Monthly Archives: June 2012

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.

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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.