Under the Radar
Well that just flew by didn`t it? It only seems five minutes ago that Tottenham`s players and supporters alike were telling us we would tumble out of the top four to be replaced by our erstwhile neighbours and now he we all are listening to it all again. The prophets of doom are making their annual sojourn to N5 foretelling the collapse of Arsene`s empire. How does that old song go? Come on let`s twist again, like we did last summer. Our final finish of third position and amassing a total of 83 points is now being summarised as a massive disappointment by the very people who were forecasting our tumble down to mid table last summer. I believe it was Albert Einstein who once attested that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. A fifteen point improvement on last year is not to be sniffed at, especially considering we have suffered even more with injuries than we did last year. The likes of Clichy, Fabregas and Adebayor have again taken massive steps in their game, whilst the likes of Bendtner and Walcott have a further notch on the belt. Harsh lessons from an ill fated title race will have been learnt, and there is no motivation quite like disappointment. Our prospects are excellent.
But there is plenty of time to dissect the season and I will do some kind of monthly review thingy ma jig over the next week or so. But for a dead rubber, last game of the season, one wouldn`t typically choose Sunderland. Especially not following on from a Saturday barbecue culminating twelve hours of burgers, beer and sod all sleep. Fortunately, we were met with glorious sunshine as we made our way North East throughout the country. That is until about five minutes before we arrived at the Stadium of Light, when a dreary mist descended and grey clouds gathered overhead amidst the vast swamp that envelopes the stadium. Stadium of Light doesn`t seem to be so much an oxymoron as an out and out piss take. Like most of the travelling support, I was caught out in short sleeves and shades, but spent most of the afternoon shivering, the smog looming ominously overhead and swirling into the arena like a November bonfire. Some Gooners maintained a tradition of indulging in some fancy dress for the last away game of the season, so the Flintstone`s were sat swearing behind me, while Ali G got an impressive rendition of "we`re on our way to Roma" going. Yet another rendition of the Adebayor chant was given an airing down in the concourse pre match, word on the grapevine is that he`s hung like an elephant and Cheryl is sore. You heard it here first.
Earlier in the season, Gilberto had affirmed distance from the captain`s armband, so the fact that he led the side out in Billy G`s absence causes me to think that maybe it was a farewell gesture. I hope not. With the pressure firmly off of both sides, Sunderland looked to race out of the blocks, Carlos Edwards blasting a rangefinder narrowly over the bar in the first thirty seconds. Arsenal maintained composure; once again Alex Song looked a senior, calming figure at the back, his distribution being the catalyst for most of our attacking play. Walcott, looking a little uncomfortable on the left, fired in a fifteenth minute cross, which Adebayor could only toe poke at the onrushing Marton Fulop. The lack of intensity in the game permeated to the crowd, who made their own entertainment. Mid way through the first half, Sunderland fans to our left began a 300 strong conga line in the aisles to chants of "let`s all have a disco"; before some kill joy stewarding broke it up. The act drew warm applause from the Arsenal support and there was a mutual sense of appreciation right until we made our way home, with Sunderland fans giving the thumbs up to the Arsenal supporters` coaches. I`ve said it before and I`ll say it again, Sunderland fans have a million times the class of their annoying Newcastle counterparts.
The game got a goal on 24 minutes, which was simplicity itself. Walcott drifted over to the right and Gilberto slid a precise through ball into the right channel, which Walcott sped onto and calmly beat Fulop for 1-0. This run in the team, with the pressure off and the media`s fickle gaze fastened elsewhere will do Walcott the world of good. Throughout his short Arsenal career his every move has been psychoanalysed and deconstructed to the point of neurosis, a quiet spell of steady improvement will benefit him no end. Shortly after, Sunderland might have had an equaliser; Wallace`s corner was headed over by an unmarked Collins, who ought to have hit the target. Sunderland fans expressed their immense disappointment by starting a Mexican wave. It was that kind of day.
Both teams again lacked urgency in the second half, most of the attention was focused elsewhere as my mobile became a proxy vidiprinter service as news of goals for Fulham, United and Chelsea gradually filtered through, Man City`s blatant player protest against Shiniwatra became crystallised as the goals rolled in in Manchester. A small sense of excitement at our own dead rubber match appeared briefly. Grant Leadbitter intercepted Walcott`s dangerous cross, but keeper Marton Fulop picked up the ball to give Arsenal an indirect free kick on the six yard line. When was the last time you saw that happen? With the inevitable bluff, double bluff tactics playing out, Gilberto fooled the Sunderland wall by taking the free kick when it looked as though Bendtner would be the one to fire in at goal. Gilberto got his calculations badly wrong and sliced the ball high, wide and not very handsome. With news filtering through of United sauntering to another Premiership title, the travelling Gooners gave one last stand of defiance, embarking on a chorus of 'we love you Arsenal` that began on 80 minutes and lasted well after the final whistle. Arsenal thought they had a goal made in England. Substitute Mark Randall played a ball out to Walcott with the outside of his boot; Theo in turn fed the onrushing Randall, who put the ball into the net only to be adjudged offside. Sunderland briefly threatened an equaliser in the dying seconds. Roy O`Donovan slid onto Leadbitter`s low cross, but Fabianski gathered impressively at point blank range.
So the final curtain came down and Arsenal finish with a respectable eighty three points. With riotous celebrations at Fratton Park and the JJB Stadium and sombre despair at Pride Park and St. Andrews, our mood was one of quiet contemplation. A good core of us stayed behind to applaud Sunderland on their lap of honour; disappointingly the Sunderland players didn`t acknowledge us in kind. It wasn`t the end of the season we had anticipated, but the last few games have seen some younger players gain invaluable experience, whilst winning points which should be a confidence builder for next year. We finished within four points of the Champions which is no mean feat when we consider the doom mongers soothsaying last summer, of course those particular termites are crawling out of the woodwork once more. Will they ever learn? Bendtner has been tried in a more withdrawn striker role which I believe is an attempt to develop his game beyond that of a simple battering ram. He still wants a little too much time on the ball, but this period will have been a good learning curve. Denilson has had some games in the control room, Alex Song is looking a promising centre half and Eboue still doesn`t add enough on the right hand side of midfield. He has some defensive value which has allowed the likes of Hleb to go roaming, but I think Eboue should be reinstalled as a back up right back, this experiment has failed. But in the meantime, a young English striker has snuck under the radar, fittingly beneath the mist of the Stadium of Light. Aptly, under the radar is where all of Arsenal`s best work has come this season. So it was left to say goodbye to seasonal friends as acquaintances will endure a three month hiatus. A big thanks to the guys at the Arsenal Travel Club and a fond farewell until August to the people who have made the long journeys that little less arduous, see you all in the new season. The game really never felt anything more than a ticking of a box, on a personal note this is six consecutive seasons of completing every domestic fixture. Meanwhile, I am left to live the life of a normal, socially functioning human being for the next three months. An even more sobering thought.LD.