My Nan And Thierry Henry

The thing about my lifelong obsession with all things Arsenal is that it has at various points invaded every single aspect of my life. For example there’s a girl in Western Michigan who is probably the only person within a 1000 mile radius who has not only been to the Emirates Stadium but also been subjected to countless unsolicited history lessons on the glorious past of what is now a block of flats over the road from the ground thanks to her questionable decision to enter a relationship with me a few years ago. Everyone I’ve worked with, the people I’ve studied with, my friends and my family have all been woven to some extent or another into the course of my enduring relationship with Arsenal Football Club over the years.

Indeed, the ensnaring of unsuspecting family and friends into the world of Arsenal forms a large part of the history of my support of the club. The first victim was undoubtedly my mother, forced as she was to stay up with me as an eight year old boy as we One-Nil-To-The-Arsenalled it all the way to glory in the European Cup Winners Cup (and again the next year with the tragic conclusion of Nayim lobbing David Seaman from the halfway line, the flukey ex-Spurs swine) under George Graham. My Mum’s delight at the triumph of the injury and suspension hit underdogs digging out the most battling of victories over Parma is part of what makes that night, to this day, my favourite night as an Arsenal fan.

I’m responsible for others forming the same obsessive relationship with the club, as an older brother and a cousin I’ve had a large role to play in others deciding to follow the path of an Arsenal fan. I’m sure they must curse me that I couldn’t have been a nice normal Kentish Manchester United fan like everyone else. And again, my enjoyment of Arsenal triumphs is closely linked with these relationships. I was living in halls at Uni when we beat Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup Final, and the post-match phone call to my brother is one of the enduring memories of that most enjoyable victory.

Even my poor old Nan did not escape. I have been truly blessed in the grandparent department and my Nan was one of those Nans that will never stop trying to do things for you. You drop in on her at home and she immediately apologies profusely for not having anything in for you to eat, and she hurries to a cupboard which groans under the weight of food in it as she opens it. Always a pillar of support, not just for her family but pretty much anyone who needed her, it was no surprise that when I found myself without anywhere to live, her home was immediately open to me to say in for as long as I needed. Attempts to perform rash actions such as doing my own laundry or pay her some rent were swiftly thwarted.

Of course, in return for this unmitigated kindness I set about inflicting the world of Arsenal on her. It wasn’t a new experience, my late Grandfather having been a supporter, and it was from him that I inherited my comprehensive knowledge of Arsenal history via the enormous hardback volume on the club which sat on my Nan’s shelf. Nonetheless, my elderly Nan was compelled to understand the philosophy of Arsene Wenger, the madness of Jens Lehmann and of course the genius of Thierry Henry, whose importance she was keenly aware of but whose name she could never successfully pronounce. Of course they all paled into insignificance to her own favourite, “Little Leo” which was what she called the then 17-year-old Theo Walcott in case you’re confused. I’m not sure what made her take to him, but possibly it was simply the fact that he was so young, and she may have heard him in an interview, in which he has always come across in contrast to the average professional footballer, as a genuinely nice and pleasant young man. I never saw her more delighted than when she finally saw him score (twice) in the 7-0 rout of Slavia Prague in 2007.

Undoubtedly the evening which came to symbolise my Nan’s enforced induction into the world of Arsenal in my mind was the night we faced Real Madrid in the Bernebau. I had a job at the time which saw me get home at about half past seven in the evening, so just in time for kick off. I hadn’t really mentioned the game to her, but I remember being incredibly nervous about it. It’s easy to forget given the dominance of Barcelona over the last few years, but in 2006 honours were at least even between Madrid and Barcelona, and Real Madrid were THE team to beat, the club that signified what winning the European Cup was all about, and in the middle of a fairly poor season domestically, we were taking them on in their own famous stadium. My Nan had clearly taken note of ITV’s advertisement of the game, and I remember as I rushed in through the door I was greeted with my Nan, the match coverage already on the TV and a plate of steak and mashed potato big enough to feed Scotland (which I proceeded to demolish within about five minutes of kick off).

Watching football with my Nan was always enjoyable, and she would always be so tense no matter the situation, not because of her own investment in the outcome of the game but because she knew how much it meant to me. The only exception would be if Arsenal established a commanding lead, and then she would become concerned that the opposition score one goal, lest they go home feeling too downhearted. That night against Madrid was as tense as I’ve ever been as an Arsenal fan, especially after a first half in which we took the giants to task and should have scored on several occasions.

Leave it to Thierry Henry then, to provide the ultimate moment for my Nan and I watching Arsenal together. Early in the second half he received the ball just inside the opposition half and then proceeded to surge like a hot knife through butter through the Madrid defence before finishing with an unstoppable shot into the far corner. I don’t quite remember how I managed to jump off an armchair in such a way that I landed on my head, but that’s most certainly what happened. My Nan did not perform such acrobatics but was just as delighted. Arsenal, uncharacteristically, then proceeded to hold firm to produce an amazing result and a night that was unforgettable for me for the company I spent it in as much as the result.

