MATCH REPORT – Arsenal 2 City 1

FA Cup Sixth Round – Tuesday 17th March 2009

Journeying through the northbound M1’s roadworks last night, I received a text message from one of Amber Nectar’s gruppenfuhrers (can we use that word now?) suggesting, without any sense of duress on his part (just an offer of burgling my house and snapping my shoulder blades if I didn’t) that when I listed the Arsenal team in this match report, I should add an extra name to it – Riley.

That’s absurd.

Firstly, because I never list the opposition team. House style, y’see.

Secondly, because Riley is English and would by definition look out of place.

The fact that Riley (Mike, natch) is a referee and would make a team consist of 12 players instead of the lawful 11 is actually less potent an argument. Because he was Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal all the way last night. One Arsenal player – their goalkeeper – was in a green shirt, so there’s no reason why another shouldn’t have been too.

I defended him a bit when he sent off four players against Burnley last season. I got hammered for it – fine. My belief was that the antecedence of the players in question kind of gave him little choice. I may have been wrong. It has been known.

However, he does, like clockwork, utterly arse (no pun intended, or indeed present) up our chances far more than the opposition do whenever we have the misfortune to be allocated him.

He has become the story. No referee, as good or bad as he may be, should ever find himself as a headline generator. This means he has done something woefully, shockingly, appallingly bad.

Riley’s very existence fitted that criteria at the Emirates.

Lots of people have bared their teeth at Arsenal’s own conduct last night. That doesn’t bother me. They’re footballers, they’re partisan, they’re paid tremendous wages to create advantages for their team through fair means or otherwise. I can cope with that.

Referees are there to observe, uphold the laws and treat the two teams as the equals that the very nature of sport dictates they have to be.

Riley was not such. A fussy, strutting, starstruck figure, he garnered sympathy the other year when Ashley Cole refused to look at him while receiving a lecture. Suddenly I find myself in rare sympathy with one of the more odious footballers on the planet.

In the second half at the Emirates, Riley proceeded to wave play on at spiteful fouls, caution City players for daring to breathe and then allow a winning goal which was the clearest offside call since, frankly, Geovanni against Middlesbrough.

Yes, we got away with it that day. But we accepted it with grace and repentance and acknowledgement that we got some luck. This time we didn’t. Bad officiating, but not Arsenal’s fault. Same as Geovanni’s offside run for that goal wasn’t Hull City’s fault.

Yet even allowing this 83rd minute winning goal – a back header from William Gallas who was a couple of clear yards offside from Johan Djourou’s help-on header from a set-piece – wasn’t Riley’s most chronic misdemeanour.

His decision to book Hull City players for offences which were either indecipherable or non-existent showcased a man who loves his authority and reacts to the surroundings he finds himself in.

These surroundings were that of the most glamorous club stadium in English football, with 55,000 people telling him what to do, led by a myopic Frenchman whose blessed skills as a coach are considerably tarnished by his utterly graceless, humourless disposition when faced with anything that dares stop his team from silkily steamrollering the opposition.

Riley’s activities as he produced card after card reminded me of Rowan Atkinson and Griff Rhys-Jones sending up institutional racism within the Met in 1980, as Constable Savage is berated for arresting the same man for petty offences that didn’t actually appear in the Stones Justices’ Manual. The petty offences which Riley chose to greet with yellows certainly didn’t seem obvious to anyone with even a mild knowledge of the list of punishable felons in football.

So maybe Boaz Myhill was booked for loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing, while Andy Dawson got done for urinating in a public convenience, Ryan France for possession of an offensive wife and as for Manucho – well, anyone who knows the sketch can guess which offence he could have been done for. I won’t repeat it.

The sketch ends with Savage being transferred (to his delight) to the SPG. It’s a pity that has now disbanded and its range of coshes and baseball bats long pushed through the incinerator. I’d send Riley to the SPG and tell everyone therein that he is Blair Peach’s brother.

As for all the post-match tomfoolery, sadly Brian Horton can’t prove that Cesc Fabregas spat at him. Phil Brown will be hauled over the coals for his raging comments about Fabregas, Riley and Arsenal. Although aimed spitting is the worst offence a footballer can commit, I find myself less bothered about justice there. We wouldn’t get it anyway. I want Riley’s performance, however, to be studied again. I doubt that will happen either.

The match? It was immensely entertaining when permitted to be. Arsenal’s multicultural protagonists produced multiple cultured play, a joy to watch at times, brilliantly frustrating at others as City ground their bones into the Emirates turf with their defensive ardour. Some of the tackles and blocks and self-hurling – kudos especially to Sam Ricketts and Kamil Zayatte here – was almost beyond the call of duty at times.

