A price to pay chasing Euro dream

AFTER a decade or more of racking up huge debts, chasing the Champions League Holy Grail around Europe, it’s basically the lack of any further lines of credit that’s forced me to curtail my customary habit of following the Arsenal absolutely everywhere.

With the exponential increase in the costs of tickets, travel and the amount of time off work required to achieve an 100% attendance record, I doff my hat in all due reverence to the ultra-loyal band of Gooner-holics who manage to maintain the nigh-on monastic devotion necessary, to ensure that social, domestic and occupational responsibilities don’t ever impinge on their footballing pleasures.

Obviously the nature of the overblown corporate beast that has swallowed whole the previously unencumbered blue collar kingdom of the beautiful game, means that there were probably plenty present in Prague last week who are in the fortunate position to be able to write off the cost of their outing as a tax-deductible expense. Nevertheless, I often survey the vast majority of working stiffs like myself, whose faces I see every week, on terraces up and down the country, with ever increasing wonderment and incredulity. For while they remain ever-present on all the European trips, I’m beginning to feel like a lightweight part-timer by comparison.

The thousands of pounds worth of debt I’ve acquired on the Champions League merry-go-round has enabled me to hop off at many of Europe’s most alluring destinations, from Rosenborg to Panathinaikos, Porto to Spartak Moscow, with Real, Barca, Inter and Roma in between, we’ve savoured a sumptuous cultural meze across the length and breadth of the continent, most of which just wouldn’t have been on the menu if it weren’t for football.

I consider myself most fortunate to be in possession of an ‘I was there’ t-shirt, to prove I was present in Prague a couple of seasons back when Henry unexpectedly returned from injury to finally trump Wrightie’s goal-scoring record. However, I’ve yet to tick off Seville or Bucharest.

If I was going to miss out on an away game I couldn’t have picked a better one if I tried, and I ended up feeling quite sorry for the 1,500-odd day-trippers who went to last week’s game in Prague who would be trudging through Stansted in their rain-sodden replica tops in the wee hours of Thursday morning, after having frozen their cods off in the pouring rain, whilst enduring an anti-climax of an encounter.

Consequently, we can cut the likes of Bendtner some slack because our strikers saw so little of the ball. Eduardo might be the current incumbent of the shirt, but we’ve waited with stoic patience for the return of an authentic no. 9, ever since we saw the last of the likes of Smudger and Hartson. Although the loping Dane has proved he has the appropriate tools in his locker, with his brief cameos as an impact sub, I’m concerned he could be in danger of being devoured by the enormous weight of Gooner expectation. Perhaps I’m prone to being hypercritical due to Bendtner’s ‘Bertie Big Bollix’ reputation (which wouldn’t be quite so disturbing if the youngster had actually done something to merit such an inflated ego). But I was none too impressed by the images on TV, of him lurking at the mouth of the tunnel as both teams trotted out for the second-half, as if he was avoiding the cold and the rain, determined to be the last arrival at this disagreeable party.

Meanwhile Bendtner’s ego might not be the only worry for Wenger. The worst thing about a fixture free weekend is that without any football to fill the Arsenal related column inches the Red Tops will fill the void with vacuous gossip. I only hope the team spirit on the pitch stands the test of the recent undercurrent of alleged bad vibes between our keepers and those that have resulted from Arsène’s apparent reluctance to give the Brazil captain a regular run-out (let alone the armband!).

As it stands I can fully appreciate Wenger wanting to stick to a winning formula, but we’d drawn three games on the spin before Monday’s return to winning ways at Reading and you can just picture the vultures waiting to pounce come the transfer window, if the laid back Gilberto begins to lose patience.

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