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Capitola Rob Holding tries to convince aging American to sign for the Arsenal after beers and too many bacon baps.

The planning that informs our range of articles on this site is most impressive and is very carefully and democratically done. We looked to move seamlessly into the new season with detailed accounts of preseason action followed by an assessment of our transfer activity.

Unfortunately our intended push towards the new season began with a whimper and has ground to a juddering halt, largely through no fault of the club itself. In these unpredictable times weird things happen so this article will describe the match action we have seen so far but will mainly try to look at what I think is currently happening at the club and the impact of that. I am keen not to encroach too far into the territory that Trev and CER will look at in subsequent weeks.

On top of the Covid crisis, which shows no sign of abating and which will very likely keep me from using my season ticket in the early weeks of the season, planning for the new campaign was hit by the impact of the Euros. They deprived Arsenal of Bernd Leno, Granit Xhaka, Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka as the rest of the players returned to training. This was in reality less of a problem for Arsenal than for many of our rivals who had more players engaged. Xhaka, of course, may never be seen in an Arsenal shirt again as he approaches a move away to Roma after five fun-filled years in North London. His Euro efforts have variously seen him placed in one of the teams of the tournament (presumably chosen by one of the psychic penguins or whatever that we see at this time of the season) or rated less favourably when his Swiss team were overrun by Italy and he missed their quarter final with Spain through suspension after producing a performance against France of very high order.

Poor Bukayo Saka. Despite being overwhelmed with love from housewives and grannies all over the country, he has been racially abused and will have to run the gauntlet of regular abuse over the seasons from lowlife Twitterati for his penalty miss. It matters not, he is an Arsenal hero and hopefully destined to become a great player for our club over many years.

Pre-season used to be very formulaic. George Graham used to complain about Don Howe sending him on interminable laps of Trent Park before he did exactly the same with his charges. Arsene had a plan laid in stone. An Austrian training camp, a game against a team of villagers clad in lederhosen and then home to give Barnet and Boreham Wood a tanking. In recent years the lure of loadsamoney through foreign tours saw us decamp to the USA and the Far East on regular trips. On one Rob Holding was so taken with a Californian bohemian named Scruz he made the acquaintance of, that he has been desperate for a reunion!

Arsene’s job was also complicated by the incursion of summer tournament football into the domestic calendar. When the lovely Mrs TTG, that domestic goddess with a burgeoning Amazon habit, says to me that ‘the football season never seems to end‘ she is technically not too far from correct. As the Copa America and Euro 2021 players sneaked off to Mykonos for some overdue R and R, they passed those lucky enough to be playing in the qualifying rounds of the Europa Conference League. Where is the Intertoto Cup when you need it? Football is a perpetual spectacle with massive international involvement.

This Summer, Colney (which has also been hit by a Covid outbreak) must have been a confusing and frustrating place on the first day of the new campaign. What Arteta had to work with was so different from what we hope we will start the season with. To illustrate this our team in the second half of our second friendly at Ibrox consisted of nine players who may not represent or even be at the club this season. This was a large part of the reason I didn’t bother to watch the  matches on our Scottish tour live. My comments are gleaned from a highlights package for each game.

The tour began with an early evening match at Easter Road against Scotland’s third best side, Hibernian. The game started inauspiciously when Soares exposed our young goalkeeper, Arthur Okonkwo, with a ghastly backpass. The nervous custodian made a hash of the awkward situation and Hibs were one up. They added to their lead with a header from a set piece, a problem which reared its ugly head distressingly quickly again at Ibrox. We were clearly a superior team to Hibernian but understandably very rusty and chaotic defensively, with no sign of Holding (who was away reflecting on his time in California with Scruz). Pepe missed a penalty and while our football quality began to shine through in the second half a nicely-taken finish from Emile Smith-Rowe was all we had to show in a dispiriting match with a very depressing (although almost totally irrelevant) 2-1 scoreline in favour of the Hibees.

Our second game, last Saturday, was more encouraging although we managed to concede two further goals from corners. Andreas Georgeson, our set-piece coach, had decamped to Malmo and will be replaced by Nicolas Cover, a French set-piece expert who joins us from those perennial strugglers Manchester City. We anticipate (and desperately need) positive results at both ends of the field. One of the concerns was no cover on the posts (nothing new) and smaller players like Bellerin and Elneny trying to pick up much bigger players at corners. Still Balogun got off the mark with a goal. Sadly it was the Balogun representing Rangers!

There were bright moments though, particularly a very encouraging debut by our new Portuguese left-wing back, Nuno Tavares, who joins us from Benfica. He finished a surge upfield sweetly with an assured right-foot finish and his pace and strength were exciting to behold. Eddie Nketiah scored our second equaliser with a well-taken and opportunistic finish and the game was a much more satisfactory affair than the Easter Road debacle; it saw KT3 enter the fray having cut his holiday short to return to training, albeit it (for him) on the wrong side of the city.

Then the shock of the cancellation of our trip to the Florida Cup, an intense disappointment to our American fans, but not surprising in the midst of a pandemic which appears to be hitting Florida particularly hard. I fear we will see a lot of disruption this season although our absence from Europe with its consequent lessening of our travel programme may be a blessing in disguise. We are trying to arrange a couple of private friendlies but it is hardly conducive to a smooth run-in to the new season.

I think the reassuring thing that we can take from the way pre-season has unfolded is that there appears to be a rational and credible plan developing at the club and that the necessary finance to implement that plan appears to be forthcoming. When clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona are pleading poverty and we look enviously at the expenditures of the oil-rich state-owned clubs like PSG and Manchester City or the oligarch-funded Chelsea it is surprising to see KSE apparently approving a quite lavish purchasing spree which doesn’t appear to be totally dependent on chopping away all the massive financial deadwood we will be left with; we still have players like Willian and Kolasinac who are unsellable given the size of their remuneration packages.

When I mooted this in my article about Arteta a few weeks ago, a few drinkers understandably were sceptical that the same KSE who have been relatively frugal since they took full ownership of the club would be willing to fund the necessary expenditure. I will let those who come after me talk specifics about who we have acquired and may still acquire but the template that has been created, of young players with high sell-on value and significant potential, makes absolute sense.

