply have to go to every match because it's "work".

Whereas Carling Cup match tickets are optional and if I'd received a ticket for the match at St James Park last night, I might well have made more of an effort to get there, since in my experience over the past few seasons, some of our awaydays in this Mickey Mouse tournament have been amongst the most enjoyable trips of the season, for one reason or another.

As desperate as we all are to secure some long awaited silverware, the nature of this tournament means that I can enjoy watching and screaming my head off at these games, but without anything like the same excruciating tension that I invariably experience at the vast majority of the Arsenal's other matches. Similarly, there's often an absence of anxiety on the pitch that allows the players that Arsène selects to play with a certain freedom, which often isn't quite so evident in Premiership and Champions League clashes.

However, while this is all well and good when the Young Guns have run riot, embarrassing and often humbling far more experienced opposition, in some incredibly memorable performances in this competition, I have to admit that there have been times when we've had our backs up against the wall and have ended up exiting the tournament, where I've wondered if Arsène's attitude and his prioritization of the bigger prizes has permeated down into the dressing room, to the point where we've ended up waving goodbye to the season's first sniff of silverware because we simply haven't wanted it enough.

Usually I so enjoy the opportunity of watching our carefree kids cavorting around in a rare first-team context that I'm keener to go on Carling Cup outings than any of the other trips. But in this instance, after a long eight hour drive to Manchester on Sunday and with me being up to my eyeballs with work that wont wait, I was forced to stop at home. Perhaps if I'd had a ticket, I might've made more of an effort to try and juggle my responsibilities to the ballet (after all I've never let my "show must go on" obligations interfere with my footballing pleasures in the past and at forty-eight years of age, I've a feeling any such prudent maturity might well have long since passed me by!) but with the match being live on Sky and hopefully plenty of material to come from our weekend encounter with the Hammers to fill my Examiner column, it was easier and substantially more economical for me to "just say no" for once.

A couple of my pals were flying up to the Newcastle on Air Miles tickets. Compared to an exhausting drive up the A1 to Tyneside, I would've loved to have taken much of the strain out of such an arduous trek, by joining them. However not only have I been unable to accomplish the sort of travel that would amount to sufficient Air Miles for a free ticket, they travelled up on Tuesday and aside from the cost of the flights and hotel, it would've meant losing a couple of day's wages and as a result, I doubt I would've lasted until Monday with the meagre contents on next week's pay packet.

The problem with this is that with me having not travelled and with the Gunners having managed such a resounding triumph against the Toon, should we progress to an away draw in the quarterfinals, I'll have to struggle with my superstitious nature, dealing with the dilemma of knowing that if we end up losing, I will inevitably feel personally responsible for our cup exit, as a direct result of me being present at the match.

But if, as looks likely, le Gaffer is giving the Carling Cup a bit of a go this time around, I guess I'm definitely going to have to resolve this groundless hogwash, since if we should end up going all the way to Wembley, I'm certainly not missing out on the Gunners first return to the new incarnation of the "Home of Legends"!

Myself I don't agree with all those who might contend that this competition has been devalued by Arsène and all those other managers who've followed suit, by making use of the Mickey Mouse cup as a means of blooding the youngsters. To the contrary, I believe this policy has injected some much needed lifeblood into the Carling Cup, by turning it into the one and only piece of silverware that fans of every single club in land can aspire to.

The Cup of many drinks (Milk, Coca-Cola, Carling) has always been the least prestigious trophy but it's acquired a whole new interest in the modern era, as just as we've been doing for several seasons now, fans of all the other major clubs are seriously interested in the tournament as the principal opportunity to run the rule over some of their young prodigies. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, I now look forward to our Carling Cup games with far more enthusiasm than the vast majority of decidedly unenticing fixtures in the Champions League group stages (try telling that to those poor unsuspecting numpties at White Hart Lane!).

Sadly last night, not only did I not get to go to the game, I couldn't watch it live, or even listen to the commentary on the radio. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm only just watching a recording of it now for the first time!

I had to fetch some of the painted backdrops cloths for the ballet's new production of the Nutcracker yesterday afternoon and when I turned up at the scenic artist, he asked if I minded having a cup of tea and a biscuit, as he only had to put "a couple of ribbons" on the cloth stretched out on the floor, for it to be finished, so I could get that out of his way (as it's an enormous cloth and I could appreciate how keen he was to get it out of his way). However it wasn't until I was sitting outside in the van waiting for him to finish (and for my cuppa) that it occurred to me that if he was still painting on it, I'd have to wait until the paint dried for us to be able to fold up the cloth. I ended up sitting outside his Hammersmith studio for about two hours!!

As a result, I found myself driving to our stores in deepest, darkest Kent in the very worst of rush hour traffic and it took an absolute eternity. I actually got to hear the first half hour of the radio commentary, but as I reversed the van into the stores, it suddenly dawned on me that there was no AM reception on the radio once the truck was inside the stores and by the time I'd finished unloading and loading up again and drove back out, the Gunners were 3 goals to the good. Having dropped the shutter around the back, I had some more stuff to fetch from the front door of the stores and having left the van doors open and the radio blaring, mercifully I just about heard the commentary as the fourth and final goal went in (or at least enough of it to know that the Gunners had scored) and for the benefit of no-one but myself and to the surprise and amazement of the local rabbits. foxes and assorted other wildlife, I stood there whooping and hollering.

The worst thing is that I'm trying to watch the game (as I simply can't go to work without even seeing the goals at the very least) whilst catching up on a load of correspondence and you miss enough watching football broadcast on the box (compared to being there in person) but for me, I find it impossible to absorb anything, unless I concentrate fully on the telly.

Nevertheless, while I don't feel particularly qualified to comment on the game, I've seen enough to know that I like what I see of Wojciech Szczesny in goal (kudos to the first terrace songsmith who manages to work our young keeper's bonkers moniker into a catchy chant?). Despite our incessant pleas and mounting media pressure to address our goalkeeping situation, I'm guessing that le Gaffer has been doing his best to rein in the young Pole because (hopefully much in the manner of Joe Hart), he appears to have the sort of unbridled confidence of youth which is bound to end up with him making the occasional glaring ricket.

