Sunday 30th October 2016
The clocks went back last night resulting in a well needed extra hour in bed this morning. That was no excuse for the bloke in the street outside my hotel to be singing and shouting at the top of his voice at 7am! His selection of ditties included the ‘Blaydon Races’ but as irritating as it was I assume he was celebrating the Geordies latest victory over Preston. And I’m sure our thumping of the Mackems contributed to his general mood.
On a football journey that lasts best part of 6 days mine started on Friday night this time round, my flight from Southampton being so early that it required an overnight stay in the soulless and ridiculously hot Premier Inn at the airport.
I’ve never understood why many hotels, trains and the like feel it is essential to have the heating turned up just because it ‘should’ be cold outside. The temperature is unseasonably warm right now…..so turn it off!!
Consequently, after a couple of jars in the hotel bar, a broken and uncomfortable sleep followed rather than one of those depicted on TV by Lenny Henry!
Our flight on the other hand, despite taking off at a time that felt like the middle of the night, was not only on time and efficiency personified but gave quite spectacular views of a glorious sunrise.
Overnight bags dropped at our digs in Newcastle city centre and breakfast consumed we utilised the area’s excellent metro system to head down to Sunderland and enjoy some pre match refreshment that although was probably a little bit early to be considered ok, it was perfectly acceptable if you’d been up as long as we had!
Like Newcastle, Norwich and one or two others, the ‘right in the centre of the city’ feel to the Stadium of Light adds a special ingredient to the overall away day experience and the walk across the iconic bridge over the Wear adds to that aspect.
Everyone expected us to beat Middlesbrough last week and with our hosts currently propping up the table that expectancy was similar this week. Boro leaving with a point emphasized however, that there was absolutely no room for complacency.
As is always the case the travelling Gooners were present in force, the sold out away end high up behind the goal making themselves heard all afternoon in the usual fashion.
And after a dominant start Ox ended a good week for him personally by taking on and beating the full back before slinging over an excellent cross that Alexis made his own by thumping a fine header home to put us in front.
A second looked like coming at any moment and had it materialised it would probably have been game over. The slender lead however, meant our hosts were always in the game no matter how much we dominated.
Defensive mistakes leading to goals are irritating and frustrating of course. If they don’t lead to dropping points however, they are far easier to accept and forget.
With time running out it looked like yesterday’s could have been extremely costly, doubly frustrating when we should have been awarded a penalty of our own just a couple of minutes earlier.
In those last 20 minutes Olly not only showed what a good player he is but more importantly demonstrated just what an alternative he offers. A great move and cross from Gibbo, excellent movement inside the box and a fine finish put as back in front.
Cue carnage in the away end, the fine jostle laced with as much relief as any other emotion.
The remaining minutes were about how many rather than if we would win and another couple of goals were intensely pleasing and put or more realistic look to the scoreline given our performance and domination all game.
Another one ticked off then and a thoroughly entertaining couple of hours was followed by the customary celebrations firstly for an hour or so in Sunderland before the excellent hospitality the city of Newcastle always offers to Saturday night visitors.
Today we are flying back to Southampton and our flight has just been called so I’ll sign off.
Then follows a drive to Luton as believe it or not later tonight we board another flight this time to the Bulgarian capital.
Life……be in it! 😉
Wednesday 26th October 2016
For the second time in the last few days last night’s victory over Reading certainly wont live long in the memory bank. But in games that fall into that category, the number 1 priority is we get the result if nothing else. And as we look forward to tonight’s draw that will determine who we take on in the last 8, another couple of goals and a clean sheet make the whole situation very satisfying.
For most midweek home games I tend to drive (or get driven), the only reason being it can be the difference between getting in at 1am or 4am in the morning. Yesterday was no different and the lack of traffic school half term week can often mean made it a very comfortable and easy journey up from my part of the world.
It meant I could relax, enjoy some pre-match tucker and even have time to have a walk round The Armoury store before heading off to enjoy my more regular routine. The shop is pretty spectacular these days and a far cry from the almost ‘kiosk’ like version near the old Clock End turnstiles ran successfully for many years by ex Arsenal goalkeeper Jack Kelsey and his colleagues.
The late Jack is very much an Arsenal legend. A one club man he made over 300 appearances for us and represented Wales on 41 occasions. After making his debut in 1949 his playing career ended in 1963 but he would go on working on the commercial side for an amazing 26 further years.