I have been critical of Edu over his time in the Technical Director role and the Willian deal still brings tears to my eyes. He does not appear to be a skilled seller of players but frankly it would be hard to find anyone who could unload some of the players we have accumulated. Even the late Arthur Daley would have struggled to find buyers for some of the stock we have on the books, although maybe chucking in a few cases of Lithuanian Riesling might do the trick (that’s one for slightly older British readers).

Frustratingly, Chelsea and Liverpool seem to achieve serious fees for players they sell on. We can scarcely raise any finance from sales at all. Guendouzi, Torreira and Xhaka all look likely to go cheaply and the big saving has to be on the wage bill, freed now of Ozil’s mega contract which we were still funding in full while he was at Fenerbache. Call me picky but I’m a little underwhelmed by January’s deal that saw a player leave on a free transfer while we continued to pick up his full salary and bonuses.

However Edu does deserve credit in one very important respect. He has made it a major plank of our strategy to retain young talent from the Academy and in almost every notable instance has persuaded young stars like Saka, Smith Rowe, Okonkwo, Tierney, Balogun and Taylor-Hart to commit their futures to the club. This is sound husbandry and of course ensures we have a Hale End nucleus in the first-team squad which may be swollen soon by the addition of Patino, Azeez and Hutchinson. This is probably, in a confused and highly unusual pre-season, the most substantial element of good news we can cling onto.

I remember a few seasons ago, that erstwhile striker Gary Lineker bemoaning the fact that every season the Marshdwellers were always anticipating a transitional season. They never had the right pieces in place to challenge for honours. Sadly in recent years much the same criticism could be levelled at us. We’ve spent years trying to repair the damage caused by lack of or misdirected investment and inadequate oversight. Let us hope the positive perceptions we have of a new attitude and approach from KSE will indeed prove to be the case and that we can see 2021/22 as a season where our move back to the top really gathers momentum.

As promised in the preview of our league game at Sheffield United last season, here are some summer ramblings on the early laws of the game.

By way of disclosure, there is not much Arsenal in this as it covers the three decades before the club was founded. Still, I hope it will give a sense of how football got to where it was when Dial Square played its first game in December 1886 and why that game was at least a rudimentary approximation of the modern game and not more like rugby or Aussie rules or American football, with all of which it shares a common root.

That common root was a mob game in which one team propelled a ball towards a goal by any bodily means possible, and the other used any physical means available to stop them. It was no-holds-barred and brutal. By the first half of the nineteenth century, it had become more organised as a game — Victorians were great organisers and rule givers — but there were still many local variants and all looked like a very violent game of rugby. Not for the faint of heart.

By the 1850s, the existential divide was whether football was primarily a game played with the hands or the feet (it was all still football because it was played on foot). The acid test was not whether a player could handle the ball at all but whether he could run with it in hand.

Sheffield rules

In 1858, the world’s first football club, Sheffield FC, codified a set of rules that both pushed the game decisively in the direction of kicking, dribbling and passing — football — as opposed to running with the ball and scrimmaging — rugby — and which, more importantly, stuck.

There had been some earlier attempts by the old boys of English public schools who had wound up at some educational institution in East Anglia to unify the rules they had played by as schoolboys. They were all short-lived (the attempts, not the schoolboys). Each generation came up with new ones. 

It would not be until five years after the first Sheffield rules were published that a lasting set of Cambridge rules would appear. By then, the Sheffield rules had been widely adopted across the north of England and the Midlands, where football was taking root as the people’s game.

The Cambridge rules significance is that they would provide the basis of the laws of the game published by the fledgling Football Association founded the same year, 1863. For the next decade and a half, the two codes would haltingly converge, with the FA progressively adopting Sheffield innovations such as corner kicks, free kicks for fouls and the indirect free kick.

By 1877, the codes had become all but identical. That year, after one final flare-up over what to do after a ball went into touch (should it be kicked in or thrown in?), the Sheffield Football Association formally adopted the FA’s laws and dropped its own. In the process, football had taken a form we recognise in the modern game. What became rugby football and the far-flung global variants had gone their separate ways.

Time travel

If we were to time travel to the mid-19th century to watch a match under Sheffield rules, one of the first things that would strike us is how much handling there still was.

Under Sheffield rules, any player could hit or push the ball with their hand and make a ‘fair catch’ of a ball kicked high, just as in rugby or American football today. The catcher then got a free-kick, although he could not score from it.

As an indication of how contentious handling the ball was and the innate understanding that it was the critical distinction between football and rugby, ’knocking or pushing on the ball’ was outlawed in the initial draft of the first Sheffield rules. Yet, it made its way back into the final version, which just disbarred ‘holding” the ball save for a fair catch.

Perversely, the first draft of the FA’s first rules, published in 1863, permitted similar handling. However, it was cut from the final draft after a fierce argument that led to Blackheath withdrawing from the FA and going off to be a famous rugby club. Blackheath also objected to the FA’s softness in outlawing tripping and hauling opponents to the ground.

Within a couple of years, the Sheffield rules also banned any ball-handling apart from fair catches. In 1866, the fair catch was temporarily abolished, leading to heading — another Sheffield innovation. It was restored in 1868, but the following year restricted to players within 3 yards of goal and eventually to the defender nearest the goal (1875). The following year, only a designated defender could catch the ball, and thus the goalkeeper was invented.

Before goalkeepers, the standard formation was a pack of five to eight attackers attempting to dribble, and increasingly, pass through the opposition. One would be a goal hanger as there was no offside until 1862, and after that, there just needed to be one opponent level or closer to the goal line. The FA had a stricter offside rule requiring three defenders. A full-back or two would cover the goal hanger. A half back rounded out the eleven. Another Sheffield innovation was to standardise eleven-men teams when Sheffield FC declared it would only play 11 v 11 games.

Kick-ins

A second thing we might notice is the scramble for the ball when it went into touch. The first team to put a hand on the ball got to take the throw-in (now you know how the touchline got its name). Similar to a modern rugby line-out, the ball had to be thrown in one-handed at right angles to the touchline but had to bounce at least six yards in before it could be played.

Awarding the throw-in against the team that kicked the ball out came in 1867. The following year, the throw became a kick and could be made in any direction. It reverted to a throw but kept the in-any-direction — the compromise that settled the row that threatened to scuttle the universal adoption of the FA laws in 1877.

