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On the opening day of the League One season at the start of the 2009/2010 season, Norwich City, freshly relegated from the Championship, were given a less than royal welcome by Colchester City, falling to a 7-1 annihilation at home. It may only have been one game, but the steady slide looked to be the Canaries’ destiny. In the starting eleven for them that day were Grant Holt, Wes Hoolahan and Adam Drury, while Simon Lappin took his place on the bench. Colchester’s side included Marc Tierney and David Fox.
Two years and six days later, Holt, Hoolahan, Fox and Tierney started Norwich’s first Premier League game since 2005, as Lappin and Drury remained in the squad. In two short years they had gone from the aforementioned trouncing to the Premier League, and it was all down to the man who was responsible for that humiliation. 10 days after that miserable afternoon, Norwich had ensnared Paul Lambert from Colchester and handed him their managerial post. Lambert’s first game was a disappointing 2-1 loss away to Brentford, though the recovery appeared to start with the next two matches, as they picked up their first wins of the season. This progress was halted a poor run of just 2 points from four games; but this would eventually be regarded as a minor blip come the season’s end. 9 games played, 7 points gained and 14th position did not look like a team capable of promotion. What followed was spectaular.
At the end of what had been a dismal September, they gave Leyton Orient a comprehensive seeing to, which prompted the revival. They recorded 7 straight wins as a start of a run of 22 games without loss which was punctuated by just two draws, wherein they had a spell of 11 consecutive wins (featuring a cathartic 5-0 revenge victory over Colchester). By the time a loss finally came they were comfortably atop the League One table and in spite of three further losses, they claimed promotion in mid-April with a 1-0 win away at Charlton, going on to secure the title a week later after a 2-0 home win against Gilligham. The difference between the side that was slaughtered on the opening day was not a great upheaval in playing staff. The only change that had been made upon the new manager’s arrival was the loan signing of Fraser Forster from Newcastle - and no one who saw Michael Theoklitos’s horrendously poor showing against Colchester would deny that it was need. Three signings were made in January: Anthony McNamee arrived from Swindon but played rarely in his first six months and Russell Martin and Zach Whitbread also joined, and would go on to become another two for Lambert’s collection of players who had come with him from League One to the Premier League.
And so, to the Championship. While there were some players for whom adaption to the higher division would be easy, there were others who would not be able to make the transition. Upgrades were of the essence. As previously mentioned, Fox rejoined his former manager; John Ruddy was signed as a full-time solution to the goalkeeping problem after Forster had returned to Tyneside; Andrew Surman was signed from Wolves, Leon Barnett from West Brom and Andrew Crofts, Elliot Ward, Steven Smith and Simeon Jackson were also signed on. Older players were cleared out to make room. The aim was survival and the squad Lambert had built looked more than capable.
Despite losing their first game, they were up to seventh spot within two games. A 3-1 loss at Doncaster meant they momentarily slipped to eighth. This was the lowest position they would be in all year. Their 4-1 win over Ipswich at the end of November saw them rise into the play-off places. They did not follow the examples of so many other promoted teams who have a strong half-season and let their performances slip, content that they would be safe from relegation and that was their objective met. Nor did they follow the lead of so many other play-off chasing pretenders, who crumble and retreat at the mere idea of pressure and expectation to succeed. Lambert created an excellent spirit within the side, which was shown by the fact that they did not lose any two games back-to-back at any point through the season. In January, Aaron Wilbraham and Marc Tierney were purchased, after Henri Lansbury had arrived on loan two months previously. They began to threaten the automatic promotion spots at the end of January, but a number of ill-timed draws saw them slide around the play-off spots, but as the season drew to its end, their spirit was once more shown by a 15-match unbeaten run as they began to assert their position in the top two.
A Simeon Jackson goal in the 1-0 away win against Portsmouth secured their return to the Premier League. Less than two years since that game against Colchester, they were back in the top flight. Lambert described it as “a miracle”. Untrue. Miracles, as a phenomena, cannot be explained; this could, through his management. His effect on the team was shown best in his players’ glowing appraisals of him.
It becomes more evident in the proceeding season, but what had become clear from the two promotions is that Lambert, as a manager, is blessed with an ability that relatively few in the same field posses, but those who do are instantly separable from those who do not. Lambert is able to get average players to do brilliant things; to perform at a level so much higher than their abilities would ordinarily take them. It is evident (though with a far higher level of player) with Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger and further down the league, in David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers - Kenny Dalglish is currently being exposed for his inability to do this. Lambert reflects one of Brian Clough’s great lines on management: “good managers make good sides; I’ve never heard of a side making a manager”. Through their Premier League travails, there are few individual players one could isolate from this Norwich side as the ‘star men’, but the way they work as a team and as a squad makes them a side who can survive comfortably in the league and even build further and become an ‘established’ Premier League team.
At this point in time, with 7 games remaining, they are one point off the ‘magic’ 40 points which, over the years, has been the marker of safety from relegation (though it may be even lower this year) and are only three points off Liverpool, who have spent £100,000,000 since January 2011 compared to around £10,000,000 from Norwich - a reflection on both sides’ managers. And I will say now that I will eat one of my hats if Norwich go down. Relegation has never looked to be a concern for them (though you would not guess it if you listen to Lambert in his interviews). What is more, like Swansea alongside them, they play attractive, short-passing, high-pressing football. While Stoke are prospering with Tony Pulis’s Neanderthal tactics, Norwich and Swansea are fighting the arguably more honourable fight. He has not yet had time to build a dynasty as they have been constantly rising. When he took over at Norwich they were second from bottom in League One. 8 months later they were league champions. 9 months on from that they were promoted again. A similar jump further through time sees them with a realistic chance of finishing in the top half of the Premier League on a first attempt with a squad of predominantly Championship-level players. This reinvention has completely been thanks to him and they will continue to prosper, entertaining all the while, as long as he is at the helm.
