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Friday, 30 May 2014

Squad Review Part Three - Midfielders

The main man at Arsenal this season

This will undoubtedly be the longest of the four parts of the annual squad review. Arsenal have a cast of thousands in midfield and I will be including the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who is ridiculously listed as a forward on the Arsenal website.

Tomas Rosicky
Tommy ended up with nearly 40 appearances across the season, despite regularly suffering niggly injuries. I was surprised when his contract was extended, but it showed his wish to be an Arsenal player. When he has been involved Rosicky has often been a key man. His willingness to run at a defender creates space and makes things happen in games that are otherwise just passing us by. His season will largely be remembered for his two goals against Tottenham, one of them that incredible strike at White Hart Lane. His performance against them in the FA Cup when he replaced Ozil was massive and showed Tomas at his very best. He should have had himself a goal in the Cup Final with just about the last kick but was too unselfish, though his impact from the bench was instrumental in the win - how he enjoyed winning his first Arsenal trophy.

Mikel Arteta
Midway through this season Arteta's legs had gone. It was the most obvious example I'd ever seen of a player simply losing it and unable to cover the ground any more. I was amazed, then, at the way the FA Cup semi-final saw him get a second wind. His performances in both Wembley games were remarkable and he seemed to get stronger as they went on. He was my Man of the Match in the Cup Final. For most of the rest of the season Arteta frustrated me. He is generally unwilling to play a forward pass and I would lose count in any one game how many times he slowed us down unnecessarily. What he did well was lead the side in Vermaelen's absence and his selfless act of giving the Cup to the Belgian at Wembley will surely go down in Arsenal folklore.

Jack Wilshere
Not fit. Jack simply has still not recovered from his long lay off. He has benefited, in terms of the crowd reaction to his performances, from the treatment (unfair as it has turned out) that Aaron Ramsey got. The fact is that when he has played this season he has often been poor. Jack spends too much time rolling around on the floor whenever he is tackled and it is doing him no favours. He could really have done with a proper rest this Summer but he is now off to the World Cup, barring further injury. He scored the goal of the season (the best team goal I've ever seen) against Norwich but highlights were few and far between. Jack is in danger of not fulfilling his potential but, like Rosicky, his late impact in the Cup Final was massive in our winning of the game.

Mesut Ozil
Started brilliantly, tailed off in the middle, flickered briefly, disappeared altogether at Wembley. As a brief synopsis of Ozil's first season that just about covers it. The fact is that the £40m man has not lived up to his billing. Yes, he had quite a few assists, but generally he contributed little to our play. We are not such a good side that we can carry passengers and Flamini balling him out in the Bayern Munich game was long overdue. The biggest problem we have with Ozil is that he is frightened. That is something that I don't know can be changed. In the Premier League you have to be able and willing to take a hit. Ozil wants to go nowhere near physical contact and he simply isn't the player that destroyed England at the last World Cup. Will he get better in his second season? I'm not even sure he'll have a second season. His penalty miss against Bayern Munich was nothing short of an embarrassment. Signing him boosted the entire Club, but we need so much more from him.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
It couldn't have started any worse for The Ox. He was dominating the game against Villa on day one only to get injured in a tackle and be missing for most of the season. When he came back we saw what we missed so much. In the absence of Theo Walcott Ox provided the pace that had been missing for so long. His powerful running was too much for many opponents, not least Bayern Munich and Tottenham. In the Cup semi-final he was head and shoulders above everyone else. The injury that ruled him out of the Cup Final was tragic for him having missed so long this season. Another who could really do with a break he now has to go to the World Cup instead. I doubt he will be ready to start next season.

Aaron Ramsey
What a revelation. I don't mind being proved wrong by Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey has proved many of us wrong this season. If you claim that you didn't, at the very least, have doubts about Ramsey then you are a liar. What he has done this season has been incredible. Another whose season was partly wrecked by injury, in truth his lay-off might have come at the right time for him (though we could have done without it being four months away from the team). Ramsey was at the heart of everything that was good about Arsenal. Olivier Giroud missed him more than anyone else in the side as he became incredibly isolated without the support he got when Ramsey was around. His goal in the Cup Final was a just reward for the most incredible season from central midfield and completed the long road back from having his leg smashed at Stoke. Now up there with Alan Sunderland and co as a legend of the Club for his Wembley heroics.

Santi Cazorla
The little Spaniard was moved to the wing upon the arrival of Mesut Ozil. It certainly stunted his contribution. Most Gooners were really excited to see him and Ozil in the same team when Santi returned to fitness. The sad fact is that they never really combined. There were still good moments for Cazorla and he started to show himself as a bit of a big game player in terms of his scoring - goals against Liverpool and Spurs were huge, and then came his incredible free-kick in the Cup Final. I predicted early on in the season that being moved away from his preferred position would see Cazorla leave before next season so it was a surprise to me when he extended his deal with us. We will now get the best years of Santi Cazorla's career and I hope he can kick on and see us to more trophies - though where he will play is a matter for speculation. Overall I was disappointed by him this season, but we'll always have Wembley.

Mathieu Flamini
On a free transfer at a time when we were short of his type of player the signing of Flamini was a no-brainer to me. His impact when he came on against Tottenham was immediate. We finally had someone in midfield who would communicate, direct and tackle. A walking yellow card he may be, but Flamini gives us the necessary bite we often miss. He seemed to be ostracised by Wenger after his tirade against Ozil and that was to our detriment. Flamini isn't the most talented "footballer" but as a member of a squad he is excellent and he is a leader. He also really enjoyed getting a winners medal.

Abou Diaby
I don't think many of us thought we'd ever see Diaby again. To have worked his way back from injury one more time is testament to his resolve and his career is one of the great tragedies - Diaby would have been a World star by now. If he is still around next season we still won't see much of him, I'm certain.

Kim Kallstrom
One of the weirdest signings Arsene has ever made. We were short in midfield with injuries, so Wenger signed a bloke with a broken back. You couldn't make it up. He made a couple of appearances and scored his penalty in the semi-final shootout - I would argue that scoring that spot-kick made his Arsenal career worthwhile in its own way.

Thomas Eisfeld
He hasn't kicked on as expected. Eisfeld got his first Arsenal goal in the League Cup at West Brom but that was the last time he was seen in the first-team until a surprise call-up to the bench against Wigan at Wembley. He did little in the under-21s this season either and his Arsenal future must be in doubt. When you watch him you realise that he's a bit "David Platt" in that, if he isn't scoring a goal there isn't really a lot going on.

Serge Gnabry
For some reason Arsene Wenger stopped putting him on the pitch, and then he was injured when it came to the business end of the season. Undoubtedly the best of the youngsters from the last couple of years he had massive impacts on the games at Swansea and Crystal Palace where his running at people provided what we were missing without Chamberlain. Quickly a fans favourite he also destroyed Tottenham in the FA Cup, setting up Cazorla's goal in that game. Gnabry looks the business and could play anywhere across midfield. His emergence was another reason to be surprised at Rosicky's contract extension, and I really hope to see much more of Serge next season.