But give me this sort of confidence any day, over the timidity we've grown accustomed to from our other triumvirate of kack-handed keepers, as I'd gladly suffer Szczesny dashing out in his efforts to dominate his area and being sold the occasional dummy by a wily striker, rather than us and our defence having to suffer the abiding air of uncertainty that we've grown accustomed to at the back, never knowing if the vacillating likes of Almunia, Fabianski and Mannone intend on stopping at home, or coming out and making their presence felt.

Who knows if Wojciech is going to be the answer to all our prayers as he proves himself to be the real deal in games to come? But what I am certain of, even on the little evidence I've seen to date, is that unlike our introverted trio of goalkeepers, the youngster definitely seems to have the personality which at the very least, leaves me feeling confident that he has the potential to become a sufficiently imposing presence between the sticks. And no matter how impressive a shot-stopping display we witness from the likes of Almunia and Fabianski, sadly they both appear to be the sort of shrinking violets who are never going to be able to lend that much needed aura of calming reassurance to our back line because it's not in the nature of their somewhat pusillanimous personalities.

But that's more than enough of my prattle for one post. Anyone for the Hammers in the quarterfinals? It will certainly make for an awkward atmosphere (as will be the case on Saturday), with my boss, as the master carpenter at the ballet is an Irons season ticket holder (according to EEC terminology, he's actually now deemed as the ballet's "Chief Mechanist" but sod that, as master carpenter sounds a whole heap more impressive :-). Mind you, it will probably be me who ends up chopping up an endless pile of wood, if the Gunners give them a hammering (but it will be well worth the resulting punishment :-)

Come on you Reds
Big Love
Bernard

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In light of the Arsenal’s abysmal recent record against our immediate rivals, we were tickled pink to come away from Sunday’s game with all 3 points, as it was looking like the sort of significant encounter that was either going to leave us clinging to Chelsea’s coat tails as a credible challenger, or battling it out with the also-rans for Champions League qualification.

Nevertheless I was so keen to see us lay down some sort of marker against Man City, that I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappoinment that our comprehensive 3-0 triumph was somewhat cheapened, by the way in which the ref Clattenburg demonstrated his cajones, by reducing the home side to 10 men in the opening minutes, thereby leaving Mancini able to contend (albeit almost unintelligibly) that his team would’ve won the day if it’d been an even contest.

It’s hard to argue, as City looked good value in those opening moments. With Richards running riot down their right flank with his athleticism and Silva pulling the strings with his silky skills, City looked more than capable of posing a threat against any defence. You only had to see the £100 million’s worth of bench-warmers to suspect that City’s strength in depth is likely to serve them well, when other sides might start to hit the wall in the Premiership marathon.

A red card for the opposition isn’t often cause for celebration, as aside from ruining the spectacle for the watching millions, it invariably ends up with them battening down the hatches, to the point where we struggle to break them down. Normally the penalty area would be far too congested with bodies, for us to carve a route through with the sort of one-two that resulted in Nasri’s opening goal. Still playing at home and with their own point to prove, City couldn’t spend the entire 85 minutes sitting on their heels and for once, the extra-man served to our advantage.

Despite Fabregas being on the receiving end of several clatterings early on, Clattenburg seemed to spend the remainder of the first-half intent on evening up the odds. By half-time we were left wondering who in an Arsenal shirt hadn’t been booked and it’s to the Gunners credit (and much to my amazement) that we avoided giving the ref his get-out of jail card and lasted the remainder of the ninety with all eleven still on the pitch.

Never mind the victory, keeping our first clean sheet away from home since Villa Park in January was cause to get the flags out and Fabianski was in fine form. Nevertheless it’s not our keepers' shot-stopping capacity, but their failure to dominate their area where they tend to fall down. On a day when I should be singing his praises, there was one too many instance when hesitation at the back should’ve been resolved by Lucasz bellowing in the ear of his defenders to leave the ball. Standing behind Joe Hart’s goal and watching his impressive work, I couldn’t help but wonder where the Gunners might be with an equally imposing personality between the posts.

It wasn’t until Alex Song emphatically stabbed home our second that I began to espy the difference between an organically grown squad and a hotch-potch of star talent that’s been thrown together thanks to City’s loadsamoney owners, as any remaining resistance seemed to evaporate and we were left to savour watching the Gunners “taking the Michael” with a keep-ball session for the remaining 25 mins. Perhaps Mancini will foster a greater fighting spirit over time, but it’s not a facet of a team sport that you can turn on like a tap.

Myself I was just delighted to be there. After having my car pinched a couple of weeks back, I replaced it with another old banger and fatalist that I am, I spent the entire couple of hundred mile journey, fully expecting the engine to blow up in my face. Hence having stopped at the services for something to eat just outside of Manchester and being accosted by a City fan in just such a predicament (his mate’s motor having died on them), I simply couldn’t refuse to come to his rescue. Besides which I benefitted from my Samaritan act, as apparently my new Mancunian mate saved me from the scallies in hi-viz yellow coats, who pounce on unsuspecting travelling fans, by waving them into illegal parking pitches, where they are easy prey to unscrupulous private tow-away firms.

Chamakh appears to rise to these big occasions. I’m sure his teammates appreciate the lone striker’s selfless efforts to provide the likes of Samir Nasri with space to weave his magic spell. But by ramping up the positive reading on the Gooner karma meter, I like to believe I too contributed to our success, in my own small way.


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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick, Jack Don't Jump Into The Candlestick

(seems a bit pointless posting this now, considering we've seen us mullah Shaktar 5-0 and the Spuds larf a minute match in Milan, since - poor luvs, I was almost jealous of how excited they were about their big outing and it was a poignant reminder quite how much we take the Champions League group stages for granted - but since I've had this missive sitting on my machine these past few days, I wasn't about to delete it. Read or ignore as you so choose....)

