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Midweek Premier League fixtures in December? Bah humbug. I cannot say I am overly impressed at the way the fixture calendar makes room for pointless international friendlies. Still, it is the same for everybody in fairness, and yes, I forgot to change my Fantasy Football team too!

Poor old Arsene’s presser couldn’t have been timed worse in some respects. He had to announce that Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs needed fitness tests later meaning potentially that we have two fit right-backs and two fit central defenders going into the match. Calum Chambers for left-back, anyone?

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was also subject to a fitness test so the midfield is also uncertain. With Lukas Podolski, Tomas Rosicky, and Joel Campbell chomping at the bit we could probably cover his absence a little more comfortably. Southampton too will be nervous of the outcome. Why are we fussing about the outcome of this encounter?

I’m not sure. Southampton, at home. They are becoming serious competitors it would appear. They will be without Morgan Schneiderlin, a reported target for the Gunners, who injured his thigh in Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City. They are looking to protect their third place in the Premiership. The Saints have already won at the Grove this season, knocking us out of the Capital One Cup, so tonight provides an opportunity for us to set the record straight.

Results last night mean we are out of the top six going into this evening’s encounter, but with just seven points separating us from second place Manchester City it is not the time for going overboard about that. More importantly we have the opportunity to cut the gap on the Saints, currently in third place, to just three points. With two-thirds of the season remaining let’s stay calm and support the boys.

The ‘holic pound

The pound has to be targeted at a positive outcome. I may have been premature in hoping for a high-scoring performance at the Hawthorns, and this could be another close, tense, encounter. 2-1 to the hosts is available at 15/2 with Paddy Power and that is what I am on. As you will see in the header above they are also offering new customers an astonishing 6/1 against an Arsenal win. Now that is value.

Have a lovely evening ‘holics, wherever you may be.

A good week for Arsenal got better at the Hawthorns at lunchtime. Whilst we may have lost Mikel Arteta from Wednesday we welcomed Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud back to the starting line-up.

Much of the match turned into a catalogue of opportunities for a clearly dominant, but far from ruthless Arsenal. From the off we took control.

Santi Cazorla, set up by Danny Welbeck, fired straight at Foster on just two minutes. That would prove to be a recurring feature of the half. Next came a solo effort by Alexis Sanchez that also found Foster’s gloves on six minutes. Cazorla was again teed up by Welbeck on eleven minutes but his effort was blocked.

Welbeck was held off in the nineteenth minute, but almost immediately we were forced into a change as Nacho Monreal hobbled off to be replaced by Kieran Gibbs, the latter not getting much of a rest. Alexis fired a free-kick into the wall and as the pressure mounted Aaron Ramsey put Welbeck through for a one on one with Foster, but the ‘keeper again stood firm.

In the 28th minute Giroud dispossessed Foster near the goal-line but curled his effort across the face of the unguarded net. A couple of minutes later Welbeck again set up Cazorla but again the influential Spaniard fired straight at the Baggies ‘keeper. Soon after Martinez was called upon to comfortably deal with Brunt’s cross, his first involvement in the match.

The one-way traffic resumed with Aaron Ramsey hustling through but sliding his effort wide, then Cazorla chipped just beyond Rambo as he burst into the box again. Either side of the half-time break we were given a reminder that not converting dominance into goals could be dangerous.

Brunt was rightly flagged offside in a move which ended with the ball in the back of the net. Just after the break an erroneous flag halted Berahino in his tracks after he got in behind Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.

Five minutes into the half Calum Chambers flighted a deft chip to Rambo who miscued a difficult volley in the inside-right channel. Arsenal were back in the ascendency. A couple of minutes later Dorrans was booked for pulling back Gibbs and Foster spilled the resulting free-kick only for Per Mertesacker to pull his effort wide.

In the 55th Minute Gibbs crossed just a fraction to high for the energetic Cazorla, surely producing his most influential performance of the season. Lescott headed wide from a Dorrans cross just before the hour was up but Arsenal finally broke the deadlock a minute later when Cazorla danced to the by-line and crossed perfectly for Welbeck to power in a header that Foster could only help on it’s way into the back of the net.

