I’ve taken my eye off the ball

When I was a mere stripling, Arsenal was my be-all and end-all. If we lost I’d mope around all weekend, and if we won I’d be bouncing off the walls. I’d pore over league tables, cut out clippings from the papers, crouch over my portable radio and gen up on Arsenal’s history. I couldn’t get enough of it.

It meant so much. I remember driving back from Birmingham after the FA Cup semi-final replay in 1999 and I don’t think anyone said a word to each other. Just the sound of rubber on tarmac mixed with a bad dose of the black dog. I’m fairly sure I didn’t say a word to anyone for a day after that, either. I imagine I was terrific company.

Back then, when I heard apocalyptic tales of people who’d given up going to Arsenal, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to do that. I’d bend over backwards to make all the home games, even if it meant inconveniencing the plans of others. That was what you did.

But with age, I see how drifting away from the thing I once besotted over could happen. I can now see why people stop going to Arsenal. I’m not saying I’m there yet, but on the renowned Stillman Scale (which really is the only way of measuring this) where zero is forgetting there was a game on, and ten is Tim Stillman, I’d say I’ve gone from about an 8 to a 6.

I can’t put it all down to age, though with every passing year I do appear to be getting older. Not even breathing in the steamed essence of Tomas Rosicky can halt that. It’s happening, folks.

But age does have a habit of putting things into perspective, and as for responsibilities – well, there’s no getting away from them. And there’s no doubting that Arsenal means a bit less to me than it once did. The big games, the big days, the cup finals – those stick long in the memory. But the rest of the season disappears from my mind in short order.

I don’t watch Match of the Day as much, and there are several games this season that I confess have entirely passed me by. I haven’t even watched the goals yet.

And – do you find this? – I can’t even concentrate through a live match because I’m constantly picking up my phone. Social media is brilliant with football – but it’s also ruinous. Put your phone down man! Somehow I find that hard, because when Ospina ambles across his penalty box like a new-born foal for the fourth time, all I want to do is megalol on Twitter. Before I know it, I’ve missed 5 minutes of the match. Oops. Maybe I should sign up for the Twelve-Tweet program with Twitterholics Anonymous. Anyone with me?

Then there’s the team. This version of Arsenal – running WengerOS 4.3 – while far from terrible in historical terms, can be rather… humdrum. It’s not the upgrade we were hoping for. It drains the battery quicker than it ought *bludgeons metaphor with a mallet*.

Current status: winning without wowing. Nothing so very wrong with that I suppose, but it’s hard not to compare ourselves to the current frontrunners, isn’t it?

We’re nestling roughly where we expect to nestle at the end of the season – 4th to 6th – with little expectation of being whisked off on the wings of a title challenge. This is a subject that’s been run into the ground, so there’s no need to go over it now – but it does affect my love of the team at the moment. Shallow? Maybe. But true. Thousands of empty seats suggest it’s not just me.

All of these factors (in summary: getting a bit older and being a taxi driver for my children, combined with the team not being the Invincibles) mean I’ve only made one match this season – Bournemouth. I think it was 3-1 but I can’t remember who scored. Was it Steve Williams?

Like I said, I’m not planning on giving it all up anytime soon. I still love it, I like the routine too much and I like catching up with my mates.

But I’d dearly love to get a bit of my mojo for the team back. I’m quietly confident my attendance is about to pick up (circumstances swinging back in my favour), and maybe – for what is there without hope – now that the team has stabilised we can get a taste for ruthlessness.*

This has turned into a bit of a middle-aged ramble, hasn’t it? But this lack of connection – or more accurately, lower level of connection – is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It’s based on numerous factors, not all related to the team, and it’s been slow-burning for a few years now. Maybe I’m just over-dramatising a perfectly normal chronological pattern for football fans. Or maybe I just have to be honest and admit that – shock, horror – I really am a few stops further down the line aboard the Stop-Going-To-Arsenal Express.

*This may or may not have been said before

A handy guide to transfer terminology

A Kolasinac-shaped left-back aside, this June was hardly flaming in the transfer department. July is where the action usually is, I tell myself, and it’s an opinion I can justify with the exciting and growing chatter about Lacazette.

However, there’s a lot of hot air out there when it comes to transfers, so I’ve put together a useful guide to navigating some of the well-worn phrases used almost uniquely during the summer months to tell us what’s really happening in the world of transfers.

1. Arsenal swoop on Nigel Dixon

Ah, the infamous ‘swoop’. The swoop is an elaborate high-risk technique used by teams to lure players away from teams desperate not to sell. The swoop needs to be quick and lightning-like, because by the time of the swoop, all other avenues have been closed.

