Gone For A Burton

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A work trip towards the end of last year gave me a rare opportunity to mix business with hobby, as I paid a visit to St. George’s Park. Open for around a year now, it’s the Football Association’s National Football Centre. Set in 330 acres of rolling Staffordshire countryside just outside Burton-upon-Trent, it’s a curious location; picturesque but rather remote. Chatting with my taxi driver on the way from the station, he surprisingly didn’t utter the immortal words “never guess who I had in the back of my cab”; apparently, the players all travel here by helicopter. Maybe it’s not that surprising after all.

Not a nightclub in sight...

Not a nightclub in sight…

Driven past a couple of the dozen pitches on site, I arrived at the Hilton hotel in the centre of the park where my conference was taking place. The first thing I noticed was the endless procession of tracksuits through the main lobby, which turned out to be a feature of the two days: everywhere you looked, there were people in polyester (or more likely these days, some kind of hi-tech super material), distinguishable only by the badges on their chest: Aston Villa, Brentford, Sunderland, et al. Another feature was the football-themed décor, including photos of players and managers, past and present. Reaching my room, I found that I had Trevor Francis and Paul Ince on my wall. Could have been worse, I suppose. Flicking through the guest information pack revealed that the on-site spa can provide you with a 90-minute full body massage for the princely sum of £95 (stop sniggering at the back). I wonder if Wayne Rooney’s ever partaken on one of his stays?

Wandering back downstairs for the conference, I discovered that the numerous function rooms were named after previous England managers. Somewhat unexpectedly, that included Don Revie and Graham Taylor. Whether the man who legged it to the Middle East under a cloud or the one so famously immortalised as a turnip by The Sun quite deserve that honour is debatable. However, at least Steve McLaren only merited a photo. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Yes, there really is a Graham Taylor room. Probably not decorated in orange.

Yes, there really is a Graham Taylor room. Probably not decorated in orange.

Around the function rooms, some of the laws of the game were writ large over the walls, essential reading no doubt for the tracksuited hordes attending their various courses. There were also multiple verses of the national anthem, along with a huge photo of Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy. I’m sure that goes down well with any Scottish visitors.

No crossbars? Did they give goalkeepers a step-ladder back then?

No crossbars? Did they give goalkeepers a step-ladder back then?

Of course, the ultimate aim of building this vast complex in the middle of nowhere is to help the national team achieve another Bobby Moore moment in the not-too-distant future. Can the £105 million outlay possibly make that happen, or is this all pie in the sky? England have usually struggled to produce enough technically-gifted players to produce a top-class team and whether SGP will help to change that is something that will take many years to work out.

Having watched the recent League Cup penalty shoot-out between Manchester United and Sunderland, without question the most abject display of penalty-taking that I’ve ever witnessed, one can suggest that this is certainly one area that ought to be worked on, especially given that some of those who missed will be on the plane to Brazil in a few months time. It staggers me that professional footballers in this country are still unable to consistently direct a ball into a goal, in a place where the keeper can’t reach it. Yes, there’s pressure. Yes, they might have played 120 minutes. But when has that ever bothered the Germans? Perhaps a little less time on the golf course and a little more on the training pitch might prove fruitful. There are plenty of those to choose from at St. George’s.

Burning The Midnight Oil

After an extended absence, I thought it was time to get back in front of the laptop, but what to write about? Well, I woke up this morning to some excellent news: England’s cricketers are on the verge of retaining the Ashes. No, I wasn’t dreaming: I am of course referring to Charlotte Edwards and the girls, who’ve been enjoying their time Down Under rather more than their male counterparts.

It’s a lot easier to write about sport when your team’s doing well, and it was certainly enjoyable doing that during the English summer, especially as I got to see two of the test matches in the flesh. However, when I wrote “In sport, as in life, you have to make the most of the good times: these things go in cycles and life will bite you on the bum again at some point, so enjoy it while it lasts.”, I didn’t expect the bum-biting to happen quite so soon. In a series where pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did, there have been plenty of column inches generated about the debacle. X should be dropped, Y should be sacked, Z should never be picked again, etc., etc. I won’t bore you with any more of that, but instead wanted to pay tribute to and express some sympathy for the fans who’ve been short-changed this winter.