That armchair was the vantage point for me to watch many Arsenal triumphs over the years, indeed only a few weeks later I saw Jens Lehmann make the save from Juan Riquelme’s penalty which took Arsenal to their first Champions League Final. One of the biggest regrets I have an an Arsenal fan is that that armchair is not where I watched the 2006 Champions League Final, choosing as I did to make the trip to Highbury to watch the game in one of the pubs around there. Undoubtedly, the outcome would have been the same but I can’t avoid the feeling that I messed with destiny by leaving that chair empty that night.

And indeed that empty chair, and the chair that is now empty next to it have been much in my thoughts in recent days. Like everything else that matters to anyone, being a football fan is only made worthwhile by the people you share it with, it is made infinitely greater by the presence of friends and family, and without any one them it is diminished, and indeed may never be the same again. The times that I spent with my Nan will always be amongst my happiest as an Arsenal fan, I will never forget them and I can now only wish that I could have one more night like Arsenal’s triumph in the Bernebau again. Instead though, I have nothing but gratitude for the times that I was blessed with.

Goodbye Nan.

Triffic

So, Harry Redknapp, eh? A few months ago all was falling before him, Tottenham were being excitedly mentioned in the same sentence as phrases like “title race” and “best team for years” and the man himself, well his ascension to the England manager’s job was a mere formality. And then it all blew up, hilariously and explosively, Spurs dropped like a stone and Harry’s cheeky chappy image dissolved as each week his attempts to pull the nose up on his bottling squad failed miserably.

And what I find particularly satisfying is that conventional wisdom is only partially correct when it says that Tottenham’s misfortunes began when the England manager’s job became available and good old ‘Arry was being paraded by the newspaper that he works for as the only possible replacement (a columnist in the most high profile football job in the country, they must have been wetting themselves at the prospect). The distraction was too much for them, people say but I think there was one other factor that gets overlooked a lot.

You see, Tottenham live for the hope of getting the better of Arsenal, and last season I really believed at one point they were going to get their wish, and when they finally had it within their grasp – 2-0 up against us in our own ground, set to extend a ten point lead over us, we brought it crashing down for them. Bacary Sagna scored that memorable header with the even more memorable “right, fuck this” celebration, and that was our cue to stick five goals past them. They were crushed on the day, and they remained crushed for the rest of the season. You can talk about the distraction of ‘Arry and the England job if you like, but I don’t think they ever recovered from the pasting they suffered at our hands that day, and as a result Harry Redknapp now has plenty of time for his column writing and is now just another Spurs manager that has unremarkably come and gone during Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal. Bring on the next one.

Anyway, to footballing matters and what about yesterday’s Euro 2012 results? The “Group of Death” lived up to its billing as it would appear one of the major contenders for the championship are out after Holland lost a second match consecutively, going out to what looked a very good German team indeed from what I’ve seen. Mario Gomez confirmed that he’s a much better player than what we saw from him against Chelsea last month and he was supported by sheer efficiency and quality. They might be young, but there’s no doubting that they’re German.

Of course there’s always the peril of peaking too early at these tournaments, the first team to show real quality is rarely the one that wins the tournament but to me the Germans look on a single minded mission to dominate Europe. Errrrrrrrrm…. well they look very good anyway.

The other game was a bit tasty as well if the highlights that I’ve seen are any indication. Portugal’s 3-2 win over Denmark leaves qualification from the Group of Death a very interesting question. Germany of course are in no peril at all but Portugal and Denmark now sit on three points apiece. The impressively well drilled Danes now face a German side that can afford to change things up a bit and take their foot off the gas, although that doesn’t sound very German. The Portuguese for their part must take on a Holland team that desperately needs to salvage something from their performance at this tournament. It’ll be a curious last day, that’s for sure.

Today’s games look fairly interesting. The Republic of Ireland’s David-and-Goliath encounter with Spain is bound to generate a lot of neutral interest. Ireland’s loss to Croatia in the first game means they can’t afford to lose to the world champions today, and though many wouldn’t give them a prayer, it’s the sort of occasion that every now and then goes down in folklore as an incredible upset. Even a draw would leave them some hope of qualification, so who knows?

Italy Vs Croatia is a very interesting game indeed in my book. I like the cut of the Croatian jib personally and although they were quite credible against Spain, Italy are always good for a suspect result in the group phase of a major tournament and I think there’s a surprise in the making in this game. I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict a Croatia victory, maybe we’ll even see our old pal Eduardo on the scoresheet.

So far I have to say, Euro 2012 has been a success. The threat of racist chanting has been there just below the surface throughout but it hasn’t really risen to the fore apart from that Dutch training session and I think there was the question of some chanting during Spain Vs Italy. I wouldn’t seek to downplay the significance of some incidents but it is important to keep these things in perspective, they have been the result of the behaviour of a minority of idiots. The football has been very enjoyable, and the overwhelming majority of fans have gone along and had a great time in the stadiums and in the host countries by the looks of things.

There was the incident before Poland Vs Russia where there was violence on the way to the ground but I think the Polish government were possibly a little misguided in allowing the Russian fans to hold a hugely provocative march through the city. Though the majority of decent fans let it be, I don’t see how the authorities ever thought that such a thing would fail to attract the attention of the idiotic hooligan element. Still, it was an isolated incident, and the actual match, Poland Vs Russia was one of the standout occasions of the tournament so far, and far from the poisonous atmosphere I expected to see in the ground, all the fans seemed to showcasing themselves. I’d have loved to have been there to see all those Polish fans singing and waving their scarves firsthand, as it was their equaliser got me out of my chair in celebration. More games like that please!

