Jack Wilshere Keen to Stay at Arsenal after Return to First-Team Fold


London – Jack Wilshere looks like a player determined to grasp every moment of football he is offered this season, and his mini renaissance since returning to fitness and the fold at Arsenal has made him want to commit to the club for the long term. Wilshere’s contract expires at the end of this season and given his injury history he is doing everything in his power to ensure he prolongs a connection that dates back to boyhood.

“Do I see myself staying? Of course I do,” he said. “I have always been at Arsenal, I love this club. They have been good to me over the years, I have a great relationship with the boss. He has played me since I was 17. He has put his trust in me since then. We have a great understanding and of course I want to stay.”

Past experience ought to have taught Wilshere to be cautious about what the future holds but his desire to play and enjoy football is so strong he walked off the pitch after an impressive 90 minutes against Bate Borisov in the Europa League on Thursday and could not resist saying: “I definitely feel I’m back.”

Wilshere’s positive vibes outweigh any wariness about how much football and how many performances are needed to convince others that this latest comeback has staying power. There were moments – imaginative touches and brilliant passes – that were classy reminders of his capabilities. Of that Arsène Wenger has no doubt. The midfielder’s capacity to produce his best over a season is less clear.

“You are always playing for your future but at the moment I am happy to be back, to feel part of the squad. It has been a while,” added Wilshere. “Last year I was at Bournemouth, year before I was injured. It has been a while since I felt a proper Arsenal player but I am back, in training, back in the squad, playing these types of games. I am doing everything I can to stay fit, training well, we will see. I am not looking too far ahead. We have another game Sunday, more League Cup and Europa League, so I am happy.”

He acknowledged that football critics have short memories and that being written off comes with the territory. “That is part and parcel of football. Football is a game where people forget. Everyone says ‘you are never fit’ but last season I was fit for the whole season. It was only in April that I got an impact injury. That was unfortunate timing but throughout my rehab it went well.

“People say it’s a long road but it was four months and I have had longer than that before. I felt good coming back to Arsenal and into training and the boss has been good. He has been speaking to me, been patient and I feel good and enjoy working with these top players again.”

Wilshere confessed that the night before the game in Borisov he was in the hotel and could not remember when he had last played a European away game for Arsenal. In fact, the answer was at Anderlecht in the Champions League in October 2014. Fellow team-mates that day were Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini. It must feel like an age ago.

Wilshere has not yet worked his way into contention to start in the Premier League but if he keeps up his current progression that should not be too far away. Arsenal do not possess too many midfielders blessed with the vision he uses so instinctively.

“As a player you want to be in every game, especially when you have been injured, but at the same time I understand they have been winning and playing well,” he said. “Am I 100 percent back? Maybe not. I felt good in the first half and start of the second and then fitness-wise it started to go a bit towards the end. But that is normal. It will come and I am patient at the moment and we will see where I am in three or four weeks.”

Wilshere enjoyed the challenge of playing in a tweaked position in Belarus, pushed further forward as part of the attacking trio alongside Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud.

“I was playing a different position, coming off the line to link with Theo and Olivier and especially in the first half it worked really well. I wasn’t playing as an out and out 10, I was on the wing and the boss told me to come into the pocket and pick it up.”

The 25-year-old was instrumental in helping Arsenal beat Borisov 4-2 and hopes that he can go from strength to strength. There is a lot to pin hopes on – a new contract and the prospect of a World Cup at the end of the season – but for now he is taking baby steps. He has stopped even looking out for the England squad.

“I am getting back to full fitness and of course I want to be part of that. I have only played two 90s in four or five months. When I am fit and playing in the Premier League, we will see.”

The Guardian Sport

Coutinho, Van Dijk, Sanchez Need to Re-Find Feet after Being Stood up by Suitors


A penny for someone’s thoughts seems a ludicrously old-fashioned saying in the era of the £1.4bn Premier League transfer window. But now the whole brouhaha is over it is hard not to wonder what is going on inside the heads of players whose hopes were dashed on deadline day. It is the football world’s equivalent of being stood up for a dream date. Wake up full of nervous expectancy, impossible to think about anything else all day, then the wretched waiting before the bleak realization that nothing special is going to happen.

So what now for Virgil van Dijk and Philippe Coutinho, whose transfer requests were utterly ignored by their clubs and they will be expected to represent Southampton and Liverpool respectively with full professionalism as quickly as possible? What now for Alexis Sánchez, who will return from international duty by opening the door to his London home and his beloved dogs knowing that he was close to an exit from Arsenal’s problems but it never came off?

Football’s weird moral compass means that possible hissy fits or friction tend not to be major factors once the games come and the athletes are sent out to play. Remember the case of Carlos Tevez, whose reluctance to come on as a Manchester City substitute in a Champions League game at Bayern Munich led to him being frozen out, fined and going on strike to the apparent point of no return?

That turned out to be the same Carlos Tevez who was showered with love when he came back a few months later to score the goals that helped City to win the title. Football emotions can overstretch and suddenly bounce back if it suits everyone.

If Van Dijk, Coutinho and Sánchez, whatever their personal sentiments, get back on the pitch for the Premier League clubs they have generally graced with distinction, if they can find some rhythm and put in the kind of performances that made them so coveted by other suitors, they will be welcomed back into the fold pretty quickly.

It is the less needed players who have the hardest time readjusting if a transfer window move does not materialize. On the fringes of teams around the country are the players who remain trapped in the system which keeps them at clubs with a limited prospect of playing time. A penny for the thoughts of Vincent Janssen as he saw photos of Fernando Llorente trying on a Spurs shirt while he stayed moveless?

The Dutchman could not find it in himself to commit to guaranteed football at Brighton but life at Tottenham will surely feel frustrating at times if he has another season on the edge of the first XI picture.

How do players manage the situation when the optimism of a new chapter turns humdrum? Janssen joined Tottenham a year ago on the back of success at AZ Alkmaar on a four-year deal. Staying confident and positive about the impact one can make on the pitch is not easy without matches. A high salary is not always enough to make a player feel better.

The parable of Winston Bogarde is an important one. Bogarde is widely regarded as a benchmark of sorts for players who pick up a fortune while barely dirtying their boots in earnest. He made almost £10m at Chelsea while playing for them 12 times in 2000–04. But the reality tells of a man who felt lonely, desperate and misunderstood. “My situation was not very good and we tried to solve it many ways,” he said. “Like to maybe go on loan or sell me, or whatever. But in the end it didn’t work out. For a player, for me, it’s terrible not to play. Yet I had to return for training. Mentally it was very hard. To keep the motivation is very difficult.”

