Friday, 25 April 2014

Hull City 0-3 Arsenal [Roadhouse, Macau] + CHARITY UPDATE

Macau, a special administrative region (SAR) of China, was the fifteenth and final country where I've watched an Arsenal match this season (bearing in mind I've returned to Hong Kong to watch the Newcastle match on the 28th). I watched the match in Macau with a few local fans at a pub called 'Roadhouse'. The Gunners completely dominated Hull, a welcome change to the usual tail-between-legs, 'will-they-won't-they' Arsenal performance of late. It was also a good warm up for the FA Cup Final, though we all know that football has an almost bottomless bucket of surprises. Nothing can be taken for granted in English football....ever.
Macau. And some Gooners. And a cannon. 

This time next week I will be somewhat emotionally returning to the UK, after having watched every single Arsenal match of the season, live, with another Arsenal fan.

So that's 52 matches. 8 months. 4 continents. 14 countries. 36 different cities. Oh, and more than 50 of the most genuine, passionate and hospitable Arsenal fans around the world as hosts. When I take a moment to look back at those numbers, it's kind of tough to fathom. You see, people come up with ridiculous ideas all the time, things that sound awesome on paper, or in a dream or on a chalkboard, but in reality that vision is rarely executed. Usually it's because there isn't enough time or money, or people's eyes are bigger than their stomach, or there's been a big error in the planning, or time-machines haven't been invented yet (I'm sure that last one has been the stumbling block for many people's big aspirations).

I'm guilty of having big ideas and failing to follow through on them and I bet you can think of an example for yourself in the past, too. When I came up with the idea of travelling the world for eight months, watching every Arsenal game of the season, LIVE, with only £5,000 in my pocket, every sensible cell in my brain was telling me it wasn't going to work. Yet here I am, approaching the final sprint. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, whatever you like to call it. There's still a week left to go and although anything can happen, I've exceeded my own expectations, and it's such a humbling feeling to have. And to think that I have the #GoonerFamily to thank for most of it!

But, there is one other goal that I'm playing catchup with. And it's the most important of all.

For all those that are wondering, I made the decision to return to London for the final home game, as I started the journey this way (against, ahem, Aston Villa). It just felt like the right thing to do, book-ending the journey at the Emirates, Arsenal's home, with every game in-between watched overseas. It also means that I'm going to be on home soil for the FA Cup final, which should tie in nicely with my fundraising efforts.

Which is where all you readers come in. As I've just mentioned above, there's one goal that I'm chasing, one that means more to me than anything else. I'm doing this trip for a cause. As hopefully most of you know by now, my mother passed away in February last year from breast cancer. Being part of a small, close family, losing mum was the beginning of the end of the world for me. I was at the lowest point in my life and, perhaps slightly selfishly, I couldn't think of a way to climb out of the dark hole that my existence had turned into. Traveling was an opportunity to heal, a therapeutic journey if you like. It was during the planning for this journey that I came up with the Gooner On The Road idea.

So, this trip isn't just an exercise to see if it's possible to do something that many people say would be impossible, it's a journey that's tied to a very important cause, one close to my heart. My goal is to raise $15,000 for the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation. But you can probably tell from my Facebook post below (from earlier today) that I'm pushing water uphill at the moment:

So, if you have a moment, and a spare few quid, please, please donate what you can. I still need to raise $4k between now and the end of the FA Cup Final, and whilst I have a few ideas that could see me getting close to that $15k figure, like Arsenal I'm not taking anything for granted. To support the cause, please click HERE to donate. Remember you can pay with a credit card or using Paypal. And I'm sorry, but if you're not in the US there's no opportunity to claim back tax I'm afraid.


Monday, 14 April 2014

Happy Ending in Saigon [Arsenal 1-1* WBA, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam]

For a moment there I was starting to think that Vietnam had become a curse of disappointing results, seeing the humiliating defeat at Goodison Park followed a draw at home to Manchester City. I was back in Ho Chi Minh City for this one.

It really looked like it wasn't going to be our day. Creatively, Arsenal were poor, cautious in their approach to every move, which resulted in an attacking performance matching the fluidity of an elephant's carcass. There were few chances for either side, but the point-blank Sanogo header into Carson's feet early in the first half should have been the goal that made things comfortable.

The comfort-ometer went in the other direction though. Mertesacker made a rare mistimed lunge on Callum McManaman in the box, and although there was a delay in the penalty taking due to Monreal's injury (double-ugh), it didn't put off Jordi Gomez from converting to put his team in front. With 63 minutes on the clock, Arsenal were one-nil down in the Semi-Final, and an all too familiar feeling was making its way to the pit of my stomach.

But, Arsenal managed to find a way back into the game as Wigan sat back to try and defend their lead. With Giroud coming on for Podolksi, there were more chances to hold the ball up in the attacking third, creating space and opening up the pitch for more opportunities. You have to give the guy credit, he may not be the most instinctual finisher, but he holds up the ball very well and he's one of the best players in the country at doing this. With Giroud on the pitch at Wembley, we were finding time for other attackers to get into space and open up the opposition's defence.

Eventually, on the 82nd minute, Mertesacker made up for his error by heading a scuffed shot from Oxlade-Chamberlain beyond Scott Carson. It was club-captain stuff. We're not talking about diving diva Arteta here, or out-of-favour (but still starting) Vermaelen, this was sheer determination and enterprise - if it hasn't convinced the Big Fucking German's peers, critics and manager that he should be wearing the armband next season, then nothing will.

