Friday 31st May 2019
Baku is a cracking city. Good people (although by the number of stories we’ve heard about people having their accommodation cancelled or hugely inflated last minute that certainly doesn’t apply to all), a warm and sunny climate, great food to be enjoyed al fresco, architecture ranging from the hugely historic to spectacularly modern and plenty on offer for those who enjoy night time entertainment.
But then again, having visited for the Qarabag game back in October I already knew all that. But this time round I cannot hide from the fact I’m travelling home with a feeling of huge deflation and disappointment.
Both us and Chelsea fans knew it would feel like an enormously pointless waste of money, time and considerable effort should we get beat. But to be defeated in such a lifeless manner was both unexpected and soul destroying.
It’s Friday morning now and I have yet another day of travelling ahead of me just to get home and that’s with my story almost sounding kind of easy compared to many.
Leaving early on bank holiday Monday morning, 5 of us made the 2 hour plus journey from where I live on the sunny south coast to Stansted airport in North Essex, a location that is chaotic at best during any school holiday period. But, having negotiated London’s surrounding motorway network we took off all on time, our initial destination being just the 4 and a half hours away in the European side of Istanbul.
Those of us Gooners who have been to the vast Turkish city before for Besiltas, Galatasaray and/or Fenerbahce away will know what a wonderful city it is to visit. But we had no time for any of that on this occasion. Our next flight, leaving just after midnight, was from the city’s Sabiha Airport located on the other side of the Bosphorus and in a completely different continent.
Yep, an hour long taxi ride later and we were in Asia. With another 3 odd hours to travel even further east. For a European final just in case anyone had forgotten.
Again we cannot complain about the promptness of our chosen route as Buta Airways were on time and had us into Baku at 4.30am Tuesday morning. It had certainly been a long day.
Our accommodation was ‘interesting’ to say the least. The guy running the place was amiable, helpful and done his very best. But (although dirt cheap) it was not only unfinished and avoiding every health & safety regulation in the book, it was a hostel and not a hotel as it claimed. I’m definitely no snob believe me, but I’m also not a teenager backpacking his way around the world. So a hostel is not for me or any of our travelling party that had swelled to 12 by Tuesday.
Like in all these situations, you simply deal with it and we had hot showers, was in a half decent location and after a day and night out enjoying the local ‘delicacies’ just a bed and a roof is good enough.
Various restaurants and pubs were enjoyed Tuesday well into the wee small hours and the atmosphere was building and building throughout, the red and white of the famous Arsenal considerably outnumbering those following our Russian money rich neighbours from West London.
It meant matchday arrived, as expected, with a degree of delicacy.
The Azerbaijan Arsenal Supporters Club had reserved an entire German style beer keller for our pre-match entertainment and I can do nothing less than say it was fantastic and I know I personally speak on behalf of all my Maidstone Arsenal Supporters Club members in thanking Eishan and his fellow Gooners for their organisation, welcome and hospitality. It was a sea of red & white as Gooners from all over the globe gathered filled with excitement and anticipation.
And that included our Thursday Club of course 😉
Taxis to the stadium, nerves seriously kicking in, it was time for the main event.
So, in an almost surreal atmosphere, what happened?
Well, the first half was pretty even and had only one incident of any note. And not being awarded that potential penalty could be seen as a crucial moment.
As in the second period we simply didn’t turn up. We were beaten and beaten easily. Gut wrenching to be honest.
So, was it lack of effort, lack of preparation, too many mistakes, too many under par performances, Chelsea playing well, bad tactics, fatigue? Probably a mixture of the whole lot.
And if it’s the latter, spare a thought for all those Gooners travelling home exhausted and skint.
I think we all need a break. I certainly do.
Enjoy the Summer, I’ll be back once next season’s fixtures are announced and I’ll see you all at Borehamwood.
Keep the faith. Always. Arsenal til we die.