Just 4 years after he retired from the playing side we took on Reading on 11th October 1968 and like last night it was a League Cup tie. Little did Gooners know Peter Simpson’s winning goal that night would ultimately contribute to a run that took us all the way to Wembley. Leeds beat us that day but it was definitely a sign of what was to come over the next few years.
Being only our 3rd attempt at success in the League Cup, the competition was only really beginning to drum up bigger interest amongst Arsenal fans, a fact demonstrated in the programme that night being only a 4 pager! This meant there was only room for the team line ups, kit descriptions, match officials, the Met Police Band’s ‘Programme of Music’ for the evening and a team picture and details of the Reading team we would face.
Arsenal connections with The Royals that night included ex Gunner Dave Bacuzzi ‘keen to recover from a broken leg to play against his former club tonight’ and Colin Meldrum ‘captain of the side and returning to Highbury nine years after beginning his career as an Arsenal ground-staff boy’!
Returning to my current day visit to the club shop, like all of us I find it very difficult to pop in and just peruse! Consequently, approximately 20 minutes later I left a fair few quid lighter and with more ‘luggage’ to haul around on a match night!
As I’ve mentioned many times down the years I tend to purchase a seat in an alternative part of the stadium for League Cup ties and last night was no different. For me it always emphasises one thing above all else and that is you witness a totally different game depending on your vantage point.
My location on this occasion was West Stand Lower Tier near the away team dugout and it certainly gave an excellent view of the Ox’s fine first goal. Massively deserved it came at the end of an opening period where we could and probably should have been 3 or 4 goals to the good and have already put the game to bed.
Being just 1 ahead our visitors had their moments but overall we looked pretty comfortable throughout. We needed that second, if nothing else so as to avoid potential extra time etc. and a 4am home arrival for me! The Ox duly provided and it was job done on the night.
His performance was certainly a plus point as was the fact both Jenko and Olly got vital pitch minutes as they get back to full fitness. Attack wise we have been pretty good so far this season but Olly provides something that nobody else in our squad is capable of. And Saturday’s game at home to Middlesbrough was arguably as good an example as any of how much we could have done with him as an option.
Many of those out there last night also gave us a great example of the depth of younger talent in our club. They all impressed as they look to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Alex Iwobi, a player who has not only enjoyed an incredible year but has the potential to go on and be something very special.
The next few days involves considerable travel in the UK and Europe. That story begins with the long trip to Sunderland. All being well I will be there of course and that, along with our first ever visit to Bulgaria, I plan to keep you up to date with events….warts ‘n’ all!
2 steps from Wembley…….
Monday 24th October 2016
Every season we play you get games like Saturday. Even those where we have gone on to win the league. Matches against teams that everyone expects you to not just beat but take apart. Yet although it was disappointing and frustrating I have certainly come away from other games feeling far more negative.
Friday night was all a bit strange for me. Almost surreal in fact. Back in 1998 we sealed our 2nd League and FA Cup double. Marc Overmars and Nic Anelka banged in the goals as we overcame Newcastle at Wembley and Tony Adams’ ‘would you believe it’ moment depicted by his statue outside our new home put the icing on the cake of a league title success that looked miles away around Christmas that season.
On October 22nd that same year, just as we did everything we could to achieve the same again, I went to a gig at the Shepherds Bush Empire. When I went through the doors my baby sister was very much in the late stages of pregnancy. And by the time The Black Crowes had finished their set and I headed into the West London night not only was I an uncle for the first time but she had given birth to twin boys!!
18 years on and on Friday I went along to a party where they celebrated what used to be referred to as ‘coming of age’. Being quite fond of the occasional ‘jolly’ I got involved as always, doing my best to be that embarrassing uncle I hope they are proud of us much as I am them! But if I didn’t feel 28 years older than them on the night…….I certainly did the following morning as I got ready to head up to the streets of London N5!
Being away from my abode my journey didn’t follow the usual routine although once in the more familiar surroundings of our football club the match day build up certainly did. And with the nausea gone and feeling ‘back in the game’ I was as confident as anyone that we could come away from the day with another positive result.
If ever the point there is another team out on that pitch was relevant it was Saturday afternoon. Defending in great numbers and deeply throughout the game made it extremely difficult to break them down. And in the first half they not only created a couple of opportunities but they were arguably the most clear cut in the whole match. And for that our visitors deserve credit just as much as we might analyse our deficiencies.