Narrow goals

A third thing we might notice is the odd shape of the goals — only half as wide as today’s goals but a foot higher, dimensions formalised in 1862. A further four yards from each ‘goal stick’ (yet to be rebranded as posts; the first mention of a goal post is in the 1867 rules, which also still refer to the crossbar as a tape) was what looked like a corner flag, except it would be another six years before corner kicks were invented.

Which brings us to football’s lost rouge.

Old Etonians in the bar — a group that appears to keep a low profile in rightful deference to our egalitarian tenor — will recognise the rouge from their college’s eponymous Field Game. A rouge was scored when a player from the attacking team did not score a goal but touched the ball down behind the goal-line, somewhat similar to a try in rugby.

In the Field Game, the ball could cross the line at any distance from the goal. Under Sheffield rules, it had to do so between the two rouge flags positioned 4 yards on either side of the goal. Australian ‘holics will recognise the precursors of the behind posts in Aussie rules, which in South Australia are apparently still painted red.

After a rouge was scored, the two teams lined up in front of the goal like an unjoined rugby scrum. The defenders, who started out 2 yards in front of their goal, had to dribble the ball through the opposed attacking pack into open play. If the opposition was strong, the defence could be pushed back in the scrummage through their own goal.

The short-lived 1866 amendment to the Sheffield rules banning all handling led to a rouge no longer requiring a touchdown. The ball just had to be kicked between the rouge flags below the height of the top of the goalposts. Rouges were used as a tiebreaker if the score in goals was level.

Sheffield abolished the rouge in 1868 as the FA was steadfast in its refusal to adopt it. It also adopted the FA’s standard of an eight yard-wide goal that year, even though the height remained at nine feet for another seven years, the crossbar not being lowered to eight feet until 1875.

Defensive corners

1868 also saw another innovation that the FA would adopt, corner kicks. Under Sheffield rules, if a ball went over the bar, it resulted in a ‘kick out’ by the defending team from up to 10 yards out (25 yards out up to 1861) regardless of who last touched the ball. Otherwise, what today would be given as a corner kick would result in a free kick for the attacking side from the the corner flag, but what would now be given as a goal kick would be a free kick from the corner by the defending side. Defensive corners disappeared in the 1877 unification.

At this point, we are still eleven years off our club’s founding, but the game had become recognisably football. Yet there were still two umpires on the pitch, signalling with handkerchiefs, much as American football officials still drop ‘flags’. A whistle would first be used in 1878. The umpires would not become linesmen, and the referee move onto the field of play until the by-then Royal Arsenal had been playing for three years.

The same year (1891), penalties were introduced, although pitches did not have penalty areas until 1902, by when we had been in the Football League for eight years. Goalkeepers were not restricted to handling the ball in their newly designated penalty areas until 1912. Previously they could handle the ball anywhere in their own half.

The change to that law was reputedly made to deal with Leigh Roose, a physically imposing Welshman who kept goal for Woolwich Arsenal for 13 games in the 1911-12 season. Roose would bounce the ball out from the goal to the half way line to launch attacks, unceremoniously barging over any opponent in his way.

But that’s a story for another day.

A number of years ago I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Sir Geoff Hurst. I made the point to him that since late July 1966 he has almost lived a Groundhog Day existence. He understood my point that every single day of his life everyone who meets him (like me) only wants to speak about that wonderful hat-trick in the World Cup Final. It’s not a bad Groundhog Day to have is it? It’s certainly better than reliving root-canal surgery or rush-hour commuting every day! Unfortunately, England’s football team lives in a Groundhog Day in which we live in a agonising penalty shootout. More of that later (as is always the case in a Groundhog Day). 

In this expressly produced piece on the Euros I’d like to look at three things. Firstly, how good a tournament it was and what we remember most. Secondly, how did the home nations do and thirdly, what might it all mean for Arsenal? 

The tournament itself was in a new format with multi-country venues which was not an ideal scenario during a pandemic and in a world focusing more and more on sustainability but the decision was taken by UEFA who are only surpassed by FIFA for crassness, greed and obnoxiousness.

It got off to a wonderful start with an exhilarating performance by a free-flowing Italian side dispatching Turkey easily but then we saw a horrendous incident in the second game when Denmark’s Christian Eriksen collapsed just before half-time in their game against Finland and had to be given CPR on the pitch as his teammates formed a chain around him protect his privacy. The Denmark captain Simon Kjaer emerged as a real leader displaying huge compassion and dignity in an appalling situation. That UEFA felt the game should continue in those circumstances notwithstanding the fact that Eriksen happily survived was extraordinary. Nobody wanted to play in it or watch it and the 1-0 victory by Finland was totally artificial as the Finnish goal was due to an error by one of the best goalkeepers in world football who had just watched his close friend fighting for his life a few yards away. 

After this the tournament unfolded and was hugely entertaining in places. I didn’t watch a lot of the less interesting group games, North Macedonia is still a mystery to me but we saw fine football in the group stages from Belgium, France and Spain, an initial stutter from Germany who then stuffed Portugal and encouraging efforts from Austria, Hungary and Ukraine. Denmark inspiringly roared back to qualify. 

The decision to only eliminate eight teams from twenty-four severely reduced the jeopardy element. It was twice as easy to qualify as to be eliminated. But that detail aside the tournament really took off in the knockout stage. There were some superb matches. Belgium eliminated Portugal and then fell to Italy. France were amazingly eliminated in a shootout with Switzerland. Spain and Croatia provided a cliffhanger and eliminated the Swiss. Italy stuttered against Austria but probably took part in the match of the tournament against Spain who were most unfortunate to be beaten on penalties after playing some exhilarating attacking football. There were a variety of styles and approaches which is, in itself, a blessing and most games saw positive and attractive football unlike so much of the attritional football we often see in tournament play. Perhaps the biggest change in approach came from Mancini’s Italy who without completely abandoning the defensive dark arts, had attractive creative midfielders and direct, exciting front players like Chiesa and Insigne. They forged their way to the Final as part of a 34 game unbeaten run. 

