Does Arsenal’s walloping in Milan mean they’ll be easy meat on Saturday evening? Or will they return to Sunderland in angry, let’s-prove-we’re-not-useless mode? Time will tell …
Twelve days ago, I met a man on the Tube. He was a director of the Roosterspiripiri fastfood chain on his way home from the Emirates, having watched with his two young sons Arsenal’s demolition of Blackburn. He was also a Gooner, so happy. Once the train emerged into daylight, my mobile phone flashed with news of a goal from Stoke (McClean Coming Clean), so I was happy, too. Man on Tube had a fascinating family background embracing Pakistan, Sunderland and Newcastle and agreed to answer the “Who are You?” questions. Since then, total silence. Luckily Anthony “Ant” Oliveri* popped up. He loves Southend, adores football generally (see his WeAreTrueFans site) but worships Arsenal. And here, much more than a mere supersub for Roosterspiripiri man (who now reports that he has been out of action with a trapped nerve in his shoulder, so all is forgiven), he is …
Salut! Sunderland: so Arsenal are one up on the SAFC v AFC games. What did you make of the first and in what way will the cup tie differ? Question posed before AC Milan 4 Arsenal 0!
FA Cup ties are always exciting. I think both clubs will be desperate to get through to the next round and after last weekend’s very tight game the Sunderland players will be looking for a bit of instant revenge. From an Arsenal point of view, we need to totally forget Saturday’s win. Martin O’Neill’s gameplan was working well and he will stick with that tactic, letting us have possession without too much penetration. We were fortunate to win 2-1 and both sets of players will know that so it will be interesting to see if that affects either side in any way. A determining factor for me could be our away trip to Milan in the Champions League on Wednesday night (ah, Ant, but now we know, in what way determining – ed?). Will the players be up for their 3rd big game in a week? Will they be fit? You’d hope to think so but with a rested Sunderland side eager for some quick retribution it will certainly be a tight affair.
Does hammering Blackburn 7-1 and then beating us mean you’ve finally turned the corner or is there still a lot of work to be done?
Arsène Wenger was right when he said that the injured players returning to the side would make us a much more complete outfit. The team showed a lot of character at The SOL at the weekend and there seems to be a much needed team spirit flowing through the club once again. I would like to think we have turned the corner but we have a tough few weeks ahead of us.
Clemency Burton-Hill, who answered our questions as an Arsenal supporter before the Premier game, adores Arsène Wenger but feels the time has finally come for him to go. Where do you stand on this?
I agree with Clemency in her adoration for Arsène Wenger but I’m afraid I have to disagree when it comes to him leaving the club. Arsène has not only changed Arsenal Football Club but football in this country in general. I recently met Perry Groves and he told me the drinking culture at the club was much worse than was actually reported but Arsène came in and completely turned things around. His philosophy is that as soon as one game is finished, the players must start to prepare for the next one and his preparation does not include sitting in the pub for the rest of the evening. Football players are no longer just football players, they are athletes. I wrote a letter to Arsène Wenger at the beginning of the season when he seemed to be under constant criticism from outside the club http://bit.ly/y7qkQc . There is no doubt he can be a stubborn man at times but that is all part of the character that makes him such a great manager. He has showed us tremendous loyalty over the years, rejecting approaches from Real Madrid and England, to name but a few, and I think it is time we repaid that loyalty by getting right behind him and the players.
What were your minimum and maximum expectations as the season began?
For me, the minimum was always fourth spot. I am a firm believer that the consecutive years we have had in the Champions League under Arsène Wenger are an achievement in themselves. I know many Arsenal fans who would criticise me for that but sometimes fans forget that there are only 3-4 trophies up for grabs each year. The Premier League has at least six serious challengers now, the FA Cup and Carling Cup have become increasingly competitive over the last couple of seasons and The Champions League gets stronger with each passing year. It would be nice to catch Spurs in third but I am not greedy and it would just be nice to secure fourth.
Was it a mistake, or a hugely symbolic coup, to bring back Thierry Henry with his best years clearly behind him? This question was posed before he broke our hearts on Saturday.