Sunday 12th May 2019
Considering there was every chance this afternoon could have been extreme ‘end of season’ fare, it was a pretty entertaining 100 odd minutes in the sunshine. And importance wise it means we have secured 5th spot and at the very least automatic qualification for the Europa League group stages next season. Of course we are one win from securing more but if it all goes wrong out in Baku, the guarantee of another European adventure is a small consolation.
Getting home from Valencia on Friday night and having to leave early on Saturday morning to catch my flight up to Manchester for a fixture that had far less relevance that it looked like in might have a couple of weeks ago was tough if I’m honest.
But after an entertaining night out, simple train travel up to Burnley and a good win on a quite beautiful early Summer’s afternoon I am very glad I made the effort.
Burnley Cricket Club is immediately behind the away end at Turf Moor and on match days it doubles up as a decent enough place to enjoy pre-match refreshment. I’ve done that a few times now down the years but today was the first time there has actually been a match taking place. Our hosts were taking on Clitheroe in a cup game and the batting side probably could have chosen a better day to slump to 28 for 5! The stick the outgoing batsmen got was amusing to say the least!
As for The Clarets, they are quite a noisy lot and just like the team they support they do everything they possibly can to make it an uncomfortable afternoon for any visiting team.
Having made 9 changes to the team that played out in Spain we knew we could be in for a difficult afternoon, particularly when trying to defend against the expected aerial bombardment. And we rode our luck at times in the first half. But whilst recognising that I also felt we offered an attacking threat that could have just as easily seen us take the lead.
Going forward in the second period we looked very dangerous I felt, Auba and Alex Iwobi in particular for me. And if our opener was down to a defensive error, our 2nd was an absolute cracker. How our in form striker didn’t come away with the match ball for the 2nd time in a week is a miracle. And not winning the Golden Boot outright was the result.
A decent game, performance and victory then to complete our league season and our thoughts turn to the long long trip back to Azerbaijan at the end of the month.
That includes all the difficulties of travel arrangements, Visas, match ticket applications and outrageous costs of course.
Good luck with all that people, I hope to see many of you out in Baku.
Up the Gunners!
Friday 10th May 2019
My head hurts. Quite a lot to be honest. And it should do too. Coz that was one of ‘those’ nights. And after the last couple of weeks we deserve it. Four great goals away from home. An atmosphere to savour. Destroying that Valencia hoodoo in the process. And an away end that simply rocked all night. I hope that came across well on the telly.
I’m sat in Alicante airport right now, waiting for my flight back home. And if that bit goes well it concludes yet another awesome European trip. Not our last of course. Because our 7-3 victory means we head to Baku in a couple of weeks time.
Tuesday evening seems a long time ago. But a bit of dinner in a hotel near Gatwick started our latest adventure and come Wednesday lunchtime our group were enjoying tapas and liquid refreshment al fresco in a bar overlooking Alicante’s harbour. A few hours of sunshine and relaxation, the perfect way to start a couple of days that would contain it’s fair share of nerves.
Matchday arrived with a lot of Gooners catching what almost looked like a football special! And the on train bar made sure those proper struggling after Wednesday night’s exploits could get back on the straight and narrow. It also meant of course, we arrived into our host city in fine spirits, a theme that continued throughout the build up in a sunny square near our accommodation.
But the nerves were there too. That confidence laced with worry that our 1st leg lead could be overturned.
Despite our awful record there I love the Mestalla. Crazily steep, squeezed in between the city’s high rise flats and hugely atmospheric, the approaches to the stadium give you a real sense of occasion. And a European semi final is certainly just that.
Going behind wasn’t ideal. But it didn’t change the fact that we knew one goal and we would have a foot in the final. And when that moment came it was some goal. Bang! Get in!
From that moment the night got better and better and high up in the Valencia sky, boy did we enjoy it. We’re on our way indeed.