As a kid, there was something quite magical and other-worldly about winter cricket. In the pitch-black and freezing cold, being transported to the other side of the world via crackly radio was incredibly exciting. Television coverage was extremely limited back in the eighties, but come the nineties, investing in a satellite dish meant you could finally watch ball-by-ball coverage of England on tour. Given some of the results, that was a mixed blessing, but following the England cricket team has always meant needing to cultivate a certain level of gallows humour, admirably demonstrated by the Barmy Army on numerous occasions over the last twenty years.

I was at University when the Barmies made their debut appearance on the 94/95 Ashes tour. Staying up until midnight to listen to the start of the series, I had the dubious pleasure of listening to Martin McCague serving up hit-me balls and being sent round the park by Michael Slater and co. Expectations were never very high for a trip to Australia, but there was always the tantalising prospect that England might win the odd match here and there, something that inspired me to pull the odd all-nighter every now and then. Making it through to the end of play was always a major achievement, but a few hours kip was usually enough to get the body clock back to normal. Alas, the passage of time means that’s not the case anymore and I also have a job to hold down, so I’ve had to adapt my strategy for following the game. I can do early mornings, but late nights are a thing of the past. The last time I went on a stag do, I got to bed at 3 am on the Saturday morning and was wiped out for the rest of the weekend, despite no alcohol being involved. What a lightweight.

For the previous Ashes tour in 10/11, I opted for an early alarm call at around 5 am to watch the evening session before heading off to work. Not being the best of sleepers, I’d often wake up in the wee small hours and switch the radio on to see what was happening, but even when things were going well, which they often did during that series, I wasn’t able to drag myself out of bed to watch the action, or I knew I’d be wandering round like a zombie the next day. Besides, it was cold outside and that duvet was rather snug. Only in my late thirties, it came as something of a shock to realise that the body couldn’t do what it used to and that I was going to be somewhat restricted in my main hobby from now on. However, coming back to the most recent series, that was probably just as well.

There is something quite special about the first day of an Ashes and for this one, I decided to get an early night, set the alarm for midnight so that I could listen to the first couple of overs, then back to sleep before the 5 am alarm. For those who can recall that first day, it actually went pretty well for England, bowling out the hosts for a seemingly modest total. Rolling over to check the score the following night, I had to look twice before properly digesting the first of many batting collapses. That, of course, set the tone for the whole series as the Aussies dished out a pummelling in all five matches. To any English fan who sacrificed hours of quality sleep to listen or watch over the last few months, you have my utmost respect and admiration. It takes true dedication to do that when your team is at rock-bottom, and a 5-0 hammering by a pretty average Australian side certainly qualifies there. But dedication is taken to a whole new level when you’re spending a fortune to travel half-way round the world and carry on backing your team even when they’re giving you precious little to cheer about. In that sense, things have come full circle for the Barmy Army over the last twenty years. No doubt they’ll carry on following the boys and will be back in Australia in force for the next World Cup. As for myself, it didn’t stop me submitting my annual entry to the Lord’s ballot for the chance of coughing up for some over-priced tickets in the summer. Why do we keep coming back for more?

As I write, I’m watching England about to go 3-0 down in the one-day series, but at least I didn’t have to get up early for this one. One thing I can take out of the winter is that I got far more shut-eye than I was expecting. Having recently hit forty (that’s years, not runs), I need my beauty sleep.

It’s Back On

A month is a long time in football. Regular readers may recall an uncharacteristically scathing post I wrote not so long ago about the status quo at Arsenal. The transfer window was coming to an end, the club had done no business of note and, much to my disgust, was attempting to sign Luis Suarez from Liverpool. Years of patience eventually gave way to an outpouring of pent-up frustration and, in terms of my lifelong support of the club, I effectively went on strike.

