SAFETY - Is it better to have loved and lost?

Before I start this column, may I say that I have heard that some people don’t finish reading my work because it’s too long and waffly. At first I lost my temper and considered challenging you all to a “who will get bored first” competition with a goldfish; winner gets the deeds to my house. But instead I have decided to print, at the foot of this column, a fascinating fact indirectly related to my theme. Those of you who read diligently to the bottom, you will be rewarded, like I was when I read it, with a frisson - maybe even two frissons - of glee. If you cheat and scroll to the bottom now , though, you are a cheat. And you will know you are a cheat. And I suspect that you will suspect that people will know that you are a cheat. And we don’t like cheats at Arsenal. As it All Hallows, you’ll be going to confession.

I must admit to making a girlish noise when I watched the Carling Cup draw and we got a home tie against Reading. Reason 1: Home draw means we get to see Arsenal... and get change from 50 notes. Reason 2: A home draw against creditable, but non-Premiership, opposition means we have a chance to get our youngsters lots of first team match experience in a proper competition (whose value, to Arsenal at any rate, if not to the wider football public, should no longer be in doubt). Reason 3: Steven Sidwell.

I watched the “Ginger Steven Gerrard” grow up with the club and he was, as McClintock might say, “some player”. Having seen the departure of Paddy this summer - and contemplating an unwholesome trawl through the flatulent midriff of the transfer market in January (let’s face it we’re not in Essien’s league, even if he is in ours) - I have to scratch my head and wonder why Sidwell isn’t swapping a boot brush for a boot contract right now. I’m much looking forward to seeing The Royals best player (and, to be fair, Leroy Lita isn’t too shabby either). And I had similar relish when I saw Justin Hoyte for Sunderland against us in the last round (having seen him get his first Prem start at Carrow Rd, last season). And the same when I saw Jermaine “the pain” Pennant turn out for both Leeds and Brum against us, latterly with Upson at the back. And the same when I saw Stephen Hughes against us for Everton. I even reserve a bit of sympathy, in my bitter old Gooner heart, for the likes of Graham “will he ever come back” Stack, and most especially Rowan Ricketts. Being transferred out of Arsenal is no disgrace. But being subsequently released by Spurs, as a former Arsenal trainee, must be the pits.

You see I love every one of the little blighters. I know not all of them are good enough. And the fact that many are the best player in their new team just goes to show what fantastically high standards Arsenal have. [Don’t think too hard about Pascal Cygan in the context of that last sentance: he is merely the embarrassing handicapped brother who you take everywhere with you in order to shame others into expressing just a little more milk of human kindness in future. My sincere apologies to handicapped little brothers everywhere who might be offended by the comparison with Pascal; he who, after Fulham at home, I dub “the white Dion Dublin” ... as I suspect he may be a rubbish centre-forward hiding in the body of a rubbish centre-half].

No, there is an overarching reason for being anxious about the progress of our ex-es. Getting to wear that shirt - not because you bought it in the midst of a scrum at Arsenal World @ Finsbury Park, when you had intended to only have a look at one because it looks good with jeans - but because Vic Akers put it under a peg bearing a squad number. And because you also got to have your own name, rather than Dennis Bergkamps, printed on the back, above a number that corresponds to a playing vacancy in this years’ squad list. And because you have run out onto the Highbury pitch because you were playing in a game for the home side (rather than as a streaker, a groundsman or a small pile of ash - which are, with a few exceptions, much the only way to get onto the sacred greensward). And because, for however brief a moment, 38,500 people yelled and clapped delightedly when your name was announced over the Arsenal tannoy (and it wasn’t a birthday treat from your mum or ...aaah fuck it, you get the point right?).

For me, as for many, playing for Arsenal would be like winning the lottery and finding that (in a change to Camelot's published rules) Victoria Silvestedt has the cheque printed on her boobs and it is necessary for you to drive her in a Lamborghini to every branch of HSBC in the metropolitan area, via a few pubs and your old secondary school, to try and cash it. Not only fucking life-changing, but also headswimmingly proud-making and tinged with a smidgeon of schadenfreude (for the uninitiated; like liebfraumilch only sweeter). If I feel like that from a distance, what must it feel like to be that boy, not just watch that scene, but stand on the dancing green?

I can imagine Arsenal rejecting me, of course. I have two right feet (like two left feet, only with more easily intercepted passing). And I have been turned away from the turnstiles on the North Bank ‘n’ all, so I’m not needing litres of imagination on that one. But I can’t imagine leaving them. And I certainly can’t imagine anyone who has gone so much further than me on the journey to the heart of the club, turning around and walking back towards the exit either. It’s absurd.

It’s also disconcerting. Imagine the scenario: A “player” deciding they don’t want to play for Arsenal any more! And not then giving an obvious reason in a press conference, such as, merely for example:

“Well, I looked at myself in the mirror and I realised that I’m honestly not all that good, and I felt that leaving for Blackburn Rovers might free up a few quid for the gaffer to get someone decent in”.