It could never be a mistake. The man is a Legend at Arsenal and the passion felt for him by the fans in my opinion is unrivalled. The Emirates Stadium is practically held up by Thierry Henry memorabilia and I have had a little chuckle about the fact that quite a large amount of money will have to be spent updating all the stats engraved and embossed all round the stadium. There was a moment during the recent Blackburn game when The King looked down at his legs and almost screamed at them because they could not quite keep up with his brain. Unfortunately, age will eventually catch up with all of us. I’ve loved having him back and most importantly, so have the players. He is an inspiration to many and he can only ever be a good thing for Arsenal.
What are your thoughts on the North East, and on SAFC (and NUFC if you must)?
The North East has always been stereotyped for its great nights out and its passion for the game of football. Unfortunately I can’t vouch for the nights out as I have never had the chance but I am more than aware of the areas passion for football. For me, Twitter has been the key to understanding this passion. Sunderland fans in particular are very vocal on Twitter and I always find them interesting and knowledgeable about their team. It is always nice to converse with fans that just love the game of football and are passionate about their team without feeling the need to abuse or disrespect their rivals.
Who are the greatest players you have seen in Arsenal colours, or would have liked to see, and who should never have been allowed to wear them?
It has to be Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. Both of them have done things during games that you had to see again to believe they happened. The goal Dennis scored against Newcastle when he successfully completed the most outrageous flick around the defender Nikos Dabizas and then finished past Shay Given, is a goal I have never seen before and firmly believe we will never see again. I also loved having Gilberto Silva at our club. He was so under-rated and I think we sold him at least a season too early. I must say I would have loved us to have got Luka Modric. We were linked with him before he went to Spurs and he has been a massive player for Spurs since his arrival. Rumour has it we didn’t want him because he was too short for the middle of the park… Never mind!
I can’t really pick any former Arsenal player that I despised enough to say I wished he’d never worn an Arsenal shirt. Igor Stepanovs was terrible and Francis Jeffers was pretty bad too. Jeffers thought he had made it just signing for Arsenal when in reality he never really had the right attitude to succeed at the club. I certainly do not despise him but Nicklas Bendtner is a player that does not realise how lucky he is to be a professional footballer. He promises so much but delivers very little and the Sunderland fans will be aware of that by now. If he gets a chance to pull on an Arsenal shirt again, I’d hope to see much more from him. There is talent in there somewhere but perhaps not as much as Mr Bendtner would like to think.
Whimsical question: Kevin Phillips was a boyhood Arsenal supporter. Would he have succeeded at your club?
Totally! Kevin Phillips is still proving now what a natural finisher he is. Let’s be honest, Kevin, alongside higher profile players such as David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, have made so much money in the game that they could easily retire and live out the rest of their days very comfortably. They play on purely for the love of the game. I also believe Kevin could still do a job in the Premier League.
And what has been your personal high, and your low, of supporting the club?
I have been lucky to not have experienced many lows in the 20ish years that I have supported the club but one that is still very fresh in my mind is the Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham last season. No game is ever an easy one but I don’t think I was alone in expecting an Arsenal win. Some people will say it was only the Carling Cup but I believe winning that trophy would have inspired us on to greater things last season.
Another low is also one of my highs as an Arsenal fan. The Champions League Final 2006. People may think it strange but I was immensely proud to be an Arsenal fan that night. Sure, it hurt like no other but after having our goalkeeper Jens Lehmann sent off less than 20 minutes in we still managed to take the lead through Sol Campbell and were 14 minutes away from the greatest prize in club football. We had also overcome Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal on the way so it is something I will always be proud of. Of course, it was also fantastic being the The Invincibles!
Many people find the atmosphere at the Emirates lacking, especially when compared with that at Highbury. Is this something that has to be accepted as a price of having a fine new stadium, or can the matchday experience be made more lively?
I think that some of the criticism is unfair. There is no doubt certain parts of the ground can be quiet but I think all stadiums have their quiet sections and their areas where the fans do not stop standing, singing and shouting the whole way through. There is always room for improvement though and you can tell at certain matches, like Spurs, Man Utd and now Man City, the noise level is significantly increased so perhaps this could be applied at all the games.