How long could I hold out? While I’d stopped watching and listening to the games, I couldn’t stay away completely. I was still looking at the websites and listening to the podcasts. A week isn’t quite the same without listening to Alan Davies’ Tuesday Club. And then there was the madness of transfer deadline day, usually an occasion for Arsenal fans to stay glued to Sky Sports News vainly hoping to hear about the arrival of a new superstar while Chelsea and Manchester City splurge eleventy million pounds on the cream of world talent. This year was a bit different, though. Following a summer of anguish culminating in the opening day defeat to Villa, the inevitable transfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid triggered the record-busting purchase of Mesut Özil, leading to scenes of wild celebration in N5. Not since the arrival of Dennis Bergkamp in 1995 has so much excitement been generated by an Arsenal signing: over the last few years, we’ve been more used to world class players heading for the exit door rather than turning up in their prime.

Mesut Ozil

Mesut Ozil (Photo credit: Kieran Clarke)

On the downside, a late bid for Demba Ba failed, leaving Olivier Giroud as the only recognised striker; something that I fear will come back to bite us before the season is out. However, having spent upwards of £40 million on a man so skilful he can do this with his chewing gum, I finally decided to stop sulking and give in to my addiction once more. This hasn’t yet extended to watching a match live, but I’m looking at the Everton game in December to remedy that.

I know that writing a positive post like this just hours before a tricky-looking trip to the Hawthorns is tempting fate somewhat, but whether Arsenal win, lose or draw today is irrelevant: I’m able to enjoy my football again. The superb performance against Napoli in the week genuinely brought a smile to my face and harked back to the golden era of Bergkamp, Vieira, Henry, Pires et al. As I predicted, Chelsea and the Manchester clubs have had their struggles so far and this season promises to be one of the most open for a long time. I’m not saying that Arsenal are going to win the league or indeed any trophy this year, but that’s not the point. The purchase of Özil was a statement of intent, showing that the club are actually prepared to give it a go, and I can’t ask for much more than that (other than perhaps another striker and centre half).

It’s been refreshing to see the Gunners topping the table (until yesterday), but I realise that coming back now could make me look like a fair-weather fan, something that’s certainly not the case. Growing up in an area where West Ham were the most supported team, I still remember getting stick as a six year-old when Arsenal lost to them in the FA Cup Final, and I started going to Highbury as what turned out to be an eight-year trophy drought got underway. The arrival of George Graham as manager finally put paid to that, but there were some ignominious defeats before then to the likes of Swindon, Walsall and York City. Despite all this childhood trauma, there was no thought of giving up or heaven forbid, changing team. Back then, of course, football was very different. Players were working-class lads just like the supporters and big foreign stars in England were few and far between. Ticket prices were affordable and you could usually turn up and buy one on the day. In 2013, the sport is virtually unrecognisable and is first and foremost a business. The players earn obscene amounts while many fans are being priced out. Those of us fortunate enough to be able to afford to go every so often want some bang for our buck rather than see it disappear into a bank vault. Having said all that, I’m not harking back to some golden era that never existed. I’ve been privileged to see some of the greats of the game turn out for my team over the last two decades and going to football these days is a much more comfortable experience than it used to be. Football-related violence is also far less common (at least when Napoli fans aren’t in town), something I’m thankful for after seeing the police use tear gas when West Ham were at Highbury back in the eighties.

So, in short, football feels good again. There’s still a lot wrong with the game but it seems I can’t stay away after all. In my previous post, the focus of my ire was Arsene Wenger, something that I took no pleasure in whatsoever. If this does turn out to be his last season at the club, then I really hope he can go out on a high. It would be a great shame if the second half of his reign ended barren, and if I’m eating a huge slice of humble pie in May then it’ll taste absolutely delicious.

Well, that was all rather serious, wasn’t it? Hopefully I can come up with something a bit lighter next time…

The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Walker

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As I mentioned in my very first post, being a sports fan doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Mental challenges are more my thing than physical ones, but as regular readers will know, I signed up for a 50 km charity walk along the River Thames earlier this year and Saturday was the big day. Therefore, I hope you’ll forgive me a little self-indulgence with this post, as I describe a sporting endeavour of my own.

