Sunday, 28 December 2008

For What It's Worth

I'm finding that my exasperation with Arsenal, and particular with Wenger, has led me to a kind of tired, fatalistic passivity. After the Villa equaliser, I could only nod and ruefully smile; after a scratchy win against Portsmouth, a sigh of resignation. Again, after the macth, there was all the old statements about belief and still being in the Premiership race: who believes this? Who is it for? This is currently the weakest, youngest, most inconsistent team Wenger has put together, and I don't think it will finish in the top 4. Personnel-wise, it's a mid-table team. I'm not a gambling man, but this is what I would do come January:
1. offload Bendtner for as much as could be raised.
2. send Song on loan with the proviso that he does not return.
3. buy Bullard for £7m, Upson for £8m, and Given for £5m. If, as one blog mooted today, Dacourt is being looked at, bring him in too, for peanuts.
4. get Senderos back from loan at Milan.
5. offer to take Arshavin on loan until the end of the season with the condition that he will be signed for £18m only if Arsenal finish in the Champions League places.
None of the above will happen. I'm sick and tired of Arsene, the excuses, the ludicrous rhetoric, the pointless spats, the post-game frustration and anger. This Arsenal team fails to win consistently not because of some refereeing conspiracy, nor because the team are booted off the pitch (as the 1998-2004 team were); no, it's because they aren't very good. And if Arsene can no longer see that, he should go in the summer. It's got to the point where I think my passion for Arsenal will only return when he does go. After 11 mainly brilliant years, that's a sad thing to admit.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Playing I-Spy with Arsene

Over the Christmas period, I-Spyers, award yourself the following points when you hear Arsene produce the following:
1. 'I believe in these players' (1 point)
2. 'The team showed great character' (1 point)
3. 'We were not physically sharp enough today' (2 points)
4. 'Having Eduardo and Senderos back will be like signing two new players' (20 points)
5. 'Our quality was missing today' (1 point)
6. 'Yes, we were a little unlucky' (1 point)
7. 'He is a good player, but we are not interested in him' (15 points)
8. 'We are a little disappointed in the level of our performance' (3 points)
9. 'We are not out of the title race, no' (6 points)
10. 'I feel the team is back to its best' (150 points)

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Something Rotten

Being disappointed with the manner of Arsenal's performance is one thing. Booing a player until the manager is forced to remove him from the pitch, then cheering as he goes, is quite another. Like many another blog I'm appalled by what happened to Eboue at the Emirates yesterday. One of my favourite memories from Highbury was watching the late-80s GG side, and two or three Geezers in front of us provided a running commentary. When yet another move broke down, one stood up and shouted 'Hayes! Hayes!', then sitting back down, turned to his mates and said, 'Martin Hayes? If 'e was a horse, they'd take 'im out and shoot 'im.' Me and my friends gasped with laughter for the next few minutes. No booing, no calumny, no poison - just a few geezers who were well used to Arsenal playing poorly and reacted with a kind of resigned humour.
These malignant toads who booed Eboue yesterday - and who seem to think that paying the huge sums to attend the Emirates entitles them to boo their own players, to destroy the thing they watch - are a product of a change in footballing culture, in crowd culture, at Arsenal. No more support through thick and thin (mainly thin) - they use the analogy of the cinema or other 'entertainment', and say that if they weren't entertained, they have a right to complain. It's a long way from when Alan Durban, then Stoke manager, told critical journalists after a bore-draw at Highbury 'that if they wanted entertainment they should go and watch clowns.' The Emirates crowd are now consumers, and in all honesty, the club has encouraged them to act in this way through escalating prices and an emphasis upon the corporate spectacle. Wenger's marvellous football 1998-2007 has also spoiled this crowd; their support is now contingent upon entertainment or success. When I began to watch Arsenal at Highbury in the mid-70s, your ticket price guaranteed neither of those things (and hadn't done for a while).
A word: hubris. On the pitch and off of it, this near-train wreck of a season is being undone by long-standing fatal assumptions, from the board, from Wenger, from the crowd, for the blogosphere, about the relationship between players and supporters, between the club and the fans. The rage of the bloggers against the 'arrogance' of Bendtner is that of Caliban seeing his own face in the mirror.
I want Arsenal to fail now. I want them to fall apart and finish out of Europe. I want these so-called fans to 'do one', permanently. Only a season or two of failure will drive them out, and see the whole club return to something that I can feel happy in supporting.
A plague on all their houses.

Monday, 24 November 2008

The lowest ebb

It's happened. After Gallas's outburst, he has been removed as captain (at long last, and rightly); after the Manchester City debacle, Cesc has been installed as Arsenal's leader on the pitch. Now, I think the road will be bumpy for a while yet, but I think this week is rock-bottom, and hopefully we will see something of a performance tomorrow against Kyiv. I'm avoiding predictions, as they usually go wrong, but I'm a little more optimistic than I was on Saturday.
Arsene's hand was forced by Gallas, and for that, I think we should thank Willy, not bury him. Let's hope that, without the burden of a role to which he was not suited, Gallas can regain some form, because we need him, even if it's just for the rest of the season. A change was needed and without Gallas's outburst I don't think Arsene would have made that change. Now, we have the captain we should have had since the summer, and hopefully the responsibility can shake Cesc out of his torpor.
With all the injuries to the thin squad, who can tell what the starting XI tomorrow will be? But I would say this: the time for Diaby or Denilson to play wide is gone. Wilshere should start on the right; I would play Cesc and Ramsey in the middle. On the left? Merida or Gibbs.
It is also time for a frank assessment of some of the young players in the squad (and Myles Palmer's latest blog, stating that most of the squad is 'crap', is awful, brainless and insulting rubbish, an index of ANR's decline over the last couple of years. Many of the squad are too young to carry the burden that Arsene has asked of them, too early - but they are not 'crap'.) Song is too languid for the Premier League; Diaby needs to be given some games in central midfield to show whether he really can play there, and if not, he should be moved on, because we have better players in a playmaking role (Ramsey, Wilshere, even RvP). Denilson is a neat, tidy young footballer who is not physically powerful; he would be fine as an alternate to Cesc in some games, but is being worn down by being a first-choice central midfielder at his current age. He needs a rest. Clichy is being exposed but is still an excellent left-back who I would not swap for Ashley Cole if offered. Bendtner is not physical enough to be a front-man, and is not technically-adept enough to be a Bergkamp. He also should be sold. Vela is clearly an excellent player who needs more games and better service.
Hopefully the poison in the squad can be drained. The appointment of Cesc will start this process, as he is clearly respected and looked up to even at 21. At 21, he has the authority to tell Ade to shut up, to order Song to get into position, to impose his mentality on the Arsenal side. He is a winner, too.
Clearly, we need a central defender or two, a central midfielder, and a winger come January. The awfulness of this week should have shaken Arsene out of his own complacency, too; if not, more radical changes will be needed next summer.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

10 things Arsene (and Arsenal) should do in 2009

1. Appoint Martin Keown as defensive coach.
2. Replace Pat Rice as Assistant Manager with someone who will counter Arsene's stubbornness.
3. Appoint a CEO without further delay.
4. Sign an experienced, high-tempo midfielder in January.
5. Play Johan Djourou in central defence.
6. Do not allow Philip Senderos to leave for AC Milan or elsewhere.
7. Give Aaron Ramsay more games in place of Cesc.
8. Bring back Eduardo VERY slowly.
9. Sell Song, Adebayor, Bendtner, Gallas.
10. Hope that Jack Wilshere isn't affected by the media hype.

10 Things Arsenal (and Arsene) have got wrong in 2008

1. Selling Lassana Diarra.
2. Not buying Jonathan Woodgate.
3. Allowing Mathieu Flamini to leave on a Bosman.
4. Failing to buy Xabi Alonso.
5. Failing to install a CEO.
6. Bringing back Cesc too early after Euro 2008 and placing too much of the burden on his shoulders.
7. Allowing Gallas to remain captain.
8. Placing too much faith in Diaby, Denilson and Song as replacements for Flamini and Gilberto.
9. Not selling Adebayor at £20 million.
10. Giving Adebayor and Van Persie salary increases without winning anything.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Memphis Blues Again

Another defeat at home, this one the worst of the lot. To under-perform against Hull or Stoke is one thing; against the team in fifth, one place behind, who draw level if they win, is another.
I now think the Arsenal will probably finish fifth, deservedly, and it might be good for the club to do so. Complacency has set in, clearly, both in the squad and, it must be said, in Arsene. No-one in his position can take results and performances like today's one with equanimity, one would think. Arsene will no doubt trot out the 'I believe in this squad' routine again, but that is wearing mighty thin. He must be troubled; the policy is clearly not working; but do you think he will buy in January? I don't.
A season in the UEFA, and a winnowing of the squad (and some canny purchases) are in order - with, or dare to say it, without Arsene. With the Carling draw, it looks good for the Arsenal kids to win that Cup - and it looks like many of my other early season 'doom' predictions might also bear fruit. I hope Ramsay gets a few games soon, along with Vela and even Wilshere. It might do some of the 'first-teamers' good (especially Cesc, who is dire need of a break) to be dropped. There's so much potential at Arsenal, so much fruit on the vine. Will it wither or ripen?

