By Tony Attwood
Imagine being told by the boss that he doesn’t think you are quite up to it. Maybe you would like to move on? There’s a good opportunity going in… Norway. Or maybe Malta…. That must be bad enough. But as a footballer being told by people who are supposedly supporting your team that you are no good – that must be a lot worse.
And if the reason for the criticism is a supposed lack of confidence, then it hardly does anything for the confidence. It is as if the fans thought, “hey, here’s a guy who is in low spirits – let’s blame him for our failures and that should buck him up a bit.”
Curiously Manuel Almunia, who has been subject to unprecedented abuse from the Anti-Arsenal Arsenal blogs in the last year as they have ramped up their attempts to destabilise the club, has also witnessed this all from the other side. In 2003/4 Arsenal won the league without losing a single league game. The goalkeeper throughout the entire season was Jens Lehman – the only man in the history of English football to play in goal in every league game and never once be on the losing team.
But then on 4 December 2004 after a run of six games (following the end of the “49”) with only one win, he was dropped and Almunia came in. It caused quite a press stir at the time (as these things do) and there was talk that Lehman had been dropped for one game only. In fact he was out for ten, returning in February.
Goalkeepers as we know are strange creatures – Lehman perhaps more than most – and certainly he was a character who caught everyone’s attention (not least with the penalty he gave away against Tottenham in the 2-2 draw in April 2004 which won the league.)
Almunia has always seemed more balanced from the moment came in as the regular first team keeper in 2008/9 – a season in which we won 20, lost 6 and drew 12, conceding 37 goals (the highest number since 2003 when we let in 42 to come second).
The problems however really began in September 2009 when, according to the Sun, “Manuel Almunia has challenged Arsene Wenger’s transfer policy, by insisting: We can’t win anything with kids.” The story also appeared in the Mirror.
No journalist or source was given, and there were no details of when the supposed conversation took place or how these esteemed newspapers came to hear about it when everyone else didn’t, but they went on with Almunia supposedly saying: “We need the manager to work harder to get what we need, the club to make an extra effort to make us more competitive. We need more than youth.”
At the time those of us who bother to think about such things wondered if this was a one-off invention by an anti-Arsenal journalist, or part of an orchestrated campaign. It turned out to be the latter. The Sun continued the next day with a story that said that Almunia’s wife has seen a “ghoul at their swish pad on the site of an old asylum.”
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“Spaniard Almunia, 30, has also heard chains rattling and had stereos turning on at full volume on their own. He is so spooked boss Arsene Wenger has given him permission to go home for lunch to avoid leaving wife Ana alone at the house in Abbots Langley, Herts.
“Terrified Almunia said yesterday: “My house is small but there is a lot of history to it and it seems there are ghosts.
“We’ve spoken to neighbours, and they said this was normal.”
So, two stories in two days against one player. Why was this? The most likely reason is that the editor of the made-up section of the paper (which is just about all of it) said he wanted an Arsenal story against someone they haven’t done before, and two journalists came up with different made up tales. They then went into the editorial meeting, went through the “Michael Jackson seen playing for Lincoln City Youth Team,” rejected that and came up with these.
The double header from the Sun (that’s the journalist, not the fact that they ran two stories) was warmly welcomed by the Anti-Arsenal Arsenal and Almunia was nominated as a victim, and kicked endlessly. Not surprisingly under such a huge torrent of abuse his form became a bit shaky.
As a result of that the abuse got worse, the rest of the media picked up on the tale, and then people who had never seen Arsenal, let alone Almunia, picked up on the notion that Almunia was so obviously awful, that this was total proof that Wenger was a nutter. Only a nutter would ever play someone that bad.
Then early in the 2009/10 season there was further press coverage of his private life, although this time not made up. Almunia was given compassionate leave following the death of his mother-in-law in a car crash, and according to some reports also got a chest infection at the same time. (Rather amusingly the Mirror lost this story which relates to September/October 2009 and had him speaking “for the first time” about the situation in March 2010. A subscription to the Arsenal programme could help lads – it ran the same piece five months earlier.)
In recent interviews Almunia has said last season was personally difficult for him, and he appreciates the backing he has been given by the manager – something which does not accord with what most of the press and the Anti-Arsenal have been saying.
The Anti-Almunia stories have continued, generally along the lines of noting a couple of goals that, it is claimed, a better keeper would have stopped. The performance during his broader career is ignored, and everything comes down to a handful of incidents.
It must be phenomenally difficult to focus when people who pretend to be Arsenal supporters but whose actions do nothing but undermine our own players are on your back, and the fact that he has come out of last season’s personal difficulties and battled on shows enormous strength. Anyone with any sensitivity knows that a family bereavement can be enormously influential, affecting the mind and the body for months to come. When that death is a violent one, as with a car crash, it can be doubly so.
We all know that one slip, one mistake, will always get some supporters on the back of a goalkeeper. I recall being at an away match with Pat Jennings in goal in the early 1980s – I think against Coventry. Jennings made a mistake and the home team scored, and the guy next to me started swearing about how Jennings was a Tottenham player through and through and we should never have trusted him. One mistake – and he got that.
One slip and Almunia will get it again from the Anti-Arsenal Arsenal – but with a spot of luck he has now built up enough resiliance to know that those of us in the ground each week are with him.
Now, just in case you missed it yesterday, here’s a run down on the free tickets at club level for the WBA match.
Every week O2 will broadcast a famous Arsenal chant. They will encourage people to tweet the chant on twitter with the hashtag #o2arsenal and any other message they can fit in. The first tweeter to get 50 re-tweets will win two club level box tickets to the next Arsenal home match. So the first winner will be going to the West Brom at home game this weekend. And I can tell you when Jane and I did it, it was great.
More details of the prize and the competition can be found here: http://o2blueroom.co.uk/events/Win-Arsenal-tickets/460
This weeks chant to tweet is: OHH-O Theo Walcott, Theo Theo Walcott, he’s an Englishman at Arsenal #o2arsenal bit.ly/bRBte5
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Tottenham v Arsenal – the view from overseas on Arsenal Worldwide