Many will mention Brendan Rodgers for the manager of the year award this season, but if you look at the situation at Swansea when he initially took charge, it was in complete contrast to Norwich when Lambert was given the job. The foundations for success - promotion and Premier League survival - were in place but they needed a manager talented and clever enough to take them forward. Rodgers was just that. This is not to denigrate his marvellous achievements at Swansea in the slightest, as he has done an outstanding job, but his triumphs have neither the magnitude nor the required skill that Lambert’s do. Player-for-player, it is debatable as to who of Swansea and Norwich has the stronger squad, but the answer from most corners would be Swansea. Though they are on the same number of points. Norwich’s rise and their sustained consistency through the league this season has been all down to their fantastic manager. Very few managers would be able to get such excellent results with that squad of players; the majority of them have joined in the last two years, yet they play with an understanding that would suggest far more time together. Lambert has grown with his team after having taken the more traditional route into management, starting at Livingston before moving south to Wycombe Wanderers, then to Colchester, then to Norwich. He is not an average ex-pro who has moved into management for want of something else to do with all their new-found free time. He has the potential to be great. It would not be a surprise if a ‘bigger’ club in search of a new manager came after him; and for many, he would be one of the best possible appointments.
Following Arsenal’s embarrassing showing in Milan three weeks ago, Arsene Wenger described them as “shocking” and claimed they had “2% or 5% chance” of qualification. One expletive-filled rant, a magnificent comeback against Tottenham and a win as scraped as a frosty windscreen in the depths of winter against Liverpool later, he had changed his tune somewhat, proclaiming that they, as a team, believed they could “make the impossible possible”.
Arsenal had been beyond abject in the first leg. On that evidence alone there was no chance, but as soon as the game commenced, they charged forward with a real intensity and desire, pressing Milan high up the pitch and looking to snatch an early goal. The goal itself said more about Milan on the evening than it did Arsenal. The corner from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a good one and it met its target, Laurent Koscielny, who was inexplicably given the chance of a free header by the rather uninterested marking of Ignazio Abate, while no man remained on the back post. This was Milan’s charter going into the game - they did not appear to give Arsenal any respect or consideration as actual challengers until they fell a further two goals behind. While the Italians were struggling to feign disappointment, the Londoners took hope and continued as they had started.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had one of his customary quiet nights in the Champions League, though his masterful performance in the first leg may see its way to casting aside that criticism. He dwelt offside for most of the game, appearing momentarily to challenge for the ball and subsequently receive a free kick on account of his being on the floor, despite the minimal contact that came his way. To say the referee favoured either team would be incorrect; he was simply inept at this level, a fact which was well-exploited by a far more experienced and wily Milan side.
Arsenal got another chance to score when Tomas Rosicky intercepted another lackadaisical pass from the Milanese side’s back line, but a poor ball from him to Robin van Persie and an even worse return pass from the Dutchman meant the chance went begging. Though with three quarters of the game still remaining on the clock, the feeling around the ground was that more chances would come; there was not long to wait. Absolving his error which led to the aforementioned missed opportunity, it was Tomas Rosicky - his second goal in three, after just over a year without one. Theo Walcott sent a threatening, yet rather weak cross into the penalty area. The pathetic clearance from Thiago Silva was most uncharacteristic of the defender many perceive to be the world’s best and it fell straight to the Czech captain, whose shot was more akin to a pass, yet snuck past Christian Abbiati at the near-post all the same.
The intense nature of Arsenal’s pressing increased as they searched for a third before half time. They reaped the rewards of this very swiftly, as Oxlade-Chamberlain was upended in the penalty box and with the crowd brimming with excitement and hope, van Persie stepped up. Then waited, as his compatriot Mark van Bommel engaged in a little more gamesmanship by deliberating with the referee as to whether the ball was on the spot, hence delaying the kick and putting more pressure on van Persie. The Premier League’s leading scorer did not appear to care, promptly dispatching his penalty with seeming ease.
Half time arrived a few minutes later. A four-goal deficit was now down to just one. 45 minutes remained; Milan looked hopeless and Arsenal excellent. The home side needed to persist with their high pressure and the visitors needed to wake up a little and start taking their opponents more seriously. While Milan did what was needed, Arsenal no longer could. Most of their players had played three times in 10 days and were struggling after such an energy-consuming half. They were succumbing to fatigue shortly after the third goal, and were very nearly punished as Stephan El-Shaarawy curled a good chance wide of the post. It was a both let off and reminder of the threat Milan posed for Arsenal. Their best and only real chance of the second half came early.
On a counter attack, Gervinho’s deflected effort fell awkwardly for Abbiati and he only managed to parry the ball rather than hold it. It did not land far from him and as van Persie stormed in, he attempted to chip the veteran Italian, only for his effort to be extremely well saved. This was to be Arsenal’s point of rue come the end of the game but in reality there was little more he could do; there was not enough space for him to go either side of the goalkeeper and the only possible method of conversion was the chip. It did not work, and so Arsenal needed to keep attacking and pray another such chance. Their legs were tiring but their spirit was unhampered.