The stuff of nightmares, isn’t it? What other possible reason is there after all? Actually we know the answer to that . Cold hard cash; wrapped-in-a-gold-leaf-shroud-and-shoved-up-the-arse-of-a-diamond-encrusted-sturgeon-on-a-bed-of-cocaine-type cash. At this point I think I hear an interjection from a Mr Reasonable of Dunstable. “First team football!”

Don’t be such a twat. As my mother used to say, gnomically “You know what first team football leads to, don’t you?”. She’s right. Along with unwanted pregnancies and scandal, it brings with it the potential of big time charlie as a big time charlie: CASH. The only reason you want first team football is because that’s the only way you get:

a) fan recognition (mmm, merchandising),

b) press recognition (mmm, get your gaff in hello magazine),

c) England recognition (mmm, 6 week jolly, with only 4 actual games, in a hot country miles from home without the missus) and,

d) to maybe catch the eye of passing Real Madrid scout who will have a contract that includes a half-time wank, one of those really expensive and snooty dogs, and a house for your mum and dad next door to you, with only a private golf course for them to cross to see the grandkids).

• But so-and-so from Dunstable pipes up “What abut TO WIN THINGS?”. “Yahtzee”, I cry, “That’s the same thing, dumbass”. Shiny medal. Global recognition as one of the best, the elite. More spons in the St Michael's Mount.

• Fact: no one should ever want to leave Arsenal, even the 5th choice keeper for the reserves. It’s unacceptable to me that it ever happens. I feel the pang of rejection (even as a veteran). I want every last soul who ever donned that shirt in anger to never take it off. It’s irrational, so I’m told, but that’s just how I feel. And I also like knowing that the 5th choice keeper for the reserves fancies that he would rather make it at Arsenal than fake it somewhere else.

• A brief word of warning: If you think about the business of football too hard you’ll get an aneurism. [That’s why football investors are encouraged to play the market only after three glasses of wine in the club boardroom]. Even I know though that Arsenal employees can’t all play for the first team. For a start, there are only 11 places; only 10 of them are allowed by the rules to be filled by people who can play football. Even my maths isn’t that bad.

• But I asked aloud (before someone pointed ought the glaringly obvious) why couldn’t an Arsenal junior team play in League 2? That way, instead of putting on an ugly shirt that doesn’t go nearly so well with jeans, they could continue to wear our shirt - that does go nice with jeans - and then maybe go up to the first teamers for a game when Freddie scuffs an eyelash, or something.

• That’s how desperate I get about these boys staying with us. And the thing is, I rarely, if ever, see a player on the open market that I would swap the cotton socks of one of our youngsters for, either. I grant you, were we able to spot a Rooney in the raw (apart from whilst trying to find the bathroom in a Aigburth knocking shop and accidentally walking in on him), I might sacrifice a Rowan Ricketts or two - I’m not totally cracked. But I’m talking available, fit, right attitude, good for the team, experienced, not an international for the planet Mars, and affordable. And they just aren’t there.

• The name game is fun for us Gooners, sure. The Arses - after someone bags first Arse - usually consists of something like:

• “Robinho has a younger brother who is even better and was spotted recently at a Corinthians game in the crowd wearing last years’ blue away shirt”.

• Your heart flutters just a little with the news. Latest is Fernando Torres - and I for one was tickled. But I say Dennis was actually the last player of repute to arrive at Arsenal. Since then we have MADE the reputations of Gunners, not bought them. I’ll concede that characters like GS, Sylvain Wiltord and Lehmann were very well known in the game (there’s two world cup winners medals already right there ... and another one next summer for one of them who’s not French as well, I’ll wager). We make players what they are. The club takes raw recruits and runs them under the scramble net and over the wall and they emerge, hyperventilating, with a gun over their left nipple that I, for one, think matches a dagger on their cap. They graduate with honours from the best and classiest public school of them all.

• So that’s why I refuse to play the name game anymore. Sure I’d love to see Torres or Gerrard or Zidane at Arsenal. But I’m more expecting to see someone who I - and maybe even some of you - don’t know and watch him eclipse even Mr Torres estimable achievements, but wearing an Arsenal team shirt; a shirt, by the way, that will either have meant everything to him as a lad, or which represents a shot at redemption for someone preternaturally gifted and temporarily lost. And I don’t mind - nor do I think it will do us that much harm - if that becomes the only way to get one from now on.

• Lastly a humble nod to Mr. George Swindin - ex-Arsenal keeper for 272 league games and manager of both us and my local Posh - who has made his last save. Here was a very fine man who had to compete for the coveted Number 1 shirt against top quality rivals for 20 odd years and never moaned once. He served as an RAF officer in the second world war and it is said that, after being demobbed, he won a race back to London ahead of Arsenal colleague and England International keeper George Marks to mind the net against West Ham. Much as I may be hurt when someone voluntarily leaves Arsenal; a person so brilliant and noble leaving forever those of us who love the club he once shone for, puts that into genuine perspective. I speak for everyone when I offer our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

“He used to play for Arsenal, didn't he? But he never played for England, did he?” is an phrase used on the BBC World Service to teach English as a foreign language. (Told you it was good)




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