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A weekend of mixed news for followers of Arsenal saw Manchester United drop valuable home points, Chelsea secure the Premier League title with three matches to play, and Manchester City to keep up the pressure in the battle for the runners-up berth with a win at the neighbours. Everybody has played before us. So to Hull on a Monday night.

The team news, such as it was on Friday, Is that Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are ruled out, and Mathieu Debuchy is a doubt with a hamstring injury. The team that started the last three Premier League fixtures may well get the nod again.

The Gunners are a win tomorrow night away from all but mathematically clinching a top four berth with four matches to spare. A point would make Monday officially St Totteringham’s Day, the twentieth season in succession that this particular feast day has been celebrated.

The home team are fighting for Premier League survival. They are level on points with in-form Leicester, and just a point clear of Sunderland, currently occupying the third relegation spot. That should come as a surprise to those who saw them cruise into a 2-0 lead against us in last season’s FA Cup Final. They have not used that as a springboard for progress.

Having said that Hull have won their last two matches, beating Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park before a single goal triumph against Liverpool at home last Tuesday. They will have a game plan, doubtless a familiar one of defend in numbers and hope to spring a surprise on the break. This Arsenal side has become used to dealing with such a ploy and should hopefully produce the perfect fast-passing and intricate attacking game that tires so many sides.

The ‘holic pound is persuaded to go for a 1-3 Gunners triumph, a 13/1 shot with Paddy Power. I’ve looked at the weather forecast for Hull and the conditions should be perfect for the visitors to play to their strengths and wear down Steve Bruce’s battlers.

For those traveling to watch despite Sky Sports somewhat heartlessly moving the fixture to a Monday night, and our allocation has sold out, I hope you are rewarded with a proper spring evening performance from the boys. Once again this season the traveling support has been fantastic. This is yet one more example of that.

And with that, for once I will finish by saying ‘holics, I hope you had a good one. I know I did.

P.S. In the last set of drinks did I notice some of you going from bard to verse?

P.P.S If you haven’t yet listened to Friday’s ‘A Bergkamp Wonderland’ podcast featuring Jason Davies, Raj Patel, Geoff Arsenal, and yours truly, then you can find it here. Cheers.

Another guest post for you this evening. A topical piece from our very own Snowy (good man Snowy!) on an aspect of commercialism that loomed large this week. Don’t just look away. Snowy makes a number of valid points and we aren’t playing until Monday night so take time to read the piece and comment, respectfully, in the drinks that follow. Thank s all, and thanks Snowy.

In a week where football commentary looked likely to be dominated by Chelsea’s monotone defence of their dreary style of play, and an ostrich-related breakdown by the Leicester boss, a small news item popped up on Arsenal.com that caught my eye, and for entirely the wrong reasons.

Now in general Arsenal.com is not a place I suspect any of us would turn to for fashion news, should any of us be looking for such news at all. But it must be said the recent appointment of Lanvin as Club tailors has had a rather refreshing effect on the demeanour of the first team as they turn up for games. They look smart, polished, every inch the professional. And what’s not to like there?

So it was something of an unwelcome surprise to see that the photo accompanying a few paragraphs of PR puff, about a Lanvin photo shoot with some of the players, was quite possibly the creepiest thing I have ever seen on the Club’s website. And I mean really, hideously, skin-crawlingly, creepy.

I’m not entirely sure what was more disturbing – the sight of some of our most respected first teamers leering ‘Benny Hill With Money’© style as a female model spindled before their jauntily seated selves, or the fact that said model was so painfully thin, that I am actually concerned for her health.

I realise that, in the grand scheme of things, a bit of fluff such as this is but a trifle, and we have many more pressing concerns. But it did set me to thinking about whose company we are all automatically keeping as Arsenal takes the shilling from our growing list of sponsors.

Most drinkers in this bar, whilst clearly holding many different political views, likely agree on many of the broader ethical issues of our time with respect to human rights, homophobia, sexism, child labour, and so on. Some of us may also make everyday purchasing decisions based on those types of ethical considerations too.