The day didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts, as my taxi driver asked me how to get to Runnymede. Fortunately, one of us knew the way. On the plus side, the apocalyptic weather forecast from earlier in the week proved to be wrong; indeed, the cool, overcast and largely dry conditions throughout the day could hardly have been better. Arriving in plenty of time, I collected my registration pack and sat down in the marquee, striking up a conversation with a pleasant middle-aged lady called Mary. She told me that she’d attempted the 100 km London-to-Brighton a few months before, but had to pull out due to blisters and was hoping that 50 km would prove easier.

Shortly before the 9 am start, the PA system cranked into life with a fine selection of tunes including one of my favourites, Doves’ There Goes The Fear. It seemed particularly apt given that I’d been a bag of nerves for the previous twenty-four hours. Heading over to the start line, our official starter, decked out in a boater and stripy blazer, looked vaguely familiar. I eventually recognised him as former Coronation Street eco-warrior Spider (a web search reveals his identity as actor Martin Hancock). I must admit to being quite embarrassed at knowing that.

Didn't you use to be in Coronation Street?

Didn’t you use to be in Coronation Street?

At last sent on our way, Mary and I stuck together over the first quarter of the course, arriving at the first rest-stop just outside Windsor in a breezy 2:20. However, with no ladies’ toilets having been delivered, she continued on her way while I stayed to sample the pick-and-mix on offer, including some excellent clotted cream fudge. As a result, I tackled the second section alone, pausing only briefly at the half-way mark after five hours to take some photos for three ladies raising money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. It proved to be a relatively dull stretch of path, with the highlight being a look through the trees at the 2012 Olympic rowing venue at Eton Dorney.

I made it to the lunch stop to find Mary there, struggling with a leg problem and about to get a massage from the first aiders. A number of people were already laid out on massage tables, with others having their blisters treated. It made for a strange combination of odours, barbecued food mingling with Deep Heat. Pressing on, we got to Marlow, where Mary had to stop for a rest but insisted I go on. Her leg problem was getting worse and it sounded as though she was going to retire at the final stop, now not too far away. I arrived there extremely tired, and despite tucking into some delicious millionaire’s shortbread, found myself still hungry shortly after beginning the final push. There was only one thing for it – to break out the jelly babies. Wearing a floppy hat and holding a packet of said sweets in hand, all I needed was a long, stripy scarf and I could have been off to a Doctor Who convention. Joined for a while by John, a teacher from Chiswick, I eventually fell behind and it became clear that my target of finishing around 7:30 before darkness fell was hopelessly over-optimistic.

Sunset over Henley

Sunset over Henley

The last quarter turned out to be the toughest of the lot, with more hilly terrain and lots of stiles. The distances between kilometre-markers seemed to get ever-longer and approaching landmarks appeared to get no closer. After walking so far, even the slightest of inclines proved a real test, while dragging tired legs over a stile felt like something from an assault course. It was almost dark by the time I reached the riverbank at Henley, still around 4 km from the finish at Remenham. As I walked along, I was passed by a cyclist putting out glow-sticks along the route, mainly for those attempting the course at night (you had the option of a 7 pm start to do the event as a “moon-walk”, not something that felt particularly wise given the potential for turning an ankle over). At last, I came up to the finish after around eleven hours, only to discover that the organisers had a cruel trick in store: you had to walk on down the river and then come back in a loop for another 2 km in order to reach the finish line itself. Sadists. Finally approaching the line, Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine was belting out. I’m not sure whether someone was being deliberately ironic, or just had a sick sense of humour. Having made the trip from Runnymede himself (by car, no doubt), Spider was on hand to welcome everyone back with some words of congratulation and a handshake. After picking up my medal and t-shirt and making a dash for the gents, I was desperate for a seat and some food. You can only go so far on a diet of chicken sandwiches, cereal bars and sweets. The barbecued chicken and mushroom wrap was rough and ready to say the least, but tasted like ambrosia from the gods. Utterly spent, I sat there like a zombie for the next few minutes while waiting for the shuttle bus.

Yes, it's beautiful. But I just want it to be over now.

Yes, it’s beautiful. But I just want it to be over now.