It was poignant to see footage of Lucas Pérez, who returned to Deportivo La Coruña on deadline day, arriving back at his hometown airport after a year of frustration at Arsenal being barely used. With his arm round his son, the door to the arrivals hall opened and he was greeted by the warmth of fans singing his name. “Si, si, si. Lucas esta aqui” Yes, yes, yes. Lucas is here. It looked obvious that in that moment his football motivation was reignited after a period struggling for opportunities and mulling over self-doubt.

Across the Premier League plenty remain stuck. At Everton, in their post-splurge new world, the future is uncertain at best for Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Oumar Niasse, all of whom shook their heads at a potential deadline-day move knowing that they are not as wanted as others at Goodison Park. At Liverpool Lazar Markovic stayed put but will not expect to figure too much. Jack Colback is in a pickle at Newcastle. Diafra Sakho remains at West Ham after a particularly curious turn of events. He had taken it upon himself to travel to Rennes for a medical without a deal being struck between the clubs and ended up spending deadline day at Chelmsford Races with his agent hoping for a winning ticket. The move failed.

Life at the training ground goes on the morning after the window closes. Life on the edges goes on for the unwanted and disappointed wantaways.

The Guardian Sport

Another Early-Season Breakdown for Arsenal but No Sign of Any Change

Mesut Özil, Granit Xhaka and Laurent Koscielny after Arsenal fell 4-0 down at Anfield – the latest in a series of horror shows in recent seasons. Arsenal

In the thick of Arsenal’s chronic breakdown at Anfield on Sunday it did not take long for football’s splurging social commentary to begin establishing just how bad this was compared with other abhorrences. How rotten exactly are things in the state of Arsenal? As bad as the 8-2 at Manchester United? On a par with the season they were dismembered by vicious scorelines at Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea? Worse than an aggregate 10-2 thumping from Bayern Munich? More embarrassing than imploding in fright at home to Swansea or Watford or Aston Villa?

Hereby hangs Arsenal’s sharpest problem. Scanning through the past five years to pick out the performances that were especially awful is instructive. This is not an exercise in recalling the common or garden soft defeats at Stoke or West Brom, but a search for the goriest of horror shows. This involves the type of ordeal to leave observers wondering how much longer, how much worse, how much more intolerable, how many times it is possible to repeat the same mistakes without wanting to smash the place up and sweep everything out to start afresh.

This was a subjective exercise but a rough count tots up 20 such occasions over five years. That tells of a damning sense of paralysis, a club constructed in such a way they cannot change the record no matter how screechingly discordant their most annoying songs sound. If Arsenal turn on their internal radio and hear a tune they loathe which taunts them by infernal repetition, they just do not have it in them to change the station. Think about it: 20 times in five years with no radical reaction.

Arsenal have managed to respond to setbacks in their own way. They usually regain enough composure to qualify for the Champions League (missing out only once, last May) and to have earned the sweet salve of three FA Cup victories out of four attempts. But real, profound change, the kind to reset the club as one with ambition to believe in, the kind that creates a team resolve that does not look as if it is made of straw ready to be obliterated by a mere puff of wolfish intent from any opponent, remains a long shot.

The greatest concern to those who care about Arsenal is the fact that getting lacerated by Liverpool with a reasonably strong if weirdly imbalanced selection does not necessarily represent depths significantly lower than other nadirs they have skulked around in the past. If the club did not feel the necessity to address serious issues at any of the previous 19 calamities, why suddenly feel pushed to do things differently after No20?

Which introduces the other major problem. For a long time Arsène Wenger has been a lightning rod for the issues that dog the club. What Arsenal did or did not do in terms of management alone started off as an elephant in the room. But now there is an entire herd of them. One can hardly see the wall on the other side for doleful elephants, great big creatures squishing all their complaints against each other. They have become noisy, too, which is understandable.

The difficulties are manifold. At the top of the business the majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, has never shown any inclination to take active control of goings-on. The chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, who called for a “catalyst for change” a few months ago, is unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo. The manager presides over a set of players who play as if they either do not know what they are supposed to be doing, cannot do what they are asked to do or do not wish to – a mere three games into the season. To be too tactically sunk and low in determination to perform basic tasks is a desperate recurring theme. Quite what was going on inside the heads of Alexandre Lacazette or Sead Kolasinac as they watched from the bench is hard to fathom. Quite how Jens Lehmann kept any kind of calm counsel is harder still.

Behind the scenes the scouting department and the men detailed with arranging contracts and dealing in the transfer market are failing. Numerous players are out of contract this summer or next and it has not gone unnoticed that recent purchases recommended by the StatDNA data business Arsenal bought supposedly to give them a competitive edge have struggled and are among those Wenger seeks to offload. Elsewhere the marketing and commercial gurus strain to strike deals that compare well with their rivals.

It is not as if this kind of situation was freakish. A flaky run exposing basic problems in the team’s structure and motivation was not exactly unpredictable. Perhaps the shock for Arsenal is how quickly it manifested itself this season.

Can they enforce the changes needed to turn a club that looks unhealthy into one that is radiant and positive? It will not be easy, simply because there appear to be so many departments that are underperforming, complacent, overwhelmed (or any combination of). The probability of any substantial remodelling is wafer thin. There is no reason to believe a change of management, ownership, chief executive or a wholesale shake-up of team personnel or dynamic is around the corner.

The herd of elephants have nowhere obvious to go.

(The Guardian)

Premier League at 25: The Best Signing – Patrick Vieira to Arsenal


London- Sometimes, end-of-era curtain calls happen without the necessary fanfare. So it was, at the 2005 FA Cup final, one of the great individual rivalries in English football took centre stage for its final scene. But nobody knew it at the time. Nobody foresaw that Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira would both soon be gone from the clubs they captained with colossal influence.

The game went to a penalty shootout. After four shots each Arsenal had the edge as Paul Scholes’s kick had been parried by Jens Lehmann. On to the fifth. Keane strode up and scored. Then Vieira’s turn. During the slow-burn walk between centre circle and penalty spot, Keane and Vieira crossed paths. These two symbolic warriors, these dominant opposing forces, exchanged not a glance as they brushed past one another along the simmering stride of the shootout. Part football, part spaghetti western, the moment should have been directed by Sergio Leone.

Keane and Vieira represent one of the Premier League’s most riveting eras. Starting in the mid-1990s and spanning almost a decade, this was the period which embodied the best of Sir Alex Ferguson versus the best of Arsène Wenger. Here were two managerial overlords who composed great teams built on heavyweight splendour. Just the right mix of fire and finesse. Either one or other won the league back then, often with the opponent finishing a notably piqued runner-up.