Kristoffer Olsson
Made his debut impressively at West Brom in the League Cup after a similarly promising pre-season. Next season could well see him getting a loan somewhere, but maybe not until the League Cup campaign is over. Another good pre-season is important for him.

Gedion Zelalem
The star of the pre-season tour I think many of us expected to see Zelalem making a Fabregas-style impact this season. He got injured after being on the bench at Fulham early on and finally made his first-team bow as a sub against Coventry. He looked good again that night, but regular watchers of the youths and reserves are not impressed with him at all. It's fair to say he's gone backwards this season and may even have found himself overtaken by one or two others, something that was unthinkable when he was named in the official first-team squad back in August.

Emmanuel Frimpong
He was actually named on the bench on five occasions at the start of the season. The fact that he couldn't get near the pitch despite the sparse squad at that time tells you all you need to know. Eventually transferred to Barnsley in January, he was then released by The Tykes at the end of the season (he was sent off on his debut). Not Dench.

Nico Yennaris
Nico made the bench at West Brom in the League Cup, but was obviously now further than ever down the pecking order. I still think he could have been a useful squad back-up in midfield and at full-back, if only given the opportunity. Sold to Brentford in January and doing pretty well.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Squad Review Part Two - Defenders

King Koscielny

It seems ridiculous that a defence that conceded over 40 goals again this season and, more particularly, let in six on two occasions and five on another is about to get some serious praise from me. The fact is that the games at Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea and Everton account for nigh on 50% of all the goals conceded in the Premier League by Arsenal. The other 34 games saw the defence looking pretty good. Add in a very decent European campaign at the back and the fine FA Cup run and it doesn't add up to too bad a season for the men at the back.

Bacary Sagna
So it's turned out to be Bac's final season as an Arsenal player. He's been outstanding in his time here, but his decision to turn down a new contract leaves a little bit of a bitter taste for me. He is a player in his 30's who has suffered two broken legs in recent years. I would say that the offer of an improved two year deal, with the chance of a third year option was more than fair. If he chooses to take his leave and goes abroad then I wish him luck. If he chooses, as expected, to go to Manchester City then I say with certainty that he is leaving for the money - does he really think he'll get a game ahead of Zabaleta? 
In terms of his season at Arsenal I thought Bac had a decent time. His crossing was as bad as ever, but his defending as excellent as ever. I still believe he could have had a longer future at the Club with a move to centre-back, such is his superb aerial ability, and his unsurpassed stamina. It's nice that his service has finally been rewarded with a trophy and he enjoyed winning the FA Cup as much as any of the other players last week. Thanks Bac, but please don't go to another English side.


Per Mertesacker
The BFG has become THE cult hero of this Arsenal squad. Seen by many fans as the genuine leader of the group it will be a surprise if he is not appointed Captain for next season. Here is a man that was written off by the TV "experts" because he is slow across the ground. What they were choosing not to see of course was his ability to read the play unfolding in front of him. Per so often takes a step forward on to the ball as it is played in behind and takes control of the football. I read a stat that he has never yet given away a ball in the final third that leads to an opposition shot at goal (until last Saturday I suppose!)
If there is a criticism of Mertesacker it is that he doesn't use his height appropriately. There have been plenty of occasions this season when that might have been true. However, when he does use his height he can be utterly dominant. He has been the organiser in the defence, and very much the man that the others take their lead from. He has developed a genuine friendship with Laurent Koscielny and this shows in the way they play to one-another's strengths on the pitch. To me he is a superb player in his own way. He's not quick, he's not dynamic, but he is a tremendous footballer with a touch belying his awkward looking height. He also pops up with important goals from time to time, just like he did in the semi-final.

Thomas Vermaelen
Having been appointed Captain of Arsenal Football Club it must be disappointing to a proud man like Vermaelen that he is really skipper in name only. The likes of Arteta and Mertesacker have been keen to talk up his role in the dressing room all season and we must take them at face value on that. It is a sign of the esteem he is held in that Arteta wanted him to take the FA Cup last Saturday as Captain.
When Vermaelen has played this season he's generally done quite well. Perhaps he has been more focused on actually defending as his positional discipline has been better. With the successful partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny firmly ahead of him The Verminator was only ever going to get in to the side this season through injury or suspension. As a result he appeared on only 20 occasions in all competitions, often as a late sub. For me he put in one or two of his best displays while covering at left-back. The home match with West Ham was where he looked at his best, both as skipper and player, and I would rather see him covering for Gibbs than Nacho Monreal.
One thing that Vermaelen does better as Captain than either Mertesacker or Arteta is to get himself known to the referee. Too often, particularly in games where our players are getting a bit of a kicking, our on-pitch skipper can be slow to complain. Vermaelen will talk to the referee, however. He is also the one who will get in there quick at any flash point in a game and make it clear that anyone wanting to kick his players will have him to mess with too. I wonder if he'll still be around in August?

Laurent Koscielny
One of the best defenders in Europe as far as I'm concerned. His weakness is that he has the habit of making needless challenges in his own penalty area which often lead to opposition penalties (and he also got away with at least one of them this season). His strengths are his pace, which is the perfect antidote when covering in behind Mertesacker, his tackling and his scoring of crucial goals.
I christened him King Koscielny last May after he scored the goal that put us in the Champions League for the second year running. This year he was up to last day heroics in the opposition six-yard box again with his goal in the Cup Final. The scoring of crucial goals is a nice habit to get in to for any player.
The defence looks so much better with Koscielny in it. His speed and tackling is massive for this team. Somehow he seems to be under rated by the media and he is never mentioned when it comes to talking about the top centre-halves in the Premier League. He also isn't an automatic choice for France. I can see him having a stormer of a World Cup given the opportunity and the capturing of King Kos on a long contract in April may yet end up our most important signing of the year.

Nacho Monreal
At the start of the season I got the impression that Arsene Wenger wasn't sure who his best left-back was. As we've gone on there can be no doubt, and it certainly isn't Nacho. Monreal lacks pace and is regularly out of position. I wasn't surprised that he was left out of the Spain squad for the World Cup, even though he's been there throughout the qualifying. 
Monreal's best performances this season have been on the left side of midfield when he's come on late to help protect his full-back. The regular injuries to Kieran Gibbs have seen him play more often than was good for us, to be honest, and he's also had his own issues. I was disappointed to see him among the subs at Wembley last week ahead of Carl Jenkinson, as I really don't know why you would ever need both Nacho and Vermaelen on the bench. It will be interesting to see if Monreal stays on next year, knowing he'll only play when Gibbo isn't around.