Having never done anything like this before, I’d made sure to do the necessary training and never felt that I wasn’t going to finish. That wasn’t an option given all those who’d taken the trouble to sponsor me. However, I’ve never been so tired and it was by far the most difficult physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken. Nevertheless, it paled by comparison with some of the other participants, especially those who started at Putney in order to do 100 km, including some who’d run the distance! Some of my friends have done half-iron man triathlons, completed the Three Peaks challenge and even cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It just goes to show what the human body is capable of and, having had a taste of what it means to really push yourself in some small way, makes me admire their achievements even more.

Overall, it was a great experience. There was a real sense of togetherness, with everyone encouraging each other and a feeling that, rather against the typical British reserve, you could strike up a conversation with anyone who passed by. Having spent half the course walking on my own, I can say that it was certainly harder than when walking in company and the encouragement of the event staff and a few spectators was very welcome. Would I do it again? It’s too early to say, but I certainly think that 100 km is beyond me. Sport is all about pushing your boundaries, but yesterday I feel I pushed them about as far as they’ll go. Back to writing about other people…

Party Time

Mission accomplished

Making my way through Reading Station at eight o’clock on Sunday morning, it was clear that the party was already over for some. Early leavers from the Festival were strewn over the concourse, many slumped over tables in the various eateries after having spent the night there. The same rain that had turned the Festival site into a mudbath had also washed out day four at The Oval, meaning that the final test was likely to end in a tame draw. On the plus side, it meant that I was guaranteed to see plenty of action on day five, followed by the awarding of the urn and wild celebrations. I’d never been to the final day of any test series before, let alone an Ashes, so the prospect of a quiet day’s play with the captains shaking hands sometime before six was not going to put me off one bit.

Prawn sandwich? Don't mind if I do.

Prawn sandwich? Don’t mind if I do.

Heavy drizzle in Reading didn’t augur well, but things were looking up as the sun popped out around Hayes. Dodging the army of touts outside Oval station, I got into the ground just after ten to find conditions overcast but dry. However, the previous day’s deluge meant a delayed start, something that ended up influencing the final outcome. Reaching my seat upstairs in the new OCS stand, I was surprised to find that I was right behind the bowler’s arm in front of some function rooms and with a comfortable padded seat. It felt like I should be tucking into a prawn sandwich and a glass of bubbly, my dear old thing. I had expected my day four trip to Lord’s to be my last live cricket of the season, but was delighted to be offered a spare by friend and former works team-mate Paul, who joined me just before the start of play after finally tearing himself away from the brass band downstairs. You can take the boy out of Lancashire, but you can’t take Lancashire out of the boy.

It's a bit late for that...

It’s a bit late for that…

The third day’s play, the whole of which I watched on TV, was turgid stuff. England’s batsmen have been castigated for throwing their wickets away throughout this series, so it actually made a refreshing change to see them get their heads down and graft to try and make the game safe. Sunday’s approach was very different, suggesting that an entertaining finish might be on the cards after all. Australia signalled their intentions by sending Shane Watson back up to opener, but kept losing wickets in their search for quick runs. I wonder how Chris Rogers felt, demoted all the way down to number nine below the likes of Harris and Starc, and not even making it to the crease. With the sun out and the beer taking effect, the Barmy Army went through their full repertoire, baiting the Fanatics and eventually getting the whole ground on its feet (bar those in green and gold) to “stand up if you’re 3-0 up”. Mitchell Starc was also singled out for some special attention, suggesting that he’s going to be targeted Down Under by the travelling fans. His similarity to previous boo-boy Mitchell Johnson is uncanny: a tall left-armer who’s dangerous on the rare occasions that the radar is switched on, but who sprays around an awful lot of dross in the meantime. All he needs now are a few tattoos.

Sit down if you're 3-0 down...

Sit down if you’re 3-0 down…

Joined during the afternoon from two rows down by our old team-mate Rob, we debated whether those in the green shirts and yellow caps were forced to keep said items on throughout the whole day or face some kind of penalty. Perhaps made to play a drinking game with their leader, Merv Hughes? I was more interested in finding out how anyone’s liver could survive six weeks in the company of the moustachioed one.