Howdy fellow Gooners,



Saturday's win began to look all the better, by the time both Man Utd and Chelsea had dropped a couple of points. I had the bore draw at Villa Park on the box live, but wasn't really concentrating and so I'm unsure whether it was Houllier's side's performance, or a little complacency from the Blues which was most responsible (as usual it's more likely to have been a little of both). Moreover, having only seen the highlights on Match Of The Day, with the Baggies coming back from two goals down at Old Trafford, I don't really know if this was a reflection that our defeat wasn't quite the disaster if first appeared, or merely further confirmation that (on current form) Man U really don't look like a team that's likely to mount a challenge for the title.


I'm loathe to tempt fate, because as Fergie has proved time and again, if his side are still in contention come Christmas, the old dog is capable of inspiring the troops to the point where they become a totally different animal from their current lacklustre incarnation and it would be downright foolish to write them off so prematurely, knowing that they are more likely than not, to maintain a consistent run at some stage in the Premiership proceedings.


Nevertheless, although to all intents and purposes Ancelotti's side appear to be head and shoulders above the competition as title favourites, the weekend's results have served to reiterate that the sort of dogged, week in, week out three point consistency of the main contenders, which has served to demoralize us in recent seasons as we've struggled to make inroads into a significant points deficit, is perhaps not going to be attainable, in the way this campaign is beginning to shape up.


This would be a source of genuine hope for our own title credentials, if I truly believed the Gunners to be capable of the sort of consistency that meant we'd be breathing down the opposition's neck every single time they slipped up. But sadly to date, I've seen little evidence of the sort of unquenchable thirst for glory that would see us positively laying waste to lesser opposition and rarely ever looking the least bit vulnerable to defeat.


One of the aspects to the majority of our encounters which most epitomizes quite how far the Arsenal still have to go to become the real title challenging deal, is my reaction and that of the crowd in general to corners. Considering we were the club that pretty much perfected the art of the near-post flick on, back in the days of Stevie Bould and co., it's a downright tragedy quite how ineffective our set-pieces have become nowadays (or have been for several seasons now). In fact, we've grown so accustomed to our profligate failure to make corners count, constantly either failing to beat the defenders at the near post, or merely wafting the ball into the keeper's hands, that the lack of anticipation in the air whenever we're awarded another corner has become positively palpable.


There was a time when the award of a corner on home turf would be the catalyst for the crowd to exercise their vocal chords, rising to a crescendo of 'Come on you Reds' or 'Arsenal' as we did our bit to try and suck the ball into the back of the net. Whereas nowadays Arsenal corners are almost greeted with a groan, as we anticipate yet another wasted opportunity.


By contrast, such is the level of insecurity that we've grown accustomed to from our own rearguard that you can almost smell the scent of fear any time we have to defend a corner and whether we're playing table-topping giants, or lowly minnows, we end up gripping our seats, with our hearts in our mouths, in utter dread of the impending disaster possible at every single opposition set-piece.


As far as I'm concerned, this is the watermark which indicates why we continue to be the competition's most entertaining team of nearly men and as much as I've enjoyed Arsène's efforts to prove that success is possible by means of simply outscoring the opposition in every game, I always find myself harking back to that age old cliché about all great teams having been built from the back.


Who knows, with their growing confidence, perhaps Marouane Chamakh and Thomas Vermaelen will develop into the sort of players who have the knack of getting themselves into the right spot in the box and the determination to go through a brick wall if necessary, in order to get their heads on the end of our corners.


We can at least be grateful that Theo Walcott appears to have the resolve to make the very most of his talent, by seemingly spending hours on the training pitch perfecting the art of imparting velocity on a dead ball. As a result this will hopefully mean that we are no longer solely reliant on Robin Van Persie to spank set-pieces into the box with the sort of pace that gives cause for concern to even the most assured of defences.


Considering the amount of time our players spend on the training ground, I've always found it somewhat incredible that for all our squad's bountiful talents, RVP seemed to be the only really decent free-kick taker. And considering our renown in recent years for being vertically challenged, quite frankly I've never understood the point of the Fabregas and others simply floating balls into the box, which have invariably proved meat and drink to the opposition defence, when it seems so blatantly obvious that a ball struck at pace is always going to be more difficult to deal with. Instead of just one and now potentially two, surely a team like the Arsenal should have at least half a dozen players capable of curling one in from thirty yards. Shava has shown himself capable of doing just this in open play, as I suspect have Nasri and Rosicky.


But where Theo appears to have spent his summer fuelled by a burning desire to prove himself worthy of all those teenage plaudits, perhaps the reluctance of others to want to take such responsibility is symptomatic of the Gunners' malaise?


I shouldn't be knocking Nasri or Rosicky, as while many will marvel at Nasri's ability on the ball, what I admire most about little Samir, is his willingness to give as good as he gets and Rosicky is a grafter and all I ever ask of our players is that they at least work their socks off. As I've said in my piece below, Tommie covered more ground in five minutes than Shave had the entire previous seventy and while we all adore the diminutive Russian's special footballing gifts, there's a growing mood of displeasure amongst Gooners on the terraces at what is perceived to be a blatant lack of effort on Shava's part. It might not be so obvious when watching on the box, but there's many an Arsenal break where the ball will just pass him by in the middle of the park and it comes across as downright disrespectful to those of us who make such sacrifices for our Arsenal pleasures, to see players who don't even deign to make some pretence at putting in a little effort.


Perhaps we will yet see the likes of Squillaci and Koscielny developing into the sort of formidable centre-back partnership which is capable of restoring some much needed composure to our defence of corners and set-pieces. Although I've always contended for more seasons than I care to remember that our defensive woes can only truly be cured by means of the reassurance of a world class keeper.


As Edwin Van Der Saar demonstrated at Old Trafford on Saturday, even the world's most experienced goalies are liable to the occasional major boo-boo. Who'd be a keeper eh? Every other player on the park will make several mistakes a match, a goalie can make a million marvelous saves but his gaffes will always make the headlines.