It’s usually performed in a paraglider, though since Russian oligarchs parked their tanks on our lawns, the microlite has been known to be used, and some clubs are even trialling drones to perform this job in the future.

You can’t spirit these players away when they’re in their gilded mansions or locked away in their blacked-out Range Rovers – their clubs are wise to this – which is why you often see several paragliders circling in the thermals above swanky beach resorts or shopping streets, ready to swoop down, grab the required player and soar away to make them sign a contract.

2. Nigel Dixon issues a come-and-get-me-plea

The come-and-get-me-plea is part of the mundane bureaucracy of football. Should the club who hold the restless player’s registration refuse to budge, the next step is for the player himself to formalise his desire to leave. It’s quite straightforward and simply requires a trip to the Post Office (avoiding other clubs’ paragliders as you go). The come-and-get-me-plea is then duly filled in (with a black ball-point pen only, or it will be void), then issued by telegram to the club in question once the player has paid an administration fee of £5. A messenger in a peaked cap will then deliver the message in person to the manager of the club he wishes to join.

3. Arsenal have joined the race for Nigel Dixon

A physical challenge, this one. When more than one club is interested in a player, and the selling team or player can’t make their mind up who to sell to, it goes down to a 100m sprint. At Arsenal, in times gone by, Ken ‘Quickfoot’ Friar was known to be fast out the blocks, but since 1996 the long legs of Arsene Wenger have taken this role. He doesn’t like to delegate this task and is particularly proud of how he pipped the field to the line by a nose in 2013 to buy Mesut Ozil, despite spending most of the summer trying to find his running shoes.

4. Arsenal and Manchester City set to fight it out for Nigel Dixon

When all diplomacy fails, and money is not a factor, out come the fists. It won’t surprise you to hear that, despite hating confrontation, this task is another that Wenger is loathe to delegate to Steve ‘Bruiser’ Bould.

Back in the 90s and early 00s, Wenger was nimbler on his feet and would often find himself in the ring on his own, because nobody else knew about the player he was hoping to buy. TKO. But as his tenure has progressed, there are fewer unknown gems left in football so the boss has had to go against his better judgement and start jabbing with wily streetfighters. He’ll jab away forever to wear his opponent down (again, his long arms are a bonus here) but when it comes to the big slugs, he tends to get Bouldy to throw the towel in in the second round.

5. Nigel Dixon delivers a transfer ultimatum

No need to get the Post Office involved in this one – only the Foreign Office. The transfer ultimatum happens when things get political, and it’s just one step away from a transfer war. In practical terms, the ultimatum used to be delivered by a player to his manager using a battered red-leather diplomatic briefase attached to his wrist by a handcuff. These days it’s done using the ‘I want to leave now’ Snapchat filter.

6. Nigel Dixon just wants to concentrate on his football

Summer is not only for buying and selling, but for extending contracts too. But when a player doesn’t want to extend his contract, or is hoping for other clubs to swoop, join the race or fight it out for his signature, he needs a good excuse to delay things. He’s used ‘the dog ate my homework’ already, so it’s time for ‘I just want to concentrate on my football’. Given most players spend their summers taking selfies, and it only takes 10 minutes to tell your club what you intend to do anyway, and they have advisers and agents coming out their ears, this excuse stands pretty low on the credibility scale. So just in case his manager makes an impromptu visit to his player’s house to check upon this claim, the player will set up a football room where he amasses books about football history, swots up on the rules and watches old VHS tapes about the glory days of yore. The manager will be duly chastened and will leave impressed at his wantaway player’s dedication.

That’s your lot. I hope this has cleared some of the more confusing aspects of summer transfers. Roll on the new season.

Happy Christmas, ’tis the season for ho-ho-hoping

If I was to mark our Christmas scorecard, I’d probably give it about a 5 (as indeed did Gooner’s Diary in this piece in the Guardian).

It’s been far from disastrous, with a smooth passage through to the Champions League group stages being the highlight. If you look at the bigger picture rather than individual results, under Wenger we rarely do disastrous – one of the reasons for his impressive longevity.

And in Alexis Sanchez, we’ve bought a genuine superstar whose 14 goals so far have, at times, held the whole rickety structure together. We’re four points off fourth, so although the leaders are over the title horizon already, there’s stuff to be salvaged and cups to play for.

But of course, it hasn’t panned out how we wanted. We’ve yet to find any fluency and it’s already Christmas. Injuries have massively curtailed us, and we can’t even fall back on the one thing we used to hold dear during a barren decade – our glorious attacking football. We’ve played in fits and starts all season and have seen only small, fleeting glimpses of the kind of football we have grown accustomed to.