Carl Jenkinson
There was a time in the previous season when Jenko had shown the sort of potential that might have seen him become first-choice. Frankly, Sagna shouldn't have been brought back in at the time. This season he hasn't seen anything like as much action as he would have liked. However, aside from an aberration against Chelsea in the League Cup he hasn't let us down.
With England's weakness at right-back I consider him unlucky not to have got a call-up in some ways, despite his lack of games this term. When he does play he always gives it everything (he is one of us, after all) and is far more dangerous going forward than Sagna - his cross for Nicklas Bendtner's goal at home to Hull was probably the best from any Arsenal player all season. As I said above I felt sorry for him last Saturday that he appeared to be the "19th man" in the squad. Still, he'll almost certainly be awarded a Cup winners medal and deservedly so, and who could forget his celebration of his first Arsenal goal at Norwich?
I don't know if he'll be given the opportunity to replace Sagna next season, but I certainly don't subscribe to the idea that he needs a loan. What the lad needs is a run in the side, as he got last season, and he might just establish himself for Arsenal and England. The Coropral continues to live all of our dreams.

Kieran Gibbs
It is a disgrace that this lad is not going to the World Cup. Yes, he can be injury prone. But he has shown incredible improvement in the last two years. Unlike the others who are actually in the England squad he can also defend, rather than catch the eye going forward. Also unlike Baines and Shaw and Flanagan he has played in the Champions League against the very best and not been found wanting.
In the FA Cup semi-final we looked so much better when Gibbs came on. Both defensively and going forward his was the introduction that allowed us to dominate the remainder of the game. Last week he missed the chance to write himself in to legend with the winning goal, but his display was largely faultless. Gibbo has come through the ranks and it shows in the way he plays and in the way he reacted to the win - his tears at the final whistle were mirrored thousands of times over on the terraces.
Gibbo could maybe add some attacking quality to his play - as a former winger his crossing can be abysmal. But he is young and has plenty of time to develop his play. Ultimately I want a defender to defend, and he does that as well as anyone.

Hector Bellerin
The young right-back made his only first team appearance in midfield as a sub in the League Cup tie at West Brom. He certainly impressed that evening and might consider himself unlucky not to have had one or two more opportunities. He did make the bench for four Premier League games towards the end of the season but there was no real prospect of him entering the fray.

Isaac Hayden
Another defender who made his bow in midfield at West Brom. He is the leader of the U21 side and usually plays at centre-back. In the Carling Cup tie he was deployed alongside Mikel Arteta in front of the back four and was lucky not to be sent-off, which is something of a feature of his game it would seem. He would make the bench on a few more occasions across the season but didn't take to the pitch. He has been retained for one more year and it will be make or break for him - look out for him being sent on loan before the season starts.

Per and his fans

Friday, 23 May 2014

Squad Review Part One - Goalkeepers

Finishing on a high

With it now being the quiet period of the year I have the chance to reflect on the players that have been involved in the match day Arsenal squads throughout this season. As is traditional I'll start with the goalkeepers.

Wojciech Szczesny
The younger of our Pole's has cemented his position as the undisputed number one this season. He has improved just about every facet of his game. Yes, he is still prone to make the odd gaffe, but they are becoming more and more rare. The most encouraging thing about Szczesny this season is the way he has started to command his penalty area so much more. It is harsh on him that he has been involved in the games where we conceded so many goals at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea - he was entirely blameless in all of them.
There has been a slight return of the arrogance that was a feature of Szczesny in his early years, but maybe that's to be expected if you want to be a top goalkeeper. He revels in winding up the Tottenham fans which is always likely to endear him to Gooners. Despite all of that, it was a mark of his professionalism and team mentality that he didn't sulk at being overlooked for the two games at Wembley. At the same time I'm sure he benefited from the genuine competition there was around him this season.

Lukasz Fabianski
It was a surprise to me that he was still here at the start of the season. It was also a surprise that he remained second in the pecking order. When called upon Fabianski more than justified his selection. Over the last few years he has been particularly unlucky with injuries just as he had been looking set to get a run in the side. 
I don't think there is too much to choose between our Polish goalkeepers but I would have to say that Lukasz was still one error away from calamity when he did play. How different might things have turned out had Agger scored a Liverpool equaliser in the FA Cup, or his two Almunia death runs had resulted in goals in the semi-final and final? 
It was certainly a just reward for a player who has kept his head down and tried hard that Fabianski should end up a Wembley hero in the penalty shoot-out win over Wigan. Without his saves that day we wouldn't have been in the FA Cup Final in the first place. I was surprised that Wenger gave him the nod last week, but you couldn't argue against him deserving the opportunity after his heroics. Fabianski's obvious joy at winning a trophy showed that he "got" Arsenal and the supporters in a big way. He will now certainly leave us, and probably go on to do very well elsewhere, and I wish him all the very best.

Emiliano Viviano
The addition of an Italian international goalkeeper was a big boost to the squad, on paper. I do wonder what Viviano was told before agreeing to join, however. Surely he wasn't under the impression that his only appearance all season would be in a hammering for the U21 side.
It would appear from last week that he was a popular member of the squad and he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the Wembley experience. I was particularly amused by the story that he bid for the chance to play on the pitch at Ashburton Grove at the Arsenal Charity Ball, showing he has a fine sense of humour. I wouldn't be overly surprised if he was to be signed permanently to replace Fabianski, but it seems more likely that his future will lie back in Italy as he tries to get his place back in the national squad.

Next up will be the plethora of defenders used this season.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Season Review (and what's coming up)

The truest measure of success

At the start of any season my ambition for Arsenal is to see them win a trophy (no jokes about 4th place, thanks). My preference is always that we will be Champions. Following that I want the FA Cup, the European Cup or the League Cup, in that order. That being the case I can say quite unequivocally that 2013-2014 has been a successful one for Arsenal Football Club. Put together with the minimum requirement of qualifying for the opportunity to play in the European Cup there can be no doubt that we have done okay this year. There is also no doubt that, despite the great feeling that an FA Cup brings, there is disappointment that things could (and probably should) have been even better. Overall, with our first silverware in so long, it is not a disappointment that will particularly haunt me as it did in 2008 and 2011.

The worst start imaginable

I think most of us were hopeful that we might make a good start to the season despite the lack of new faces. Villa at home should have provided a fairly easy three points, but a terrible Arsenal display and a terrible refereeing display saw us beaten 3-1 (Antony Taylor didn't officiate at any of Arsenal's other 45 domestic matches all season - that's as close to an FA admission of incompetence as you'll ever get). The boos and chanting that were directed squarely at Arsene Wenger should have been the wake up call to him that the fans had had enough of the transfer prevarication. Wenger is nothing if not stubborn and we would be made to wait.
In truth the players reacted superbly to the opening day loss and went on a good run. Most of us feared the worst ahead of the home game with a rejuvenated Spurs (though I wrote at the time that Tottenham had yet to score in open play). On the day Arsenal produced an utterly dominant first-half and only retreated in to their shells in the final 15 minutes or so when we were fielding just about every defender in the squad. Mathieu Flamini returned that day and immediately added steel and organisation - it has been bizarre and disappointing that he has been used less and less in the final furlong of the season. We were but hours away from the mood of the Club changing completely.

