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It was one of those days when the stars aligned and Arsenal fans got a bit giddy. The best of days…

I suspect that Puma riding the crest of the Sanchez wave might not have been that accidental, either. Someone in the Arsenal PR department will be pouring themselves a glass of something cold this evening. There’ll be some schnapps wheeled out at Puma.

The Sanchez deal had been building a head of steam, so signing him wasn’t entirely unexpected – unlike the Ozil one, which came out the blue like a thunderbolt. The price, too, has had less mention than Ozil’s, which can only be a good thing. Last year we nearly fell off our perches when we spent £42.5m on one player. It was so far out of our comfort zone. Now, we’re back shopping in the same luxury outlet. That we can do it more often is a huge relief after years of relative parsimony and a healthy, but often untouched bank balance.

It’s just such a boost. The kind of player with power and speed and goalscoring ability that we really missed last year. 21 goals for Barcelona. It’s a signing that’s really got people going.

He’s even using his first name on the shirt, and has taken the number 17, which has pleased all those with Alex Song shirts. Just a little bit of tweaking and Bob’s your uncle.

And you know, maybe there is a domino effect. Would he have come if Ozil hadn’t come last season? Possibly, but who knows. From selling our best players, which we did for quite a few years, we’re now buying top ones and keeping the ones we want to keep.

It doesn’t feel like the last either. Claude Debussy’s looked like he’s on his way for a while. We’re also being linked to Khedira, the kind of rumour I’d have laughed out the room last summer and not even mentioned. Tough transfer to do? Probably. But not as impossible as it would’ve been in the past.

Exciting times.

And so to Puma, who finally launched their ‘trilogy’ of shirts. There’d been more leaks than a Welsh farm, so again, we knew what was coming, but I think they’ve struck a good balance. Stick with tradition, classic designs home and away, with a cheeky third shirt which also doffs its cap to the past.

Some people are staunch defenders of various brands – Adidas fans, Nike aficianados – but all I care is that they don’t balls around with the designs, and they haven’t. Mind you, if you’ve got a six-pack it’ll help. I’m a middle-aged man with a paunch.

Of course, they’re available all over the place, including here. I know this because JD Sports have sent me a shirt, the little devils. Now I just need to get rid of my wine belly. I need to be ‘buff’, at least that’s what I think it’s called these days.

So, new shirts, new striker. A deal done in the middle of the summer. You’ve changed, Arsenal. You’ve changed.

I’m sure you’ll all agree that no time is a bad time to shoehorn in an inappropriate Musical Youth headline.

Yes yes, I know he plays on the right-hand side. And that ideally we don’t want ‘pass Debuchy on the left-hand side’ to be the opponents’ tactical Plan A. And anyway, why would Debuchy be passing on the left-hand side? OK, I concede, it’s awful. But I’ve mentioned Wenger on the beach, I’ve thrown a cursory comment or two towards the World Cup and with not much else to fall back on, I’m resorting to shambolic wordplay.

Of course, he’s not actually signed yet, there’s still plenty of time for the tits to head in a northerly direction, but there’s a lot of noise about this one and he could well be our first signing of the summer, paid for by selling a player who was no longer ours anyway. How very Arsene that would be.

You can see his stats over at Arseblog, and some almost entirely positive comment from an NUFC blogger (unless he’s doing an “I’ll drive you to the airport if necessary”.)

He’s in his peak years, he’s used to the Premier League and he’s an established international. Nor, at £8m, is he expensive. So on the basis that this was a position that needed filling, but not the most crucial area of weakness in the squad, I think he’d be an excellent signing.

The Sanchez rumours bubble along too, and I’m hoping there’s no smoke without fire. It’s an ambitious one though, and as we saw last summer with ambitious attempts to land strikers, these things are easier said than done. What’s promising is that since last summer (let’s skirt over January for the sake of this point, y’alright there Kimmy) we’ve quite evidently upped what we can spend on players. £42.5m on Ozil buried our transfer record, with bells on, and the fact that we’re in for a £32m striker fills me with some confidence that, even if this one doesn’t quite come to pass, we’re no longer scrabbling around pretending.