And that’s good, because generally we have plenty of choice, and can avoid brands associated with child or convict labour, poor worker safety records, or any other aspect of their practice we might object to. But football is different. It’s not a brand we buy. It’s a brand we join. And once joined (with the exception of the herds of plastics) we tend to stay for life.

Of course, by and large this is all fine. The various sponsorship deals in football come and go, and either enhance or impair our relationships with the sponsoring brands as they do so. I’m sure I’m not the only one who back in the day only purchased TVs and videos that were adorned with the letters JVC. And I may not be the only one who refused to drink Holsten (then) or purchase a Samsung phone (now) for very similar reasons.

So what’s changed? Well for one thing the benefits afforded to sponsoring brands have probably never been higher, and the reach never wider.

In the aftermath of last season’s FA cup triumph a rather charming video went viral which included celebrations from supporters clubs around the world. Everywhere we look – from last week’s clever little interactive map of Twitter supporters, to a glance at the Club own website, confirms the extent of our global reach.

Clearly all of this increases the Club’s appeal to potential sponsors, and will inevitably result in the number of brands and companies who want to be associated with the Club growing ever larger. Which is good, surely? Money is money, and we need the revenue streams. So who even cares?

Well I care, because I’m pretty bloody fussy about the company I keep. And I really hated that Lanvin puff piece on the club website, not just because it made members of our senior squad look stupid, but because it gave a very public platform to a key participant in an industry that is associated with utterly despicable behaviours, ranging from a long history of hideous labour practices and abuse of minors, to near universal eating disorders.

Put simply that’s not company I wish to keep at all. And it is singularly inappropriate company for a Club that has previously taken great pride in improving the prospects of errant players by enforcing good nutrition and healthier lifestyles as well.

Once upon a time it was just the two of us – supporter and club. Gate money played a massive part of the Club’s finances, and emptying terraces saw things, occasionally, change. Now that the sponsor has muscled in I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m beginning to feel a bit crowded out of the picture.

Of course I’m glad we have good commercial deals. We have after all been crying out for improvements in that area for years. Is it too much to ask that they are reputationally appropriate as well as commercially viable?

And if we don’t like them, is there anything we can do?

Not Only, But Also.

If you want to help some disadvantaged kids out with a design competition please read comment/drink #34 that follows. This pdf (click on KIDS below) contains the designs they have come up with and on which they would like to receive some feedback. Thanks.

KIDS

Once more it is time for one of ours to reveal his hitherto hidden talents with a guest blog. Gunner1948 has been kind enough to pen a piece about Arsenal’s elevation to the top flight after the First World War. Thank you very much for your contribution, young man! Enjoy, all.

On April 24th, 2015, exactly 100 years passed since Arsenal played their last Second Division fixture. Nottingham Forest were beaten 7-0 at Highbury and the Gunners finished in fifth place behind Preston, Derby, Barnsley and Wolves. The Great War then interrupted league football until August 1919 when it all kicked off again.

At this point a dedicated student of the game might have wondered what Arsenal were doing in Division One. Certainly Barnsley and Wolves must have been somewhat miffed. Poor Barnsley had to wait another 72 seasons before winning promotion to the Premiership where they came face-to-face with Dennis Bergkamp. Enough said!

There are various conspiracy theories on record to explain how the Gunners chairman, Sir Henry Norris, who had kept Arsenal afloat during some very lean years, managed to get his team promoted. Much is spoken of the ‘fixed’ meeting of Manchester United and Liverpool which would lead to the relegation of Chelsea. However the First Division was being expanded by two teams.

The League, wanting very much to avoid admitting that match fixing had occurred therefore elected Chelsea to fill one of the extra places given that they would not have gone down but for the collusion between United and Liverpool.

The other relegated club, Tottenham of all clubs, also argued they should remain, but the Football League took the view that they had been relegated on merit and chose instead, after some skilful lobbying by Norris, to elevate the Gunners to the top flight.

No matter the reason, the footballing gods got it right on the day. The proof being Arsenal’s unbroken string of eighty-nine consecutive top-flight seasons. No one else comes close. Everton are next with a mere sixty-one and I’d be willing to bet they don’t make it to eighty-nine.

Go Arsenal, Beat Villa!