Cue West Brom substituting midfielder Mulumbu with striker Anichebe. That didn’t change things immediately. Rambo missed the target when through once more. Surely a second goal was coming? On 68 minutes Welbeck was brought down, the meat in a sandwich around the edge of the box, but Chris Foy, otherwise excellent, denied him even a free-kick.

The Baggies made their final throw of the dice, sending on forwards Gamboa and Samaras for Pocognoli and Sessegnon. The latter drew huge jeers from the West Brom support and manager Alan Irvine was serenaded with “You don’t know what you’re doing”. As if to prove, not for the last time on the day, that supporters can get their timing so wrong on occasion the tide turned for the final ten minutes. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for the tiring Giroud who had put in a full shift up front.

Margins can be fine in football, as in life, and ten minutes from time West Brom came closest to stealing a point when Berahino headed against the crossbar, but the Gunners cleared the danger and re-organised for a disciplined final phase.

With six minutes remaining Gamboa was booked for hauling back Welbeck as Arsenal threatened to break out. Gardner’s deflected shot provided a rare bit of work for Martinez who showed good concentration and saved comfortably. Minutes later he was even more impressive, clinging on to a Samaras cross over Koscielny’s not inconsiderable frame. In the last of the 90 minutes Rambo deflected Gardner’s effort wide.

In four added minutes the Ox was the third name in Mr Foy’s notebook for a blatant trip, but the Gunners saw out the match with a  welcome show of disciplined defending. Santi Cazorla rightly earned the man of the match plaudits, but as I tweeted earlier a word too for Mathieu Flamini, not at his best this season, who typified that discipline and who looked more like the Flamini of old. With Mikel Arteta out for an Arsenal three weeks the Flamster will be needed.

Afterwards the boss reflected on the performance and acknowledged that final phase.

“In the end our solidarity got us through when the legs went in the last 10 minutes. Maybe we were a fraction lucky on the crossbar, but overall it’s a well-deserved win.”

Very understated. Indeed that was a very well deserved win.

So some 63 hours after completing a hard-working 2-0 win over Dortmund the Gunners will be starting their latest Premier League challenge at the Hawthorns. It’s a ground that holds reasonably happy memories for me, but once again we will have to adjust to enforced changes to the side.

The extent of those were unclear at Arsene’s presser earlier. Certainly Wednesday night cost us the services of Mikel Arteta and possibly Yaya Sanogo. Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Mathieu Debuchy, and Mesut Ozil (yes, and Abou Diaby) are also ruled out still. Danny Welbeck, David Ospina, and Wojciech Szczesny are likely to be missing as well offering another opportunity to Emiliano Martinez between the sticks.

A bit of good news arrived in the shape of Laurent Koscielny’s availability after injury. Arsene may choose to start him on the bench and ease him back to full match-fitness given Nacho Monreal’s growing confidence in the central role. An unchanged back four to start, possibly.

In midfield one would assume that Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey will primarily hold and Santi Cazorla could be recalled in the hole ahead of Tomas Rosicky. The flanks are likely to be unchanged with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain so impressive on Wednesday and Alexis Sanchez being the player of the season to date. Olivier Giroud is eligible for the Premier League and will surely start up front.

The hosts have blown hot and cold this season, beating only Burnley at home in the Premier League. They have, however, taken points off Sunderland, Manchester United, and Crystal Palace. They have been more successful on the road beating Tottenham and Leicester as well as holding in-form Southampton. Jakob and Olsson will be missing, but dangerous young striker Saido Berahino will play despite his arrest on a drink-drive charge earlier in the week. He has eight goals to his credit this season and links well with Stephan Sessegnon.

So which Arsenal will we see? Despite defeats in the last two Premier League outings the performance against Dortmund has hopefully restored some much-needed confidence and belief. This is certainly a fixture we should be going into expecting to bring points home. The key may well be in our midfield. If they click then we look to have the quality elsewhere to grind out another decent result.

