After a smooth journey (and typically overpriced service station tuck), we arrived in North Yorkshire bleary eyed. The seats were red so it had to be the Riverside's take on the legion of late twentieth century identikit stadiums. Your writer had a bit of a brain fart, leaving the camera on the coach, so the usual bevvy of photos will not feature in the match report. It was a memory lapse I regretted instantly, as Mad Jens had an amusing pre match run in with an overly effacious groundsman (or what is referred to colourfully as a jobsworth **** in my part of the world). The little Hitler tried to prevent Jens and the Arsenal players from warming up in the eighteen yard area! I am sure you can already picture Jens' finger wagging impertinently at said idiot and eventually, the jobsworth **** relented, fearing a good hiding from the mad goalie.
The Riverside is one of my least favourite stadiums in the Premiership, not only is it depressingly lacking in any character or originality for an arena of its infancy, but the surrounding cooling towers and the swamp which envelopes it (this is what they mean by 'Riverside') give the place a really joyless feel. This feeling is palpable inside the stadium, which is a vacuum of human joy. Consequently, the atmosphere resembles that of a morgue which has just had its windows blown out by a suicide bomber on lithium. It confuses and irritates me no end that Arsenal get so much stick for a quiet atmosphere, when places like the Riverside and Ewood Park continue to depress all into reflective silence. Despite a reduction in prices (which was generously given to away fans as well), huge rows of empty seats were visible.
The morgue like atmosphere was really rather apt for the morobund nature of the first half. After two North London derbies and a breathless win over Manchester United, this fixture was hard to motivate yourself for and the 3,700 strong travelling contingent took a while to find their voices. A twelve minute rendition of 'Arsene Wenger's red army' appeared to shake us from our entrapy. It was an encounter where the defences were firmly on top. Woodgate and Pogatetz brilliantly thwarting Arsenal's fine approach play, while Toure and Senderos coped admirably with the twin threats of Yakubu and Viduka. The only incident of note occured when Viduka thrust a malicious elbow into the face of Kolo Toure, the brilliant, intelligent and not in any way incompetent Mike Riley deemed this blatant act of violence as a yellow card. But that's the Premiership for you thanks to our clueless authorities, acts of calculated violence are all fine and dandy, but flick out a leg in retaliation and you're for it mister. Is it any wonder the likes of Zidane, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo (when he wasn't quite so rotund), Deco etc continue to shun our league? Wenger was incandescant with rage on the touchline and will be fortunate to escape the gallows from the humourless F.A.
The second half was only slightly less drab than the first, but compared to the snoozefest that was the first half, it was positively spellbinding in comparison. Cattermole (who left a leg or an arm in on every single challenge he made, the epitome of brawn over brains if ever I saw it) was replaced by Morrison, but he had even less luck getting any change out of the 'Hurricane' Clichy, who was by far our best player. Boro huffed and puffed a bit, Viduka began to twist and turn in the box, Downing continued to deliver crosses without even looking to see where his team mates were. After riding a bit of a storm at the beginning of the second half, Arsenal tried to turn the screw and dominated possession without ever hurting Boro's steadfast backline. Fabregas looked consumed by fatigue, Flamini has his uses, but unfortunately, none of his qualities are suited to a right wing berth, Adebayor was not fit and Henry was fitful. Rosicky looked our best chance of a goal. But just as Arsenal managed to get on top of this war of attrition (in fact, the whole match was akin to watching a thumb war), the game turned. Yakubu turned Senderos, who showed the pace of a battle ship turning and predictably wrestled Yakubu to the ground. The initial contact was probably outside the area and Yakubu hardly needed convincing to go down (be honest, which of our players would show any reluctance to go down in that situation?) and the result was a red card and a penalty. I like Senderos, I think he has the qualities to be a great defender, but sometimes he needs to show a little more composure in these situations. This is why I prize Djourou slightly above Swiss Tony, but remember Adams at the age of 21? Hardly a gracile ballerina, Senderos will benefit from experience.
Of course Yakubu never misses penalties and Jens attempt to psyche him out was futile and the game looked lost. Lehmann threw himself down low to beat out a fierce Viduka drive with the Gunners looking to be lacking in inspiration. But redemption was to arrive from the front two who had, up until that point, seemed bereft of their sartorial swagger. Lehmann collected a cross and distributed from outise the area, but Riley had already shown a complete inability to decipher where the edge of the penalty area is. A long ball found the head of Adebayor, who glanced on for Henry, his first touch was exemplary and the calm slot through the legs of Taylor and into the net sent the travelling ranks into delirium. The game drew out with no further incident, both sides caught between going for a winner and not conceding. Pogatetz exemplified his awesome performance with a brilliant last ditch tackle on Aliadiere, with the Frenchman seemingly through on goal.
It was a performance of fatigue and reticence, but in the cold light of day, a goal down and a man down away from home with twenty minutes left, one cannot grumble about a point. The journey home saw a quite peculiar occurence, I wrote an article in this month's Gooner about the opening ceremony of the Supporters' Services Bureau, you may remember the pictures I posted here. On the travel club coach I was handed a letter from Sue Campbell, who is in charge of the bureau. It read thusly,
'Dear Mr. Stillman,
Please find enclosed a copy of your article in this month's Gooner magazine regarding the launch of the Supporters Service Centre.
I would personally like to invite you along to our office to meet our team and to show you what work we are doing for our supporters and to discuss with you the future vision of our centre.
Please contact any member of my team with your preferred time and they will organise this for us.'
I really do not know what to make of this. This leads me to two polarised conclusions, i) I mention in the article I did not really know what the Supporters Service bureau was all in aid of. This letter proves the club have their ear to the ground and care about what the supporters think and the perception of them from the Arsenal punter. This is a kind gesture.
ii) Big Brother is watching, Sue is very unhappy at some of my comments (I admit, bemoaning the small champagne glasses was below the belt) and wants to give me a dressing down. I have been warned before that the club read fanzines very closely and websites such as this one, I have upset the top brass of the club and as such, much in the way that corporations dominate and dictate to the national media, the club want to get a stranglehold on an 'underground' publication.
Nevertheless, I will make the appointment and enter with an open mind, I have used the travel club for many years and am extremely familiar with the staff, my intentions were never malicious (nor was the article really), as I am sure Sue's aren't. I am sure you will all vouch that I say what I think without fear of reprisal. Of course when you agree that's all fine and well, but if you do not, I must come across as a pompous, pretentious upstart. This is not news to me, but as soon as any of you feel you want to read bland, diluted articles, let me know. Hopefully the meeting with Sue will prove to be more inspiring and enlightening than yesterdays's game. LD.