This was the match that had everything – except goals. Chelsea departed the Grove carrying with them the point they had sought. The scenes at the final whistle as Terry led the astonishing celebrations told you they viewed avoiding defeat as effectively the title clincher. In truth I think they would have been crowned champions even had they lost, but it is to Arsenal’s credit that we were the last serious threat to them.

The first-half was as intense a half of football as we have witnessed this season. Chelsea, without a recognised centre-forward (although had Drogba started it would have affected their approach not one jot), set up to defend in numbers with the back four denying us the gaps our intricate interchanges seek to exploit. When those attacks broke down the visitors sprung quickly through Oscar, Hazard, and Willian.

As expected Arsenal had the lions share of the possession but chances were few and far between, and Chelsea did look menacing on the break. It was frenetic, and with the crowd generating a hostile atmosphere a sense of gladiatorial theatre was evoked. It was tense, and by his early leniency Michael Oliver encouraged a robust opening half an hour. Three times in the opening eight minutes Ivanovic clattered into Alexis, and the third drew him and his captain, Terry, just a warning.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic though, and Francis Coquelin, not surprisingly, also clocked up a similar number of fouls before finding his way into Oliver’s book for the lightest of tugs which Hazard made a meal of. A similar incident when Oscar went down surprisingly easily under challenge from Bellerin did not even warrant the penalty that Mourinho screamed for from the touchline.

However when the same player just pipped David Ospina to chip an effort on goal he found himself justifiably sparked out as the goalkeeper’s momentum carried him into a heavy collision. Penalty again, screamed Mourinho, and in all honesty we could not have complained had it been given. I would certainly have wanted it at the other end. Hector Bellerin executed a headed clearance a yard from his line.

Midway through the half and another tumble in the box brought the loudest cheer thus far when the returning Fabregas threw himself to the deck and saw the first yellow card of the contest as a result. It was his second of the season for simulation. His reception was not as hot as some had thought beforehand. When eventually he was withdrawn in the final minute of the match there were as many applauding as jeering.

Not all of the incidents were happening in the Arsenal box. The Gunners stormed forward and began to threaten more. After Olivier Giroud had shot high and wide Santi Cazorla saw his goal bound effort strike Cahill on his raised arm, but the Chelsea defender was at point-blank range. We’ve seen them given, but the benefit of the doubt went the way of the defender.

Giroud, Cazorla, Alexis, and Ozil all missed, or had efforts blocked as the end of the opening half turned into a pulsating contest of attack against defence. All of which made what followed at the start of the second-half something of a mystery.

During the break Oscar, who had played on for half an hour after his coming together with Ospina, was sent to hospital to be checked out for concussion. On in his place came an old foe, Drogba. The arrival of a centre-forward, rather than providing the visitors with another attacking option, coincided with them retreating even deeper into their defensive shield. With Arsenal less vigorous in their attacking intent than earlier the match became tedious to watch for a while. It was almost as if both teams had decided the draw was inevitable, and acceptable.

With little over twenty minutes remaining the clearest chance of the half so far fell to Per Mertesacker, of all people. He scuffed his effort wide, but all of a sudden Arsenal rediscovered some belief, and ambition. Cazorla’s left foot curled one just wide, and Aaron Ramsey saw an effort blocked. Arsene gambled, sending on Danny Welbeck for the defensive shield, Coquelin. Then surprisingly he withdrew Giroud for Theo Walcott.

In a frantic finale Ozil was just off target, and Welbeck snatched at a deflected opportunity with the goal yawning in front of him. Had either gone in we would have been spared those celebrations and the lauding of Chelsea’s performance as ‘professional’. Of course it was. Were we so in control of the top spot in the Premier League then I suspect we wouldn’t be too critical of us for doing what Chelsea feel they have to do.

They will not win any beauty contests, but they will be rightly crowned the champions. The team that amasses the largest number of points in a season are deserving Champions, and they should clinch that by beating Leicester and Palace in their next two outings. Having said that one cannot rule out that they will secure the points that they need one at a time over the remaining five matches without scoring or conceding a goal.

