One life, one game, one team, one invincibles

One life, one game, one team, one Invincibles (So far)

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Show me the money!

Apologies to Mark for the exceedingly late publication of this article which somehow slipped through the net.
Bizarrely, due to circumstances beyond my control, I ended up listening to last night’s match on the radio (Bayern v Arsenal), whilst getting the opinions of those Twitter Gooners I trust, as opposed to just the meanderings of Alan Green and Lawro! It was quite surreal and took me back to being a 15 year old, jumping up and down on my bed as I realised that yes, Paul Vaessen had just scored to help Arsenal become the only English team to have ever beaten Juve in their own backyard.
So I am only basing my comments on the commentary and the 140 character updates provided by my social media ‘buddies’. However, in as much as the pre match comments were doom and gloom and in the main wrote off our chances completely, I would like to temper the post match back slapping and putting down of the AWOB nation with the following:

Pertaining to, or characteristic of a hero or heroine.

An act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success:  The campaign was a failure.
Much like a turd can be shiny if you polish it enough, it is still a turd with an adjective thrown in front of it! Descriptions like ‘Heroic Failure’ are generally used by 2 sets of people; those who have done the failing and those sympathetic to them. How did you feel about Jose last week and his “The best team lost” comments? Patronising was my opinion, but as attributed to various names including Churchill, history is written by the victors!

There are positives to be taken from the game certainly; the defence performed well with Corporal Jenkinson and Gibbs particularly to the fore with their ability to get up and down. Kos showed what I believe, which is that he is a better natural defender than our current skipper and Fabianksi at least showed that there is an option to Chesney! The main thing is that a clean sheet in Bayern is something even the Invincibles could not manage, so there should be definite benefits in terms of our confidence levels as we now start our 10 Cup Final games run. The biggest positive to me is the fact that it made the trip far more palatable for the travelling Gooners who had invested their hard earned cash in the journey long before our tame surrender at THOF. Once more they did us proud and having been to Munich for the football I am sure that it meant they had an even better night  in the Augustiner Beer Keller!

That said, let’s not forget that this is the same manager and a lot of the same players who contrived to lose this tie in the first leg at home. A manager who has seen a virtually full strength team lose to a side in the 4th division, and at home to a struggling Championship team, now despatched from the cup by Millwall!

Which brings me to the real question. Does some Middle East consortium from the UAE or Qatar really want to buy AFC and if so, what do the fans think? Well, the opinions on the veracity of the story vary from pie in the sky to having been discussed for some time. Peter HW says Arsenal have heard nothing. Well 3 things Pete, You wouldn’t tell us if you had as we are just an inconvenient but necessary evil don’t forget (well how could you after thanking us so nicely for our interest in the affairs of the club). Second, what on earth would it have to do with you anyway as you are a token ‘old Etonian’ figurehead and lastly, I’m not sure you really know what day it is unless you are reading it from the top of the Daily Star, your favourite mouthpiece to the fans.

For arguments sake I am going to assume there is genuine interest. Reasons being that AFC is the biggest sleeping giant in Europe; Huge brand, massive global fanbase, history and tradition, playing in the most watched league in the world, respected manager, excellent training facilities and even better stadium. Lastly, we are based in one of the world’s most vibrant and exciting cities. Basically, we are the hot girl in your last year at school, when at the prom (school disco in my day) everyone wanted to chat up; in essence, we are Megan Fox in Transformers!

So, no surprise that we are one of the major attractions for anyone looking to become a player in world football and that is certainly what seems to be the case with the Qataris or the Saudis. Throw in rumours of Usmanov, owner of the world’s largest steel company and the amount of building work going on in the area and you can see how allegiances can be formed.