When it all started to change

Arsene told us after the Spurs game that he might have a nice surprise before the transfer deadline the following day. He wasn't lying. For the first time ever Arsenal went mad with the cash and signed Mesut Ozil for £40m+ from Real Madrid. I honestly don't think he was the player Wenger really wanted to sign last year, and I firmly believe the Board pressured Arsene in to making a massive signing. Yes, we really needed a centre-forward before another small, creative midfield player. But the boost of signing a genuine World star boosted Arsenal Football Club and everyone associated with it. Not since Bergkamp (or to a lesser extent Sol Campbell) had joined us had the fans experienced the excitement generated by Ozil's arrival. With that change in mood came a great run on the pitch.
Ozil made an immediate impact at Sunderland, setting up an early goal for Giroud and spent the rest of the first-half putting Theo Walcott in on goal (Theo couldn't hit a barn door on the day, and would then get injured which robbed Ozil of his most obvious target for incisive passes). That first month or so that Ozil was with us made us think he was the natural successor to Dennis. He would score a sublime goal in the best team performance of the season at home to Napoli and the spell was only broken when he missed a penalty against Marseille. He was forming a devastating partnership with Aaron Ramsey, best evidenced in the win at Cardiff where Rambo was given a standing ovation by the supporters of his former team.
Still Arsenal were getting stick from the pundits. That idiot Shearer kept telling us how we hadn't yet played a decent side and all that. Ultimately it would be our record against decent sides that would be our undoing, but when we won in Dortmund, through Ramsey yet again, you got the feeling that this team had a real hope of doing something special. In the back of my mind, however, was the lack of alternative to Olivier Giroud - he'd been flying since pre-season but fatigue had to set in at some point.
In the Premier League the fine run had put us up to the top the table. When Everton visited in early December we had the chance to open up a 7 point gap to the rest of the Premier League. Ozil gave us the lead and it looked like we were about to lay down a marker. Sadly a wonderful piece of skill from Deulofeu would be our undoing. The next three games ultimately shaped the season. A weaker team lost 2-0 at Napoli, costing us the group win in Europe and then we were to suffer a shock 6-3 loss at City (losing wasn't a shock, but conceding six goals was a huge surprise - but for incorrect refereeing decisions, however, we would have tied 6-6 and Yaya Toure would have been sent off early on). Nine days later an insipid 0-0 draw against a Chelsea team uninterested in winning was punctuated by the familiar sight of Giroud missing a sitter in a big game. On such moments are the big matches decided. On the big matches is the Premier League decided.

How a Wembley winner is celebrated

Arsenal had an exceptional Christmas which kept us up at the top, and then got off to a stunning start in the FA Cup with a 2-0 win over Tottenham. By that point Ramsey was injured and wouldn't be back until April. Theo Walcott got crocked that day, just as he was starting to get fit and find his best goal scoring form, and wouldn't be back at all. This is where the Premier League challenge would ultimately falter, despite being top going in to February.
With Giroud knackered, Ozil gone way off the boil, and Theo and Ramsey out injured there was an obvious need to sign the striker we'd failed to secure the previous Summer. Wenger had the whole of January to get business done. I hear people asking "who could we have signed that was available?" The fact is that everyone is available if you pay the necessary to get them (Messi and Ronaldo might be the only possible exceptions). And do we not have this extensive scouting network that has its tentacles spread right across the globe? The fact is that we were looking for any striker that could relieve the burden from Giroud. Bendtner, never the answer in any case, was out injured and going in to meltdown again. Sanogo was miles away from being available (and was also not the answer, this season at least, as has been proven). A gamble on someone like Rickie Lambert or Shane Long might just have got us over the line. Instead we died wondering.
Of course it was February and March that would totally destroy hopes at home and in Europe, despite keeping the FA Cup fire burning. Losing 5-1 at Liverpool was unforgivable. Not even trying to beat Manchester United the following Wednesday was probably even worse, even if it was then followed by another excellent team effort to beat the scousers in the Cup. Bayern Munich were handed victory by an Ozil penalty miss (the first 15 minutes of that game saw Arsenal doing to Bayern what Madrid would do later in the competition), a dodgy referee and our own naive play in pushing for an equaliser. We were done for in Europe, though the draw in Munich should not be discounted for restoring some belief in the players. Things came to a head with Ozil in that first leg, and he would be "rested" for a couple of weeks thereafter. 
As well as the injuries and everything else we suffered with, the tactics and team selection of the Manager was largely to blame for the implosion in the Premier League. Going to Stoke and leaving Flamini on the bench was ridiculous as were kicked off the pitch with nothing more than a whimper. Going to Chelsea and suffering deja vu of the Liverpool game was even worse. Wenger must surely adapt if we are to be successful with the sort of players we currently have available.
In the FA Cup we had the bright spots, of course. The 4-1 win over Everton in the quarter-final was a high point of the season for me. A tremendous display, including some quality from a resurgent Ozil boded well for the remainder of the season. That Chelsea defeat was then to happen, followed by a 1-1 draw with Man City in a game we should have won, if only we'd had that extra quality in front of goal. With the Title now gone we were suddenly looking over our shoulder uncomfortably at 5th place. Everton had the Champions League qualification in their own hands, especially after stuffing us 3-0. Then they caught a nose bleed just when they needed to push ahead. Arsenal's finish to the Premier League season was imperious, with Ozil and Ramsey adding sufficient class to the side in the closing fixtures. It was surprising to have 4th wrapped up with a game to go, and frustrating to think that, despite our various thrashings, we finished only 7 points back from the Title.

This is what a big Club looks like on parade day

The semi-final of the FA Cup should have been easy. It says a lot about the pressure of nine years without a trophy (and the constant media reminders of it) that this Arsenal team couldn't swat aside Wigan in the way they had most of the weaker Premier League sides all season. It was a tortuous afternoon that was ultimately enjoyed by the 50,000+ Gooners inside Wembley. If the relief was huge that afternoon, it would be surpassed ten-fold by what would follow in the Final. I would say that, had Arsenal lost that day, there is no way that Arsene Wenger would have still been at the Club. It shocks me and disappoints me that there are people out there who claim to be Arsenal supporters that would have been happy with that outcome. These same people tell you that it's "Arsenal FC not Arsene FC". I'm not sure how they square that argument when preferring us to lose a semi-final to bring about the demise of the Manager. I an no Wengerite, but that's a stance that sickens me. Frankly, if you would rather see us lose any game in order to hasten the departure of the Manager you are simply not a fan of our Club.

My favourite picture of Saturday - I'm in it with our banner

I won't go in to what it was like on Saturday - I said it all the other day so there's no point. Suffice to say that it made a perfect end to the season. If someone had offered me a comfortable top 4 finish and the FA Cup after that Aston Villa game I'd have taken it with open arms. The frustration lies in the fact that we might have done the Double had Arsene just spent some money when we needed him to. There may not be a better chance to win the Premier League against the oil-rich Clubs. To have blown that chance when it was presented on a plate hurts. However, there is nothing like winning a trophy and we did that. I am happy with the season we had, whatever the frustrations may have been. Well done Arsenal.

