Saturday, 5 February 2011

Pride, passion and glory

Almost a week has passed since the midday showdown with Arsenal at the Emirates and I still haven't written a full account of the game. This may surprise a couple of people, but the almighty wrong created by this omission on my part is now being corrected.

The day started early and was long. Very long. A 4am start to get to the Galpharm and get on the coach with the HTSA at 5am was perhaps too early, especially on a Sunday. But I was there, yawning and wondering what on earth I was doing awake at that time on a weekend along with thousands of others travelling down by coach.

The early start was so the fleet of coaches could arrive at Finsbury Park by 10am. I'm not altogether sure why the coaches had to arrive with 2 hours to go to kick-off, but the point was that we had to. Our coach made it there by 9.50 and, after a walk of around half an hour - during which I saw what had become of Arsenal's old ground, Highbury - we were at the Emirates Stadium.

The Emirates is seriously impressive. People bandy around the phrase 'space age stadium' in relation to virtually all modern stadia - even when they're Riverside Stadium clones, soulless bowls with no distinguishing features save for the colour of the seats - but with regards to the Emirates they're bang on the money. From outside it dominates the surrounding area, being all steel and glass. It has the aura of a modern-day coliseum, especially with the way its external walls curve away, much like that of the Coliseum in Rome.

I'm one of the first into the ground and have a hasty (and expensive) lunch, before wandering into the arena itself.
Simply put: wow. Down in League One, with the exception of the Galpharm, you simply don't get 'wow' stadia. Instead, you get the likes of Rochdale's Spotland or Peterborough's London Road, which, with all due respect, just aren't grounds up to a higher standard of football. (And don't get me onto the roads around Spotland).

So thus far, all is good. The journey's been all right, the ground spectacular. What about the game?

For the first 20 minutes Town looked thoroughly over-awed. It wasn't quite the Arsenal first string, but the likes of Eboue, Gibbs, Diaby, Nasri, Arshavin, Bendtner and Chamakh were all playing, with Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, Theo Walcott et al on the bench. And for 20 minutes they dominated. Young Jack Hunt was making his full Town debut at right-back in a rejigged 4-5-1 system, and he struggled to get to grips with Russian international Arshavin.

Most Arsenal joy came down that right-hand side. Arshavin's miscued cross hit a post before he cut inside and struck a low effort from 10 yards that rattled the outside of the woodwork (although whether Ian Bennett was beaten or not is another matter). Arshavin then teed Nicklas Bendtner up for a horrible miss, torturing Hunt before dinking in a ball to the near post that Bendtner only needed to hit the target for. He missed from three yards, prompting jeers from the Town fans behind that goal.

Bendtner again made a horrible mess of a ball in from Nasri, managing an air shot when he again only needed to hit the target, but moments later he had Arsenal ahead in controversial fashion.

Town had pushed up and managed to clear the ball into Arsenal's half, relieving the pressure. The ball came back up to Chamakh, who appeared to control the ball with his arm before playing Bendtner in. Kevin Kilbane was caught out of position and skipper Peter Clarke could only put in a covering challenge that resulted in Bendtner's off-target shot deflecting off his upper body into the bottom corner of Bennett's net.

Being a classy individual, Bendtner decided to celebrate his goal by cupping his hand to his ear and running behind the goal, winding up the Town fans. How charming of him.

The goal seemed to act as a catalyst for Town to start playing. Where before the midfield had been standing off, admiring the Arsenal passing and movement, it suddenly started to get tight and be disciplined. And Town started to see more of the ball. After one Arsenal attack broke down, Jack Hunt was able to play Anthony Pilkington a delightful ball in behind the full-back. Pilks whipped the ball in beautifully right at the feet of Alan Lee, the lone striker, six yards out, who was only denied by a great challenge from Sebastien Squillaci. Not that the referee noticed: he signalled a dead ball when everyone in the ground could see it was a corner.