Arsenal, on the other hand will hopefully secure the runner-up berth, and that will be a platform from which to launch a more viable assault on the title next season. We are surely only a couple of quality signings away from the real deal?

“I don’t think that they have taken more points than us since January but from September to January they did. They have been consistent throughout and they relied on a strong defensive record that got them the championship.”

Arsene conceding that even if we beat Chelsea on Sunday the seven points gap that will remain between the top two will not evaporate over the final five matches. Those are words I didn’t expect to be writing at the midpoint of the season, but we have come on in leaps and bounds, clawing our way back into the race for a Champions League berth that was under severe threat, and then some.

Mathematically Chelsea need to win two more matches to rule out the Manchester clubs, and a third win in the last six will confirm their fifth title (or just one more if they win on Sunday). For now we have to suck on those lemons and hope to delay the inevitable with a ninth consecutive Premier League win, and a first triumph for Arsene over the tedious one.

In a season when we have banished the big match blues with wins at both Manchester grounds and a 4-1 thumping of Liverpool this really is our best chance of beating Chelsea for the first time since our 3-5 win at the bus stop in Fulham in October 2011. Our last home win against them was by 3-1 the December before that.

Per Mertesacker is the main injury concern ahead of the match and his chances of starting are rated at no more than 50/50. Gabriel looks an assured replacement. That would be the only change I would envisage from the team that started the wins over Burnley and Liverpool. How will that side be set up though?

The discipline we showed on those two trips to Manchester holds the key perhaps. We are well versed in Chelsea’s tactics, and although it would not delight the purists we need to emulate their approach and conjure up the moments of class on the break to win a war of attrition. Will Arsene do this at home? That is the great unknown at this point.

Much of the pre-match talk has been of the likely reception for Fabregas. Quite simply, as Arsene requested, he will get the reception he deserves. I think we all expected him to go back to Barca at some point, but not as soon as he did, and under such circumstances. His (and his agents) behaviour in forcing through a cut-price deal was a kick in the teeth for the man and the club that made him. I hope though that we put as much effort into supporting the wonderful talent we now have with a cannon on their chest as we do into acknowledging the depth of our feelings for Fabregas.

Chelsea have a dearth of fit strikers at the moment, and Diego Costa may well be risked despite a dodgy hamstring. Not that we should find too much comfort in that, for in Hazard they have a footballer of the year contender capable of exploiting any defensive indiscipline. Given any encouragement they will pour bodies forward at pace. If there are no gaps for them to exploit, and if we can get the first goal, then we will be in with a shout of making a big statement about where the club is heading.

Having a game plan and executing it are two different things, but for the first time against a Mourinho team we will be anticipating the fixture with at least as much confidence as the opponents. The form of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, and Olivier Giroud, plus the shield that Francis Coquelin is providing, are real plus points going into the derby.

The ‘holic pound is swayed by this hopefully not misplaced optimism. I thought all week that I would be punting on a good old one nil to the Arsenal. I do worry if we score early that the visitors will be encouraged to be far more adventurous, rendering further goals a real possibility at both ends. I will stick with that initial gut feel though. One nil it is, and Paddy Power go 13/2 against that.

To those going I wish you a very happy day and the sort of feeling that beating Chelsea would bring.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

Saturday remains in the memory, for now. A very long day was made worthwhile by the result and the pre-match socialising in pleasant surroundings. Much of the rest of it was frustrating, the tone set by engineering works more than doubling the journey time.

Once at the iconic venue much of the magic of the occasion is lessened by the fact that Wembley today isn’t really geared up to welcome in excess of eighty thousand people. You queue to get in because not all of the turnstiles work and the stewards are less than helpful. Inside the atmosphere is destroyed by a tannoy system set not to eleven, but nearer fifteen on the volume control.

Then when the final whistle has blown the endless queues to escape the environs of the stadium, whether on foot, by car, tube, or overland train. It didn’t seem as bad at the ‘old’ Wembley with a bigger gate. Maybe time has erased the detail of trips past? The memories that remain paint a better picture, however.

I was told my Wembley debut was for an England international against the USSR in October 1958. Billy Wright was the England captain, and I was three months short of my second birthday. Whatever delays occurred I remain blissfully unaware of. The first I have some memory of was the visit of Romania in January 1969, John Radford’s debut for England. Again I have no recollection of the journey home afterwards.