Sunday, 9 November 2008


Another odd week for Gooners. First the 4-4 with Spurs, which I watched with two Arsenal-supporting friends in a pub filled with Halloween-becostumed students, only to experience our own nightmare (paralysed with horror, knowing Spurs were going to equalise); then the defeat at Stoke, all-too-inevitable against Pulis's giants; and then the Fener 0-0 which I didn't bother to try to see, or even catch highlights.
Arthur said that I should revise my 'Endgame' post and validate the doom-scenario instead of looking on the brighter side, and this week, I would have thought he was right. Yesterday's result doesn't change that, of course. I have thought since the start of the season that we would play well in games against Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool this season. These games are not the problem. It's Stoke, Fulham, Hull and Sunderland that are the problem. Why?
1. the inconsistency of a young and physically quite small side that doesn't have strong leadership in the team, and who over-rely on Cesc as their engine and talisman, who is not on great form;
2. as Hull boss Phil Brown has just said on Radio 5 Live, the fact that we still don't take enough of our chances;
3. tempo. I think this one is the most important. The Arsenal miss Flamini not because he was an effective 'destroyer' or because he sat in front of the back 4; he didn't. He was in some ways a classic box-to-box player. No, they miss Flamini because of the tempo, the energy of his game. When Arsenal set a high tempo for the game, as they did against United, they have such movement and technical ability that they can out-manoeuvre and pass around defences. Physicality is therefore not so much of a problem. However, when they start slowly (as Brown thought they did against Hull), it becomes much more easy for opposing sides to sit back, close down space, cut off the angles, dominate through physicality and set-pieces, take advantage of lapses in concentration. Yesterday United came to play an open, high-tempo game and they were beaten.
This is why Alex Song is a very bad fit for Arsenal. He's a languid player, much more suited to Italian football (La Liga would be too high-tempo for him too) or international football. Denilson must keep his work-rate up, as he did yesterday, to avoid the same problem.
Arsenal cannot rely on technique. They must play with energy and aggression. I like a mobile 4-5-1 for the current squad, with Cesc-Denilson-Diaby in midfield, flanked by Walcott and Nasri. This has pace, technical ability, movement, and shooting prowess. Adebayor is a far from complete player, but I would play him, when fit, as a lone striker, as he can run the channels, but if a better option became available (Torres at Liverpool, for instance, shows that a player can be effective in this role without having to be a massive physical presence) I would pounce. The problem for Arsenal's current strikers is this: Eduardo (when fit) and Vela are excellent finishers, but are physically small and need to play off a bigger partner; Bendtner is big but is more of a Crouch-type player rather than a target-man; RvP is too flaky and individualistic. The Internet suggests that the Arsenal have signed a 20-year old Brzilian striker called 'Lenny' from Palmeiras on a pre-contract agreement; he will no doubt go to Salamanca, and at 5 foot 8, he's not large either. We don't have an effective alternative to Adebayor in the squad for the lone striker role.
So, my friends, expect more of the same. The yoof squad will probably beat Wigan on Tuesday and go into the Carling QFs; but there will be unexpected and mighty wins, and terribly deflating draws and defeats, before season's end.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Endgame revisited

I have just looked back at my posts from August. Have a look at the 'Endgame?' one. I now discount my 'fear' projections: except for the signings of new players, I think that pretty much every one of the 'upside' list will be fulfilled this season - I especially think the Vela/ Bendtner combination is going to be excellent. That includes the departure of Arsene in a couple of years; I think he'll go at the end of his contract in 2011, most likely. I expect the Arsenal to go to Sunderland this weekend and win; and win well.

Stand Up

This summer I've been working on my family history. Going back to great-grandparents and further back, the Carter family came from the North Essex coast; the Bennions from Lancashire, and I think the Monks also hailed from Essex. But the Bakers, the Staples's, the Costens and the Pikesleys all came from London: and not any old part of London. They're all North Londoners, from Pancras district, and from Islington: from Camden Town, from St Pancras, from Caledonian Road and Pentonville. My maternal great-grandfather George Staples and his mother lived in Judd Street, just off the Euston Road, in 1891; my paternal great-grandmother Annie Pikesley lived on Tonbridge Street, which backs onto Judd Street, in the same year. It's little wonder, with all that North London blood and Thames water flowing in my veins, that I support Arsenal.
This has made me reassess, partly, my relationship to the team. Supporting the Arsenal was never an act of choice, of course; my Uncle Allan (Dad's brother) took me to Highbury back in 1975, and the team claimed me as a Gooner then. But now I realise that the Arsenal are part of my North London psychic furniture, although the team didn't move to North London until 1913 and my forebears, if they had followed football at all (quite possible, as they were railway workers, delivery drivers, domestics) might well have been Tottenham supporters.
No matter.
In a sense, then, I can no more give up on the Arsenal than I can give up on my family. But, as I couldn't stand living in London today, although it has a special place in personal and family mythologies and I like to visit it, I can't stand living with Arsenal day-to-day, but I like to visit them (symbolically). So, when they lost at home to Hull last Saturday, I groaned inwardly but got on with what I was doing; when they waltzed past Porto, playing some marvellous football, I went to bed happy and entertained but not aghast at the 4 chances from inside the 6-yard box missed, and not euphoric that the 'real Arsenal' had stood up.
Because this is the real Arsenal. When the first team's age is in the low twenties; when the hysterical Gallas is captain; when there is such a wealth of extraordinary talent in the club that complacency must be a constant temptation; when the entirety of the team (except for Toure and Cesc) has been changed since the 2006 Champions League final defeat; when nothing has been won since 2005; when all these are true, there is going to be inconsistency, there is going to be frustration, there are going to be inexplicable defeats as well as astonishing victories. I expect us to play well against Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool this year, but don't think we can win the league becuase the team is not ruthless enough against teams they are expected to beat: West Brom (lucky win), Fulham (defeat), Hull (defeat). This team do have mental strength: coming back from the Hull game to beat Porto in the way they did expresses that well enough. But they don't have the concentration, or not consistently enough, to win the league.
They might win the Champions League, though.
So, I now think: sit back, watch, enjoy the fabulous football. George Graham's Arsenal won FA Cup and League Cup in 1993, and the Cup Winner's in 1994: but would I rather watch a winning '93 Arsenal, or the current side? No contest. Winning isn't everything, and we should take the long view. Arsene remade the club and the team (several times), and this is the most beautiful incarnation yet. I needn't ask the question: ou sont les Steve Walfords d'antan?