The rumoured bid was a great share price for Stan to be offered. I think the shares are approx. 16k at present, so 20k is a great offer, meaning he could walk away with almost half a billion dollar profit on what he has paid for his shares. Why does Stan want to keep us in his portfolio? What is he gaining at the moment? There is no glory, only pain. Yes he can sit in his ivory tower and not care about what the fans say, but he will find that English football fans will be a little different to disgruntled US sports fans. I’m no expert, but I am not aware that any of his US teams are exactly tearing it up with bulging trophy cabinets, so while he may be an ideal proponent of ‘self sustainability’ which the AFC board and AW love, has everyone forgotten that we are a football club and first and foremost should be the results on the pitch. Whilst we were all aware that the stadium move would mean austerity measures and AW has done a great job in keeping us in the top pack of clubs during that period, we are now supposed to have entered the land of milk and honey promised to us by the board, which could only be achieved by the move!

So there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over this situation. “We don’t want to sell our soul to the highest bidder” some fans shout, “We don’t want to be like Chelsea or Citeh” etc etc etc. Well hold on a minute, we sold our soul to the highest bidder in the 80’s, when PHW sold his shares for what was then a huge profit to David Dein, Hill-Wood thinking that Double D was mad to be investing in football. Dein then sold some of his shares to Danny Fiszman. The proposed saviour of our club every time his name gets mentioned then got Koenke involved, who rapidly distanced himself from Dein as soon as he realised that if he wanted to stay friendly with Fiszman it was the necessary thing to do. Dein then sells out to Usmanov and the last play was Danny Fiszman selling to Stan.

A lot of what our club stands for in terms of tradition comes from the 1930’s, when we were the most successful club in the country and strangely enough were nicknamed ‘The Bank of England’ club, due to the fact we had a few bob and spent it on players and infrastructure. So in effect this has been going on for years, anyone with enough money has been buying our shares. All out of some altruistic ideal of what is good for AFC? Hardly. Every seller made a huge profit on what they had originally paid. Altruism would be to give the shares to a fan’s group, but there’s no money in that is there? There is always a big deal made out of the fact that they don’t get dividends. Well excuse me, but I think that I could do without some annual interest being paid if I was assured of an extremely healthy return at the end of my investment and Stan refused to say that this was not an option he would look to use in the future. Yet our board has our best interests at heart according to many. That must explain the season ticket price rises and the inflexibility around payments, the pricing for food and beverages inside the stadium, the sale of our best players and worst of all, their continued inactivity when it comes to getting the manager to do what needs to be done in terms of recruitment. The last few seasons of inactivity from all concerned has to be a worry. I might not buy into the whole 8 years without a trophy line peddled by the media and the more fundamentalist arm of the AWOB, but I do not buy the argument about waiting 17 years between 53 and 70 for a trophy being any kind of argument to keep sitting on our hands either!

One thing that puzzles me, why do people use Chelsea as an example of how this will be the end of the world as we know it? They were a two bob club before Roman arrived and despite the trophies it pretty much still is. This is mainly due to 3 things. Jose did a brilliant job there, but unfortunately his demeanour made the club pretty unpopular and he engendered a spirit which has stayed long after he was dismissed. Roman and his trigger happy recruiting and firing of managers is just ridiculous, plus his alleged interference in the playing side of things. Lastly, the fact that they appear to have tried to recruit the same % of unsavoury human beings on the playing side as they have within their fanbase. I realise that all clubs, ourselves included have their fair share of morons, racists and thugs, but I do feel that Chelsea do rather abuse the quota and seem to be depriving an entire country of its share of idiots per village. The likes of Terry and Cole have really summed up their personal standards, add to it the transfer fees and wages paid, the recruitment and disposal of mercenary footballers and you can see a blueprint for how not to buy a football club and run it respectfully.

But then there is Citeh. Never really had a problem with them to be honest, or their fans who must have suffered more than most over the last 20 years of United dominance. So they have loads of money, which they spend on huge transfer fees and wages, often just as unnecessarily as Chelsea; Scott Sinclair anyone! But apart from sacking Hughes (not something to be criticised really) they have stuck with Mancini and he has delivered an FA Cup in his first year and the league, if only just, in his 2nd. Two disastrous ECL campaigns aside, both in terrible groups which we would not have escaped from, he is not doing a terrible job and apart from a couple of unfortunate incidents brought on by substandard executives, they seem fairly organised and unChelsea like.