And all this without Michael Turner.

News of an injury had spread prior to the game and, given that we really would like England’s future No.5 to be in the team when we got to Wigan on Sunday, he was rested. For the first time ever, the two £2.5m centre backs in Zayatte and Anthony Gardner partnered each other. Ricketts stayed on the right, Andy Dawson made his inevitable return in place of the Cup-tied Kevin Kilbane, while Nick Barmby played in an advanced midfield role with Manucho ahead of him and Geovanni scheming and buzzing around, all protected by Ian Ashbee. Peter Halmosi, so successful (at last) in the previous round, got a rare go on the left while the irresistible Craig Fagan carried on scampering and chipping away down the right. Boaz Myhill was in goal.

(Oh, go on then – Fabianski, Sagna, Gallas, Djourou, Gibbs, Walcott, Song, Diaby, Vela, Van Persie, Arshavin, Riley. Can you please now remove these electrodes from my testicles?)

City began well, with Manucho going through on a terrific counter attack and making sure Djourou was on his backside as he chased the long ball. Cutting in on to his left foot, he seemed ready to shoot but, er, didn’t. Why I’m not sure. He hesitated, passed and defenders got back.

Not to worry. City would soon claim the opening goal and transform the travelling fans into the type of insane capering mess that only a goal at Arsenal can produce. Dawson clipped a ball forward towards Barmby in a withdrawn inside left position, but the ex-Spurs player had an appreciation of the ball’s bounce and issued a glorious lob which, helped by Djourou’s slight deflection, frisbeed over Fabianski and into the net.

Well, I never. We’ve only gone and scored against Arsenal.

This wasn’t in the script that everyone had written prior to the game. What was supposed to happen? Little ol’ Hull would feel grateful for being there, Arsenal would be allowed to score lots of goals and feel grand, and the global support and media and sponsors would all get their favoured semi-final against Chelsea for which the ticket template had already been designed.

But that’s not happening. Oh no!

Oh wait, hold on. Mike Riley’s reffing. It’ll be okay. It may take a while, but it’ll sort itself out.

Grrr.

Manucho flies down the touchline superbly, makes room for Geovanni who slaps a shot just over the bar.

Cor, we’re good.

Halmosi then went on a glorious flowing run from inside his own half, finally to be checked by Gallas on the edge of the box. Gallas is booked. Riley got it right. Dramatic three-note sound effect optional. Geovanni sweeps the kick up and over the wall and it’s in the top corner, no question – only for Fabianski, dang it, to spring upwards and sideways to make the best save I’ve seen against City this season since Jaaskelainen Day.

Arsenal decide to join in a bit. Arshavin – he’s good – makes a mockery of two City tackles as he cuts in from the left, but his low shot is cut out by Gardner for a corner, with Myhill having it covered anyway. City defend well.

Theo Walcott, already robbed once by Dawson, tries a narrower run away from his nemesis marker and gets into the box, only for Zayatte to leap in with a crunching and yet subtle tackle of such perfection that I’m sure the applause can be heard at Holloway Road. There was more like this to come, as Walcott crosses low for Arshavin at the far post and his shot, so obviously goalbound, so clearly the equaliser in mid-flight, is blocked by the torso of a plunging Ricketts. Heroic.

City get the ball in the net again, as a flurry of chances reaches Dawson, whose shot – on target or not, I’ve no idea – is deflected in from a yard or so by Barmby. The offside flag went up, rightly in all probability. We’ll return to that linesman’s standard of streamlined eyesight later.

Arshavin smacks a narrow-angled volley just wide in first half injury time but as the whistle goes for the break, it becomes apparent that all those teams who struggle at the Emirates have something inherently wrong with them, because we simply don’t. We’re winning again. 135 minutes of football at Arsenal this season thus far and still none of their players had scored against us.

The second half starts a little worryingly as Bryan Hughes is introduced for Ashbee for reasons obviously lacking in clarity at the time. Rumours of a knock and a precaution, a la Turner, for Wigan have since come to the domain. Fine, then. But it is Hughes, correctly deemed not good enough for 45 minutes – or indeed, five minutes – in 99% of this season’s games but is now suddenly expected to be Ashbee-esque against one of Europe’s most talented teams in our first FA Cup quarter final in 38 years and with Wembley shouting our way again.

Ulp.

For the first 20 minutes of the second half, Arsenal piled it on. They seriously piled it on. It was like any away game in the Third Division under Peter Taylor after we’d nicked a goal. But we coped. We got in their way, we got up their noses, we got on their wicks, we got the ball in orbit.