Saturday, 30 August 2008


It's interesting that Arsene referred to the end of the transfer window as a 'game of poker', because that's exactly the metaphor that I've been thinking of for the last few days. Partly this derives from my interest in the Miami Dolphins, for this is a big weekend for football and American football in terms of the squad or roster: the football transfer window shuts at midnight on September 1 (Monday), while all 32 NFL teams must trim their squads (called 'rosters' in the NFL) to 53 players by 4pm today - down from an initial 75 on Thursday. If you think about it, that's a lot of players becoming available at once: 22 times 32 is 704. Some of these will be 'stashed' on 8-man 'practice squads', the rest released onto the 'waiver wire' (if they have less than 4 years NFL experience) or made free agents. Miami Dolphins, as they had the worst record last year, has first dibs on all waiver wire players - so I expect the Dolphins front office to be very busy over the next couple of days, as the 54th best player (cut) on the Patriots, Colts, Cowboys or Chargers rosters might be a lot better than the Dolphins' 40th. The bottom dozen on the Dolphins's roster will be looking over their shoulders this weekend - no surprise that some of them played 'like demons' in the final pre-season game on Thursday, to try to keep their place on the roster.
The New Orleans game was the final pre-season game, usually not much of a spectacle as head coaches don't want to play their starters and have them injured 10 days before kickoff. Surprisingly, the Dolphins won. They lost their first preseason game, a tight one to the Buccaneers (who were NFC South champions last year); but then beat playoff contenders the Jacksonville Jags, the terrible Kansas City Chiefs and then the Saints, who are also a playoff wildcard team. Last time the Dolphins were 3-1 in preseason, they went 11-5 in the regular season. This won't happen this time; although the arrival of former Jets QB Chad Pennington (who was bumped from his former team when they signed Bret Favre, who revoked his decision to retire from the Packers last year and was traded to the Jets, the Fins' bitterest rivals) has given the Fins' a much needed passing game, there is a lack of depth behind the starters which might get exposed if injuries start to bite, as occurred last season. I'm expecting 6-10. The Fins will get to pick in the top 10 again in the 2009 draft if so, meaning better opportunities for rebuidling, as the Parcells team has proved that they are excellent evaluators of talent. Of this year's draft, LT Long, DE Langford and OG Thomas are already starters; DE Merling and QB Henne excellent backups. 5 high-quality players from a draft is stellar stuff.
Pennington's arrival, and the emergence of the rookie Chad Henne, displaced the two QBs who were in Miami before the draft: last year's draft pick John Beck - who was knocked to pieces last year when asked to start behind an offensive line that let multiple express trains through per game to squash him flat - and free agent signing Josh McCown have had hardly any practice time, and precious little preseason game time, since then. Both are 'on the outs'; and yesterday, McCown was traded to the Carloina Panthers. Beck still may be traded too, and the Fins might pick up a cut QB from another team to act as the 3rd-stringer, 'holding the clipboard', if value can be got for Beck.
This is what I mean about playing poker. VP of operations Bill Parcells and his GM Jeff Ireland have proved themselves expert poker-players in the offseason and preseason: the Jason Taylor situation was finally resolved when an injury to the Washington Redskins's starting defensive end necessitated that they acquire a replacement: instead of the 3rd or 4th round draft pick being suggested for Taylor around the 2008 draft, the Fins picked up the Skins's 2009 2nd rounder, a much more valuable pick. (As it happens, the Skins have a new head coach, new offensive system, and play in the toughest division of all, the NFC East, against the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles. For all Taylor's desire to play with a contender, the Skins may well not make it into the postseason this year. And the worse record the Skins have, the better value their 2nd rounder becomes.) Parcells and Ireland played poker with Taylor, and won; they played poker with McCown, and won, again because another team had injuries. It's a waiting game, and Parcells can out-wait anyone.
That's why I thought of Arsene's playing of the transfer game as poker. He keeps an admirable straight face, so much so that the fans (and me) despair that we will sign anyone. Yesterday's press conference, where he said that the Arsenal 'might' sign 'one or two' gives reason for optimism, though, as does Danny Fiszman's insistence that if Arsene wanted to buy a £30 million stiker, he could. So perhaps we aren't skint; perhaps Arsene will do a couple of deals; perhaps it'll be all right in the end.
But the rumblings, the grumblings, and particularly the booing of Adebayor, the jeering of Bendtner and Eboue, all suggest that something has changed at Arsenal recently. Arsene's credit in the bank is perilously close to be overdrawn; if the Arsenal finances aren't as bad as we feared, Arsene has his own credit crunch to deal with.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008


It's the only explanation for the tightness in my stomach, the tiredness in my bones, the ache in the leg I broke 5 years ago - the Arsenal are skint. Why else would Arsene have us believe that the squad as it stands, having let go Diarra, Flamini, Hleb, Gilberto, Lehmann, Hoyte, and sent on loan Senderos, is as strong as last year's? When only Nasri, the currently crocked Silvestre and Bischoff, and the young lad Ramsay have come in? I can only imagine that Arsene and Peter Hill-Wood are covering up the fact the there is no money to spend - otherwise, why not buy an exerienced central midfielder to play with Cesc?
It's as worrying a time for Gooners as there has been since 1995. We're not that bad - but the signs aren't good.

Monday, 25 August 2008


OK folks, this is it. The hysterical reaction to defeat at Craven Cottage on Saturday points towards something - not just the 'three years without a trophy' fever of fans who have never known anyone but Wenger in charge - a feeling, a sense of time's winged chariot drawing near. I'm no doomsayer; last year I pooh-poohed all the prognosticators of Arsenal's demise, scoffed at Spurs's chances of overhauling us. And I was right. But now; now... Senderos is apparently the latest to leave, this year following Diarra, Lehmann, Flamini, Hleb and Gilberto. Senderos's departure seems to signal the first breach in the dam of Arsene's youth policy. I liked the signing of Silverstre (even though he was injured straight away) but not if he was signed at the expense of Senderos or Djourou. What is going on?
Well, this is what I think might happen this season:
1. Arsene will sign no-one of first-team calibre before the end of the summer transfer window.
2. The team will finish third in their Champions League pool and drop into the UEFA cup.
3. The team will struggle with injuries to senior players again, and an over-reliance on young players will result in highly uneven results, especially away from the Emirates.
4. Arsenal will be well adrift of the top three by Christmas, possibly even out of the top four.
5. Arsenal lose in the semi-finals of the UEFa cup, struggle after Christmas, and finish outside the top four, qualifying for the UEFA cup in 09-10.
6. Arsene Wenger resigns as Arsenal manager.
7. Danny Fiszman sells his stake in the club. It is bought by an overseas oligarch who immediately refinances Arsenal's debt. The composition of the board changes markedly.
8. Cesc Fabregas is sold to Barcelona, Clichy to AC Milan, etc etc.
9. The board consider replacing Arsene with Tony Adams... And that, my friends, would be a total disaster.

I hope this scenario never comes to pass. But I fear something like it will. We all can feel the winds of change. The blogonauts are but leaves blowing in it. Wait for the first 'Wenger Out' chant of the winter carried on the breeze.

That's the first version, the fear version. This is the upside version:

1. Arsene signs Xabi Alonso, a central defender and another central midfielder (Inler) before Monday.
2. Cesc returns and stays fit all season; his partnership with Alonso becomes the best in the Premier League.
3. Djourou emerges as Gallas's best defensive partner, stablising the defence. Gallas learns from last year. Silvestre turns out to be an astute squad signing, giving the opportunity for Clichy to be rested. Song provides excellent cover in central midfield.
4. Vela and Bendtner emerge as the best strike partnership at the club, and play an increasingly important role as the season goes on. Adebayor finally finds some form after Christmas, propelling Arsenal back into the title mix.
5. Arsenal qualify for the knockout stages in the Champions League, but go out to Chelsea in the quarters (who win it).
6. The reserves finally win the Carling Cup, beating Aston Villa in the final.
7. Arsenal finish third again. Spurs are relegated.
8. Arsene resigns.

What?! I really do feel the endgame is near; if not this year, then next, or perhaps the year after. But soon, sooner than we think - and sooner than most of us would wish.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

10 Things for frustrated blogonauts to remember

1. Arsenal are not a 'big club' in the way that Real Madrid or even Manchester United are. They do not pay very large transfer fees for established stars and rarely have. (The stars of the 1980s team were over the hill, for instance). There are no £25million Ferdinands or Rooneys in the Arsenal squad. If Adebayor is sold for £30million, do not expect the club to spend a similar amount on a replacement.
2. Do not judge players before you have seen them play. On the comments of one blog I saw yesterday someone call Amaury Bischoff 'rubbish'. How does he know? Because Bischoff's a reserve at Werder Bremen? I expect the same person wailed at the departure of Flamini, who was plucked, unheralded, from Marseille. Forget the 'who he?' reaction with Arsene signings. Think Clichy, Flamini, Vieira.
3. Arsenal conduct all transfer dealings in secret. This is frustrating for the fans, but almost certainly hardly any of those players 'linked' with Arsenal will arrive. Remember when Sol Campbell was revealed as an Arsenal player in 2001? Who expected that?
4. Arsenal finished four points behind United last season.
5. We are not the only club to be preyed upon this season. Rivals may lose Cristiano Ronaldo, Lampard, Drogba etc.
6. In a tightening financial climate, Arsenal's sensible financial policies will not see the future of the club put in jeopardy. There will be no Leeds scenario here - unless an Usmanov manages to get hold of the club. Then will be the time to really worry.
7. Think beyond the end of a goldfish's concentration span (the typical neural interval of the 24-hour, 'news'-junkied, febrile blogonaut. And don't worry, I keep checking NewsNow myself.) The transfer window doesn't close until midnight on August 31.
8. Count your lucky stars. (Fabregas, Clichy, Sagna, Toure, Walcott, etc etc). Imagine what the blogosphere would have made of near-relegation in 1975 and 1976 (finishing 16th and 17th), the over-the-hill gang of 1985/6, or flirting with relegation again in 1995. Arsene has constructed the most successful period in Arsenal history since the 1930s. Even if it is coming to an end, we've been lucky. Think what Arsenal fans suffered in the 1950s and 1960s (one championship in 20 years), or between 1971 and 1989 (one FA Cup and one League Cup win).
9. As I said at the beginning, Arsenal are not a 'big club' like Manchester United (or even Liverpool in the 1970s and 80s), in terms of a period of sustained domination of the league, in terms of European success, or in being the team that players wanted to play for above all others. We might have turned it around had we won the league in 2003, thereby winning three in a row; but we didn't.
10. By a remarkable succession of conjuring tricks, Arsene has kept Arsenal in the top three or four (mainly top two) for the entirety of his time as manager, with a budget that cannot be compared to United or Chelsea or the European giants in Spain and Italy. We've had one of the greatest ever club managers running our club since 1996, and he has transformed Arsenal from top to bottom. If and when he goes, there's an excellent youth system in place, a new stadium that will generate competitive revenues, and he has changed what Arsenal means to football fans around the world. No more 'boring, boring Arsenal'; we're now the champions of pure football. In 1995, who would have thought it?

