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Sometimes Love Is Not Enough: The Triumph and Tragedy of Gary O'Hara

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Wednesday 7 June 2017. The clear, mild skies across London and its suburbs disguised a bleak atmosphere, with many locals feeling a combined sense of fear and foreboding.

 

The national news was being dominated by the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Southwark four days earlier, which had left eight innocent people dead and 48 others injured. As all the victims were being identified one-by-one, security was stepped up across London and a series of raids were carried out on the properties of suspected Islamist extremists.

 

It was also the final day before the General Election, for which millions of Britons would shortly be going to the polls. Voters would be deciding whether the incumbent Conservative government - led by Prime Minister Theresa May - should remain in office and negotiate the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, or if socialist Jeremy Corbyn should lead Labour back into power after seven years in opposition.

 

In the southern Hertfordshire town of Borehamwood, situated between Watford and London, another major news story was breaking. Over the past 36 hours, serious concerns had been raised about the welfare of one of Borehamwood's most famous residents.

 

Few people in the history of professional football had risen so highly so unexpectedly, and then fallen just as quickly, as Gary O'Hara. Two years earlier, he was the young, unheralded coach of the Under-21s team at his beloved Arsenal Football Club. Then, following the sudden retirement of legendary first-team manager Arsène Wenger, O'Hara was unexpectedly promoted to one of the English game's hottest jobs.

 

He may have had to fill a couple of large shoes, but - at 6ft 5in tall and 15st in weight - O'Hara was a big man with an even more substantial ego.  The larger-than-life Londoner was fiercely passionate about restoring the Gunners - as Arsenal were nicknamed - to their former glories, and he was not afraid to ruffle a few feathers along the way.

 

Ultimately, O'Hara's results with Arsenal would prove to be just as volatile as his character, and the stresses and expectations that came with managing one of the country's most reputable clubs would soon prove too great. His tenure at the Emirates Stadium lasted just a single season, paradoxically encompassing both the team's most abject failure of recent times in one sense, and its most glorious success in another.

 

Fan opinion on O'Hara's brief reign was virtually split down the middle, between those 'Gooners' who hailed him as a charismatic master of motivation, and those who saw him as a quixotic liability. If Wenger was the most revered manager in Arsenal's history, then his successor was without question the most divisive.

 

The 2015/2016 season had seen O'Hara encounter various problems - not just on the pitch, but also off it. The short-tempered coach had publicly fallen out with the press, the board, and the supporters, not to mention a few of his own players. That was even without mentioning the tragedies and turmoil surrounding his personal life, which unravelled as quickly as his professional career.

 

The year that followed O'Hara's departure from Arsenal was filled with even more despair. His 15-year marriage to his childhood sweetheart Laura - with whom he had two daughters - almost completely disintegrated within a matter of months. That was followed by a sudden and startling confession on national television, which would leave many in professional football reeling.

 

By the spring of 2017, this 38-year-old - once healthy and full of enthusiasm - was a broken man. He had become a reclusive alcoholic, hiding from the public spotlight that had once glared brightly on him.

 

O'Hara was last seen in public on the afternoon of 5 June. He had been due to meet his father David for dinner that evening, but never showed up. David would report him missing the next day.

 

In the early hours of 7 June, a team of officers from the Metropolitan Police turned up at O'Hara's house. The doorbell was rung twice, with no answer. Police had to force their way into the property with a battering ram.

 

The Met would spend the next few minutes scouring the house until one officer discovered a harrowing sight in the upstairs study. Dangling from a rope noose tied to a ceiling fan blade was the lifeless body of a tall, muscular, middle-aged man who fitted the description of O'Hara. The deceased was completely naked, with his clothes having been discarded across the bedroom next door, while an upturned chair lay on the floor beside him.

 

In the middle of a mess of papers on the desk was a CD case for "Born To Die" - the second studio album released by American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey. The title track from said album was clearly referenced on a nearby post-it note, on which were the hand-written lyrics, "Sometimes love is not enough, and the road gets tough, I don't know why."

 

A more thorough examination of the house found no evidence of blood near the crime scene, and no obvious signs of a forced entry. At first glance, it appeared that the man had taken his own life.