The ‘holic pound

I need a result as much as the Arsenal. You’ll think I have gone mad, but Arsenal will beat someone heavily when they click, so I am throwing a hail Mary, well two to be precise. I have taken Paddy Power’s offer of 325/1 against a 0-6 away win, with a back-up punt on 1-6 at 275/1 with the same firm.

What happens when you leave your smartphone with professional footballers?

A usual day at the Arsenal F.C. training centre consists of a strict regime of shuttle runs, stretching and ball skills but at a recent shoot for Vitality the players took the opportunity to take a breather from training with a few casual selfies on an unguarded smartphone. 

England internationals Theo Walcott and Calum Chambers posed alongside Aaron Ramsey and captain Mikel Arteta in several selfies which made for a surprise for the smartphone’s owner. It’s surprising that Lukas Podolski or Wojciech Szczesny didn’t get in on the act given their well-known selfie obsessions. Podolski has a history of posing for selfies with Bastian Schweinsteiger and German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the World Cup final win. While Szczesny took one of the most well known football selfies of last year, and guess what…Podolski was involved too!

For a chance to win a trip to see Arsenal FC in training, enter your details at http://blog.pruhealth.co.uk/arsenal-selfie-competition, retweet any of the posts on the Vitality Twitter that include the hashtag #vitalityselfie or like any of the posts on the Vitality Facebook page that include the hashtag #vitalityselfie
The competition ends on 23:59 Sunday 30th November 2014 – good luck, and have a good one ‘holics.

Well that made for a much better day. An afternoon taking in the delights of the South Bank, including a German Christmas market which provided some amusement for wandering Dortmunders, was followed by a leisurely journey to the Tollie to imbibe and chew the fat with friends. The vibes were positive until the team news was announced. “Sanogo? Really?”

Two minutes in and that had changed to a booming chorus of “Yaya Sanogo, he scores when he wants”. Controlling a throw-in from Calum Chambers he found Santi Cazorla with a clever backheel and advanced on goal to take the return pass and slot the ball under Weidenfeller in the Dortmund goal. Just the start needed to settle any nerves that might have been felt on and off the pitch.

What followed was as good a match, and performance, as we have seen in a while. The young Frenchman might have doubled his tally but Ginter recovered to block his effort. Although Arsenal had dominated the opening phase of play the visitors came strongly back and no quarter was asked or given. Subotic and Arteta traded yellow cards, and Mkhitaryan fired high and wide when an equaliser seemed possible. The same player was denied by Emiliano Martinez, making a second winning Champions League appearance of the season.

Both sides impressed with their defensive discipline, so often the undoing of both in their domestic leagues this season. At the start of the second-half Mkhitaryan and Alexis Sanchez traded efforts on goal before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so impressive on the night, hammered a glorious volley against the crossbar. One sensed that a second goal was both coming and needed. It duly arrived in breathtaking style when Cazorla found Alexis in the inside-left channel and the Chilean curled a delightful shot inside the far post from the edge of the box.

Dortmund introduced Ramos and Kagawa and set about recovering the situation. There were groans followed by sympathetic applause as Mikel Arteta once again broke down and departed injured. For how long, one wonders? We will miss him, and it once again raises the question of an additional defensive midfielder being required in January. The Gunners remained disciplined however. Per Mertesacker took the captain’s armband from Arteta, but it looked from the west lower as though Nacho Monreal had taken charge of the rearguard action. Full marks to him if so.

Subotic for the visitors, and the Ox for Arsenal were both off target as a fascinating match entered the final phase. Gündogan shot straight at Martinez, and so too did Ramos either side of an overhit Santi free-kick. Even at two down the visiting hoardes in the south-east corner of the stadium produced noisy and well-choreographed support for their team. Personally I would have stuck something sharp through the drummer’s instrument, but full marks to them. They never deserted their team when needed.

