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Monday, 13 August 2007

The Road to Moscow...

Part one: Sunday August 12, 2007; Arsenal 2 - Fulham 1.

Take a good look at this man:

Handsome, isn't he? Kind of steely?

Go on, take a really good look. His name is Alexander Hleb (Aliaksandr, if you want to be pedantic). He was born on Mayday, 1981 in Minsk, Belarus. He was his native country's sportsman of the year in 2002. This summer, he spent some time with his girlfriend, popped back home to check out developments in the country of his birth before visiting Turkey with some friends, then on to the States. Yes, he's had a good summer, feels 'very happy'. He's listened to Good Vibrations, the 5 CD Beach Boys retrospective all the way through several times(OK, I made that last bit up, but you get the idea...) and he's full of energy and motivated to get back to work after his refreshing summer break. All of which is excellent news and very reassuring to me personally. Because for the next 10 months, a large part of my mental, nervous, physical and spiritual well-being will depend on Alexander (OK, pedants; Aliaksandr) Hleb.

Why? Because just as Arsenal football club used to reflect in large part the various (and often contradictory) moods and dispositions of Thierry Henry, so (if the body language of Alex and the team in the wake of their tortuous victory over Fulham on Sunday is anything to go by) this season, we - the team, its fans; but above all else, *I* - will wait upon the whims of the man from Belarus. It's true what they say; Arsenal are in decline. We've gone from relying on TH14 to relying on AH13. But hopefully that's where the slide will end.

For those who don't follow football - I wouldn't *dare* admit the following to anyone who does - Arsenal *have* been in decline. They've gone from the 'Invincibles' who ended the 2003-4 season unbeaten champions - a feat the enormity of which will take as many years to sink into the collective football consciousness as it took for the heroics of the Preston North End team of 1888-9 who patented that old invincilbilty trick to be equalled - to... well, *fourth*.

In the intervening seasons all they've managed is to beat the current champions (Man. - krrr phttt - Utd.) in the 2005 FA Cup final, lose (having been reduced to 10 men in the 20th minute against a majestic Barcelona side they'd led going into the last quarter of the game) their first Champions League final in 2006. Oh, and they narrowly lost this year's Carling Cup final having fielded a team of kids against a fairly full strength Chelsea (hissssss-boo-hissssssss) side. Such is the margin for error in elite football. 88 other English clubs would envy Arsenal's league standing alone; those finals, won or lost, merely adding spice to an otherwise satisfactory season. Then factor in all those other clubs, in all those other leagues from Majorca to the Urals who'd love to play a Champions League *qualifying* game. But for Arsenal, club and fans alike, it's not been nearly good enough. The bemused newcomer will search long and hard for a sense of perspective in the modern game.

But that is all about to change. Alex (Aliaks?) is going to see to that. Oh, sure, he started in the same infuriating manner as we became accustomed to last season - always waiting that one second too long, taking that one touch too many, playing that one delayed, unnecessary pass too late to the wrong person. But something about him - the way that, at his best he moves more like a fire spreading than a footballer, the fact that he seems to have the way the game will unfold stored up inside his head with all the logic of a checkmate ... or is it just those baggy shorts? Whatever it is he has, it's compelling and it was hard to escape the feeling that his ostentatiously protracted winning goal in the dying seconds of a game from which Fulham deserved at least a point was nothing short of a catharsis; for the player, the club and its supporters.

As a writer who loves football, I've always found the game surprisingly hard to write about. What one loves about the game is the fact that, as used to be the case in pop music, you never know what's going to happen next. In writing, what happens next is obviously a fairly significant influence upon the work. So this is an experiment; can I write a season, not knowing what is going to happen next, but still maintain some sort of narrative shape? Probably not, it is Arsenal, after all; but it deserves a go AH13 deserves a go. So I'm going to stick my neck out with Hleb. He'll define this story, wherever fate may blow it; Moscow? Wembley? Or a damp squib on Wearside on the 11th May, most likely; another high profile scalp for our nemesis, Roy Keane.

That's what will probably happen, but this is my authorial punt: Hleb and his ferrety runs, his 'it's on a string!' ball control, his vision, his desire, his baggy shorts that make his legs look like lolly sticks are going to propel Arsenal to the Champions League final to be played in Moscow, the heart of the former-Soviet empire that once subjugated his home. Just as the same combination got us to the final in Paris eighteen months ago. Then, I was convinced - as were all his friends, regardless of affiliation - that Arsenal would win the European Cup for the memory of my late father, who'd died the previous November. The last time I saw him we'd watched a scrappy Darren Fletcher goal help Man (krrr phttt) Utd. defeat Chelsea (hissssss-boo-hissssssss) and give us both a brief deflection from the misery of Arsenal's then seemingly unceasing travails. The mind-boggling possibility of the victories that were to come and would propel us to that final for the first time - most notably against Real Madrid and then Juventus - were, that day, as inconceivable as the idea that we would never watch another game together.

So, that's the plan. Are you ready, Alex (sorry, Aliaks)? Good.

I'll see you on May 21st in Moscow and wish you a belated happy birthday as you plant a big Belarussian kiss on that elusive cup.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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  1. Well, since we're taking all your cast-offs (we passed on Thierry, btw: too flash for Harry) we look forward to seeing Mr Hleb daan Fratton in time for the 2010 season, when he's proved himself to be the new Charlie Nicholas.

    And in answer to your Cif question, very badly as far as I can tell. If a certain posh indie quintet would release another album sharpish, we might get a bit of synergistic momentum going, but until then...

  2. Excellent. I didn't realise that Blink 182 were reforming Tim...

    Banjani's goal showed class. Pompey look even stronger this year, wouldn't you agree?

    L.U.V. on ya,


  3. Premiership.

    Out of my league.