 

As Gary's next-of-kin, David and Laura were both informed of the grim discovery later that day. They affirmatively identified his body the following afternoon, plunging them and the rest of the O'Hara family into mourning.

 

The wider football community was also left in shock following the sad news. Five-and-a-half years after the sudden death of Wales national team manager Gary Speed, many leading figures in the sport questioned how another wealthy and highly-rated coach could be in so much despair that they could commit suicide. Indeed, some were left questioning whether Gary O'Hara had indeed killed himself.

Edited by CFuller

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Better late than never, as they say. Just hours before the start of the new Premier League season, and exactly a year after my first FM16 story concluded, I can now finally introduce you to my second story from last year's game.

'Sometimes Love Is Not Enough' will chronicle the 2015/2016 season at Arsenal, and the trials and tribulations of their new manager Gary O'Hara. Although I finished playing this save game some time ago, it has taken me a little over 15 months to get this story just the way I want it to be. I hope that the end result is as satisfying for you as it is for me.

You can expect updates every couple of days, with me alternating between this story and 'An Impossible Man'.

I'm going to finish with a warning, which probably goes without saying after reading the prologue. This story WILL contain strong language and cover topics that some readers may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

Christopher Fuller (CFuller)
11 August 2017

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CHAPTER 1 - Young Gun

 

The life of Gary James O'Hara began at 7:17pm on 19 October 1978, in Islington, North London. He was born at the Whittington Hospital - named after the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Richard Whittington. While its newest arrival would not become quite as renowned in the city as good old Dick Whittington or his cat, he would still go on to make quite a name for himself.

 

Gary was the second son of David O'Hara (born 1953) and Deborah 'Debbie' Bennett (born 1954). David was a construction worker with Islington Council, and Debbie a care worker who originally hailed from Bermondsey in south-east London. The couple married in 1974, and their first child Paul - Gary's elder brother - was born the following year.

 

As the surname O'Hara suggested, Gary was of Irish origin. He also had football in his blood, as both his grandfather and great-grandfather had enjoyed moderately successful playing careers in their native land.

 

Gary's great-grandfather was James O'Hara, born in 1906 in Ballymote - a small market town in County Sligo, in the north-west of Ireland. Known affectionately as Jimmy, he signed for the newly-formed Sligo Rovers Football Club in 1928 and played as a centre-forward. He quickly became a star attraction at the Showgrounds, where his quick turn of pace and clinical finishing ability would delight the home fans on a regular basis.

 

Jimmy O'Hara spent his entire senior career with Rovers, ultimately going down as a legend of the club. He was their top scorer in the 1936/1937 season, bagging 29 goals as Sligo won 16 out of 22 matches en route to being crowned League of Ireland champions. They were only the second club from outside of Dublin to win the national championship, but they would not lift the trophy again for another four decades.

 

Jimmy also represented the Republic of Ireland national football team on 10 occasions, scoring twice. One of those goals was an 88th-minute equaliser in a 1938 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Norway at Dublin's Dalymount Park, though that strike wasn't quite enough to send Ireland to the finals.

 

Jimmy even had the honour of playing alongside the legendary England and Everton striker William Ralph 'Dixie' Dean for a time in the 1939 season. Later that year, however, his professional football career would be ended through circumstances that were beyond his control.

 

Following Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939, Dáil Éireann - the lower house of the Irish parliament - proclaimed a state of emergency. Ireland would remain neutral throughout the Second World War, though sport in the country was significantly disrupted, and Sligo Rovers withdrew from all competition until long after the conflict ended.

 

By the time Sligo were re-elected to the League of Ireland in 1948, Jimmy was aged 42 and in failing health; he would succumb to liver disease the following year. However, the O'Hara name lived on at the Showgrounds, as his 18-year-old son - James Francis O'Hara, otherwise known as Frankie - signed for Rovers upon their return to the league.

 

Like his father, Frankie O'Hara was a centre-forward, although he was not so prolific as a goalscorer. In three seasons at the club, he only found the net on 19 occasions. Most of those goals had come in his final campaign, during which the hitherto mid-table Rovers narrowly missed out on the championship to Cork Athletic by a single point.