Keane, in his book The Second Half, used the term “electric” to define that prolonged tussle between Manchester United and Arsenal. “We’ve not seen the like since – that bitter rivalry. There isn’t as much physical contact in the game now. Clubs are buying a different kind of player – technically gifted, but not fighters … It wasn’t just myself and Patrick; there were so many rivalries all over the pitch. I see players in the tunnel today, hugging one another before a game. I don’t think any of the United lads would disagree with me; they hated Arsenal. And the Arsenal lads hated United.” That sense of direct conflict, which Keane and Vieira relished and argue contributed to making them better competitors, created an intensity that lasted several compelling years.

When Ferguson bought Keane, a player Brian Clough described at the time as “the hottest prospect in football”, from Nottingham Forest it commanded a British transfer record to conclude the deal. He ever so nearly went to Blackburn Rovers but an administrative oversight allowed United to nip in and strike a sudden deal. A sliding doors moment in the Premier League story. Ferguson would later explain: “He looked like a Manchester United player as soon as I saw him.”

A sum of £3.75m back in 1993 felt substantial. It would be comfortably repaid. Ferguson knew he would have to start the process of replacing Bryan Robson, such an imposing figure at Old Trafford but well into his mid-30s and increasingly injury prone. Keane fitted that bill and became a cornerstone of the United teams that would collect trophies with a brilliant relentlessness. If Fergie had his hairdryer, Keane could cut down a team-mate (or opponent) with a fearsome look, a cutting remark, a flicker of ball-winning indignation. “Every training session would be like a cup final,” said Ryan Giggs. “He would drive you on in every single game … with him in the team you always felt like you had a chance.”

Vieira arrived at Arsenal three years after Keane began life at United. A prodigious French talent who had joined Milan aged 19 and marked out as one for the future, he moved to London as a sort of advanced present from Wenger, who was in the process of leaving Japan to take over at Highbury. Vieira made an instant impression, and to fully understand that it’s useful to recall that Arsenal’s midfield in previous seasons was not the most inspiring section of the team. The job had been shared by David Platt, John Jensen, Stefan Schwarz and a group of homegrown grafters in David Hillier, Steve Morrow and Ian Selley.

Vieira’s style staggered his new team-mates. “I had never seen a midfield player like that – he was almost feline in his movements, so tall and elegant,” said Ian Wright. “When I first saw him the first thing I thought was that some of the midfielders in England are going to eat him up because he was quite slim and skinny. Then when we started training we couldn’t get near him. We knew we had someone world class on our hands.”

The way he managed to win the ball with a telescopic leg and spring up to pass it on with pace and accuracy all in the same move was remarkable. He was as tenacious as he was technical. Dennis Bergkamp called him “one of the first modern midfield players” and the way he played certainly felt different to what English football was accustomed to.

There are countless contenders, in a variety of categories, that merit inclusion in any list of special signings in the past 25 years of football in England. The maestros – Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola – who introduced an aestheticism and style, and a modern professionalism that rubbed off on so many around them. The supreme goalscorers – Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Sergio Agüero. The class acts in a less fashionable position when awards tend to be handed out – Peter Schmeichel, Ricardo Carvalho. The big presences on the pitch who helped to change perceptions at their club – Frank Lampard, Yaya Touré. The surprising packages who became cult heroes – Carlos Tevez, N’Golo Kanté …

If only there were a clear, indisputable, mathematical formula to establish a best signing in 25 years of transfers across multiple clubs. Who knows, maybe transfer fee multiplied by number of trophies plus points gained while on the pitch minus disciplinary problems times number of shirts sold would do the trick. But it’s not very realistic. It boils down to that inexplicable, visceral reaction – how a player makes you feel, if they make you shake with emotion and shout to the heavens because of what they can do on a football pitch.

The best? The most invaluable? It’s your subjective gut feeling against everyone else with an opinion and we all know how that pans out in the wonderful world of football debate.

In that first chapter post-Premier League rebrand, around the mid-1990s, the financial windfalls and greater freedom of movement encouraged the English game to excitedly broaden its horizons in terms of player recruitment. It inspired an influx of exotic talent. Anything suddenly felt possible and it was fresh and eye-opening and made us all a bit giddy. That Tony Yeboah screamer for Leeds blew our minds. Faustino Asprilla, a zany Colombian, turned up in Newcastle sporting a fur coat in the snow. Jürgen Klinsmann did a self-deprecating celebration dive and drove a Beetle while at Tottenham. A pair of Moroccans, Mustapha Hadji and Youssef Chippo, went to Coventry and fans began to come to matches in a fez. Paolo Di Canio had his favourite Italian restaurant in Sheffield. Juninho brought a Brazilian flavour to Middlesbrough. Manchester City had a maverick wizard from Eastern Europe in Georgi Kinkladze. Anywhere we cared to look there was a player to capture the imagination.

With all these Premier League memories swirling around, somehow Keane and Vieira, twinned together by their combative efforts, their leadership by example and their rivalry during some epic seasons, keep shining through. Their capacity to influence their team in a radical way, to help to transform the success rate of a club, to become somehow emblematic, packs a serious punch. It wasn’t just the way they played in themselves, it was the way they made others play, that had such impact.

As for splitting them it is not easy at all. (Would you be brave enough to tell the one you don’t pick?) Keane won more in English football – seven Premier Leagues to Vieira’s three (although the Frenchman added a handful of Serie A titles) and four FA Cups to Vieira’s three. Keane has the Champions League and Vieira a World Cup and European Championship.

Shoved off a very enticing fence, Vieira’s idiosyncratic style redefined what a great central midfielder could look like on the blossoming Premier League scene. He could scrap with anyone but he had what Marcel Desailly described as “sophisticated technique” as well. Vieira cost a fraction over £3m in 1996, when Wenger intercepted as the player was on his way to meet Ajax. Another sliding doors moment. It speaks volumes that people still pine to find the next Patrick Vieira, but that remains easier said than done.

The Guardian sport

Premier League Pre-Season Tours: a Feast for Fans in Far-Flung Destinations


London – It is not only superfans of the elite who are catered for in the modern era of the pre-season international extravaganza. Mansfield Town are warming up for the new League Two campaign in Malta, and the club offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to their supporters including travel with the players on a private Stags Air jet, an invitation to an exclusive barbecue, and five-star hotel stay, all for a mere £3,000. Mansfield beat a Malta Players Association XI 5-0 in the baking heat over the weekend. What better way to build up to the new dawn that 2017-18 might bring?

The pre-season tour has become a significant moment in any club’s calendar. While managers might pine for more serene preparation with the emphasis on fine-tuning the bodies of athletes to handle the upcoming months of relentless competition, pre-season as an event is here to stay. You can imagine marketing gurus sticking pins in maps and circling dates years in advance. Certainly at elite level, for clubs who gear themselves towards growing their international fanbase, summer tours are now extensively planned. There are millions to be made in appearance money, sponsors are granted special access that is more difficult to accommodate in the season proper, and brand building with long distance or new fans is championed.