Returning to my seat during tea, I was surprised to hear that Michael Clarke had already declared. It was obviously coming, but 227 in 44 overs sounded rather over-generous given the rate at which runs had been scored throughout the day. So, to the finale. KP was at his belligerent best, evoking memories of 2005 and stoking up the atmosphere in the crowd to something special. The cameras made sure to focus on Clarke whenever a ball went to the boundary, desperate for a look that said “what have I done?”, but with victory within reach, the umpires applied the letter of the law and test cricket shot itself in the foot yet again. Many of the pundits have spoken about how unfair it was to the paying public and, as one of them, I can testify that I was dis-chuffed to say the least at being cheated out of a dream conclusion to the series. Yes, Clarke did his bit to produce an exciting last day, but when his bowlers were unable to stem the tide and it became obvious which way the wind was blowing, his haranguing of the umpires and slowing down of play made him look like a mug. All captains would have done the same in that position, but the difference is that Clarke had put himself there by declaring. No-one forced him to do it and he would have known exactly what to expect when dangling the carrot. Fortunately for the authorities, there wasn’t a lot riding on the game. If a similar situation had cropped up in a series decider, things would have lurched from farce to scandal and there could have been some seriously ugly scenes. Perhaps the ICC would be better advised to concentrate on sorting out the serious stuff rather than worrying about trivia like covering up unwanted sponsors’ logos.

A typically understated English celebration

A typically understated English celebration

The disappointment didn’t last long. There’s not a lot of difference between 3-0 and 4-0, and the post-match pyrotechnics and lap of honour soon calmed the crowd down. The price to pay for an upper tier seat meant that we weren’t able to get as close to the players as some, but it was a fantastic conclusion to a memorable day’s cricket. It’s been a strange series in many ways, but ultimately satisfying if you’re an England fan. No doubt the ECB will be pleased to see that Graeme Swann finished as top wicket-taker, something they surely intended when instructing the groundsmen on pitch preparation. With the Australian pitches expected to be faster, bouncier and the added unpredictability of a drop-in at Adelaide, the style of cricket should be quite different come the winter, but hopefully the boys will give us plenty of reasons to burn the midnight oil come November 21st.

Arriving back in Reading around ten at the end of a very long day, the Festival exodus was well and truly on. Presumably the same was happening in the London hotels where the Australians were checking out. For us England fans, the party was only just beginning.

The End Of The Affair

Arsène Wenger

Arsène Wenger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every sports fan has to learn how to lose. Some more than others. Whether you shrug your shoulders, sulk or kick the cat (and I’m not recommending the latter), you have to accept that no matter who you support, you can’t win ’em all. There can be something rather noble in following a struggling team and backing them no matter what, just to experience the occasional thrill of victory amongst the pummellings. Often, we can overlook a lack of talent as long as they’ve done their best. What’s much harder to swallow is when they don’t even try.

When it comes to football, I’ve always considered myself fortunate to be an Arsenal fan. I’ve seen some of the best players in the world turn out for my team, play fantastic football and win umpteen trophies. They even went an entire league season unbeaten, a feat unheard of in the modern game. Some of my fondest memories have been connected with Arsenal, and it’s been a huge part of my life. However, I now find a lifelong passion ebbing away, something that would have been unthinkable as little as three months ago.

As the media is so keen to remind us whenever possible, it’s been x years since Arsenal last won a trophy (eight at the moment). No-one has a divine right to win trophies, but when you support a club who reputedly charge the highest ticket prices in world football, the least you expect is that they do what’s necessary to have a decent crack at winning the league, which includes identifying areas where your squad is below-strength and bringing in players who can improve it. Since the move to the club’s new stadium in 2006, money has been tight, leading the club to sell its best players and replace them with those of significantly lower quality. Despite this, Arsene Wenger has kept Arsenal qualifying for the Champions League every year, a tremendous achievement given the sale or retirement of one club legend after another. However, simply finishing in fourth place has increasingly seemed the limit of the club’s ambition and led to a real schism in the Arsenal support recently. Many think that the manager has had his time and needs to be removed; others have continued to back him for keeping Arsenal at Europe’s top table on a relative shoestring with the promise of better days ahead, given how he’s revolutionised the club over the last seventeen years.