 

When Sligo signed the Scotsman Johnny Armstrong in 1951, Frankie found that his chances of staying in the senior team had been greatly diminished. He left the club in a state of disappointment and emigrated to London, which - like most major British cities - was experiencing a post-war boom.

 

Frankie had trials with Fulham and Queens Park Rangers, but he could not resume his football career in London. Instead, as was typical of many Irish emigrants to the UK, he went on to run a public house in Islington. It was there where he settled down with a local woman - Mary Brasier, with whom he would have five children.

 

Frankie O'Hara passed away peacefully in 2003, shortly after he lost his wife Mary to dementia. He was 72 years old.

 

David O'Hara - the middle child of Frankie and Mary - did not follow his ancestors into playing football at a competitive level. However, he did become a passionate supporter of his local top-flight football club - Arsenal Football Club.

 

From the age of five, David would regularly travel with his father to the Gunners' home matches at Highbury, which was just a five-minute walk from the family home. His two brothers would occasionally accompany him, as would - on very sporadic occasions - one of his sisters.

 

A quarter of a century on, David repeated that routine with his own sons Paul and Gary. He'd not moved particularly far from his old home and remained a reasonable walking distance away from the ground.

 

Of the two O'Hara boys, Gary was unquestionably the one who embraced Arsenal the most. As David recalled, "I think the first Arsenal match I took Gary to was a league game against Queens Park Rangers in 1984. He was about six at the time and he was already mad for Arsenal. His bedroom wall was absolutely covered in posters and scarfs when he was growing up!

 

"Tony Woodcock was Gary's idol at the time, and he was dead chuffed when Woodcock scored the only goal of that QPR game. He tried to get an autograph off Woodcock after the game. Sadly, he couldn't, and he cried all the way home, even though we'd won.

 

"That didn't put Gary off, though. He still dreamed of watching Arsenal, and of playing for them one day."

 

That victory would not be followed by too many more in what was ultimately a season of disappointment for Arsenal. The Gunners finished 7th in the old First Division, and they were also notoriously knocked out of the FA Cup by Third Division side York City.

 

1984/1985 would be Don Howe's only full season as manager at Highbury. He resigned late on in the following campaign as Arsenal stuttered to another disappointing 7th-place finish. It would be some time before the good times returned to the red half of North London.

 

Nevertheless, Gary's love for the Gunners grew and grew, as did the list of names in his autograph book. Viv Anderson, Paul Davis, Charlie Nicholas, Graham Rix, Stewart Robson, Kenny Sansom... you name them, they were all there. Woodcock's signature was the one Gary prized most, though, and he would eventually get it, shortly before the injury-plagued striker left Highbury for Germany in 1986.

 

The summer of 1986 marked the start of former Gunners midfielder George Graham's reign as manager. Arsenal's style of football may not have been too aesthetically pleasing under the Scotsman's management, but they did enjoy an impressive spell of success, which would begin in unforgettable fashion three years later.

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***

 

On 26 May 1989, Arsenal found themselves potentially 90 minutes away from glory. They travelled to Anfield on the final day of the First Division season, knowing that they needed a two-goal win over defending champions Liverpool to snatch the title at the Reds' expense.

 

With the legendary Kenny Dalglish providing inspiration both on the pitch as a striker and subsequently on it as a manager, Liverpool were the pre-eminent force of English football during the 1970s and 1980s. They were chasing an 11th league title since 1973, not to mention what would have been an emotional League and FA Cup 'Double' in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster. The odds were stacked so heavily in the hosts' favour that the Daily Mirror's back-page headline on the day of the match simply read, "You Haven't Got A Prayer, Arsenal".

 

With the scores goalless at half-time, Liverpool remained on course to retain the championship. Alan Smith did head in the first of the two goals Arsenal required seven minutes into the second half, but the Gunners later missed several chances to score again.

 

At the end of the initial 90 minutes, it was still only 1-0 to Arsenal. However, an injury to visiting midfielder Kevin Richardson resulted in two minutes of stoppage time being added on.

 

Most of Liverpool's players used time-wasting tactics to try and see the match out - with one very significant exception. In the second of those additional minutes, their England international winger John Barnes riskily dribbled towards the Arsenal goal, only to be stopped in his tracks by a fully-recovered Richardson.

