Another season ends, one that has seen me reach a personal half century as a supporter. (It was Geordie Armstrong terrorising the Liverpool defence, and Charlie George placing the FA Cup base on his head which won me over, back at the very end of the ’71 season).
Mind you, even then at the age of seven, I knew that the schoolboy dream of turning professional was never going to happen. I did manage to become my college keeper in the early 80s, but a combination of a diminutive stature, tiny hands and extreme short sightedness negated the natural talent with which I also hadn’t been blessed. However, as the only one of his friends with the slightest interest in the game my mate Duncan enlisted me as coach to his cub scout football team, and I enjoyed thirty five years working with youth teams, even managing to get to St George’s Park for national finals on a couple of occasions. (We came third once, defeated in the semi-finals by the eventual winners…to be honest, with that sort of pedigree and knowledge of regions north of Derby, I’m expecting a call about the Burnley job…maybe this blog will help.)
During those three and a half decades, I absolutely established the sort of footballing CV which means you really should read what I have to say about the season which I like to call ‘The Year the Fans Returned’. Trumpet fanfare/fireworks etc. Good, eh? Over the years I sat next to John Hollins in a box at Highbury, discovered how much I didn’t know about the game from Haydn Mullins, had my wedding car admired by Marc Overmars (you can see his reflection, upside down, on the front of the car. A case of a classic winger on the wing of a classic.) I have met David Ginola (what a lovely bloke he is, as, in fact, they all are) stood next to Patrick Vieira (who is, by the way, huge. And more than a little threatening. Just his presence. And demeanour. And eyes. That idiotic Everton fan must have been a few connections short of a fuse box to wind him up.) I have written two football based books, one of which, ‘AJ Rutherford’s Russian World Cup (in Russia)’ is still available at all good book shops, or failing that, you can get it on Amazon. I also ghost-wrote another eight, mostly coaching manuals. I have a letter from Arsene Wenger, was interviewed to work at the Spurs Academy (the pay, by the way, was abysmal, but I did get to chat to Gary Brazil), became almost mates with Terry Naylor (another absolute gentleman, despite his reputation and nickname – Meathook) and had a pee next to Trevor Brooking. All of which, I believe, puts me in a position to review this astonishing, topsy turvy season. With authority, no less.
So, it seemed the best way to start was to get a ticket for the final match of the campaign. This looked impossible for a while. I’m a red member, and Arsenal’s ticket exchange system revealed precisely zero tickets. Worse, it kept accusing me of being a BOT and throwing me out. Then we lost to Newcastle, and perhaps unsurprisingly a few tickets started to show up. As it was the last game, and I could claim the costs on expenses, I decided to splash the boat out, advertise it on eBay (that’s a joke, the yacht’s not for sale) and spend my life savings on a seat in the luxurious Club Level.
I mean, who minds paying £113 for a corner view when you get your own entrance point? No marching down between metal railings before a steward points a metal detector at your privates and carries out a minute inspection of the top of your socks. No; buy a Club Level ticket and you’re straight in for a zapping. In fact, I also not only got a speedy boarding search, but a free programme and gratis drink at half time as well. Admittedly, it was Pepsi Max, which is not a favourite but was at least cold and, I think, wet. Plus, there are real bonuses in this First Class (well, Business Class) section of the Emirates. In the toilets not only are the urinals individual (the Upper tier, where I usually go, adheres to the squeeze in and hope (that the guy next to you hits the target and not your shoes) philosophy of insanitary inhospitality) but wait for it…Sea Kelp hand wash is provided. Free.
Suddenly the £113 plus travel, plus parking, plus food didn’t seem so bad.
Which brings me on to Emirates food…there is definitely an upmarket feel to eating in the Club area. You get a table, and various dishing out points where they serve you one and a time, rather than just dealing with those who shout loudest. A sort of John Lewis experience compared to, say, Leicester Forest Dean motorway services. Except…they don’t really cater to single people who are uncomfortable grabbing the spare seat at an already occupied table.
