'This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end...

Last updated : 07 April 2004 By Bernard Azulay

I came home last night wishing I had a punch bag to vent my frustrations on and exhaust myself to the point where sleep came without lying there dissecting in my head all the "if onlys".

Now I'm in a state where I get distracted every now and again, only for the depression to creep back up on me every time I realize I've just let out a huge sigh

However in an attempt to put matters in perspective for some, you have to appreciate that there are always people who are worse off.

1. The poor sap at Real, who is apparently responsible for the loan contract for Morientes to Monaco, where Real not only continue to pay 60 per cent of his wages, but where they made the mistake of neglecting to include a clause preventing him from playing against them (so in effect Real paid for their own player to help knock them out of the Champs League - I wonder how secure this fella is feeling this morning? :-) !!)

2. My missus' 15 year old nephew who is likely to have seen his last Arsenal game live for some time. Shane came over from Dublin last week, to come with me to Villa Park on Saturday. Rona phoned me on the way home from Birmingham to say that she had suggested to Shane's Ma that they might change his flight home from Monday to Wednesday and she would let Shane go to last night's game in her place. My instinctive response was to express my fear that if this result also didn't go our way, Shane wouldn't be invited back in a hurry

I've just dropped him at Heathrow and not being exactly at my most communicative, I am afraid that I didn't do anything to prevent him going home believing he's a curse! (I guess we'll have to try and break the 'bok' by bringing him back for a cup game against Leamington Spa!)

We'd arranged to go for dinner after the game and I was convinced none of the management/players would be in a mood to show their faces, so I am just relieved and grateful to Pires (I assume he's far too much of a gentleman to let down family and friends) for turning up and at least sorting Shane with the only result of his trip, signing his programme (luckily by some coincidence Pires was the subject of the poster in the middle pages)

I guess Shane was so blown away that we were halfway home before he realized he didn't have the programme on his person, so I sent him running back and luckily it was still on the floor where he'd dropped it

As always Le Bob got a (perhaps more heartier than usual) round of applause on arrival and the French journo we were with commented on how different it would be on the continent (I guess in Italy he and his food would probably get spat at - and that would be by his own fans, let alone the oppos, which is no doubt one of the reasons the French prefer it here?)

3. The sports Ed of the Irish Examiner, a mad Gooner who came over for his first match at THOF this season (he was fortunate to have been in Milan). Not that I imagine for one minute that the press office at THOF would have accommodated him, but since he was here with his missus, he didn't bother applying for accreditation. He was going to dash back to my gaff after the game to type and file his copy for the morning editions. but he wanted to come around beforehand to set up his laptop and make sure everything was working for fear of discovering a problem when it was too late to resolve. I met the two of them outside the Bank of Friendship and brought him home, plugged up his laptop so he could send a test file (they'd just announced the two teams on Sky)

As anyone who has tried to use their Orange mobiles around THOF recently, will have discovered, two of the Orange masts have gone down around here and haven't been functioning for more than a month. As a result it is absolute murder trying to use and receive calls on the mobile.

Shane and I had been sat down in the restaurant for about 30 mins and had ordered our grub when I received a frantic call from my missus. She'd been trying to ring me for more than 30 minutes. Deirdre and Tony (my sports ed) had come back to our gaff, opened his laptop and found that the machine was completely frozen. He'd been on the phone to his techy geezer at the Irish Examiner and Ro had even phoned Shane's dad who was at work at Dell computers in Ireland to see if they could assist in sorting it out, but apparently not, the HD was corrupted (who'd want a Microsoft operated PC when you can have an Apple - but that's another evangelical story altogether!!).

Our food was just about to turn up (in fact we'd already been served once, but the waitress grabbed our plates just as I had my fork in my hand and was about to dig in and gave them to someone else, saying there'd been a mistake!) and I really didn't want to go home because it would have been ruined by the time I returned. So I had to explain to someone who is even less computer literate than myself, over the phone, in a busy restaurant, how to plug up my machine (as I'd plugged out the broadband to plug his laptop in) and open an Appleworks document and having got him started (thank g-d), suggested that one of them call me when he was near finished so I could nip back and send it.