 

Richardson played the ball back to goalkeeper John Lukic, who threw it out right to Lee Dixon. The right-back pumped the ball long to Smith, who then spotted Michael Thomas charging through the midfield.

 

Thomas - a 21-year-old Lambeth native who'd played for Arsenal since he was a teenager - evaded a challenge from Liverpool right-back Steve Nicol and took the ball into the penalty area. With only the Reds' eccentric but often brilliant goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar left to beat, ITV commentator Brian Moore delivered the memorable line, "It's up for grabs now!"

 

Thomas dinked the ball over Grobbelaar, prompting scenes of unbridled joy amongst the Arsenal players and their travelling supporters at the Anfield Road End. Arsenal had drawn level with Liverpool at the top of the table on both points and goal difference - but, crucially, the Gunners had scored eight more goals than their rivals throughout the course of the season.

 

That was Arsenal's first championship victory since Graham was playing for them in their Double-winning season of 1970/1971. They would claim the title again in 1991, following a brief resurgence by a wounded Liverpool.

 

As far as a young Gary O'Hara was concerned, Graham was the messiah. The manager could do no wrong - at least not for another five years.

 

Gary's Arsenal idols changed as he grew older and more knowledgeable of football. While he used to love the goalscoring antics of Woodcock and Smith, he increasingly came to admire Tony Adams and Steve Bould - both key components of the Gunners' defence during that dramatic 1989 title win and far beyond.

 

Gary began to study the defensive and tactical abilities of centre-backs Adams and Bould - and the offside trap that they would regularly apply with full-backs Dixon and Nigel Winterburn - in much more detail. He would take inspiration from them when playing in the centre of defence for his school team.

 

Whatever Gary had learnt off his idols certainly worked. By the age of 13, he was captaining his team to victory in a local schools tournament. A year later, he attracted the interest of Arsenal's chief youth scout, who tried to persuade him to join the Gunners' academy.

 

Mother Debbie was sceptical at first about Gary potentially signing for Arsenal. She expressed real concerns that her son's studies would suffer if he concentrated too much on trying to build a football career that might not actually come to fruition.

 

Being a lifelong Gooner himself, father David was much more supportive. Some might have said that David's motives were akin to a pushy parent keen to live out their athletic dreams through their offspring, a claim which he vehemently denied.

 

"It was always Gary's dream to be a football player, ever since I told him all about his grandad and great-grandad from Ireland," David recalled. "He wanted to be like them, and - more importantly - he wanted to go all the way to the top.

 

"When it came to my boys' careers, I just wanted them to do whatever they loved doing most. Paul's biggest aim in life was to be a radio DJ, or a music journalist for NME. Gary's was to be captain of Arsenal and England. I would never stand in the way of their dreams."

 

Gary went along with his father's wishes, and signed youth forms with Arsenal, though he promised his mother that he would not fall too far behind his academic studies. It was a promise he kept to; he graduated from school with six A*-grade GCSEs, including in English, Mathematics, and Physical Education.

 

Gary O'Hara could now throw himself completely into his budding footballing career - a career that would sadly be cut short before it could properly get up and running.

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***

 

As Gary started out on the road to what he hoped would be stardom at Arsenal, his beloved Gunners entered the Premier League era in a state of decline. Despite winning both domestic cups in 1993, and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1994, Arsenal's league form was a major cause for concern. Graham would shortly lose his job as manager, though predominantly because of matters off the pitch rather than on it.

 

The Gunners finished 5th in the 1995/1996 Premier League season, which would prove to be Bruce Rioch's only campaign in charge at Highbury. The Scotsman was dismissed on the eve of the new campaign, following a row with the club's board of director over transfer funds. His one lasting legacy was the signing of former Inter Milan striker Dennis Bergkamp - a 'non-flying' Dutchman who would go on to become a Highbury legend during his 11-year stay.

 

In the wake of Rioch's exit, assistant manager Stewart Houston oversaw the first few games of the following campaign on a caretaker basis. However, he left in mid-September to become the new full-time manager at Queens Park Rangers, where he would soon be joined by Rioch.

