Sam Limbert**, from onlinegooner.com shares with Andrew Mangan, writer of http://arseblog.com/, the task of commenting on Arsenal, our opponents at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, at ESPN’s club-by-club network. He is also a studious type, preparing his final-year university dissertation comparing football support and religion. His comments on the depth of the game’s relationship with Sunderland as a city is worth reading (they could apply to much of County Durham, too), but there’s also plenty to warm to in his responses to other questions. He even-handedly deplores diving (including one ‘embarrassing’ recent piece of simulation by Olivier Giroud, a player we both admire), highly rates Steven Fletcher and Seb Larsson and, sad to relate, predicts a winning Gunners outcome …
Salut! Sunderland: Is Arsene’s way still the way Arsenal should be going? I am a great admirer but there has been a fair amount of discontent among your supporters.
I get the sense amongst supporters that the boundaries between the ‘Arsene Knows Best’ fans and the ‘Arsene should go’ fans have been blurred slightly in recent seasons as fans are becoming increasingly disillusioned about his footballing philosophies. The problem with fans calling for their Arsenal back is, which Arsenal do they want? Is it the Arsenal before Arsene Wenger? Probably not. Wenger did so much to build the club up to the position it was around 2004, however since winning the FA Cup in 2005, the Invincibles team was broken up too early and it feels like the club have ended up in a circle of losing the best players at too regular intervals without replacements being signed. It seems his way of doing things hasn’t kept up with modern football. I hope Wenger’s way does bring success in the long term, but to many it feels like we’ve been waiting long enough since 2005 for success again. Given how much he has done for the club, I can’t bring myself to call for him to be sacked, but hope he slightly adjusts his ways.
When you support a club that expects success, is a season when not even a top four place our can be guaranteed – and may even be denied you by your north London rivals Spurs – really hard to bear?
It is hard to bear, however it’s becoming all too familiar for Arsenal fans. There were genuine chances to win the league in 2008 and 2010, although otherwise the Emirates years have mainly just been about the top four. Fans are definitely concerned about not finishing above Tottenham, but even without Robin van Persie there is still a sense of optimism after they effectively blew a 13 point lead on us last season. In a sense, what makes these sort of seasons even more frustrating is when the team put in some performances that make you believe in what Wenger clearly sees in this group of players. On their day, they are capable of beating the best teams, however they aren’t consistent enough to challenge for the title.
If not already covered in those replies, how do you explain a season in which, so far, there has been such a mixture of good and bad in terms of performances and results?
That’s not far off the great unanswerable question for Arsenal fans! The most infuriating thing for supporters is not just the randomness of performances between games, it’s the marked difference within matches themselves. Arsenal were so meek in the first half against Chelsea, yet looked capable of opening them up at almost any moment in the second half. I think that one of issues this season has been that there have been plenty of payers still adapting to the Premier League, players returning from injury and players who haven’t won much for other clubs meaning that consistency can be difficult. If Arsenal could keep a solid group of players together for a few years in a row, that consistency would probably be there. However the squad gets chopped and changed, and often it’s the best players that get changed.
Theo has signed for the long term, the transfer window may by the time you reply to these questions have produced significant acquisitions – where do Arsenal still need to be strengthened?
Before Deadline Day, there was an argument that could be made for Arsenal being able to strengthen all areas of the squad. I’m pleased that Nacho Monreal was signed with Kieran Gibbs out for the foreseeable future, but there are still only three centre-backs at the club before Sebastien Squillaci might get another game. If Johan Djourou moves away permanently in the summer, another centre back will be needed. The other main area that concerns me is up front. The only traditional centre forward in the squad is Olivier Giroud, and even though Theo Walcott and Gervinho have played there with varied success this season, having another attacking option would really have benefited the squad in the run-in.
In all honesty, is there any current Sunderland player who would get a game for you?
I like Steven Fletcher and think he would provide Arsenal a good attacking option. His finishing is impressive and can hold the ball up well. Wenger wouldn’t have paid the price Sunderland did for him, but when you see his finishing then it makes sense. I’ve also quite liked Sebastian Larsson as he came through our youth system. His few first team appearances as an emergency full back in 2006 didn’t set the world alight, but he works hard for the team and can whip in a great cross.
What have been your own highs and lows of watching your team?
There are two main lows that stick out in my mind. The first was 2001 when Arsenal lost the league to Manchester United by losing 3-0 at home to Middlesbrough. I think Middlesbrough had one shot on target in the game and own goals from Silvinho and Edu was a rather embarrassing way to lose the title. The other was the Carling Cup Final in 2011. There was a genuine feeling that it was going to be the day that the run without a trophy would be ended, but to see the team lose 2-1 to Birmingham due to a defensive howler was gutting. Felt utterly dejected leaving the ground.
Obvious highs are the title years of 1998, 2002 and 2004. Any opportunity to see the Arsenal team play in those years was a special one. In the Emirates era, beating Barcelona 2-1 a couple of years ago was as amazing as it was surprising. Finally the return of Thierry Henry against Leeds in last season’s FA Cup was something else. Anyone who saw me that week will tell you that I was just smiling. Those two games, alongside the two recent 5-2′s against Tottenham, probably heard the loudest goal celebrations at the new ground.
