Arsenal ‘Who are You?’: and if the Gunners went down …

Well, when not bragging about the Salut! Sunderland exclusive – Sunderland, the play, wowing Parisian theatregoers – we were on a hunt for a Gooner. Piers Morgan haughtily turned us away last season, so we asked Mike Amos, Shildon lad but Arsenal nut (his dad was a Londoner, but then so was mine so he should still rethink his allegiances). Sadly Mike, newly retired from close on half a century at the Northern Echo, admitted he had lost touch a little with matters Arsenal. A case of “I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Arsenal till half time”. Rupert and Monty were too busy finding each other (for those familiar with the Emirates public address system). So Mike’s son, Owen, a BBC journalist who doesn’t really think the Gunners will go down, stepped up from the bench …

Salut! Sunderland:
What is a Shildon lad doing supporting Arsenal?

I had no choice! My dad and his dad (from North London) were Arsenal fans and so, from birth, was I. One of my first memories is being upset because my dad wouldn’t take me to the 1987 League Cup final. I was two. Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-1; my dad brought me back a flag. By the time I realised that football fans should support their local team, I was 11 or 12 and it was too late. I couldn’t have given up Arsenal even if I’d wanted to. For the past couple of years I’ve lived in North London but, with this accent, I’ll never be a native. Luckily, at Arsenal there’s not resentment of “out of town” fans like you get at Liverpool or Manchester United. Almost all Arsenal’s match-going fans are from London and the south-east so my match-going mates see me as an anomaly, rather than a symptom of diluted identity.

Do you have a soft spot for any of the North-eastern teams?

All of them, especially Hartlepool. I resented Newcastle at their Keegan-era peak – it was jealousy, I suppose – but that, like their team, has faded. Boro, Hartlepool, Darlo, and Gateshead are the first results I look for outside the Premier League. I have good memories of Boro’s famous UEFA Cup wins – for some reason, I watched the semi-final in a pub in Hull and I was jumping up and down like a lunatic when they scored the winner. I hope Sunderland play in Europe soon.

Arsenal, like SAFC, have had a poor start to the season. Many would say yours was a lot less predictable – despite the high hopes with which SAFC began the season – so how on earth do you explain it and is the end nigh for Arsene?

There are so many reasons for the bad start. Our best defender (Vermaelen) and best midfielder (Wilshere) have been injured. Our second-best defender (Sagna) missed the 8-2 at Old Trafford and went off injured while we were drawing at Blackburn and Spurs. But, clearly, it’s not just injuries. Some players are nowhere near good enough or committed enough (Rosicky, Chamakh, Walcott); we can’t defend set-pieces; we can’t score from set-pieces; the formation is probably wrong (van Persie drops so deep it’s often 4-6-0); and there are no leaders. Other than that, we’re fine.
If Arsenal finish 7th or 8th and don’t win anything, Wenger might leave. But, after what he’s achieved, it should be up to him. No matter what, you can’t sack the most successful manager in the club’s history.

This question usually comes later but is promoted to third because there’s been so much focus on Arsenal’s worries: what will be this season’s PL top four, in order?

Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, and – probably – Spurs. I don’t think much of Liverpool.

If Arsenal were not in that list, how embarrassing is that for you. If they are, what will have happened to turn the season round?

It’s not embarrassing at all. No team has a right to qualify for the Champions League, especially one that has – for the past few seasons – sold their best players, and replaced them with either home-grown players, or cheapish imports. I’d say Arsenal have an outside chance of qualifying for the Champions League. If everyone’s fit, we’re better than Spurs. The problem is, I can’t see Vermaelen and Wilshere playing 20 games between them this season. We live in hope though.

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What is your considered view of Man City’s sudden, money-driven entry into top four, top two and -who knows? – even title reckoning? Good for the game on grounds of variety, or a sign of all that is evil?

I think it’s depressing. Wenger called it “financial doping” and he’s right. Sport is supposed to be meritocratic and Man City have gone from nowhere to the Champions League simply because some oil-rich sheikh from the other side of the world decided to buy them. It’s unfair, and unearned. It’s cheating. Every Premier League team (including Sunderland) have benefited from investment, but City and Chelsea have no constraints. I understand City fans enjoying it, but I’m sure, for most of them, it’s a bit hollow. I’d honestly prefer Arsenal to be relegated than win the league with undeserved oil money.

Who will go down this season? Who will win the major trophies and where, if not already listed, will our two clubs finish?

I think Blackburn will finish bottom. They beat Arsenal but, until the two own goals, they were appalling. It’s probably time for Wigan, which is a shame in a way – they’ve stayed up despite losing most of their players for the past three or four years. For the third, let’s make it a Lancashire treble and say Bolton. From the few games I’ve seen, they miss Elmander. I thought he was underrated. The big three will win the cups, and Barcelona will win the Champions League. They’re by far the best time I’ve seen. They’ve re-invented tactics. I’ve only seen Sunderland on Match of the Day this year but they seem to lack a bit of creativity/class/call it what you will, especially in midfield. On the plus side, I think Bendtner will get 15 goals at least. He’s good in the air and decent on the ground. More Arsenal fans rate him than you’d think. He’s far better than Chamakh, for example. So I’ll say Sunderland will finish 13th.

Just imagine the worst possible scenario: Arsenal actually going down. How would you react, how would the Arsenal-supporting world far beyond north London react?

I could live with relegation; it would be the preceding defeats that would kill me. If Arsenal had two or three years in the Championship, the gates would probably fall to the core of 30,000 – 35,000. At least the tickets would be cheaper. Possibly. I can’t see Arsenal going down, though. I genuinely think the reserves are better than some Premier League teams.

Tell me your best and worst moments as an Arsenal supporter.

