Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday April 8 2007
I'll let you into a secret, this is my fault. I take you back to Valentine's Night of this year, in an exhilirating match we had beaten Bolton at the reebok, Gooners punched the air in delight and complete strangers embraced in bemused awe. It looked like the night that would set our season up, Cardiff, Wembley and Athens lay glistening before us. That night was the last time I smoked a cigarette. A nasty chest infection knocked me for six and I could barely eat, let alone smoke (though strangely, it seems I still managed to put weight ON). Since my last cigarette the kids have thoroughly outplayed the most expensively assembled team in footballing history only to lose the Carling Cup Final. In the fall out from that game, Emmanuel Adebayor has been punished for an out and out lie from the stinking cesspit that is the Football Association, we thoroughly outplayed Blackburn Rovers, only to tumble out of the F.A Cup, we have exited the Champions League to the most depressingly average side I have seen in the latter stages of the competition and the seasons of Thierry Henry and Theo Walcott have been ended through injury. My lungs may be a perky shade of pink, but I tell you, my heart currently resembles Ricky Hatton's punchbag.
I'll let you in on a secret. It's my mate Jon's fault. Jon decided to start a boozy bank holiday weekend in Newcastle a day early, so he missed a home game for the first time this season. Simple economics has decreed he must choose his away games carefully nowadays, so this season he has travelled to Old Trafford, Anfield (F.A Cup), Totteridge, Hamburg and Chelsea. He has yet to see Arsenal's first team lose this year (Cardiff really doesn't count, does it?). There was no sign of him at Blackburn, Bolton, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool (league), Man City, Sheffield United, West Ham or Moscow. He has tickets for the rest of the away matches this season. Taking my seat ten minutes before kick off yesterday, I was looking for a reaction to last week's pathetic capitulation at Anfield. We got that reaction, for the first time I can remember this season, the Gunners raced out of the blocks. Alex Hleb put Cesc Fabregas through on goal in the first minute, but his barren spell in front of goal continued as Green spread himself to prevent the floodgates opening. Arsenal continued to be enterprising, Hleb and Rosicky dominating play and pulling the Hammers' defence to shreds. Rosicky's slide rule pass put Freddie Ljungberg through on goal, but Green thwarted him again with a sprawling save.
After a quicksilver start, the Gunners' appeared to run out of ideas, until they got their second wind. Adebayor danced around James Collins only to shoot straight at Green, Hleb's pull back saw Rosicky scuff his shot wide. Minutes before the break, the life went out of Arsenal as their heads already seemed to be in the dressing room. It was to be a fatal loss of concentration, Noble saw a canyon sized gap in the Arsenal rearguard and chipped a ball into Zamora, Jens decided to come off his line- it was also to be a fatal mistake as Zamora hopefully looped the ball goalward. The second it left his boot, you knew exactly where the ball was destined for. I immediately left my seat and headed for the concourse. It was a disturbingly subconscious reaction, I had relieved my bladder of all pre match Guinness, I had no desire to pay £4.10 for a hotdog. I just had to get out, away from the scene of the crime, the way a traumatised bystander turns aghast from an horrific road accident. In truth, I needed a fag. The smoking embargo at the Grove, together with my lack of tobacco left me to lament West Ham's lucky strike without the searing kiss of a lambert and butler.
Arsenal redoubled after the break, determined to come back from a goal down at home for the tenth time this season. Eboue's cross was met with a powerful Adebayor header, but Green flung out a limb to push it away. Another right wing cross, this time from Hleb was met by the marauding Gilberto, only for his header to limp gut achingly wide. Cesc Fabregas had obviously had an earful from his manager following his shabby display last week, as he continued to pull the strings. His efforts were to be cruelly unrewarded as his arrowing drive rattled the woodwork. Hleb was substituted to a barracking from his own fans, cat calls and ironic cheers greeted his withdrawal. Freddie Ljungberg got a huge chorus of 'We Love You Freddie' for getting in a fight with James Collins. Save for missing a sitter, it was his only contribution, he once again showed that, lamentably, he just does not belong in an Arsenal shirt anymore. Strangely, it seems the supporters are prepared to indulge their 2002 fantasies by giving him a sterling send off every time he hobbles off having contributed nothing to a game. Yet Hleb, who was at the centre of all of our moves (there were a lot of them) was lambasted by scapegoat seeking idiots. Hleb was doing his job, opening up West Ham, creating opportunities. The finishing part was Freddie's job, all he could do was show that he was finished. There is a big part of me that just does not enjoy home games anymore, I am tired of having to remonstrate with spoiled whingers seeking to take out their frustrations on one man and allowing reputation ond conjecture to dominate their already narrow view. Ironically enough, Arsenal went completely and utterly flat when Hleb went off, there was no creation and I rate it as one of Wenger's worst substitutions this season.
