Arsenal at Home – Superb

 

Football eh? It can be a strange mistress. If you’ve followed Twitter, NSC, the various Facebook groups et al and you know who I am posting you could accuse me of being bi-polar with some validity, and I’m by no means alone. Down in the depths one minute, up in the sky the next. Right now you’re going to have to scrape me off the ceiling.

Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. Right now I’m THAT GUY. The one on the train with his laptop out going tippity-tap when everyone else is trying to sleep. Writing at a time when everyone else is in bed, on board something that is a mode of transport rather than, say, a desk. Sorry bloke next to me. So, let’s get the moans out of the way immediately. I hate Sunday games. They leave me about two minutes free to write the blog, in places where one definitely shouldn’t be writing. “Ah, but you could write it on Sunday night” I hear you say. And, if I wasn’t going to eat my dinner, iron my work shirts, pack my bag and put small people to bed I could. Yesterday though, I did none of those things, bar the eating, as I was too busy being in the pub and watching this magnificent game back in almost totality.

The other moan I have, and let’s get it out of the way quickly, is at those perennial arsehats Southern Rail. One four carriage train every half hour in to Brighton from the Coastway West is nowhere near enough for these big games. I appreciate that extra services may be out of the question due to running the Falmer services but an extra carriage or two wouldn’t go amiss. We just about squeezed on to the delayed 11.40, ex-Portslade, though the crush was actually uncomfortable, not helped by a couple of ladies who point blank refused to move down the carriage when asked, even staring at the crushed masses like we’d shat ourselves in front of The Pope. So yah boo sucks, Southern, yah boo sucks miserable lady. Right, that’s my moan done. Everything else was magnificent.

Off the pitch there was a change, Steve choosing to sit this one out, having been stuck away from his family in Edinburgh all week. In came Josh and his ultra enthusiastic five year old son, in came train cans and a burger from the van. This change of routine would normally have the superstitious part of me chucking a whitey, but, hell, we’d changed everything before the Swansea game and it had worked a treat. And we had a genuine chance here. The talk on the train was that there would never be a better time to play Arsenal, and that seemed to make sense. Demoralised by two defeats to Man City in five days, with fans calling for Wenger’s head, a poor recent away record that included losing to Bournemouth and another game to play on Thursday we had certainly picked our moment. Train opinion was split between us having a real chance and facing a backlash. When faced with actual Arsenal fans in the burger queue we compromised and demurred, stating that a cheeky point would be nice.

That wasn’t Hughton’s team talk. Ok, we took five minutes to settle while the Amex cleared the pie crumbs from its throat and Arsenal tried to enact that backlash. Aubameyang closing the ball down quickly and winning it, Duffy with a magnificent tackle and Murray clearing the resulting corner. Then Dunk tried to extend his personal attempt at a world own goal record, only luckily he missed. But from then on in we were on it. A quick win of the ball by our unchanged team saw Knockaert release Schelotto, the attack ultimately ending in a corner on the East Stand side. The WSU greeted it like a goal. Possibly the rest of the ground did too, I couldn’t see, but what we were all forgetting was that we never score from corners. Gross swung it over anyway to the back stick, Cech flailed, Duffy headed back across and Dunk volleyed home. The Amex exploded in a sea of limbs and blue and white, if such a thing is possible. High fives, hugs, twirling and Dunk leading the celebratory pile back out close to where the corner had been taken from.

One nil up after only six minutes and the life visibly drained from our opponents. Any hint of noise from these most strangely silent supporters gone as the factions began to remonstrate with one another. Wenger back on his seat, barely to emerge, even as he was serenaded with “sacked in the morning”. Players looking at one another suspiciously before fixing their glares on Cech.

And for the next twenty minutes the positions in the table could have been reversed, as far as any neutral was concerned. Brighton playing like a top six side, Arsenal like a team in a relegation battle. We dominated possession and threatened at will (at least the poor chap wasn’t being fired at for a change). We should have scored again, Knockaert and Gross combining with a brilliant back heel and low shot and Gross again almost running in to the ball and dribbling it at Cech when shooting would have been easier. But then suddenly none of that mattered. More lazy play at the back from the Arse saw Koscielny give the ball straight to us, bypassing the disinterested Jack Wheelchair who flitted from the sublime to the ridiculous all game. Our midfield pounced and it was played out to Gross out wide. He’s not really the man to beat full backs for pace but he’s exactly who you’d want to be taking a deep cross with plenty of time. He landed it perfectly on Murray’s head and the ball went through and under the woeful Cech for number two.