The close-season is now upon us and that means that things go quiet. It seems amazing that it's almost a week since the FA Cup Final already but that means we're a week nearer to the pre-season schedule. As it stands we are only 65 days away from the first pre-season fixture in New York (who knows, there might be another set up more locally before then). In between times we have the World Cup to look forward to. There is plenty of Arsenal interest to be had in Brazil and I'll be focusing on that throughout the tournament. As much as I am not a fan of international football I do love the World Cup. How can you not like wall to wall football on your TV for a month?
As usual there will be no comment on speculation on this website. I'm not that interested in the "hits" the site gets as I don't get any money out of writing it. If something becomes a done deal, or looks certain to be one, then I will write accordingly. Other than that, if you want transfer b***sh*t on your screen you'll have to go elsewhere.
In the next few days I'll be doing the annual squad review pieces. I'll stick to the normal formula with that, starting with the goalkeepers, then defenders, midfielders and strikers over the course of four different articles. I'm considering doing an "awards" post as well but I'll have to give that a little bit of thought so it might not happen that way. Between that and the World Cup we'll be at pre-season training and new Puma Arsenal shirts before you know it. In the mean time, continue enjoying the FA Cup victory - I know I am.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Arsenal Football Club - FA Cup Winners 2014

Oh yes!

Having penned FA Cup memory pieces over the last two weeks I find myself sitting here, 24 hours on from being at Wembley, with a serious writers block. I don't really know where to start. Everything is a blur right now. I can't begin to describe the emotions that came from winning. To do it from 2-0 down just makes it even more incredible I suppose. Quite simply Arsenal showed some serious bottle after the worst start to a Cup Final you could ever imagine. Sitting here now it is still hard to come to terms with. All I do know is that winning the FA Cup is still amazing. There is nothing like it.

Pre-match scenes as the players line up

As you can see from the two pictures above I had another great view of the action. If you were in the ground you might have noticed the Dover Gooners banner hanging from the upper tier - I was sitting right behind it. I was at Wembley nice and early and, as is the case whenever you play a northern side there, the Gooners were in a minority early doors. This meant that Hull won the pre-match singing with the Arsenal fans not really taking their places until about 20 minutes before kick-off. Leona Lewis sang Abide With Me superbly, but I far prefer the Cup Final hymn to be sung by 90,000 supporters rather than some pop star - they didn't even put the lyrics up on the screens for people to join in. Once we were all there the Arsenal supporters were loud. Very loud. It was as good a display from our fans as I've known in a long time, and it certainly put the bad memories of the Birmingham game to bed.
What happened in the first ten minutes could have scarred us all for life. Why can we not just get started properly in big games? Ultimately that is a reflection on the Manager as he is the one who has the job of setting up the team mentally. It certainly was a mental start. We simply weren't in it. Going 1-0 behind was bad enough. The ball back to Huddlestone is obviously a deliberate ploy, and fair play to Hull, but how was Chester in five yards of space to turn the ball past Fabianski? To then go 2-0 down after seven minutes was unforgivable. Our players were so off the pace that it was criminal. Hull must have been amazed at how easily they were taking us apart all over the pitch. And let's get this straight, had Kieran Gibbs not cleared off the line a couple of minutes later we'd have been three goals down with no way back. As it turned out that was the last real threat we came under until the closing seconds of extra-time.

The moment that it all came right

I don't know what sparked our players but they finally started to get going. Maybe Hull got a bit spooked too at the realisation that they were on the brink of one of THE great shocks of all time. I certainly recall Mikel Arteta waving his arms at the other players as the Arsenal supporters certainly made our feelings known to them. Gradually, led brilliantly by Arteta, the players started to get in to the game a bit. One thing that made a huge difference, and I don't know if it was Arteta or the bench that called it, was his move towards the left to contest headers with Hull City's out ball to El Mohammady. Without that Hull were no longer able to put us under pressure high up the pitch. The problem we had was that Giroud was in Curtis Davies' pocket for most of the game (when Sanogo came on things started to change a bit). 
When we got the free-kick for Cazorla's goal I was yelling at him to get out of Podolski's way. Until yesterday I had never really seen Santi hit a decent free-kick at goal. Most of his efforts have struggled to reach or have hit the wall at about knee height. I don't mind it when the players make me look stupid. If it had gone in at our end we'd have moaned that our goalkeeper didn't save it, but it was a bit like Gascoigne's free-kick against us in 1991 and should go down as one of the great Wembley goals. It was a goal that deserved probably a lot more celebrating than it received, but such were the circumstances. Getting a goal back before half-time was vital for us, and we should have been level a couple of minutes later when Ozil missed the ball completely from a perfect cut-back by Podolski. Sadly, for me, Ozil was back to his worst yesterday and failed to affect the play in any way whatsoever. Quite how he made it to 105 minutes only Arsene Wenger can know. 

Rambo and Gibbo take off towards me!

We had plenty of huff and puff at the start of the second-half as Hull's time wasting rather gave away their contentment to try and hold on. We weren't creating especially much with Giroud not getting any change from Davies, and Podolski not in the game (and nor were Cazorla and Ozil). However, we were the only team likely to create and score a goal. The problem for us was that every time one of our players looked like they might get on the end of something they were taken out by a Hull City player. Mr Probert should never be allowed to referee a game again as long as he lives. In real time I counted three clear penalties. I didn't realise at the time that one of the Hull men had pulled an Henchoz to deny Sanogo his first ever Arsenal goal shortly after he entered the fray.
The introduction of Sanogo was key. I wouldn't have taken off Podolski, and I would still contend that the German could have been moved to play next to Giroud himself. However, what Sanogo did was to run around and make a nuisance of himself. He started to drag the Hull defenders about and this opened space for Giroud as Davies maybe didn't know whether to stick or twist at times. With Mikel Arteta dominating midfield Ramsey was free to get in to the attacking areas as well and you got the sense at times that Hull were rocking, only for our final ball to not quite be there. 

That's how you celebrate a Wembley winner

When we did get the goal it came from a corner of our own. Okay, it shouldn't have been a corner, but maybe up against the penalty decisions and the time wasting that was going unpunished it was a double wrong that added up to something approaching a right. Bacary Sagna attacked the ball and just by that bit of effort it fell to King Koscielny who turned it, rather painfully as it happened, in to the net. Koscielny is the man who scores the important goals for Arsenal. If you check out the goals he's got for us over the years there are some major ones in there, from a semi-final leveller against Ipswich to the winning goals that have put us in the European Cup on two occasions. Yesterday was the most important of them all and a true reward for a player who has cemented himself among the very best defenders in the game at the moment. His long contract extension of the other week gives him the chance to join Arsenal's pantheon of great centre-halves from down the years. He's well on the way there now.
The chances and the shots came and went. Sanogo tries, but I just don't see him ever scoring a goal at the moment. Then Kieran Gibbs had the chance that every kid dreams of, an open goal, six yards out in the Cup Final. The last thing you want to do is blast that one over the bar. He blasted it over the bar. If that had gone in I think Hull would have broken and we'd have scored at least one more before the end of the game. As it was, if someone had offered me 2-2 after the first seven minutes I'd have bitten their arm off.