 

That left Pat Rice - a former Arsenal right-back who was part of the legendary 1970/1971 Double-winning side - having to steady the ship as the Gunners' second caretaker manager of the season. The Northern Irishman would serve in that capacity only briefly, before he became assistant coach to Rioch's permanent successor, who was finally unveiled on 22 September.

 

Arsenal's new manager was a 46-year-old Frenchman who'd enjoyed success in his home country with Monaco, as well as with Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight. Despite that, his name was familiar to hardly any football fans in Britain. That name was Arsène Wenger.

 

Back in the mid-1990s, even elite footballers would drink, smoke and gamble heavily. Such vices would take a particularly heavy toll on two fan favourites at Highbury - captain Adams, who was jailed for drink-driving in 1990, and striker Paul Merson, who went into rehabilitation for alcohol and gambling addictions midway through the 1994/1995 season.

 

That all changed upon Wenger's arrival on British shores. He completely revolutionised the Arsenal team by adopting a hands-on approach to training, as well as promoting healthy eating before it was really considered 'de rigueur'.

 

As far as personnel was concerned, he initially retained the experienced backline of Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn, along with goalkeeper David Seaman, though he added his own continental flavour with a host of French signings. By the end of his first year, Wenger had brought compatriots Patrick Vieira, Rémi Garde, Nicolas Anelka, Gilles Grimandi and Emmanuel Petit to North London. Vieira, Anelka and Petit in particular would play key roles in the Gunners' subsequent success in 1997/1998.

 

Despite this influx of French imports, Wenger did not completely neglect Arsenal's youth set-up. He occasionally gave chances to some of the more exciting talents in the youth team. On 30 November 1996, during a hard-fought league victory at Newcastle United, an 18-year-old central defender became the first academy product to make his first-team debut under Wenger. That young man was Gary O'Hara.

 

Despite having Adams sent off midway through the first period, Arsenal reached half-time with the game delicately poised at 1-1. Veteran striker Ian Wright then restored the Gunners' the lead after an hour, having previously seen Dixon's early opener quickly cancelled out by Newcastle's Alan Shearer.

 

A few minutes later, however, Arsenal lost another defender. Keown departed with a suspected hamstring injury, leaving Wenger with little choice other than to give O'Hara his first opportunity to shine. The fresh-faced substitute slotted into the middle of Arsenal's makeshift defence alongside Bould, with Winterburn and Dixon out wide as ever.

 

Worryingly, Dixon later went down injured in the closing stages, by which point Wenger had used all his substitutions. The Gunners would have to desperately hold on to secure a 2-1 victory, despite having just nine men on the field, and the presence of over 30,000 baying north-easterners who were willing them to falter.

 

Bould remarked, "For a young lad making his debut, Gary was magnificent. We'd lost three of our core defenders - Tony, Martin, Dicko - but he filled in brilliantly and knew exactly what his job was. It didn't feel like we'd been massively weakened, even after the red card and the injuries. I remember telling him after the match that I thought he was going to have a bright future at Arsenal.

 

"Being one of the older squad members, I took it upon myself to mentor Gary through his early years in the first-team. I could easily see him replacing me in the starting line-up when the time came for me to leave Highbury."

 

Big things had been expected of O'Hara for some time. He was now the skipper of Arsenal's youth team, and he'd impressed a few observers with his composure on the ball and his bravery in the tackle. Indeed, some were predicting that he would eventually take the captaincy upon the retirement of Adams, who was now aged 30 and coming towards his peak.

 

Having received some extra tutelage from Bould, O'Hara would play in two more matches during the 1996/1997 season. He started in a 2-1 victory over West Ham United at the Boleyn Ground in January, and then came off the bench during another away win - against Southampton at The Dell - in March.

 

O'Hara would have to wait until the following season for his first opportunity to play at Highbury. His full home debut came in Arsenal's second match of the 1997/1998 Premier League campaign, against Coventry City. The Gunners triumphed 2-0, and the teenage defender's 100% winning record in the first-team continued.

 

However, a string of knee injuries sustained in training or reserve matches meant that O'Hara would feature only once more for the Gunners - in the January rematch with Coventry at Highfield Road. That game finished 2-2.

 

Arsenal would finish their first full campaign under Wenger as League and FA Cup winners, emulating the achievements of that great team from nearly three decades previous. While O'Hara had not played enough games to earn himself any medals, he still felt immensely proud to have played a minor role in his boyhood club's success.