I began blogging by working through my frustrations, but they are as nothing compared to the fans who have only really known Arsene as manager. Like frustrated teens (as some may well be), they long for the father-figure to be deposed. Have a care. Before Arsene came Rioch; GG; Don Howe; and Terry Neill. Be careful what you wish for.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Top 30 countdown have recently been counting down the best ever Arsenal players. Here's my own list (from players in my own lifetime):

1. Dennis Bergkamp
2. Thierry Henry
3. Patrick Vieira
4. Liam Brady
5. Tony Adams
6. Ian Wright
7. Paul Merson
8. David Seaman
9. David O'Leary
10. Robert Pires
11. Pat Jennings
12. Kenny Sensational
13. Charlie George
14. Ray Kennedy
15. Paul Davis
16. Nigel Winterburn
17. Marc Overmars
18. Sol Campbell
19. Cesc Fabregas
20. David Rocastle
21. Michael Thomas
22. Pat Rice
23. John Lukic
24. Freddie Ljungberg
25. Martin Keown
26. Lee Dixon
27. Charlie Nicholas
28. Ray Parlour
29. Steve Bould
30. Alan Smith

That said, I'd now like to pay tribute to no.28 on my list, Ray Parlour.
Ray came into the Arsenal team after George broke up the 1991 Championship side. He had shoulder-length curly blonde hair then, an all-action muppet of a player, hurtling around the pitch with energy but little plan or effectiveness. I think he played some part in the 1993 League Cup win (the one where Big Tone dropped Steve Morrow onto the pitch after the final whistle went and broke his arm). As the club disintegrated in GG's dotage, then was revitalised (partly - out of the ICU anyway) by Rioch then (fully) by Arsene, Ray seemed destined to go the way of David Hillier or Ian Selly - especially after his association with the laddish, drinking culture that Arsene cleared away, epitomised in his Ray 'Pizza' Parlour tabloid nickname (so-called after he got into trouble when he let off a fire extinguisher at a pizza restaurant early in his career).
But no. Under Arsene, Ray was a different player entirely.
In fact, I have always thought that, for all the excellence of Bergkamp and Overmars and the emergence of Anelka, the real man of the season for us in the 1998 Double campaign was Ray Parlour. Playing right midfield, Ray was crucial to the balance of the team. He knew when to tuck in and make three in the middle with Paddy and Petit to mix it; he knew when to get wide to provide an outlet for a quick counterattack; he knew when to release the ball back to Dennis or Paddy to play in Overmars or Anelka. In a team of gifted players, he knew not to play with ego, but to work within his own limitations, playing for the team, for the win. Unshowy, unflashy, often unnoticed, Ray was always more than a 'water carrier' (as Cantona dubbed Deschamps): he was tactically one of the best English midfielders of his generation. England managers never noticed him, partly because Beckham came to prominence by 1998, playing wide right; but Beckham was not a team player in the same way, but a kind of quarterback. Beckham was certainly no tactical genius, however sublime that right boot might have been for whipping in a free kick. Ray knew what to do in games; his technique was sound; and he could score goals. The crowning glory was when the 'Romford Pele' cruised across the Cardiff turf in the 2002 Cup Final and smote the ball arcing high into the top corner of Cudicini's goal to put us 1-0 up; but ever after, even when Ray was no longer a first-team choice, he was the perfect substitute, who got the pace of the game immediately and played as the match required, selfless and full of heart.
I think Ray Parlour is one of the great Arsenal players, a youth team player who gave his very best to the club and was at the hub of some magnificent achievements, the most sustained success for the club since the 1930s. He went off to Middlesbrough and others where eventually time and injuries wore him down; in more sentimental times, he might have finished his career with the Arsenal. I hope he comes back to the club in some capacity, and we could certainly do with Razor, circa 1998, next season.

Giving up on football

As I stated in a previous post, what has really galled and repulsed me over the past year or so is not, on reflection, the Arsenal, so much as it is the current state of football itself. Again, I must reassert that I'm no nostalgic - I was there in the bad mid-70s, bad mid-80s and bad mid-90s. But something about the current culture of football, and the popular culture in which it is nested, is rotten; nay, even perhaps close to collapse.
Arsene himself said just a day or two ago that he thought that the era of the transfer fee was coming to an end. I would put it more bluntly. The era of the footballer's binding contract is coming to an end. Bosman inaugurated our current era of player mobility; the Webster ruling furthered it; and the unwillingness of FIFA and UEFA to impose its own rules about tampering with other clubs' players (epitomised by the foolish Platini, who inveighs against clubs with large debts or large overseas playing contingents yet endorses Cristiano Ronaldo's 'right' to leave Old Trafford, contract notwithstanding, and join Real Madrid) leaves the door open for a degree of player mobility that will erode any possibility of long-term team-building by less financially powerful teams and place even more securely in the hands of the wealthy a dominant position with regard to trophies and cash flows.
There seems to be a multi-tier ranking among European (i.e. world) football clubs. At the very top are AC Milan, Inter, Real Madrid and Barcelona, who cherry-pick the best available talent from other clubs not in this elite group, largely through means of agents, 'super-agents' and tame media outlets such as AS or Marca, by 'unsettling' players and then dealing with the clubs. Manchester United (as shown through the pursuit of Owen Hargreaves) and Chelsea (the Ashley Cole case) are on the periphery of this group. In the next tier are teams such as Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern, Juve, Roma, Sevilla and Valencia perhaps, who are (in the main) Champions League qualifiers year-on-year with the financial muscle to attract high quality players. Below that, teams such as Ajax, Werder Bremen, Monaco, Villareal, Fiorentina, PSV. And so on in a vast pyramid. Each tier preys upon those below.
That is why I feel aggrieved at Adebayor's stupid, insensitive, greedy comments vis a vis a move to Milan or Barca, but also understand that it is what we did to PSG with Anelka, Marseille with Flamini, and so on.
Arsene has kept Arsenal at the bottom end of the European top table by a canny knack of spotting and developing players. The corollary of this, as with the above-mentioned Anelka and Flamini, is that these players come to the notice of teams in the tier above who offer a large transfer fee (or very large contract; or both) to secure that player for their own team. Arsenal have therefore to develop another to fill this gap, just as Ajax have done for 30 or 40 years. Ajax have been chronically prevented from keeping together groups of developed players because they have a reputation for producing excellent young talent; Arsenal now play like the great Ajax sides, produce players like the Ajax system, and are preyed upon like Ajax are. Indeed, one of the players we have been linked with as a possible Adebayor replacement is Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the latest Ajax 'starlet'.
Like Ajax, Arsenal are particularly vulnerable to changes in player mobility because their continued success relies upon developing young talent, but they do not have the financial resources to ward off bigger sharks. In Ajax's case, this is because they play in the comparatively small Dutch league; in Arsenal's case, because they are still in a process of developing their capitalization and financial power (the building of the Emirates) and because they compete domestically against Manchester United and Chelsea who, for different reasons, have far greater economic power than Arsenal. Arsenal therefore struggle to win domestic (let alone European) trophies on a year-by-year basis, and, therefore, eventually to retain ambitious players.
For clubs like Arsenal, I think the near future looks potentially very worrying: maximised player mobility will mean a much higher turnover of playing staff year on year, resultant problems of team cohesion and maintenance of quality, and the spectre of turning into a 'feeder' for the elite teams. The same situation pertains now in the English lower leagues. There are few long-term contracts, and high turnovers of playing staff. While Arsenal might give Adebayor a five-year contract, after one successful season, it seems that contract has little effective force.
What's the alternative? I'm not sure. One alternative is to 'do a Bolton': accept the changing nature of the market and recruit older players whose market value will be less than rising stars, in the hopes that this will provide some kind of continuity. Another is simply to accept the situation, carry on, and hope to retain enough good and sensible young men (Fabregas, Clichy, Sagna) to win a trophy every two or three years. For this is the real problem: the bonds of player 'loyalty' to club are now pretty much dissolved, except among a few. For Adebayor (who has form on this: see his departure from Monaco) or Cristiano Ronaldo, it is their 'right' to demand ever-higher wages, and also to demand a transfer to a bigger club if these demands are not met. For them, a contract has no binding force; they blindingly, maddeningly perform their status as the football commodity, their labour power sold to the highest bidder.
It may not be 'football' as it has been, but it is late capitalism, in full effect.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Arsenal, again