An Englishman abroad

On another note, I see Ashley Cole is off to Roma. Now, as you know, we’ve not got a lot of time for almost-swerving-off-the-road left-backs in this part of north London, but I’m glad he’s decided to go there. English players have many faults, and one of them is parochialism. I know they earn good money here – better money than in most places – but the more English players that go abroad to learn both football, and to experience another culture, the better it will be in the long run for England.

Right, I’m going to make a cup of tea and watch the transfers roll in*

*Slash, just make a cup of tea.

Am I the only one heartened by seeing Wenger on a beach having fun?

Everyone else is having fun. From my sofa, far from Ipanema, I am having the best fun since Italia ’90. Back then, a flawed but eminently watchable England side made it all the way to the semi-finals – our only visit there since 1966. Or was it 1066? I always get confused by the sixty-sixes. One thing I can say for sure is that we were managed by the Duke of Normandy and that someone got a nasty eye injury.

The football’s been exciting, the backdrops eye-watering (though not because of a Norman arrow), the fans passionate, the sun shiny. It’s been superb. And if I could put my finger on one thing that makes it so different, it’s the fans. Its location means that – unlike normally – most of the fans are South American. Argentinians are trucking over the border in their hundreds of thousands, there are Chileans, Colombians, Costa Ricans, Mexicans everywhere. The grounds are full. Everyone’s sitting together, no hint of the need for segregation. How nice that’s been.

Anyway, back to Wenger. He’s been spotted emerging from the water Baywatch style, rugged in a 64-year-old kind of way, he’s played beach football (or is it volleyball, I don’t know – when you grow up going to beaches lashed by high winds and icy cold, you mostly cower behind hastily erected windbreaks). He’s doing his telly, he seems relaxed and he seems like he’s having a bit of a break from being harangued by us.

He deserves it, to be honest.

That said, Arsene – ha, you knew there’d be a ‘but’, didn’t you – I do have one question. I speak as a married man when I ask you – how have you pulled this one out the bag? Are Mrs Wenger and the family with you? I hope they are, shopping hard in Rio or lolling about with you on Ipanema, because if Mrs Wenger’s in England waiting for you to get back, I sense that your section on her football offsetting spreadsheet will be be severely in deficit.

I can picture it now. Old Arsene will stroll through the door whenever he deigns to return from Brazil, all sun-tanned and happy, perhaps whistling, and with nothing more to do than to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s on some faxes to kick off an epic signing spree.

But Mrs Wenger’s there, bags packed and a taxi revving in the drive ready to take them on their summer holiday to Majorca for two weeks.

“Get in Arsene, we’re going to be late”.

“But Cherie, I have little bit transfer niggles…”

“Not now mon chou-fleur. I’ve been sitting her for a month waiting for you to get back. We’re off on our holiday”.

Arsene looks at his watch. It’s the 15th of July. He’ll be back by 1st August, no later.

“Very well Cherie, let’s go”.

Wenger draws his Nokia 6230 from the pocket of his baggy shorts. He scrolls down the menu to Dick Law.

“Dick, are you there? I have little bit time niggle. We have still month before the end of the transfer window. Remember Ozil? Yes yes, let’s wait and do it like that again. Au revoir. Ciao-ciao”.

 
It’s been the worst kept secret, and now it’s not a secret at all – Wenger has signed up for another three years. If he lasts the distance, that’ll be a mighty 21 years at the helm, a phenomenal achievement in the want-it-now era. It’s a whole generation. Remarkable, in many ways.

I’m happy for him, and I’m glad he’s staying, because we’ve all seen him live the highs and lows in recent years (the lows being increasingly frequent). He’s looked almost ill through the pressure at times this season, so to see him as we saw him above warms the heart.

I suspect he did think of calling it a day, but Arsenal closed the gap on the leaders this year and won the cup. It’s a successful season by any benchmark and the side has matured. He wants to see this team through.

It’s a leaner, hungrier and more talented side than it has been for years, and with Park and Bendtner gone, I can’t think of many players who are at the club by some curious magic rather than thanks to ability. The side is on the right track.

I’d be lying if I didn’t have my reservations though. For all the consistency this season, we were badly shown up, in terms of approach as much as anything else, on three painful occasions. On all three days, we were despairingly slow out the blocks. As a side, without Walcott, we lack pace and more generally, a bit of power. Ozil aside, we’ve had several poor transfer windows.