Arsene Wenger said after the game that he felt the midfield needed changing. Only with no Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby, Yossi Benayoun, Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin or Emmanuel Frimpong meant that the three on the field (Chamberlain, Rosicky and Alex Song) were the only three left. Chamberlain needed to be replaced. The attacking stronghold of the Arsenal bench was a man who has scored two goals in 16 months, Marouane Chamakh, though he does offer an aerial threat. Arsenal had another piece of fortune when Alberto Nocerino somehow contrived to miss from two yards out, but Milan never had any real control over the game. Such was Wenger’s desperation that he sent on Park Ju-Young - a player in whom he clearly has no trust, having only given him 6 minutes of playing time in the Premier League and not a second in the Champions League until the point. He did little to prove his manager was mistaken in his mistrust. Indeed, on what could have been Arsenal’s final counter attack, Alex Song saw Park with space down the left hand side; it was an easy ball to play, but he instead played the more difficult and risky pass to Rosicky. The players clearly share their Wenger’s opinion of the former South Korea captain.
Although the Gunners continued ploughing forward, it was all in vain. The image that defined the day more than another other was seeing Rosicky, Arsenal’s man of the match by several furlongs, collapsed on the Emirates turf, his face painting a picture of despair, his slumped body of a man who simply could not run any more. Arsenal fans had hope and belief, but no expectation of a victory beforehand. It was only their wonderful play in the first half that made the disappointment that came their way possible. 11 games remain in the Premier League season: they have won all four of their last four games and this win will only aid their momentum. Four points behind Tottenham, three clear of Chelsea, a place in the top four is theirs to surrender and if replicate the way they played for the first 45 minutes over the course of the remainder of the season, they will undoubtedly be back in UEFA’s premier club competition.
Relations between the club’s management and playing stuff had grown a little fraught between some areas of the fanbase and the club itself after the first leg result and the 2-0 FA Cup loss to Sunderland which followed, but they restored some pride for themselves and for the fans. It was heartening for them to see the players fight so hard and look so devastated when the full time whistle confirmed their battle had yielded no on-pitch results. But even with the final scoreline, it was not a pointless endeavour. They managed to separate losing and losing with dignity; it is not a distinction that matters to those who will say that winning is everything and anything less is worthless, and that the difference is minimal anyway, but anyone who had seen the performances in both legs would know that the manner of defeat makes all the difference. The overwhelming feeling from the Arsenal support post-match was pride, but they must use their pain as a foundation for success, starting with ascertaining Champions League football for next season.
And what now for AC Milan? A place in the quarter finals of the Champions League while they sit atop Serie A soften the minor blow of a rather poor 3-0 loss. They showed that they are very capable of challenging Europe’s elite with their impressive group stage performances against Barcelona, but they must not write off this near miss as a shred of good luck. It should act as guidance to them not to believe their own ability will see them all the way through to the end of the season and that they must stay alert at all times. They have very legitimate challengers in Juventus, who are only two points behind them, so they must hope - and ensure - that their slips remain at the Emirates and they do not allow anything similar to happen again.
Note: I wrote this in the week, but due to internet complications I have been unable to publish it. It felt a shame not to do so, and I so enjoyed writing it. I made some amendments based on this week’s game:
I have been professing all season that this Sp*rs are tremendously over-rated and crumble whenever they come under any pressure. Also, that they will fall apart come late February. See their games with the two Manchester clubs (tomorrow’s visit to Old Trafford completing the set), Fulham away, wherein they only salvaged a point by cheating, Stoke away - Chris Foy’s performance aside, they were 2-0 down within half an hour and only got back into the game thanks to a dive from Luka Modric - and they only got the win against a very poor Arsenal in October because we were terrible and they got goals through a handball and a fluke. I have also been shouting to all those who will listen that they are very, very poor without Emmanuel Adebayor and typically, he disappears come the end of February (I still hold a grudge about his abysmal showing against Birmingham in 2008 and subsequent poor performances). And here we were on February 26th! As well as that, it may just have been my internal bias, but whenever I have watched Sp*rs over 90 minutes - only against bigger teams and when their games have been on Sky - I have been very unimpressed. Their main tactic seems to be either lump the ball t’big man or give it to Bale or Lennon for a counterattack. No surprise it has fallen short against the bigger teams.
I had found myself growing worried about the game over the course of the previous week, but come Sunday morning, I could not help but embrace the feeling that Derby Day always creates. Living in a house that backs onto Highbury and which is less than a minute from the Emirates, there is a certain atmosphere that is evident on the day of the North London Derby with the first glance at the street below. A late rising meant that the lineups were already available when I awoke. To describe my feeling I borrowed a quote from 30 Rock’s Tracy Jordan - “I’m scared… but I’m also excited!”. This was the first time in living memory when they came to our ground thinking they would give us a trouncing. All the ‘Mind the Gap’ jibes in mid-February have taken their toll, to a degree. As it always is for the greater occasions - and only them - the Emirates was in full voice.
Even when Louis Saha benefited from the great grandmother of all deflections to put them ahead, there was singing and a strong belief that we would come back among the fans. We pressed, we attacked, we were the better side, but were susceptible to their pace. Bale picked up a Modric pass and darted between Kieran Gibbs and Thomas Vermaelen. As he bore down on goal, the left back did enough to block him from rounding Wojciech Szczesny, while our Pole in the goal had done the same from the other angle. Only one optioned remained for real life’s equivalent to Mr Teeny of the Simpsons: he leapt. He leapt like no man had ever leapt before. His arms extended, he returned to the floor to the sound of angry shouts from the home crowd but more importantly, the whistle of Mike Dean, signalling that his cheating had earned him a penalty. And of all people to step up and promptly convert, it was the man who played six good months for us and left for Manchester City, before he fell out of favour and had now found himself at the bottom rung of society - Tottenham Hotspur. A sort of pre-cursor to Samir Nasri, if you will.
