Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday September 28 2010
It occurred to me last night that my attendance at reserve games correlates entirely with away European fixtures that I cannot make. With Belgrade beyond my price range just now (don`t get me wrong, I am happy for Civil Servants to take a pay cut so long as it means those bankers can keep getting their bonuses) coupled with the quite baffling fact that most Arsenal reserve games are to be played behind closed doors from now on, an evening`s free entertainment at Underhill seemed a decent enough way of passing a drab Monday evening. It hasn`t been explained to me, nor can I fathom any rationale for Arsenal`s reserve games to suddenly become such clandestine affairs. Maybe Neil Banfield is in the grip of some kind of super villain alter ego and is planning to use Arsenal`s team of young reserves to turn Western civilisation into a smoking crater? Arsenal and Barnet do not charge for admission to reserve games, so they are a great way of seeing some free midweek football and provide a good opportunity for parents to blood their young children into some grass roots football without needing to sell vital organs for the Premiership experience. (If you`ve shelled out £50 for a ticket for your six year old, it must be that bit more soul destroying to see them fidget endlessly and complain that they want to go home at half time).
For the players too, playing in front of a crowd, no matter how small or curious, can only be a good thing. I am really not sure if there are any channels with which to broach this with the club and try and petition a return to Underhill for reserve fixtures. I would chance Barnet are happy for the refreshment and catering money. (It was liberal guilt that made me buy a hot dog last night, NOT because I am a tubster). Once you accept it for what it is, reserve football is really rather enjoyable. It is akin to watching non league football in that the crowds are usually sparse and comprise of fellow anoraks, games take place against the backdrop of a gentle hum of conversation, punctuated occasionally by a sweary goalkeeper bawling instructions or Neil Banfield in the dugout yelling "break your f*****g neck to get back Rory!" at Rory Deacon. Those used to the Emirates experience might even come to enjoy the fact that every misplaced pass isn`t greeted with howls of ennui from the crowd. (Though predictably, the first time goalkeeper James Shea held the ball, a gentleman behind me yelled, "Get your passport son, we`ll need you tomorrow night!"). It is true that the intensity is rather absent, but after a brow beating 3-2 home defeat to West Brom, that can actually be quite welcome.
I arrived at the ground at around 6.45pm to meet with Luigi and Terry, two of my drinking accomplices from the Tollington on Saturday night and was informed in graphic detail of elements of the evening I had since forgotten. (Apparently, it was four double whiskies in just under an hour that brought the curtain down on the evening, not a great way to preserve one`s memory of proceedings). With the likes of Szczesny and Lansbury called for duty in Serbia, it was a slightly more callow line up than usual, though Gilles Sunu returned to the bench after a long injury lay off. The imperious Jay Emmanuel Thomas lined up on the left; I am told he refused another loan move this summer to fight for his place at Arsenal. It must be said that with the reserve football I have seen over the last 12 months that this level is now far, far too easy for him. The first half was an entertaining enough affair for the purist; Blackpool`s reserves have the same commitment to passing football as the first team. It is seldom at this level that you get two teams determined to keep the ball on the ground and it made for a pleasant affair, if lacking in decisive moments.
Blackpool started the sprightlier, with Miquel and Hoyte at centre half probably measuring about seven feet tall between them and left back Jermade Meade quite possibly the smallest footballer I have ever seen (I would be hugely surprised if he was any more than five feet tall), the Tangerines (playing in a curious mixture of white shirts, orange shorts and purple socks) caught Arsenal cold with a few long balls over the top. Indeed, the visitors created the early running, Demontagnac found Carney in acres of space on the left with Nordtveit sleeping, but his low shot was saved by James Shea. Nordtveit was once again given a hard time when Matt Phillips wriggled inside him from the left, cut back onto his right foot, but again James Shea was equal to the shot at his near post. But Arsenal gradually edged their way into the game and it was no surprise that it was Jay Emmanuel Thomas that proved to be the catalyst. His developed physique gives him an edge at this level and he used it to good effect to bully his way past two Blackpool challenges before blasting a powerful shot just over the bar. But that was about the summation of goalbound efforts for the half, Banfield could be heard roaring his frustration at his team for their sloppy distribution.
I would chance Banfield made the dressing room a slightly more uncomfortable place for his team than Wenger did on Saturday and there was a distinct improvement in the second half. Jermade Meade moved into central midfield and his cultured play allowed the midfield to retain the ball a lot better. JET moved over to the right hand side, which encouraged him to roam into more central positions. Conor Henderson`s strike from 20 yards stung the palms of Richard Kingson as Arsenal oozed intent. Though the Seasiders were still dangerous on the counter. Matt Phillips sauntering past Cedric Evina at left back, before pulling the ball across goal where Demontagnac awaited an empty net, only for Nordtveit to clear the cross in the nick of time. But the Gunners front three began to stretch Blackpool as Thomas dribbled inside again and played a 1-2 with Henderson, before finding Rory Deacon in space on the right. But he delayed his shot too long with the goal at his mercy and Coid managed to block the shot and deflect the ball just over the bar.
Blackpool were beginning to tire and an Arsenal goal was portent. Sure enough, it finally arrived with 20 minutes remaining, Craig Eastmond was beginning to find space to pull the strings in midfield and he weaved an intricate through pass to Benif Aneke who slotted the ball into the far corner with his left foot. It was now simply a case of how many Arsenal would win by. Blackpool were forced to replace keeper Richard Kingson after he knacked his ankle clearing an under hit back pass. The Gunners gained a fortuitous penalty when Meade threaded a ball through to Sunu, Sunu took far too long to execute the finish and was foiled by substitute goalie Mark Halstead. The referee awarded a very harsh penalty. But Jay Emmanuel Thomas showed no remorse, smashing it into the top corner, causing Halstead to wallop the ball out of the stadium in frustration. The scoring was complete in injury time, Emmanuel Thomas taunted the Blackpool left back with a positive run before playing a slide rule pass to Sunu who completed his comeback from injury by rounding Halstead and slotting the ball into an empty net. All in all an enjoyable evening and it is lamentable that the opportunity to watch the reserves will not come around again until March, perhaps someone could explain that to me because I am at a bit of a loss? In the meantime, in order to keep getting our kicks, Terry, Luigi and I have arranged to watch Chipstead play Enfield Town on Saturday. That`s rock 'n` roll baby.LD.
1.SHEA, 2.NORDTVEIT, 5.HOYTE, 6.MIQUEL©, 3.MEADE, 7.DEACON (16.Sunu `64), 4.EASTMOND, 8.HENDERSON (12.Evina `64), 10.AFOBE, 11.E.THOMAS, 9.ANEKE. Unused: 13.McDermott, 14.Boateng, 15.Ozyakup.
Date:Tuesday September 28 2010
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