So, let’s hope today brings more excitement and quality, do take it easy and I’ll return soon.

Roll Up, Roll Up For The England Circus

Yes, yes I know, weeks without a blog and such, I’m sorry!

With madness taking place on all fronts, exams at uni, chaos at work and so on I must admit I found my energy for what has been the most idle of Arsenal transfer speculation rather drained. I last posted the day after our last game of the season and predictably enough, nothing has happened from an Arsenal point of view yet.

However, Euro 2012 has kicked off and it’s a strange time for me as a football fan because I normally spend the year round slating international football, but this is where it does get very interesting indeed. The Euros are always a very entertaining and enjoyable spectacle. This particular one seems to be in the shadow of potential (and in at least one ugly incident so far, very actual) racism from the stands and I only hope that this is something that the governing body UEFA sees fit to take seriously this time. 

UEFA as we all know, aren’t exactly the most enlightened organisation in the world. Like the world governing body, FIFA, UEFA only tend to respond to things which affect how much money they can make. However that doesn’t mean racism won’t be on their agenda, after all, all those precious sponsors and TV companies won’t want their logos and broadcasts all over scenes of racial abuse. I do hope that UEFA are serious about referees abandoning games in cases where unacceptable racial abuse takes place, because as much as it would be a deplorable sight, it would be exactly what the sport needs to motivate itself to eradicate this disgusting phenomenon. Of course, UEFA could look very seriously at its own decision to award Poland and the Ukraine this prestigious tournament in the light of the problems that they have in their football stadiums, but I’m sure they rest easy in the knowledge that they undoubtedly made themselves lots of money by doing so.

That important issue aside though, so far it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable tournament. The analogy that suits is one that I’ve learned from work – in horse racing the Grand National, like the World Cup, is the big spectacle. It’s the one everyone has a bet on and it’s the most famous race in the country by some distance. However, if you’re into your horse racing then you know that the National isn’t (so much) about quality racing, that gets reserved for the likes of the Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot and the Epsom Derby. That’s what the Euros are like. The World Cup might be the ultimate prize, but the Euros have concentrated quality which makes almost every game fascinating.

Poland and Greece, against all expectations produced a tremendously entertaining opening match, whilst Russia produced an impressive display to beat the Czech Republic on the opening day. I note with some amusement that I’m yet to see a really good performance from any of the Arsenal players involved in the tournament. It always seems to be the case at international tournaments that somebody who has enjoyed a great season with their club has an absolute stinker when it comes to the tournament. So far, Wojciech Szczesny is that man, having been a standout performer for us in goal this season, his display against Greece might generously be described as risible, capped off by handing Greece their equaliser and getting himself sent off when he conceded a penalty.

New boy Lukas Podolski looked an intelligent player in what I saw of Germany’s encounter with Portugal, although at one point he seemed to do an uncanny Andrei Arshavin impression when a ball was cut back to him in the penalty area and he sent it rocketing into the orbit of Jupiter. Nonetheless, he looked like a useful cog in what looks like a very impressive German machine. Robin Van Persie missed a couple of chances for Holland that he would have despatched with no trouble at all a couple of months ago, the toll of a long season perhaps telling on him a bit there.

I must confess I’ve yet to see highlights of yesterday’s games though I’m unsurprised to see that Spain have had, by their own standards, a slow start. I’m not at all convinced that the favourites will be retaining their title this year, and the Italians are always tough to beat. Ireland face an uphill struggle having gone down to defeat to what sounds like a well organised Croatia team that I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see upset one of the favourites in that group to qualify.

So that brings us to today’s games and first up France face the travelling circus that is England. Long time readers will know that my allegiance to England is… somewhat sketchy at the best of times but I’d like to try and look at their chances objectively. And objectively, I think they’re going to get soundly beaten this evening. Their performances in the pre-tournament friendlies indicates that they will be playing a defence based game reliant on good organisation and discipline. Now I like Roy Hodgson as a manager, and those are the right tactics for an England team which is lacking in top class quality, especially facing a side with France’s ability but one of England’s major problems is that often the players just don’t do what their told (one of former manager Fabio Capello’s long standing problems with them), and I really doubt that they have the discipline to stick to the task Roy Hodgson will set for them tonight.

That said, France’s defence doesn’t look too inspiring (I’m going from the BBC’s estimation of what their lineup is likely to be, and amazingly there looks to be no place for Laurent Koscielny) and they could be caught with a goal on the counter most certainly. However, I do think the attacking prowess of Ribery, Benzema and the Chinless Wonder (I said wonder!) might well be too much for England to handle. I’ve been thinking prediction-wise something along the lines of 2-0 or 3-0 to France, but I wouldn’t rule an England goal out completely.

The other game this evening sees Sweden face co-host nation the Ukraine in what should be an entertaining encounter. With either or both France and England dropping points in the early game it’s a chance for one side to stake their claim for qualification. You always know what you’re getting from the Swedes, a solid display with the threat of Ibrahimovic up top whilst the Ukraine will be spurred on by what I’m sure will be some very impressive home support (and the racist minority aside, it is worth saying that there’s nobody like East European fans for creating a truly imposing atmosphere at home, or indeed even away from home, as we know from Arsenal’s Champions League endeavours).