So here is the scenario. Usmanov, in league with the Middle East buys Stan out, after he decides that it is more trouble than it is worth to stick with a non US sport he knows little about in terms of the cultural gap between the MSL and EPL. Usmanov is installed as the Chairman/owner and he starts to make some changes. First, he explains to AW that he still has faith in his ability and is going to make huge funds available to him for transfers and wages. However, it is made clear that AW must be shopping at Harrods from now on and not Lidl, as the club and its fans demand and are owed the quality of player that befits our intentions. Time will be given, but results will be expected. The board members are in the main dispensed with and replaced with younger (not difficult) business savvy executives with a UK sports background. Respected ex Arsenal professionals are brought in to deal with various aspects of the club, the likes of Bergkamp and Overmars from Ajax, Paddy from Citeh and others can all play a part in the off field activities.

For the fans, there is movement on ST prices and how they are paid, with some of Black Scarf and other fan’s group suggestions coming in to play. Measures are taken to enhance the match day experience in terms of pricing and atmosphere. Home kits are red & white and away kits are yellow!

The team is finally able to challenge once more for the top trophies and has a squad equipped to do this on all fronts and wins its first silverware in 9 seasons, finally removing the monkey from its back. Yes the club is being financed by big money from Uzbekistan and the Middle East, but as we dance and sing in The Bailey on Holloway Road, does anyone really care? Is there a pocket of Gooners somewhere sitting in a quiet corner of a pub bemoaning the fact that we didn’t do it through self sustainability and longing for the days of Gervinho and Santos! The tradition of the club has remained, we still do our bit for the community, we still wave the flag for equality and fair play and best of all, Arsene Wenger is allowed to prove that given a level playing field with the rest of the ‘financially doped’ clubs he is still able to compete.

Then, in Berlin 2015, he finally adds the European Champions League to his CV as Jack Wilshere lifts the trophy after goals from Falcao and Isco see off the challenge of Messi’s Barcelona. AW takes this opportunity to retire as Manager, moving on to the board. The opening day of the 2015/16 season sees another statue unveiled outside the stadium as Arsene Wenger rightly takes his place alongside the existing 4 AFC icons.
Now I appreciate that there is quite a bit of fantasy about that scenario, but in all honesty a lot of the foundations for it to actually happen are already in place, so it may not be a complete stretch to picture.

So does selling out in terms of shares really have to equate with selling out in terms of your soul?

I say show me the money!

Mark King

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

NextGen at Arsenal

Many Gooners got to enjoy the Arsenal v CSKA under 19’s NextGen game played out at our Stadium on Monday night or watched it, as I did, on Arsenal Live. So I’m guessing many will now be speculating as to which of the players they enjoyed seeing perform will maybe make it through to our first team and how many will come through to achieve it as professional footballers.

Who will make the big time?