Diaby had one go which he put well wide after Arshavin had fed him in space. Good chance. Spurned. C’mon.

The Russian himself then made room for a shot which Zayatte – again – leapt in the way of in a manner which defied physics. From the corner there’s a spot of confusion, Myhill is out of position, and Song turns and volleys inches wide. C’mon.

Then an incident which Brown afterwards would claim turned the match entirely Arsenal’s way. Myhill was booked for timewasting.

Now, we had been a little economical with our speed once we’d scored. But Riley’s issuing of a yellow card to the City keeper came despite the fact he wasn’t even taking the free kick that had been given our way. He was not in charge of the ball. Plus there was the whingeing Wenger factor, which seemed to act as catalyst for Riley saying “yessir!” to the morose, spoilt Frenchman and giving everything he possibly could to the home side.

Barmby fouls Diaby, according to Riley, Van Persie swerves the free kick low round the ball and Myhill dives low and rapid to palm it out. A wondrous save. C’mon.

Arsenal get a corner. Arshavin takes, Gallas leaps, the ball touches the bar on the way over. Fewer than 20 minutes left. C’mon.

By now Halmosi, industrious though uninfluential aside from that one lung-burster in the first half, has been replaced by Bernard Mendy. Fagan swaps to the left.

Arsenal try again and this time they succeed via the method they know best – walking the ball in. Bendtner, also on as a sub, shakes off Hughes too easily and crosses for Arshavin at the far post. He should score but instead re-squares it for Van Persie who belts it home from close range.

We held on for so long. A replay would be an achievement, we know that. But for a referee not affected by showbiz or with the concept of the “correct” semi-final line-up in his head, we might have got it. We weren’t going to win this game now. But we deserved another go at them before a Hull crowd.

Barmby goes off, shattered and vindicated, and France trots on. We’re playing Hughes and France against Arsenal now. Looking at the rest of the bench, it was Hobson’s choice once it was clear that Barmby couldn’t continue. Nicky Featherstone’s inexperience didn’t tally with such an occasion and at such a stage, while Caleb Folan wasn’t going to get much ball to chase, although given that the entire game was now being played in our half of the pitch, he wouldn’t have been caught offside either.

A slight chance for City, as Fagan manages a deft knockdown for Geovanni to size up and hit, finding the outside of the stanchion. Could he have done better? Maybe, but that’s beyond churlish. Van Persie then volleys right at Myhill from Bendtner’s flick. There are ten minutes left. C’mon.

Walcott goes on a charge down the wing and crosses. Myhill collects, flaps, drops. Gumph. Then the City custodian makes glorious amends by diving bravely in the way of Bendtner’s goalbound follow-up. C’mon.

Arshavin, the best player on the pitch by an absolute mile, then slithers a delicious pass for youthful left back Gibbs to chase. Being a youthful left back (and an Englishman, therefore largely unfamiliar with the act of kicking a football) he panics when the goal appears in his line of vision and prods a weakling’s effort right into Myhill’s hands. C’mon.

Then the moment. City concede a free kick, dubiously. Nasri, another sub, chips it in. Myhill comes to collect, doesn’t. Djourou flicks goalwards and Gallas aims a back header into the net. Everyone knows he’s offside. Everyone. Bloody well everyone. The players. The crowd. The coaching staff on both benches.

Riley gives the goal. And Arsenal’s big screen shows a replay which turns City fans collectively vitriolic. From sad headshakes to the venomous demanding of Riley’s bladder on a cheeseboard. The remaining minutes of the game – seven plus stoppages – are formless. City are crestfallen, mugged. The occasion can’t stoop any lower, though Riley has a go with more bookings for nondescript or unidentifiable crimes.

Geovanni is clearly fouled on the edge of the Arsenal box and nothing is given. Gardner, pushed forward as an emergency striker, gets a shot in which could have been blocked by a hand. If you think we’re getting even a legitimate nailed-on penalty in injury time at the Emirates when the world demands an Arsenal v Chelsea semi-final you can think again.

The final whistle brought out all the emotions that City fans have been used to down the years. Pride, sorrow, anger, recrimination. The players were absolutely magnificent. The Cup run as a whole has been a rare treat, a generously dramatic, eventful and worthwhile excursion, worth all the pennies which four rounds and six games have taken from our wallets.

It is simply a pity that while losing to Arsenal is far from a disgrace, we eventually lost more to the allegedly incomprehensible idea of Arsenal going out of the competition than we did to their flowing football or exquisite teamwork. Riley, you are a total sod. Just do the decent thing and retire instantly. (MR)