But what of the home nations? Wales had cause for encouragement after their superb run in 2016 although they are still heavily dependent on Bale and Ramsey, neither of whom are quite the players they were five years ago. A fine win against Turkey was offset by a bit of a thrashing by Denmark in the last sixteen. Then we have Scotland!  Ah Scotland that enigmatic footballing nation who showed both sides of their football psyche in their short time in the tournament. They lost two games at home against decent but far from top-quality teams in Croatia and the Czech Republic, Schick scoring an incredible long-distance goal in the first game, my Goal of the Tournament. But against England at Wembley they were in full Braveheart mood and with better attacking quality they may have beaten England who were slightly second best on the night. If only Scotland could muster the quality that they can dredge up against the Auld Enemy more frequently against less emotive opposition. Under a thoughtful coach in Steve Clarke they are showing progress and it is to be hoped they can build on this foundation to qualify for the next World Cup. 

England will ultimately feel that yet another heartbreaking defeat in a penalty shootout adds to the litany of failure but I think this campaign was an immensely encouraging one. Much was made of the so-called Golden Generation of Beckham, Owen, Gerrard, etc. who rarely showed much quality in an England shirt. The current generation is exceptionally gifted and because of the high-pressure environment in which they play in the Premier League and Europe they have gained enormous match experience. Southgate forged a terrific team spirit and every call he made up to the Final was joyously proved right. But in the Final, the switch to three at the back, his slowness responding with substitutions to Italy’s growing control (the switch to 4-2-3-1 later in the game suggested England might have achieved better in-game control with that formation) and the choice of penalty-takers in the shootout suggested that his hitherto magic touch had deserted him. Choosing penalty-takers is a very difficult thing and it was to be hoped that more experienced players might have prevented him throwing Bukayo under the bus. To put someone who has never taken a penalty in a senior match in that position was unfair and deeply unwise. Southgate appears a decent man, a fine role-model and honest communicator and if we want to choose an English manager, he is the outstanding candidate. 

But what does all this mean for Arsenal? Our involvement was pretty minimal. Granit Xhaka showed both sides of his skill-sets giving a Man of the Match performance against France but being overwhelmed by the Italian midfielders. His departure appears imminent and he may well flourish in a slower style of football with less high-level intensity. Kieran Tierney missed the first Scottish game but was superb against England but against Croatia, he was unable to resist some Modric magic. Nothing he showed here dispelled the notion that he is a very high-quality defender both centrally or as a multi-purpose left back. The big revelation was Bukayo Saka and how sad that his tournament will inevitably be remembered for his last kick of the tournament. I tweeted him last night to say how proud all Arsenal fans were of him and to encourage him to look forward to what will surely be a stellar career. He will probably never read it particularly because he may well delete his social media accounts after revolting abuse from online scum. He had a fine tournament and is clearly adored by his teammates. His impact has been greater than even we could imagine. I hope the reaction to him from Arsenal fans is as warm as it can be.  I am certain that it will be. 

There were many players on view that I would like us to sign but we have to be realistic. Duku, the Belgian wing-back was sensational but do we need him?  Locatelli the Italian midfielder caught my eye but although we are apparently bidding he seems destined for Juventus. I thought of the strikers on view the best was Chiesa followed by Lukaku, Schick and Dolberg. In midfield I also liked Barella, Damsgard the Dane and Dani Olmo of Spain. We seem likely to sign Ben White of Brighton who was not used by England and possibly Maddison who was unlucky to be left out of the England squad or alternatively Aouar who failed to get into the French squad. They are all fine players but we may have to shop in the category labelled ‘high-quality but not established,’ given our absence from Europe. 

So, Euros 20/21 comes to an end. A tournament that engaged, delighted, inspired and ultimately ended in the way a lot of English tournament campaigns end. Congratulations to Italy, a wonderful football country (a wonderful country full stop) and worthy winners. As I held my sobbing grandsons last night the eldest said ‘Why does it always end this way?‘ He is thirteen!  He has a lot of future heartache to endure but could we possibly be seeing the beginning of a golden era? I think that might just be possible. It’s the hope that kills you.

From en.wikipedia.org

Once again we are privileged to have another Guest Post from Ray Coggin. This piece evokes memories of mid-seventies railway travel to far flung away fixtures and its inherent vagaries and will ring many bells for those who have partaken in such delights. We would be delighted if you feel able to share your own memories of the delights of the ‘football specials’ from yesteryear.

One of the great things about following football in Britain has always been the FA Challenge Cup. It has given fans of all clubs, large and tiny, the chance to compete on equal terms in a competition that has thrilled millions all over the world since the gentlemen of the Wanderers beat the military might of the Royal Engineers at the Oval in 1871. The competition was the brainchild of Charles W. Alcock, the son of a Sunderland ship broker who resettled his family in Chingford. He wouldn’t have known at the time but he would nowadays be able to see the Emirates Stadium from the hill behind his house, it’s the glamorous looking stadium just beyond the Toilet Bowl building.

It’s never been a particularly inviting enterprise to drag yourself to Bolton on a cold wet Wednesday in January for a league match when your team is just above the relegation zone and fighting for not much more than not to be on Match of the Day last again, when you’ve already fallen asleep. For the FA Cup, it has always been different. 

In February 1973 Arsenal had already made it through to the fifth round by despatching Leicester at the second attempt and then beating Bradford at Highbury. Now a trip to Carlisle beckoned, the northern outpost of English football. Two pals from work and myself decided to make the trip north and take a sleeper train from Euston. I had prepared meticulously for our adventure and would leave no stone unturned, bringing everything ‘the man about town’ would need on what would seem like a Grand Tour. 

And so, it came to pass that armed with a large holdall containing some sandwiches, a couple of bags of crisps, a bottle opener and twenty bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale, we set off on our journey. Our group consisted of Dave, a locomotive secondman based at Stratford in East London, Les, another secondman from Kings Cross and myself, also a secondman based at Kings Cross. The holdall was by definition quite heavy in its fully laden state and sounded like a bottle bank being emptied every time I put it down.

We met up at Euston among the early evening commuters on Friday the 23rd and went for a drink in the station bar while we waited for our train to be ready to board. There was some amusement at my luggage and the weight of the bag was something we had to take in turns to share the burden. Soon we were being settled into our berths on the Glasgow Sleeper by a chubby little attendant, about forty-five years old with tightly cropped hair, who when he found out we were all railwaymen seemed to go out of his way to give us extra attention. At least I thought it was because we were railway colleagues and not just three young men out for a good time.  For his efforts though, he was rewarded with a nice big bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale.