Can you imagine, poor old (young actually) Tony was exhausted after schlepping all the way over from Cork, completely traumatized by the result (as we all were, but he takes it worse than most, I guess knowing how much stick he's gonna take from all the Moaners back in Cork) and had arrived back to find that the laptop he'd brought with him especially to make life easier (as he'd struggled using my Mac a couple of years back when he'd last sent copy from my gaff) had gone kaput.

Having already missed the first edition of the following morning's paper, he had to try and clear his head and write a completely unbiased account, on an unfamiliar machine! It was 11.30 by the time I arrived home from the restaurant and he was just finishing. I felt sorry for Colm, the poor sub ed who was still in the office waiting for the match report. I guess his boss' outing to THOF wouldn't look particularly good on the expense sheet, if they'd ended up using a report from the wires!

4. Finally me! I am not asking for any sympathy but it would be great if it makes you feel any better. I am sure I am not the only person who'd long since booked their flights to Madrid and who were thinking that last night was absolutely the worst case scenario because now I don't even have the opportunity of recouping some of the 60 quid x 3 by flogging the tickets to Chelsea fans (anyone fancy a trip to Madrid 19 -22 April, let me know as I believe I can do a name change for 15 or 25 quid?)

I booked the flights literally minutes after the QF draw, having almost booked the three of us to Milan by mistake because I'd got so excited at the ridiculously cheap price. When I went back and found Madrid for £60, I probably would not have bothered (if left to me I would have procrastinated until they were much more expensive and definitely not worth the gamble) if it wasn't for the encouragement of the third person in the party who said to go ahead, even though they weren't the 30 quid I'd quoted originally.

It occurred to me that for the cost of the admin charge for the changes, since BMI also flew to Nice, there was a pretty good chance either we or someone else would find some way of using them

When Madrid won the first leg 4-2, I thought that I was fairly safe assuming that even if the worst came to the worst, I could flog them to Chelsea fans. Mind you, I am sure me and a couple of hundred thousand Real fans didn't entertain the thought that Monaco would make such an amazing comeback

However that is the lesser of the two possible financial losses resulting from our cup exits. I had a contract lying around the house for a couple of weeks waiting for me to sign and send back, for the publication of my second book, another collection of my diary pieces. I think subconsciously I didn't want to return it for fear that if I hadn't tempted fate's fickle finger already, it would certainly be pointing at me if I put pen to paper and cashed in on the Arsenal's expected success prematurely.

But I did have to arrange for the designer of the cover to come up with something for the publishers to put in their catalogue, along with a 300 word blurb about the forthcoming book (which was very hard to write, about a story where you don't yet know the ending). Honestly folks, what I came up with was very ambiguous, doing my best to virtually allow for all possible eventualities and I promise I didn't once dare to mention the dreaded "T" word.

After Saturday's FA Cup exit I received an e-mail on Monday asking if I wanted to change the 'blurb' accordingly but I thought it best that I wait to make any changes, so that I could make them once and for all, rather than changing it all, with each successive snake and ladder end to this season

I am now wondering whether I've made a major ricket in not sending the contract back immediately and at least collecting on my advance, as the way things are going at this moment in time, the publishers might not be keen to send a cheque at all until they've seen which way the wind blows and by this time next week, there might not be a book

Then again, if (heaven forfend) it does continue to go completely pear-shaped, perhaps they'd be doing me a favour by pulling it, since it won't exactly be a "fun" project, if I end up having to spend the next six weeks detailing our demise and perhaps the greatest ever anticlimax in writing!!!

And I'm bloody counting on the advance as a contribution to the cost of our season tickets (basically the only material motivation for all the effort involved in producing another book)

It seems me and the Arsenal are not on a lucky streak. I can hear all the "yeh sure" responses but I swear this is true (and Shane can back me up). We were in the Holiday Inn just north of Villa Park early Saturday morning and I was on the karsey reading the paper as usual. I'd finished all the footie related tales and I was looking for something else to capture my attention. On the front page of the Times was an article about the Grand National (I am sure there will be others who read it?) in which they reported on the scientific studies which have been done on this race and the results show that your money is invariably far safer being put on a horse that has run the course before.

