A game every few days for our boys at the moment and with injuries coming as thick and fast as actors on the set of a grumble flick it has been a testing time. Has been and looks set to continue to be. Just when you think it’s safe to contemplate the future the dreaded international blight looms on the horizon and prepares to sink it’s teeth into whatever unspoiled flesh is left in our ravaged squad. How to cope with the situation? My approach to this and indeed to life in general is to adopt a kind of dark optimism. The thought process runs along these lines – ‘life will always serve up more than it’s fair share of shit sandwiches for us and so we had just as well celebrate every small mercy that actually does, or may possibly, come our way’. So it is in that spirit I’m going to celebrate the news that Theo’s gut wrench will not keep him out for long but will at least keep him out long enough to escape Roy’s clutches. The other sliver of silver I’m squinting to focus on is that if we somehow manage to continue to field an eleven of sufficient strength to keep our noses in front or at least on the shoulder of the leaders then the return of the wounded could come at precisely the right moment. I’m going out onto a pretty narrow and less than robust limb here but just stay with me.
Imagine the scenario where in a couple of months time our depleted but doughty first eleven are still in contention but by now are carrying minor niggles, getting seriously tired and starting to flag; battling to see out their games. Then picture the necessary shot in the arm of their wounded comrades returning to the fray, like the cavalry coming over the hill just in time to inject the needed energy back into our title challenge. Thin? Hopeful? Even myopically optimistic? Well, perhaps a little. It’s akin to a blindfolded tightrope walker walking a succession of ropes and not knowing if his support team have finished putting the next one up. If everything comes together just right it’ll be a stroll, a walk in the park albeit a highly skilled superbly trained walk in a park full of hungry predators. If not he’ll fall off the end.
Oh by the by, before I stray into the dense forest of metaphor overload, or at least before I wander farther into it, I ought to mention that so impressed were you with last week and my attempt to write a blog whilst simultaneously watching Arsenal’s calm demolition of Olympic Marseilles that I’m having another stab at it this evening. As we speak our brave lads are striding out onto the pitch at one of the country’s great historic football grounds. Unlike us, Albion have been at their home for well over a century and although much reduced since sixty thousand watched them take on Arsenal in the FA Cup back in the thirties the Hawthorns is still one of those grounds that provides a link in the chain of nostalgia joining this evening’s game with my childhood football memories. The soil in which the seed of footy mania was so deeply planted was well watered with the names of Jeff Astle, Brendan Batson, Willie Johnston, Brian Robson and Laurie Cunningham. I’ve never wished the Baggies any harm, but I hope they fail tonight. They’ve started brightly enough but a typical Arsenal diddly-cup line up blending youth with experienced players returning from the crock shop ought to have enough to dampen their enthusiasm.
Returning if I may to my earlier theme and looking at the back six tonight I can’t help but wonder if our improved ability to cope with this latest injury crisis might not be down to one simple break with history. In the past we have been hit with a concatenation of injuries to players skilled in similar positional rôles. Remember when there were no healthy fullbacks in the entire club? When all the centre backs were out at once? This time around the defence has remained pretty well in one piece or at least with sufficient healthy cover to cope with the odd setback. This is so important. A bedrock on which the midfield and attack can flourish, no matter how raggedy assed they may sometimes appear, with the occasional youth team player thrust in to plug a sudden unexpected gap. Not, you understand, that I disparage last weekend’s performance of the jugendlich Herr Gnabry. I thought the lad grew into his first team shirt against Stoke with a strength and maturity that belied his tender years. It just isn’t ideal to be so reduced as to have to depend on such inexperience, but then we’ve always been cursed with ill luck where injuries are concerned and must strive to overcome regardless.
Fifteen minutes have elapsed and the game is pretty evenly balanced. Both sides looking to attack and our youngsters not overawed at all at their elevation to the first eleven. Hayden is particularly cool on the ball and strong in the tackle and with Per and Mikel out there they have more than enough experience around them to weather the Albion’s early pressure and get their passing game going. I’m very excited to see Ryo motoring down the wing and Eisfeld is a fantastic prospect. Also I like the way Jenks hugs the touchline. He is so disciplined and really stretches the opposition but when it comes to forward players all eyes are of course on Big Nic.
This is a subject out of which I have stayed ever since provoking some truly silly reactions on twitter a while back. When it became obvious that Arsene’s attempts to sign an understudy for Olivier Goal A Game Giroud were likely to be frustrated, Nic had to forgoe his own move, dust off the red and white and give of his best for the team. Given that he would therefore remain an Arsenal player all I dared to suggest was that we as supporters must drop the feeble name calling that had become sadly fashionable and support him as we ought any player who pulls on the shirt. The most popular reaction was that people might grudgingly consider being oh so kind as to grant him some semblance of non committal approval if and only if he earned it. If in some way he was able to prove to these super important ultra fans that he was in fact worthy of the enormous honour of their backing then they might not boo him. What a bunch of sanctimonious self important half baked non supporters they really are. The idea that they might simply get behind all of our players without any reservation because, whatever their private thoughts, that would be for the benefit of the team they purport to follow seemed a thought too far for them.
Needless to say here at PA we support Arsenal players because we support Arsenal. Life is so simple when you remove your own pathetic fragile ego from the equation isn’t it? Thirty four minutes gone and Isaac and Nacho have both been booked, the tackles starting to fly in. As might be expected West Brom are giving it their all. At home, in the only competition they have a realistic hope of winning against a somewhat disjointed Arsenal side who as yet have shown in flashes but failed to gel. I need to stop writing and watch this, sorry. It’s getting too tense, too difficult to look two ways at once. Marseilles was a doddle compared to this one. This has the look and feel of one of those old cup ties from the seventies. Lots of huff puff and heavy sliding tackles but little cohesive skill. I shall come back to you a little later.
Well it’s more than a little later. In fact it’s bloody hours later. Kelly will be waking up soon at this rate. It went to penalties in the end. You probably know the outcome. I don’t like penalties. I don’t think they add anything to the spectacle, and would actually prefer a coin toss. It would have a certain neat symmetrical bookend effect with the coin toss with which the match began. Also the damage it can do to a young player’s confidence should he fail to score is out of all proportion to his error. Not only that but it’s extremely unfair as missing a penalty isn’t really a mistake. It is such an entirely different skill that if we must have them there should be specialists wheeled out to take them. Like in biblical times where armies would send out individual champions to duke it out in lieu of a major battle thus sparing a lot of unnecessary bloodshed. As far as tonight’s entertainment is concerned I was glad to see returning players getting the game time they desperately needed, especially Big Nic who is obviously lacking match fitness, sorry to see Mikel Arteta limp out of the match and happy to see the kids get valuable experience. That’s all you can say really. Apart that is from how utterly delicious it was to hear the devastated disappointment in the voice of the Sky apparatchik when the final result was, at long long last, achieved.