I’m taking part in something called the six week challenge. It happens every year and the local radio station, of which my show is a small part, is an enthusiastic participant. The joy for me has always been that they start the thing in November and I am therefore ready equipped with an excuse. November is, as any fule kno, National Novel Writing Month and I am a fully signed up member of NANOWRIMO and as such cannot contemplate any other shenanigans be they two, four, or six weeks in duration.
So they moved it to January. Given it’s all to do with promoting health and well being that was always the obvious time of year for it really. Shorn of my usual excuse and feeling tender having just listened to a particularly beautiful Nick Cave ballad the station chief caught me at a vulnerable moment and signed me up.
I’ve gone for a cycling based fitness programme spread over six weeks with ever increasing distances to be covered. Sounded doable on paper so I was pretty relaxed and completed the first week without a problem. On Friday I started week three and that all too familiar feeling of the mid season blues has set in. Last night I struggled out into the icy wind to pedal my six mile quota and it would be toying with the truth to suggest I enjoyed myself. Now, I know I’m not a professional athlete – this won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who has ever caught sight of me illuminated by the light of the fridge in the wee small hours – and as such I appreciate there is a certain looseness to the parallel I am about to draw.
All I could think as I wheezed along the old Fosse Way, during those moments when thought surfaced through the thumping, gasping crash of my pulse, was how the middle bit of any endeavour is always the hardest. The trough from which we fear we may never emerge. It is the time the novel doesn’t get written because, well, who the hell will ever read it? Who cares? Why am I bothering? It is the time the fitness regime seems suddenly unnecessarily fascistic and who the hell am I trying to fool anyway, I’ll never do this. It is the Wednesday in the week of our adventure when last weekend is a stale memory and the next one too far away to contemplate.
I felt a certain kinship with the Arsenal boys who got tonked at St Mary’s. With the side that just couldn’t quite withstand the Anfield barrage on Wednesday but held on bravely for at least a point. I have nothing but admiration for the sportsmen who can dig deepest when the exuberance and novelty of August has burned away and the adrenaline of the run in is far off into the future. The raw, flayed skin of their ambition laid bare to the biting winter winds, they refuse to allow themselves to doubt that they will overcome and somehow find the strength to carry on. To raise themselves up on stepping stones of their dead selves as the poet Tennyson was so fond of saying and, as he wasn’t, to keep buggering on.
I drew much inspiration from these thoughts and stripped six seconds from my personal best time for one section of the ride, showing that just when the night seems darkest there is always a glimmer for those prepared to look hard enough. For others the light becomes ever more difficult to see. Leicester City, for example, seem to be finding the trough difficult to negotiate. Our friend Double Canister shared a Squawka stat which read “Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy have both failed to score or assist a goal in five consecutive Premier League games”. I know the Foxes are still in contention, I am not writing them off, far from it, they are after all at the top of the pile right now, but not long ago they were rolling like a runaway loco and just lately the boiler seems to have sprung a few leaks.
This is the time our manager and his vast experience come to the fore. This is the time seeing Alexis and Tomáš Rosický knocking at the door marked selection warms the cockles. George described it as the cavalry coming and that, for an old geezer like me brought up on Bonanza and The High Chaparral, had the ring of truth. Coquelin, Welbeck and Wilshere are reported to be back in training and there’s a new kid on the block who will be eager to impress.
I confess I had a wobble as the injuries piled up back at the end of last Autumn. How on earth shall we negotiate November, December and January and remain remotely in contention given such a catalogue of disasters? This is why I was so appalled that folk were attacking the manager and players after we drew with Liverpool. We were at the top of the table during the toughest part of the campaign with a team staggering from one fixture to the next praying no one else got hurt. I’d have been happy to be in fourth with the leaders still in sight given how many changes Arsène has been forced to make, how many players he’s been obliged to pick despite illness and fatigue. Instead of which we are one win away from regaining the top spot. Things might be a whole lot worse than that.
Now comes the tricky part. After a tough encounter with Liverpool we face another difficult away trip. Stoke have always provided us with a challenge. Last season they produced a stunning start to the equivalent fixture and left us all reeling. In recent times our record in the Potteries in all competitions is L, L, W, L, D, D, L, L. One might be excused for finding this extremely uncomfortable reading. Especially given how much we would love to win today.
There are indications that we will face a different kind of Stoke team. That the years of kicking their opponents into submission with the full and frank approval of the match officials are a thing of the past. Stokelona is being bandied about and the one time I’ve watched them this season they were indeed passing and moving in a very impressive fashion. I wonder if they’ll regress given that record against us. I wonder if Mark Hughes has the guts to ask them to continue trying to out pass and out play the opposition. If so it will make for an intriguing spectacle. A genuine football match decided, perhaps, in favour of the better team. Imagine that. In their last six Premier League matches they’ve beaten Man United comfortably and got the better of a seven goal encounter with Everton at Goodison. On their last outing they won easily against Norwich and they’ve lost the other two against an out of form Palace and a struggling West Brom.
I get deja vu every time I write these things. You simply cannot learn anything from looking at recent form. Every team has so many rogue results, beating sides you don’t expect them to and dropping supposedly easier points. The best thing we can do is hope Mr Hughes has the courage of his convictions and opts for a footballing encounter today. That our lads will be buoyed up at the prospect of the Seventh Cavalry pounding over the hill, and that they can draw strength from the knowledge that the mid season trough is behind them.
Can we do it? Damn right we can. Will it be easy? I very much doubt it. One thing is certain, my belief in the squad, the manager and the club as a whole has never been stronger and win lose or draw that will not change. What Arsenal fan could possibly say otherwise?