In person, my best moments were the “Ray Parlour” FA Cup final in 2002, the 2-0 win at AC Milan in 2008, and the 3-1 win at White Hart Lane in 2007. Other highlights are the 1993 FA Cup win (Andy Linighan in the last minute), the 1998 league win, and van Nistelrooy missing the penalty at Old Trafford in 2003.

As for the worst, it’s hard to beat the 4-4 draw against Newcastle last year. I was at Bedlington Terriers with my dad. They announced Newcastle’s goals over the tannoy so, when the third went in, I and most other people went in the clubhouse to watch the match on the Arab channel. It was full. When the fourth went in, about 200 people went beserk, jumping up and down, hugging, shouting. I stood in the middle, boiling with rage. I think, in hindsight, that match will be seen as the beginning of the end for Wenger. It showed everyone we were soft, and couldn’t defend. We’ve never recovered.

Who is the greatest player you have seen, or would dearly like to have seen, and who should have been allowed nowhere near Arsenal colours?

The best player was, without doubt, Thierry Henry. For two or three seasons he was by far the best player in the league. He glided past people. Didn’t he top the scorers and the assist table a couple of years running? My favourite was Tony Adams. Growing up, he personified that we’ll-show-them spirit of the George Graham era. I also loved people like Sol Campbell and Jens Lehmann, who combined skill with a determination that’s missing from half the current team.

On that theme, I’d be happy if Tomas Rosicky (he who missed the penalty at Sunderland last year) never played for Arsenal again. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him play well. He doesn’t score, doesn’t shoot, doesn’t tackle, doesn’t head. He’s hopeless. I think most Arsenal fans would far rather see someone like Henri Lansbury (on loan at West Ham) get a chance.

Any fond or less than fond memories of past encounters between Arsenal and Sunderland?

My first Arsenal match was at Roker Park – a 0-0 draw in (I think) 1991. I remember a brilliant save from David Seaman: it was flying into the corner and my seven-year-old eyes literally couldn’t believe that he stopped it. We sat at the back of one of the stands (I can’t remember which one): it was dark and wooden but I loved it. I also remember the last Arsenal game (I think) at Roker Park. It was an FA Cup replay: Bergkamp scored an amazing curler then celebrated with his hand over his mouth.

Kevin Phillips was a Gooner growing up. Did you wish in his heyday that he would join Arsenal or was he not quite good enough for you?

He was good enough, definitely. His heyday coincided with the Bergkamp/Anelka/Henry glorydays but he would have got a game, and would have scored bagfuls. I guess he would have been too expensive for Arsenal at the time. I saw him recently at Brighton, playing for Blackpool. He was class: scored the equaliser and was brilliant with his back to goal, which I hadn’t expected.

Describe your matchday experience at the Emirates by comparison with Highbury and why is the Emirates crowd so quiet?

Because the cheapest season ticket is the best part of £1,000, so the average fan is middle aged, middle class, and too sensible to sing and shout like a lunatic. I think it’s a myth that Arsenal is quieter than other grounds though – at least half Premier League grounds lack atmosphere. It’s just rows and rows of silence, punctuated by the occasional “Come on Bolton, come on Bolton,” or whatever.

I loved Highbury. If it were up to me, we’d still be there. Some things – atmosphere, history, soul – are more important than money and “matchday revenue” (a euphemism for charging more people more money). And it’s not like we did badly in the 93 years there.

This started life as the Eduardo Question – which implied shame – and then became the Walcott Question, which honoured his decision (brave, I felt) to admit he had dived for a penalty. Now it is the Barton Question (shame again): what form of cheating most annoys you and is it already too late to stamp it out?

What really, really annoys me is something you see probably 10 times a game. A full back kicks the ball out of play, appeals for the throw, and then tells the linesman to f-off when he gets the decision correct. It’s pathetic. They should be ashamed. At least with diving you’re trying to get a penalty; these blokes are debasing themselves for the sake of a poxy throw. They should be sent off every time, and it would stop.

Club versus country? Who wins that debate for you and why?

Club, without doubt. I watch 50 Arsenal games a year compared to five (or whatever) England matches, so I’m more involved. That’s not to say I’m on the “bash England” bandwagon though. I cheer them on the telly (and live, once or twice) and would love to see them win something. I might be waiting some time. I can’t see anyone beating Spain for at least another four years, apart from anything else.

Name one step Arsenal or the football authorities should take to improve the lot of the ordinary supporter.

I’d love safe standing at Premier League grounds. It would improve the atmosphere and might make tickets cheaper. I understand why Liverpool fans are against it, but standing on a terrace, with barriers in the right places, is surely less dangerous than standing in front of your seat, going flying whenever there’s a goal.

I’d also like cheaper ticket prices, although there’s nothing much the authorities could (or should) do. Sooner or later they’ll come down because people will (rightly) decide it’s too expensive. I think we’ll look back and say “People paid £40 to watch QPR v Swansea? Really?”

Will you be at our game and what will be the score?

I will be in Zurich on a football tour. I think Arsenal will win, but it will be tight. A nervy two-nil.

* Owen Amos on Owen Amos:: I’m a BBC journalist in London, mainly writing and editing the news for Radio 4. I started my career five years ago, on the Northern Echo in Darlington. I work a lot of weekends, and probably watch Arsenal eight to 10 times a season. Last season I saw eight games, of which they won none. They included the Carling Cup final, and the absurd 1-1 draw at home to Liverpool, where we took the lead in the 98th minute. I finally saw them win last month: the glorious 3-1 victory at home to Shrewsbury in the League Cup. When Shrewsbury took the lead, I was half-tempted to walk out, for the good of the team.

Interview: Colin Randall

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