The result ensures our passage into the knock-out phase of the Champions League, which makes it nine years in a row. Mathematically we could still group but that will require Anderlecht winning in Dortmund. Realistically we should be preparing to draw the likes of Barca or Bayern again. That’s for another day. For now let us savour a couple of days before looking to reproduce this form at West Bromwich on Saturday lunchtime.

Look, as Arsene now seems to preface every statement, three weeks ago we led Anderlecht 3-0 in the Champions League matchday four fixture. It was the last feelgood moment for Arsenal supporters it seems. In the remaining half an hour we managed to turn three points into one, and set in motion a kamikaze approach of throwing bodies into attack with insufficient cover behind. Incomprehensible defeats to Swansea and Manchester United have followed and increased pressure on the manager and his misfiring team.

On Saturday we lost 1-2 to a team that had only one shot on target (only Arsenal could do that, surely?). We can be sure that Dortmund will show more attacking intent on Wednesday night at the Grove. That could be a blessing, but only if we show more discipline, commitment, and confidence, than has been in evidence in those last three weeks. It wouldn’t be easy at the best of times, but the extension to the treatment room was filled on Saturday. Wojciech Szczesny and Jack Wilshere have adjoining couches and miss this match. Danny Welbeck hopes to be allowed out to play but has now finished two matches in a week with a ‘tight hamstring’. His potential absence is made more significant by the absence of Olivier Giroud, not included in the Champions League group phase squad as he wasn’t expected to be recovered from his broken leg before Christmas.

Just as I begin to regret that the oven here is electric and not gas there is at last some good news. Laurent Koscielny is back in the squad, a welcome addition for a defence under fire but woefully exposed by their somewhat reckless midfield colleagues. Is he fit enough for ninety minutes? If there is any doubt then let’s think of the long term good. Nacho Monreal was only really out of his depth at Swansea and given the lack of form and confidence in those ahead of him he has done as well as we could have expected our second choice left-back to do at centre-back. Emiliano Martinez played in goal in the away win at Anderlecht and will hope for another successful Champions League night as Szczesny’s replacement.

Jack’s absence has provided a midfield opening. Perhaps we will sit Aaron Ramsey alongside Mikel Arteta at the base with instructions to cover Dortmund’s lightning counter-attacks first and foremost.  In the advanced central role the likeliest recall would be for Santi Cazorla, although surely Tomas Rosicky will be seriously considered against his former club. Assuming Alexis and the Ox will be the wide men that leaves the centre forward. Should Welbeck not make it then the boss has a decision to make between Yaya Sanogo and Lukas Podolski. I would go with the latter against his countrymen, but what do I know?

The visitors have their own injury woes. Marco Reus and Mats Hummels, both ironically heavily linked with potential moves to Arsenal, are currently injured thus proving their perfect fit for the Gunners. Given the current atmosphere around the club it is also a night for Jurgen Klopp to impress those who rather prematurely enthuse about him following Arsene into the Arsenal hot-seat. His team have lost seven matches domestically and are hovering painfully around the Bundesliga basement. This matters not, he says.

“We have real pressure, but tonight I cannot change the Bundesliga situation, so it is a little bit like a holiday situation for me, it is only the Champions League. Tomorrow we have a big target, we want to go through in first position.”

They are most certainly favourites to do so. They have four wins out of four in the group to date and will secure top place if they avoid defeat at the Grove. Even if we win we need them to lose at home to Anderlecht on matchday six for us to stand any chance of denying them that berth.

The ‘holic pound

The fact that the draw secures us second place in the group could make us just that little more conscious of defending from the front. Surely though the three points will be targeted while first place is still mathematically possible? A European night, an Arsenal team languishing in mid-table. It is reminiscent of George Graham’s final season with the Gunners. In the hope that lightning can strike twice in the same place (it often does, in fact) I am tempted by the 21/2 available if you shop around on a good old-fashioned 1-0 to the Arsenal.

