20 July 2006
It's not something that's talked about much, but the evidence is clear—a number of Arsenal players have a problem with grass. Away from the compact, slick surface of Highbury which so suits our intricate (overly intricate, many of us would say) passing game, our performances last year were often poor and no player was more guilty than our talismanic leader, Monsieur Henry. For years we had to put up with the inconvenience and slight embarrassment of Bergkamp's inability to fly. Now, it seems, TH14 has topped the non-flying Dutchman by becoming unable to play well after travelling on the team bus.
If, God forbid, we were Tottenham, we might have come up with a conspiracy theory by now. Perhaps our North London rivals have fiddled the bus's air-conditioning and a complaint to the FA is in order. But there are probably more logical explanations.
For the media, one of the more seductive theories is that many of our players are delicate prima donnas beguiled by the bright lights of London, who don't like playing with the rougher boys in places they can't find in their Fodor's Guides, like Bolton, for example. And whilst there is some truth in that, I think the real problem is much simpler—we play the purest football in the world, a game dependent on precisely weighted passes and deft touches and utterly confounded by uneven, bobbling, poorly watered pitches. By contrast, teams who like to hoof the ball upfield are not reliant on the pitch and can transfer their football anywhere with equal ugliness.
On top of that, we are a team which relies on pace all over the park, and whilst you'd think we'd play better in larger parks where there is more room to run and get into space, the opposite is true. It's much less work for Henry to run all over Highbury than Stade de France, perhaps one of the reasons he is often close to invisible on the world stage, the recent WC final notwithstanding.
As we head into a new season at a new ground, it is my very strong belief that the biggest variable for us this season will not be Bergie's retirement, the departure of Sol, the possible departure of Cashley or the arrival of the little Mozart. It will be how we adapt to our new, larger playing surface because, I fear, it will be like playing away every week for several months. And the larger crowds may actually be quieter as they'll be in a bigger space and further from the pitch and players. If we settle well at Ashburton Grove, it may lift our away performances. If not, it may relegate our home performances to that level. And remember, our away record last season was the same as Everton, who finished eleventh.
Whatever the players do on the new turf, there'll be no doubt that Arsenal's ground staff will have done their job to the highest level. Head Groundsman Paul Burgess was crowned Groundsman of the Year last year for the second year in a row. That's an honourable tradition at Highbury, where Paul's predecessor, Steve Braddock, also received this award before moving on to supervise the development of Arsenal's training ground.
No expense has been spared to make the Grove pitch once again the best in the world. It's a DD GrassMaster Desso pitch which incorporates a combination of synthetic grass fibres with real grass to create a playing surface with an extremely natural feel. Several other EPL clubs are using this surface, including Liverpool, West Ham and Villa, but Arsenal is the first to combine it with the Stadium Grow Lighting system (SGL) as used by PSV Eindhoven. This system will be used to increase light levels on the pitch, especially in winter where the lights will run virtually 24 hours a day, guaranteeing a summer quality pitch all year round. This system has already been successfully trialled at Highbury last season.
18 July 2006
No, it's not my birthday, but that's less than three months away, so feel free to start saving now. However, there is another Clive on the other side of the world who is celebrating his birthday today. I don't know his surname or anyting else about him, only that on this day last year my friend Sebastian and I were in the Cinque Port town of Sandwich in Kent, and came across this sign attached at the base of another sign:
Purely by accident, I happened to find this picture today and noticed it's exactly a year on. So Happpy Birthday, Clive, whoever and wherever you are!