So Wenger’s back under pressure, and you have to say that much of it is self-inflicted. The gamble on sticking with a small cadre of defenders could not have backfired more spectacularly and it’s cost us points, consistency and confidence.

Injuries show no sign of abating, to be honest. With every one player who comes back, we lose another; it’s been a disaster on that front. A revolving door of hamstrung hamstrings, collapsed calves, grimacing groins, knee knacks and broken bones.

Mentally, we’ve veered from strong to weak, from concentration to absent-mindedness. You never know which Arsenal you will see.

Looking back at my limited volume of blog posts, the titles tell you all you need to know about the season. On the positive side we’ve had ‘Alexis marks the spot’, and ‘An explosive Chilean red’ (it’s that man propping us up again), but on the other end of the spectrum there’s been ‘Poor in the Ruhr’, ‘Arsenal Arsenal it up again’ and ‘Dismal Arsenal stagger on’.

A microcosm of our season, right there.

What will the new year hold?

This is how I called it a few weeks ago, and unless we can conjure up a new narrative and direction (and plug some gaps in the squad and in the minds), it still seems apt:

If you were a betting man or woman, you’d say the most likely outcome for the second half of the season is more of the same. We probably won’t beat one of the teams we measure ourselves against. We’ll win some and we’ll lose some in no particular order and we might be there or thereabouts for the fourth place trophy in May.

So things could be better, but things could be a lot worse. And in the context of everything else that goes on in life, and in the world, is it worth all the fury? It is not.

Ups, downs, good and bad. Going to the football is fun, it’s an escape. Meeting friends and talking crap and sitting drinking beer, great goals that become seared into the memory, shouting, wailing, smiling – that’s what it’s all about for me. And on that basis, I expect next year to be exactly the same as this one.

Rewarding.

Happy Christmas to you all.

The story of the come-and-get-me plea

In this protracted vacuum of idle nothingness, it’s amused me to once again notice the proliferation of bonkers transfer-only phrases. You know, those ones that you never hear for the rest of the year, but suddenly become common currency. Tim Stillman spotted it too, all that pouncing and swooping, (‘Pouncing on the tabling swoops‘) as did Rory Smith (‘Cracking the transfer code‘) too.

All of which reminded me of my absolute favourite off-season-only phrase, namely Joe Bloggs has issued a come-and-get-me-plea. In my mind this takes some beating. But what you probably aren’t aware of is its provenance, so I thought I’d share it with you. And the key is in the word ‘issuing’.

You see, back at the tail end of the Victorian era they were very keen indeed not only on inventing sports but also on codifying the hell out of them. So it’s perhaps no surprise that as soon as players realised that they could move between clubs for financial gain, the good men of sport wanted to make a rule for this. By the mid 1890s the summer air rang with the sound of itchy-footed footballers pleading for other clubs to come and get them. It quickly became a cacophony. It got out of hand – men walking down the streets, ringing bells, shouting at the top of their voices, agitating for transfers on every street corner. It was mentioned in parliament.

So before long, football’s guardians had decreed that you were no longer simply allowed to yodel all summer about being come and got. If you wanted to do it you needed a licence. And to get a licence, you needed to head to the FA to get it issued. Hence issuing a come-and-get-me-plea.

Footballers would queue up along Lancaster Gate and would be allowed entry to the Plea Issuing Chamber one at a time. A form would be filled in, rubber-stamped, then a messenger would scurry deep into the bowels of the organisation to issue it. And here’s the amazing thing – in a world before the internet and telephones, the FA had, in order to expedite such pleas, built a subterranean narrow-gauge railway with branches heading to London’s newspaper powerhouses on Fleet Street. The messenger would attach the come-and-get-me-plea to a special vehicle, which would then zip off to its destination in record time. Now that the plea had been issued and delivered, it could be published in the press.

I hope you found this interesting. I may even extend the series*

*I won’t.

Anything happening out there?

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A come-and-get-me plea train. Image courtesy of Transport Trust

XXXXXXX, a half-season wonder

So I took an interlull-esque dip into blogs past, because I was just thinking about Giroud (footballistically), and I emerged with this:

11.09.10

Lose him and we are looking to Carlos ‘Chip It’ Vela or heading back into Arshavin territory. So please, XXXXXXXX – no injury.