The Jackson Five

Sang “I’ll Be There”, and rarely for a midweek fixture I will be, the neighbour having been very persuasive, so don’t expect a match report until Thursday. To those also going I look forward to seeing you in the usual place pre-match. I will be making a sharp exit though in order to make the last train home. I look forward to seeing you there.

Have a good one ‘holics, wherever you are watching.

Two excited youngsters are met and whisked off to enjoy a pre-match pizza. Mum asks, “what is your prediction this afternoon?”. I tell her I fancy we have learned our lesson and will win 2-1. “What lesson?” Nearly every time we have played them in recent years they sit back and catch us with one or two lightning breaks, I explain. We can’t be that naive again, surely?

We arrive at the ground early and two wines and a couple of fizzy drinks cost half as much as the feast we have just enjoyed. Snaps are taken as the boys enter Block 26. Wide eyed, and smitten they are. I’m just a bit nervous. I thought the family section was in the corner, not behind the goal. When the match kicks off so does the abuse of van Persie, and Tottenham. That won’t stop, but why are the club selling junior Gunners tickets in this area? Everybody stands, again something I don’t object to, but it means the youngest has to stand on his seat to see the match.

What the boys see in the first half is encouraging. Some of the football from Arsenal is memeric, but the lion is somewhat toothless and clawless. A couple of chances for Danny Welbeck and one for Jack Wilshere came and went before Jack was put clear through on goal. Setting the tone for the afternoon he placed his effort straight at De Gea. A big moment it would prove to be. De Gea had magnetic qualities as far as the ball was concerned. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rounded him but he recovered to block when once again the opening goal seemed imminent. Sanchez too put an effort straight at him.

Arsenal were becoming nervous, the confidence seemingly draining out of them towards the end of the half, and Di Maria curled an effort just past the far post. This was a warning that United were up to their old tricks against us. We didn’t heed the lesson. At half-time we could at least sit and encourage each other. The beaming grins of pre-match had turned to nervous expressions but we were surely going to win playing like this, weren’t we?

Again De Gea didn’t have to move far to clutch an Alexis effort as Arsenal poured forward. Then the inevitable happened, Wojciech Szczesny and Kieran Gibbs collided as both attempted to deal with a hopeful Fellaini punt and Valencia’s wild effort was deflected into his own goal by the prone Gibbs. Cue a deafening silence at the Clock End for what seemed like a minute before the first obscenities starting gushing forth. The atmosphere deepened further, and the first rumblings of ‘friendly fire’ were heard.

Off went Szczesny, on came Martinez. We poured forward, finding De Gea it seemed with every goalbound effort. Olivier Giroud’s arrival almost brought an instant reward, but his header was too high. As we streamed forward United again countered. Two against one, Di Maria set Rooney free for a second. Shambolic defending for a young central defender and a tiny goalkeeper to witness. Hopefully this (Sunday) morning they don’t do as poorly.

The home support started to dwindle rapidly. We were able to sit again with clear rows in front of us. Eight added on minutes finally saw two young boys cheering when Giroud smashed one high and wide of De Gea into the net. Arsenal being Arsenal there had to be hope, didn’t there? United though ran down the clock and frustrated as tempers frayed on the pitch as well as off it. The frustration was understandable, but the reaction infantile and self-defeating.

Shorn of defensive stability and discipline this current Arsenal team is seeking elusive ruthlessness. The pretty patterns and sharp interplay in and around the box is desperately seeking finishing touches. One gets the feeling that a poorly organised opponent will get terrorised one afternoon soon, but Arsenal need something else against stronger rivals. United, equally hapless at the back came with a tried and trusted gameplan, and it worked.

When will we learn that lesson? When will our luck turn? When will Kos, Mesut, and Theo return? Will they alone solve what ails us? The January transfer window is gaining added significance with every passing poor result. Hopefully when the young defenders return they will see a better example to follow.