So, here’s to another great day of football, enjoy and I’ll return soon.

West Bromwich Albion 2-3 Arsenal: Over The Finish Line And Into The Champions League

Yesterday’s climax to the season was fitting on so many levels. Manchester City are the champions of England for the first time in 44 years, yet going into the second minute of injury time they were all set to lose the title to Manchester United until they conjured two goals from somewhere. Say what you want about them, and I can say quite a bit, it’s probably the most dramatic title win since Michael Thomas burst through the midfield to give us the trophy at Anfield. Certainly you can say that City’s megabucks diminishes the fairytale ending, but that doesn’t change the incredible circumstances in which they won it.

Elsewhere, Bolton were relegated after receiving a first class shafting from the referee at Stoke. Granted since Owen Coyle took over they’ve been a much more likeable club, but a little part of me still remembers them at the height of their Allardyce inspired bastardry, and has to have a little chuckle at their expense. Still, I’d have preferred to see QPR go due to the fact they have a massive wanker for a manager in the here and now.

And as our fight, the battle for third place and confirmed participation in the Champions League next season, it was up and down and again we saw this Arsenal team show the best and the worst of their attitude. We were made to wait, and to sweat but in the end we got the win that saw us finish the season in third and qualify automatically for next season’s Champions League, an immeasurable benefit when you consider that the club may now proceed unimpeded in the transfer market by doubts over what our resources are going to be or what players we can attract. Spurs on the other hand, face an anxious wait to see if their fourth place finish will be sufficient to qualify after Chelsea play their trump card on saturday in the Champions League Final.

As far as our performance goes, I think it’s fair to say we could have been better. We certainly were fortunate to be graced with the complete ineptitude of Fulop in the West Brom goal that played a part in at least two of our goals, and really he ought to have done better with Santos’ equaliser too. Nonetheless our early lead, achieved through Benayoun after Fulop made a calamitous attempt to usher the ball into his area so he could pick it up rather than booting it up the field, was cancelled out by two West Brom goals that nobody on the coaching staff will be enthralled to see again. The second goal particularly which saw the West Brom bloke score despite the attentions of three defenders was a particular stain on the performance.

Nonetheless, Santos found the goal to get us back on track, and with Tottenham winning it was imperative to get back into the lead. The winning goal of the match and the race for third came, fittingly enough, through Laurent Koscielny, as consistent a performer as Arsenal have had this season. At a corner ball, the hapless Fulop came out and Almunia’d it towards his own goal. The disbelieving Koscielny immediately seized on it and guided it home.

Despite my nervousness that we would struggle to hold on, our goal wasn’t seriously threatened again in the match, though Kieran Gibbs executed a perfect sliding tackle in the box late on to deny a dangerous opportunity for West Brom. It finished 3-2 in the end, making the outcome of the Spurs and Newcastle games irrelevant. At the final whistle there were jubilant scenes, capped by Pat Rice being carried on the shoulders of the team in front of the travelling Arsenal supporters.

It was definitely, after everything this season, a moment to be enjoyed. It looked like this season was going to spell the end of our consistent qualification for the Champions League but we’ve done it and really its never been more crucial when you consider the summer’s business that lies ahead. There is the cold light of day to face in terms of the performances that haven’t been good enough this season, issues that need to be addressed, but there is a whole summer ahead to ponder such things. For now, I’m happy to let the relief guide my reaction.

It’s been a tough season, it was always going to be after the end to last season and the summer that followed it. Mistakes have been made and recoveries have been mounted, and in the end we’ve once again finished in a league position that is the envy of almost the whole of the league. If we want to rise higher then there is much to do, no doubt about it. But for now, let’s just be grateful that we’ve accomplished what we needed to, if not perhaps what we wanted to this year.

That’ll wrap it up from me this morning. Take it easy and I’ll be back soon.

West Bromwich Albion Vs Arsenal: Endgame, Part Two

A week off with a banjaxed modem has done nothing to diminish my perception of today’s game against West Bromwich Albion as one of the most important of recent reasons. The opposition may not be glamorous, the occasion less than glorious but Arsenal’s future, certainly in terms of next season and perhaps beyond rests on the outcome of this match.

The battle for Champions League qualification has been a tightly fought battle all season. No team has been exempt from poor form or bizarre slip ups and nobody has managed to take a decisive advantage. Spurs at one point looked unassailable only to be caught, and we too seemed to be home and dry before blowing the advantage we had built for ourselves. Newcastle have done very well all through the season, at one point they looked out of contention, and I doubted their ability to stay the course but the fact can’t be doubted today that they have a chance of playing in the Champions League next season.

I find the suggestion that not qualifying for the Champions League for one season may work to our long term advantage a little tough to understand. I see no benefit to it at all because the Champions League is so integral to the club’s operating as it presently does. And perhaps people are so eager for a “shake-up” at the club that they can see a bright side to the club losing a massive source of cash income or the ability to attract top class players to the team. I don’t, and I think the Europa League is a total joke of a competition, I don’t think I could bring myself to watch it even if Arsenal were in it.