This summer’s schedule offers an FA Cup final rematch between Arsenal and Chelsea in Beijing and a Manchester derby in Houston. Tottenham Hotspur will get some Champions League warm-ups against Paris Saint-Germain and Roma. Liverpool head to Hong Kong, while Everton have signed up for a trip to Tanzania in east Africa to please their new partner SportPesa. Dar-Es-Salaam will be a colorful first gig for the Wayne Rooney reunion.

It’s easy to be cynical about it all. Why go to a peaceful retreat in the Swiss Alps when you can fill a huge foreign sports arena and sell television rights? But there is more to the pre-season tour than a global commercial exercise. In terms of the connection between fans and a club – and this is something that doesn’t go unnoticed by players either – there is something important in that the vibes are noticeably different to what they experience in the season proper. The support on a summer tour tends to be made up of members of the international fanbase who are ecstatic to have their team actually visit them, plus the cluster of the most dedicated who somehow don’t miss a game, anywhere, ever. The tone is brighter, happier, more forgiving compared to the serious business closer to home. The mood brings a refreshing contrast to the routine pressures.

John Gibbons of The Anfield Wrap regularly travels with Liverpool in pre-season and believes it has become a meaningful experience for everyone connected with the club. “The fans look forward to watching the game and seeing their heroes in the flesh, but what they really look forward to is being the center of the universe for their football club for a short period of time,” he observes. “For once everyone is coming to them. When we went to America last year we kept getting messages saying: ‘We can’t wait to show you how we do it out here.’ There are hundreds of LFC supporters clubs all across the USA now and they combine their own sports traditions with what they see as the values of Liverpool Football Club. So they’ll have tailgate parties before the games, food being prepared on hotplates in a dusty car park, but then sing Liverpool songs with different groups trying to outdo each other for the most obscure.

“I’ll never moan (well, much) about kick-off times again after hearing about some of the crazy times people in Australia, Asia and America have to get up at, or stay up to, to watch Liverpool. But so many of them will not just insist on still watching it live but also travel to a pub so they can all watch it together. The fact that the communal aspect of watching football is still so important, even miles away from the action, is great. I remember the guys from the Seattle LFC Supporters Club telling me a bar owner got so sick of getting up in the middle of the night to open the bar for them he just gave them a set of keys and told them to be honest with drinks.”

Gibbons thinks the atmosphere can have a big impact on the team. “I think it is a great way, especially for a new signing, to see just how big some Premier League clubs are. Liverpool’s brilliant, exhilarating, ultimately heartbreaking 2013-14 season started in Melbourne in front of 95,000 fans. I think it gave everyone at the club a boost.”

Most Premier League managers have come to accept that a far-flung summer tour is an inevitability but Brighton & Hove Albion, as top flight newcomers, have resisted the temptation. Albion fan Kevin Beales has followed the team to all parts in recent years, and is off to see their friendly in Girona. “It is a bit more glamorous than usual,” he says. “We have tended to play very small teams in almost unheard-of locations. It is a rare opportunity to have such a small number of fans, around 100, at a place with no real barriers between you and the players. You only need a couple of people to shout something and the players hear it. There is more bonding between players and fans.

“Probably for the first time we had the chance to jump on the pre-season tour bandwagon but the club decided not to as they thought it might jeopardize preparations for such a big season. Secretly I was hoping we might get to go on a big tour but I understand why not. It would feel weird if people in the Far east or America know who Brighton are!”

Pre-season has come a long way from the time you might catch Dennis Bergkamp kicking off with Ronald McDonald in front of a few curious spectators in a village in Austria. This week Arsenal’s specially decorated plane touched down in Sydney – last visited by the club 40 years ago. For Elia Eliopooulou, who lives in Australia and has one of the most extensive Arsenal memorabilia collections in the world, this is a big moment. “Pre-season tours are not everyone’s cup of tea, but they are for the rest of us, the ones who stay up until 3am every weekend for 10 months of the year to follow our club.”

Danny Peters, an exiled Arsenal fan now living in California, found the experience “beautiful” when his team came to the States. “I’ve seen us play some massive games in the flesh, seen us win titles. But honestly, I enjoyed nothing more than taking my American wife, proudly wearing her Ramsey jersey, to her first ever Arsenal game in San Jose against the MLS All-Stars,” he says. “The excitement and love when they came to New York in 2014 was real, sustained and 100 percent genuine. And that passion came just as much from fans like me who are living away from the UK as it did fans who had grown up in the US and never seen a game in their life.

“Distance and proximity from seeing your heroes in the flesh matters much less today than it did 20 years ago when your sources of information were much fewer and far between. Today, the Premier League, arguably one of Britain’s great exports, is a truly global concern. It doesn’t matter where you live, it matters what you feel about the team.”

The Guardian Sport

Arsenal Emotions Run High With Talk Of Change Not Yet Matched By Actions


London- Addressing an audience of around 250 Arsenal supporters Ivan Gazidis said there had barely been a single hour since the end of the season when he was not working on club business. A summer’s evening spent at the Royal Oak Suite at the Emirates summed up how the goings-on at a football club never ease off.

There may have been a complimentary pie, drink, glimpse of the FA Cup and a bunch of Ray Parlour anecdotes to help the evening flow but it was notable that emotion ran high as Arsenal’s chief executive fielded questions about the club’s direction and the disconnect with some of the fanbase. “If I felt there was an easy answer I would jump at it,” he said. “There is real regret we haven’t had that togetherness and I would do anything to bring that back.”

Gazidis periodically appears at supporter-oriented events. In fairness he is one of very few executives at a major Premier League club to front up and engage directly with supporters. It was an initiative originally conceived to be a fairly positive bridge between club and fans but on this occasion he was not surprised that the mood was “a conflicting mix” with frustrated complaints aired alongside warm praise. After all, as Gazidis confessed, that was how he felt about the season just gone by. He showered the FA Cup on display with affection, before saying: “Sorry, old friend, but you are not the trophy we all want.”

So, how to get closer to the one they want, the Premier League? Gazidis was unwilling to shed much light on any transfer manoeuvrings with negotiations continuing but he did talk about how the club was trying to upgrade across a range of departments. That brought to mind a line he trotted out at a previous fan forum, when he suggested the difficult period last season, flummoxed and strained as the team fell away while the manager’s future was uncertain, was a “catalyst for change”.

The first question from the floor came from the son of Reg Lewis, the striker who scored both Arsenal’s goals in the 1950 FA Cup final victory. He evidently felt more plus ça change as he lamented how he had “never felt such a period of stagnation”. There was a ripple of applause for this directly made point.