We set off on our adventure as the train snaked steadily out of Euston and up the hill to Camden and on out of London. For the first hour or so the three of us sat in one cabin and made fools of ourselves laughing and drinking and making far too much noise. Our attendant politely asked us to “please shut up gents!” so soon after, we turned into our bunks. Sleeper trains were restricted to sixty miles per hour and the slow pace made a soporific rhythm that soon had us snoring. Before we knew it, the attendant was waking us with tea and biscuits as we were pulling into Carlisle. He told us to take our time, but he would be leaving us as we were going to be shunted into a bay platform and could stay there until about eight o’clock, while he and the train continued on to Glasgow. 

Eventually we got up and made our way out into the cold bright morning excited to have a look around. Dave now strode manfully along the road in front of Les and myself chanting “Trouble at Mill!” I seem to remember that it was hilarious at half eight in the morning with no one paying any attention. We decided that we should go and have a look at the castle as one way of wasting time until three o’clock. The holdall full of beer was still being lugged along with us wherever we went. Now a little lighter but of course the more we walked, the heavier it got. It went with us into the castle and then a café and then some shops and a pub as we clanked our way around what was then the County of Cumberland’s principal city. Oddly not much of it had been drunk or at least it didn’t seem so, until I thought that if we were being pursued by the authorities for an unspeakable crime, they only had to follow the trail of empty Newcastle Brown bottles. After a pint or three in a local hostelry we decided we should make our way to the ground and get ourselves a decent position on the terraces.

From picclick.co.uk

Soon the familiar aroma of stewed onions and hot dogs alerted us to fact that we were approaching the stadium. We bought our programmes and then began to worry about how we would smuggle our enormous bag of beer into the ground without being challenged. “Create a diversion,” suggested Les. “As you’re going through the turnstile, I’ll divert the bloke’s attention and just push through,” he said. 

We agreed this might be a ruse. In the event I lifted the bag over the gate without anyone saying a thing. The terrace behind the goal was already beginning to fill and we found ourselves a space to the left of the goal about five yards back from the fence. The bag was deposited on the ground and we stood over it as the crowd gathered around us. I remember watching as the ground all around began to populate with friendly looking faces. Sheep farmers, truck drivers, vets and red-faced locals looked over in bemusement at us singing hooligans from London. As the excursions from London arrived, hordes of red and white clad Arsenal fans made their way in en-masse and soon we were a chanting mob packed together behind the goal at the Petteril end of the ground, named for the River Petteril that runs behind it. 

Disappointingly for us, we learned that our goalkeeper Bob Wilson who was probably one of the bravest keepers that we have ever had was missing and his place was taken by Geoff Barnett. Geoff Barnett was a decent keeper that was never trusted as a number one and had been signed as a rapid replacement for Bob Wilson in 1969 when Bob had broken his arm. So, although Geoff was a capable performer, losing Bob wasn’t a good omen. Sadly, Geoff was claimed by Covid-19 aged 74 whilst living in Florida in January 2021.

The game didn’t take the shape that we had hoped for as Arsenal struggled to get any sort of rhythm going. Roared on by the home crowd, Carlisle gave Arsenal no respect as waves of attacks pressed the league leaders. After about twenty-three minutes Ray Train, who had a magnificent match went into a tackle with Peter Storey that left Storey with a badly gashed ankle. Storey was replaced by Sammy Nelson. The incident seemed to unsettle the Gunners as Carlisle imposed themselves more on the game. Then Frank McLintock brought down Owen in the penalty area but referee Tony Morrisey waved away the claim with the home crowd baying for a penalty. From the clearance Arsenal built an attack as they surged towards us at the Petteril end and from the right of Carlisle’s area Pat Rice knocked a pass to the unmarked Alan Ball who smashed it into the top right corner of the net. 

Our crowd behind the goal leaped into the air and all surged forward as people stumbled over the beer bag. Horrified, I bent down to save it as bodies thumped down on my back. With a loud jangle of bottles, I managed to drag it in front of me again as we all straightened up. The jolly red faces opposite now glared angry stares and shouted expletives at us and gestured with their hands that they should have been two up, or something like that. Our joy was marred almost on the stroke of half-time when, with Carlisle continuing to press, a cross came in from Gorman on the left and Martin headed an equaliser past Barnett.

The second half continued much like the first as the second division side pushed hard to gain the advantage, until controversy struck again. A long ball down the left was flagged offside by the linesman but it went unheeded by referee Morrisey and Winstanley put the ball out of play for a corner while Morrisey waved away the protestations. The corner was floated in and Frank McLintock powered his header home from a similar position to that from which Martin had scored.  The 2-1 score remained in Arsenal’s favour and we gave a large sigh of relief at the final whistle.

As had become customary by this time, we remained on the terrace as the Carlisle supporters made their way away from the ground. We assembled outside and waited for the police to escort us back to Carlisle station, marching more like defeated prisoners of war than victorious football supporters deflecting the jibes and taunts from the locals. As if it was actually our fault that our team had controversially beaten them!

One of the advantages of travelling with railway staff tickets was that we could choose almost any train to go on, except for the football specials on which our tickets weren’t valid. It was also a time of great unrest on the railway and footplate staff were engaged in a work-to-rule protest. That was a perfect way to implement industrial action by diligently applying the railway’s own rules which were made to run the railway in a safe and efficient manner. Trains at the time ran a bit haphazardly due to the rules being applied rigidly. It was under such a situation that we now found ourselves waiting for whatever train to London would arrive first. We didn’t have to wait long before a delayed Glasgow to London express, running about ninety minutes late, rolled into the up platform behind a class 40 diesel. Les, Dave and I thought, happy days! This train was about twenty-five minutes in front of the one we were expecting and would clearly get us home earlier than expected. 

This, in time, proved to be something of a miscalculation. Now the class 40 with two-thousand horsepower at its disposal was not the type of locomotive that would normally have been assigned to a train of this type, as at this time these expresses were the domain of the much more powerful class 50’s. A pair of class 50s would have given five thousand-four-hundred horsepower and so right from the start there was a distinct disadvantage.