But Arsenal recovered from their creative malaise in the last twenty minutes, Aliadiere shot into the side netting from a tight angle, he also curled narrowly wide after cutting in from the left. Eboue collected Baptista's probing pass to shoot over and the real piss taker came seven minutes from time as Gilberto's low shot crept onto the post from close range. The stadium taking a collective intake of breath as it rolled slow motion. 'We've only 'ad one shot' mocked the delirious Irons fans to a ripple of applause. In West Ham's only other attacking move, Luis Boa Morte rounded Lehmann only to scoop wide with the goal gaping. You can tell he used to play for Arsenal. The final whistle sounded to a cascade of boos from spoiled whingers. That is, those spoiled whingers that actually bothered to stay to the end. I cannot emphasise the psychological impact of searching for a last gasp equaliser in front of a half empty stadium. The dying throwes of a match are where desire and will really come into it, it must be very draining to play second fiddle to a train. Contrarily to my half time withdrawal, I stayed behind for a long time after the final whistle, slumped in my seat, watching the West Ham fans celebrate as Sheffield United had lost, meaning another fist dodging trip to Upton Park next season could be quite likely. Hopefully the match won't be moved to Sunday owing to our UEFA Cup commitments.
By and large yesterday was the same old story. There is no need to alter our approach play, we pulled West Ham to shreds, as we did CSKA Moscow, Manchester City, Chelsea and Blackburn. We were direct when we needed to be, three of our best chances came from crosses into the box. It's that last component, sticking the ball into the net. This has been our great hubris this season, our second game of the season up in Manchester was an exact replica of this match. I am sad to say I just do not see any improvement in this obvious handicap. I do not know how it is remedied and from the looks of it, neither does Arsene Wenger. You can practise shooting in training all you like, but it comes down to a mental capability in the heat of a game and we are missing it. Whether it is psychosomatic or whether it is down to lack of motivation or even, dare I say it, a lack of quality I do not know. What I do know is that it has been the dividing line between us having a great season and having a distinctly average one. Anyways, I was hardly feeling in a Socratic mood to contemplate how we avert this festering disaster and basically went and did a number on myself. I ventured for the coast to take in the evening delights of Brighton's much vaunted Creation club. I woke up in Brighton too and my memory of yesterday evening is absolutely non existent, my breath is ale soaked and from the from the swirling sensation in my head I know for a fact I hit the whiskey. My teeth do not have that horrible sugary coating, so I presume I was drinking it straight. I am reliably informed I did not smoke, but I have probably forever complicated a platonic relationship with a female acquaintance. Unfortunately, my memory of yesterday afternoon is still crystal clear and playing high resolution in my mind. I should be thinking of how on earth I am to answer these obscure text messages on my phone, but instead I am thinking of what Arsenal might be doing on the training ground this morning. I should be thinking about emphazima, but instead I am trying to diagnose our cancerous season. I should be thinking of how to unravel the great Brighton mystery, instead I am thinking of my trip to Newcastle tomorrow. In the words of the great Bill Hicks, 'It's not a good time to give up smoking kids. Every cigarette looks like it was made by God, rolled by Jesus and moistened shut on Claudia Schiffer's.......' well, you get the idea. From Brighton to Newcastle, from despair to where, from cigarettes to alcohol, the truth is, I just don't know what to do with myself. LD.
Date:Sunday April 8 2007
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