The Arsenal end after the game

At the beginning of extra-time we started quick and I thought we were going to smash them. Sanogo beat his man inside the box and then, rather than driving in and going for goal, he decided to try and do it again. It's so frustrating. The pass, pass and pass again was still in evidence and it still winds me up. Then we got the chance again to score with Ramsey putting the perfect cross on the head of Giroud. Sadly Giroud was to fluff his lines with the big chance in the big game yet again by hitting the bar with his header. Was it going to be our day?
Finally Wenger made the changes we'd been crying out for since before the second-half had finished when he replaced Ozil and Cazorla with Wilshere and Rosicky. Against a tired opponent intent on playing for penalties, and packing back in defence, we needed people who were going to run at them and try to make things happen. Within a minute the pair had put together a move that nearly saw Wilshere get put in one-on-one with the goalkeeper - that man Sanogo just not quite making the contact required on the through ball. We didn't have to wait long though.
When it did come, what a goal it was. At the time I didn't appreciate how good the finish was from Aaron Ramsey. The pass, pass and pass again actually worked for once and a Giroud back-heel finally found an intended target. What followed was just sublime. If Cazorla's goal is one of the great Wembley strikes, then Ramsey's is one of the best winning goals in all of FA Cup Final history. To hit the ball first time with the outside of his boot, on the run, and put it as close to the inside of the post as it was possible to get was simply incredible. I've seen a camera angle from behind the goal and it takes the breath away, such is the quality involved in the finish. 
It was utter carnage in the Arsenal end. The atmosphere at times like that is something you have to be part of to appreciate. The whole end was jumping. I kept saying to my son to look at the fans and take in the scene. Thousands of Gooners singing and hoping that finally we were going to see silverware come home. That view will live with me forever, I hope. 

Me and my boy at the end (excuse the chins)

Hull obviously went for it as best they could, and it wouldn't be Arsenal if our players didn't give us a fright. A simple header back to the goalkeeper was all Per Mertesacker had to do. For some reason he tried to be Franz Beckenbauer and fell a*** over head allowing the impressively quick Aluko to get away down the wing. What came next was like slow motion as Fabianski channelled his inner Almunia and took off towards the wing. The collective screaming of 25,000 Arsenal fans couldn't halt his charge. What was he doing? Aluko put the ball towards goal and Kieran Gibbs made the best dummy (of course he did) I've ever seen to let the ball run out for a goal-kick. And still it wasn't over. Shortly after that Aluko was on the floor injured, only for him to see the ball break his way. Rising like Lazarus he hammered a shot towards the bottom corner and Fabianski made a superb save to keep us in front. From there we broke and the pass, pass and pass again haunted us once more as Tomas Rosicky passed (no pun intended) up the chance of a goal in the Cup Final by playing it to their defender on the goal line. And then the final whistle went.
The relief, the joy, the excitement, the happiness and the tears were incredible. The frustrations of the last nine years were lifted in that moment. There were so many people all around us in emotional states. Winning the FA Cup never gets any less special. Winning it when you've been without it for so long, and coming back from the dead in the Final to get it done, takes a lot out of you and the feeling is intensified ten-fold. I grabbed my boy at the final whistle and cried. I told him to take in everything from this point on because you just don't know when you're going to get these feelings again. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. My Dad and brother were also in tears and that made it even better and even worse all at the same time.

That's our banner, top right

I applauded Hull when they got their medals, as did most of the Arsenal fans. They deserved it for their part in one of the greatest FA Cup Finals ever played. When our players went up to get the FA Cup all our dreams were being realised. The new Royal Box at Wembley is dwarfed by the enormity of the stadium around it and even with an unobstructed view it isn't easy to make out the trophy presentation all that well. Seeing it on the screens later I was annoyed that Vermaelen took the Cup on his own having dragged Arteta up with him. I've since realised having watched it on TV (and been told) that Arteta told Prince William to give the Cup to his skipper. What an incredibly selfless thing to do. Mikel Arteta was outstanding in every way yesterday and, in that gesture of passing up his own moment in history, he called to mind everything we know about the class of our football club - it was a moment for the annals of Arsenal, up there with Joe Mercer's famous sportsmanship in 1950 and 1952. For me Arteta was the Man of the Match yesterday and I was surprised when Ramsey was awarded it. He produced one of THE great Arsenal FA Cup displays yesterday and, to me at least, is now an Arsenal legend as a result (as is Rambo, of course, for his goal that put him up there with George, Sunderland, James, Lewis, Linighan et al).

The players celebrate in front of us

The lap of honour was spoiled, only slightly, by Wembley's insistence on not allowing the supporters to sing their songs to the players. You could really sense the elation of those that had been around a while. For the likes of Sagna, Rosicky, Gibbs, Fabianski (has any man ever enjoyed winning the Cup as much as he did yesterday?) etc there was a feeling that they'd finally done it. For the newer players you felt that they've bought in to what it means to be part of Arsenal FC. The German players, the Spaniards, the Frenchmen all shared the same joy that people like Jack Wilshere were feeling. For The Ox and Carl Jenkinson it must have been so hard to be the two that missed out, but Jenko is one of us and he was bouncing about all over the place. It should be no surprise that he was the last person to leave the pitch afterwards, joyously clutching the FA Cup.

The three goal scoring heroes of Arsenal

When we finally left the ground I walked round the stadium with my Dad (still not totally recovered from a knee replacement) to meet my other brother with whom he'd gone to Wembley, but who had procured a ticket elsewhere in the stadium to allow us all to be there in the first place (my nephew was also able to be there yesterday for what was an amazing day for our family). When we found him the other Dover Gooners were also all there waiting for us. As you'll know if you've been reading the site this week  we've all experienced the good times (and the bad ones to be honest) together as a group over the last fifteen years or so. To meet up outside Wembley after winning the FA Cup made the day complete. The Arsenal fans were singing and dancing and smiling all round Wembley. Our little group from Kent were able to celebrate together, and that was amazing to me.
I've been writing this piece for over two hours now which I suppose isn't bad for someone who didn't know where to start. Words will never describe the feeling of winning yesterday. Suffice to say that I want more of it, and I hope that the players do too. I love my football club through thick and thin. Yesterday was one of the best days we've ever had. The Arsenal.