2-0 down. To them. For the negative, it could only get worse. For the bright side-looking idealist, we were only half an hour in, playing the better football and with a stronger team. We just needed a goal before half time, I told myself. I did fear for the rest of the game, but all it needed was one goal to get us back in it. We only had 5 minutes to wait for that. Bacary Sagna’s header reflected the team’s reaction. It was forceful, unstoppable and really bloody excellent. The momentum gathered, the belief increased and soon enough, we were level again, thanks to Robin van Persie.
The highest compliment I can give the strike is that it was one of which Dennis Bergkamp would be proud. There are few more complimentary things you can say about a piece of football; and it was not even his best goal of the season! (Everton at home claims that title). 2-2 going into half time, but had half time come too soon? We had really started to assert ourselves in the game and this was now to be interrupted. Doubtless ‘Arry would do his best to stem our flow, and he did, bringing on Sandro and Rafael van der Vaart and attempting to match our 4-2-1-3. But that could not stop us. Nothing could. Yossi Benayoun had a chance well saved by Brad Friedel, but they did not look as though they had the strength to stop us on this kind of form.
Before the game, I had read a rather interesting stat from @1DavidWall on the Twitter (highly recommended), stating that Tomas Rosicky had not scored in 49 Premier League games. 1 goal in 50 sounded like a nice, rounded stat. It seemed pre-destined. Maybe it was? Or maybe he was just really due for a goal, regardless of the actual number of games? Whatever it was, the Czech captain clearly decided that enough was most definitely enough. He strode forward in the Sp*rs half, nudged a pass to Sagna, and the French right back knocked the ball back into his path and with the deftest of flicks with the outside of his left boot, his goal drought was over. Friedel and Ledley King could only stare despondently at one another. What could they do? They were finished, and they knew it already. But we were far from done with our days work.
Theo Walcott had, to this point, played very much like Theo Walcott often does. Intelligent movement meant he was in the right places, but poor touches and a distinct absence of a decent final ball inspired audible frustration from the crowd. No booing though, as the fine men of Her Majesty’s Press would have you believe. Which left me conflicted - it is not like them at all to lie or to blow events, words and opinions out of proportion. Was this the start of something very sinister indeed?
I digress. Rosicky, on the counter, played the ball over to the isolated van Persie. He held off King and Younes Kaboul long enough for the very embodiment of inconsistency to arrive alongside him. He sent the ball to Walcott. His second touch inadvertently took him away from the goal, but he recovered wonderfully to chip the ball over Friedel and make it 4-2. A few minutes later, Alexandre Dmitri Song Billong (plays the holding role, scores the occasional goal), produced another stunning through ball to add to the collection he has built up this season, and Walcott made it 5 with a smart finish.
It was a marvellous day at the Emirates, but it was not on the same level as the night we beat Barcelona. Sp*rs fans have made their claims that it was ‘our cup final’, but they may want to look a little closer to home before saying that. They are the very same ones who have been making those ill-advised and ill-timed ‘Mind the Gap’ jibes, who have been proclaiming that ‘the balance of power has now shifted’ in North London. Last I checked, positions were not confirmed in February, one season with the mere possibility of you finishing above us does not make you in any way a bigger or better club than us, and how would you celebrate if you came back from two goals behind - not just to win - but to humiliate your rivals? I was there for their comeback last year and the 4-4. They were hateful experiences, standing with gritted teeth as your fans celebrated like they had won the World Cup, while they all put in orders for a variety of result celebrating merchandise. Imagine bringing out a DVD to celebrate a draw and one win against your near rivals. Then again, being a small club who lives only to fail at conquering their neighbours is an alien concept to me. I am 16 and have seen my team lift three league titles and four FA cups. Even the oldest of their fans has only seen them win two titles and four FA cups.
Their was a more savage pleasure about beating them this time around. They really thought they would cement themselves as North London’s Kings (for one season). Now their miraculous gap is down to four points. I have lived through 15 St. Totteringham’s Days, and I am eagerly anticipating the 16th.
Since the resignation of Fabio Capello, the English media has gone into overload, even by its own impressive standards, as to who will take on the biggest job in world football. They have decided that the next man, whomever he may be, must be a proud, patriotic Englishman and they have overwhelmingly labelled everyone’s favourite wheeler and dealer, newly cleared of his tax evasion charges, ‘Arry Redknapp as the only man worthy of the role.
But this is short-sighted. For starters, to limit themselves to solely English candidates means they have disregarded a vast number of infinitely more talented and adept managers. Redknapp is adored by many of his players (with the notable exception of Darren Bent and his sub-Sandra standard of finishing) because of his ‘man management’ ability. He certainly has a prowess in this field, but this alone does not make him the best candidate for England and their oh-so-demanding FA. Redknapp has 30 years of experience at club level, but not a second as an international manager - nor even as an International player. There are a select few who belong to both categories; and one of those men is perfectly suited for the task.
The eternal debate as to who was the greatest footballer ever rages as ever it has, but his name is one who is always mentioned. Twice the most expensive footballer on the planet. He has experience at managing an international team at a World Cup and has played at four World Cups - winning one near-single handedly. Like ‘onest ‘Arry, his relationship with his players is more akin to that of friends rather than manager and player, while, unlike the current Tottenham Hotspur boss, they will always defer to his wisdom because he has achieved so much in his career.
He was accused of being chaotic, disorganised and even inept in the initial stages of his foray into national management. But when the tournament arrived, the team rallied and produced respectable performances, all under the tutelage of their manager. Their World Cup was, like England’s, cut short by a rampaging, devastating German team, though his team advanced one round further than England had under Fabio Capello - a man who won four Scudetti and two Coppa Italias as a player and seven Scudetti, two La Ligas and a Champions League as a manager.