The recent rumours surrounding Adebayor have sent me into a 'what is it all for' gloom with regard to the Arsenal once again. At least massive continental clubs cherry-picking top talent isn't only happening to us this season, but it's disappointing.
Andre Arshavin would be a wonderful addition to the Arsenal passing style, but I'm not hoping he'll come, as he probably won't. With the technical ability of Hleb but with more penetration and end-product, Arshavin was sensational in the Euro 2008match against Holland. In fact, he reminds me more of Messi than an out-and-out striker.
With Hleb's mooted departure, I have been thinking about Arsenal wingers. I first saw Arsenal when George Armstrong was in the side, but remember little about him. It was George Graham's trick, in the late 80s, to use the purchase of a winger to kick-start a title challenge. In the summer of 1988, GG bought Brian Marwood from Sheffield Wednesday, who introduced himself to Arsenal fans in the pre-season Wembley 'Makita Tools' tournament (them's were the days) by scoring against Tottenham in a 4-0 drubbing. Marwood was very important in the 89 championship side, and he scored the day I stood in the Clock End as news from the Hillsborough FA Cup semi-final began to trickle through. Marwood, today a rather arsey Sky co-commentator (3rd string) (though he doesn't seem to resent the Arse as much as David Platt), lasted but two years, because in 1990 GG went Scandanavian and bought Anders Limpar.
This was in the days before a Scandanavian purchase meant brown paper envelopes (think Pal Lydersen). Anders was a slight, speedy winger, with a low sense of gravity but with a rather fragile sense of balance - at speed, a minor touch could send him spinning to the penalty area turf like an over-wound clockwork toy. He was skilful too - one season, a chip from the half-way line over Bruce Grobelaar and into the net threatened to perturb On The Ball's Goal of the Season competition (they had to add it on - it didn't win, though). Limpar had a kind of quick, stuttering running style, but he was the model for the kind of penetrative winger who cut in and scored goals rather than whipping over crosses that was to find its best (so far) exponent in Marc Overmars. (Much as I loved - and think we still miss - Bob Pires, he wasn't that kind of player. Nor was Freddie Ljungberg.) Limpar and Overmars were cut from the same cloth as footballers - small, very quick, an eye for goal, dark hair over angular northern european features. And each only lasted about two seasons. Limpar was sold to Everton, Overmars to Barcelona - but neither recaptured their Arsenal magic at their new clubs.
Between Anders and Overmars the list of wide players strikes horror into the long-time Arsenal fan: 'Steady' Eddie McGoldrick (who I remember only every having one decent game for the Arsenal, away at Liege in the CWC), Jimmy Carter, Stefan Malz. We even failed to sign Andy Sinton from QPR in 1994, who chose Sheffield Wednesday over Arsenal! Dog days indeed.
So, Arshavin, Vela, Walcott, Rosicky, even Hleb - Arsenal sides perform best when they have a penetrative goalscoring winger but who, next season, will give us this edge?

Saturday, 24 May 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 5

The TNS were, to all intents and purposes, a covers band. There was 'Beast in my Pants', and the never-completed 'Kurt Russell's Beard', but none of the members really wrote songs. I think Ed liked the idea of writing songs, but he never got around to it - and was in thrall enough to the Ramones that he never got much further than an E-bar power chord.
When I brought along my guitar, and Tortoise Head was formed, the original members were:
Lee C: drummer, banjo player, and insouciant presence. He was my sister's boyfriend for a time, and I remember once chasing him round the school playing field for a good 5 minutes, him laughing all the way, after he had booted me while playing lunchtime football.
Rich: guitarist, whose elder brothers' love for Genesis had a regrettable impact upon his psyche. Rich was, in his quiet way, a comic genius, whose sex- and scatology-obsessed themes were keystones to the Tortoise Head humour. His greatest line was givend when we had a holiday on the farmland of one of Ed's family's friends, in Stithians, Cornwall. As we put up the tent, the paterfamilias came to see what we were doing. 'Are you going to dig a latrine?', he asked, jokingly. 'I don't dig latrines, said Rich, 'I fill them.' When Rich and Ed went to Aberystwyth university in 1987 (Ed dropped out after a term and joined myself and Si at Warwick) the letters he sent, sure markers of a degree of psychological disintegration, sent me into gales of laughter. I still have them, though at 39, they're a harder read than they used to be.
Lee E: bass player, driver, and for some time de facto financial supporter of the band, as he was the only one working while the rest of us were at university. Lee was an unreliable bass player; not unskilled, but with a poor sense of the beat, rendering him hardly rock-steady as a part of the rhythm section. (This meant I had to play a tight rhythm guitar even when I got confident enough to be more adventurous, limiting the Tortoise Head sound.) His driving was invaluable though, especially when borrowing his dad's Transit van to cart the gear down to Ed's house. Lee had a succession of cars: a much-loved oxblood Cortina Mk4, in which the first compilation tapes were aired, and which provided us with means to go on the first 'Lads' holiday, to Cornwall; a Rover SD1, a remarkable thing that once saw us doing over a ton on the M11 on a trip from Essex to Cambridge which took a bare 40 minutes; and the red Austin Healey Sprite (a re-badged MG Midget) whose two-seat limitations ultimately proved to be an irritant.
Ed: rockist extraordinaire. Especially when he swapped the donkey jacket for a rocker's leather motorcycle jacket.
Me: my musical sensibility was different to the others, though we shared a similar sense of humour. (Ed and I were particular fans of Spike Milligan.) I was always into literate guitar pop lilke Elvis Costello or Lloyd Cole, classic 60s rock like The Who and the Stones, plus current indie bands like The House of Love and the Pixies.
Simon: an ex-officio member of the band and, I would say, my best friend in my teenage years. Si started many hares that I have spent the last 25 years running down (Ballard, Philip Dick, Iain Sinclair, and more music than I could mention, but particularly the Velvet Underground, REM, Cocteau twins, etc etc). Ed always cast Si as a doctrinaire NME-reading indie kid (anti-rockist in those days) but that didn't tell the whole story; Si just derided the metal lineage (Sabbath, Metallica, Iron Maiden) that Ed held dear, albeit with some degree of irony. Although he had a love-hate releationship with the band, Si was usually at practices/ 'jams' and later played drums and percussion on my early home-recorded 'solo' material, before I discovered the joys of samples and loops and the Atari ST.
Rich's family moved to Wales in 1987, and he found it increasingly difficult to stay around and play, even though older brothers and sisters were still in Essex. He eventually drifted out of the band, by degrees rather than by decision.
I didn't want to play just covers. Being in a band, I thought, was about playing your own stuff. I can't remember the first song I wrote, or the first one I sang to the band. I remember churning out something and mumbling the lyrics into a mike in Ed's billiard room (a nerve-wracking experience overcome by the sembalnce of ego), and the reception wasn't exactly enthusiastic, but encouraging and kind. This led eventually to us working on riffs or whole songs that I'd come up with at home. The first one was going to be called 'Lacanau to Figueras'. It goes: dum-dum-dah-dah-dum, dah-dah-dah-dum...

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, no.6

I have been relenting of late. I too have been scouring the blogs, wondering how good Samir Nasri is, wondering whether we'll sign Ben Arfa, laughing at the Robinho rumours and Hleb's idiotic agent. The circulated new kit looks like the 1998-2000 one with the white panel down the side, one of my favourite Arsenal kits. (We won nothing in it, though. The old supporter's superstition dies hard.)
It's the Premiership I really dislike. I hate the hype, the money, the cultral poverty, the bling. It's showbiz, really, and so Platini et al are missing the point when they decry the lack of English talent. When the FA created the Premiership/ Premier League and Sky pumped all that money in, what we have now was an inevitability. The EPL is probably 'the most exciting league' in the world: but it's much more like the IPL, the Indian Premier League 20/20 cricket circus, than anyone would want us to believe. It's razzmatazz, spectacle, Prime Time: and it has very little to do with English players. For as we know by looking at the England team, English players are NOT the best in the world.
I'll be supporting Turkey at Euro 2008, by the way.
So, I'm still in limbo. My love for the Arsenal refuses to die, but I despise the league they play in. Can Arsenal secede and play in La Liga, please?