All these things need to change, but Wenger is in a good place, and on a good platform, to do that. All of them can be addressed.

Whether he does push the boat out, and change, only time will tell. In times past he’s needed to, but hasn’t. History tells us he’s stubborn. All too often he’ll do a shimmy and pull a Kallstrom from the hat.

I hope, as I hope every summer, that this time things will be different, and that we’ll be bold and decisive. These are in all probability the last three years of his reign. Now’s the time to push on.

Over to you, Arsene. Onwards – and hopefully upwards – on the Wenger rollercoaster we go.

Basking

The last two weeks have mostly revolved around basking in cup glory. Just when you think it might all subside, up comes another excellent video and I’m off again, bouncing up and down at Wembley, all wide-eyed and happy.

Not much has happened since. We’ve lost Fabianski to Swansea (a good signing for them – though I thought he might go somewhere like Italy) and Sagna to TBC FC. But we knew both of those things anyway. The transfer wheels are spinning, and if you read what you believe, HMS Southampton is being shelled and torpedoed into submission. Women, children, 32-year-old strikers, left and right-backs into the lifeboats first.

(In all seriousness – I do feel sorry for Southampton. An excellent side that already has the wolves at the door. They won’t all leave, but whoever comes in next to manage them has a job on their hands manning the pumps).

But like I said before, I’m staying detached from this transfer hullabaloo. There’s too much smoke, and too many mirrors. Too much swooping and not enough action, too many come-and-get-me pleas and not enough signing on the dotted line.

We live in a world where footballers who want to leave cite a lack of attention on their birthday.

Swat it aside, folks, and ignore it.

Arsenal v Hull

Arsenal v Hull


Arsenal 3-2 Hull City

It started, as all good things do, with some peri-peri chicken.

Our little gang of five merry cup warriors met at lunch, seven tortuously long hours after I woke up. Fed, we then sidled off to a house of refreshment to soak up the atmosphere, and proceeded to hoover up a few looseners. There was a fantastic atmosphere where we were – West Hampstead – with flags draped over pubs, fans of both sides mingling, an open-top busload of vocal gooners rattling past.

It’s hard to explain cup final day to someone who hasn’t been to one, but it feels so different to your average game. A mixture of nerves, excitement, anticipation. Good spirits, and in this case, very warm spring air. The kind of atmosphere that makes memories.

Up Wembley Way and into the ground we went, lapping it up. Then we mostly went our separate ways – victims of the vagaries of cup final ticket lotteries.

Wembley Way

Band of the Welsh Guards – tick. Abide with Me – tick (though unlike previous years the lyrics weren’t on the big screens, which was a shame and meant that the massed ranks of fans mumbled along like John Redwood, only breaking into song when the hymn reached its eponymous end). National anthem – tick. Nerves utterly shredded – tick-a-rama with a hey nonny nonny.

Viewers of a nervous disposition might now wish to avert their eyes for the next paragraph.

Kick-off and, hello! We appear to be a goal down, a bit unlucky perhaps, so that’s alright, keep calm now (even though we’ve not really started yet), we’ll get a grip on thin…Whoa! That’ll be two goals, some wobbly defending, and oh no, that was Curtis Davies. That’s not remotely good. There’s a frothing conurbation of gold and black bobbing up and down, rubbing their eyes and not quite believing what they’re seeing. The same shock was being felt at our end of the ground too, only with a touch less bobbing and a distinct absence of froth.

It’s nearly three! Hold me tight, but there’s Kieran Gibbs to nod it off the line. It transpires we’re not good at starting early on Saturday, and nor do we steam off like a train late on Saturdays either. Finely tuned to Three O’Clock, that’s what it is.

Fair play to Hull, they were hurting us from set pieces and in the air, and we’d not really been in the game. We were massively on the back foot and we needed a moment of magic.

It came, by Jupiter, it came. Cazorla’s free kick wafted handsomely into the top-right of the goal. It was a hell of a goal – a goal fit for the occasion and what a time it was for Cazorla to pull a rabbit out of his hat. We needed that, desperately.

The rest of the half at last seemed more evenly matched, it felt like we’d steadied the ship at last, and there was still a long time to go. The goals were all so early, there was no room for too much sniping, though I did complain a bit about Giroud’s ever-flailing arms of despair.