It’s a fun game to play but one where speculation can be little more than a guess at this stage given who is already in our current first team squad, which out on loan players will return and which current under 21 players are going to claim first team berths. The above listed groups are those which our current batch of NextGen kids must aspire to outdo in the footballing stakes. No easy task.
Also much depends on what you mean by 'come through'. These young men all want to be professional footballers but if they have any sense of realism they’ll know that the odds of actually doing that as an Arsenal first team squad player are still very much stacked against them. So if we mean ‘come through’ to Arsenal's first team as a regular first team player then the odds against any youth player achieving  that are considerable. Quite possibly with odds that are maybe more than a 1 in 20 chance for even our best aspiring 'young professionals'.  
When you think about it just to get an occasional game in Arsenal's first team as a squad player means you have to be International standard at the very least, but players such as Jack are obviously very much more than that. But then Jack was a notable exception to the run of the mill youth player. Did we see any such players play against CSKA? Or where they all flattering to deceive?
It is my perception that Arsenal's youth set up has always been about an attempt at producing well rounded kids who can cope with the outside world and make a career at football if they are very lucky. In that respect the Club do an incredibly good job given that there are dozens and dozens of professional players out there who've come through Arsenal's youth system. Very many ex-Arsenal kids make a very decent living from the game despite being considered crap in the eyes of some Arsenal fans because they failed to make our first team. Such kids are not crap; they simply do not have that extra something that it takes to be an International /Premiership player at a very top club. Getting players through to our first team squad is just one goal of the youth setup, but it’s not quite the be all and end all of our youth system. What's happened in recent years appears to be the overall raising of technical standards which helps players such as the Jacks of this world to thrive within that environment and become classier players much quicker.
Being a technical brilliant player used to be enough, being a technically brilliant player now is only part of making it big time. These days pretty well every youth player we have is technically first class. The difference between them and those who make the first team are a number of factors which I'd suggest includes dedication, ambition, dedication, hard work, dedication, sensible life style, dedication, concentration, family support, good friends, decent attitude to life, physicality, speed of thought, strength, natural ability, personality, conditioning, stamina, luck with injuries, more luck with who bars your progress to first team football and dedication. Just being a fast or technically gifted player is no longer enough and hasn't been for some time now - just ask tossers such as Pennant, Bothroyd, Bentley et al.
Our current under 19’s are certainly all in with a real crack at first team football. They all probably feel they've already made the big time. They would however all be wrong because all they've done up to now is put themselves on the starting grid and how they react to the challenge of the next 3/4 years will determine if they sink, swim or survive in the big time.
So who do you think has what it takes: Yennaris, Gnarby, Hajrovic, Angha? Well let’s face it your guess is as good as mine because I only know how good I rate them as exciting technical players but I’ve no idea about all the other stuff which will determine how far they go in the beautiful game, either with Arsenal or any other Club.


Friday, 1 March 2013

The cult of the goalkeeper

“He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his kneeguards, the gloves protruding from the hip pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Photographers, reverently bending one knee, snap him in the act of making a spectacular dive across the goal mouth to deflect with his fingertips a low, lightning-like shot, and the stadium roars in approval as he remains for a moment or two lying full length where he fell, his goal still intact.”
Vladimir Nabakov
Goalie’s are odd, different…. unique, eccentric. From the agitated shouter, to the calming and soothing presence of a safe pair of hands, they are an enigma.
Yes, we’ve all played in goal, when we take our turn at school or when we play five a side, but someone who 'chooses' to play in goal, well, they are different. Aloof, imperious, cool headed (or equally.. mental), adopting odd mannerisms and hobbies, uncaring what their teammates think of their precious collection of 18th century scrimshaw or their obsession with topiary.

Most of all though, a good goalkeeper needs to be brave.  When the crowd and teammates see that, their limitations are often overlooked, it inspires you to be brave too, to protect, close ranks and drive on. Someone whose willing to stick their face in the flying feet of a clogging centre forward earns respect.
A  goalkeeper breeds confidence. He has the power to make average defenders brilliant and brilliant defenders average. From an Arsenal perspective, we’ve had some serious contenders amongst our regular custodians (N.b - amazing cameos like Alex Manninger’s, will not be covered).