Sunday, 4 May 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 4

I walked into Ed's billiard room with the guitar I had bought from him, and no amplifier. Rich Laxton was there, his guitar (a Stratocaster) plugged into the PA, which was a 'head' and two large cabinets/ speakers. TNS was finished, and I'd kind of invited myself to come and play. I plugged in and we 'jammed' a bit. Ed, I think, played the tambourine.
This was the first time I'd played music with anyone, a nervy first date with new partners. It was a relief to find out that they didn't mind if I wasn't a very good player, that I was in fact pretty bad; they weren't too hot themselves.
But it was the buzz (rather than the fuzzbox), the counterpoint and the raw noise you can make with two players (even better when you add drums and bass), the interaction and interconnection with even the most rudimentary techniques, which addicted me to the experience of being in the band.
'Jamming Me', sang Tom Petty (on a track from the Let Me Up album), over and over on a compliation tape. And that's what Tortoise Head did. We jammed, and it jammed me, jazzed me, thrilled me. There's nothing quite like playing music with your mates, and still I miss it very much.

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, part 5

Today I was able to watch the last 15 minutes of the Arsenal-Everton match, Arsenal's penultimate match of the season. In fact, I turned on the tv just as the Bendtner header hit the back of the net.
I see this as a small step on my road to recovery. The metaphor has changed: this isn't a divorce from the Arsenal, or a trial separation; I've been forcing myself to go cold turkey, to forge a different relationship with the team and the club. It's beginning to work. I no longer need to deny the Arsenal, but they don't retain the power over me that they did. It feels a whole lot healthier.
I read in the online Guardian today a piece about Florent Sinama-Pongolle, once a young French world-beater who was signed by Gerard Houllier's Liverpool (in emulation of Arsene's youth policy), who never made it there but who subsequently left for Spain and has carved out a decent career at, I think, Real Zaragoza. In last night's match, Pongolle was racially abused by Atletico Madrid fans. (As a by-the-way, Atletico's ground, the Vincente Calderon, is the only Spanish football ground I've been to. I saw Atletico lose to Celta Vigo there about 10 years ago. My Spanish is rudimentary, but you couldn't miss the vitriolic abuse aimed at the then Atletico coach, who I think was Claudio Ranieri. Not surprising, really: Atletico were rubbish.)
The abuse suffered by Pongolle made me think of the very real advances made in the English game to eradicate racism which, particularly in the stands (and the fans must take some of the praise for this) is much better than it was in the 1970s or 1980s. Watching a West Brom match from the late 70s on ESPN Classic, the post-match interview with then-manager Ron Atkinson revealed his dim-witted 'praise' of Cyrille Regis's and Laurie Cunningham's efforts along the lines of 'they were a credit to their race'; and this was a man whose elevation of the 'Three Degrees' (the other being Brendon Batson, who West Brom converted from an ordinary Arsenal midfielder to a very classy full back) was markedly progressive for the time, and whose later spell at Aston Villa was characterised by the number and quality of Black British and overseas players in the squad.
Arsenal have a long tradition now of Black British youth players who make the first-team squad. Among the first was Paul Davis. Bizarrely, he first registered with me when I watched (green with envy) an episode of Jim'll Fix It in the early 1980s, when Jimmy Saville arranged for a young lad to play a 10-minute mock game with Arsenal players - at Highbury! Paul Davis was one of those players.
He would be central to George Graham's Arsenal; strangely enough, as he was not a power-running midfielder like Michael Thomas or an all-energy wide player like the late David 'Rocky' Rocastle. Paul Davis was elegant, a thoughtful passer, a player without ego or flashiness, a player who would have fitted in perfectly with Arsene Wenger's teams. He provided the 'cultured' midfield play that separated George's Arsenal from other long-ball teams of the time, but his lack of ego, his ability to be the team hub, meant that he was never in the England reckoning. Like another excellent passing midfielder of the same period, Everton's Paul Bracewell, his very qualities left him overlooked. Any England team of the late 80s or early 90s would have been improved by Davis's presence; think of how bad Graham Taylor's England was. (Compare him to workaday players like Geoff Thomas, or Carlton Palmer.)In the 1991 season, when Arsenal played Tottenham at Highbury, Davis had tyro Paul Gascoigne in the opposition midfield. Not only did Paul Davis put Gascoigne in his pocket that day, marking him out of the game, he then went on to outplay and outpass his opponent. Arsenal won on the way to the title.
Sometimes it's metnioned that Paul Davis spent a long part of one season banned for an incident caught on television, but missed by the referee. Playing Southampton, he punched and broke the jaw of Glenn Cockerill, a mouthy (if skilled) midfielder. For Paul Davis, not exactly fiery of temeperament, to have done that, one can only surmise that the preceding 90 or so minutes had been full of abuse, niggling fouls, and, perhaps, even racism. Only the two of them know that for sure. But I was shocked when I saw the punch. A punch? Paul Davis?
He also scored one of greatest goals I have ever seen watching the Arsenal at Highbury. It was in the run-in to the 1989 championship season, a home game in March 1989 against Charlton. It was in the week of my birthday, so me, Ed and my very good friend Simon all went to see a midweek evening game. (This would have been the Easter vacation.) The game ended 2-2, and it was one of several times that Spring where we thought the Arsenal had blown it. (The later 1-0 home defeat to Derby, right at the end of the season, was the last and worst of these, and seemed to confirm Liverpool's title.) But, defending a corner, Arsenal broke away down the left. We were in the West Stand, as usual, watching, climbing to our feet, as Paul Davis sprinted towards the Clock End to support the break. Over came the cross, and Davis flung himself full length, a spectacular diving header, all the more stunning for its singularity: unlike Michael Thomas, who surged through oppsing defences regularly to score, Davis was not a prolific scorer. But this goal epitomised him: skill, drive, and total commitment to the Arsenal cause.
It seems now that Arsenal will lose Matthieu Flamini and Aleksandr Hleb to AC Milan and Inter Milan respectively this summer. Paul Davis was a one-club man, a wonderful and perhaps neglected footballer. How the Arsenal could do with a player of his skill, intelligence and commitment next season.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 3

Looking back, the mixtape was a crucial element in our little culture that formed the hinterland to Tortoise Head. In about 1987, Lee bought a car, a Ford Cortina, in which Lee, Ed, Rich and myself went to Stithians in Cornwall for a week's holiday, in the summer before we went to University. In the car played Ed's Compilation tapes, a series which extended, I think, well into the teens before they were discontinued. The Compilation tape series were what would be known now as mixtapes, audio cassettes Ed made with his record collection on his Dad's Technics midi stereo, which sat next to the Betamax in Ed's front room. Only now do I realise that we were a disconnected part of the whole mixtape culture that took place in the 1980s, that has ended with the rise of the hegemon iPod and the switch from analogue to digital.
Ed was a purist with regard to mixtapes. He would only record on TDK D90s, the bottom end of the market - no Metal Oxide or Dolby 'high' for him. (Ed's purism in this regard extended into the Noughties. When I sent him a mix CD of stuff a few years ago, he responded with a batch of 4 TDK SA90s - I barely had anything to play them on.) This DIY ethic was a kind of samizdat publication, a way of disseminating his own pop cultural preferences among his friends. Staples of the early Compilations were the Ramones (especially Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin), early ZZ Top, Motorhead, Black Sabbath of course, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Ed had a thing at the time of Southern Accents where he would call anything cool 'Southern') and now-disavowable 1980s rock anthems as Bryan Adams's 'The Boys of Summer'. (Most appropriately for this time, this begins: 'Got my first six-string/ Bought it at the five-and-dime'.) Except for The Damned, Ed's punk sensibilities were definitely American rather than British, whereas my first love had been The Jam, and had been a Mod, so was steeped in The Who and The Kinks and that snotty English mode.
Compilation 4 was the defining document: Ed had seen The Cult playing 'Love Removal Machine' on tv, and had fallen in love with its Deep Purple riffs/ rip-offs and half-ironic 'stoopid', Neanderthal rock. (The album was, of course, produced by Rick Rubin of Def Jam and Def American, but Ed ignored the hip-hop connection. Ed was also into Aerosmith but again blanked 'Walk this Way'.) So the majority of Electric found its way onto mixtapes, and the subsequent Sonic Temple (renamed Chronic Temple) did as well. For me, The Cult were always a guilty pleasure.
The Compilation tapes were a set of signposts to the kind of music Ed wanted to make in TNS and Tortoise Head, and his vocal delivery became inflected through an ironic take on Ian Astbury's own stylised rock-god pastiche. I brought the Stones, classic English rock like The Who, indie noise-rock like The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Huskers, and of course the Pixies to the table.
Tortoise Head. File under: 'beat rock combo'.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, no.4