Best then, that we beat West Brom today, as that will guarantee our participation in next season’s Champions League. Easier said than done perhaps based on recent form. The team seems to have abandoned the hard work and strong character that saw us rise to third place to begin with, and in the weeks before last week’s calamity against Norwich there was a worrying air of complacency about more or less everyone at the club who spoke publicly about finishing third as if it had already happened. Today we can’t have that attitude in the team, it has to be the never-say-die, hard working, quality Arsenal side that put together seven wins in a row in the league.

What we do not need is the Arsenal team that turns up to play teams further down the table and thinks they’ve won just because they’re there. We’ve seen too much of that team this season and in recent reasons. You know the one I mean, the one that was deservedly beaten 2-1 by Hull City at home a couple of years back, the one that only a couple of weeks ago swaggered onto the pitch and got beaten by Wigan for their arrogance, and indeed the one that lost to a committed West Bromwich Albion team a season or two ago, perhaps a very pertinent example indeed.

The makeup of the team may be different, but the complacency that caused those results is the same in each case. I don’t even know how Arsenal get the idea into their heads now that they can take a Premier League match for granted. We have lost ten games this season – ten. It’s only the fact that other teams around us have been inconsistent as well that means we are even in the frame for a Champions League place this season, and yet the attitude that all we have to do is turn up continues to show itself.

It’s amazing in some ways that this match could provoke such nervousness as it has among Arsenal fans, not because of the opposition because West Brom are a good outfit with an excellent manager, but because the worry of so many fans is about the effort that we’re going to see from the team today – the concentration, the mistakes, energy levels and so on. I know it’s a long season and our players are only human but this game is as important as any that the team put in supreme efforts in to beat earlier in the season, and it needs to be treated that way. One last big effort and then everyone can have a holiday!

Arsene Wenger claims the team haven’t received the credit they deserve for some of the things that have been accomplished this season, and yes, I see his point, winning at Udinese with such a depleted squad as we had was worthy of note, victory over Borussia Dortmund was written off as standard even though they’re a very good team indeed. But this is the wrong time to talk about that I think, today’s game will in many ways be the judge of how this season is looked back on and what credit or demerit is dished out and that’s where the focus has to be.

It’s Pat Rice’s last day in the dugout today, let’s make it a good one for him, and let’s make it the right result for us. Win and qualification is ours, anything less and it could all get very anxious indeed.

That’s all from me then, get behind the team today, and COME ON ARSENAL!

Off The Hook

To be honest, it’s a little bit difficult to pinpoint how I feel about this weekend’s events. On the one hand of course Arsenal failed to get the crucial win over Norwich that they needed, a result which left us open to being overtaken in the race for Champions League qualification, whilst on the other we got out of jail as both Newcastle and more surprisingly Spurs failed to take advantage of the situation.

There seemed to be a feeling of relief among a lot of Arsenal supporters yesterday, and that seems quite understandable. Whereas after the result against Norwich there was understandable frustration and even anger, after yesterday’s results there was euphoria and gleeful mocking of Spurs’ endless ability to blow opportunities to finally finish above us in the table. Though I felt the relief myself I have to say I feel less than cheerful about the weekend’s events.

Maybe I’m being a bit glass-half-empty about this but I was hoping for a strong finish to this season from Arsenal. Instead of that, we are crawling toward the finish line, and in my view it’s still very possible that we may fail to qualify for the Champions League. Our last game certainly can’t be taken for granted as we face West Bromwich Albion, a club quietly enjoying one of the best Premier League seasons they’ve ever had and who will be looking to give manager Roy Hodgson a good send-off as his efficient management of the club has earned him the England manager’s job after the end of the season.

Whether the other teams in the frame for Champions League qualification took advantage of our slips over the last few weeks or not also seems to be somewhat irrelevant in so much as we still blew a commanding position. We still gave our rivals the opportunity to overtake us, and indeed we may yet hand them the prize again. In the past, this has been punished severely when we’ve been going for the title because clubs like Manchester United simply do not let that sort of chance pass them by. Newcastle and Spurs have thus far proved more forgiving, but the fact remains that we once again blew a strong league position and were reduced to nervously looking to a dire Aston Villa side to get a result against Spurs.

The circumstances may be different, but the story is the same as last season, and the season before that and the season before that. We’ve come down to the last few games of a season and either the pressure has told or our concentration has evaporated, and results are familiar. Another May spent lethargically stumbling to the end of the season. And it’s tough to know what the problem is exactly, because fans will always point the finger at individual players or the manager but I don’t think that answers the question. At this point, different Arsenal squads of almost completely different makeups have done this, more or less ever since the move from Highbury (not that I’m suggesting that’s the reason, it’s simply true), so I don’t buy that it’s down to the character of a few players.

As for the manager, well, that’s perhaps more credible because he’s the constant factor but I don’t believe for a second he allows that sort of attitude to breathe on the training pitch. You only need to look at the fact that when Arsenal are playing as they have done over the last few games, nobody hates it more than Arsene Wenger. Nobody goes more mental in the stadium, nobody works harder to turn it around.