My favourite Arsenal picture from yesterday

Picture credits to Stuart MacFarlane and David Price of Arsenal FC.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Arsenal v Hull City - 2014 FA Cup Final preview

 2014 FA Cup Final

In 24 hours from now we will know. It's been one hell of a long couple of weeks. With the fourth place issue resolved with eight days to spare my thoughts have been almost exclusively on Wembley. Sleep has been hard to come by and, for once, it wasn't due to being a shift worker. I've never dared to denigrate the FA Cup, unlike those that organise it, and the feelings of nerves and excitement that are currently possessing me are proof that I was right not to. There really is nothing like the FA Cup Final. Tomorrow I'm going to Wembley to see my eighth Arsenal FA Cup Final (1993 was played twice). I've been very lucky and I will be again tomorrow.
The Arsenal team looks likely to be picked from almost a full squad of players (of players with a realistic hope of making the 18 only Theo Walcott and Serge Gnabry appear to be definitely out). Thomas Vermaelen and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both trained today which can only be a good thing for us. If he's fit enough to be involved at all then I hope we start with The Ox. His pace and willingness to run at defenders adds a different dimension to our play. As much as we may have missed Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott since Christmas we've missed Chamberlain driving at opponents right from the very start of the season. 
One of the main issues for Arsene Wenger is who plays in goal. I've felt since the day before the semi-final that Szczesny would play if we got there tomorrow - Arsene Wenger was put on the spot and wouldn't say that Fabianski would keep his place. Without the heroics of Fabianski we might not be there tomorrow at all. Had we walked the semi-final then there probably wouldn't be much of a debate - Szczesny would play. Because Fabianski was our hero in the previous round there is a fair argument that he deserves his place in the Final. My view is that Fabianski should play. However, having seen Szczesny rested last Sunday I would be very surprised if he isn't in the side tomorrow. I am never averse to the idea of playing your best available side, though I'm really not sure there is that much to choose between our goalkeepers. Despite his improvement, Szczesny is still prone to horrendous errors, as is Fabianski (who got away with an Almunia death run when he chased out to the wing late on against Wigan). Tomorrow would maybe provide Szczesny with the chance to put to rest his record of cock-ups in big games for Arsenal and Poland. It would also allow him to lay the ghosts of Birmingham City in 2011. 
Another person who may see his starting place under threat is Lukas Podolski. We all know that Wenger is not keen on him but, for me, our good end to the season and Podolski's presence in the side are not a coincidence. For me he provides a genuine goal threat that keeps our opponents on the back foot. When Podolski is playing there is an Arsenal man who must be marked properly, especially near the penalty area. He has the finishing ability that no other Arsenal player possesses at the moment. The close attention that needs to be paid to him by defenders creates space for others. He also seems to have the best relationship on the pitch with Mesut Ozil of any of the Arsenal players. If I was picking the team then Podolski would be in it ahead of Santi Cazorla. 
In defence we all know that Bacary Sagna is set to play his final Arsenal game. The issue is what Wenger does at left-back. I still have this fear that he will put Monreal in ahead of Gibbs. I pray to God that he doesn't do that - we're so much better when Gibbo is in the Arsenal team.
This would be my Arsenal 18 tomorrow (Arsene's will look nothing like it!) though, despite thinking Fabianski should get the opportunity, Szczesny is in there:

Szczesny - Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs - Arteta, Ramsey - Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil, Podolski - Giroud.
Subs: Fabianski, Vermaelen, Flamini, Rosicky, Cazorla, Wishere, Sanogo.

I realise that might seem harsh on Nicklas Bendtner, but there you go.

Hull City are without both of their best strikers. Jelavic and Long are both cup-tied. However, in Matty Fryatt they have a finisher. If this lad gets a chance to score then he is likely to take it. Mertesacker and Koscielny really have their work cut out and they must concentrate. Mikel Arteta must provide the disciplined protection that he has all season.
I keep reading and hearing that Hull have been in poor form since the semi-final and that this is why the very much in-form Arsenal will swat them aside. What utter nonsense that is. This is the FA Cup. It's a one-off game. It's the biggest game that many of the Hull players will ever get to be a part of. They will go out there and leave everything out on the pitch to try and win the FA Cup. If football was predictable we wouldn't have any interest in it. Results like Hull City winning tomorrow are what make the FA Cup what it is. Anyone writing them off has obviously forgotten every shock result there's ever been in the FA Cup Final. Steve Bruce knows that. He also knows what it takes to be a winner on the big occasion. Make no mistake, if Hull play well, and we are not at our best, then Hull City can win the Cup tomorrow.
Aside from their shortage up front Hull's main dilemma also seems to centre around the goalkeeper. Allan McGregor has returned to fitness following a serious kidney problem earlier in the season. It would be hard luck on the veteran Steve Harper to miss out on selection tomorrow, but McGregor is an international who is familiar with playing in Cup Finals from his days in Scotland. It will be interesting to see what Bruce does.
There is one Hull City player I genuinely fear tomorrow, and it's a completely irrational fear. That player is Tom Huddlestone. Let me make it clear I don't rate Huddlestone. But he is an incredibly clean striker of the football when the mood takes him. In a tight game his ability to shoot from distance, against our fragile goalkeepers, could make the difference. And let us not forget what happened last time we came up against an overweight Tottenham reject midfielder in a Final - nobody wants another Nayim moment.

Wembley in its glory

There is genuinely nothing like going to Wembley. To be going there for an FA Cup Final is the most special feeling of all. I loved going to Cardiff in the early 2000's (as you'll have seen if you've been reading my posts all week) but nothing compares to Wembley. From driving round the North Circular and getting your first glimpse of it from one of the fly-overs the excitement is beyond comparison. Few things make the hairs on my neck stand up. Seeing Wembley is one of them. When you win at Wembley it's the best feeling. When you lose it's the worst. Only Wembley can create those extremes. I've been there for NFL, concerts, schools internationals, Olympic football, Champions League games, Charity Shield's, FA Cup semi-finals and League Cup Finals. All of those occasions have made me feel special. But none of them can compare to a Wembley FA Cup Final. With the weather set to be "proper" Cup Final weather we can afford to be excited.
I have a mixture of nerves and excitement inside me now that Christmas can't compare to. The frustrations of the last nine years may be less than 24 hours away from being ended. On the other hand we may be at least another 12 months away from getting close to silverware. The fact is that Arsenal should win. If Arsenal's players play their own game the way we know they can, with pace and power from the start, then there should be little contest. But the pressure of those nine years may weigh heavily on them. It is the job of Arsene Wenger and his coaching staff to lift that pressure, and to make the players relax and play football to the best of their ability. We can almost touch it. Let's hope that this time tomorrow we are doing exactly that, and that the FA Cup will once again be wearing it's Arsenal ribbons.


This tomorrow please Arsenal

Thursday, 15 May 2014

2005 - The last time

2005 FA Cup Final

After a year away we were back in the FA Cup Final in 2005. Our group didn’t take a minibus this year as we hired a people carrier instead. I was the volunteer to drive and we set off shortly after breakfast on the day before the game. As usual the car was decorated in Arsenal colours, the red and white ribbons supplemented by a small amount of yellow to ensure we weren’t confused with the Mancs in any way. The usual beer and brandy was piled in to the car as we headed out of Dover for one final Cardiff away day (actually some of us went to the Charity Shield the following August for one last game in Wales). In the car were Dad, Mark, Gary, Bill, David and Frank. Again we picked up Matthew at Maidstone, while Mick was working in Swindon and would make us a two car convoy half way down the M4. I remember David being mightily impressed that Mark had bought lime with him to add to his beer and describing him as a “pro” when it came to preparation.