And who are the greatest players you’ve seen, or wish you’d seen, in your colours? Are there any you feel should have been allowed nowhere near them?
The one player I hold above any of the others is Dennis Bergkamp. He was one of the first footballers who I was aware of as a child, so his heroic status for me at a young age probably clouds my opinion slightly, however some of the things he could do with the ball were incredible. Thierry Henry comes an extremely close second.
* See Stuart MacFarlane’s photos at Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27453474@N02/7555290178/
I’d like to have seen David Rocastle play live, as he seemed to be a player who could make something from nothing and get the fans excited. I was for the North London derby at Highbury on the day he passed away, and it struck me at such a young age what this man meant to the club when looking at the fans and the players.
There are a fair few in the current squad who shouldn’t really have got near the Arsenal shirt, however going further back I always remember Kaba Diawara as the unluckiest Arsenal striker I’ve ever seen. He was signed around the same time as Kanu in 1999 to help with the title run-in, but he never scored and managed to hit the woodwork on numerous occasions.
Do you have any thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the region? – and any memories of past encounters?
For Sunderland games in London, I always remember a game when Thierry Henry was still finding his feet at Arsenal and took Steve Bould apart. Arsenal won 4-1 and Davor Suker scored an outrageous lob from the edge of the box. He had his arms up in celebration before the ball went in off the post as he knew how well he’d hit it.
I’ve been on one visit to the Stadium of Light. It was the last match of the season in 2008 and it was a fairly uneventful 1-0 to the Arsenal. Even though it was slightly colder than I expected given it was May, you felt as if you were in a football town. There were red and white flags and scarves on buildings, outside pubs and hanging out of windows. Everyone there takes pride in their team, giving more of a community feel to the club. I love Arsenal being based in London and there is a community around the stadium, however very quickly fans disappear from around the ground to wider locations, however there was a feeling in Sunderland that the football team is woven into the fabric of people who live there.
What will be the top four in order, who is going down and where, if not mentioned, will our two clubs finish?
1 – Man Utd, 2 – Man City, 3 – Chelsea, 4 – Arsenal.
18 – Aston Villa, 19 – Wigan, 20 – QPR
With the January signings, I could see Sunderland breaking into the top ten as some of the teams above them at the moment haven’t been in great form.
Suarez has admitted diving, albeit on only one occasion. Not quite a Lance Armstrong moment but do you feel it may lead to greater resolve to stamp out this and other forms of cheating – or do we just have to accept it as part of the modern game?
I’d like to see it stamped out as it’s embarrassing to see players from your team do it and immensely frustrating when you suffer because a player clearly wasn’t fouled. I think players looking for fouls or cleverly getting contact is more a part of the game because they’re trying to draw the offence, but outright diving shouldn’t be accepted. I really like Olivier Giroud, but couldn’t help but cringe at his dive against Liverpool recently. Doesn’t reflect well on the club.
Arsenal are very much associated with the gentrification of football and those £62 tickets hardly challenged the notion but which one step could the football authorities, or Arsenal, take to improve the lot of ordinary fans?
The simple answer is to say to reduce ticket prices, however when there are enough people willing to pay the money and fill the stadium, then the business side of the game says that prices won’t drop. Safe standing is an idea that intrigues me having never really experienced standing on the terraces of a larger stadium. That could then enable more tickets to be available at a cheaper price. I’m not sure if it would work and there would be a lot of obstacles in the way of it, but it’s an interesting idea that could be developed.
The Club versus Country debate: who wins for you and why?
Club. No question. With almost any other sport, I tend to say country, but football is different. I feel like I invest so much into club football, both financially and emotionally, that suddenly cheering on a team that has some players in it that every normal week I’m hoping for them to fail, can be difficult. I’m pleased when England do well and will watch major tournaments as it’s a month of football, but the disappointment I’ve felt about England losing doesn’t come anywhere to close how I feel after an Arsenal defeat.
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
Unfortunately I won’t be at the Stadium of Light. Arsenal have been very hard to predict this season! I can see it being close with another second half comeback giving Arsenal a 2-1 win.
I had Arsenal ingrained into me at a very young age and went to my first match in 1998 during the run-in to the double. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to go to Highbury as often I did and was there when for the final game in 2006. I usually try and do at least one away trip a year (did the 7-5 at Reading this season!) and was fortunate to have an understanding head teacher at school who let me have two days off to go to Paris for the Champions League final in 2006! I realised fairly early on in my footballing career that I was never going to be good enough to play the game so have always been interested in writing about it. I posted match reports from games onto my own website for over four years before I started blogging for ESPN FC in 2011. I’m currently a final year undergraduate at University and am in the process of writing my dissertation comparing football fandom to religion. I’m also my University’s radio sports editor and work part time in sports statistics.
Interview: Colin Randall