Two months later I saw Arsenal in the flesh at Wembley for the first time. The League Cup Final against Swindon is one I will never be allowed to forget, given I now live there. I remember much of this. The disappointment that burned itself into a twelve year old’s heart that day has been repeated. The taste of chips, eaten on the run in the car home, stayed with me. I didn’t eat Britain’s favourite vegetable product for months afterwards.

The first vivid recollection of a day at the home of English football was the FA Cup Final of 1971. Dad got a ticket from Dick Jones, secretary of the supporters club (there was only one at the time) and as he was playing cricket on the day I got it, and the train fare from Marlow. I had to change at Maidenhead station. On the platform a big old unit, noticing a teen in full Arsenal battledress asked if he could see my ticket. A couple of years earlier I might have done, and been relieved of it as a result. “I’m picking it up from my Grandad at Wembley.” Streetwise at fourteen!

I would travel with Dad, or by train, until the trio of FA Cup Finals from 1978-80, by which time I was driving. There were few parking restrictions in the side roads of Wembley so you could find spots from where you could escape quickly onto the North Circular Road. Parking up early to secure the best spot enabled a short trip to Kingsbury to find a relatively quiet pub in which to lubricate the vocal chords. ’79 obviously remains most vividly in the memory. The five minute Final will never be forgotten.

The thing about all of the early trips is that the grand old lady of English football held 100,000 spectators, and yes there were queues to get out, and onto public transport in those days, but they were nowhere near as bad as we seem to have experienced in the last couple of years. In the nineties, when the capacity of Wembley was reduced by the requirement for it to become all-seater, my worst experience of getting away from the stadium was when I foolishly signed up for a coach trip to Swindon’s play-off victory against Leicester. Yes, the car park was a proper ‘mare.

The point of this piece? I would like to think that someone at Wembley is paid to review the stuff that is written about it and report back. We are back there at the end of May. Well, those who are lucky in the ballot, or who have really amazing friends! I would love to think that the turnstiles will work so that we can roll up and walk straight in, pretty much, as we did when the Final was held in the Millennium Stadium at Cardiff. I would give gushing praise if somebody gagged the announcer and turned the tannoy volume down to under ten so the fans can make the atmosphere and enjoy the day fully.

Most of all though can we think of a way of getting those queues post-match back to the time they seemed to take thirty or forty years ago with bigger gates. No, I don’t know how. I am moaning without knowing the answers, I accept. But in an era of technological progress how has the Wembley experience got worse?

Please win the Final, Arsenal. I couldn’t cope with a loss there these days.

The full Wembley experience, warts and all, ended well, but what a meal Arsenal made of their Championship opponents. The tone was set by a bus replacement service followed by a less than salubrious rattler into Paddington packed with exuberant Reading supporters. The tube whisked me to the next port of call. A fabulous Fullers pub where Guinness and HSB washed down a scrumptious fish finger sandwich. The sun was out, the company great. This would be a good day, yes?

Well, actually Wembley isn’t geared up to handle the number of people it was built to accommodate. Arriving half an hour before kick-off we faced the sort of queues we never experienced at Cardiff, or indeed at our own luxurious abode when turning up even later. Mercifully we ascended to the fifth tier without the aid of sherpas just in time for the start. On the way up it was evident that Wembley have not heeded the warnings about their deafening tannoy system, an atmosphere killer in those pre-match minutes.

The Arsenal team selection was something of a surprise. We knew that Wojciech Szczesny would start as the cup tie ‘keeper, but the absence of the in-form Bellerin and Monreal ahead of him baffled, as did Giroud making way for Danny Welbeck up front. Don’t get me wrong, Danny is a fine player with good qualities, but a leader of the line he is not. We had to change a winning formula to accommodate his desire to forage on the flanks, and our attack was denied options as a result.

Reading, free from the pressure of ensuring Championship survival, chased everything that moved and had a robustness that was encouraged by some very lenient officiating. One cannot blame them for that. This was their day in the sunshine and they were determined not to be rolled over. Chances were few and far between, mainly snap shots around the edge of the box, but from a corner Per Mertesacker brought out the best of Federici in the Royals goal.