I can forgive a goalie when he makes a near-post blunder, or a hare-brained dash from his line but it's never been our keepers errors which have bothered me most, but their patent lack of authority which has always been my greatest cause for concern. Without it, our defence is always going to appear panic-striken in their efforts to nullify the opposition because they need that crucial reassurance of an authoritative keeper to be able to defend with any real composure. Otherwise they're left feeling obliged to try and deal with every ball coming into the box, as they never know for certain if Almunia or Fabianski is going to come and get it, when what they really need to know is that within a specific area, they had better get out of the way, as the bloke behind them is always going to come barreling through them and anything else that gets in their way, in order to reach the ball


As it has turned out, perhaps Jack Wilshere's automatic three-game suspension could prove to be a blessing in disguise, with it seemingly perfectly timed to coincide with our captain's comeback. Wilshere has been playing so well, that it would be harsh to have to drop him the moment Fabregas returns to fitness and in most matches Wenger might have some trouble accommodating them both in the same team. I can't remember if it was Zigic who was the culprit, but as my neighbour suggested might be the case after Saturday's game, it seems to have gone unnoticed by the media that Jack was flattened by what might've been a flailing elbow that seemed to strike our precious young prodigy flush on the conk.


I've had my say about the tackling debate below, but having read Arsène's programme notes since, it seems ironic that le Gaffer returned to this favourite old chestnut, in advance of what transpired. He talks about a good tackle being one where "your feet are on the ground" and this is all well and good but a challenge only has to be slightly mistimed for the tackler's feet to meet his opponents limb in mid-air, instead of colliding with the ball on the ground and I suspect that with the vast majority of these offences, the players concerned were attempting to come into contact with the ball, not the man, on the deck but the tackle has either been badly timed, or the opponent has been too quick to shift the ball.


In my most humble opinion instead of having officials rule to the letter of the law, they have to be able to use their discretion (although this would've made little difference to Saturday's incompetent twat in black), as such hard and fast regulations only end up with farcical situations where the most perfectly timed tackle is penalised because it's been made from behind, or one of the game most artistic manoeuvres, a scissors kick, resulting in the most spectacular goal, can end up being ruled out because its deemed dangerous play, due to the striker's foot being in the air!


I was surprised to see Koscielny warming up on the pitch with the rest of the subs (apart from Bendtner, who obviously doesn't need the exercise and who I fully expected to end up straining something when he eventually came on because he was too lazy to stretch his legs!) as according to le Gaffer's programme notes, he pulled a back muscle the previous day. Considering how often I've complained in the past about Arsène's failure to focus on the opposition and select his team to best take advantage of their relative strengths and weaknesses, I have to admit that there was some speculation on Saturday as to whether he'd included Djourou amongst our tallest possible team selection, in an effort to combat Birmingham's behemoth of a striker, the 6'8" Zigic?


It annoys me when our defence have one single point of attack to focus on and they fail in their TCB duty (as I believe is the trendy current acronym for "taking care of business"). But when you are always likely to struggle to prevent the giant from getting his head on the ball, surely the answer is to ensure that you do everything possible to prevent the Croatian from being supplied with any ammunition. Could it be that Wenger has our troops so pumped up with belief in their own ability, that there's an element of arrogance in their failure to close down the Birmingham player and prevent him putting the ball into the box for Zigic to break the deadlock.


Contrast this with the spirit and work rate of the Seasiders, in their enthralling efforts to contain Man City the following day. All credit to Ian Holloway's side as they weren't so far from doing us a big favour and provided great entertainment in the process. Everyone seems to be suggesting that Mancini's battalion of mercenaries are set to pose the biggest threat to the established top of the table aristocracy. While the new Man City owners might be working according to the theory that if you put enough monkeys in front of a typewriter, they will eventually come up with Shakespeare and the law of averages should eventually favour their Italian manager with a sufficiently potent line-up, it might well prove that this massive collection of egos is just as likely to implode.


Meanwhile events have contrived to make next Sunday's encounter a massively significant clash, as it down to us to travel to the North West to demonstrate to the nouveau riche Man City monkeys that money can't buy class. Should we fail in this task, you can rest assured that the tabloids will point to this result as evidence of the demise of the natural order of things as far as Chelsea, Man Utd and our own stranglehold on Champions League qualification is concerned. There couldn't possibly be a more timely occasion for us to put a spoke in City's wheel, to impede the momentum of the Mancini charabanc, before it gathers sufficient impetus to roll right over the Gunners.


Sure it will be good to see a fit and healthy Eduardo return with Shaktar tomorrow night. But unlike all those Spurs fans under 50 years of age who are looking forward to the club's biggest night in their lifetime, with them all wetting their pants at the prospect of visiting the San Siro, I've become so blasé about the somewhat tedious six-game format of the Champions League group stages, that you'll have to forgive me if I find the prosapect of Sunday's encounter at Eastlands just a tad more intriguing


Come on you Reds
Big Love
Bernard

________________________________________________________________

I never thought I’d be so relieved to see Nicholas Bendtner back fit and in the squad, but along with Theo Walcott, it was great to see the return of some genuine firepower on the bench for Saturday’s game against Birmingham. The scent of imminent competition certainly didn’t seem to harm Marouane Chamakh, as the Moroccan lad had one of his most effective games in an Arsenal shirt to date. OK so the replays of the penalty incident left his tumble in the box looking just a little iffy, but from where I sit, it certainly appeared to me at the time as if there was contact.

I’m usually the first to complain about players going down too easily, especially when they choose to hit the deck, instead of taking advantage of an opportunity to beat the keeper. Not that I don’t celebrate the award of a penalty, along with every other Gooner - especially on Saturday, after Birmingham had taken the lead with just about their only effort on goal, as we were desperate to get back on terms before the break, so as to prevent the visitors coming out for the second half, shutting shop on their slender lead and perhaps punishing us on the counter as we became increasingly forced to throw caution to the wind – but I want to see strikers playing in red & white with such a voracious goal poacher’s appetite that the thought of passing up a genuine goal scoring opportunity, in the hope of the ref awarding a penalty, simply wouldn’t occur to them.