Kieran Gibbs went in the book soon after for kicking the ball away when Town were about to take a free kick. And seconds later should have been given his marching orders as he went through the back of Pilkington. It wasn't the only refereeing decision going in favour of Arsenal. In the very first minute of the game Lee Peltier - playing the holding role in midfield - had been tugged down, clear as day, by Diaby, but nothing had been given. Contrast that with the protection Arsenal's players got. Every time we got close to them, the ref blew up for an Arsenal free-kick.

Not that this stopped Town from getting a real foothold in the game. Joey Gudjonsson has been hit and miss since joining Town from Burnley, but this was a definite hit day. It was his wonderful ball into the box that Anthony Pilkington got on the end of to divert a header inches wide. And before too long he'd also cracked a 30-yard free-kick within an inch of the top corner.

Just before half-time, Town sensed blood. Jack Hunt robbed Arshavin of the ball in the right-back position and went on a storming run, beating Denilson and Koscielny before being brutally body-checked by last man Squillaci 25 yards from goal. In a rare moment of getting the decision right, referee Clattenburg brandished red. Wenger argued after the game that it was harsh. I'm not sure how. By the letter of the law, it had to be red. Hunt was 25 yards out and storming through on goal. Squillaci took him down and paid the price, as he had to.

Arsenal managed to cling on to half-time despite Town dominating. At half-time, Wenger replaced Chamakh with Alex Song, who slotted in at centre back, switching to 4-4-1. I'm not sure whether it was the system or the fact they'd taken their eye off the ball or what it was, but Arsenal just didn't emerge in the second half.

Instead, Town came out and battered their more illustrious opponents. Alan Lee was outstanding up front with his hold-up play. Pilkington and Roberts made fools of their full-backs. Arsenal couldn't get the ball of midfielders Gudjonsson, Peltier and Tom Clarke.

Town piled on the pressure. Jamie McCombe, the big centre-half, was a threat on set-pieces, but chances were coming from open play. Joey Gudjonsson was denied by one particularly outstanding piece of defending from Andriy Arshavin. From the resulting corner, the ball was only half-cleared and Joey fired in a volley that whistled an inch past the post. Alan Lee then forced goalkeeper Manuel Almunia into an outstanding one-handed save at full stretch. The goal was coming.

And it came from Alan Lee. Anthony Pilkington pinged in a corner, and Lee attacked it to send a bullet header past the despairing Almunia. 5,188 away fans were sent into euphoria as Lee wheeled away to celebrate his first goal for the club at the twenty-sixth attempt.

Arsenal came back. Peter Clarke was at his best to block Bendtner. But despite more possession Arsenal simply couldn't break Town's stubborn rearguard down, despite the introduction of captain Cesc Fabregas.

That is until the 87th minute. Kevin Kilbane dilly-dallied in possession before playing Joey Gudjonsson a hospital pass. Joey's attempted clearance was charged down by Fabregas, who played the ball across the box... where Nicklas Bendtner fell over. Clattenburg pointed to the spot.

It was never a penalty. I thought at the time it looked soft and, having seen the replays, it as a definite dive by Bendtner. He ran into Jamie McCombe - who had an immaculate game - realised he wasn't reaching the ball, and then flung himself to the deck. Fabregas attempted to make the issue worse by throwing a temper tantrum when the ref didn't send Jamie McCombe off.

I hate to see players doing that. Fabregas is a wonderfully gifted player, yet he seems determined to blot his copybook by petty whinings and complaints at referees or to the media about the tactics of the opposition. Considering that McCombe is a player playing two divisions below he is, it's pretty low to try to get him sent off, especially after such a pathetic bit of cheating by Bendtner. But he still had the focus to send Ian Bennett the wrong way and make it 2-1 Arsenal.

It was particularly galling to lose like that. Had Fabregas picked up the ball, beaten two defenders and pinged a shot into the top corner from 30 yards you'd have just had to admire the quality that had beaten you. But we were beaten by cheating of the lowest order in football. We didn't deserve that.

Understandably, the coach back was subdued. After playing so well it didn't seem right to lose in such a way. But there was still a sense of pride in the performance and an optimism that if we play like that to the end of the season we'll be playing Championship football next campaign.

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