Scenes. Absolute scenes.

At that point we were in unchartered territory. I don’t think we’ve ever been two up against a top six side before, certainly not since the 80s, and I’m not sure we knew what to do with it. “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay” crowed the Albion faithful, joyfully and rightfully bantering Arsenal back to North London. The players knocked it around and strutted like cockerels. And I took some time to admire how magnificently poor Cech was, not only at fault for both goals but distributing the ball like a blind man on LSD. I haven’t seen such a poor keeper since the Withdean days and perhaps even before. Graeme Smith maybe?

Anyhoo, that would all have been great except for the fact that we conceded just before half time. We shouldn’t have, Iwobi put in by poor defending before playing back to Xhaka. A low ball and Aubameyang finished with a cute slice from close in, that Ryan just failed to claw out.

So came our only period of meltdown as we looked, briefly, like a school team under pressure from a professional academy. Schelotto blasted over his own bar and any calmness evaporated as a deflected header hit the post with Ryan stranded. 2-2 would have been massively harsh though and we held out to relief and plaudits.

The second half? Not without incident but it certainly wasn’t the first half. Arsenal came at us a lot more, winning the possession and territory battles but without ever looking like having the precision to undo us again. Ryan made a magnificent stop from a long range shot, but otherwise everything else was straight at him. Of other note was Xhaka getting booked (noteworthy for us because The Boy and I have a private joke that if he’s not been booked by 80 minutes he gets booked for being called Xhaka) and Referee Attwell curiously refusing to send off the already booked Kolasinac for an assault on Schelotto, who had the temerity to get to a 50-50 first and received a shoulder in the chin for his trouble. We all thought he’d gone spark out immediately but he’s made of sterner stuff and, I suspect, he might have carried on, given the choice. He wasn’t and after a lengthy delay Bruno came on in his stead. It’s a good place to discuss the officials though, who got an offside call criminally wrong against us in the first half (though our third “goal” was well off), missed handballs and gave every 50-50 to Arsenal like they felt sorry for them, with the one exception of the throw in where no one on the pitch could decide who it came off and we got to take it as a result of some flag based hokey cokey.

But mostly we held out comfortably. The magnificent Murray held the ball up but was too knackered to capitalise on a couple of breaks. Bellarin came on belatedly but stopped Izquierdo in full flight, the only player on the pitch who could have caught him. Pantomime boos were aimed at the foulers and ref – “same old Arsenal, always cheating” – and seven minutes of added time came up. In the last of those we found the corner and contrived to send it back to Cech who capped a forgettable day by rolling it out short to the shrill of Attwell’s whistle. The Amex went bananas, a noise not unlike when we got promoted, and the Arsenal fans, players and manager licked their respective wounds.

Make no mistake, we’ve arrived now. I suspect Wenger will be gone at the end of the season. I’ve never been more confident that we’ll face his replacement next season. Arsenal look like eleven individuals with an agenda. We look like a team. Knockaert – subbed with a massive strop, but rightly because after the assault on Schelootto he was a red card walking – came back on to embrace all his teammates. Everyone stayed to clap. We drank beer. It was superb.

 

 

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Arsenal at Home – Big Day Out

The magic of the cup eh? Tin foil cups, sloping pitches, electricians playing full back and always the possibility of a shock result. Except that, by and large, that magic is being devalued by the second. Not having the Final as the one 3pm Saturday kick off you can watch live on telly saddens me as much as the continued existence of Big Brother. Cup ties on a Monday (like our game against Hull was last season – twice) and the fact that big sides always play their reserves are other nails in a fairly hefty coffin. Attendances, on the whole, are dwindling. The one exception is for those clubs lucky enough to land a plum tie against Premier League big boys at home. Like, say, Arsenal.

So it was that over 30,000 tickets were sold for the Amex yesterday and most of their owners turned up for once. Our usual group of me and another dad with our boys was augmented by a friend from up the road with his soon-to-be-five year old and another of The Boy’s mates with his mum and granddad. From young to old we squeezed ourselves on a train early enough to make the journey relatively painless. On the train from Brighton we met some old school Arsenal fans who “only did aways”. One of them was, apparently, bad luck. The other hated Wenger. With three shock results already over the previous two days and now this. the omens were lining up all right. We were bound to lose.