Looking at keepers within living memory, let’s start with the great Jack Kelsey.
This was from an era where Jack would lean against his post watching play in the other half, smoking a tab. He replaced George Swindin the pre-war veteran of arguably Arsenal’s greatest period of league dominance, Kelsey won a league medal in 53, sharing duties with the older man. Kelsey dominated, commanding his area, a big man, who took serious poundings in defending the net. Brian Dawes wrote a fantastic article about him when reviewing his autobiography, ghost written by the perennially brilliant Brian Glanville, the old school football journalist from another era. (as found here) Glanville still holds a link to the times when top footballers somehow seemed more accessible and fragile, their careers earning them modest sums, where an injury would ruin not just your football career but potentially your life, professional sportsmen, like today, not being equipped to master the rat race of civilian life. Kelsey suffered that serious injury, against Brazil, playing for Wales, but Arsenal look after their own and Kelsey was retained as a commercial manager, people remember him in the dimly lit club shop, smoking a cigarette (as always), keeping an eye on the small amount of merchandise that Arsenal offered at the time.
2nd January, 1954. Jack Kelsey stares into the Smog. This game vs Aston Villa was abandoned after 23 minutes, Arsenal were 3-0 up at the time!
After a few seasons of solid and dependable play by Jim Furnell*, who, like Kelsey was unlucky to play in a team which struggled, despite many gifted forward players, came this middle class academic lad, Robert (Bob) Primrose Wilson, who was studying to be a teacher. I’m sure he raised a few eyebrows when he turned up at the training ground, Frank McLintock provides an insight in his autobiography.
“Bob was so untypical of footballers, with the slightly refined language he used, and the way he dressed, in a camel duffel coat and his Loughborough College scarf. It must have been a bit of a disadvantage to him that he didn’t conform to the footballer stereotype, wasn’t much of a boozer and was from a conspicuously middle class background. But he never looked down on the rest of us and we just saw him as a one-off. Later, of course – and especially when we discovered that his second name was Primrose – he had to endure the ribbing that everyone gets at football clubs… I would have expected his academic endeavour to teach him caution. Far from it, as a goalkeeper he was recklessly brave and often put his head where others would fear to put their feet.”
It took him a few seasons to become the regular number one, but the fans and the players had faith. People talk of his head first bravery, diving forwards to snatch the ball from oncoming attacks. This led him to being broken, battered and bruised on many occasions, but he inspired confidence.
Bob Wilson having been knocked out against Spurs in 1969.
From the concerned look on Bobby Gould’s face, it was probably him that accidently did it.(As Bill Shankly unkindly remarked of Gould – “he couldn’t trap a bag of cement!”
When selected for Scotland by Tommy Doherty, the English born and well spoken Bob Wilson had his club captain Frank McClintock as his minder, he wasn’t having his mate treated with suspicion, and skipper and goalkeeper brought us both the Fairs Cup (our first trophy since the 50s) and the Double in the following season. Wilson is a legend, who is still proud of his involvement with the club. “It was the feeling that you were wearing this big gun on your chest. And my goodness, everywhere you went, you felt proud wearing it” – Bob Wilson.
After Wilson, a brief interlude with Jimmy Rimmer, it’s arguable that his goalkeeping and Brian Kidd’s goals kept Arsenal in the top division in those barren years in the mid-70s, saved by two Mancs! And after Rimmer, Pat Jennings, who joined Arsenal, along with Willie Young, signed from Tottenham by former Spurs boss and Arsenal player Terry Neill. Terry is probably underrated for what he did, he managed to pick up and revitalise a waning team using the tactical knowledge of Don Howe to build a capable squad, which challenged for honours. One of Neill’s difficult decisions was to ship out a number of game but ageing players who he himself was a teammate of in the 60s. It couldn’t have been easy for him. The immaculately haired Jennings seemed a calming presence, gentle voiced but commanding. No way a bawler or shouter. He did a fantastic job for several seasons and is perhaps the only player respected by both sets of North London fans. He won a cup winners medal with Arsenal in 79, but missed out in both the Cup Winners Cup final against Di Stefano’s Valencia and the FA cup final against West Ham in 1980. The former match was particularly sad for me, as a 9 year old. Arsenal had reached a European final, and I was utterly deflated when the winning penalty was struck home. I had so much faith in Jennings, so I was so despondent when we ultimately failed. I didn’t cry though, not like football fans today. Adults and children alike. Pah!
Pat and Pat, with the FA Cup (photo credit -
Then John Lukic, lanky, almost cross eyed, with that ridiculous fringe, he didn’t look like an athlete! He was a no fuss goalie, unspectacular (who would a goalkeeper need to make TV saves if his positional sense is spot on), but cerebral and self critical in his concentration and analysis. Sometimes he’d be furious with his own decision making and you could see him burn and fume inwardly, trying to put things right. He formed part of that mean George Graham team which won us the league so spectacularly in 89.

After Lukic, safe hands himself, David Seaman.