The pendulum was swinging, and the introduction of Sanogo, all legs and no goals, made a real difference. He’s still like a giant puppy but he’s definitely got something about him, and we needed that energy badly. There were several good penalty shouts – Cazorla’s was clear from where I was – but I can’t remember the rest, to be honest. Nervous memory blurs abound.

Then up popped Koscielny, scorer of important goals, to swivel in the equaliser. Pandemonium. Muchos hugging and slapping other chaps on the back, while baring teeth, fists pumping like a failing two-cylinder engine, swearing like a fishwife. I was sitting next to my 15-year-old godson and I’m sure on several occasions he peered over at me and wondered if his mum and dad hadn’t made a desperately bad decision all those years ago.

Gibbs then Rosenthaled one over, it went to extra time, and we finally played our trump card by bringing both Wilshere and Rosicky on. We were in control now, both having a big effect on our movement and energy.

The next paragraph is about Welsh Jesus.

Giroud – and it’s getting late in the day now – saves his best till the end with a glorious backheel. It’s happening in a flash but Ramsey just thwonks it with the outside of his right boot and wheels off in glorious delight, tailed by someone who used to be Gibbs but who now appears to be a madman, no doubt thinking “you’ve saved my bacon”. Again, absolute pandemonium everywhere.

If Alan Sunderland and his megaperm is synonymous with 1979, then Aaron Ramsey is the man of 2014. Sorry, Santi, but he just is. He scored a goal of wonderful quality, at the most crucial time, and it won the cup for Arsenal.

Naturally, we’re talking about Arsenal here and we almost conspired to Arsenal it up, Mertesacker tripping, Fabianski coming out and not quite getting there and Hull flashing a shot wide. Gibbs was back in a flash, still no doubt thinking about his miss, but still.

And that was that – the cup was ours, and you can see what it meant to the players, to Wenger, to us. Of course I feel sorry for Hull – they played their part in a memorable final (I can say that now – wasn’t thinking it for large tracts of the match yesterday) and losing is never fun. They rattled us and they took us all the way. Their fans were great.

But we made it, we won. As I write this I’ve got the game replaying on the telly, my kids are waving two of the flags that were on the seats at the ground. This is what it’s all about.

We did it the hard way, but we’re back on the silver trail and how everyone needed that.

Remember this feeling. This is what football is all about.

We’ve won the FA Cup.

“Absolutely chuffing blinding”, I said right here in 2005 as Patrick Vieira lobbed his cup-winning grenade at Utd, “it really doesn’t get better than this”.

And that, looking back, was just a year after our Invincibles season, a mere two years since our last FA Cup win, and just three years after we’d won the double.

We were serial trophy winners then, and I was still bowled over; knocked sideways. Nine years on, and who’d have thought it then – we’ve not won a pot since. Come close a few times, sure – on various stages – but fallen short. There’s not been enough of the ‘chuffing’ and we’ve been deficient in the ‘blinding’ department to the tune of any.

So yes, it’s a laborious way of saying I’m excited. The cup’s never lost its allure for me, and if Twitter is my guide (my skittish guide) then the feeling is widespread.

Of course, this is Arsenal and it’s never that simple anyway. On tomorrow rides the future perception (and maybe even the future) of Arsene, of this promising squad that’s won nothing and of the hopes of millions of angst-ridden gooners.

I look back with generally good memories on my experience of FA Cup finals. I vaguely recall Brooking’s forehead killing us off in ‘80, but luckily I was young and at that point I was more into Star Wars figures.

I watched the ‘93 final from my then abode in Paris. It got messy after that game, if I recall, which I don’t, though I think someone may have put some washing up liquid in a fountain.

The first I went to was 1998, when we were far too good for Newcastle. I was in Cardiff in 2001, when the less said about the result the better, though it was warm and sunny. I was on holiday in New York in 2002 (schoolboy scheduling error), but I was present and correct in 2003 (in the rain, under the roof) to watch Le Bob make it three cups in six years. Then there was 2005. That’s not a bad record.

That brings us to now. It’s a one-off game, and as we all know they don’t always do what you want them to. All I ask, and I don’t think we got this in 2011, is a performance where the players are focused to within an inch of their lives, and give all they’ve got.

