From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.23 :: Jun. 06, 2009
In the very last few days of the season, two 4-1 victories at the Emirates arguably let Arsenal and Arsene Wenger go out with something of a bang, rather than a whimper. The first of these victories on a Friday evening was in the initial leg of the Final of the FA Youth Cup, in which the young Gunners thrashed their Liverpool equivalents; always a force in this competition. The star of the show was the 17-year-old winger Jack Wilshere, who set up two of the goals and score d from a penalty.
One of those very rare phenomena at Arsenal, an English youngster born not many miles away from Highbury, Wilshere had already been deployed with much success on the left flank of the first team, though he had very few opportunities during the season. He has balance, skill and precocious confidence. He called to mind another teenaged revelation of long ago, Cliff Bastin though Cliff, when he arrived in August 1929, from Exeter City, was already all of 17, while Jack Wilshere was only 16 when he got his first senior games on the left.
Cliff, whose autobiography I “ghosted” long ago, went on to become a fabled success with both Arsenal and England, whether on the wing or, with the national team, in his favourite role at inside-left. He won five Championship and two FA Cup medals, and once got no fewer than 33 first division goals in a season. It was several decades before Ian Wright, who played in competitions which didn’t exist in Bastin’s day, at last overtook his aggregate goal record.
For manager Arsene Wenger, those two 4-1 wins must have come as a substantial relief. In mid May, at a shareholders meeting, he had been bitterly and furiously assailed for the Gunners’ relative lack of success; no major achievements in the past four seasons. Though this didn’t take into account a somewhat unlucky 2006 defeat by Barcelona, in the final of the European Cup, which Arsene, in his 13 years in charge, has yet to win. And it must be recorded that a couple of seasons ago, the Gunners were very lucky indeed to scrape into the European Cup, at the expense of their eternal local rivals, Spurs, who lost a vital last game at West Ham, when their team had succumbed to a stomach bug.
After that battering from the aggrieved shareholders, Wenger said he felt like a murderer, and there was talk of his going to join Real Madrid, where he would have earned much more, but would have had to rebuild a team in crisis. No easy job, even though he had been allegedly promised £100 million to buy new players. Don’t please ask me where Real get the money, since they are always colossally in debt.
Hard to see, meanwhile, who could possibly take over from the shrewd and sophisticated Wenger and do any better, or even just as well. He had every right to declare, “The club have moved forward not back since I came to Arsenal. In October 1996, the share price was around 400p and now it is £10,000. We reached the Champions League Final in 2006, the quarterfinal last year and the semifinal this year.” Alas, two shockingly embarrassing home defeats late in the season, first by Manchester United in the second-leg European Cup semifinal, then by a rampant Chelsea in the League, were a definitive scar on the Gunners’ season and plainly fresh and raw in the minds of those enraged shareholders. I saw both those games and shared the surprise at the feebleness of the Arsenal defence, and the central midfield, which should have been its shield. Indeed, only the inspired goal-keeping of the Spaniard Almunia had gained the Gunners a flattering draw in the first Euro leg semifinal. His substitute, the Polish ’keeper Fabianski, a disaster at Wembley where, in another embarrassing affair, the Gunners had gone down to Chelsea, has been plainly inadequate.
But you could hardly blame Wenger for the plethora of injuries to key players which has blemished the Gunners’ season. That splendid Czech attacker, Tomas Rosicky, has been unable to play at all. The clever Croatian-Brazilian striker, Eduardo, has managed fleeting late season appearances, but the horrific challenge which left him badly crippled at Birmingham, just over a year ago, has taken heavy toll. Injury has also, in the last weeks of the season, deprived the Gunners of the temperamental but talented William Gallas, in central defence.
Meanwhile, you wonder just where the club is going in terms of its directorate. Long gone indeed are the many years in which the patrician Hill Wood family ran affairs so well. Now the leading shareholder, with 28.3 per cent of the shares (29% means he’d have to bid for full control) is an American sports billionaire Stab Kroeger who never seems to see an Arsenal game. Hard on his heels with nearly 25-1/3% is the Uzbek mogul Alisher Usmanov who has offered financial support, which has been refused. Uzbekistan is not the most salubrious of states, and Arsenal have kept Usmanov at arms’ length. Danny Fizsman, the diamond millionaire, who had a controlling interest and was a long term Arsenal fan has sold shares at huge profit and no longer calls the shots. What next, you wonder.
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