Yesterday, Arseblog described our habit of capitulating at the end of the season as “hard-wired” into the club. As depressing as it is, I’m starting to see it that way too. I don’t think it would matter if we replaced the entire squad, the manager and all the support staff. It seems to me that Arsenal as a club are stuck in this rut. Maybe the climate at the club has become such that if the club is qualifying for the Champions League then there’s no pressure from upstairs to do better, but that’s just idle speculation.

Anyway, let’s not make it all doom and gloom this morning. It’s perfectly true that we’ve been handed a reprieve and one more chance to get this job done. Beat West Brom this weekend and it’s a third placed finish for us and automatic Champions League qualification, and perhaps just as importantly a summer to take stock and make much-needed changes. That’s all anyone involved with the club should be thinking of right now, that is the only objective that matters.

On that note, I’m signing off. Enjoy your Monday and I’ll return soon.

Arsenal Vs Norwich City: Endgame, Part One

So, it’s a pretty important day today. Arsenal’s season comes down to these last two games and the equation is pretty simple – win both games and qualify automatically for the Champions League, fail to win both and we don’t qualify, or at least the likelihood is we’d face an anxious wait and it wouldn’t be in our hands.

It’s a time for cool heads and grim determination. Norwich City have had a good season and gotten some great results against top teams, and they will be a challenge today but this will have to be a challenge that we rise to. On too many occasions this season, our team has fallen foul of complacency, underestimating teams that we are expected to beat, and we just can’t afford that today.

The situation in terms of Champions League qualification is that we sit one point ahead of Tottenham and Newcastle. Chelsea are almost completely out of the reckoning following their defeat to Newcastle in midweek, and indeed a victory for us today would confirm our first finish above Chelsea in the league for eight years. On paper our fixture is the easiest compared to Newcastle and Spurs’ games this weekend. They don’t play until tomorrow, with our game being the only Premier League fixture of the day which is a bit bizarre.

What we simply must to is apply the pressure to the other teams in a big way. We all know that third place is the grail here, fourth carries the risk factor with it not only because of the Champions League qualifying round in August but also because if Chelsea were to win the Champions League Final then they will replace the team that finishes fourth in the competition. Newcastle have a hugely difficult game against a Manchester City side on the verge of winning the title (excuse me whilst I throw up a bit), whilst Spurs travel to Aston Villa in a game that I quite honestly expect them to win. Villa are having a dire time of things at the moment, and I don’t see that they’re able to get anything from a focussed Tottenham.

Not that it matters, provided we can win our last two games. There really is no room for error here, we must win these games. Everything else is a side issue at the moment. Robin Van Persie’s contract, soon to be the subject of intense speculation just doesn’t matter today. Who might come or go in the summer is irrelevant. In fact if it’s nothing to do with the result of today’s game then really it’s something we shouldn’t be worrying about just at the moment.

In terms of the team news there’s not much to say, things are pretty much as they were for the Stoke game minus the availability of Abou Diaby which comes as a little of a surprise. I do wonder in the manager might be more inclined to start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rather than Gervinho today, as the latter has struggled for form since the African Cup of Nations, as have a lot of players who took part in that tournament (so obviously it fills me with rapture that it is being held again next year). There’s the usual choice for the manager between Gibbs and Santos at left back, but I quite like the deployment of Santos further up the pitch that we’ve seen in recent weeks when he’s come on as a sub, we get rather the best of both worlds with Gibbs at the back and Santos with the license to go forward as much as he wants.

It’s a game which for all it’s importance doesn’t bare too much more close scrutiny. We know what to expect from Norwich, in our away game against them we had a really tough afternoon. They’re not only hard to beat but they can play a bit as well and I think we’ll be challenged all over the pitch today. Make no mistake, these last two games are going to be hard for an Arsenal squad feeling the effects of so many important players having played so many games this year.

Before I sign off, I was saying earlier that nothing matters apart from our last two results for the rest of the season but there is one big exception. It is of course Pat Rice’s final home game with the club today. I don’t want to say too much because I have it in mind to do a much larger feature on the man, possibly after the West Brom game but for now let’s simply say this: Arsenal without Pat Rice is borderline unimaginable to me. If you consider Arsenal’s “modern” era to have begun with the 1971 double as I do, Pat Rice has been there as a player or a coach for every single major success. The word legend is used far too easily these days, and I’m not going to use it here not because Pat doesn’t deserve it, but because it seems a poor and inadequate description of his contribution to our football club. Who might take over from him is a discussion for the future, for now let’s focus on a richly deserved send-off for a man as synonymous with Arsenal Football Club as it is possible to be.

Still, before he goes, there’s still a lot of work to be done by him and everyone else. Come on you Gooners!

Fine Margins

First off, an apology for the lack of regular blogging service just lately. I’m now entering exam time at University which is essentially going to mean my world gone mad for a little while as I endeavour to prepare for that ordeal. Still it’s tough to ignore that Arsenal are also coming to the crunch as this season comes to its final, dramatic end.

Our draw with Stoke at the weekend, much like the draw with Chelsea before it was a satisfactory result in terms of the fact that it kept us third and in charge of our own destiny, but the dropping of those two points really means that our room for error is gone. There are two games to go, and though we are third, Tottenham and Newcastle sit only a point behind us meaning that dropped points in our last two games could easily dump us into fifth, never mind automatic Champions League qualification or whether Chelsea win the Champions League. On the bright side, one more win will confirm our first finish above Chelsea in the league since 2004. Not the biggest thing I know, but I’d take a certain satisfaction from it.