We were better in the second half I felt and came close to scoring on a few occasions especially as the game wore on but overall we simply weren’t at our best.
Taking the positives however, thanks to good defending and a couple of great stops from Petr Cech in the first period we didn’t concede. And if you achieve that you will come out of the day with more points than you had before a ball was kicked.
And for me, when you don’t necessarily deserve to win the game it is far easier to swallow than if you completely batter your opponents without winning.
Nottingham provided a thoroughly entertaining midweek night out a month or so ago and the result that night earned us a home tie against Reading. Both clubs were of course involved in a fixture in the same competition in recent times that will go down as one of the most memorable in League Cup history.
To equal the fare produced that night is quite an ask but an entertaining evening and successful progression through to the last eight will be equally satisfying should we achieve it this time round.
Come on you mighty reds!
Thursday 20th October 2016
Yesterday was always going to be enjoyable off the pitch. A friend and fellow season ticket holder reached a half century in years so a lunchtime meet was arranged in central London. To remember reaching that milestone with a nice 6 nil Champions League thumping was the icing on his birthday cake. And for those not celebrating it was pretty fine too!
Looking back at a fixture from the past has proved impossible on this occasion of course. Not only have we never played Ludogorets Razgrad but from what I understand we have never taken on any team from the country of Bulgaria. I’ve never even been there on holiday so a tale of experience will not be coming from that avenue. Not that anyone would be interested in that anyway!
Covent Garden played host to yesterday’s build up, a fine hostelry looking after us on the food and liquid front accompanied by all the usual banter. Trying desperately to not sound totally condescending however, it lacked the PMT, anticipation and general excitement of a Champions League night when the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich come to town.
Our friends from Razgrad are the outsiders in our Champions League group and they came to North London to take on our team who are very much in form right now. So, on paper, it looked like there could be only one outcome. If we as fans go into a game thinking like that it doesn’t matter too much. The danger was if our players did the same. Complacency could lead to us coming unstuck as perhaps, we have in the past.
Alexis’ sublime chip gave us the start we needed but our visitors showed plenty of reasons to know we were in a game over the next 30 minutes or so. But without conceding, one more goal would pretty much see us home and dry. And Theo’s stunning strike from distance gave us just that.
So half time and it was all smiles, comfort and confidence that we could go on and reach 7 points from our first three games in the group. As always at 2 nil, the next goal is hugely important and once the Ox slotted home to make sure it was us, the whole affair felt like a case of ‘how many’ rather than ‘win or lose’.
In the latter stages Mesut helped himself to a quick fire hat-trick, finishing some thoroughly decent passes with aplomb and turning a comfortable victory into a bit of a rout..
So, another thoroughly entertaining and successful Champions League night puts us in a strong position. We are only half way through however, so we still have plenty of work to do to reach the knockout stages.
Thoughts now return to the Premier League and another home game, this time as we welcome Middlesbrough to North London. Another one that looks good on paper…..but so did Swansea at home last weekend and that proved to be a tough old afternoon.
There are hundreds of football clichés out there and ‘there are no easy games’ is just one of them. If we show that the respect it deserves, we will be switched on and ready for this latest hurdle.
Come on you mighty reds!
Monday 17th October 2016
It is near on impossible to come any closer to grabbing a hat-trick as Theo did on Saturday afternoon. A ball hitting the inside of the post and going out for a goal kick on the other side of the goal seems almost a physical miracle! More important than all that however, it didn’t prove costly. You can only get three points and although I’m sure individually he is a little bit disappointed he didn’t go home with the match ball, we showed a little bit of grit in those final 20 minutes or so to make sure we didn’t lose a game that we should have won comfortably well before that last period.
Man City missed two penalties in their game for example. Neither would be remembered if the home side went on to take the three points. But they didn’t and those 2 missed spot kicks cost them two points.
Back on New Years Day 1983 The Swans came to Highbury for a league game watched by just over 25 thousand people. Alan Sunderland and Tony Woodcock helped clear the hangovers, their goals securing a 2-1 home victory in what was very much a stuttering league season overall. A run to the semi finals of both domestic cup competitions was the closest we came to any glory whilst the long drawn out signing of stylish Yugoslavian international Vladmir Petrovic gave an early insight into what overseas players could bring to the game.