Six minutes before half-time we finally broke the deadlock. Ozil, a beacon of class in a crowded midfield, picked out the run of Alexis, and the PFA Player of the Year nominee nutmegged Federici. Around 34,000 Gunners, already in good voice, erupted. Surely the floodgates would open now? Arsenal being Arsenal, they didn’t!

Reading didn’t allow themselves to be distracted from their vigorous pursuit of an unlikely shock, and made all things possible nine minutes after the break. McCleary’s shot took a deflection off Kieran Gibbs but Szczesny at his near post should have done better than help the ball over the line before a desperate attempt to claw it back. All square again.

One of many truly nasty challenges meant Per Mertesacker had to be withdrawn from the contest just after the hour. Gabriel slotted in seamlessly. What an excellent signing he is. Reading grew in confidence and finally Arsene sent on Olivier Giroud to give us an outlet, a pressure release valve if you will, up front. We were back on the front foot again, but unable to fashion a winner in normal time, Aaron Ramsey coming closest but hitting the post when it seemed a winner was inevitable.

The inevitable was only delayed, however. Once again Ozil freed Alexis with a sublime pass and the Chilean cut inside, took a snapshot, and watched on as Federici allowed the ball to squirm from his grasp and over the line. Lady Luck had bestowed her favours on Arsenal, for sure. Giroud struck the same post as Ramsey in the closing stages as Reading wilted.

Theo Walcott, on for Coquelin, seemed happy to spend much of the remainder covering the space ahead of Debuchy, but when he was freed to run at the Royals defence at the death there were those who saw the challenge that upended him as inside the box. From level five I couldn’t be sure. The free-kick that followed was the last action of the match and we were through to our second consecutive Final. The result was far more important than the performance, but the message to Arsene was clear. Go with our best team in that Final please.

There followed the interminable queues to escape the environs of the stadium. Thanks to the neighbour and Gill for persuading me to take the overground route to Marylebone. The train back out west was an interesting blend of supporters who had experienced mixed results in the capital. Sixteen hours after leaving home I was back, smiling at the prospect of another Cup Final triumph for the Gunners.

Wembley, again. We make the short journey to our second home again this weekend for an FA Cup semi-final appointment with Reading. We are obviously massive favourites to progress to the Final but history provides many reminders of just why we should not take the outcome for granted. That is why I was pleased to hear Arsene assuring the press ahead of the match.

“Last year we went to penalties against Wigan and we have learnt from that. The urgency level will be high in our team. We have prepared well since the start of the season for this game and we know exactly what will face us. I think the team will have the needed focus.”

Listeners to this week’s Arsecast will know I am of the opinion that the only change to the team that has featured in our last two Premier League victories will be in goal. Wojciech Szczesny has already been named ahead of the match and he will be looking to earn himself a place in the Final that was denied him last season. As the Arseblogger and Andrew Allen pointed out the boss has a history of rotating in cup ties, but normally he says as much beforehand. This time he has been less open.

“I’m concerned about finding a collective balance. That can include some of these (squad) players or not, but honestly, I haven’t decided who will start the game on Saturday.”

Certainly we have a number of options open and the competition for places on the bench will be as big a teaser as who to start for the manager beforehand. With the likes of Mathieu Debuchy, Gabriel, and Jack Wilshere added to the squad it will be very interesting to see who doesn’t even make the bench.

Of course whatever team we put out should have too much for a Royals side in the wrong half of the Championship table and without a win since beating Bradford City, themselves conquerors of Chelsea, in the quarter-final. Their experienced and highly-rated manager, Steve Clarke, was honest in his pre-match assessment.

“I think we have to play the perfect game. We have to defend well, we have to be solid, we have to be mentally strong. It’s a game where we can’t make too many mistakes because if you make mistakes against the top teams they punish you. So we’re looking to play the perfect game. If we can do that, we can have a chance.”

