Sunday, 14 August 2011

Away Days: Football's back, and it's more of the same for Arsenal

New for 2011/2012 on is a series of articles about the ups and occasional downs of being a Gooner at an away match. Here Tim Payton gives his experiences of Arsenal's 0-0 opening day draw at St James Park.

It’s a long way to Newcastle so when ESPN chose to launch their teatime slot with Arsenal’s opening game, thereby ruling out the return train option, the decision to watch from home was settled. But then it gnawed a bit. I wanted in. The end of the season and last few weeks has been tumultuous.  It’s a new season and the team would need me as much I need them. For supporting Arsenal is akin to a need, one that is satisfied through the hopes and dreams, friendships and banter, and highs and lows delivered over nine roller coaster months. I wanted to be at St James’ Park to be a part of whatever fate was sending our way next.

So when the chance to go came along, I grabbed it, fortunate that the day job offered me a ticket in a box in the main stand and grateful to Dan for taking on the slog of driving. I was sharing a box with some of football’s top journalists and administrators who added an independent perspective to my take of what match day one and the new season means for Arsenal.

The sense of anticipation before any new season kicks off is high for all fans, but for Arsenal fans this one is massive. We were back at the scene of the infamous 4-4 the previous year. A game I had watched in mounting disbelief and horror earlier in the year at the Emirates’ live beam back. Knowing then in my heart of hearts that a team that lets a four goal slip is missing at least one of the vital ingredients required to win the league, but still hoping that a team that could play so brilliantly to go four up could on its day beat anyone and take a Cup, or even confound the football truism rulebook and snatch the League. We all know how that hope ended.

And now Arsenal were back at the scene of the horror, and who would have guessed they’d be back with a weaker squad than the options they had in February? Among those no longer available for first team selection are Nasri, Fabregas, Clichy and Bendtner. The defence, long promised for strengthening by both manager and chief executive, has seen one senior player out and just one junior player in.

Ladbrokes betting slips are liberally sprinkled in the boxes and everyone wanted to know where this Arsenal fan surrounded by Geordies was putting his season’s money. For once, I couldn’t answer, how can I?  Only a brave and foolhardy person would make a financial investment with no firm idea of Arsenal’s key personnel they are betting on.  I do know that £70million sitting in a bank account doesn’t help win any points, what I don’t know is who will be bought with that money. It could deliver us a new Petit, Vieria, Pires or Henry; equally it could see a Jeffers, Reyes or Silvestre arrive. And how quickly will overseas arrivals settle to the unique nature of the Premier League? On such decisions will our season and the final chapter of our manager’s amazing legacy rest and I’ll nail my colours in early September when I see the fruits of this effort.

What I do know is that if I bet based on economic rationale and statistical precedence, it would be that Arsenal will pip Liverpool for fourth spot. The truism of football economics being that the fourth highest spenders in the league (wages) should expect to finish fourth. It certainly seemed to be the benchmark Wenger set for the team in Friday’s press conference. Perhaps if Arsene and Arsenal make it clear that the club’s current financial position makes fourth place our realistic ambition, then we can have more manageable expectations and a sensible debate about options for increasing the resources available to us.

Another advantage of the corporate box, alongside the free drinks, are that you get first sight of the team sheet. I was struck by how thin the Arsenal squad looks, especially when looking at the choices from the bench. Where is our firepower if Van Persie is injured? Where is the creativity with Nasri and Fabregas departing and Arshavin played out of position? And what happens when there are the inevitable injuries and suspensions to what looks a solid and promising first choice defence and who performed admirably?  The Arsenal supporting gene in me means that I will always renew my season ticket, even when it is the most expensive in world football, but I’d be happier if my contribution could purchase a stronger back-up defence than Jenkinson, Traore, Djourou and Squillaci.

Arsenal ended the season knowing they needed to invest the squad and they start the new one knowing it is an even more important requirement. And If Arsene didn’t know there were plenty of Arsenal fans up in the gods at St James’ Park ready to tell him so. ‘What do Arsenal fans think of Wenger’ I was frequently asked by my companions? The noise from the travelling Arsenal fans answered this for me. There was passionate and loud backing for the team, as the travelling gooners showed their support and got behind the team, often drowning out the quieter than usual Geordies. But there was also worry and frustration in the second half, confirmed by my glances across which showed many folded arms and concerned faces, followed by the firm advice that it is important to spend some money.   The Newcastle fans liked that chant, in fact they rather hoped Mike Ashley thought it was aimed at him.

As for the game itself, the match reporting has  been well covered elsewhere by now. My take is we saw a pretty similar outcome to last year, just without the goals. Arsenal were on top in the first half with lots of possession football and then let it flag in the second half, as energy and creativity receded. The journalists in the box with me got rather exited when Jack decided he would join in with being a ‘supporter manager’ for the day and advise Wenger that his best option was to bring Theo on to ‘attack the fullbacks’. Wenger did as Jack wished but it made little difference.  And we saw more of the same as just like last year poor indiscipline by our players again raised its head,  putting  us on the back foot in the game and more seriously meaning Gervinho and Song will be missing for the next 3 games. Look again at our current squad list and say that doesn’t make you gulp. And I saw enough, like last year, to again leave with my heart still hoping we can win the league but with my head feeling its a prize probably out of reach.

And some interesting feedback from those I was with, raising a scenario I’d not fully considered before. Are Arsenal having problems attracting leading players not only because of the wage ceiling that is now well below what all other top Champions league clubs can pay, but because as things stand we can’t guarantee Champions League football?  That leads us to Tuesday and the most important game of the season against Udinese. A match worth not only £25m to the finances, but that we have to win to attract the very best players to join and stay with us. A win is also much needed to settle emotions amongst the 50,000 Gooners who will start their Arsenal watching season as the roller coaster reaches another sharp corner.

So more nerves and tension, highs and lows on Tuesday night. It’s great to have you back Arsenal.

Tim Payton is a board member of the Arsenal Supporters Trust and helped found Arsenal Fanshare. He's been a season ticket holder for 26 years. You can follow him on Twitter. is looking for a fan heading to Udinese for the Champions League qualifier to write about their away day experience. If you'd like to get involved, contact us via Twitter or Email

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