A lot of people joined the train at Carlisle despite many fans not having tickets valid for the train, but there were still quite a few seats available. Joining the train towards the rear, Dave, Les and I made our way forward towards the restaurant car clanking our way along with the holdall which still had a few bottles left for the journey home. The restaurant car was filling quite quickly, but we found seats and were immediately joined by three other men who had also just boarded. I shoved my still heavy bag under the seat as we all made ourselves comfortable as the train picked up speed and soon a tired looking attendant came and took our orders for meals and drinks. 

The train made its way south at a very moderate speed for around twenty minutes before it slowed down again and soon came to a halt. At first, we didn’t take much notice, but a few minutes passed and there was no sign of progress. We had already entered into conversation with our travelling companions and asked if they had been at the game which they confirmed they had been. Les asked our new friends what they thought of the match and did they, like us, think we were a bit lucky and had got away with it today? They all agreed that Arsenal had indeed been fortunate to win and avoid a replay or worse. On further interrogation, we discovered that these guys were no normal fans but, indeed, they were sports writers who had been covering the game. On hearing this, Les immediately asked who they had made man-of-the-match? Unanimously they all nominated Frank McLintock who had scored the winner. We disagreed and suggested that it should be Ray Train the Carlisle man who had given Arsenal a very uncomfortable afternoon. The others looked at each other and then the guy on my right said, “Probably, but it wouldn’t make a great headline in London as few readers would know the name, so McLintock would be a better seller”. We laughed at that sentiment as it seemed a bit wrong, especially as they actually agreed with us.

Our meals had been served and as we were clearly enjoying each other’s company a round of beers was ordered by my neighbour on my right and included us three, by now a little weary from our travels. More formal introductions were made and we now understood that beside me was Ian Hart of the London Evening News. Opposite me, sitting beside Les, was David Miller of the Sunday Express and on the other side of the aisle opposite Dave, was Frank Taylor of the Daily Mirror. We three made it known that we were railway footplatemen and didn’t waste any time explaining our position to our neighbouring members of the press in regard to the long running disputes with the British Railways Board. As is normal in most of these cases none of the men understood the reasons for the dispute or what in fact “working to rule” meant.

The train had been stopped for some time at a signal, somewhere in the wild Westmoreland countryside. We explained to our companions that there could have been a number of reasons for the delay. It could be a problem further ahead that was hampering our progress, we may have experienced a locomotive breakdown, or the driver had encountered a reason for not breaking the rules by travelling any further! The last explanation caused a bit of eyebrow raising, but eventually the guard came through the train to inform us that the loco had suffered an electrical fault. After discussions with the signalmen, it was decided to attempt to move again rather than wait for assistance, which could prove to be a long time arriving.     

Eventually the train began to move forward again, but didn’t gain much speed at all and twice came to a halt before giving up and waiting for assistance. This finally arrived in the form of a class 45 loco coming to rescue us all the way from Preston and eventually getting to the front of our train after a wait of an hour or more. During this period, the restaurant which had been in service for over four hours closed. They told us that they had run out of most things and there was no beer left! This was very disappointing news about the beer mostly, but at least we had eaten. 

Before the disappointment of no other round of drinks could sink in, Les piped up. “Ray’s got some beers.” Dave’s wide grin countered the look of surprise on the other faces. I had pretty much forgotten about the stash under the seat, but reached under and dragged the bag to under my feet. I reached in and pulled out a couple of bottles, handed one to Ian and one to Les. Again, I pulled out more bottles until we all had one each. “How do we open these, Ray?” asked David Miller. I fumbled in the bag once more and found the bottle-opener and passed it around the smiling, grateful faces at our tables. “Cheers Ray,” said Ian Hart, which was repeated by the others. I raised my bottle and echoed “Cheers lads, now here’s the bad news. There are two bottles left and we may have to fight each other for them unless they open up again.” 

We settled into conversation about the game we had all been at and pondered why Arsenal struggled against a team that would ultimately escape relegation from the second division by just one point that season. By now our train, although still on the move, was travelling slowly and losing more time. Our conversations had begun to be constantly interrupted by people trying to get some response from the restaurant staff as they began to look for refreshments. It wasn’t long before tempers began to get frayed at the lack of any supplies. Luckily, apologies and minor explanations proved to keep most of the anger at bay, for the time being anyway.

We limped into Preston and the dead engine was towed off by the 45 and we gained an electric loco and made better progress. By now some of the terminally bored and irritated Arsenal fans on the train had become a bit raucous and constantly walked up and down the train, some the worse for drink, and began to be a nuisance with chanting and annoying other passengers. The kitchen had been broken into and some things found and removed amongst which was a roast chicken. Instead of devouring the whole chicken they began to use it as a football and started kicking it around the restaurant car. While this was going on some people including us began to protest and succeeded in convincing the chicken ballers to leave our carriage. 

From twitter.com

Things got worse when we were diverted via Wolverhampton making extra stops there and at Birmingham New Street where police were waiting on the platform. They boarded the train, but the rowdy young men had the sense to lie low until the police left, satisfied that there was no action to take. However, on leaving Birmingham around one in the morning and remember we had been on this train already for five and a half hours, the rowdy behaviour immediately began once again. As the train gained speed somebody pulled the emergency communication cord and brought the train to a stand-still. The guard made his way through the train to ascertain where the cord had been pulled. Back in those days the communication cord didn’t sound an alarm anywhere, it simply had the same effect as the driver’s brake lever, it applied the brakes. Our guard was able to reset it and after a delay of about eight minutes we got going again, only for the cord to be pulled again. Back came the guard but this time Dave, Les and I made ourselves known to the guard and offered help. We found the cord had been pulled in the first-class coach forward of ours and after coming to a stand, opened a door and reset the valve on the end of the coach. This happened four or five times between Birmingham and Coventry, but each time from a different coach. Each time whoever found the opened valve, indicated by the hiss of escaping air, reset the valve and we made our way again. We had spoken to the angry loco crew who walked back to investigate and they agreed to our assistance and as soon as the brake pressure rose again they would continue. 