The piece specifically mentioned the two horses which, based on these results were most likely to succeed, along with the obvious punt for a Gooner, "Gunner Well Burn" which I assume has also run the Grand National course before (as this was the parameters the scientists suggested for picking your horse to have a punt on). I shouted out to Shane asking who he fancied in the race but I realized that there was no need to have a bet now, because we could sort it out after the game. When the time came to leave for the match, I checked at reception to find out exactly how long we were entitled to keep the room based on the "day" rate we'd paid.

Since we had the room until five, I told Shane that perhaps we'd come back and watch the race on the TV in the room. As it turned out, all I wanted to do was to get home as quick as possible and go to bed!! The last thing I fancied was getting caught in traffic heading one junction North on the M6 with all the Utd fans (although I imagine more of them would have headed home south!!)

I am not much of a betting man. Apart from sometimes placing a biannual punt on the Derby and the National, the only other times I've had a bet is when I've tried to follow a free 50 quid scam on an Internet gambling site, only to get the detailed sequence wrong and missing out on the special offer. So I ended up putting fifty quid of my own money on this account and using it up over time. With my addictive personality, I can't really afford to get involved, as my lack of self control could be very dangerous

However I've had this credit card type thing with my account number at William Hill for several years, as it has worked out very convenient when all the family wants to place their Grand National bets.

Apart from being so depressed that I couldn't muster much enthusiasm for the gee gees, the thought occurred to me that I wouldn't just be able to make a bet on my account whilst driving home because, having not used the service for some time, I would no doubt have to pull over in the car in order to dig out and pass on the details of the Switch card which would have doubtless replaced the expired one on their records.

We all know Gunner Well Burn didn't come up trumps (along with all the other Gunners that day) but you can imagine how my heart sunk as we heard the race commentary on the radio and the other two horses mentioned in particular in this piece on the front page of the Times (and which I swear would have been my three choices for a bet if we'd beaten Utd and gone back to the hotel to watch the race, or if I thought it would have been just a matter of a quick call rather than all the palaver of updating my account) came in 1st and 2nd. Bloody typical of our Gooner luck at the minute!

I only hope it's true and these things come in threes and our bad luck (and let's face it a little bit of misfortune was more than overdue considering the way things were running for us prior!) has been used up against Utd, the National and last night.

However while I seriously wish I could offer you some optimism and I pray that just by stating them here, I am going to guarantee that my pessimistic thoughts are proved completely wrong (no-one would be happier), I said to Ro before last night's game that not only could we not afford to lose, but I believe we couldn't afford to scrape through by some fluke into the Champs League semis.

My feeling was that we needed to beat Chelsea last night convincingly (2 or 3-0) if we were going to get absolutely anything from the six points available over Easter weekend. It's not just for our own confidence that we needed to beat Chelsea in style, to rediscover our air of invincibility, that swagger and strut which would have ensured any thoughts of fatigue had evaporated

But with both the Scousers and the Toons hitting a purple patch in their last games, it was essential that we recaptured our air of invincibility principally because of the way it would mean these two opponents would approach us. With both these two teams seeing us having been beaten by Utd and Chelsea, they will both suddenly believe we are vulnerable and whatever the instructions of their respective managers, psychologically their instinctive approach to their encounter with the Arsenal will be entirely different

You see we were getting away without getting beat, even when we weren't at our best because of the respect shown to us by our opponents. They were all sh*t scared of us, absolutely terrified of Titi and therefore showing us too much respect, dropping off and defending in numbers, allowing us to get away with less frantic and far less physical encounters.

It is a compound problem. The principal point Pool and the Toons will take from our previous two games is that we don't like it 'up' us and as a result they are both going to try and go for us with all guns blazing, which will certainly mean that our lads are going to find themselves facing far more physical and exhausting encounters, than against sides who would have previously been approaching a game with the invincible Arsenal side of a week ago, focusing on getting away with anything better than a resounding defeat as a good result

So whereas previously we could have expected the sort of encounter with both teams, where they would have sat back allowing us all the time in the world to try and break them down, hoping to nick a goal and a draw at some stage, we are now looking at two encounters against teams who both will want to be the team to break our undefeated record.