16.09.10

XXXXXXXX is a revelation. A willing front man who can toil away happily, holding the ball and distributing it, but who has a real eye for goal, I would wager that Bendtner is now sweating a bit. Why on earth did Wenger scrimp on the £7m by waiting this long to sign him? He could have made a real difference in the back end of last season.

27.09.10

XXXXXXX will surely be holding the line again, but that’s fine – he’s made a good start to his Arsenal career with three goals in eight. He’ll need a break at some point but if we can keep him in one piece until Bendtner or van Persie return, then he’s very much the main man.

09.10.10

Our over-reliance on the ever-willing XXXXXXX has been another of my worries.

17.11.10

As an appendix, my players of the season so far are Nasri (up a massive notch), Fabianski (purely for rising from the ashes), XXXXXXX (better than Bendtner) and Wilshere (staggering talent coming of age).

28.11.10

Fortunately, XXXXXXX eased the nerves with a deft toe-poke.

A quick word about Nasri and XXXXXXX. It is very doubtful had you placed a bet on the opening day of the season that you would have tipped those two to top our scoring approaching Christmas, but with 10 and nine goals respectively, they have exceeded expectations.

04.12.10

Shoehorning van Persie and XXXXXXX into the same team is a glorious headache.

06.12.10

So thank heavens for XXXXXXX’s impressive debut season. Mon chapeau est doffed, as they say in France.

21.12.10

XXXXXXX has been a hit

This is precisely the kind of non-sequitur / fluff piece that interlulls were invented for, I’m sure you’ll agree. I’m certain that I also don’t need to tell any of you that XXXXXXX is of course that great Houdini of strikers, Marouane Chamakh. (For a while, he did well in a box). Formerly of Emirates Stadium and now of no fixed abode.

“Where are you going with this?” I hear you ask, and I answer that I’m not entirely sure, only that I recall a player who made his presence felt, could score with the head and the foot and for whom plenty of exuberant words were once written (not least, as you can see, by myself).

And I suppose that some people compare Olivier Giroud to him. Because he’s from the French league, maybe, a striker and tall – but if you think about it there are big differences, and not just in price. Chamakh started his Arsenal career so well, getting something like 11 goals by Christmas, and then faded away drastically. Giroud has started his career at the club more slowly and has set himself a target of a dozen goals for the season. Chamakh scored 16 goals two years running in France, but Giroud got 25 – a huge difference. But the biggest difference is that Chamakh didn’t really replace anyone, whereas Giroud part-replaced a man who scored 37 goals. That’s where the burden is.

Personally I think that Giroud is a decent player and will prove it, if he’s not doing so already, but then again, I did say that about Chamakh.

But the main conclusions of these rambles are these:

a) There’s really no use in making comparisons or judging a player after ten games. It takes a season before a decent assessment can be made. By Christmas 2010, Chamakh was a big player for Arsenal. By May 2011, he was not. Will Giroud have hit 12 goals by May? I think he’ll get more than that.

b) Chamakh’s decline is not only baffling, but sad.

Time for top footballers to stop asking for more? And getting it?

So I was listening this evening to the excellent 5live report on Arsenal’s finances, a discussion with some knowledgeable men present: Martin Keown, former Liverpool MD Christian Purslow, Jeremy Wilson from the Telegraph and Nigel Phillips from the AST. It’s a great listen and I urge you to have a crack if you’ve not done so already (not sure if it’s available overseas – it seems not).

It’s a discussion that comes at a time when Rangers, Portsmouth, Port Vale, Darlington and others are struggling with the weight of debts, and overall, for all the faults and the perceived lack of ambition at Arsenal, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that Arsenal is a well-run club. (I can’t begin to summarise everything it covers – so I’m just plucking bits out).

But one thing struck me, and I’ve already had a mini-rant about it on Twitter. That thing is player wages.

One of the first stats wheeled out in the piece was that Arsenal’s wage bill is now double what it was in the Invincible season of 2004. That is staggering. I know it’s not specifically an Arsenal thing – it’s far worse elsewhere – but it does lay bare the principle reason why clubs struggle now to compete: wages.

This season, Wenger has been criticised for not spending and for distributing the club’s money rather too equitably in some instances to players who do not deserve it. The board has been criticised for not pressuring Wenger to spend and being aloof/distant/in absentia, and the players at times have taken stick for their performances. None are or should be free from scrutiny for those things. But the real reason why clubs are struggling and money is ‘tight’ is that, year-on-year, players keep asking for more. And clubs feel they have no option but to pay it.

The old argument used to be that a player’s career was short, and that he deserved a crack at top wages until he was 35 so he could retire with enough money to start a business or run a pub or something. Now though, we are talking about players who earn millions a year and who will never have to work again.