Gazidis told the supporters to watch out for a few more recruits in terms of the support staff behind the scenes. But so far, it must be said, the catalyst-for-change concept looks like a thinly disguised version of more of the same. After all the fevered debate about Arsène Wenger’s contract, the flurry over Stan Kroenke’s ownership once news emerged that the American declined Alisher Usmanov’s takeover offer, the whispers about refreshing various personnel, ranging from the coaching set-up to the scouting staff and transfer negotiators, plus all the worries with star attractions such as Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil entering the final year of their deals, the Arsenal scene remains pretty familiar with the majority of the squad returning for pre-season on Monday.

Gazidis’s intentions to refresh an environment that had become a little too comfortable are easier said than done. The creation of a director of football role to link better the technical decisions with the board, to offer a support structure to the manager and to pave the way for an eventual succession plan whenever the Wenger era ends has returned to the backburner.

Meanwhile the cluster of staff whose positions were under review, including the goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton, the fitness coach Tony Colbert and the chief scout Steve Rowley, remain at the club.

There is an incoming fitness guru from Australia in Darren Burgess, a legal whizz, Huss Fahmy, to work on player contracts and a youth goalkeeping coach on board but it remains to be seen whether these appointments are radical enough to make the kind of instant impact to help Arsenal do what Gazidis aspires to. “We are all geared towards the question: how do we get from 75 points to the 85-90 points bracket in the Premier League?”

It is not, he claims, all about transfers even though Arsenal have plenty on their agenda as they try to work the markets. They have a number of issues to address within the squad, to try to fend off suitors for Sánchez while chasing attacking targets of their own, plus pruning a few expendable players from the wage bill if they can. They also need to appoint a head of youth development, not having yet replaced Andries Jonker, who left for Wolfsburg in February.

The complicated search for more change goes on.

The Guardian Sport

Ronaldo’s Redemption: Recalling the Brazil Striker’s World Cup Fairytale 15 Years on

Ronaldo lifts the trophy after Brazil win the 2002 World Cup with a 2-0 victory over Germany.

In Saitama, during the summer of 2002, a busload of Japanese commuters facing the tiring last leg of their journey home found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by a gang of exuberant Brazilians who jumped aboard armed with ukeleles, percussion and an outpouring of joyous song. The centerpiece of this bouncing crew was a huge cheerful man in home-made drag costume – his spectacularly garish makeup was smudged in all the elated excitement, his wig askew, his fake cleavage hoiked at a peculiar angle. He was dressed as “Ronaldo’s nurse”. He had scrawled the words over his outfit in case anybody needed clarification about the nature of his dressing-up. Ronaldo’s nurse explained that he felt obliged to ensure the nation’s great hope would be just fine – anything to bring luck and protection to a mesmerizing yet vulnerable talent was worth trying.

The bus made its raucous way back into town at the end of Brazil’s victorious World Cup semi-final against Turkey. Ronaldo had been the match-winner, a dominant force throughout the game, and the final whistle inspired fans behind the goal to hoist huge white letters to spell out his name Hollywood-style. This was a sentimental storyline that demanded the works. To take Brazil into the final, to grab another shot at that most special of games, to give himself and his country the chance to make some kind of peace after the shattering dramas four years previously, meant a great deal. “The nightmare is over,” Ronaldo said. Well, nearly. Just one more hurdle was required for the full catharsis.

Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, the Brazilian nicknamed “Fenomeno”, had a date with World Cup destiny and the story, scripted 15 years ago on Friday, is worth retelling as it remains one of football’s most beautiful tales of redemption.

It concerns a player who took our breath away from the moment he appeared in Europe, turning up at PSV Eindhoven at the age of 17 on the advice of Romário, as a cheerful bucktoothed boy with supernatural ability. The way he combined powerhouse athleticism with a poetic touch made for an awesome sight. In the 1990s, in his physical pomp, in his free-flowing prime, there was nothing remotely like him.

Ronaldo was selected in Brazil’s squad for the 1994 World Cup at the age of 17. By then he had scored 44 goals in 47 games for Cruzeiro but he watched and learned rather than played as his compatriots won the tournament. By the time the next tournament came along in 1998 his reputation had extended to the point of fully formed marvel. A happening. A thing of wonder. It was only natural that great things were expected of him at the World Cup in France, aged 21 and anointed as Brazil’s golden boy.

His trajectory twisted on the day of the final as his name became synonymous with one of the most mysterious chapters in the competition’s history. Preparations to play the host nation in Paris became panicked when, a few hours before the game at the Stade de France, Ronaldo suffered an unexplained seizure. Whether it was stress, illness or something else nobody knew. He was taken out of the lineup and sent to hospital for tests. Curiously, he was later passed fit and reinstated on to the team sheet. He drifted through the game in a daze. His team-mates, party to this traumatic and confusing situation unfolding through the day, underperformed. Brazil were soundly beaten by France, enduring what was at the time their heaviest World Cup defeat.

As if four years of questions, conspiracy theories, inquiries and doubts were not enough, Ronaldo went on to rupture the cruciate ligament in his right knee before the next World Cup. He missed the qualification campaign as he rehabilitated. That explains why Ronaldo’s nurse on the bus in Saitama felt such a strong sense of duty to send protective vibes. Ronaldo’s capacity to return to peak form, and to deal with the attention, remained delicate subjects. Slightly heavier than before, with a monkish haircut, and carrying all that baggage and attention, he set about his business racking up goals.

On the eve of the final, Ronaldo and his attacking accomplices, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, warmed up in the Yokohama International Stadium by merrily trying to out-wizard each other in the Japanese drizzle.

The three Rs, as they were known, had all had their moment in the spotlight at some point of the 2002 World Cup. Rivaldo courted controversy when he faked injury in Brazil’s opening game against Turkey (he was fined £1,000 for rolling on the ground clutching his face when a ball had been kicked against his hand). Ronaldinho had turned on the style to score one of the goals of the tournament from distance against David Seaman. But all eyes were trained on Ronaldo going into the final against Germany. He claimed to be feeling very calm. “Everyone keeps on reminding me of 1998 but I don’t know why,” he said. “I keep on forgetting it and have no problem with it. I am just finding tranquillity to play a good game, and to bring the title to Brazil.”

Laurent Blanc was a former team-mate of Ronaldo’s at Barcelona and Inter and he had a better idea than most about how it feels to be forlorn on World Cup final day. He missed France’s 1998 win over Brazil through an unjust suspension. Four years later he was in Japan rooting for a boy to turn around his own World Cup trauma. “He left us on the day of the last final when he was not himself, and seeing him in such a negative spiral was scary,” Blanc said. “He’s an adorable guy. He’s like a big child – at Barcelona we used to call him ‘Baby’. I’ve seen him in his best period of glory when the things he could do were supernatural. Then I saw him destroyed by injury. Seeing that boy smiling again with joy is a great moment for people who love football.”