It’s the absence of this sort of blinkered hunger for putting the ball in the back of the net that left us on the edge of our seats for the remainder of the afternoon After Marouane began to make a name for himself, with the sort of goal that demonstrated the very best of his goal scoring talents, only a couple of minutes after the break, we really should’ve gone on to put the result to bed, by going for the visitors throat and proving the overall gulf in class between the two sides. But while we once again dominated possession, as ever the Gunners were guilty of overplaying around the edge of the penalty area and on the terraces we were left pleading for the love of Mike (whoever Mike may be?) for someone to please take responsibility.

When Rosicky replaced Arshavin in the latter stages, he had more efforts on goal in five minutes than the little Ruski had the entire time he’d been on the pitch and Tommie’s shoot on sight policy was a refreshing change from the Gunners customary “after you Claude” habit of always looking to a team mate. In fact Shava seems to have taken to Arsène’s Zen philosophy just a little too enthusiastically, with an economy of movement which appears to have restricted the Russian to taking up one particular spot out on the park and remaining there like a little Buddha, the entire afternoon, contributing merely with the occasional wayward backheel, should the ball ever come within range of his diminutive legs.

With the tendency of opposition teams to work their socks off when they come to our place, we just can’t afford to carry any such passengers. But the problem is that Shava is one of the few (fit!) players with the natural ability to unlock the tightest of defences that you always want him out there, in the hope he might conjure up that one single moment of breathtakingly inspirational genius. Sadly such hopes went unrequited on Saturday, as the lazy little bugger left the pitch, having hardly broken sweat.

Still as events elsewhere subsequently proved, all that really mattered against McCleish’s side was the three points and hopefully the home win which might enable us to begin gathering some momentum, as our squad returns to some semblance of side capable of challenging for honours. Sadly, no sooner are players restored to fitness, than we lose others to suspension. Considering how influential Jack Wilshere has become in the Arsenal midfield of late, it will be interesting to see how we cope in his absence.

I suppose the more Arsène ranted on about the lack of protection, the more inevitable it was that fate would intervene to see the bitten biting! But perhaps the most annoying thing about Wilshere’s red card was that his OTT tackle became the focus, instead of a display where Jack was both nimble, quick and constantly making mugs of Blue-shirted candlesticks.

In an age where we’re always complaining about the lack of commitment of many of football’s modern day mercenaries, I find it just a little perverse that we’ve managed to start a witch-hunt, which is invariably going to end up punishing any evidence of over-enthusiasm. Personally I like the idea that Wilshere was so peeved by his clumsy first touch that he let rip in trying to recover the ball.

Give me this manifestation of how much it means to them, any day, over the sort of laidback indifference that really leaves devotees like me losing their rag. And if the price we have to pay for such an intense brand of football is the occasional broken limb, as far as I’m concerned this is far preferable to seeing our frenetic version of the beautiful game over-officiated, to the point where it’s unrecogniseable from the sedate, quite frankly, boring version of the sport played elsewhere.


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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Beauty and the Beast

Hi folks

I've managed to tear myself away from the enthralling prospect of tonight's England encpunter to take the time to post out the following piece. It's been amusing the past couple of weeks, listening to all those deluded Gooners, who've been trying to convince everyone quite how delighted they are that they don't have to pay to watch an Arsenal side that plays like Chelsea.

As someone who grew up watching "boring, boring Arsenal" as opposed to Arsène Wenger's entertaining all-stars, I have to tell you that I'd give my right arm to be watching players of the calibre of Drogba, Essien, Terry, Cech etc perform in a red & white shirt every week and was only too happy to pay to watch Anelka and Cole strut their stuff at THOF.

Besides which, the Blues football is positively bewitching by comparison to the sort of dour displays we endured during George Graham's latter years. Let's not kid ourselves, the current league leaders have proved on many an occasion that they are perfectly capable of turning on the style and perhaps one of the biggest differences between the two teams at present, is that while Arsène is intent on sticking rigidly to his principles of playing the way he wants his Arsenal side to play, with seemingly little or no regard to tactical adaptions to target to the strengths and weaknesses of specific opponents, Ancelotti's side is more pragmatic, with their first priority being how can we ensure that the opposition can't score.

More than many of those Gooners who didn't endure the good old, bad old days, I fully appreciate how privileged we've been over the last few years to enjoy such scinitilating entertainment. Nevertheless, no matter how enjoyable it is, I can't help but believe that success will continue to evade us as far as the big prizes are concerned, so long as we remain so reliant on our ability to outscore the opposition and until such time as our squad contains the range of players who are capable of being sent out, secure in the knowledge of being able to keep a clean sheet (now that would be a novelty!)

Big Love
Bernard
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It suddenly occurred to me at the weekend that I might’ve missed England v Montenegro, only to discover this game wasn’t until Tuesday night. As far as I’m concerned watching Peter Shilton and Ann Widecombe stumbling around on Strictly Come Dancing is a far more entertaining proposition, than an England XI attempting to grind out a victory against the table topping team, from a country which sounds more like a combination of two of British Leyland's lousier motors.

Naturally I’ll be tuning in, if only to see if Jack Wilshere gets a look-in. Although after turning out for the U21s at Carrow Road, I’m sure Arsène won’t be too amused if Wilshere ends up playing two games in four days. Heaven only knows exactly what more Capello expects to learn about one of the countries most promising teenagers, by selecting him alongside “couldn’t score in a brothel” Bent and an ageing workhorse (I was going to say “cart” but didn’t want to be guilty of putting it before the horse!) like Kevin Davies.

Unlike the Scousers, I suppose I should be grateful that the lack of turmoil in London N5 leaves me with so little to say during the Interlull. What astounds me is that Liverpool’s financial meltdown was predicted many moons back, when the date of their loan repayment was made public. Yet everyone at Anfield appears to have ploughed on regardless of this doomsday scenario. Never mind being too good a team to get relegated, for the Scousers sake, I certainly hope they aren’t about to find out the hard way that they aren’t too big an institution for bankruptcy!