After Eduardo's leg was broken in that reckless, horrendous moment in the Birmingham match, I texted fellow gooner Arthur and wrote: 'Today is the end of Eduardo's career, and Arsenal's season'. I hope I'm to be proved wrong about the former; I was right about the latter. What truly nauseated me about that day was Sky's sanctimonious decision not to show the incident again to save the sensibilities of the viewers, who all must have scuttled to their computers to download still images from the Internet instead. Richard Keys and, I think, David Platt (who seems to bear an unconscious grudge against the Arsenal, even though we provided him with his highest honours in 1998, when he retired after the team that had just won the Double) blathered on and on about how William Gallas had let the team down, how Arsenal's lack of 'bottle'/ backbone/ toughness had caught up with them. The same line was repeated by Alan Hansen on Match of the Day, when even the supine/ anodyne Gary Lineker felt it necessary to stress the horrific nature of the physical injury to Eduardo's leg, and the emotional effect this had clearly had on a young team and a volatile captain.
Keys, Platt and Hansen unconsciously replicated the very rhetoric about Arsenal's inability to 'take' physical confrontation that led, I feel, ultimately to Taylor's challenge. In retrospect, I do not think Taylor intended to break Eduardo's leg, or even intended to put him out of the match, but I do think it was meant to hurt, meant to give Eduardo pause in the next challenge, meant to 'find him out' physically. Taylor's assault (I first wrote 'challenge' but this is inadequate) was the logical end-point of the escalating attempts of teams, up to and including Manchester United, to 'stop Arsenal playing'. (This has happened for a long time, of course; with Vieira and Petit in midfield, though, this physicality often resulted in red cards, largely for our players, in retaliation. It's worthy of note that the endless media carping about Arsenal's disciplinary record has now been replaced by the assertion that Arsenal 'don't like it up 'em', as the Arsenal players react less aggressively.) Wenger himself argued this in post-match interviews, but it was lost in the furore about his call for Taylor to be banned indefinitely. Eduardo's injury was bound to happen to an Arsenal player sooner or later. And in fact it already had, to Abou Diaby against Sunderland two seasons before, against a team already relegated.
I was shocked by what happened to Eduardo, shocked by the way it was handled by Sky and the BBC, and this isn't just a cliche: the 'shock' made me feel differently about the sport, and about Arsenal. To see this young man's leg broken so badly, his foot nearly taken off by a physical assault, made me feel it wasn't worth following football any more, if a player of such skill and finesse could be brutalised in this way. Arsene has become paranoid about refereeing decisions, penatlties not given, as the Arsenal have slipped out of Champions League and Premier League running; but I would rather he kept talking about the way skilful players are not protected as they should be, in an English footballing culture which still prizes physicality over technique. And for evidence of that, watch any of England's games over the last 5 years. From Eduardo to England's failure to qualify for Euro '08: only connect.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 2

I bought a steel-string acoustic from a classified ad in the Evening Echo and my dad took me there in the car to get it. £5. It was made by Boosey and Hawkes, who mainly maufactured orchestral instruments. It had a high, high bridge and an action so high that after 5 minutes of playing you developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in your left wrist. (CTS, not TNS.) It hadn't been played since the time of Wat Tyler, or at least The New Seekers. I took some of the strings off and took them down to a music shop to see what kind of strings I needed. Wound in a circle, they looked like bailing wire. The assistant in the shop looked somewhat startled by what I showed him, then sold me a packet of Rotosound 10s. Something for the weekend.
I got a book out of the local library that showed me chord shapes, and was soon strumming Es and As and Ds. I tuned the guitar using an old Casio keyboard I'd been given for Christmas some years before. I think now I must have tuned it an octave too high, because one day, while playing, I knocked the neck against the edge of a table and the head snapped clean off. In the 1980s, Roland had a line of headless bass guitars (Curt Smith from Tears for Fears played one) but this was ridiculous. Ever the stalwart, my dad fixed the head back on with some kind of wood glue, and by God, it worked! It was always just slightly crooked, though, so not really to be trusted.
Something had to happen. A broken steel-string acoustic wasn't very rock and roll. Fortunately, I knew Ed Hill.
Ed and I were in the same group for English for A level, at SEEVIC (the South East Essex VIth Form College). I'd known him a little at King John, our secondary school, but I was really a part of the football-playing crowd, and Ed wasn't. We became good friends at SEEVIC. Ed drove in from Leigh-on-Sea on a 50cc motorbike, for some reason, and always had the helmet under his arm when entering the class. He also wore donkey jackets, and one of these jackets, for a reason I was to find out later, lived up to its name in an olfactory sense. It gave Ed a rather eccentric, almost Beat kind of persona - a development of his King John character, 'Ed Banger', as Ed was a metaller.
(I had been, for a few years, a Mod. I loved The Who, and still do. I had had a couple of coversations with Ed at school about music, where I complained about metal's 'raucousness'. He pointed out to me, quite rightly, that was was John Entwhistle's bass playing, if not 'raucous'? This was the very early stage of my entry into the world of metal, as guided by Ed. He wasn't a true believer, though - he called the Metal style mag 'Kerrap' rather than Kerrang!, so I knew irony was in there somewhere.)
I scraped together some cash and bought the Honky Tonk guitar Ed had received for his time on the Hadleigh pavement - Ed had picked up a Strat copy and that was easier to play. So I went from CTS-inducing acoustic to a semi-acoustic electric guitar whose action was only marginally more forgiving. At least it made enough of a sound, as a hollow-bodied electric guitar, that I didn't need an amp straight away. Just as well. I couldn't afford one.

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, no.3

Merse. Not the blokeish, oafish geezer whose tooth falls out on Sky Sport's Soccer Saturday. Not the pathetic, tearful young man haltingly confessing his addictions at a press conference. Not the harbinger of doom for the Arsenal, whose 'I fear for them' prognostications now rival those of the egomaniacal Ian Wright. No, Merse, the player who, for me, defined George Graham's Arsenal in a way that even Tony Adams did not; the lowslung, swarming style, running with the ball stuck to the outside of one boot, arms out, angled at defenders, blond hair flopping in curtains. George's number 10, the 'son of George' whose transgressions were forgiven or blind-eyed because he was the one player with flair, with spark, with genius, who turned a powerful, disciplined and hard-running team into Champions.
I first saw Merse on telly playing for the Arsenal in a 'Soccer Six' tournament sometime in the mid-1980s. This was the period following Heysel, and the banning of English teams from European competition for 5 years. The fixture list was less clogged: there was the League Cup, sure, but the FA Cup didn't start for Arsenal until the first weekend in January and the 3rd round. (In the mid-80s, it often didn't last much longer than the 3rd round, either.) The 'Soccer Six' was an indoor 6-a-side tournament featuring squad players and youngsters from top clubs, a marketing wheeze, a filler for a free Wednesday evening on Sportsnight. These days, of course, the insurance men would shudder at the thought. Indoor 6-a-side is now the province of Sky's 'Master's football', shown in the summer when Sky doesn't have World Cup or Euro rights, the thinnest gruel for football addicts gone cold turkey, a televisual methadone. Merse plays there, too, now. But for Villa rather than the Arsenal.
Merse was a slight young blonde lad in the 'Soccer Six', a youth team product. There was something about him, though - he scored four or five goals that night, looked like an up-and-comer. As with most youth or reserve team youngsters, he looked good but you wondered whether he would make it - so many of Arsenal's touted 'next Bradys' have fallen by the wayside. Stephen Hughes, Paolo Vernazza, David Noble, Stephen Bradley.
But Merse did make it. He broke through to become a major player in the 1989 Championship side, playing up front with Alan Smith. (When Kevin Campbell came through in the 1991 side, Merse was shifted to the left, but was still crucial.) In 1989, Merse had gap teeth - shades of Joe Jordan - and long, tatty blond hair grown out in a footballer's superstition. He ran with the ball, driving at opposition defences, and scored great goals. He was too good for Arsenal, in a way - he could have been playing for Liverpool.
Merse was partly a footballer out of time. He was a last scion of the 70s maverick, for Stanley Bowles, Frank Worthington, Rod Marsh; Merse's sad apotheosis in front of press and tv cameras, his entry into the Nineties/ Noughties narrative of the three steps, The Priory, 'recovery', is an index of footballs' changing PR. No more playboys.
That's not to say Merse's lifestyle of gambling, drink and drugs was anything other than detrimental to his health, his happiness and his career, nor that his problems were partly caused by English football's internal culture. I loved Merse for what he was, what he could do, on the football pitch, and I'd rather not see any footballer off it.
I remember an evening away game at Highfield Road, then Coventry City's ground. Midweek, penned in behind Sky Blue fencing. Highbury never had fences, of course, and lost the right to stage FA Cup semi-finals after a pitch invasion following the Watford-Plymouth Argyle semi in 1984, because they didn't have fences. Growing up being taken to Highbury as a kid, being behind fences was always immensely alienating. And dangerous. Coventry were awarded a penalty, John Lukic saved it - the away end crowd surged down to the front, celebrating. There was no way of resisting - your feet were lifted off the floor as the crowd, as one body, ran down the stepped terrace to the front. Merson scored the winner, ran over to our end, slammed his hands on the fences - the surge again, down to press up against its hero. I felt fear that evening, and standing on the Clock End as Arsenal played Newcastle on the day of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, I remembered what that felt like, and cried when I got home.
Merse was sold by by Arsene Wenger in 1996, at the age of 28, to Middlesbrough, for £5 million. A good price for a 28-year-old. Dennis Bergkamp had already taken over the number 10 shirt. It was the end of Wenger's first season, the end of Merse's last for Arsenal. No more playboys.
Oh, I didn't mention one other thing. Merse and I share a birthday. He's exactly one year older than me.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, no.2