The Emirates does have its corporate fans or “prawn sandwich brigade” as Roy Keane likes to call them but the majority are still true Gooners!
Do you accept that your great rivals, Spurs are the more likely North London club to challenge for the title or at least top three?
Unfortunately, I would have to say yes. I think it will be tough to catch them for ourselves or the other teams around us so 3rd place is theirs. Some of the football they have played this season has been outstanding and dare I say it, reminiscent of Arsenal a few years ago. However, I do not think they will challenge for the title and they will eventually slip away from the two Manchester clubs in the final quarter of the season. As you can imagine, the Spuds, as they are not so affectionately known by The Arsenal, have been very vocal about being above us but I won’t be taking them seriously until they can do it on a regular basis. I also think that they are still very much a selling club and we will see the departure of Modric and possibly Bale at the end of the season.
And is it good or bad for football that Man City’s m(b)illions have shaken up the Premier League hierarchy?
A strange thing has happened for me with Man City. When they first had their influx of money you couldn’t help but dislike them. Some say that is purely jealousy but for me it was the way they were going about their business. Unsettling teams and players with huge financial offers and almost buying players to stop other teams from having them rather than really wanting them. You can tell now that this has caused problems for them as they struggle to move these players on. Bellamy had to be released on a free; Roque Santa Cruz is out on loan again, as is Emmanuel Adebayor.
The difference with City now though is that they have moved on to the next level and are targeting World Class players like David Silva and Sergio Aguero who are a joy to watch and can only be good for the Premier League. I also admire the way the club has stood behind Roberto Mancini over the Tevez saga and believe that they are now trying to run the club in the best interests of their fans.
Ultimately, I do not think FIFA have what it takes to sanction clubs like Man City effectively so the rest of us have to just get on with things. At the end of the day, it is still 11 against 11 out there on the pitch.
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What will be the top four, in order, this season and who will go down? And who do you tip for the major trophies?
Man Utd, Man City, Tottenham, Arsenal.
FA Cup – I genuinely believe that the winner of our game on Saturday will go on to win it.
Carling Cup – I can’t see Cardiff having enough to stop Liverpool.
For relegation, after just hearing the news of Mick McCarthy’s sacking, I think Wolves will be one of the three teams to go down as I can’t help thinking that it is a bad decision from the Wolves board. I also have a feeling that Bolton and QPR may be the other teams. I like QPR and I admire Tony Fernandes’ honesty about the club but I can’t help thinking that Mark Hughes is the wrong man for the job. His attitude towards Fulham when he left and his constant murmurings about managing a so called top 4 club will hinder not help QPR as they get dragged towards the relegation zone. Blackburn will have enough with Yakubu’s goals and Roberto Martinez always waves his magic wand to help Wigan escape so unfortunately, for me, its Bolton, QPR and Wolves.
This used to be the Eduardo Question after his dive against Celtic and then became the Walcott Question in tribute to his honesty in admitting a dive and apologising for it. It has also been the Barton Question and is currently the Osman Question: that covers diving, feigning injury and (Osman) falling over your own feet and demanding a penalty. Long question but what form of cheating most annoys you and what would you do about it?
This might sound like a weird one but the one that really infuriates me is time-wasting. Especially from goalkeepers. They take what seems like an eternity to put the ball down, normally opting to take it from the other side of the six yard box from where they are standing and then spend 4 days banging their boots off on the goalpost. Come on now, this is not Sunday League football where half the turf comes up on the bottom of your boot, our pitches these days could not be any better. When Blackburn came to The Emirates recently, Paul Robinson was taking an age at every goal kick, even at 1-0 down in the 1st half when you would think time-wasting would not be an issue.
Diving is definitely a big part of the game now but I do not like the way some players avoid negative criticism week in week out despite constantly diving themselves. Gareth Bale is currently the boy who can do no wrong so it seems his constant diving during games goes unmentioned. Diving 4 feet in the air at the slightest touch is the same as Bale’s favourite, dragging your leg into your opponents to con the referee.