However, the general public may not be thrilled to see him in the dugout, nor may they be very supportive of him. 26 years ago, in the 1986 World Cup, he used his arm to score a goal against England, before scoring one of the most brilliant goals of all time. While the English people may not support the reign of a man who they have spent so many years hating, they would come to do so when he brings home the World Cup.
Diego Maradona has made his mistakes, in life, in football and in management, but so has Harry Redknapp. They are comparable in style but are separated by the unquantifiable quality of experience. El Diego has coached a team through World Cup qualification and got them to the Quarter Finals. He will satisfy the desire for attacking football and has his relative youth on his side. Like Redknapp, tactics are no forté of his, but he trumps him in his prized quality - his man management even better, while he commands more authority among the players for his greatness in his playing days.
There is no finer man for the England job. Let the unpleasantness of years past be confined to the great basin of history. He is a motivator; an idealist; a winner. Come on, FA, you know it is the right thing to do: El Diego for England.
Upon reflecting on the last weekend of football, it is difficult not to acknowledge that it was far more eventful than the average weekend’s dosage of the game. It was always going to be so, with the opening fixture of it coming in the form of Manchester United vs Liverpool, which in itself is always a feisty encounter, but the rivalry was to be exacerbated by the Suarez-Evra incident. I wrote here about my own view on the situation at hand just after Suarez was given an 8-game ban by the FA. In spite of admitting to using the word ‘negro’ once, he chose not to shake the hand of Patrice Evra, because he had the guile to report racist abuse. The swine.
Then the actual match, which seemed to have been lost amid the furore, happened and was entertaining from what I saw on Match of the Day and read as I wandered around Paris trying to find some internet on my phone. Suarez played the pantomime villain to all but the Liverpool fans, who shared his self-perception as the tragic, victimised man with a persecution complex. Following two goals from Wayne Rooney, the second of which was a lovely finish through the legs of Pepe Reina, Liverpool grabbed a goal through their misunderstood hero, Suarez. The game finished 2-1 to the hosts and the post-match press conferences left one dour Scot with far more dignity than another, as Sir Alex Ferguson denounced the Uruguayan’s actions and Kenny Dalglish continued to back his man. The saga looked as though it would continue for many a week, until Suarez and Dalglish issued apologies today and Chief Executive Ian Ayre followed suit. Though the former twos’ reeked of insincerity and read as though they were written with guns to the writers’ heads, the gesture may hopefully spell and end to all this. Ayre’s apology was essentially an apology for the idiocy of those below him, but may that be the end of this circle of stupidity.
Meanwhile, just after the final whistle which confirmed United’s win, Evra took it upon himself to charge around the Old Trafford pitch celebrating as if he had scored the winner. The petty, vitriolic part of me was all for this - it was a personal victory for him, but another part of me can also see the more unsightly side to it. The clash and all the surrounded it was no great show of the game at its finest. The whole scenario is one which will be best confined to history.
Then, earlier this evening, Zambia claimed the Africa Cup of Nations trophy, 19 years after the tragic plane crash which wiped out a team brimming with potential. They battled fiercely against the Cote d’Ivoire who, player-for-player, could have been expected to brush their opponents aside with consummate ease, but within this Zambia team there lay a wonderful spirit and determination. They fought and won, mere hundreds of metres inland from the site of the crash, which killed 18 members of the squad, as well as four members of their backroom staff. Their players gained initial recognition for their singing, which they did before kick off and during the shootout. It was an amazing sight to witness and although I was cheering Gervinho, it was impossible not to be enchanted by Zambia. It was heart-wrenching to see the tears of defender Joseph Musonda as he was replaced due to injury after just 11 minutes, but only a soulless person with a heart of stone - or maybe a fan of the Cote d’Ivoire - would not have been moved when manager Herve Renard carried him to celebrate with his team-mates.
Without wanting to descend into the hackneyed clichés, there were so many elements of why we all love football in this match: the hard-working underdogs overcoming their clearly stronger opponents through their spirit and strength as a unit, while adding a redemptive chapter to a story so laden with tragedy. The 34-year old defender who had plundered his whole career to no avail leaving the pitch in tears, only for his despair to transform into euphoria as he celebrated the victory. Football throws up tales of this ilk like nothing else can. While there was the 90-minute, drama-filled soap opera at Old Trafford the day before, the two-and-a-half hour epic usurped it as the tale that will survive the test of the generations.
On a personal level, however, the highlight of my footballing weekend came in the form of the 92nd minute at the Stadium of Light. Around this time I, with my school group, was stepping onto the platform of the Gare du Nord, preparing to get the train back to London. There were around 10 of us Arsenal fans trying desperately to ascertain the score; some were receiving text updates from friend or family in London, though not wanting to waste any further money on texts and already having 1mb of internet to use at no extra cost, I chose to frantically attempt refreshing my Twitter, hoping beyond hope that we would get a winner. The first text came in just as we clambered onto the platform, almost literally just off the train that took us to the station. One person called that it was 2-1 and Henry was the scorer. Then another, and another. At this point, I was connected to the internet and my exploding Twitter feed confirmed that Thierry Henry had indeed scored the goal that may well be the winner. Then, in the middle of the Gare du Nord, the group of us all started chanting ‘Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry…’
It was perfection bordering on the night of his return. With Chelsea and Liverpool having lost and one of Newcastle or Tottenham to drop points in their encounter later in the day, it was one day when we desperately needed a win. 1-1 became 2-1 and 228 became 229. All because of Thierry Henry. It was not a story of loss and hope like Zambia’s, just one of pure brilliance. We should have known; it was just too perfect not to happen. His magnificence in his first spell enhanced my adoration of football and the Arsenal in my more formative years and later on, he returns to rekindle memories of those wonderful times.