Our two remaining games are not easy, and I hope that is being drilled as far as possible into the minds of the players. Norwich have had an excellent season, they’ve enjoyed good results over teams of diverse quality and they are tough to beat. Our away game at Norwich was one that I felt we did very well to take three points from. Their season may be effectively over as they are clear of any threat of relegation and there’s not much prospect of them climbing the table to any considerable extent but they showed recently when they beat Spurs away from home that their enthusiasm for this season is undiminished and from their perspective, there’s no reason for them not to have a real go at it on Saturday lunchtime.

Following that game we wrap up the season away at West Bromwich Albion which is a curious game owing to the recent appointment of Roy Hodgson as manager of England (Incidentally, not that I could care less but I think he’s one of the best appointments England could have made), will they be distracted by the England circus as Spurs seemed to be when Redknapp was in the frame? I’m inclined to think not as West Brom have seemed only too pleased to allow Hodgson to take the job and seem genuinely pleased for him whereas I think Spurs were far more apprehensive of losing Redknapp.

Realistically I think we need six points from these games. I don’t fancy Spurs to lose either of their remaining games, away at Aston Villa and home to Fulham, whilst Newcastle undoubtedly have it toughest as they take on Manchester City at home in what realistically is the last chance for City to be deprived of the title (their last game is QPR at home) before travelling to Everton. But Newcastle have proved that they have the appetite for these sorts of games, and whilst its nothing to do with Arsenal I feel that Cisse’s goal against Chelsea last night bears some sort of mention. He’s a player that could get Newcastle the goal(s) they need against City, it’ll be an interesting fixture no doubt.

Away from all the madness and permutations of the Champions League qualification situation, there has been quite the departure from usual Arsenal transfer policy as the club have confirmed the signing of Lukas Podolski from Cologne. The forward will join us in the summer and will enjoy a full pre-season with the club instead of being chucked in a month into the season and I think that’s really important. His signing has prompted rumours that Arsenal are now moving swiftly to other targets such as Ajax’s Jan Vertonghen but I take that with a pinch of salt.

I think Podolski is going to turn out to be just the right sort of signing. Capable of playing the central role, but just as at home as a supporting or wide striker he’s the perfect player to take some of the pressure off of Robin Van Persie. He can play alongside him and score goals, or if Robin needs a rest, he can take the central role himself. And really, the crucial question to this signing is, is he being brought in to supplement Van Persie or replace him? Personally I think the intention is for it to be very much the former. I don’t think the club have any intention of losing Van Persie this summer, and perhaps one thing the Podolski signing may accomplish is showing Robin that should he stay, he’ll be supported by quality and won’t be expected to do it all himself.

It will be interesting to see if the club really is going to get all its business done very early this summer. Knowing the fans, even if we grant every wish, and ship all the players people want to see gone out and replace them all before the start of Euro 2012, there would still be complaining if we didn’t sign anyone for the rest of the summer despite having a full squad. Anyway, I think those issues are all for the future. For right now we shouldn’t be thinking too far ahead of our last two games of the season which are going to make for the tensest finale to a season I can remember since 2006.

Right then, that’s all for now, take it easy and I’ll return soon.

Stoke City Vs Arsenal: The Final Countdown

So, having dropped five of the last six league points it’s fair to say that the margin for error has all but disappeared for us in today’s match against Stoke. As always a trip to play this lot away is anticipated about as eagerly as a vasectomy due partly to the fact that it will be a hard game and partly because Stoke are complete and utter twats.

We’re looking at arguably the most pivotal of the three remaining rounds of fixtures for us in the league this weekend. On paper, this would appear to be our toughest remaining game and failing to win would take finishing third out of our hands as Newcastle would have the opportunity to overtake us, Tottenham would have the chance to match our points tally and even Chelsea could potentially close to within a single point (though I don’t think all three things could happen because I’m reasonably sure Newcastle are playing Chelsea soon). Since beating Stoke is so thoroughly enjoyable, I’d suggest winning today’s match to make sure that doesn’t happen.

We’ve looked a little out of steam in the last couple of games which I suppose is natural when you have a squad of 25 players for a season and the manager can’t rely on a significant number of them with the result that roughly the same 15 players have featured in every match. It’s very possible that legs are heavy and minds are tired but the team needs to find the way to one last push to get the necessary points to make sure we end up in third place.

And really, it has to be third now. After Chelsea’s qualification for the Champions League final, finishing fourth would simply be too great a risk as Chelsea lifting the Champions League, in addition to being nauseatingly horrifying would also take our place in the competition away for next season and I fancy that prospect about as much as Ann Widdecombe. So third is officially the new fourth. We might view it as a just reward for our efforts this season, but the fact is the fight isn’t over yet and we can’t imagine for a second that it is.

Arsene Wenger says we’ll be ready for what Stoke throw (literally) at us today. At the end of the day, one thing Stoke are not is subtle, we know what to expect from them and in fairness it’s something this Arsenal team has learned to deal with over the years. The manager says,

“I believe that Stoke is always a difficult opponent for us and everybody. Every big team who goes to Stoke knows they get a game. 