I doubt there’ll be too much gloating at the other end of the M62, considering that the Glaziers have encumbered Man Utd with the sort of debt that many a third-world country would be proud of and which makes the Merseysiders’ parlous financial predicament look miniscule by comparison. But then aside from the sugar-daddy sorted likes of Chelsea and Man City, the effort to keep up with the Jones’ and the fear of falling off the Premiership perch has resulted in culture of living beyond ones means for so many years now, that I imagine the majority of top flight clubs are in a similar, "there but for the grace..." situation of constantly having to keep their creditors sweet.

I guess it's for this reason that the Gunners are so proud of their rare achievement of a "workable business model" and why the club spent £4mill on providing posh nosh, instead of investing it on the pitch during the close season. But then after five silverware starved seasons, where Champions League qualification has been the limit of our ambitions, I’m sure if you asked most Arsenal fans they’d be absolutely delighted to be joining all those other clubs constantly teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, in exchange for being top of the league!

In checking the latest news on the Arsenal web site for the want of some inspiration, all I discovered was a piece revealing “Arsenal in the Community have embarked on a two-year programme entitled ‘How are you feeling today’ funded by the Premier League and Sport Relief, which aims to improve social inclusion and wellbeing for people with mental health problems, in the Club’s local area”.

A timely project perhaps, for all those of us Gooners, who are likely to end up as blathering lunatics, wandering around Highbury with a weird form of Tourette’s, habitually blurting out “get a keeper”, “for gawd’s sake spend some money” or “please no more Diddy Men”!

Some might volunteer le Prof as the programme’s first punter. I appreciate that Arsène is obliged to spout the party-line in public, by singing his own team’s praises, but surely in private he must realise that far from having Chelsea “on the ropes” the Gunners fell victim to a classic “rope-a-dope” display by the Blues. For once our dodgy keepers weren’t culpable. Defeat at the Bridge was due to the unmistakeable evidence that we continue to lack the blend of players necessary to forge a successful squad.

When I envisage the teams lining up in the tunnel when we play Birmingham this weekend, as that somnolent Elvis dirge “the Wonder of You” pumps out of the PA, I hardly imagine Alex McLeish’s side being intimidated by their opponents. The 6’ 8” Zigic will see Arshavin, Nasri and Wilshere as a light snack between meals. I’m tired of teams looking forward to taking on our talented ball-players, when I want them to be bloody terrified. Enough of Ken Dodd's dainty little mates, where’s the scout with the cajones to surprise le Gaffer with a 15-stone stopper who’s capable of kicking lumps out of the likes of Drogba?


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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Many A Slip 'Twixt Cup And Lip

G'day Gooners,

This was one of those weeks when I had so much more to say about Sunday's game at the Bridge, that I didn't want to post this out, until I'd had an opportunity to add all those points that I wanted to make but which wouldn't fit into my diary missive for the Examiner.

However with the ballet going out on tour nest week, I've been so busy that I've barely had time to open my computer (or if I've had the time, the long schlep to Kent and back has left me far too cream crackered to even consider opening my laptop) and so I thought that if I don't send it out now, it will be too late to even bother doing so and with no proper footie this weekend, I guess I can save all my whinging for next week's diary missive.

Meanwhile, it's an ill wind whipping up off the Mersey at the moment and unlike everyone else, I'm slightly envious of my Scouse pal, who writes the corresponding Liverpool diary column for the Irish Examiner. Steve Kelly and I always forward each other our pieces for the paper and I've noted over the last few days, that all the aggro at Anfield has resulted in him being requested to write three extra columns to date.

The Merseyside club might be struggling to avoid going "mehullah" but my Scouse pal Steve is positively minting it as a result :-)

Keep the faith
Big Love
Bernard
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In the absence of the spine of Arsène Wenger’s side (Van Persie, Fabregas, Vermaelen. Walcott etc) the Gunners gave a creditable account of themselves on Sunday. However after only six wins in the past 33 games against our two greatest nemeses, the resulting downsizing of Gooner expectations, meant that it was hardly a bombshell to find ourselves trudging away from Stamford Bridge with nothing to show for our efforts.

I adore Arsène Wenger and the man walks on water as far as I’m concerned. When you consider the parlous financial predicament of so many other Premiership clubs, our manager has achieved a minor miracle in maintaining the club on an even keel, keeping us competitive whilst constantly serving up sumptuous entertainment, despite the upheaval and the millstone of massive debt necessary to finance the new stadium.

Nevertheless, while the Scousers might be making plenty of noise about the mismanagement of their club, in the need to point the finger of blame for their current plight, by and large, there’s a good reason why you don’t hear us taunting the opposition about our superior profit and loss account, because ultimately it’s football results not financial results which are all that matter.

With this in mind, surely there must come a time when it dawns on le Gaffer that there’s a critical missing ingredient in his grand design for the Gunners, that crucial catalyst capable of turning a team that’s every genuine football lover’s favourite Premiership attraction, into the sort of success machine, that a nation of underdog aficionados will inevitably come to love to hate.

Never mind the scholarly connotations, Arsène increasingly reminds me of the mad professor, who can’t find the glasses sitting on top of his head, as he ploughs on with his blinkered obsession, regardless of our squad’s blindingly obvious inadequacies. I’ve never held with the simplistic men v boys theory but there’s no denying the facts which apparently state that on average the Chelsea side were 3 inches taller and 2 stone heavier. In truth we stood up very well, the pint-sized Wilshere bossed so much of the game and Drogba is capable of bullying the beefiest defence.

However matches against Chelsea have become the litmus test of the Gunners credibility and sadly it keeps turning acidic. It might’ve been a different story if we’d forced the home side on to the front foot, by capitalising on our early chances, but the portents were ominous from the moment they took the lead.

Personally I believe it’s more instinctive than tactical, but the Blues have learned that they can afford to let us have the ball, because all our best football is played in front of their defence. They can soak up the pressure, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be presented with an opportunity to carve us open on the counter.