We saw some of football’s darker side at Old Trafford; the potent hatred in a rivalry is something that should be celebrated but the circumstances that surrounded this particular meeting were nothing to enjoy. Zambia’s win and Henry’s goal remind that fairytales still happen and will continue to as long as the game carries on. It is the nature of football and it is why so many adore it now and why future generations will feel the same. Success can be bought, but legend cannot.
It is easy for a team to simply put poor form down to an injury crisis. It has been a long-standing excuse at the Arsenal to put our failures down to our excessive injuries. Personally, I attribute the collapse of the 2009/2010 season to the injuries of Robin van Persie, William Gallas, Thomas Vermaelen, Johan Djourou, Aaron Ramsey, Andrey Arshavin and especially Cesc Fabregas - who was beyond world class that season - as we approached the long-prophesied ’easy run-in’. And last season, as we all know, the Carling Cup final débacle was the catalyst for a collapse of mythical proportions, though I am of the opinion that with Cesc and Theo Walcott fit to play, we would have walked our way to victory; and perhaps would have ground it out had van Persie not had to go injured. Some may not share those opinions, but that is my personal view.
But there is no hope of rectifying that which went wrong over those season; they are confined to the past and remain as mere excuses. Perennial ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’; but this season we are not in a title fight, we are fighting for fourth again, though our push is being hampered by injuries once again. After three losses in a row, some (idiots) are turning on Arsene Wenger and though he has made his mistakes, it is worth noting how hamstrung he is by the injuries to the squad.
For starters, there is the much mentioned dearth of full backs. No Bakari Sagna, no Carl Jenkinson, no Kieran Gibbs (shocker) and no André Santos since early December. No right backs since late October - at first, Laurent Koscielny filled in there, as Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen played at centre half and Andre Santos at left back. Not ideal, but what else can you do when both your right backs have injuries? Then, with Kieran Gibbs predictably injured with a raft of strange and unusual injuries, Andre Santos gets injured. Enter the four centre back back four. Vermaelen has played left back many times in his career and though it is far from ideal to have your best centre back out-of-position, desperate times call for desperate measures. As long as we can keep these players fit for a month or two, until at least one of the full backs returns. Then Djourou picks up a knock midway through a game. Ignasi Miquel, 18 year old centre half, is thrown into the mix as a left back, as Koscielny moved back to right back and Vermaelen in-field. The inexperienced Miquel is caught out of position at we go down 1-0 at Eastlands. The next game, Aston Villa away, we send Francis Coquelin out at right back - not his natural position, but he does have some previous experience of the role - he performs well, a fine solution until Djourou is back.
Next, Vermaen picks up a calf strain and is ruled out for 2-3 weeks. Now Coquelin must fill in at left back against Fulham. In the same game, Djourou picks up a red card at Fulham and is banned. Such was the desperation for defenders, Sebastien Squillaci was called upon. The game was promptly lost. Squillaci would have to play in the FA Cup game against Leeds at centre back, with Coquelin at right back and Miquel on the left. Then, half an hour into the cup clash, Coquelin limps of and joins Vermaelem on the ‘out for 2-3 weeks’ list. 18-year old Nico Yennaris is introduced to the fray for his first professional game. With Coquelin now injured, it was fortunate that Djourou was back for the game against Swansea. But the two fullbacks’ instincts to wander inside was exploited readily by Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair. Another loss due to the lack of natural fullbacks. Next up were Manchester United. Vermaelen was rushed back, Djourou remained at right back. The first goal came from Djourou being roasted (one of many times) by Nani, who sent a cross over to Antonio Valenicia who in turn exploited Vermaelen’s poor positioning and headed home. Djourou was reported to get a knock at half time and was replaced by Yennaris. A risky move, but a successful one, as the young Chinese-Cypriot handled the immense challenge of Nani well. In the space of one month, Arsenal were forced to use their seventh choice left back (Miquel) and sixth choice Yennaris on more than one occasion each, such were the magnitude of the injuries; so plentiful were they that we had to play Squillaci!
That ridiculously unfortunate set of events will hamper any team, but the injuries did not stop here. Oh no. At the very start of the season, we were told that Jack Wilshere would be out for a week or two with a slight ankle problem. A week became a month. One month became three, until all of a sudden he was ruled out until February. So we were to going to have to survive 5 months without our best midfielder, following Cesc’s departure. So on the long-term absentee list, we have Bakari Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, Andre Santos, Carl Jenkinson, Jack Wilshere and for intermittent spells, Thomas Vermaelen. Meanwhile, Abou Diaby had ankle surgery in the summer and was unavailable for the first three months of the season. Though after just 25 minutes against Fulham, he was ruled out indefinitely, with a hamstring injury and no return date mentioned (and rumours abound that he may be forced to retire). Not conducive to success.
Going into the game against Swansea, Mikel Arteta is ruled out, while Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh are off to the Africa Cup of Nations, taking the number of absentees to 12 (Fabianski, Sagna, Jenkinson, Santos, Gibbs, Vermaelen, Wilshere, Arteta, Diaby, Coquelin, Gervinho and Chamakh). Following the 3-2 loss in South Wales, Vermaelen returned (perhaps earlier than was helpful to his recovery) but Thierry Henry picked up a calf injury. Meaning there were still 12 absentees as we went to face United.
To put those absentees into context, the equivalent injury crisis at Chelsea would see Ashley Cole, Jose Bosingwa, Branislav Ivanovic, Paulo Ferreira, Juan Mata and Oriol Romeu out for the majority of the season, while John Terry would have spent spells on the sidelines. To compare to the number of injuries we had against United, they would have had no: Henrique Hilario, the aforementioned six long-term players, Ramires, Daniel Sturridge, Didier Drogba and Saloman Kalou (rough comparisons). A side whose depletion does not bare thinking about.
