Any football team that is not drifting in the ether of mid-table will have any number of identifiable turning points in a season. An axis upon which the road forks and destiny manifests. Often players and coaches don’t really even control these moments. They are usually presented to them at random. The gauntlet is thrust in front of their faces. The best teams are the ones whose nerves are steady enough to recognise these opportunities and seize upon them.
I am always struck by the anecdote of how John Lennon came to write the small Beatles classic ‘Across the Universe.’ The story goes that John was trying to sleep one night. He tossed and turned well into the night without respite. A melody had started to run through his head almost against his will. He couldn’t ignore it; his brain would not allow him to. So he got up from his bed, sat at his piano and transferred the ceaseless melodic taunting from his brain to his fingers. He wrote the song and found rest easy to come by once he had. He took something random, that happened beyond his control but he made sure that he capitalised on it.
Losers bemoan imaginary concepts such as ‘luck’ and ‘fate.’ Winners recognise the random nature of incidents and look to forge them to their advantage as best they can. If they cannot do so, then they react positively and are ready the next time it happens. Despite what commentators will tell you, penalties are not a lottery. Rickie Lambert hasn’t converted 34 consecutive spot kicks because he is lucky. They are a test of nerve and skill. Arsenal held theirs at Wembley with four excellent spot kicks. More often than not, teams with better players win shootouts due to technical superiority.
In this respect, Arsenal should look upon the week past as their Jai Guru Dava Om moment for the rest of the season. The Gunners actually have a poor record in recent years at obtaining points from losing positions. Both West Ham fixtures this season represent the only times Arsenal have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in this league campaign. To have won from losing positions twice in a week (albeit one via a penalty shootout) is encouraging for the run in.
The mental fortitude they have shown actually makes the psychological brittleness on display at Goodison Park, the Britannia and Stamford Bridge of late all the more perplexing. But in a short space of time, the momentum has swung back in Arsenal’s favour and they have to make sure that they use it to guide them for the run in and the cup final. There’s no escaping the feeling that it would be nice if Arsenal could master the decisive moments of a title race as well as they have done in the race for 4th in recent years.
Everton’s defeat at Crystal Palace, together with the balm of returning players has handed us a much needed boost. I watched the highlights of Everton’s game at Sunderland on Saturday and always fancied that they would drop points against Crystal Palace. Long winning runs often tend to chart a similar path. Near the outset, you’ll usually fathom a result in euphoric circumstances, through a last minute winner or impossible comeback to create the confidence for a winning run. Everton managed this against Swansea in March. Momentum and confidence then begins to accelerate and carries you through a few games.
After this, you reach something of a zenith, as you vanquish a big opponent. Everton hit a peak against Arsenal. It was a perfect storm where the two teams met with Everton at the threshold of their confidence and Arsenal at the base of theirs. A similar thing happened for Arsenal in 2006 when they defeated Real Madrid. The result carried Arsenal into an impressive run of form, even if, truth be told; we played a Madrid side petering out into the end of the Galactico era. The Marca headline the morning after that momentous 0-0 at Highbury read, “demiasado gordo, demiasado viejo, demiasado lento.” Or, if you will, “too fat, too old, too slow.”
Everton were less than convincing against Sunderland. When you’re on a winning run and one of your victories is unconvincing, you analyse yourselves less keenly. An air of invincibility envelopes you and the smallest, most subconscious vestige of complacency creeps in. So it proved in Martinez’s team selection against Palace. He dropped one of his deeper lying midfielders in James McCarthy to accommodate the talented, yet undisciplined Gerard Deulofeu. He didn’t reckon with Palace’s counter attacking abilities, only their defensive acumen.
Arsenal’s task now is to engender their two recent victories, neither of which was achieved with much of a flourish it must be said, and harness them. At the same time, they must hope that doubt begins to pervade the Everton squad. Arsenal know from experience how damaging the unexpected loss of a winning run can be for confidence. The Gunners will likewise hope that they can go into the F.A. Cup Final with the wind in their sails. With Hull safely ensconced in mid-table, Steve Bruce will try to ensure they don’t drift aimlessly to Wembley.
The ticket allocation for that final has caused something of a rumpus this week, with only 50,000 of the 90,000 tickets being made directly available to fans of both clubs. It’s not a new phenomenon and it’s not a new problem. Demand will always, always far outstrip supply for a showpiece final. The FA have traditionally held tickets back for the ‘football family’ for the final. I don’t think it’s at all incorrect that some tickets go to those at the heart of grassroots football for instance.
I also agree completely with both clubs receiving an equal allocation irrespective of the size of the respective fanbases, otherwise the neutrality of the venue is compromised. However, I think the time has come to question whether the size of the neutral allocation is too large and the system too antiquated. People don’t just turn up and pay on the turnstile anymore. Most fans of Premier League and Championship clubs are card holding members with a distinct pecking order in place for tickets.
For Arsenal, this means at least 17,000 season ticket holders will miss out at Wembley, which simply cannot be right with 40,000 ‘neutrals’ sated. The problem with diverting tickets away from committed, financially invested supporters into the hands of neutral observers is that it drives the black market. It’s a perfect equation for the touts and scoundrels. It’s an issue I am sure the FA is aware of but one that they don’t seem greatly troubled by.
The other issue of course is that it’s difficult to mobilise people to pressure the F.A. into change. FA Cup final ticket allocation is only going to be an issue that affects one or two clubs every year. (I doubt Hull and Wigan have been as troubled by their distributions for instance). Maybe we should all shout more loudly every year, whether we’re in the final or not? LD.
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