The final pitched Brazil against Germany. It was an odd quirk that the two most successful nations in the competition’s history at that point (Brazil had four wins to Germany’s three) had never before met at a World Cup. Here they were, eyeball to eyeball, in the final. The thrills of the three Rs versus the defiance of Oliver Kahn, who had fetched the ball out of his net only once en route to the final.

The final would belong to one man. Ronaldo was one v one against Kahn three times in the first half but found no way through. Momentum swung in the second half with a pair of clinical finishes to take his tournament total to eight. With that came the golden boot, the World Cup trophy, and deliverance. At the end of it all the tears flowed.

“My happiness and my emotion are so great that it’s difficult to understand,” he said. “I’ve said before that my big victory was to play football again, to run again and to score goals again. More than anything it’s a victory for the group. The whole team ran and battled and helped each other. No individual conquest can beat what the group achieved.”

The goodwill of everyone – from Ronaldo’s Nurse to the French surgeon, Gérard Saillant, who operated twice on the player’s damaged knee and watched from the stadium as his patient’s guest – was rewarded. “This gives hope to everyone who is injured,” Saillant said, “even those who aren’t sportsmen, to see that by fighting you can make it. I am very moved.”

It had been an intriguing World Cup for many reasons, the most obvious being that the tournament was taken to a part of the planet where football was less established. Even if the 1994 edition in the US was relatively new territory, the first real break from traditional footballing nations, Asia was seen as a bold move, also providing joint hosts for the first time. South Korea relished the experience and made it all the way to the semi-finals, an unprecedented success for the region which made football into a national craze overnight. Even their group matches were watched on giant screens by up to three million people in the streets of Seoul.

South Korea bumped some major names out of the tournament. They beat Portugal, then Italy and Spain amid crazed accusations of refereeing peculiarities. Favorites dropped like flies – defending champions France were humiliated in the group stage and Argentina made an early departure. England did the usual. The Republic of Ireland became embroiled in the notorious battle of Saipan, with the row between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy prompting the captain’s premature return home, but the remains of the squad relished the competition. Turkey were a surprise package finishing third. But it was the story of Ronaldo’s renaissance that shone brightest.

Numerous great players have never won a World Cup. Ronaldo was in the squad for three consecutive finals but had to bide his time to make the moment his own.

One year before the next World Cup in Russia, his modern namesake, Cristiano, knows he will not have many more opportunities to land the one momentous medal that has eluded him. Right now he is in an extraordinary phase of his career even by the exceptional standards he has made routine.

The best things do not always come to those who wait but for the Brazilian Ronaldo, the original and some might argue the greater, it was worth waiting for.

(The Guardian)

Kylian Mbappé in Poll Position as France Urges Change after World Cup Loss


Paris – L’Equipe is running a poll on its website at the moment, giving readers the chance to put themselves inside Didier Deschamps’s head and select a full squad of 23 to take to the World Cup next summer. Around 300,000 have duly sifted through the long list and picked out their favourites in every position.

Unsurprisingly, Antoine Griezmann scores highly, included in more than 99% of the voters’ selections. Not so far behind, chosen by more than 97%, is a player who did not win his third cap until Friday. Kylian Mbappé has been included on the strength of his explosive season as football’s latest golden boy, on the assumption that he must be a natural at this level too.

This freakishly talented 18-year-old was largely kept in reserve for France’s recent doubleheader of a friendly against Paraguay, followed by the shock World Cup qualification defeat in Sweden, when he sprinted on for a late cameo but did not really have the opportunity to make an impression.

Perhaps he will get more of a chance to show what he can do against England on Tuesday – and the desire to see Griezmann playing just off Mbappé as the attacking spear of a new-look France is understandably enticing – but, all of a sudden, there is an urgency about the agenda that buzzes around the topic of the new generation. Is it time to push for change?

Is the moment right to shake up the side that is still largely built on the components that took France to the final of Euro 2016? Those questions lurked in the shadows of the postmortems after defeat in Stockholm, as the French tried to figure out how on earth they have squandered top spot in Group A.

France had the game, marked by fabulous finishing, under reasonable control as they pressed for a winner in the closing stages, but it was turned on its head at the death. Sweden’s players were overjoyed as they scalped France with a brilliant, opportunistic, stoppage-time strike. Hugo Lloris, who had presented Ola Toivonen with the chance to find an unguarded net from half a pitch away, looked as if he wanted to eat his own gloves as some kind of penance.

World Cup qualification is suddenly a more stressful operation than France had in mind. Lloris was profoundly apologetic. Deschamps was stern-faced and straight-talking as he laid out the requirement to win all of their remaining games.

How quickly the tone of conversation has changed. The next few months for France were supposed to be about fine-tuning, about evolving, about Deschamps prising himself away from his loyalty to tried and trusted players to unleash the prodigies in their place. There is such demand to see the new wave fast tracked into the first XI. The seemingly unstoppable trajectory of Mbappé, the silky touches of Thomas Lemar and the darting dribbles of Ousmane Dembélé make strong cases to be the present rather than the future. They already look revved up and ready to go and Deschamps is under pressure to weigh up how he balances what they offer compared to an older generation that he trusts.

In Sweden, for a game Deschamps (rightly) assumed might pose physical and tactical challenges, the France manager was reluctant to be too bold. Having already integrated exciting full-backs in the Monaco pair Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé, Deschamps chose more conservatively in attacking positions, mindful that the young whizzes further forward might not track back or be as diligent as a more experienced option. But Moussa Sissoko? Really? Having spent a season as an expensive spare part at White Hart Lane, he struggled to match the intensity of the toughest group game between the top two.

Such are the decisions Deschamps wrestles with as he tries to sensibly manage the integration of the new wave. Sissoko and his season in the shadows or the vibrant prospect of Dembélé? Olivier Giroud, with his weird blend of not-quite moments and an excellent scoring rate – 17 goals from his last 17 starts for his country, including a piercingly swiped volley in Sweden – or the wonderkid Mbappé? Dimitri Payet, their star of the Euros, who has found some form again after a mid-season dip, or the purposeful bursts of Lemar?

France are spoiled for choice, but those choices are not that straightforward. It is a dilemma of sorts: loyalty versus audacity. That topic has been put into sharper focus now that the World Cup qualification scenario has changed. Only group winners take a guaranteed ticket to Russia; France are behind Sweden on goal difference, with four games remaining.

How long is the life of a team? The question was posed by a French journalist, Vincent Duluc, in the aftermath of the quirky defeat in Sweden. Deschamps is not about to abandon the Euro 2016 team, which has formed the basis of this qualification campaign. But the fresh faces are ready and waiting to seize the opportunity. How they handle the friendly against England should give the manager even more food for thought.