Being a patient sort, I’ve been largely in the second camp. However, where losing Wenger would once have been unthinkable, my view had come to be that replacing the manager was no longer something to be dreaded. Things have changed, however. At the end of last season, after pipping Spurs to fourth place again, big statements were made by CEO Ivan Gazidis about the club’s renewed financial muscle, thanks to the reduction in debt on the new stadium and some new commercial deals. The cash was finally going to be splashed, with some world class players bolstering the squad to fuel a serious tilt at the title, something by no means unrealistic given that Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs had all changed manager.

With the minimum requirements being a goalkeeper, centre half, holding midfielder and striker, Arsenal fans waited nervously throughout the summer for news of reinforcements. For the last few years, transfer windows had been something of a wasteland, but it had to be different this time. A deal for Gonzalo Higuain looked on the cards but fell through and then, to my utter disgust, it was revealed that a bid had been made to Liverpool for Luis Suarez. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that there haven’t been some unpleasant people to have turned out for the club in its history, but to court someone known for diving, racially abusing an opponent and biting two others made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t possibly support Suarez in an Arsenal shirt, and nor could I support a manager who would think that signing him was a good idea. Many Arsenal fans would be happy to take him for his undeniable talent, but even from a business point of view, it makes no sense to me at all. You could write the script now: the dives, the non-awarded penalties, the suspensions and finally walking out when another club more to his liking comes to call. Liverpool have shown a ridiculous degree of loyalty to him and he’s thrown it right back in their faces, which says everything about the character of the man. The now-famous £40,000,001 bid was, funnily enough, designed to just trigger a release clause. What a coincidence. Anyone would think that Suarez’s agent had tipped Arsenal off. As that release clause has now been found to be non-existent, perhaps Suarez would be better advised to find someone else to pocket his ten per-cent.

Ironically, then, when I’ve been aching for the club to spend big, the main source of my anger has been their intention to smash their transfer record. With that seemingly haven fallen through (although possibly not for good), where were the other desperately-needed signings, who even the current players have been begging for? Despite removing a raft of dead wood from the books, Arsenal’s sole signing of the summer is Yaya Sanogo, an injury-prone midfielder from the French Second Division, arriving on a free transfer. The fact that the transfer window remains open until September 2nd is an irrelevance: new signings should have been bedded in long before the start of the season, ready to play from day one. The fact that this hasn’t happened, yet again, amounts to a dereliction of duty by Arsene Wenger, in which the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke and the septuagenarian board are complicit. Like many others, I’ve come to the conclusion that Wenger is no longer the right man for the job and should go as soon as possible. However, Arsenal are nothing more than an investment for Kroenke, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, he’ll no doubt be keen to keep the status quo. Trophies are incidental. Whether Wenger walks away at the end of the season once his current contract expires is another matter, but the Arsenal Supporters Trust were absolutely right to state that the offer of a new contract would not be appropriate at present.

When I first started this blog, it was to communicate my love of sport and the positive feelings it engenders. It was absolutely not to use it as a platform to sound like a grumpy old man or be controversial. Therefore, it pains me greatly to write a piece so negative towards Arsene Wenger, possibly the greatest manager the club has ever had. He’s been responsible for giving me some of my happiest days, but on his watch, I now find my enthusiasm for Arsenal and therefore football in general at an all-time low. Having already stumped up my club membership fee in May, I would normally have been eagerly poring over the fixtures and deciding which games to buy tickets for. The idea of not watching or listening to every game was unthinkable, yet I’ve completely avoided the first two games of the season because I just can’t bring myself to care anymore. The opening day defeat to Aston Villa left me indifferent, whereas before, I would have been gutted, angry or both. Likewise, looking up tonight’s score to see that a 3-0 win has been achieved over Fenerbahce left me equally cold. Is this what it feels like to get divorced? How long my self-imposed exile from the game lasts, I can’t say. Maybe I won’t miss it at all, but if my passion is ever rekindled then I doubt that Arsene Wenger will still be in charge. That’s probably the saddest thing of all.