Personally I don't fancy our chances at all. Although I guess the fact the Newcastle match is squeezed between their 2 legged UEFA cup quarter final might swing things slightly in our favour. However I can't see their trip to Holland taking too much out of them.

Absolutely the only silver lining I can see on the horizon is that perhaps, after the title race is thrown wide open if/when we drop six points this weekend, a resurgent Arsenal coming back to take the trophy will take away all those subconscious thoughts that a title triumph would be tainted, as only a humble consolation prize, if we went ahead and just won it from here (although it would save a hell of a lot of stress and heartache and I swear I wouldn't throw it back in anyone's face :-) !!)

There is one other consolation on which both Ro and I agree. I still don't rate Ranieiri as a manager (Spurs are welcome to him - it is only my humble perception and perhaps I am being somewhat simplistic, but I thought that his team selection last night, his inclusion of Hasselbaink for his first European game this season and the fact that he stuck with the same line-up from their last match at WHL I think for the first time this season, was merely Claudio's way of sticking two fingers up at all those pontificating pundits who predicted that he wouldn't play Jimmy and who've taken the piss out of his 'Tinkerman" reputation ) but you can't help but appreciate the sweet irony of his success considering how much and how regularly his employers have sh*t on him this season. What's more it would have been so much more unbearable to have lost to a Chelsea side which still included the likes of Le Bouef, Wise, Le Saux etc, those figures who inspired so much hate when playing in a Blue shirt. But without feeling any such intense animosity towards any of the current Chelsea team, it's not quite such a painful experience as it would have been back then

Besides the approach of our opponents leaving me feeling that this weekend is a lost cause, when you think of how badly we have reacted in the past to our exit from Europe, you have to imagine that this will be multiplied on this occasion based on the fact that we've gone that much further than ever before.

What's more, not only does Wenger appear completely depressed, never sounding more hollow with his claims that winning the title would make up for all that's fallen by the way side (because you just know how badly he wants the respect he's entitled to and which he can only truly gain from the media in general by winning in Europe), he just doesn't come across as the sort of character who is capable of delivering a moral boosting speech.

You won't hear a Churchillian "fight them on the beaches" oration from Wenger and what's more it wouldn't work when coming from a man whose methods are based on imbuing his players with self-respect. I imagine Wenger will be expecting his players to have the self-belief to lift themselves. If it's down to Arsene to lift the players between now and Friday, I wonder who exactly is going to lift Arsene?

However when put into perspective, we shouldn't really be complaining, after all it may feel like a wake but no-one's actually died. It is only as a result of Arsene's incredible astuteness in the transfer market that our expectations have been raised beyond belief. Nevertheless I am going to do just that, if only to get it all off my chest at your expense.

Personally I can't think of a team who has won the European Cup without having a top class keeper between the sticks and Lehmann was a million and a half quid summer purchase from a very short list of keepers who were supposedly capable enough and cheap enough for us to be able to afford him. At his age, he ain't going to become a Schmeichel and if he was any better than he's proved to be, he would have come out from under the huge shadow
cast by Oliver Kahn long ago.

You can't really blame him for not holding Makalele's shot, since the ball did a hell of a lot in the air, but I guess you would have expected him to have pushed it out anywhere else but into the middle of the six yard box. Sadly, in truth Edu was partially at fault for both goals, which is an incredible shame considering how well he's played in far less consequential games than the the last two! For the first goal it was his clearance which instead of going into Row Z, landed in the centre of the park, sitting up sweetly for Makalele to hit. Although how come Lampard was first to the ball, why weren't we so quick to get back in there?

And for the 2nd goal, we had lost our shape, with Pires, Ljungberg and Edu all attracted to their left. Edu was the first to get back across and cover, however I assume it was just because he didn't have the legs that he failed to track Wayne Bridge's run into the penalty area. But then ever since we blew Pompey away, we've seen the occasional sign in subsequent games, perhaps a mixture of tiredness and over confidence, where every now and again our entire midfield has been guilty of failing to track their opposite number, letting them pass them by when making runs into the box. It could just be an unacceptable result of such a rock solid defence, where the midfield has too much faith in those behind them being able to take care of anyone who happens to get a jump on them with a run into the box

After such impressive performances by Edu (and Pires, who was perhaps suffering on Saturday and last night from having worked harder than I can ever recall in a couple of recent games), his dip in the last two can't help but beg the question whether Arsene should have stuck to his guns with his preference for the defensive capabilities of Gilberto. After Edu positively forced his way into the frame with performances which prevented Wenger dropping him (not to mention the ground swell of Gooner opinion), I wonder if we will now hear all Gilberto's many detractors pleading for his reinstatement?

