I USED to play for a team in the Central Lancashire Junior League called Penwortham Boys. Well, I say I played for them. I was actually their second-choice goalkeeper.
Being the second-choice goalkeeper for an Under-15s team is, unless you can play outfield, a soul-destroying experience. (And I couldn’t play outfield.) Under-15s Sunday league sides, you see, don’t have reserve teams.
So I spent most Sunday mornings trudging up and down the touchline, occasionally clambering to the top of the climbing frame nearby to keep myself amused, while our manager told me to be careful, because he didn’t want me getting injured. (I think this was because he didn’t want the aggro of a trip to hospital, rather than because he thought he might actually need me.)
The reason I was second-choice goalkeeper is simple. The other goalkeeper we had was far, far better at keeping goal than I was. On Sunday morning, he was injured, so I stepped in, ready to perform heroics. We lost 15-1.
We got battered most weeks. Although, in our defence, some of the teams we faced were really good (or just taller than us, and therefore able to score at will from corners). One Sunday, we lost heavily to Cadley Boys, whose star player was a young lad called Kevin Kilbane. He hasn’t done too badly for himself since.
It’s a sign of how poor we were that even our manager suggested we consider changing our name to Penwortham Nil. It’s something Arsenal might want to consider too.
Tonight’s final match: Arsenal 0 Fulham 0
Commentator: John Motson
Arsenal, I fully acknowledge, are nowhere near as bad as that Penwortham Boys side of 1991/92. For a start, the Gunners are fifth in the Premier League, whereas we finished bottom of our division that season.
In addition, Arsenal are in the last 16 of the Champions League, whereas we couldn’t even get past the first round of the President’s Cup.
I have no doubts that, if I were somehow to round up all of the players from that Penwortham Boys side of 1992, and organised a match against Arsenal’s current first team, that the Gunners would win by the kind of score that would force James Alexander Gordon to say: “I’ll repeat that result.”
(I won’t be trying to arrange such a match, though, as I don’t particularly fancy another afternoon on the climbing frame.)
Nonetheless, Arsenal – like that Penwortham Boys side of old – are struggling for goals. And they’re struggling to such an extent, that a change of name to Arsenal Nil must be imminent.
Today’s stalemate against Gubbometer kings Fulham was Arsenal’s fourth successive 0-0 draw, a feat they last managed in October 1993. That 1993/94 season saw Arsenal play some of the cagiest football in their recent history. They won the European Cup Winners’ Cup thanks to a series of 1-0 wins, and the single-goal victory became such a regular occurrence that it spawned its own chant.
This was getting towards the fag end of George Graham’s reign, when Arsenal were no longer serious league title contenders, and the football was no longer as magical as it had been when Limpar, Smith, Merson and Campbell were all on top of their game.
Arsene Wenger’s arrival as manager in 1996 saw the start of a new glorious era at Arsenal. Yet it is starting to look as if the Gunners are returning to the boring, boring days of the mid-1990s.
They are not, unless they pick up their form pretty sharpish, going to qualify for next season’s Champions League. Against a Fulham side who have yet to win away in the Premier League this season, the Gunners huffed and puffed, but couldn’t blow the house down.
Wenger has enjoyed 13 years at Arsenal, winning three Premier League titles and four FA Cups. He is the only manager in the modern era to have led a team through an English top-flight league campaign unbeaten.
But his team are no longer winning, and no longer entertaining. He still has the FA Cup and the Champions League to go for. But if Wenger fails to land either of those prizes, Arsenal will find themselves trophyless for a fourth successive season. It is tempting to wonder if a great era in the club’s history is coming to an end.
1. Fulham: 9 (GD: +1; CD: +1)
2. Wigan: 7 (GD: 0; CD: +2)
3. Middlesbrough: 7 (GD: 0; CD: +1)
4. West Brom: 5 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
5. Capello: 4 (GD: +1; CD: +4)
6=. Blackburn: 4 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
6=. Bolton: 4 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
8. West Ham: 3 (GD: 0; CD: +2)
9=. Stoke: 3 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
9=. Arsenal: 3 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
11=. Newcastle: 2 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
11=. Sunderland: 2 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
13=. Gubba: 1 (GD: +1; CD: +1)
13=. Manchester City: 1 (GD: +1; CD +1)
15. Portsmouth: 1 (GD: 0; CD: +1)
16=. Everton: 1 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
16=. Hull: 1 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
16=. Tottenham: 1 (GD: 0; CD: 0)
19=. Aston Villa: 0
19=. Chelsea: 0
19=. Liverpool: 0
19=. Manchester United: 0
(NB: Teams level on points will be separated by Gubba difference: the number of times a team is last on Match of the Day with Tony Gubba commentating. If they are still level, they will be separated by Capello difference: the number of times a team is last on MOTD with Fabio Capello present.)