Consequently the game went into extra time and penalties were looming. An Arsenal team winning two penalty shootouts in a single season was a task not worth thinking about - I personally drank seven pints of Saigon Red between the 91st minute and the 120th. The Ox hit the crossbar during this time but, other than that, there was only going to be one way to decide the match.

Fortunately for Arsenal, Fabianski, 'The Other Pole in Goal', showed his worth and denied Wigan's first penalty from Cauldwell. Arteta took the first for Arsenal, and scored one of the best penalties I've seen this season, hitting the side netting beyond the despair of Scott Jackson, who was too busy trying to orchestrate a bollywood music video with his shimmying around. Fabianski then played hero for the second time in as many minutes, guessing which way Collison would shoot. This was it, our chance. Up stepped Källström, a wise last-minute, last-ditch sub by Wenger, and he calmly tucked it away. All we had to do was keep our cool, and for the first time in a long time, we did. Cazorla scored the fourth after Giroud had netted his, and Wigan were out. Wembley here we are come!

We are now in the best position to win silverware in years. Now we just have to focus on a top-four finish. So that'll be another five cup finals then!


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Everton 3-0 Arsenal [Hanoi]

Note - due to the crappy internet in Vietnam I'm struggling to upload photos. You can check out my Flickr Page soon (link to the right) which should contain some snaps once I find a better connection. GOTR

Good Morning Vietnam! Hello rest of world. OK, first things first, before talking about this stunning country, I need to clear something up.

I've found it very difficult to write about anything Arsenal-related over the past few weeks. Put simply the team has depressed me to the point where I've given up hope and (temporarily) lost most of my passion for the club. Arsenal FC is, right now, an embarrassment to its fans and its stakeholders. If it were possible to discontinue interest in the club, I would attempt to do it. But, it's a love affair that can't be broken, so we must soldier on with this constant pain until the people that are 
paid to make decisions, actually make decisions. Until that happens, I'm afraid to say Arsenal is a sinking ship and, as usual, it's the fans that bear the brunt of it.

Yesterday I watched Chelsea systematically break apart a resilient PSG team. Now this is really hard for me to say, but you'd be a numskull if you couldn't tell by the emotions of the players and the fans, let alone that trollop Mourinho, that there is some real fighting team spirit in that club. It is something that Arsenal completely lack, and it simply has to be down to management. I think it is utterly disgraceful, unprofessional even, for a manager to constantly blame his players for shortcomings. I have always stood up for Arsene Wenger, but even I have to start realistically thinking about the consequences of him staying at the helm, especially when he comes out with nonsense like that.

There are a few scenarios over the next few weeks that will surely confirm how the board views the club and the 'importance' of silverware. If we win the FA Cup and fail to qualify for the Champions League, realistically the board will relieve Wenger of his duties because it is those eighteen consecutive years in Europe's top competition that have lined the shareholders' pockets with millions. On the other hand, if we fail to win the FA Cup but secure fourth place, Wenger will likely stay, because the club is raking in the wonga, which we all know is the most important thing to the club, unfortunately. Finally, if we fail on both accounts [the FA Cup and UCL spot], there surely can only be one outcome. And I think we all know what that will be.

I really want Wenger to continue his reign at Arsenal but I simply wouldn't be a true Gooner if I wanted it at the expense of silverware. The perfect scenario for me would be for him to win the FA Cup and bow out with dignity. He deserves a lot of respect for what he's managed to do with the club over the past eighteen years (including successive UCL qualifications with restricted resources) and I think more fans need to show that respect, but at the same time I will view this like any other CEO of a business would – if you fail to deliver results as a manager of a team (any team, be it sales, marketing, finance, project management) then you will be clearing your desk to make way for somebody who wants to succeed.

Another thing we need to consider is that this is only the first season where we have splashed some big cash on players, and the arrival of Özil, at least for the first few months of the season, had really injected some vigour into our football. It has been made crystal clear that there is a large transfer kitty available, so perhaps we need to make judgement after the next summer transfer window has come and gone – if we haven't made any efforts to strengthen our squad and spread our risk [squad depth] then we are in a sad, sad situation indeed.

Anyway, rant over. I've been in Vietnam for almost two weeks now, and I have to say it's probably the most exhilarating country I've visited on the trip. I've learned to appreciate the beauty of the place but also the history – this country has been through a hell of a lot and yet it still finds a way to smile as a nation. The scenery is stunningly beautiful, the people are very friendly and the food is fantastic and even reasonably healthy (I haven't seen a single fat Vietnamese person).

The Vietnamese Arsenal fans have been very welcoming and I've had the pleasure of staying with some great Gooners here, none more so than Vu Xuan Tien or, for those that know him by his alter ego, the Running Man! Tien, as he likes to be called, prepared a typical Vietnamese meal for me to enjoy with him, his girlfriend and his uncle before I headed off to Ha Long Bay to take in the sights of Vietnam's most breathtaking views. I've also had some other very memorable times in Vietnam, but to find out more about my experiences you'll have to buy and read my book, which I'll be making an official announcement about soon!

I head back to Hong Kong on the 14th, where I will be spending some time winding down before flying back home to the UK on 1st May, just in time to catch West Brom, the last home game of the season.

Before that, there is an important cup match to watch of course. So until then...