Diving is difficult to police because the players are so good now at conning the referees but perhaps some retrospective punishments would put a stop to the problem. Time-wasting is something that the referee’s themselves need to control during the course of the game.
What single step should the football authorities, or Arsenal FC, take to improve the lot of the ordinary supporter?
It’s hard to know. Football has become big business over the last decade and it has become increasingly difficult to follow our clubs. My season ticket at Arsenal is just under £1000 although that is one of the cheaper options and my Season Ticket at Southend is £350 for an adult and child ticket. Even after the cost of your ticket, football is still expensive, with the cost of travel, refreshments, a programme etc all adding up. I’m not sure there is anything the football authorities could do but the clubs have a responsibility to ensure the fans are getting the best value for money they can, on and off the pitch. Despite the criticism we get at Arsenal, the cost of my Season Ticket, with 19 league games and 8 cup games included in the price, the actual cost for each game is £37. In my opinion, that is great value for money.
I guess the most annoying expense is the constant change of kit design. A lot of teams have 3 kits now and they change fairly regularly too. An adult top costs £40-45 and a child’s one is around £30-35 so they are not particularly cheap. Perhaps the clubs could help to bring the cost of the shirts down or just stop changing them so frequently.
Club vs Country. Which comes first for you, and why?
It will always be Arsenal. I’d like to think, if Harry Redknapp takes over, England will be a much more attractive proposition for all of us but currently they are a bit of a shambles. It’s hard for any football fan to relate to the players and this seems to be magnified at National level. Some of the players seem to think playing for England is their right but they need to remember, pulling on any National shirt and representing your country is an honour.
How will you follow the cup game and what will be the score?
I do have a ticket for the cup game but I did not realise my little girl has her first ballet show this Saturday evening so although I should be able to watch the 1st half of the game on TV, I will have to follow the rest “secretly” on my phone. I think it will be another tight game and I’m predicting a 1-1 draw. Hopefully I will be able to stifle any cheers or groans as I’m sure they will not go down too well during the ballet performance.
* Anthony Oliveri on Anthony Oliveri
“An Arsenal fan for just under 20 years. I have my own electrical wholesale business in Enfield but I relocated to Essex nine years ago and have followed Southend Utd ever since alongside Arsenal. I get to as many Southend games as I can but I have to admit, if there is ever a clash of fixtures, my first love Arsenal always takes precedent.
My passion for football has been so ever since I played my first football game at the age of seven; 21 years later I am no less passionate about the game but with a young family it is sometimes hard to follow it as much as I would like.
My three-year-old Ava has been a Junior Gunner since birth and she is also on the Season Ticket waiting list at The Emirates so by the time she reaches her teens, hopefully, she will have her own Season Ticket. My wife is also expecting our second girl on May 1st and she will undoubtedly be a Gooner too!
I always get to the Arsenal home games and I do make the occasional away trip too. I desperately want to get to as many football grounds in my lifetime as possible and I have added Villa Park and The Stade Velodrome to my list this season. Our away trip to Marseille turned out even better than we could have dreamed off when we purely by chance happened to be in the same hotel as the team.
Wandering out of the elevator to see Arsène Wenger sitting on the sofa was brilliant and we managed to get photos with a lot of the players and also Pat Rice who has been a fantastic servant to the club. I also took a trip up to Deepdale to watch Southend play Preston away in the FA Cup. As well as following my own clubs I often like to go to games as a neutral.
Last season I went to The Madejski to see Reading take on QPR and last October I went to Vicarage Road to see Ghana take on Nigeria. The Emirates Stadium is Brazil’s Home base in Europe and I have seen them play Italy there and also Scotland last March. The Scotland game in particular was a brilliant atmosphere for a friendly.
My love of football inspired me to start up a website with a close friend called www.WeAreTrueFans.com Users can write their own blogs, upload photos, videos and start discussions with other users of the site. It is for football fans whoever they support. I’m a firm believer that all football fans are equal, whichever league their team plays in, however often they go to games and the purpose of my site is to try and bring those fans together.
The clubs we support may differ but we will always have one thing in common, our love for the beautiful game!”
Interview: Colin Randall