“From our side we are in a position where we want to win our remaining games. That is the only chance to master our future. We have our future in our own hands but only if we win the three games. 

“That starts with Stoke so we are completely focused on cancelling their strong points but as well we want to score goals because that is what you need to win the games.

“They have played many games as well. They played in the Europa League and in the FA Cup so they have played many games this season. So that will not be an excuse from our side.”

This time of season always throws up a few odd results because fatigue and weariness sets in but as the manager says, it’s not just a long season for us but for our opponents as well. We’re not the only ones who have to shrug off past exertions to perform today, Stoke have had a tough season themselves, probably one they don’t reflect on too fondly when it comes to their league campaign which does appear to have suffered for their involvement in European football.

Thomas Vermaelen says the team is ready for the “battle” at Stoke today. Quite rightly he points out that if our players aren’t put off and play in the way that they like to then we’ll cause them a few problems as well. The Verminator says,

“If there is a battle, sometimes you have to fight back. But the main thing is to play our own game, with quick passing. That is the way to score. 

“Of course we must fight for every ball but the main thing is to keep to our own game and score a lot of goals.”

A lot of goals. I like that. If anything’s going to give us a chance of winning today it’s scoring a lot of goals. Big goals, little goals, thin ones, fat ones, give me goals of all shapes and sizes. Knocking loads in will beat Stoke, I dare you to challenge Vermaelen’s logic.

So, it’s one of those games today where the importance is clear but the match doesn’t bear too much more analysing. We know what they’re about, we know what we’re about. Let’s get on with it, and let’s do them. I hope.

Ok, that’s all for today. Take it easy and I’m back soon.

Knuckle-Draggers

I do not like Stoke City, as a football club they must be up there as one of the biggest packs of shocking cunts ever assembled. They come from city of Stoke, a place so utterly dire that Newham Council recently considered sending some of it’s most down and out citizens to live there ahead of the Olympics, presumably to get them out of sight of the world and so they can be with their own kind.

It must be quite difficult to maintain Stoke in any meaningful way, I assume that the pavements are constantly being worn out by people dragging their knuckles along them and then of course there’s the unsanitary problem of everyone dribbling all over the place. I remember being amazed once at seeing the opinion of a Stoke fan on the internet, but not because it was well thought out or reasonably presented because of course it wasn’t, it was like looking at the computerised ranting of a caveman angry at discovering that his wife had left him for a sabre-tooth tiger, the sort of occurrence one imagines would have been commonplace in pre-historic Stoke. No I was amazed because it meant at least one person in Stoke had managed to work out how to switch on and use a computer, surely the greatest accomplishment in the history of Stoke. Unless of course it was a weirdo pretending to be a Stoke fan, but let’s face it you’d have to be seriously weird to do that.

I don’t come from a particularly nice place, indeed it too is full of cavemen, morons and complete cunts. But then I don’t claim to have any pride in coming from Dover, I just do my best not to mention it and try to avoid going there whenever possible. The amusing thing about Stoke’s fans is that they seem proud of where they come from, and frankly there’s just no helping people like that. Still, at least they have a sewer that they can all communally live in and be proud of without having to bother the outside world with their relentless stupidity.

Since Stoke’s promotion to the Premier League Arsenal’s relationship with them has been somewhat strained it has to be said. We must give them their due, they have beaten us on at least two occasions I can think of (or three including a cup victory over what was essentially our reserves), and deservedly so as we inexplicably failed on both occasions to find an answer to their clogging tactics despite knowing exactly what they were going to do. At home we’ve more than had the measure of them, however it’s our encounters with them in their converted rubbish dump of a stadium that have caused most of the “controversy”. 

Of course there was the incident with Ryan Shawcross breaking Aaron Ramsey’s leg, but strangely the actual incident is not something I really hold against Stoke (I hold it against Shawcross, the clumsy clogging twat) due to the fact that we largely got our retribution on the day when we went up the other end, scored two goals and made those cunts watch us celebrating in their own stadium. The aftermath however, when Stoke seemed to revel in the limelight that was shone on them by the injury to Ramsey and the way they’ve taken any opportunity since for a public row with Arsenal because they just love being in the news for any reason, is plenty of cause for considering them tossers of the first order.

I really don’t mind physical football, I believe that there is no “right” way to play the game, the right tactics are the ones which get the most out of the group of players that you have and in Stoke’s case that means long balls and tough tackles. Fine, no issue there, and I have to say I disagree with our manager when he tries to suggest teams shouldn’t take that approach. For years, teams have taken the approach that to beat Arsenal you have to kick the shit out of them and it’s something we’ve gotten better at dealing with over the last five or six years. We simply have to be ready for what we know we’re going to face.

Victory over Stoke, home or away is always very pleasant. They’re like the proverbial junk yard dog snapping at our heels and every now and then we turn around and give them a good satisfying kick in the chops that keeps them firmly in their place. They’ve had a pretty poor season this year, which fuels hope that one happy day in the future we may see them relegated, and if so, may we be the ones to do it.

So, that’ll be all for today and if there is a moral to today’s blog it is this:

Stoke are cunts.

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