So considering the cracks have been visible for the past couple of weeks, I suppose it was inevitable that the two best teams would make the most of them. However in both Saturday's game and last night, if there was one thing which struck me inn the second half, it was that despite Vieira's best efforts to lead by example, I felt we were lacking a vocal general on the pitch (a la Tony Adams)

On Saturday I could have pictured an Adams figure turning to the crowd and geeing us up with an aeroplane wave of both arms and last night, that sense of inevitability about Chelsea's winner might not have been there if we'd had a leader individually giving players a necessary kick up the arse to remind them who they were playing for, that this was "the mighty Arsenal"

Who could have imagined that I'd have such a pleasant complaint, considering the dross I was watching at THOF not so long ago, but if I have one criticism of the current squad it is that there is too much flair and not enough steel. The ironic thing as far as I am concerned is that if I had to choose the Chelsea players who made the difference last night, after all that money they've spent on their recent influx of stars, it was Lampard and John Terry

I hope no-one accuses me of being racist, but from what I've seen in recent times, if there is one difference between the Gallic and the Anglo/Irish/Scottish nature, it is the way they react when put under pressure. In my humble opinion the main reason why the team of '98 was so successful was because of the perfect balance, whereby when the chips were down it was the attitude of the domestic players which influenced our foreign stars and encouraged so much more out of them than might have otherwise been instinctive

If Chelsea had scored their second goal with ten minutes to go, I don't think any of us would have really expected us to come back to score twice, we just don't appear to have that "never say die" belief anymore. Whereas up until a few years ago, the crowd and the team would have been giving it large right up until the final whistle, knowing that there was every chance we might dig sufficiently deep to pull some miracle out of the hat. These days Parlour and Keown are our only equivalents to Terry and Lampard. Neither of whom are the sort of vocal guv'nors one might wish for.

I knew it would take only one defeat for the media "bottle it" bandwagon to start rolling and after two, it's a positive crisis. However could you imagine any of the media muppets labelling an Arsenal side "bottlers" if there was any last vestige of the George Graham installed "Arsenal Spirit"

There was a time when we'd all be revelling in the turnaround in the tabloids, from the title race all being over including the shouting, to being up for grabs again, because we would all have that innate faith that despite our penchant for doing things the hard way, we'd come up trumps in the end. With Henry injured, previously you could have guaranteed a couple of suspensions to add to the crucial injuries, in order that a threadbare team could have all the hacks eating huge portions of humble pie, after delighting us all with a 'typical' backs to the wall, display of the infamous Arsenal spirit

I am sure I am not the only one who is struggling right now to express that belief as anything but slightly bogus bravado!

Whatever happens over this weekend, I have to tell you that there is a side of me that is really looking forward to Sunday's game on Tyneside, if only because of my belief that a 500 odd mile round trip to Toon Town on an Easter Sunday when you know only too well that there's a fairly good chance of getting beat, is one for the real Gooner suckers for punishment and I am looking forward to jettisoning the fair-weather, glory seeking flotsam and jetsam for the day, to be surrounded by like-minded, win lose or draw lovers of the Arsenal.

Although I am no fan of the fact that we are sat up in the gods these days, where despite having a wonderful view of the chess match below, I find it most demoralizing that you are so high up that ones voice dissipates long before pitch level. I know they can't hear me and care even less what I have to say, but I find it a whole heap more encouraging to scream my head off when I can maintain the delusion that I can influence matters

The prematurely hyped end to the title race had many believing we would going to WHL in a couple of weeks to party away the formality of taking the title on the enemy's turf for the second time in my lifetime. Time to roll up those red & white sleeves and make everyone eat their words

"We are still masters of our fate. We are still captain of our souls."

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

"Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.''

"We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."

"This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

- Winston Churchill

Peace & Love