Eventually we arrived at Coventry and the train was boarded once more by the waiting Transport Police. Dave, Les and I had returned to our seats, but the police were looking for troublemakers and carted people away, marching the protesting prisoners along the platform. It would appear that they had boarded the first class coach next to the restaurant where we were sat. For some reason, a director of the Arsenal Football Club who had been sitting in a first class compartment in the preceding carriage, allegedly consuming some of his personally sourced alcohol, had demonstrated his angry objections to the police incursion only to find himself being frogmarched along the platform with the other captives to the amusement of our press corps friends.

Once more the train restarted its weary journey, thankfully without further interruption by piratical passengers. Now though it was so late that any semblance of a routing path had disappeared into the ether. Passengers who had boarded the train in Glasgow must by now have lost the will to live! They had briefly visited three cities that weren’t in the plan when they started out and now experienced frequent signal stops to allow trains that were still somewhere near their schedule to take precedence. Now Rugby and Northampton would be added to the list of detours before we finally limped into Euston station around half past three on Sunday morning. 

Our journey had been a marathon and exhausting. We had practically forgotten the football match despite progressing in the F.A. Cup. The disruption and the drama on our train was tempered slightly by the honour of meeting Frank Taylor, a Munich survivor from the terrible crash of ’58. Luckily for me, David Miller was going my way and offered to give me a lift home in his car that was parked at the station so the now empty holdall and I finally got home around half past four in the morning. 

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One of the highlights of my business career was spending a few weeks at Harvard Business School in the mid-90s (to pinpoint the date, while I was there we signed Dennis Bergkamp!). The final part of our course was a two- day case study on Nike, not a company I knew well. We dutifully dissected quarterly performance, key personnel changes and marketing strategies when one of our group suggested, “We could just say they signed an unknown basketball player who became the greatest sporting icon in the world and sold a shitload of sports shoes. Maybe they just got lucky!” We decided eventually it came down to a bit more than that but Serendipity undoubtedly played its part.

His remarks came back to me incongruously a few days ago when I considered Mikel Arteta’s tenure at Arsenal. Arteta’s detractors (and there are many) claim that he happened by accident upon a different style simply because he was forced to use Emile Smith-Rowe because of injuries in the game against Chelsea on Boxing Day. That 3-1 win bought an under-fire manager time and we saw a very different Arsenal in the second half of the season 

Arsenal collected 44 points in the last 23 games of the season, the second highest points total by any club in 2021. Those mathematically inclined amongst you will deduce that in the first 15 games we garnered only 17 points, a total that threatened to lead to Arteta’s dismissal. That included 8 defeats which is an over 50% loss ratio. That is relegation form writ large. The stumbling home form, exacerbated by dull and toothless football which ruined so many late Sunday evenings last winter, put great pressure on the Spaniard’s position and even his strongest supporters, of which there are many on Goonerholics Forever, were pessimistic that he could survive.

The actual numerical extent of the improvement in the second half of the season came as something of a surprise to a number of Gooners (including me) when the figures were published towards the end of the campaign. Flaccid performances at home against Liverpool, Olympiakos, Slavia Prague, Everton, Palace and Fulham later in the season were not indicative of strong improvement but the season did also see some fine football from us, including wins at Leicester, Chelsea, Southampton, Newcastle, at home against Spurs and Leeds, and in Europe against Olympiakos and Slavia Prague where our first half performance was scintillating.

However, the capitulation to a very ordinary but well-organised Villareal team was to some the final straw. After the outcry against Unai Emery whose defensive (dis)organisation was ultimately as bad as anything I have seen in over sixty years of watching Arsenal, it was ironic and galling in the extreme to see his team comfortably repel us in a hugely frustrating semi-final of the Europa League. 

But if you were expecting a balanced and dispassionate analysis of Arteta’s record this article is not really for you. I need to state a declared position. I was in favour of Arteta’s appointment, I remained supportive of him through the frustrations of Autumn and Winter and as we approach a new season I believe we should give him our backing and I genuinely believe he can still be a real success at Arsenal. My faith, admittedly, faltered at times but flip-flopping from manager to manager has never been the Arsenal way and we are seeing our neighbours from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road pay the penalty for doing just that, to our delight and amusement. I am starting to believe that Arsenal really are pressing the reset button which sits in the KSE office and the sort of investment that we haven’t envisaged before may be being contemplated. Trusting Arteta to oversee the implementation of the talent purchased is a very big call. I’m conscious that, as managers can find, in a social media dominated world, Arteta has a lot of detractors. But I believe that persisting with him is a logical, right and intelligent thing to do. 

What are my reasons for coming to a conclusion with which I know many Arsenal supporters will radically disagree? 

Firstly, Arteta has had to cope with extraordinary circumstances. He is a rookie manager thrust into a club which has been very poorly governed for several years, with an unbalanced squad and which, when he assumed control, had seen its confidence shot to pieces. He took over a basket case of a team with several stars soon briefing against him. A handful of games into his new job when he immediately started to wreak a clear improvement, the season was suspended, ironically because Arteta himself tested positive for Covid. When football resumed he took a team behind closed doors to Wembley to beat Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool to earn us an FA Cup and Community Shield. That was a very significant achievement but possibly created an expectation that he was unable to maintain with the very mixed resources he had at his disposal. 

My take is that he was able to turn the just-ended season around, a season in which the schism between owners and fanbase was never more evident and produced a team that while incredibly uneven in ability and styles has the nucleus of a very talented group indeed. If, and it is a massive if, we can add to that nucleus with four or five quality players, can cut out a huge amount of deadwood and salary cost (and there is plenty of both at Arsenal) and take advantage of a programme that will be less physically demanding with no European football, next season could be surprisingly good. The end of season poll in the Athletic, while not definitive, did suggest that the majority of Arsenal supporters believe we should stick with Arteta. That may be more reflective of the readership of the Athletic but I think it does genuinely indicate a lot of Gooners believe he has more to give and he will learn from the lessons of a very fragmented season. 