Those of you who regularly read my thoughts know I enjoy looking back at old programmes as I really believe they give an incredible ‘snapshot in time’. The adverts are very much part of that whole package, JVC’s latest stacking system a perfect example of how life has changed over the last 30 years or so.
Fresh from our success in the November Daily Express 5 aside National Football Championship at Wembley Arena, the programme included a supplement advertising the ‘Atari Soccer 6’ tournament to take place at the NEC and yes, incredibly when we look at today’s game, it would include first team players in each squad. The sponsor didn’t pass up the opportunity to promote its latest games console giving all of us the chance to play the likes of Space Invaders, Defender and Pac Man in the comfort of our own homes. Hi tech stuff!
We all like Saturday 3pm games I think, more than anything because it gives us a chance to undertake our home game routines, many of which have remained pretty much the same throughout our Arsenal supporting lives. As a result our most recent example was thoroughly enjoyable on an unseasonably warm afternoon.
Every opposing team has their supposed strengths and weaknesses but when looking at any fixture pre-match I always feel it is more about us. If we concentrate 100%, we are sharp from minute 1 to minute 90+ and fight for each other throughout, our obvious footballing ability gives us a fantastic chance to win any match.
And Saturday I felt no different.
Until we conceded I thought we were dominating the game all over the pitch. Our 2 goal lead was deserved and looked like being extended at any moment rather than being pegged back.
People talk about ‘mistakes’ in football all the time. Every person analysing his team’s defending will say every single goal conceded was as a result of a mistake and likewise when looking at a goal scored for your team we talk about the good finish or the good run or the good offensive work.
Defensively, if someone lamps one in from 25 yards, not blocking the shot is called into question. Offensively however, it’s a fantastic strike. I think you get the picture!
One silly error on Saturday and we were punished in the harshest possible way. The Swansea striker still had plenty to do when he won the ball…….but credit where credit is due, he buried it from outside the box.
And from domination and comfort, that one tiny moment can change a game completely.
It was important to get through to half time I felt and we did that fairly comfortably and the second period pretty much started in the same way as the first. Again we looked dominant and Mesut’s stunning far post volley restored the 2 goal cushion.
A mixture of poor defending and good movement saw Swansea score again however, before arguably the biggest talking point of the game could have so easily seen us all go home disappointed.
For me it is a very difficult one to decide on an opinion. All we want as fans is consistency I feel. Or maybe an explanation as to exactly what rule changes there are. Because if that was a red card I’m not sure I know the rule.
We constantly hear the likes of Shearer, Lineker, Keown, Murphy, Neville, Kamara and the like talk about a tackle where the player ‘takes one for the team’. They even go as far as calling it a ‘good foul’. If that is the way a tackle like Saturday’s is looked at, almost lauded in fact, we cannot then be hypocritical and say he deserved to go.
Granit took the player down, knew he had done it and was ready to take the yellow card on the chin. Just like every other time we see a similar ‘tackle’ week in week out all over the country. But if that is now a sending off and warrants the ban that comes with it, I’ve missed the rule change. The coming weeks will determine whether others guilty of exactly the same receive similar punishment.
With over 25 minutes to go including the inevitable 4 minutes injury time, it looked a worrying situation. But, as a result of digging in and working for each other and of course our visitors missing a few good chances we got those three massive points. Hugely pleasing from a quite crazy game.
Theo could have put the game to bed during those latter stages of course but save your luck mate for another day when it could be more crucial.
Ludogorets Razgrad come to the Home of Football next as we look to build on our good start in this year’s European assault. I can’t claim to know anything about our friends from Bulgaria but I’m sure those most important within our club have done their homework.
See you on Wednesday under the lights.
Monday 3rd October 2016
When you get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and get back into bed nearly 19 hours later having spent a substantial amount of hard earned cash and taken 2 ferries and driven nearly 600 miles, it is very difficult to explain to someone that every little last bit was worth it due to approximately 30 seconds of utter bedlam. Except other football fans of course. They get it. 100%.
Walking up the pier to catch my ferry it was a quite beautiful morning. Although I’ve seen it time and time again, I stopped to take a picture. There is something even more beautiful when there is hardly anybody or anything about to witness it. And despite my slightly misty head brought about by an unplanned Saturday that was supposed to be quiet but didn’t quite work out that way due to a beer festival, a stop off in the ‘local’ and Al Murray at my local theatre, it was an early morning scene that comfortably lifted the spirits enough to look forward to the long long journey ahead.