What a save! (photo credit –
Another goalkeeper of quiet dominance, positionally immaculate, always in the right place, instilling confidence in a team which conceded only 18 goals and only lost the once in the league triumph of 1991. A lot of that was down to the defensive drills Graham forced the team to repeat and repeat and repeat. He later added the FA Cup in 93 as well as the league cup in the same year. Under Arsene Wenger, Seaman won two doubles and another FA Cup. He was a mainstay of the famous back five, a gift from George Graham to Wenger. The only thing I could criticise him for was his ponytail which was ridiculous. Seaman joined an illustrious list of goalkeepers. So who could replace this legend? With allegedly only £2 million to spend, Arsene Wenger took a punt on an outspoken German keeper with a chequered history of outbursts and fallings out.
Jens Lehmann. The Arsenal fans loved him. It’s weird the media and the pundits picked on his eccentricities and his mistakes, it was his personality and his determination as well as his constant will to improve which set him apart. A keeper as part of a team who went unbeaten a whole league season is not someone to be laughed at or ridiculed. And as Jens Lehmann himself said, he’s never set out to hurt an opponent, so rightly he felt aggrieved when snide players set out to injure him. He was an honest (and angry) man! When we won the league at White Hart Lane (for the second time) he didn’t want to celebrate, he was so upset at having given away an equalising penalty against that horrible little yappy dog Robbie Keane after he’d stamped all over his feet. But his teammates, coaxed “The German” (as Pires affectionately called him) out of the dressing room to dance and cheer with the crowd.

He was a monster, dominated the area, demanded the best of his team. He was one of the main reasons that Arsenal’s defence - patched together when injuries tore the team apart - kept a clean sheet at the Bernabeu in 2006. Who’d have thought a defence of rookies Eboue – Senderos – Toure – Flamini could keep out one of the best attacking forces in the world?  Zidane and all… Thierry Henry scored the important goal. Arsenal went through. When we got to that fateful champions league final, I remember an interview with Eboue, he was asked “is there anything you fear?”. His answer – a brilliant soundbite - (I paraphrase as I can’t find the original article) “Nothing, apart from God and Jens Lehmann”.
“If I have a lot of adrenaline in my body, that is helpful because I feel less pain”- Jens Lehmann (this quote makes me laugh, I can imagine him saying it quietly, peacefully, but with those crazy eyes tearing you to pieces)
Jens Lehmann and his very good friend Manuel Almunia

One of Wenger’s most perplexing decisions was to freeze out Lehmann in favour of Manuel Almunia. I liked Almunia as a human being, he seemed equipped for the lonely role of the goalkeeper. Brave, a family man, loving stuff like books on the second world war, but he wasn’t up to scratch, whether it was Arsene’s stubbornness to persist with him, a question of finances, or something else, remains a mystery. A nice guy, but not good enough. Unsurprisingly our team dipped, but Almunia was only a contributing factor, not the cause of this barren spell. “When I see Almunia’s performances, I get angry and have to make a fist in my pocket” – Jens Lehmann.
And now, the unpronounceable, confident and supremely gifted Wojciech SzczÄ™sny has taken the gloves. He’s got all the attributes, physicality, the right mental attitude and athleticism. He’d had some unfair stick recently, in goalkeeping terms he’s still a kid, but I see him being a top level goalkeeper for at least another 15 years. Hopefully with Arsenal. His performances at times have been incredible, that save vs Pedro when we played Barcelona for instance, he kept us in the game when they swarmed all over us. But people focus on mistakes, only the mistakes. It may be that Chezzer needs an older goalie to work with, someone to share duties for a couple of seasons, someone who is willing to share tips and give generously. At the moment, he is horribly exposed at times, but this says more about our fragile confidence as a whole. But he will come good. I have faith. We’re in safe hands.
“I’m number 1!”

Many thanks to the mighty Mel Melis @melmelis for the above article

* Great article Mel but sorry to have to break this to you "After a few seasons of solid and dependable play by Jim Furnell" is a long way from the way it was - at least to the eyes of this North Bank regular. 'Fatty' or 'Fingers' Furnell as he was hailed from the North Bank wasn't fit to lace Willow's boots. It can only have been the fact that in his early days at Arsenal Willow was such a twitchy nervous wreck that saw Furnell stay ahead in the pecking order for so long.