Also, I queued the wrong side…and was smartly told to move along (about six inches) so I could pay before they trusted me with my fish, chips, and triple portion (not requested) of mushy peas. As we’ll see, trust seems to be a bit of an issue with modern Arsenal. The days when I could wave my student press pass (a laminated photocopy) and get free entry to the Clock End are long gone. Anyway, I got my meal, along with an opened bottle of Fanta or Tango or whatever. The open bit was a challenge, because it was hard balancing a slightly soggy cardboard container, programme and open bottle through the throng, most of whom by now (an hour before kick-off) seemed a tad worse for wear. There were no tables, of course, but outside in the corridor there was a sort of ledge. This was cleverly designed… a fraction too high to eat from, a fraction too narrow to balance my by now eroding cardboard container. So I sat on the floor.
Admittedly, I may have looked a bit like a homeless person who’d somehow managed to find a slot in Harrod’s doorway, but just as with the Knightsbridge store, there was plenty of room for others to get past. I’d just sat down and opened the freebie programme when a perfectly polite but equally determined security type person turned up and told me to move. Apparently, I’d get trampled on, which I guess is a euphemism for the point that Arsenal are prepared to charge £113 and upwards a ticket here, but not provide enough space for a person to eat their fish and chips. Like a lot at Arsenal of late, there’s much image manufacturing but behind it all, a sense that a club renowned for its class and proper way of working is, somewhat, putting profits ahead of all. And, as I say, doesn’t really trust you. Or like you very much.
Mind you it worked out OK. I found that there was a ledge on the other side of the eating place, just like upstairs where the middle managers and foremen go. No chance of a sit down, but at least wide enough to balance my twisted dish of chips. And what about the food? It was perfectly OK. The chips (and there were plenty) were a tad dry, there were too many mushy peas (and my were they mushy), which sort of absorbed whatever moisture there was in the fries, but the fish was splendid. £19+ splendid? No. £4.60 fish and chips on the promenade splendid? Yes, in a cultured sort of way. Frinton as opposed to Yarmouth. I turned to the programme once more and read an article by Josh Kroenke. Of course, it said all the right things, in the right order. Apparently, (and before anything else was spoken, to keep us happy) we now have a lot of very supportive young fans coming through, and some tremendous long lived supporters. I suppose those who are in their twenties and thirties, with maybe ten or fifteen years of loyal support behind them, can chose whichever camp they wish to join, or perhaps Mr Kroenke takes Twitter too much to heart, and blames them for the bad press a sometimes toxic section of fans engender. So perhaps Josh Kroenke at least likes us. As long as he doesn’t have to get too close. Anyway, after three or four pages of platitudes, it became apparent that we’d had a good season, but there was still improvement to be found, and investment would follow, if possible, and presumably one or two players will arrive, depending on how many portions of fish and chips they’ve shifted over the season. Now I really felt I knew what went on in corridors of power and was a part of the decision making process which would lead us to trophies and finishing above Spurs.
Suitably refreshed (physically and intellectually) I took my seat. Andre Marriner was the ref, one of the best on the circuit, I think. Not sure why his warm-up involved goose stepping with his linesmen, but PGMOL is a strange beast, as we all know to our cost.
When the teams lined up, the trumpet fanfare seemed a tad over the top – the sort which could accompany my ‘Season the Fans Returned’ documentary, if it ever gets made, and I’m sure the highly original (I am being facetious here, just for once) Arsenal anthem has its merits, although it sounded a bit like the new school song the music teacher wrote in his lunch break. The sort that is sung unintelligibly by the choir, a kind of rites of passage before prize giving begins in earnest. All the right elements, but somewhat meaningless (not being able to make out a single word doesn’t help in this respect), unoriginal and anodyne when put together. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ it ain’t.