Look, I know the reality: that’s market wages. If I was offered double my wages, I’d take it too. If you stand up to your players or their agents, your players will move on. And I am not criticising Arsenal players over any others here, because at the top level they’re all the same.

But surely, it has to end soon? For how many more years can wages rise in the way they are currently rising? At a time when the country – and much of the continent – is flat broke, is this sustainable? And what can be done about it?

Rant over. In the meantime, I point you once again to the 5live special, and for some additional food for thought, The Swiss Ramble is (as ever) worth a look on Arsenal’s finances, as is this piece from @behnisch.

But all these new revenue streams, these increases in prices for fans and so on, it’s mostly all down to burgeoning player wages. It’s got to stop.

And erm – up the Arsenal!

5 things to do in the international break

1. Find Abou Diaby
He’s gone missing. Injurepol have been alerted but there is still no sign of our no-minutes-on-the-pitch midfielder. If spotted, feel free to approach him. He’s completely harmless.

2. Avoid what Denilson’s been drinking
Six appearances for Sao Paolo, three red cards. That’s some work. One can only speculate what it was that has unleashed the beast in Denilson, but he’s gone all Razor Ruddock on us. Topping it all off, the man whose chirpy ‘Bom Dias a Todos’ pipes out on Twitter at the same time every day seems to be scrapping online with his own fans too. On balance, I think he’s best off where he is for now.

3. Buy some WD-40 for this
Handbrake

4. Invert the league table
Sixth is not bad. Plenty to work on – I think we can catch Bolton.

5. Make your own meal deal
Missing the authentic matchday experience? Make yourself a slice of pizza, pour yourself a pint of Carlsberg into a plastic glass and charge yourself £9.

(Apologies for this, but I’m a bit bored and a bit unemployed at the moment).

Arsenal merchandise, 80s style

Gunners Shop

Apropos of not a great deal, on the day when yet another home shirt was revealed, I thought I’d share this with you. I was digging through some old stuff today and came across the Gunners Shop price list from the 1986-1987 season.

It’s one of those occasions when 25 years seems an entire world away. Compare the commercial operations of Arsenal now with this. There was no internet, of course, but you could go in person to the shop (behind the Clock End and the size of a shoe box) or you could send off a cheque/postal order. Note: NO COINS PLEASE.

As for needing to see pictures of the products – well there’s no need for that, is there? We all know what a Baby Doll Nightie Set and a Sing-a-Long Record (4 songs) is, anyway.

It also means I have found out what I paid for my ‘Kenny Sansom’ acrylic flat cap – £2. Apparently, it’s a ‘cheesecutter cap’. So there you go.

Incidentally, tucked into the price list I also found these.

Competition: Win a signed Paul Merson autobiography

**This competition has now closed**

And now for something completely different. Thanks to the folks at HarperCollins Publishers, I’ve got two signed copies of Paul Merson’s autobiography – How Not To Be A Professional Footballer – to give away.

For all his flaws, in his pomp the Merse was one of my favourite players at Arsenal, so I’m looking forward to reading this one myself.

Anyway, to stand a chance of winning, all you have to do is answer the question below.

How many goals did the Merse score for Arsenal?

A: 124
B: 99
C: 76

The winners will be selected at random and notified by email. I will announce the winners on the blog.

**This competition has now closed**

Book bumph:

When it comes to advice on the pitfalls of life as a professional footballer, Paul Merson can pretty much write the manual. In fact, that’s exactly what he’s done in this hilarious new book which combines moments of glorious comedy with poignant soul-searching – but mainly glorious comedy.

Merson was a prodigiously talented footballer in the 80s and 90s, gracing the upper echelons of the game – and the tabloid front pages – with his breathtakingly skills and larger-than-life off-field persona.

His much-publicised battles with gambling, drug and alcohol addiction are behind him now, and football fans continue to be drawn to his sharp footballing brain and playful antics on SkySports’ cult results show Soccer Saturday.

The story delights and entertains with a treasure chest of terrific anecdotes from a man who has never lost his love of football and his inimitable joie de vivre through a 25-year association with The Beautiful Game.

The DO NOTs include:

DO NOT adopt ‘Champagne’ Charlie Nicholas as your mentor
DO NOT share a house with Gazza
DO NOT regularly place £30,000 bets at the bookie’s
DO NOT get so drunk that you can’t remember the 90 minutes of football you just played in
DO NOT manage Walsall (at any cost)

You can also buy your copy of HOW NOT TO BE A PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALLER by clicking here