But if we take a positive view of what might be, we must also accept that Arteta has been complicit in some poor decision-making. The signing of the hugely disappointing Willian, a deal that is almost biblical in its stupidity and wastefulness, the preference of Leno to Martinez (which I believe to be a major mistake), the funereal tempo of our play at home so often last season, the mundanity of our midfield work and the refusal to use players like Martinelli or even to retain Saliba within the group were all justifiable criticisms. His willingness to drop our most high-profile player, Aubameyang for turning up late for the Derby (if only he’d consulted C100 about avoiding Muswell Hill Broadway on a match day!) shows both a ruthlessness and a set of principles that suggest he is a very tough character. Nevertheless, a repeat of the underperformance of last season under the scrutiny of extremely volatile and fickle fans, who represent a depressingly high proportion of the Arsenal fanbase would almost certainly see his departure. Yet he has hopefully learnt and been afforded the opportunity to learn because of a long-term view taken by KSE. This is possibly the most (only?) enlightened thing to happen during their tenure ….to date!  

Set against Arteta’s faults there has been clear advancement in some areas.  We have seen a better organised defence , a real improvement in yellow and red  cards in the second half of the season, obvious development in younger players like Saka and ESR (and how good could they both become?), the emergence of Pépé as a game-changer (when he was picked to start ahead of Willian) and away form that was nearly always effective and competitive. Like so many teams, we were much more fluid and threatening away from home. We took five more points away from home and scored seven more goals and our football looked generally more assured. That may be a function of the pandemic as several clubs saw similar improvements away from home but I think it reflects Arteta’s tactical mindset. If fans return it will be important to create a feelgood factor at the Grove and that is a major challenge he must overcome and overcome early. 

My reservations about next season are more that Arteta needs a better and more experienced Technical Director than Edu, as I have just outlined Arteta hasn’t yet shown himself consistently capable of creating a very discernible style and intensity in our home matches (particularly in our opening salvoes – we tend to start games incredibly slowly) and that he seems to ‘freeze out‘ players that incur his wrath. In some cases, like Özil and Mustafi, he was clearly establishing a sensible principle but some players like Soares seemed to disappear off the face of the earth and his treatment of Saliba, as already mentioned, is quite perplexing. He clearly has a fractious relationship with Guendouzi but it would appear that Guendouzi very much lacks maturity and there comes a point for every manager when you need to decide how far you go in accommodating temperamental players. I think we have to trust the manager to set his standards and enforce them within the club. It is worth noting how highly players (eg, Saka , Tierney, Balogun  and last season’s loanee Ødegaard) speak of his coaching and motivational qualities.

When we chose Arteta as our coach (promotion to manager might have been a step too far) it was an acknowledgement that this was a long-term project and that the upside potential might be very significant. That potential is still there. We were so keen to be rid of the hapless Emery (who has to his enormous credit rehabilitated himself extremely effectively at Villareal) many fans failed to really take on board what engaging a ‘rookie’ manager entails. You pay with results and frustration as he acquires experience on the job but if your selection is astute, and if you are prepared to allow him to serve an apprenticeship at your expense, you can acquire a manager who can be transformative in the way that few other current candidates could be. I can still remember the disappointment among some fans when Arsene Wenger was appointed because he was not Johann Cruyff. Wenger was nearer the finished article in experience terms than Arteta is but his appointment was still a highly speculative one. Arteta knows the Premier League and has negotiated a steep learning curve that should stand him in much better stead going forward. If I have a concern about Arteta it is that he can ‘overthink’ tactically as he did in the Europa League Semi-Final. That is a criticism sometimes levelled at Guardiola his mentor and his record is none too shabby, and although Arteta made a tactical Horlicks of the first leg of the semi particularly, it is not a criticism I would consistently level at him. 

One of the things that disillusions me about modern Arsenal fans is that many ‘supporters’ seem to derive their greatest satisfaction from watching people who weren’t their own choices fail – ‘I told you so on steroids’. Arsenal, through years of mismanagement and a failure to appreciate the key inflection points in tactical and personnel development, are now in a position akin to Liverpool before they appointed Klopp. I’m not comparing Arteta to Klopp but the job he faces is of the same magnitude and complexity as faced the German on arriving at Anfield. Klopp succeeded not just because he was a brilliant manager, although that undoubtedly helped, but because the owners supplied him with an off-field blueprint that enabled them to sell (ridiculously) high and bring in world-class additions. Arsenal don’t sell anybody high nowadays. In fact, they struggle to get fees for most players. In a depressed market that isn’t surprising, but if KSE make finance available it must be leveraged to maximum effect and we must improve our negotiation skills and focus profoundly. It is not entirely clear to me or many observers I know, what the plan for our scouting is going forward. Extraordinarily perceptive scouting is going to be what helps to give us a seat back at the top table of football but we acquired some very poor players in our lower ranks last season who should be nowhere near Arsenal. I’m sensing Tim Lewis is playing a pivotal role in advising KSE and his assessment is that dispensing with Arteta would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Time will tell, but I‘m  starting to feel that we may be about to witness a seismic shift at Arsenal Football Club as the owners finally realise the nature and scale of the challenges facing them .

Maybe the addition of Richard Garlick working with Tim Lewis will help that process. Even Wenger at the very peak of his powers, with his intuition cranked up to full bore, had to lean heavily on David Dein to implement his plans. I’m sure the chaos at Arsenal has added to the already sizeable job Arteta has. To lose one senior member of management, to quote Oscar Wilde, may be misfortune, but to lose Wenger, Gazidis, Mislintat, Emery, Fahmy and Sanllehi after years of stability which ultimately morphed into stasis can’t be part of any coherent plan and goes beyond carelessness into mismanagement on a serious scale . Arteta needs backing behind the scenes not just in terms of fine words but from a well co-ordinated and effective plan that provides him with the wherewithal to put a high-quality Arsenal team on the field.  

If Mikel Arteta can fulfil his potential as the manager of our team he can restore us to be a power in English and ultimately European football. Many consider that a long shot, some an impossibility, but I consider that it is really possible that the Spaniard can revive our club. Let’s all try to be positive and hope that he can drive the team forward next season. I think a return to the Champions League is possible and would represent the satisfactory progress we should look for, especially if there is substantial investment into the team this summer. Some suggest he has until Christmas to show that he can do the job. If he starts well and his team respond he can make such talk redundant but we need a positive mindset around the club, something that has not been the case for several years. May 2021/22 see the end of the ’Wilderness Years’ and the beginning of a new era that restores the fortunes of our great club. Naive optimist that I am – I believe! 

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