Remember when Arsenal v Manchester United fixtures were effectively title deciders? The intensity was all too evident. You could sense the atmosphere building for days beforehand. Vieira and Keane, Keown and van Nistelrooy, battles all over the park, and who can forget the Nevilles assault of Jose Antonio Reyes. They effectively kicked him all the way back to Spain.

It seems strange to be approaching this still huge fixture in the Premier League calendar more as an eliminator for a Champions League place as early as November. Such are the expectations at both clubs that it hurts both to watch Chelsea sailing away into the distance as points are carelessly discarded at the Grove and Old Trafford.

Both sides have a real attacking threat but are struggling defensively right now. Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny remain out with injuries which probably means an unchanged back four in front of Wojciech Szczesny. I know many would prefer to see Calum Chambers switched to the centre and Hector Bellerin promoted to right back but that would be a surprise to see Arsene opt for youth against such dangerous opponents.

Mikel Arteta is fit to return and could partner Aaron Ramsey at the base of the midfield, freeing Jack Wilshere to move into the hole behind whoever will be leading the line. With Danny Welbeck falling foul of a tight hamstring in Glasgow on Tuesday there is a chance of an immediate recall for Olivier Giroud, back in training after recovering from a leg break.

I will be in the family enclosure hoping that Alexis can keep his amazing goalscoring run going to secure three valuable points for the grand’holics to boast about at school on Monday. There are obvious threats to that from a team who have thrived against us in recent years playing a fast counter-attacking game. Good job we don’t commit so many players forward these days. What? Oh…

Mata, di Maria,and Rooney, all pose challenges for us to solve, but the one we most want to lock down is the misfiring Robin van Stapleton. He can expect another hostile reception which we must hope is not counter-productive. He has three strikes for his new employers against us. It would make for an ugly atmosphere were another strike by him be allied to a poor performance from us.

The ‘holic pound has to be pointed at a home win, however. I have had a good hunch all week about 2-1 and I won’t change my mind now. 17/2 is a decent price for that, and I’m on it. It would certainly ease the tension bubbling under the surface around the club right now.

With the grand’holics in town I shall be swapping pints of Guinness for a glass or two of vino with pizza. Yes, pizza, against Manchester United. What could possibly go wrong?

Have a great one, ‘holics.

Welcome back to book review week on Goonerholic.

I have in my collection Rebels For The Cause and Highbury: The Story of Arsenal in N5, so when Jon Spurling released his latest book, Red Letter Days, I knew it would end up accompanying the others in my Arsenal dominated bookcase. Jon knows what Arsenal supporters want to read about, and writes for his target audience.

Red Letter Days is another well crafted delve into the Gunners past, including the recent past I hasten to add. From Sir Henry Norris to the FA Cup Final victory in May Jon concentrates on fourteen key moments in Arsenal’s history, dissecting the myths and conjecture which surround Arsenal’s epoch-defining moments, including key matches and tactical revolutions, and casts fresh light on the impact of important figures in the club’s history.

Relive or discover the 1930 ‘Zeppelin Final’, the Stoke semi-final in 1971, Anfield ’89, Parma ’94 (oh what a night, as Frankie Valli so astutely observed), and Arsene’s early tussles with Manchester United. Look again at legends such as Norris, Charlie Buchan, Herbert Chapman (genuflects after typing), Joe Mercer, George Graham, Dennis Bergkamp (repeats genuflect), and Patrick Vieira.

Jon pools 25 years worth of interviews with Arsenal stars past and present, and has blended archive research with forensic analysis of crucial events both on and off the pitch to provide a challenging reassessment of Arsenal’s history.

In each chapter I can honestly say I discovered something hitherto unknown to me, or maybe forgotten although I doubt that. It’s clear that Jon has put in the hard hours reaearching another engrossing read. The bibliography at the back of the book tells a tale in itself.

I read it from cover to cover in chronological order, but again this is a book from which you can pick your favourite chapters and read them in isolation. In fact I suspect I will do just that in the coming weeks, so keen am I to enjoy again a number of events that meant so much to me in my life.