Or for high-flying Sp*rs, the equivalent long-term six would be Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Kyle Walker, Younes Kaboul, Michael Dawson, Sandro and Luka Modric, with Ledley King often missing. While their equivalent to the injured 12 would be: Carlo Cudicini, those six, Rafael van der Vaart, Sebastien Bassong, Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko. A larger squad than Chelsea’s but one which would still be badly damaged by all those missing.
And one last comparison: Manchester City. Perhaps the strongest squad in the league, but they would be hurt with no Gael Clichy, Aleksandr Kolarov, Micah Richards, Pablo Zabaleta, Nigel de Jong and David Silva for much of the season, with Joleon Lescott out for parts of the season (a better comparison to Vermaelen as he would be . As well as them, no Pantimilon, Yaya Toure, Adam Johnson, Samir Nasri and Owen Hargreaves.
All very rough comparisons but I tried to compare the players’ positions and importance to their teams to those of the missing players at Arsenal. It is vague but it hammers home the point that our injury list is horrendous, as has been our luck. At this point it is very necessary to give a lot of credit to Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, who have had similar problems but have done magnificently well in spite of them (their Champions League fate notwithstanding). This has been a ramble, but I felt it necessary to emphasise just how unfortunate we have been and are. We have done very well to be as high as we have been but now, as those players start to return, we must capitalise. If we keep winning games, we will get into the top four and with a full team, there are not many who can match us. Certainly not the other top four challengers. This is not to say this is the sole reason for our recent bad patch, but it is worth taking into consideration.
And what treatment would those teams get from the media if they were in the same position? More sympathy, at the very least. And we have been lucky in one regard - Robin van Persie has remained injury free, and let’s pray that doesn’t change!
Apologies for the rambling.
No, it is not all going swimmingly at the moment at the Emirates. We are fifth and out of the Carling Cup, trailing the Scum by 10 points and four points off fourth. We lost Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas this summer. Jack Wilshere, Bakari Sagna, Andre Santos, Abou Diaby, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson have all been long term absentees. In the shorter term, Francis Coquelin, Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta have all been injured while Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh have left for the Africa Cup of Nations.
An unfortunate set of circumstances. They have led to us having to play Johan Djourou out of position at right back and seventh choice left back (behind Gibbs, Santos, Vermaelen, Coquelin and Sagna and Jenkinson - who can fill in there and are preferred as natural full backs), who is actually a centre back with next to no top flight experience, Ignasi Miquel.
At Swansea on Sunday, we were, as all the ‘papers have been saying, ‘out-Arsenal-ed’. They passed the ball better than us, they exploited our lack of natural full backs with their excellent wingers. They are a good team who played very well and exploited our mistakes. Where we would have been one point off fourth before, we are now four. A crisis of epic proportions.
But as a patron of the Twitter, a read down my timeline would suggest Arsenal have relegation and administration looming. It is not that bad. Vermaelen and Arteta will be back for the Manchester United game on Sunday. Not everything is terrible. We are still very close to the Champions League places.
Oh yeah, there is the Champions League - that competition that we are still firmly in. And the FA Cup - our best chance of a trophy this year - we are still in that. It is January and we are five points off the top four, not May. We have one of the best managers in the business and a squad which is definitely strong enough (when there are not a ridiculous number of injuries).
Darlington stand on the verge of going out of business. There has been shocking mismanagement afoot at the club for several years. Yet on Twitter people are moaning about the running of our club. Pathetic. We are fine on that one. Twitter petitions - ‘Twititions’ - calling for the removal of Peter Hill-Wood. While I think he is stuck in the past somewhat that is no way to treat someone whose family have been patrons of the club for so many years. I feel change is necessary but a ‘Twition’? Really?
It will all be fine. (And don’t worry about Spurs, we will be celebrating St. Totteringham’s Day this year). It is January; there is a lot of season left, as well as Champions League and FA Cup runs which could get going. We are not in crisis. We are fifth. In Arsene We Trust.
Liverpool are a fascinating case to observe. They were the club who ruled English football through the seventies and eighties and now are pining for a return to those times, clinging in vain to the reputation they created. Roy Hodgson’s appointment was supposed to signal yet another renaissance for the club, though with the ownership situation, the fans impatience and the new owners’ folly, he was sacked and the magical King Kenneth of Anfield was reinstated on a short-term deal.
This made sense, as the club was stuck in something of a rut and needed some sort of refreshment to rejuvenate the playing staff who fought so poorly and the fans who failed so admirably to back the manager. Dalglish had been around the club as an ambassador and was well-versed as to the inner-workings and the manner of operations - his appointment was that bridge back to those magnificent years past, though he was only supposed to be there for the rest of the season.
The first mistake came in the January transfer window of 2011. With the sale of Fernando Torres, Liverpool needed a striker. With £50million in their pockets, Dalglish chose Andy Carroll, for the princely sum of £35million. The idea was that Carroll would form a partnership with his fellow new acquisition Luis Suarez. The Geordie was poor choice of striker partner for the Uruguayan, as his style would need someone more intelligent off the ball and more able on the ground. Carroll is the archetypal battering ram centre forward and it was never going to work out. Now, as it has gone as some expected and feared, the unfortunate Carroll is now wiped of all confidence and lingers as a tragic figure in the number 9 shirt.
Signing a young player for such a fee placed needless pressure on him, which was the last thing Carroll needed with adjustment to a system of players who would be better off without him already on his to-do-list. A look abroad would have been so instructive for Liverpool - Diego Forlan was signed by Internazionale for £5,000,000 this summer; Loic Remy would have been available for around £20,000,000; Lucas Barrios of Borussia Dortmund would have been an excellent signing for around £15,000,000. It is this insular thinking from Dalglish that has badly damaged Liverpool, though it is more evident the following summer.