Perhaps the penny began to drop with Arsène’s decision to send on rookie, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, to try and bulldoze his way through in the last 10 minutes, as he’s built like the proverbial brick out-house. Sadly this was too little, too late.

I’ve complained in the past about the lack of communication between our players and I’d like to say that it’s good to see Squillaci talking to his team mates, if it wasn’t for the sense that this is indicative of him learning about them on the job. Chamakh is also receiving an education, discovering that he doesn’t have time to take an additional touch amidst the Premiership’s more frenetic climes. It’s hard to blame Song for shifting out of the way of Alex’s free-kick, as I’m not sure I’d want to put my face in front of such a guided missile, but it’s not like Chelsea weren’t telegraphing their intentions by sticking Malouda in the wall, exactly where Alex was aiming.

If it wasn’t bad enough getting beat, perhaps what bothered me most was the way in which our spirit seemed to evaporate, as we rolled over at the death. Instead of striving for some respectability, we gifted Chelsea so many chances to add insult to our injury. Yet this match was always likely to be a bridge too far, with a defence that barely knows one another coming up against Chelsea’s settled strike-force and a lone striker who’s finding his feet, trying to pick holes in the league’s meanest backline.

After losing to City, this was just as big a game for the Blues as it was for the Gunners. But having failed in our efforts to reinforce a Chelsea wobble, I’m not too downhearted. In light of the inconsistency across the board, it might already appear as if the Blues are destined to retain the title but it’s only the beginning of October and there’s still likely to be many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip!

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Friday, October 01, 2010

Bridge Of Sighs Or Highs?

Hi folks,

It's another "twofer" week, since I wrote the following diary piece last Sunday night/Monday morning, for publication in Wednesday'
Irish Examiner and I never got around to posting it out, in my rush to get it finished and filed to the paper so that I could go and get my motorbike MOTd - as much to my great distress, I returned from working on Saturday night to deliver a hired truck back on Sunday morning, only to find that the car had been stolen. I was so cream-crackered, after a hard day/night's work, that the last thing I needed at 7am on a Sunday morning was to discover we were car-less.



Quite apart from all the aggro of having to report this crime to the old bill and the insurance company, it was the long schlep back from Greenford on the tube which was just about the last thing I needed. I suppose it could've been worse, as I was considering unloading the truck in Kent in the middle of the night, just to avoid any traffic and them I would've arrived back at Greenford before the tubes started running, but after setting out only to find myself forced to take a massive long detour because of the Blackwall tunnel being closed, it was one of those "last straw" type moments, which left me feeling as if the whole world was against me and the thought of having to deal with the whole bothersome matter and having to sort out some new wheels, left me feeling desperate to get home, slide under the covers of my much needed bed and never poke my head out from under the duvet again!

What I couldn't understand was why anyone would want to steal my positively ancient motor, as I don't imagine there's such a massive demand in the Middle-East for 20-year old Rover's, that someone would want to make a "ringer" out of my old banger! But when I posed this question to the kindly policeman who called from Southall nick the following day (I got quite excited, thinking they'd found my motor around the corner and was extremely disappointed when I realised he was only phoning for answers to some of his many questions), he pointed out that there are many unscrupulous characters driving around in low-loaders, who'll pick up cars like mine, merely for the scrap value, which is a real wind up, as despite being old, this car's been such a great & reliable runner, that I don't think we've needed to spend a penny on it since we bought it.

And by the time the insurance company deduct the excess, I imagine any pay out I receive from them will be a relative pittance and the chances of finding another equally dependable motor are very slim. Just as in football, the old adage about paying peanuts and getting monkeys proves true for most things and I'm probably going to end up buying someone else's problems for the few pennies I'm likely to have to spend, getting the same clapped out monkeys that we keep ending up with in the Arsenal goalmouth!

I tell you, it's enough to turn anyone to religion! I was joking about Avram Grant's day of repentance not paying off, when the Hammers failed to win on Yom Kippur, but the Irons results since might be viewed as some sort of testament to the power of this religious malarkey. By contrast to the Hammers wins (away to Sunderland and at home to Spurs - first win against the scum at Upton Park for four years!), we might've enjoyed a Carling Cup victory at White Hart Lane, but we've endured a gut-wrenching 95th minute equaliser at Sunderland, an awful performance against the Baggies and a flattering result in Belgrade (considering our lethargic display).

Never mind our keeper troubles and the lack of a proper leader, perhaps I'm entirely culpable for what has transpired since, by incurring the wrath of the G-ds in taking the piss, by not only fasting but by revelling in a scrumptuous bacon sarnie.


The thought certainly crossed my mind when I walked up the Greenford Road at the crack of dawn on Sunday, praying my motor would come into view at any moment and I tell you, if we don't win at the Bridge on Sunday, we had better bloody beat Birmingham in our next game, or else I'm going to end up having to find out what the jewish equivalent of an exorcism is and get it sorted double quick, in order to lift this curse. Mind you, having already donated my foreskin to religious custom, if there's a ritual involved that necessitates any sort of further physical sacrifice, I'm afraid you can forget about the Arsenal's title prospects for this season :-)

With no car, at least for the immediate future, I thought I'd better get my motorbike sorted, so I at least have some form of legal transport and as I sat in this garage in Hackney waiting for my bike to be tested, I read a match report in the Daily Mirror (could it have been written by John Cross?) which I thought was sufficiently amusing, that if it wasn't already too late, I would've returned home and completely rewritten the piece below for the Examiner, as to my mind, it read like a load of tedious tosh, compared to this rib-tickling match report on our most regrettable result.

I rarely tend to read the newspapers nowadays, especially in advance of writing my diary pieces, as otherwise it's somewhat inevitable that I end up feeling slightly paranoid about whether my ideas are original, or if I'm just rehashing something I've heard / read elsewhere. But if this was an example of the sort of standard that's regularly being maintained in the written media, then I guess I will have to start reading the papers again, if only to ensure that I don't get complacent and that I'm always striving to raise the bar, rather than to be left feeling so disappointed that it reads like I've toshed the following piece out, compared to a professional's far more enjoyable writing.