Reading will make the journey to Wembley with a fully fit squad on Saturday, barring experienced defender Anton Ferdinand. Loanees Nathan Aké and Kwesi Appiah are cup-tied and so will also be missing. They have experienced players, the likes of Pogrebnyak, Mackie, and Robson-Kanu, who will surely threaten the favourites if given any sniff of an opportunity.

I’m loathe to predict a comfortable victory for the ‘holic pound, mindful of the hard work we made of beating Wigan and Hull at the same venue last year. However there is something about this team right now. Eight consecutive Premier League wins plus rolling over Manchester United at Old Trafford is a powerful argument in favour of the hot favourites. I’m basing a 3-0 scorecast on the Gunners patiently stepping up the pressure as the match progresses and the Royals wilting late on. Paddy Power match the market best of 7/1 against that outcome.

To those who are going have a wonderful day. I’m hoping the forecast sun shines down on a beer garden in Harrow pre-match, and that the shared journey home with Chelsea and Manchester United supporters, as well as Reading fans, is a good-natured one. To those less fortunate I hope you still get to enjoy the game live and on Saturday evening we will all be celebrating another Wembley date in May.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

I think it is something of an omen that prior to our FA Cup match at Brighton our very own North Bank Ned contributed a piece, and he has felt compelled to repeat his generous contribution prior to our Wembley semi-final weekend. We made it past Championship opposition then. It will happen again now. Right? Thanks Ned, you are a top man.

Our first FA Cup semi-final was on March 31st, 1906. Newcastle United beat Woolwich Arsenal 2-0 at Stoke’s old Victoria Ground with goals from Jimmy Howie and Colin Veitch. Though Newcastle were the defending league champions, we had beaten them 4-3 at home in the league the previous Christmas and would draw the return fixture in mid-April. I hope it isn’t a bad omen for this year’s Cup run that we had beaten Manchester United, then a Division 2 side, 2-3 away in the quarters at United’s old Bank Street ground.

Goalkeeper Jimmy Ashcroft had kept three clean sheets in four Cup games before that. He was the club’s first great keeper, with a record 20 clean sheets in the 1903-04 league season, and six in a row in 1901-02, a record only matched by Alex Manninger in 1998. He was sold to Blackburn Rovers in 1908 because the club needed the money.

March 1907 brought a second successive semi-final defeat, 3-1 to eventual Cup winners The Wednesday at St. Andrew’s in Birmingham. Billy Garbutt scored our goal. The Stockport-born outside right played only 65 games for us between 1905 and 1908 before being sold to Blackburn, but went on to a distinguished coaching career with Roma, Napoli, AC Milan, Athletic Bilbao and, most notably, Genoa.

Our first winning semi was against Southampton in 1927, 2-1 in front of a 52,000 crowd at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal legends Charlie Buchan and Joe Hulme scored the goals. It was our first and only competitive game against Southampton until 1966.

Charlie Buchan scored five times in seven cup ties that season in what was his penultimate season. He had been Herbert Chapman’s first signing and captain, though he had turned out as an amateur for Woolwich Arsenal as long ago as 1910. With Chapman, Buchan created the WM formation in the mid-1920s, in which the centre-half dropped back to mark the opposing centre forward and the two inside forwards forwards dropped into advanced midfield roles, turning the traditional 2-3-5 formation into a 3-2-2-3. Joe Hulme would go on to be the first player to appear in five Wembley Cup Finals, four for us and one for Huddersfield at the tail end of his career.

Infamously we lost the 1927 final 1-0 to Cardiff City in a scrappy affair, letting the FA Cup out of England for the first time. Goalkeeper Dan Lewis spilled a shot from Hugh Ferguson into his own net, blamed on the greasiness of his new jersey. Arsenal keepers subsequently started wearing old, unwashed jerseys. Another sartorial note: the Cup Final referee wore a bow tie.

Saturday’s game will be our first FA Cup semi-final against Reading, and only our fourth FA Cup tie against them overall. On all three previous occasions we were drawn away, winning 0-1 (1935, 5th Round, a Cliff Bastin goal), 1-2 (1972, 4th Round, Pat Rice and an o.g.) and 1-3 (1987, 3rd Round, Martin Hayes and a Charlie Nicholas brace). We’ve been drawn as the ‘away’ team again this time.