I remember Hornby writing, in Fever Pitch, that in the mid-1980s, the Arsenal were never good enough to win anything, but never remotely bad enough to go down, and the resulting stasis made him want to scream with frustration. Now, the situation has concertinaed: Arsenal aren't bad enough to drop out of the Champions League places, but aren't good enough to win anything. The frustration also makes me want to scream.
That's why I have proposed a trial separation between myself and the Arsenal. I didn't watch the match against Manchester United yesterday, but I checked the internet occasionally to see the score. (I could have watched it at home if I wanted to.) After their inevitable defeat, I felt a sadness, a hollowness, but not anger, not real involvement. I've finished a 33-year relationship; I'm still drawn to the other person, care about them still, but proximity only brings forth sadness.
It's been a long process. For while now, I've found it impossible to listen to the Arsenal on the radio, painful even; I turn it off if they're on. Then I found it difficult to watch them on television. I thought it was because I cared too much, but really it's because they ceased giving me pleasure.
I've now had enough of Arsene's theology, his faith in players who demonstrably are not good enough: Eboue, Senderos; or his unwillingness to criticise his players, to recognise their deficiencies. Arsene has become inflexible, paranoid.
After 33 years, we're now sleeping in different beds, different rooms. It's only a matter of time until I move out altogether. After a while, maybe I'll see them again. I hope so.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 1

I always loved my friend Ed's house. He lived in the Vicarage in Leigh-on-Sea, though his Dad was no vicar. No, Dennis Hill was an entrepreneur from Plaistow who now owned his own catering business (providing high quality pies to local delis), had once been a restauranteur, and for his holidays cycled across the Pyrannees. For me, whose Dad worked for the Gas Board (as we called it), this was attractively exotic.
The Vicarage seemed ramshackle, haphazardly put together, labyrinthine even. Its twin centres were the sitting room where we would watch Airplane! and Escape from New York on an ancient Sony Betamax after coming back from the pub, sprawled on a vast, L-shaped leather sofa; and the kitchen, which had a wooden floor and an Aga, where we were occasionally allowed to sit.
At the back of the Vicarage was a large space known as the Billiard Room, which had been through a succession of uses, but when I first saw it, had a table tennis table in it. It had a high ceiling and was mightily cold in the winter. It was also the rehearsal space for Tortoise Head, our band. 'Oh no, not them buggers again,' said Dennis Hill, as we humped the gear through the kitchen. The Hills showed us quite remarkable toleration, even indulgence, in those years, I should add.
But this is the wrong place to begin.
The story should begin on the pavement in Hadleigh, my home town, a small town whose spine was the A13, Billy Bragg's 'trunk road to the sea' that runs between East London and Southend. Honky Tonk Music was a shop towards the eastern end of Hadleigh, where the town began to run out and the Salvation Army fields took over for a short urban hiatus, before Leigh-on-Sea began. It's not there now, and neither is the SOGAT union headquarters that was also in the town in the 1980s, inexplicably. I think it's an Aldi now. I don't go home much these days.
On the pavement, in 1986, are four lads: Ed Hill, Rich Laxton, Lee Ellis, Lee Cook. The local paper, the Evening Echo, had a picture of them, camped out. I imagine this was Ed's idea, to camp out. The reason? A Honky Tonk Music publicity stunt. The first four customers on a chosen day would receive guitars, amps and drums, enough to start a band.
Why was it Ed's idea? Ed always wanted to be a Rock God. He loved the Ramones, Motorhead, Black Sabbath, Tom Petty, early ZZ Top. He wanted to sing, to play guitar.
The four lads got their gear. Ed got a Japanese copy of a Gibson 335 (the f-hole semi-acoustic that BB King played) and an amp. I have the guitar now, it's upstairs as I write. I've had it for nearly 20 years. Rich Laxton got a PA, for vocals. Lee Ellis, a bass and amp. Lee Cook, drums. They formed a band: TNS, for Total Noise Syndrome.
TNS recruited one Ken Crudgington to play lead guitar, becuase the technical level of Ed's and Rich's playing wasn't up to it. They rehearsed four songs: 'Chasing the Night' by the Ramones, 'Paranoid' by Black Sabbath, 'Wild Thing' by The Troggs, and a song of their own: 'Beast in my Pants'. They were 17 years of age.
The TNS were invited to play at a birthday party at a pub in South Fambridge, in mid Essex. Nerves, drink, sound problems: 4 songs were made to last 35 minutes, and they were gone. Forever. I wasn't there. TNS are only a part of my story, the Tortoise Head story, on the tape that was made of them rehearsing, played in Lee Ellis's Ford Cortina as we sipped our Budweisers. The TNS were history, South Fambridge part of legend, re-told, re-worked, laughed and bickered over.
In 1989 I bought a second-hand acoustic guitar and started to learn. Soon.

Why I am giving up the Arsenal no.1

I first saw the Arsenal at Highbury on Saturday 20 December, 1975, with my Uncle Allan. They beat Burnley 1-0.This win put Arsenal 18th in the table (of 22), three points above Burnley, who occupied the last relegation place. Arsenal finished that year in 17th.

Highbury then was a grand old stadium with wooden fold-down seats, the Metropolitan Police Band marching round the pitch at half-time (the leader had a kind of mace that he would hurl into the dark winter sky and catch with an 'oooh' from the crowd, 20,000 sould willing him to drop it. yes, I said 20,000). I sat with my uncle in the Lower West stand, usually, though one time we were in the Upper West. We got there early: lunch was ham sandwiches from a box, tannin tea from a flask, and a long, long perusal of the matchday programme while we waited for the stadium to fill up. The image I hold in my memory from this match is Jimmy Rimmer standing around about the penalty spot, trying to keep warm, while the action took place up at the other end.

I was there on the opening home match in 1976, when Bristol City beat us 0-1. A lovely August afternoon. We left early to get the Picadilly line train from the Arsenal Underground station before the crush. The Arsenal station had long tunnels, divided down the middle by mesh, that wound up and down to the platforms. In later years, my friends and I always walked down to Finsbury Park station to avoid the crowds.

My uncle never took me to big or glamorous games, such as Liverpool or Manchester United, or London derbies. Threatened with slow, painful death by my dad if anything happened to me, Uncle Allan always took me to Burnley, or Bolton, or Bristol City. The last time he took me was to see Aston Villa, in the early 1980s. When we arrived back at my Nan and Jim's house in Laindon, the evening was suffused with a golden glow I remember much more than a game. (Rix did score a cracker, I remember.) We ran across the road, and I felt grown up.

We got the 400 bus that travelled along the A13 from Southend to Kings Cross, and ended in the underground coach station there that seemed, at the time, as alien and intimidating as a space station. A green Eastern National bus, the 400, more modern looking than the local Bristols with their concertina doors. It looked as though it was designed to go fast. We sat at the front of the top deck if we could.

In 1975, 1976, Arsenal were rubbish. They finished 17th in 1976; 17th! The player I remember most from that time was Terry Mancini, a bald, uncomplicated, cheery centre-half, who, as Nick Hornby once wrote, seemed to be bought for the next year's promotion campaign in Division 2. Pat Rice and George Armstrong were still there from the '71 double side, but otherwise it was a long way from the glory days of Ray Kennedy's headed winner at the Lane, or Charlie George's flat-on-your-back celebration of the Double winning goal at Wembley. Dog days, in fact.

I'm not a slave to footballing nostalgia. Arsene's Arsenal are so far beyond what the mid-70s team were capable of, even on their worst day, that you might as well call it a different sport. But my love for the Arsenal has been diminishing lately. In the 80s and 90s, the result on Saturday, if bad, was enough to cast a pall over the entire week. Monday morning's report in the paper would make me physically nauseous. Now, my heart sinks even when I watch. I take no pleasure in their scintillating football.

I've entered the endgame of giving up the Arsenal. I trained myself not to care so much. Now, perhaps, I don't want to care at all.