Sunday concludes our league season and after our recent run of results it’s a match that almost feels like an irritation. But I hate losing. At anything. So a win would make it a pleasing day out.
See you in Burnley Cricket Club.
Sunday 5th May 2019
Any lap of appreciation, renamed of course because it can hardly be called a lap of honour, I normally stay for. Not for my pleasure or enjoyment. Just because I actually think it is the right thing to do. But today, if I shot off at the final whistle I had a chance of getting home about twenty to ten rather than shortly before midnight. And failing to win for the 4th league game on the bounce meant I didn’t take too much persuading.
Football puts us through pretty much every emotion it is possible for a human to experience. From elation to despair, from excitement to boredom, from satisfaction to despondency. And I thank our team for contributing to all that. That is now in writing and on record. They don’t need me stood there looking on with the ‘ump to acknowledge that. Especially when if I had chosen not to offer my support down the years I probably wouldn’t still have a mortgage to pay off.
If we were good enough we would be comfortably in the top four by now. But we have proved in the last couple of weeks we are not. Against half decent and also decidedly mediocre opposition.
I’m not one of the big moaners out there. In fact I am often (probably rightly) accused of seeing things through rose tinted glasses. But eventually the positivity begins to wane and only my team can change that.
Today, somehow, I felt we still had a glimmer of hope when it comes to a top four spot. A win and all 3 teams fighting for those two places had a tough game to complete their season. And we all know in that situation anything can happen.
But, just like our last home game against Palace, we blew it. Before yesterday’s games our opponents could still find themselves not even in the same division as us next season. And there’s a reason for that. Yet they remain unbeaten against us after 180+ minutes. Simply not good enough I’m afraid.
We had our moments today of course. In fact one or two where I’m still scratching my head as to how they didn’t go in. But so did our visitors and that cannot be ignored.
Thursday and we take on Valencia in the 2nd leg of a European semi final. Massive. I’ve been to the Mestalla three times before. We lost all 3. We crave that record to change this week.
Confident I am not, despite our 2 goal half time lead. And I challenge anyone to tell me a good reason why my feelings should be different.
See you in Spain.
Come on you mighty reds.
Friday 3rd May 2019
Letting in an away goal can be hugely costly. And there is a chance that could still be the case. But if you do concede like we did last night all you can do is your utmost to try and turn it around. And to take a 3-1 lead out to Spain gives us a chance. We are not through of course but we certainly have given ourselves an opportunity to extend our season to the very end of May.
Our aim simply has to be being able to play Champions League football. I think we can all be accused of taking it for granted down the years but having slipped out of the competition it has become very obvious how difficult it is to get back in.
But it is safe to say these Thursday jobs have proved to be marvellously entertaining both on and off the pitch. And as I write these thoughts lying in my bed in a Southsea B & B my thumping head tells me this week’s has been no different.
It has been a very difficult week or so for us Gooners. What looked like a massive chance to cement a top four place has dramatically disintegrated and now looks hugely unlikely. So this semi final has become even bigger if that is possible. And in the streets of N5 you could definitely sense that.
Going behind early on definitely wasn’t in the plans but having done just that the character we showed by means of our reaction was impressive, pleasing and so so important.
Having taken the lead I genuinely thought there was a period where our visitors were there for the taking. But saying that, as the game wore on, there was also an increasing danger of an equaliser. Auba’s late strike could prove enormous. And by the massive roar that echoed into the night sky, I think all those present knew it.
So a decent half time lead to take to Spain next week but before that we welcome the Seagulls to North London for our final home league game of the season. Given how the last 3 games in the league have gone for us I feel it is impossible to offer any analysis pre match. Brighton desperately need something from the game and out recent capitulation will give them confidence they are capable of achieving just that.
But three points for us keeps our slim chances of a top 4 finish alive to the very last day. And that is enough of an incentive to put in a performance.
Enjoy your weekend folks and see you on Sunday.
Up the mighty Gunners!