The mascot looked a bit lost, standing alone in the centre circle. Perhaps Mikel was seeing who would step up and look after him before he announces the captain for next season. Of course, it was a good game, with Arsenal playing well and Odegaard outstanding. And I learned a salutary lesson; I’ve always been a bit critical of Cedric, but gosh can that man work. Up and down, he went, all day long, and applauded the fans every time he came to take a corner. I’ve been an advocate of moving him on, but after seeing what he might well be bringing to the squad with his positivity and work ethic, I’ve changed my mind. Indeed, it was a good day out. There was even the joy of seeing the Under 8s run on at half time and try to avoid getting soaked by the sprinklers. Mostly, they gave up, and enjoyed the fountains. That was good, because the first few all looked a little bit serious for kids who have barely begun Primary school.
But 1850 or so word in, I still haven’t managed to offer my rose tinted, biased but extremely expert review of the season. I have a confession to make regarding that. It’s because I haven’t got much to say. At least, not much that’s original.
I said at the outset of the season, in numerous tweets, that top four, or top six and a really good cup run, would mean a successful campaign. No European qualification allied to early cup exits should see the ‘Process’ declared as untrustworthy, and another search for a manager begun. Well, we got fifth, blew fourth (with a lot of help from PGMOL) but are probably the fourth best team in the league, overall, this season. On the other hand, we’re an extra-large latte behind Liverpool and City. Newcastle could be up there next season, because they have endless money and Eddie Howe plus United cannot possibly be as bad again, so it’s going to be tough. Still, we’re a young side, and should get better. What does ‘getting better’ look like? I think not a lot. Developing consistency is the key. But it’s hard to do that if the ref’s against you, and there can be little doubt that some of them are. Where we’ve been treated fairly, we’ve generally won. Will the quality of officiating improve next season? Probably not. That will be difficult for us.
I suppose one of the questions is whether we trust the youngsters to come through and provide the depth we lack, or whether we buy. Eddie has done brilliantly in his late splurge up top, but I don’t think he’s a top four first choice striker. But maybe we can give him enough match time next season to keep his interest. But I think the centre forward apart, our first XI is a match for anyone. Including the top two. Remember, we thoroughly deserved to beat City here just after Christmas.
So, hopefully we’ll get an absolutely first rate striker over the summer. And early enough for him to play the whole season, not just from mid-September onwards. Or maybe we have that player already, in Pepe. Would the risk of seeing him try to become our main goal threat be too great? What if it doesn’t work out? What I don’t want, but fear might follow because we have no Champions League, and because we are owned by the Kroenkes, is that we’ll get a striker. But not out of the very top drawer. If that is the case, then aren’t we better to keep what we already have, rather than replace players who are almost good enough with others who are also almost good enough?
Then, there’s only one person who can make that call, and that’s the manager, who himself has almost done a very good job. So perhaps we fans should concentrate on criticising the cost of food at the Emirates, the cost of seats, the vagaries of the website, and the location of the half time sprinklers.
Perhaps we should worry about the failure of the Premier League to do more than issue platitudes for appalling racism, homophobia, pitch invasions and assaults on players and campaign for them to issue points deductions when such events occur. I have a feeling that this might shut the morons up. Perhaps we should worry about the shocking standard of officiating, the inconsistency of VAR and the apparent favouritism towards certain teams and disadvantage towards other which seems now an accepted obstacle we have to hurdle. Fans not only have to counter Manchester City’s billions or the astonishing capacity of Spurs and United players to hurl themselves to the floor and get rewarded for it but know that if their own players did the same, they’d end up in the book. And please note, Mr Marriner, I do not include you or one or two of your colleagues in this criticism.
Perhaps we should concentrate on supporting the team (which doesn’t mean asking no questions, or making no criticism), and holding owners to account for prices and the quality of stadia and merchandise. If we did that, we move along the road of accepting that we know much less about football than any of the players who play it, the coaches who coach and the managers who should, in a properly run club, be making the decisions.
Even if we did once meet John Hollins. Or have a cup of coffee in the room next to where Martin Keown was holding forth to his teammates.
That’s not an original idea. But maybe it’s a good one.