Beers bought for the adults, sweets and drinks distributed among children we took our seats fifteen minutes before kick off to see, not an empty stadium but one that had already pretty much filled. In these circumstances Fanzone is, indeed, a useful warm up for voices and scarf twirling arms. In these circumstances finding a version of “Ring of Fire” that is just the trumpet riff on a loop is genius. In these circumstances dropping the last bars of “Sussex By The Sea” to let the fans take over is entirely right. The stadium was buzzing. Songs fizzed from North to West. Flags waved. Scarves twirled. It built like an enormous bubble. Within two minutes of the start Arsenal had popped it.

I don’t actually think we touched the ball more than twice before it was in the net. We came out exactly like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. Arsenal stroked it around like we used to under Oscar but with more pace and purpose. Then they remembered we had Joe Bennett at left back, sliced us open down that side before a neat cross set up Theo Walcott who showed he can actually finish when given the freedom of Sussex. Two minutes. One nil. Oh dear.

Poor Bennett. He is a skilful footballer with lovely feet and good pace. And he tries. You’d never know he was on loan from his effort. But I want to go back in time and find the coach who decided he was a left back and shout “NO, COACH. THIS IS NOT A LEFT BACK YOU SEE HERE. THIS HERE IS A WINGER! A WINGER, DON’T YOU SEE? NOW GET IN THE CORNER AND GIVE YOURSELF A GOOD TALKING TO.” The first half, yesterday, showed why the poor lad will never start in that position for Villa. Meanwhile, having told the old school Arsenal fans on the train how good Ince was, he too was proceeding to have a nightmare. In fact we all were. Collectively, all over the park we were horrible, with the exception of COG who was feeding off scraps. Inevitably we went two down in this time, a lovely pass threading our defence for Ozil to finish in style. Yes, this was the week Ozil and Walcott returned to the first team. Lucky us eh? About six minutes later we had our first shot, to ironic cheers. Half time came and, for once, I needed a half time beer. Even The Boy was stunned in to silence. We really could have been four or five down.

Sipping that beer quickly I still emerged to see the game had kicked off and we had the ball. We were passing it around! Woo hoo. Chris Hughton has not quite been here a month, yet, after Brentford, this would already be his second “difficult” half time team talk. God only knows what he said but we were now wide awake, fearless and, at times, the better side. Were these the same players? After good work down the left the ball found O’Grady who held off his man and drilled low in to the corner. It was brilliant number nine play. Never have I been more wrong about a player. If reports that he has already been sold turn out to be true then the man will get a public thanks and apology on these pages.

The fans too came to life. The scarves were up. Songs crackled in to the night. Ince became a monster in midfield, Baldock a menace. Arsenal were looking genuinely worried until we needlessly gave the ball away on the edge of our own area. It was worked to Rosicky whose powerful volley found the centre of the net to Stockdale’s disappointment.

Still we came back, though the players this time, not the fans. If anything they need our support more at 1-3 then at 1-2 but the bubble had popped again and someone was going to have to blow it up. Cue Sam Baldock with a sublime finish. I went mad. The boy went mad. Tickertape. Ring of Fire. Game on.

Except that was it. We couldn’t get back in to it and the final whistle blew with the players applauded from all sides. A true game of two halves. If only.

Afterwards we had a beer “to let the queue die down”. My friend who had taken her son and his granddad decided to go straight to the station where, according to a later text they were surrounded by “nasty Arsenal fans” and walked straight in to a fight. Even though we left later there was still a huge queue and it took well over an hour to get home. There were no “nasty” Arsenal on our train but there was a group of drunk teenagers, surrounded by the police singing hilarious homophobic songs that we’ve never, ever heard before.They were blatantly breaking the law yet  the police seemed to be there in case anyone tried to chin them. I suspect there were more than a few with that on their minds.

I mention all this because this is what our reality in the Premier League would be. Sunday kick offs, huge away attendances, long waits for everything and a whole new set of clubs who think that “we can see you holding hands” is the funniest chant ever. On the pitch lots of close defeats. Lots of “what if”. We still need to survive in The Championship this season of course, but still. Be careful what you wish for.