Dispatches From The Sticks –
The mist shroud that had previously hung over the dry stream bed like a ghostly veil parts as a smoke grenade thirty metres away explodes in a fusillade of uncomfortably bright white sparks; utterly searing white sparks and a harrowing grey smoke that almost magically softens into a vivid orange nebula, akin to liquid sunshine being poured into a swirling cauldron of fog. This vibrant orange curtain descends silently, slowly and almost apologetically over me as I wait, wait in my foxhole. Wait in my foxhole for them, them, those that want to shoot me. Those that want to send me to the other side.
The smoke lingers, lingers for longer than a celebratory Romeo y Julieta in a cramped boonie tent. The smoke has a peculiar scent, a scent unlike anything I can place, anything my finely tuned nostrils can distinguish. My fatigues, my BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) is soaked; a fetid mixture of sweat, spilled electrolyte drink, insect repellent and morning dew. My BDU are in the Multicam pattern and they’ve never let me down before, never let me be seen before. I wait for them. Wait for the opposition to come, to ‘come on in…’
But I’m not crouched in the dusty and sparsely covered Helmand Province, Afghanistan, facing the never-ending waves of Taliban insurgents. I’m not sitting in the lush vegetation surrounding the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq, in conflict with religious extremists and mercenaries from around the globe, intent on civil war. Hell, I’m not even squatting in the thick, humid, suffocating tropical equatorial rainforest surrounding Bogota, Columbia, tracking FARC soldiers and cocaine producing villagers.
I’m buried shallowly in a temperate forest consisting of deciduous and coniferous trees in early afternoon sunshine, deep in the heart of Wickham, Hampshire, indulging in my airsoft hobby- a hobby that I took up years ago to allow me to release the pent up frustrations of being an Arsenal fan post-Invincibles season – the missus, kindly, has sent me news of Danny Welbeck’s (and the other Gunners) performance against the Swiss.
I annoyingly had a distinct lack of signal when the game was on. How did it go? I’m now trembling with eager anticipation; the anticipation of watching Arsenal finally play with a quick, athletic striker upfront (a sight unseen since Emmanuel Adebayor departed) is getting closer.
A core of English players once more wearing red and white. Saturday. Saturday; when Arsenal meet their first ‘rival club’ in the form of Manchester City. Saturday, when several Arsenal old-boys will return to the club which launched their Premier League careers.
What to expect from Welbeck, I ponder, as my sweat continues to seep into my malodorous BDU. I struggle with my leather palmed Nomex gloves to unlock my phone and digest what my dear wife has just texted in from the real world. Thank goodness I’m not too far into the boonies so that I still have some semblance of a phone signal. I should, perhaps, be concentrating on ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – a ramshackle bridge fifty metres to my north-west, but instead, I am compelled to read on as the texts come through…delayed by all of this foliage and signal-less countryside…
Text one. Received 09:14am. “Great break down the right by Welbeck. Slightly delays a square ball to one of Sterling or Rooney. Chance gone. Welbeck was lightning, however. Xxx”
Text two. Received 09:32am. “Wilshere is doing well. Best game in an England shirt for ages.xxx”
Text three. Received 10:17am. “GOAL WELBECK!”
Text four. Received 10:18am. “Break down right by Sterling (love him BTW!) and his cross is shinned-in by Welbeck on the gallop. Happy hunting! xxx”
Text five. Received 11:30am. “Wilshere subbed off. Doesn’t look injured. Result.”
Text six. Received 11:50am. “Goal Welbeck!!!! Last minute, took it like Henry when one-on-one, great stuff! Wenger’s got a proper striker! xxx”
I ease my head up. Slowly. Carefully. I look out into the green sea of ferns and forest and look for my fire-team. To my left, the machinist, the one we called Chef, was from Newhaven. He was wrapped too tight for Wickham; probably wrapped too tight for Newhaven. Lance, on the forward M60, was a famous surfer from the beaches south of Weymouth.
One look at him and you wouldn’t believe he ever fired an airsoft weapon in his whole life. Clean… Mr. Clean… was from some South Chailey shithole and the light and space of Wickham really put the zap on his head. Then there was Phillips, the Chief. It might have been my mission, but it sure as shit was the Chief’s boonies…
Well, fancy that! Just as I’d thought during Welbeck’s cameo against Norway, the lad looks rejuvenated by the promise of a fresh start. Just how far can he go, how much can he develop, at Arsenal? Three seasons that you would think that he’ll spend under Wenger’s tutorage, with the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott providing him with ammunition, and a potential targetman/quick man partnership with Olivier Giroud to possibly blossom too. What a mouth-watering prospect.
A distant voice gets louder. It’s Banks. Contact has been made. Don’t give us away. Banks wasn’t a bad airsoft player, I guess. He loved his boys, and he felt safe with ’em. He was just one of those guys with that weird light around him. He just knew he wasn’t gonna get so much as a scratch here. And if he did, we all had Savlon and plasters to fix things up.
The Swiss, away, were no mugs. Yann Sommer put on a sublime performance between the sticks and Gokhan Inler – a player Arsene Wenger really should have fought harder to sign – was immense; looking for all the world like the exact central-midfielder Arsenal have missed since Gilberto left our shores for Panathinaikos. Welbeck harried, harassed and bullied the Swiss all night. His two goals were taken well. For me, his square ball to Raheem Sterling wasn’t that bad a pass, of course, Sterling would’ve wanted it a bit earlier, but he seemed to lose his balance as the ball arrived into his area of operation. Much to be hopeful for.
More smoke grenades thump, clump and dump their smoke to our north. A few thunder-flash pyrotechnics follow suit. Shock and awe. If that’s how they fought their war-game…
I began to wonder what they really had against us in the ‘red team’. It wasn’t just insanity and mosquito bites; there was enough of that to go around for everyone. My eardrums throbbed through this auditory assault…
Which leaves us with Manchester City at home. An early kick-off. The opportunity to exorcise a few of those ghosts from last year. Can Arsenal do it? Yes. It will be harder if Aaron Ramsey is injured, but that opens up the possibility of Mesut Ozil – if he is fit – to move into the middle. But, if the Gunners find themselves without those two key schemers, Arsenal’s task looks a bit more daunting. But it is certainly doable. I think a 2-1 home win will be eked out, and I can easily see Welbeck transferring his over-brimming confidence into the red and white of his new side…especially as the opposition are his local rivals. I hope Santi Cazorla’s renaissance in form continues, as well as wishing that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is released off of his leash to reap untold Ninja-Turtle style destruction on City’s left-back.
They were getting close, real close. I couldn’t see them yet, but I could feel them, as if the foxhole was being sucked up the dry steam and the wind was whistling back into the jungle. Whatever was going to happen, it wasn’t gonna be the way they call it back in Southsea.
Incidentally, it was, inevitably, the bleeping chirps of the glorious Welbeck news-filled texts filtering through the ether and into my phone that of course alerted the stealthy opposition to the presence of myself hunkered down in the now olfactory offensive foxhole. Why the actual f**k didn’t I put my Samsung on silent?! Andy McNab would shake his head. I subsequently found myself getting ‘lit-up’ by hundreds of 6mm ball bearings; the sporting equivalent of taking part in an orgy with a hornet’s nest, a jar of honey and a nail bed. I remind myself to thank my wife accordingly when I get home…
Thanks for reading.