As an Arsenal supporter you have a number of recently published Arsenal books to choose from if you are dropping Christmas present hints. It’s not for me to suggest which you opt for if you are on a budget. All I will say is that if you have enjoyed Jon’s work in the past then you will not be disappointed with this.

In the sidebar you will find a link to the book on Amazon, along with the excellent Invincible by Amy Lawrence. Enjoyable reads both. Make sure the family know they’re there. Thank you.

It is becoming quite a year for collectors of Arsenal books, and in the next week  surrounding the Manchester United fixture I have three more to review. Tonight that week is kick-started with a look at an interesting concept, and a special discount for Goonerholic readers.

Did I say interesting? Well, it had to happen really. A popular Twitter account replicated in book form, so not your conventional read by any stretch of the imagination. More it is a book to be picked at when you have a few minutes to spare and don’t want to think too hard about a plot, a previous incident, or indeed acquiring knowledge. This is a book when you want a grin, a chuckle, or even the odd belly laugh.

For those who have tried Twitter and don’t enjoy the format, then you may as well head straight for the drinks and tell us all there. For those who don’t know it (where have you been?) Twitter is a social media site which allows people to communicate with pretty much anyone in posts of 140 characters or less. There are those who post there who have developed a personna, an alter ego if you will, and the author of this tome is one of the most amusing among the army of Arsenal supporters you will find there.

The tweeter known as @wengerknowsbest is followed by over 120,000 people and has become required reading for simply speaking fluent Wenger. Little Bit Silverware captures by way of parody Arsene’s sayings, mannerisms and catchphrases pefectly, and tells the story of Arsenal’s landmark 2013/14 season.

Dip into the pages of this book, for it doesn’t have to be read chronologically, and find revelations, secret discussions with rival managers, and the inside story on why Per Mertesacker is called the ‘BFG’. One of my personal favourites came before the September meeting with Stoke City.

“Do Stoke still play rugby? I don’t know. They use less rucks and mauls now, but still try to avoid forward passes.”

As the Mirror’s John Cross notes in his foreward to the book, “this is not in any way poking fun at Arsene Wenger”. It is however a reflection on the Arsenal manager’s quirky interactions with media, and therefore the club’s supporters, culminating in the FA Cup Final triumph over Hull City and the aftermath of a long overdue triumph.

“Am I still a ‘specialist in failure’? Specialist, no. Is Mourinho now an ‘apprentice in failure’? You have to ask him.”

I mentioned a discount for ‘holics. The deal is 10% off RRP of £9.99, so £9.00 with free P&P to UK addresses. The code to quote is LBS10. Orders will need to be placed by calling GBS on 01206 256101.

Arsenal supporters who remember and enjoyed the Colemanballs books will like this. I suspect a few ‘holics will appreciate it too.

Is it a book of exceptional quality? We don’t know. We don’t want to comment on speculation.

I imagine most who visit here or read my rants on Twitter will know I have a pretty low opinion of the current crop of Premier League referees and assistants. To be fair they do come under the microscope far more than ever before so I have some sympathy for all but the most obviously incompetent. I am indebted to our very own Noosa Gooner for reminding us there is more than one side to the story, and shares with us some of the things he learned with a whistle at the ready. Thanks Noosa.

Holics – everybody thinks they can ref – right?

I was in New Zealand when I stopped playing football at the age of 35 – it was just taking longer and longer to get over the weekly knocks and bruises. However I was still pretty fit, I could still run around ok and was keen to stay involved in the game for a while longer.

I was reminded of an appearance before the disciplinary committee where I had commented upon the general ineptitude of referees. Their response was to suggest that I become a referee when I finished playing and to see if I could do better. So I did.

Work commitments stopped me from refereeing at a national level, although I became qualified to do so, but I enjoyed refereeing, mostly at a regional level for about 8 years before a job transfer meant I had to give it away. I learnt things that I never knew, despite having played the game since I was a kid. I don’t claim to be an expert but thought I could share some observations of the most popular topics from the dark side for your interest.