The Guardian Sport

Wojciech Szczesny: ‘I am the Best I Have Ever Been. I Don’t Want to Stand Still’


London – Per Mertesacker recently got in touch with Wojciech Szczesny to invite him to the FA Cup final and the Arsenal squad’s end‑of‑season get-together. The gesture was genuinely appreciated. Loan players can easily feel out of sight and out of mind. The Polish goalkeeper would have gladly made the trip back to London but there is a clash with his last game of an accomplished season for Roma. It may well be his farewell to the Giallorossi after a two-year loan that has made its mark for both club and player and he is sure to get a warm send-off.

When he first arrived in the Italian capital the Romans had enough trouble trying to merely pronounce his name. Two seasons on and he is held in high regard for his authoritative performances and upbeat personality. Please excuse the simplistic formula to rely on a taxi driver as a barometer for local sentiment, but you will not find many who do not agree with the Romanista who turned from his wheel to proclaim affectionately that not only is Szczesny an impressive player, he is also “a good boy”.

Such is the lurching, changing, life of football, the relationship between this club and player looks likely to be fleeting. Szczesny has a pivotal summer ahead. With one year left on his contract at Arsenal, playing to what he feels is the highest standard of his career so far, he is at a crossroads. Will he return to his home club for a single season? Sign an extended deal and go back to London to compete to be first-choice goalkeeper if that is on offer? Look elsewhere for a new challenge?

Szczesny contemplates the upcoming decision. “The one thing I want to do is make sure I don’t stay still,” he says. “I was quite still for five years – sometimes I played better, sometimes worse, sometimes phenomenal, sometimes rubbish. You take steps forwards and backwards. It is not very good for your head if you go up and down and up and down. I want to try to keep going up, with my quality and with my decisions that I make. I am 27, the best I have ever been, I still have room to improve and I want to make sure that room doesn’t stay empty. I want to go into that room. It feels like a big moment.”

The Roma experience has been such an invaluable one it would be foolish for Arsenal’s hierarchy not to have noticed what Szczesny has to offer now that is different to the homegrown boy who was effectively pushed to the side a couple of years ago.

“The season before I left I had a very bad season – performances, injuries, off field – it was terrible,” he recalls. “I could have stayed in an environment that was going negatively for me. Instead the opportunity that came gave me a fresh start. You get a new perspective. You get new coaches and influences. You learn new drills. You do new things. Now I am very happy that it happened, even if the first impression was that I might be out of Arsenal, which was very painful. Now I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.

“The biggest thing I have taken away from these two years at Roma is the fact I grew as a goalkeeper. It’s just raising your levels, your standards. I absorbed a bigger knowledge of football, the tactical side of the game. You don’t see me with that rush of blood that I used to have as a younger keeper. It’s not that I don’t feel that rush of blood but tactically you are more aware of when to be involved, when to let the defenders recover.” In the victory against Juventus last weekend Szczesny patrolled his area with presence but also notably focused on control. That overconfident or reckless streak he had as a younger keeper was nowhere to be seen.

Having to adapt and make the best of the situation you find yourself in is part of a footballer’s lot. Uncertainty is part of the package. One moment London, another moment Rome, next year who knows? “We don’t sign 10-year contracts,” he says. “You can be wanted at one club and the next day you may not be. Look at the situation of Joe Hart. For me he was probably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, you get a new manager, and two weeks later you are going on loan to Torino.

“That’s the life of a footballer these days. It’s a bit strange. I spoke to him a lot when he signed. We share the same agent so we know we have to keep each other’s secrets! He has done well. It’s difficult as he went from a team that challenges for every trophy to a lower mid-table team. He has gone from facing two or three shots a game to facing eight to 10 shots a game.”

Szczesny found it easier to settle in Rome in his mid-20s than he did when he left Poland for London as a teenager. “When I came to Arsenal I was on a scholarship earning £80 per week away from my family. You don’t have much money to do anything. You basically stay at home. The way I remember my first two or three years at Arsenal is I would go training, go home, go to sleep, recover and go training again. That’s it. Here I came with my life and it is completely different. I am a married man now. Back then I couldn’t just call my mum and say ‘I miss you’ and she could jump on a plane. I didn’t have the money to buy her a ticket.”

The Rome lifestyle is not without its attractions. The day after Roma beat Juventus – second v first in front of a raucous crowd at the Stadio Olimpico – Szczesny takes a stroll downtown, feeling the sunshine on his skin, and heads to a lovely spot for a bowl of pasta for lunch. “There is so much good energy, people being out in the sun.”

Joining Serie A has allowed Szczesny to tick off a few things on his wish list. For a start he always wanted to play against Gianluigi Buffon. They embraced at the end of the game last weekend and Szczesny wants Italy’s No1 to win the Champions League this season: “I want Juve to win it for different reasons – first of all to say I have only lost the league to a team that is the best in Europe would make me feel better. For Buffon, if anyone deserves to win the Champions League it’s him.” Roma are four points behind Juve going into the last two fixtures of the season so Serie A is still mathematically open even if the Turin heavyweights remain huge favourites.

Being team-mates with Francesco Totti has also been an education. “The way they treat him in Rome, the power that he has, is unheard of in football, and he is a really humble, nice guy,” Szczesny says. “To reach that status without losing your head is a great example. It has been unreal sharing a dressing room with him.”

Szczesny’s greatest influence has been Bogdan Lobont, the veteran third‑choice goalkeeper who took the younger man under his wing, constantly giving out reminders – to give his maximum or get plenty of rest or analyse his efforts. “We watch a lot of films about concentration and stuff not related to football,” Szczesny says. “It is a friendship that is based on being a real friend rather than just a team-mate.”

Those kind of connections are the exception rather than the rule in a dressing room, the ones that transcend which club you play for in the moving football world. From his Arsenal days Szczesny remains close to Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs, pals from the youth set‑up.

He still has his parent club, the team he supported as a boy in Poland, very much under his skin. He makes an interesting observation about moving to a new club from one where you have an emotional attachment. “For 10 years I played for a club I loved. The thing that sticks out not playing for Arsenal is, although when you lose it hurts just as much, when you win it doesn’t taste as good. I would never say I give less to Roma than I do to Arsenal, it is just that the emotion is different.”

This season has been a weird one to follow Arsenal from a distance. “Whenever I can I have watched every single game – sometimes if we play at the same time I watch the highlights. You can’t get rid of that. It hurts being an Arsenal fan watching as it has been a painful year. Being 1500 miles away helps! You can’t stop supporting the team, though. You follow them and that’s it. This year in the league has been disappointing, in the Champions League has been disappointing, so as an Arsenal fan you look for that FA Cup final to save the season. I will be watching. I will keep my fingers crossed.”