Though the great mistake came in March. Liverpool had picked up and were back on form when Fenway Sports Group handed the Scotsman a permanent contract. For a club looking to grow out of the grave into which it had thrown itself over the 21 years since their last league title, this was not a foothold for the long climb out so much as a momentous shovelling of dirt, confining them further into the pit of misery, torturing themselves with memories of those long lost league titles.
The summer came, £56.3million was spent and yet Liverpool were not a vastly improved side. When Dalglish was appointed, doubts were raised about how he would cope with the changes in the game since his most recent foray into management, which came 10 years previously. On the pitch, it had all seemed relatively rosy, but what so many missed was the fact that Dalglish did not know how to cope with the fact that the game was now a truly global one. His signings spoke volumes of that. Jordan Henderson was signed for £16.5millin; Charlie Adam for £7million and Stewart Downing for £20million. These three players epitomise where Liverpool are and are signings for that level rather than the level they want to be. Henderson and Adam are decent footballers, but nothing more. A look abroad would again have been instructive: Esteban Granero is a far more talented and useful player for where Liverpool want to be and would have been (and may still be) available for the same price as Adam for twice the quality. Riccardo Montolivo is out-of-contract at the end of this season and would be available for a similar fee and is worlds better than Jordan Henderson. Stewart Downing for £20million is insanity when Marco Reus has just been signed for £15million or Iker Muniain is available for a around the same amount. Even keeping Alberto Aquilani could have been very useful - when fit, he had shown signs of becoming a good player for the club. This is not to say that they should have bought those specific players, per se, but that better value exists in buying abroad.
These signings have been anchors to seventh place. They may bob up to the grand height of sixth, depending on Newcastle’s form. The problem lies in the fact that the bulk of a new team has been purchased which are not good enough to challenge for the Champions League spots. They are, however, long-term signings and FSG have hamstrung themselves by appointing Dalglish, as they cannot sack him without losing the support of about 90% of the fans. So Dalglish will, at least, stay for the duration of his three-year contract. For him to build a new team, he would have to sell the dross he has purchased and replaced them with better players. FSG have not been known for throwing their financial weight around on their other ventures and giving Dalglish the leeway to spend as he has may lead to them putting their foot down and forcing him live within his means.
So, in essence, Dalglish has overspent in building a long-term team who are the seventh best team and the sixth best squad and must now operate within a financial limit, while remaining unsackable. His tactics are fine, for a team looking to finish seventh. For a team aiming for the top four, his tactics are not good enough. For a team aiming for the top four, his signings have not been good enough. How to rectify this? For most others who have wasted resources as he has, a place on the managerial scrapheap is reserved. But FSG will not send him there because their fans will not let them, even if it is to their detriment.
For the next three years they are irrelevant to the bigger teams. They will sink further if Newcastle continue with their wise investing and other teams around them gather pace. It may take five years, in all, for them to recover from Dalglish’s idiocy (assuming he stays out his contract), as a new manager will need time to break up his squad and create his own. Liverpool are at fault for their demise and even more at fault for their remaining in the dregs. They have not helped themselves and Dalglish has done as much, if not more long-term damage to the club than Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
After full time, Thierry Henry was ruled out for the rest of the season. Three months later, he became a Barcelona player. A 1-1 draw which culminated in our being knocked out of the Champions League was no send-off for a player who had done so much for the club. 226 goals, 2 Premier League titles and 3 FA Cups were his legacy after 8 magnificent years in London.
He has always spoken of his great love for the club and the fans - a love which has always been reciprocated - and recently, Arsenal unveiled a statue of their former captain. It depicted the Frenchman’s iconic knee-slide celebration after his stunning solo goal against them in the 02/03 season. His emotion in his speech said more than words ever could about his feelings on The Arsenal.
While Robin van Persie has had a 2011 similar to Henry’s 2004 (when he was the best player on the planet), there has been cause for concern further down the list of striking options, with regard to the misfiring Marouane Chamakh and the allusive Park Ju-Young. While the Moroccan ventures off to the Africa Cup of Nations and Park remains in the shadows, we needed a temporary centre forward. The stage was set for the man who the fans voted as their ‘Greatest Ever’ to return in a more supporting role. Of course, while we appreciate that he will not be the same player that set the Premier League alight between 1999 and 2007, there is no way we could not be thrilled to see him back.
Until around 9:30 pm yesterday evening, his record against his first opponents on his second debut, Leeds United, stood at 11 goals in 11 games. We were struggling to break down a stubborn Leeds, but the whole stadium seemed to lift when he entered the pitch. Seeing him back and singing his song rekindled wonderful memories of those glorious final years at Highbury.
Then on the 78th minute, the moment that left myself and so many others in ecstasy. Alex Song played the through ball as Henry evaded the offside trap, just as he used to do so devastatingly in his prime. An excellent first touch allowed him to advance into the open space. The finish was typical Thierry. He lent back, opened up his body and slotted the ball into the far corner. The epitome of composure; the archetypal winner. While celebrating, he shared an embrace with Arsene Wenger - the delight on both their faces says it all. It’s an iconic image.
His celebration seemed to embody the joy and elation of the 60,000 Arsenal fans in the stadium and the millions over the world. The King of Highbury had come home and had created a new goalscoring record at a time when we needed a goal. Five years after leaving, he came back and scored within 10 minutes of coming on. Personally, I am still unable to articulate the immense joy that moment brought. The Thierry Henry and Arsenal love story goes on and on.