If a gorgeous Autumn morning is something to behold, motorway service stations are completely the other end of the spectrum and the food we purchased on this occasion half way up the M6 could be described as ‘fuel’ and nothing else. Dreadful places. Yet we still find ourselves regularly parting with our money for their overpriced garbage that should really go straight in the bin rather than on a plate.
But, if that was the only thing we had to complain about it was time to put things into perspective. In a weekend when shockingly a fellow football fan lost his life when he was ‘guilty’ of nothing more than jumping on a supporters coach to go and see his team play, we saw as many as 4 road accidents during our return journey. Knowing that could be any one of us is a sobering thought.
Fortunately nobody was hurt but a number of travelling Gooners were also involved in an accident on Sunday lunchtime, this time on the country’s rail network. A text to one of our travelling party advised, “not sure if we are gonna get there mate, we have stopped south of Peterborough as a train in front has hit a cow!”
Reports suggest not only did a number of animals sadly die in the incident but many of our travelling army didn’t get to Turf Moor as a result. But….as far as I’m aware they are safe. And as disappointing and as frustrating as not getting to a game is for all those of us who travel the globe week in week out, that has to be the main thing.
Directly behind the away end at Burnley is the town’s cricket club. And on matchdays its facilities are open to those attending the impending football match. And for its simplicity and convenience alone it is where we headed as in previous visits. The quite glorious sunshine was the unexpected bit but extremely pleasant nonetheless. Ambre Solaire, Burnley and October don’t generally go hand in hand!
Turf Moor has a very old fashioned and traditional feel about it, none more so than the away section. But, as much as the facilities are not necessarily fantastic (although much improved to be fair), these type of stands and stadia do tend to keep a good atmosphere. And the locals certainly get behind their team.
As always much has been said about the game and in particular the winning goal. Before Sunday, our hosts had conceded only 5 goals in their previous 17 home matches, including of course a clean sheet and a victory against a Liverpool outfit impressing many this season. That fact alone should have tempered the opinion we were going to completely wipe the floor with them.
Admittedly I’m sure I was one of many that felt if we could get an early goal the whole game could change and the way we play on the break more could follow. But, the longer the game went on at nil nil coupled with our hosts obvious ability with set pieces, the game could be an extremely tricky one to come away from with a positive result.
And….so it proved.
Although I do agree we looked a little bit ‘flat’ I also feel we could be guilty once again of forgetting there are two teams out there. Burnley play a particular system. And they play it extremely well. I’ve seen very few teams in fact, that are more well drilled in doing what they are good at. Along with defending from the front all game in a bid to prevent us playing the football we do straight from the goalkeeper, the Clarets’ 2 banks of 5 and 4 in front of their own box was as compact as any I’ve witnessed. And until the very last seconds of the game it looked like it was going to work once again.
Looking at our goal in two ways there is no doubt we were a tad fortunate. Without video evidence I think the potential offside was near on impossible to see. Only replays confirmed exactly how the ball reached the back of the net for starters. Personally I think it wasn’t handball. Even if I was watching a game as a neutral I would think the same. Laurent knew absolutely nothing about it. It could have hit him on his chin, his nose or his earhole, he still wouldn’t have known. And that is the point behind my view. Having seen the referee’s view in the TV replay however, I am very surprised it was given, hence why I believe we were fortunate.
But, do you know what? I couldn’t give a flying pheasant! We kept going to the very end and nicked two extra points from a very tough game on the day. And I challenge any Burnley fan to not have felt exactly the same had it been the other way round.
With a long journey ahead I tend to head towards the exit so as to make a swift getaway at most games. But fortunately, I never leave before the end. And, as you can imagine, it was total and utter carnage. Fully grown adults leaping and jostling and cuddling total strangers is all a bit odd. But it was those 30 seconds that made the whole journey worthwhile.
Walking out I bumped into a group who had been delayed by the cow incident. They had made it to kick-off by the skins of their teeth. And that desperately late scrambled winner meant they were right to keep going when getting to the ground looked unlikely. It turned what could have been a nightmare day for them into a thoroughly good one.
Enjoy the break boys and girls and be safe.