Wenger might dispute that, putting it down to bad luck and a bad error, but I remember watching the Birmingham players before that final huddling together and immensely focused, while ours sauntered about. I had a bad feeling from the off. We can’t afford any complacency at all.

The good news is, we’ve changed a lot since then, I think, in terms of character. Look at this from the Evening Standard on Thursday, and you’ll see who we had in our squad then.

Honestly, compare then and now. Sure, we’re still a way off where we want to be, and we’ve had some right mares this season, some truly baffling cave-ins, but look at that squad and look at ours now. I think we’re going in the right direction.

I’m so excited. As excited as I was in 2006 as we thundered down the Boulevard St Michel with Oxford Matt, Feverpitch and my brother Charlie, in a pick-up truck, flags dangling everywhere, windows down, playing Riddimkilla.

I’ve not been a Gunner Since ‘79. I’d say it was more like ‘80. But if you get tired of this, you’re in the wrong business. If you prefer fourth every year to this – to the nerves, the excitement, the flags draped from houses (and from Piebury Corner), the random people coming up to you at work and wishing you well, then have a long think.

I can’t wait. It’s the FA Cup final.

Come on you rip-roarers.

2014

Right hook:

“We are not on the market specifically at all.”

Left hook:

“I believe this year again you will have to wait until July 15 to start going.”

2010

Right hook:

“The World Cup will not affect our recruitment”

Left hook:

“It is dangerous to buy on the back of a World Cup. The prices are artificial and you have to bear in mind that anyone can have three weeks of glory.”

Compare and contrast, before breathing deeply and reminding yourself that the summer is long and packed with fun stuff. Wenger’s pronouncements on signings have the remarkable ability to get under everyone’s skin, so the best advice I can give – and I’m going to try to follow it myself – is just to not be driven to distraction by it. Not at all.

Transfer season is silly, misleading, stressful, packed with lies and counter-lies, and life is just too bloody short.

So I’m not falling for anything, not hanging on anyone’s words. I’m going to spend some more time with my family, watch the World Cup, enjoy Wimbledon, go to some cricket, have the odd glass of something cold and refreshing. I’m going to enjoy the summer.

[How long do you give me?]

FA Cup semi-final

FA Cup semi-final

There really is no need to tire yourself out over three or four hours by running a 26-mile marathon. You can do it far more effectively by watching Arsenal these days, and in half the time. I am exhausted.

We’re through to the cup final, and that’s the beautiful bottom line. But looking round at the faces in the crowd, as I periodically did, just confirmed to me that while football can be joy, ecstasy and bliss rolled into one, it can just as equally be about as fun as a trip to the dentist. There were blank faces, ashen faces, looks of fatalism, crossed arms of doom and wails of anguish.

It was painful to watch, for the most part. Seeing the team you love struggle so badly for form, for ideas, for pace. They looked leaden-footed; a very average side.

120 minutes of largely forgettable football, followed by the lottery of penalties. Fabianski has a good record with spot kicks – does he keep his place for the final now? I’d be a bit baffled if he did, given he’s off. It’s clear this team needs to win something to believe, and it’d be very harsh on Szczesny to miss out on his first chance to etch a trophy onto his goalpost. Those are the moments that make careers, the making of teams and players. Would it be harsh on Fabianski? Not really, he’s leaving.

We always hear how winning breeds winning, and I hope yesterday (though it was kind of a draw) goes some way to infusing the players with some confidence and belief. But with Arsenal, you just don’t know. We have the look of a team that wants the season to end now.

Overall though, the rapid ageing and hypertension aside, it was a good day. I woke up with cup fever and loved the atmosphere of the day, meeting friends, the cameraderie and the walk up Wembley Way. It’s remarkably evocative for a lifeless, tatty suburb, isn’t it?

We’re in the cup final. That feels good. There was an explosion of relief, of joy, but mostly relief when Cazorla scored the winning penalty. Then we all drifted out, spent. Dragging our tired minds and bodies with us.

“Why do we do this to ourselves?” I asked as I shuffled on the spot in a state of agitation, before the penalties.

“You said those very same words at Villa Park in 1999, shuffling on the spot” I was reminded.