I was taught that the role of a referee is “to enforce the laws of the game”. I learnt that refereeing is all about correct decision making and good man management, underpinned by a decent level of fitness. Without all three things, you’ll never be a good referee.

Consequently, you must obviously have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the laws of the game. Indeed, you are tested on your knowledge in written, verbal and practical assessments as you work your way up the refereeing ladder and beyond. I was often amazed at how little many players (including myself), coaches and, to be fair, some referees actually knew about the laws – everything from acceptable pitch dimensions to the interpretation of violent conduct. Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know.

If the referee is there to enforce the laws, it is the players’ responsibility to stay within those laws. Contrary to what some TV commentators would have you believe, it is not the referee’s job to “make allowances” for poor conditions or heated atmospheres and let poor challenges go unpunished because of that. It is the players who must make those “allowances” and the referee, as always, simply enforces the laws. If a referee tries to alter his decision making because of conditions, then consistency of decision-making goes out the window which is when a ref often loses control and gets (rightly) slated for that.

Similarly, it is not the referee’s job to “try and keep 22 players on the pitch”. We were never coached to think like that. If a player commits a cautionable or dismissible offence then he should be dealt with accordingly, irrespective of playing conditions or the nature of the match. If not, this type of leniency is quickly seen by the players as a sign of weakness which is then played upon and leads to even more refereeing inconsistency. Unfortunately we see this week in and week out.

In a similar vein, how often do we see a player plead that “it’s my first foul” when about to be cautioned – as if everybody is allowed a free whack at somebody before the laws apply to them? Where did this idea come from? I am amazed that some referees seem to let players get away with not just this but also multiple infringements before sanction. Just how do they interpret “persistent misconduct”?

Oscar at the Chelsea game this season springs to mind. And all the usual suspects. Lucas at Liverpool. Henry at Wolves. Fernhandino at City. And so on. Again, it just seems like weak refereeing to me.

Dissent – Someone (politely) questioning a decision is ok but allowing players to swear at you, confront or surround you, chase you, walk away from you when administering a caution shows that your man management skills have failed and that you have lost the respect that players must afford you. Once that happens, you’ve effectively lost control of the game.

Playing advantage – simply having possession of the ball after an infringement does not automatically represent an advantage, particularly if an attacking player has been taken out of the game and the attack. Too many referees seem not to apply this very well.

In the English Premier League today, I reckon that about half of all throw-ins are illegal – from stealing way too many yards through to incorrect release of the ball. Read the law. I suspect that referees are told to let all but the most blatant go for the sake of continuity but the downside is that if one law (albeit minor) is allowed to be so blatantly ignored then is it really any wonder that so many other laws and decisions are then challenged or misunderstood by players and managers?

Hands on / hands off. It seems to be generally accepted that players should never lay hands on a referee, whatever the circumstances. The reasons are obvious. I am still surprised when I see referees laying hands on players whether moving back a defensive wall or stepping in between players who were squaring up to each other or, as I saw recently, actually pushing a player backwards to avoid a fight with another player. I was coached that respect is a two way street and never to touch a player. If there’s a confrontation or other incendiary incident then watch what happens and then take appropriate action – don’t get involved in that action itself.

That same requirement of respect demands that, during a game, players are not your friends. I am shocked to see so many referees using first name terms and trying to be “matey” with players during matches. There were occasions when I refereed games including my old club and guys I had played with but first names and familiarity quite obviously had to be off limits until after the game. Why do some referees now feel the need to be such an integral part of the show? Funnily enough, this seems to be an English thing – continental refs are much more detached and are usually better for it.

I wish that referees were allowed to explain, post-match, why certain decisions were given. They may not always be right and we may not always agree but I think it would benefit the game and our understanding of the role of the referee.

There are many other things about refs that drive us crazy but ask yourself – how well do you know the laws. Some might say that you need to be crazy to be a referee. The thing is, there wouldn’t be a game without them. Maybe you could be one?

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