Dennis was inspired by our singing...probably

We got to Membury services without incident and there was the usual round of brandy coffees for the passengers. Shortly after that we hit the traffic. They’d been talking on the radio about road works affecting the M4 and how it would disrupt travel for those going to Cardiff for the game. They weren’t wrong. This was the first time any of our journeys to Wales had been affected by traffic. As the traffic jam wore on we were overtaken by two large Range Rover’s, bedecked in red and white. As we pulled alongside them again I noticed that the driver of the front one was none other than Mrs Bergkamp – the one behind was being driven by Dennis’ father. The horn on the car was sounded many times and the windows put down in our motor as a rousing chorus of “Bergkamp Wonderland” filled the motorway air. Dennis’ wife was on the phone and she held it out of the window as we sang. I can only assume that at that time we were actually serenading the Great Man at the other end of the line. The Bergkamp family seemed to enjoy the attention and it showed how normal they were that they had decorated their motors for the Cup Final as any fan would.
We were stopping in Chepstow, as we had for the Chelsea game three years earlier. Andy, Tony, Sue and Buster were coming up from Cardiff for the evening as we prepared in the usual fashion. Unfortunately I missed all the pre-match drinking. After a couple of pints I was feeling really unwell. I returned to the hotel and slept deeply until the following morning. I don’t know what it was, and it was rare to sleep so soundly before a Cup Final. When I woke up the following day I was fine.
We drove in to Cardiff bright and early, but that was about the only thing that was bright all day. No sooner had we taken up our position by Cardiff Castle than it started to rain. Dad was interviewed by TalkSport, and we tried to recreate my goal at Highbury from the week before for Sky Sports, but it wasn’t a great action replay if I’m honest (God knows where we got a football from). As the day wore on we were joined by a number of familiar faces as a large amount of Dover Gooners had managed to lay their hands on tickets for this game. A long-time friend and Manchester United season ticket holder from Dover also caught up with us before we went in to the ground. To be honest, though, it lacked the atmosphere of the other trips to Cardiff. The weather didn’t help, of course, but there was an edginess to the atmosphere because of the relationship between the two Clubs and the two sets of supporters. There was no element of people seemingly being there just to enjoy the day. United were also just about to be sold to the Americans so their fans were more than touchy to any baiting on that front as well.

Jens the hero

Inside the stadium we had very similar seats to those we’d had for the Chelsea game. What followed was a Cup Final to match our 2001 game with Liverpool in terms of how one-sided it was. The difference was that we were the ones just waiting for the opposition to get the goal their play warranted. With Thierry Henry injured we had the ridiculous sight of Dennis up front on his own. For all his greatness, Dennis was not a target man. At no time in the entire game did our defence get any respite. Ronaldo gave Lauren the most torrid game I’d ever seen him have. Lehmann, Toure and Senderos (Sol Campbell was left out) were imperious at the back, with Vieira and Gilberto working like Trojan’s ahead of them. Chance after chance came and went for United and us fans were suffering. The players didn’t lack for support from our end, but they just weren’t at it.
Somehow, thanks largely to Jens, we made it to extra-time. Robin Van Persie had come on for us and he had our only shot on goal with a free-kick that produced a good save from Roy Carroll. At the other end the chances kept coming. The best opportunity they had fell to Ruud Van Cheatalot with a header from about two yards that Freddie somehow deflected on to the bar. I suppose we should have realised at that point that this would be our day. Jose Antonio Reyes was ridiculously sent-off with about ten seconds to play for two bookings – the second a result of Ronaldo literally running in to him and then going down and holding his face. If you watch the TV replays you can see Reyes’ arm touches Ronaldo in the chest, and the cheating little scumbag lays on the floor looking between his fingers at the referee to see if the card is coming out. We could all see it was nothing in the stadium at the time, but that summed up the referee Rob Styles. The final whistle was blown and somehow we’d survived two hours of being battered by Manchester United. God knows how.

Paddy's final kick

The penalties are fairly vivid to me. None of us were quite sure who would take them with Henry and Pires not on the pitch. Lauren and Ashley Cole were certainties. But Freddie hadn’t really taken  any, Patrick Vieira had missed them in the past (including in a UEFA Cup Final shootout) and Robin Van Persie was very young. Ralph stepping up to take our first, having seen United score, got us off to a good start – top corner. Then it was Jens Lehmann’s time to be our hero. Scholes should have been sent-off during the game for some of the most horrendous fouls you’ll see in an FA Cup Final (he always got away with it) so it was justice that he should have his penalty saved. It’s a weird feeling in a shootout because, until it’s properly over you can only half cheer the goals and saves. In truth our penalties were outstanding. Freddie despatched his to put us ahead, while Cole always put them away for Arsenal. We were nervous when Robin Van Persie stepped up, but he was nothing if not confident – top corner again.

Players and supporters in similar pose

And so it came down to Patrick. None of us knew then how significant this kick of the ball would be in terms of his Arsenal career, and that it would herald our trophy drought. I can see him kicking that ball now. I had the perfect view. Closing my eyes I can see Carroll go the right way, and I’m convinced he got fingers on the ball, but it flew in to the top corner. The Arsenal end absolutely erupted. What a noise. What a celebration. Patrick went straight to Jens who had outrageously been overlooked as Man of the Match in favour of the goalless Rooney. The relief of winning after taking such a beating in the game was unreal. The jumping about and the hugging was as massive as ever. Gary jumped on me and nearly knocked me out! We’d won the Cup again. Nothing beats that feeling of winning something.

Patrick lifts the Cup to the Arsenal fans

We were all delighted that Reyes was allowed to pick up his winners medal having been sent off so ridiculously by an overzealous referee, determined to make headlines for himself. Then Paddy stepped forward and lifted the Cup. What final act to perform as an Arsenal player. Another great lap of honour was enjoyed by us all. You never tire of those moments.

The winning scorer celebrates

I drove out in to the M4 traffic jams with a very happy car load of Gooners. A Man Utd minibus tried to drive me off in to the central reservation after Matthew had responded to their unprovoked abuse by calling them all w*****s. He wasn’t wrong. Incidents on the M4 after the game had been a feature of two of our Cup Final’s there – some people just can’t take losing, can they? We got back to Dover at gone 10pm and joined in an impromptu drink or three with other celebrating Dover Gooners at my brother’s house. I think I’d earned a lager or two. Who'd have known we still wouldn't have tasted that success again some nine years later? I can honestly say that, because of who we beat and the way we were hammered on the day, this was up there with the very best feelings of them all.

Some of this on Saturday please Arsenal

I really hope you’ve enjoyed my reminiscences of Cup Final’s past over this week. It’s been great fun writing them and recalling the good times we've all had, both at Wembley and in Cardiff. Sadly we can't all be together again on Saturday because of the way the tickets have been allocated. That's a shame that should be highlighted both to Arsenal and to the FA. I'm one of the lucky ones as I will be at Wembley again. I feel, as ever, privileged.

Tomorrow I’ll be previewing the 2014 FA Cup Final so please check back for that. I hope I’ll have a new story to tell by the time I get home late on Saturday night.