When the football is finished both in Italy and England, Szczesny is heading to Greece for some downtime before his big decision. “It has been a tense season in terms of we have been near the top and every game in the last three months has been a cup final. The uncertainty over my future is also quite draining,” he says. “In a way it has kept me going. You don’t know what is going to happen or what your options are going to be and that pushes you subconsciously. You want to perform well enough that you are not short of options. There is a bit of adrenaline, you don’t know who is watching you. It’s not a pleasant feeling but it was a motivating one.

“I think I can be better now than I thought I could be when I was back at Arsenal. I have grown more than I would have hoped for. Now I think with the right work, the right attitude, I can go a long way. I always want to be the best but now I feel a bit closer to it.

“When I have my head on the 2017-18 season, then we make a decision – first Arsenal has to and then I have to. I want to make sure I take my time, clear my head of this season, and then focus on doing the right thing. What that is time will show.”

The World according to Wojciech

Born 18 April 1990, Warsaw The son of Polish goalkeeper Maciej, Wojciech spent his initial youth career at Agrykola Warsaw, where he was spotted by Legia Warsaw scouts and snapped up aged 15. Just one year later, he joined the youth setup at Arsenal, where he would begin to make a name for himself.

Loan to Brentford November 2009 Szczesny joined Brentford for the season and gained plaudits for his excellent performances, including being named “keeper of the decade” in a club poll. In 2011, he criticised club’s decision to sack manager Andy Scott. “What a joke!” he tweeted.

First choice Gunner January 2011 Having made his Arsenal debut in 2009, Szczesny had to wait more than a year for his second appearance. By January, he was established as Arsène Wenger’s first choice, moving ahead of Lukasz Fabianski and Manuel Almunia. Season ended with League Cup final defeat.

Fall from grace February 2014 Won two FA Cups and the 2012-13 golden glove at Arsenal, but despite his talent, trouble seemed to follow him. Incidents included making an offensive hand gesture after being sent off at Bayern Munich, and a £20,000 fine for smoking in the showers at St Mary’s.

Roma to the rescue June 2015 Opportunities were limited by Petr Cech’s arrival, so Szczesny joined Roma on loan. His form has been good, but his antics have continued, evident in again being caught smoking after a defeat to Barcelona, prompting his exclusion from Rudi García’s next squad.

The Guardian Sport

It was Arsenal’s Day in 2002 – but it Has Mostly been Chelsea’s Ever Since


London – Winding the clock back to 2002, the last time Arsenal and Chelsea contested the FA Cup final, one of the telling moments took place at the end. Tony Adams, in what would be his final appearance before retirement, sought out a young John Terry, who had come on as a substitute, to offer some words of consolation. He recalls the exchange in his new book, Sober, as “saying that his time would come but this was ours”. He was right on both counts.

It is only with hindsight that the dividing line around that time in terms of these London rivals makes sense. The 2002 final marks the midpoint of three decades of football that had Arsenal as the dominant force from the capital in part one and Chelsea taking over in part two. In the 15 years leading up to that FA Cup showdown Arsenal had the silverware, with a little more to come, from successes under George Graham and Arsène Wenger. They were days away from clinching their fourth league title across that period in addition to a cluster of cups. At the time Chelsea had not won a title since the 1950s and the occasional cup was cherished but did not give the impression they were in position to become a leading force.

It seems strange to think Arsenal were for so long a hoodoo team for Chelsea. Victory in the 2002 FA Cup final, delivered by wonderstrikes from Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg, came during an era where Chelsea spent the best part of a decade without a serious win of any sort in this fixture. There were a couple of moments of light relief in the League Cup but otherwise it was a fruitless slog until Roman Abramovich appeared in the summer of 2003 to transform everything.

Meanwhile Arsenal prepared to leave Highbury for the Emirates and impose a model of financial restraint, and the shift began. In the 15 years since 2002 Chelsea have won five titles and nine cups including the biggest one of them all in Europe. Arsenal had their Invincible season in 2003-04 but since then three FA Cup triumphs have not been enough to quell grumbling about underachievement or lack of ambition.

Football’s changing face in London, is intriguingly represented by the most powerful men who have a seat waiting for them in the Royal Box at Wembley on Saturday. Abramovich in the blue corner, with Stan Kroenke expected for a visit in the red. In 2002 Chelsea were run by the bullish, born in a west-London council flat, never short of an opinion character of Ken Bates, while Arsenal’s Old Etonian Peter Hill-Wood was the figurehead for a board that invariably tried to run the ship with an old-fashioned touch of class.

When Abramovich took over at Chelsea his financial muscle was regarded at Highbury as some kind of ideological enemy and yet now Arsenal are tied up with an American billionaire whose safe stewardship has upset supporters enough to come round to the idea that a Russian oligarch may not be as bad they thought.

That 2002 final seems a world away. Parlour, who opened the scoring in a manner he will never forget, had always been in love with the FA Cup. He remembers it being a family occasion during his boyhood, watching it as a kid in Essex with his two brothers, mum making sandwiches and orange juice, and dad with his can of beer. “Cup final always seemed to be boiling hot, curtains drawn, pitch-black, crowded around the TV and we loved every minute of it,” he says. He described his goal as “probably the greatest moment of my life” and always remembers asking the stewardess on the plane home from Cardiff for a beer and Wenger threatening him with a fine of a week’s wages if he dared to take a sip as Arsenal had the chance to win the Double at Old Trafford four days later.

Parlour decided it was not worth £30,000, although that did not stop him from a wild weekend of celebration once he got home. After a man-of-the-match display in the 1-0 win at Old Trafford, with the prizes won, Wenger tapped him on the shoulder and asked for a word. Parlour panicked. Had the manager got wind of his excess? Would this cost him a week’s wages? Wenger congratulated Parlour for his performance and looked delighted to tell him why things had gone so well. “I stopped you drinking that beer on the plane,” Wenger smiled. Different times all right.

By the time one team are cavorting and the other slumped on the Wembley turf on Saturday evening, between them Arsenal and Chelsea will have won more than half of the FA Cups contested over the past 25 years. This will be win No14 collectively across that timespan – Arsenal have hoisted the trophy seven times to Chelsea’s six. (If you add Manchester United’s five over the same period that is 19 out of 25 wins shared by three clubs.)

The desire to add another will be keenly felt in both camps – even if Arsenal need it more than Chelsea in a last attempt to salvage some happiness from a troubled season while Antonio Conte’s men are enjoying the glow of champions.

As Adams consoled Terry all those years ago, perhaps now the Chelsea veteran coming to the end of his time will take a moment from his own post-match emotions to look out for, say, Rob Holding. Or perhaps, the words of consolation will go in the other direction. It is the FA Cup after all.

The Guardian Sport