In the past I've always relied on my Scouser pal, Steve Kelly, who writes for the same feature as me, to keep me on my toes, as his weekly diary pieces are invariably such a good read that this gives me something to aim for. Although I have to admit that I've given up entirely on being as concise as him.

I might have improved considerably over the course of 11 seasons, as I no longer forward any War & Peace length opii
to the Irish Examiner's encumbered editor(as I leave these for the questionable pleasure of you poor unfortunate blog readers). Having long since been issued with a yellow card warning from the sports ed, I don't want to end up getting a red and the "tin tack" that would undoubtedly accompany it (even if, after all this time, there must eventually come a day when my diary pieces for the paper reach a natural conclusion). However I consider it an achievement if my missives come in under a 1000 words and unlike Steve Kelly, I'll never have the discipline to produce 750 word pieces on the button every week - besides which, there'd be no need for editors, if every writer was that accurate with their efforts!

Even if I wasn't particularly happy because I felt that the following missive was far too mediocre for public consumption, I intended sending it out in advance of Tuesday night's match. But naturally I managed to forget (so what else is new!) and then having written a blog entry of a few thousand words since then, I can't believe there are any thoughts in my missive below that I've not already pontificated on at some length.

Nevertheless, if only for my own pedantic satisfaction of maintaining my weekly record, I'm sending it out (you never know, we could go on to win the treble and I can burden the world with another book) and leaving it to you, the ultimate arbiters of what is and isn't an enjoyable read, to peruse, or to dismiss as you so please

Big Love
Bernard
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Pessimist that I am, it seemed obvious to me that the Gunners would blow a rare opportunity to capitalize on Chelsea’s defeat, from the moment the final whistle blew at Man City on Saturday. Mind you, Saturday’s failure to reel in the league leaders might only prove significant, if the Arsenal are capable of mounting a credible challenge for the title. While I continue to have faith that on our day, our best XI players are a match for anyone, sadly I can’t envisage our current squad winning the Premiership, not unless it’s gifted to us by the inconsistency, or the complacency of the competition.official.

It appeared as if one singular injection of pace by Carlos Tevez won the day against Chelsea, in an otherwise ponderous, low tempo encounter. All due credit to the Baggies for giving the Gunners a taste of our own footballing medicine, but I felt that they were allowed to grow increasingly confident as the game wore on, as a result of a similarly lethargic and uninspired Arsenal performance.

It’s very rare to hear Wenger publically criticising his team. His willingness to do so on Saturday was perhaps a reflection of the fact that our esteemed manager feels under increasing pressure to lead us out of a silverware starved wilderness, to a trophy-laden promised land. Perhaps this was reflected in the line-up for the midweek Mickey Mouse Cup encounter at White Hart Lane, which included a good deal more experience than we’ve grown accustomed to in previous seasons.

My Spurs pals tried to assure me that somehow their Carling Cup exit didn’t feel nearly so significant, now that they have Champions League fish to fry. But I pointed out that they’re faced with the same Catch-22 situation that’s afflicted us in recent campaigns, whereby the demands of a European marathon make prioritisation essential. But that this could all end in tears, when their Champions League dream draws to a premature conclusion, leaving them with nothing more to play for.

Arsène might be more accustomed to the annual juggling act involved in managing the Arsenal’s resources, but I don’t imagine anyone expected these to be stretched to the limit, so early on in the season. His team selection on Saturday hardly inspired me with confidence. Aside from the increasing clamour over le Gaffer’s failure to address the goalkeeping issue, one other recurring criticism concerns his tendency to focus solely on his own side, rather than targeting his team selection, according to the respective strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Moreover, Arsène’s apparent reluctance to make ‘on the hoof’ tactical changes is often a source of much frustration.

Work commitments either side of Saturday’s game meant that I had to go to inordinate lengths just to be there and although I was completely ‘cream crackered’, I was buoyed by the euphoria of beating the scum 4-1 and Chelsea's slip up against City. Considering all the effort involved on my part, it was bitterly disappointing that the majority of my team couldn’t be bothered to turn up.

Instead of tearing out of the starting blocks, like a side fired up by the opportunity to prise open the door left ajar by Chelsea, they plodded out, reminiscent of far too many of last season’s performances, where, convinced of our own superiority, victory was just a matter of waiting until the Baggies began to flag and the waters of the West Brom defence parted like the Red Sea.

Even if I was a fan of this tactic, it’s dependent on the sort of precise passing which leaves the opposition exhausted, chasing shadows, not the sort of slipshod, casual play witnessed at the weekend. But more importantly, the lack of any real intent on our part allows our opponents time to relax, to the point where they begin to believe themselves capable of upsetting the odds. In fact at times on Saturday, the Baggies appeared to be so comfortable on the ball, adorning their play with clever backheels and incisive passing, that they looked far more Arsenal like than our lacklustre side.

We’ve barely the personnel with only Chamakh and Vela to choose from at present, but personally I’d much prefer a show of intent in home games against lesser opposition, by starting with two strikers, instead of gifting away home advantage by giving visiting defences a lone front man to deal with. Although it served Wenger well for so many years, unfortunately 4-4-2 seems to have become thoroughly persona non grata nowadays.

Almunia’s penalty save 10 mins before the break should’ve been the turning point, but the fact that no one responded to the roar of the crowd, by driving the team forward, is just further evidence of the crucial lack of leadership in this Arsenal side. It was no surprise that we were 0-2 down before Wenger was eventually forced to ring the changes. But then as they say, you can’t make an omelette without eggs. While Samir Nasri made a valiant, almost singlehanded effort to rescue a result at the death (much to the chagrin of all those premature evacuators), this only left me bemoaning the Gunners failure to pull their collective fingers out from the opening whistle and the fact that we lack the sort of personalities who are capable of putting a flea in the ear of their “below par” compadres.

Here’s hoping we’ve bounced back in Belgrade, so we can travel to Sunday’s clash with heads held high, as we certainly don’t want to be turning up at Stamford Bridge with our tails between our legs!

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e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com