The Perils Of Predictions

There’s been a fair bit going on in The Ashes since I stepped out of Lord’s three weeks ago and wrote my last cricket post. With England dishing out a hammering at headquarters and Australia in apparent disarray, I felt, like many others, that a 5-0 whitewash was a definite possibility. But, with the Aussies making the most of the toss at Old Trafford and England’s top order continuing to struggle, many of us were left to do a rain dance on the last day. The forecast predicted a deluge, but it looked like this one was straight out of the Michael Fish school of weather prediction: I switched on the TV at lunchtime expecting to see covers all over the field; instead, not only was the game on, but Alistair Cook was already out, with Trott and Pietersen shortly following. We couldn’t muck this one up, could we? Fortunately for England, the rain finally arrived and The Ashes were secured with something of a damp squib. Never trust a weatherman.

One of the main talking points from Manchester was the absolute mess that the umpires got themselves into over DRS. After the First Test, I suggested taking the captains out of the referral system and handing it over to the umpires completely. It didn’t take long for that theory to get blown out of the water, but Hot Spot aside, I don’t think there’s an awful lot wrong with the technology. You can’t legislate for umpires making boneheaded decisions, and there have been plenty of those in this series. Come back Daryl Harper, all is forgiven. Nevertheless, as I heard both Jonathan Agnew and Gideon Haigh comment, you can imagine the Indian cricket authorities who continue to opt out of the system feeling rather smug about the whole thing.

So, to Durham. With England effectively 17 for 3 in their second innings on Sunday, I’d have normally been fretting. Perhaps with the Ashes already retained, I was a bit more relaxed, or was it because Ian Bell was on his way to the crease to join KP? You wouldn’t have found many people predicting that Bell would be the series’ top run-scorer, but he’s been absolutely sublime throughout, rescuing England on numerous occasions with runs by the bucket-load. Is there anything better for an England fan than watching Belly caress another one through the covers for four?

Despite Bell’s best efforts, I was keeping an eye on today’s score with increasing dismay. With the expected clatter of fourth innings wickets failing to materialise, I arrived home from work with Australia on 147 for 1 and apparently very little happening for the bowlers. There was every prospect of the teams going into the final rubber at 2-1, but Tim Bresnan’s removal of the Barmy Army’s new pantomime villain David Warner was the catalyst for Stuart Broad to get on one of his unstoppable hot streaks and seal the series. I was fortunate to be at The Oval four years ago when Broad’s magic spell wrecked the Aussies’ first innings and paved the way for England to grab back the urn. Today saw something similar, including an absolute jaffa to account for Michael Clarke.

3-0 from four tests sounds pretty comprehensive, but England’s bowlers have had to bail out the batsmen too many times and without Ian Bell finally casting off his Shermanator image, things could have been very different. Australia have certainly done enough to show that the reverse series later this year is not going to be a picnic. Hopefully Cook and Trott are saving up their runs for that one.

One man relieved by today’s result was Michael Holding: after Lord’s, he said that he’d swim home if Australia won any of the remaining tests. A 10-0 win over both series, as predicted by Ian Botham, was never a realistic prospect, but I suspect that had more to do with Beefy indulging in one of his favourite pastimes, Aussie-baiting. Apart from the Lord’s blowout, there’s not been a great deal between the sides, with the see-saw nature of the play further demonstrating how dangerous making predictions can be. You don’t get too many poor bookies, which is why I’ve never had a bet in my life and, like Nasser Hussain, I prefer to keep my money in my pocket. Losing runs can be hard to break, though, and when push comes to shove, England have just had the edge. As I write, no doubt the boys will be consuming the odd shandy, but I think one safe prediction will be that there will be nothing on the scale of Freddie Flintoff’s famous 2005 bender. However, having recently been offered a ticket for day five at The Oval, I’m rather less certain about whether I’ll get the chance to use it or not.