Humans are silly creatures sometimes. We have an amazing knack of forgetting. And of coming back for more against our better judgement. That’s football but ye gods, it puts you through the mill.

I woke up at 6am, bright as a button, and football rarely does that to me these days.

It must be FA Cup semi-final day.

The days have long gone where this involves getting the car ready, hanging the scarves and flags from the windows and slipping @feverpitch’s mixtape into the trusty tape deck before heading off to Birmingham or Manchester.

Tube it is then.

By all accounts there will be 50,000 other Arsenal fans heading to Wembley, perhaps more, a phenomenally lop-sided game in terms of support. We might be permanently tormented by numerous anxieties but – let’s be frank here – that’s been our default position for years now. It’s never stopped us turning up in our thousands before and it clearly won’t today.

I’m excited, genuinely excited, by our tilt at the old jug. This is what it’s all about: we’re having a crack at something that really matters. It’s been far too long.

Ordinarily, a team lying fourth in the league and in the semi-final of the cup would be seen to be doing pretty well, but this is Arsenal and things are never that simple. The match takes place to a backdrop of dismal form, swathes of injured players and very real and reasonable doubts about the direction of the team and the manager’s future.

It’s a lethal combination when it comes to overall confidence, but it’s hardly baseless pessimism. We’re in a massive rut. Last season we tightened up and went on an impressive end-of-season run to secure the Fourth Cup. This year, we’ve ground to a halt and gone into reverse.

The cup though, lest we forget, has been an oasis of calm. We’ve beaten everything thrown at us with some applomb. So it will be interesting to see how the players start today. Will the shackles be off a bit, or will the nerves descend like a fog?

Forgive me for bringing it up, but I remember as I waited for the Carling Cup final to start in 2011 seeing the Birmingham players huddle in concentration, and compared it to our players who were all sauntering about laughing. That day, we were complacent and we paid for it.

I don’t think there’ll be any of that today. They’ll bust a gut. Today though it’s about dragging tired bodies and minds into some semblance of form. Not hurtling forward shapelessly. Defending stoutly. Back to basics, as Wenger has said. But above all, the players need to enjoy the day like the fans will.

Big day, massive day. Exciting day. Come on you rip-roarers!

Arsenal 1-1 Manchester City

It’s a mystery to me how the same team that keeled over and sank beneath the waves so spectacularly last weekend could, just a week later, give a passable impression of a side once again dining at the top table. I mix my metaphors like Arsenal mix their performances.

A far better display all round, with a rediscovery of better defensive resilience at its heart. If I try to work out what makes Arsenal tick I give myself a splitting headache, so I’ve given up trying. Much of our malaise has been in the mind, which is what makes it so hard to pinpoint. ‘Psychology – bloody hell’, to paraphrase a well-worn football saying.

In the circumstances, a draw was an excellent result. But frustrating too, if you look at the table, with us five points off the top, and wonder how things might have been different had we not gone full Light Brigade at Stamford Bridge.

We defended well, even with Sagna motoring forward to cross. It’s a shame the arm-waggling, shrugging Giroud could not be more effective, but he’s running on empty. There is no lead in the Giroud pencil (footballistically). Of course, Sagna chugging up the wing is a risky strategy, but there’s a very large Walcott-shaped hole on our right flank, so needs must.

In the midfield, Rosicky and Cazorla did well ahead of Arteta and Flamini. We worked harder off the ball, basically, and it showed.

The atmosphere was superb. It was really noisy and if you want to attribute that to the indomitable spirit of Arsenal fans, you’re very welcome to. Personally, I suspect an extra two and a half hours of beer had an effect…

We’re often accused of lacking tough, spiky players, which is odd given we have Flamini and Podolski. The former’s like a coiled spring, like a little yapping dog, and Podolski’s not scared to get in people’s faces either.

He’s an interesting conundrum is Podolski. His mistake led to City’s goal, and he often leaves enormous gaps on the left, making the full-back’s job harder, but there’s something about him I really like. He’s pretty quick, his crossing is excellent and he can score (should have scored yesterday, maybe, but Hart saved well). It’s been a very fitful season but he’s scored eight goals in twelve starts – good stats. So when the summer reckoning comes to pass, I hope he stays.

I leave you with this thought:

Diaby’s back in training this week.