A 1-4 win on Saturday would do nicely.

A number of ‘holics have been good enough to share their thoughts with us in recent years. When our very own zicoinexile said he was heading for the other side of the pond this weekend and could he do a report on the Burnley match I ripped his arm out of it’s socket straight away. Thank you maestro. I so hope our last meeting this season is at the same place we met at the end of last season! Enjoy, all. I already have.

At about 13,000 feet, the air outside was continually thinning.

I could see the beautiful ellipse of the Emirates as we continued our ascent away from Heathrow, when the aircraft banked and turned back westward from whence it came.

The sight of the stadium had me wistfully thinking of the times I had sat underneath that white roof, often up the back of the (new) Clock End, oxygen also scarce as it usually followed a climb up those bastard stairs with at least a half gallon of ale inside me.

I found myself dis-orientated because my journey would not reach its terminus as it usually did, at Holloway Road, but in a far-flung foreign field, that for all its strangeness, is forever Arsenal.

Yes, I had touched down again in New York, and more specifically the home of the NY Gunners, the Blind Pig in lower Manhattan.  It was Saturday and 4.30pm at home but 11.30am in this juicer of choice, where I ordered my first Guinness of the day. Breakfast in America.

Perched at the bar I had a well-appointed view of four different screens upon which I would be able to feast my eyes on the Arsenal, and that was without swivelling where there were another six behind me.  The bar started to fill slowly, initially with a smattering of red and white (and yellow) tops, but soon filled to bursting. And noisy.

The clientele was an interesting demographic mix. People my own age or thereabouts, clearly all ex-pats, you could spot them both by their accents and, in some of the blokes at least, a telling bulge around the waist, which suggested too many Saturdays spent in bars and watching football. Or you could simply check out the names on the shirts : Dreamcast and JVC! On the other hand there were college kids aplenty, mad-for-it and knowledgeable, and they were mad for it beer wise too, sinking them by the stein before mid-day.

Ever accommodating, Spurs had lost by a goal and the mood of the bar was set – St Totteringham’s day was emerging closer into view.  We just needed to take care of business ourselves. The team pretty much picked itself, the only surprise being Gabriel not even making the bench, but this was the 11 most would have wanted to start.

The teams emerged in the tunnel and a massive shout of “Red Army” went up in the bar. The Blind Pig never disappoints for atmosphere. Arsenal started well, and apart from a couple of moments where Per’s lack of pace found him out, the Gunners were well on top and it was no surprise when they took the lead. The impressive Coquelin (clearly our man of the match) bursting through from midfield found Ozil on the left and his blocked shot fell to Alexis who was also blocked before the ball fell kindly to Ramsey and he rifled a right footed shot into the net from about eight yards.

We awaited the deluge but it never arrived.

The first half turned into a war of attrition, with the dreaded Mike Dean continually stopping play for a series of niggling fouls. The only moment of concern a free kick from Trippier which Ospina did well to get strong hands on. Arsenal were a bit overelaborate and we never moved the ball quickly enough, playing everything in front of a packed defence.

The second half was more of the same. Burnley started with more intent but their inability to score, which has plagued them all season, meant that we never looked like losing the contest. For our part, we just never found a real cutting edge and many a move broke down just when things started to get interesting. To be fair to the opposition they did work very hard all afternoon, and putting things in context, both Man City and the neighbours have dropped points there recently, so we shouldn’t look too snootily on what was a hard-won victory.

As the game fizzled out to its logical conclusion, the atmosphere in the bar started to get rowdy again. It wasn’t lost on a large contingent of the audience that the winning sequence hinted at that of the Invincibles.  “49, 49 undefeated……” was ringing in the ears as I sent another black one south.

Afterwards I ambled outside, squinting into blazing sunshine, and headed off to another boozer uptown to meet my hosts where I’d be forced to reflect that next week Arsenal would be back at Wembley, and I would be back in my living room.

But I know that lower Manhattan will be bouncing.

If you get the chance, there are worse places to watch Arsenal than New York City, where a warm welcome awaits Gooners from far and wide.

Go thirsty!

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