 

1998/1999 was a much more frustrating season for the Gunners, and especially so for O'Hara. He was still trying to make his mark in the heart of the defence, but with Adams, Bould and Martin Keown to contend with, he was always going to face an uphill struggle. O'Hara only featured in five matches that season, three of which ended in defeat.

 

A particular low point for the young defender was a crushing 5-0 League Cup home loss to Chelsea. After conceding a somewhat questionable penalty for a tackle on Blues player-manager Gianluca Vialli late in the first half, O'Hara looked all at sea as he and his team-mates were carved open by their London rivals.

 

"Gary was in tears in the dressing room at full-time," Bould recalled. "He felt that he'd embarrassed himself in front of his family and friends.

 

"I told him straight, 'Look, Gary. Don't give a s*** about what anyone else thinks. If you just relax, and concentrate on your own game, then you'll feel a lot better - a lot more confident.'

 

"From that moment on, I could sense that Gary's attitude had changed. He was a lot more focussed in his next couple of appearances, and though I don't think we won either of those games, he was definitely heading in the right direction career-wise."

 

By 1999, Bould was 36 years old and long past his peak. He joined Sunderland for a cut-price £500,000 that summer, though not before suggesting to Wenger that the now 20-year-old O'Hara was now ready to become a first-team regular.

 

The 1999/2000 season looked set to be O'Hara's breakthrough campaign at Highbury. That was until disaster struck on the afternoon of 17 July, following a pre-season friendly match at Meadow Lane against Notts County - a Second Division side managed by future top-flight stalwart Sam Allardyce.

 

It has been an exhausting day for O'Hara, who'd excelled in a 2-1 victory for the Gunners. The young defender felt a dull pain in his chest as he headed back into the away dressing room, though he felt that there was nothing to worry about. Then, just as he was about to enter the showers, he felt a sharper pain... and collapsed to the floor in agony.

 

O'Hara had gone into cardiac arrest. He needed to receive emergency resuscitation before being rushed to the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham. Although he regained consciousness later that day, he would have to undergo a heart bypass operation and stay in hospital for over a week before he was well enough to be released.

 

Following his heart attack, O'Hara remained optimistic that he could resume his playing career. In November 1999, he met a leading cardiologist in London for an expert's opinion on whether he should play again. Much to his devastation, he was advised against doing so, lest he suffered another cardiac arrest during or after a match. If that was to happen, the cardiologist said, the chances of him surviving would be very slim.

 

At the age of just 21, Gary O'Hara very reluctantly announced his retirement from professional football. His dreams of a long career at Arsenal FC had ended after only 10 matches for the first-team.

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Really nice work. You've taken real time with the back story and made me identify with the plot. It's been fun watching you grow as a writer across the stories you have written. This should be a fun read.

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17 hours ago, tenthreeleader said:

Really nice work. You've taken real time with the back story and made me identify with the plot. It's been fun watching you grow as a writer across the stories you have written. This should be a fun read.

You don't know just how much I appreciate reading those words, 10-3. This story is like nothing I've written before, and I was very unsure as to how it would be received. Your support is very encouraging.

I feel that I've developed a lot since I started posting stories onto FMS three years ago. I'm sure you'd agree that I've become rather more mature in my writing, not to mention more confident. I am incredibly shy in real life, but FMS has helped to bring me out of my shell a bit more willingly.

Anyway, enough of that. I'm sure you'll want the next chapter now, so without further ado...

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CHAPTER 2 - Schoolboy Crush

 

"Gary was always a bit of a ladies' man, even when he was still a young boy at primary school," David O'Hara recalled with a hearty laugh. "He always wanted to impress the girls, whether that be by making them laugh or playing well on the football pitch.

 

"I still remember that Valentine's Day when Gary was eight years old. He'd made a Valentine's card for someone, but it wasn't for one of his schoolfriends. He'd written it for someone named Miss Tomlin.

 

"I thought that card might've been for one of our neighbours, 'cos there was a Tomlin family living four doors down from us, but that wasn't so. It turned out that Miss Tomlin was his music teacher - and it also transpired that she was a lesbian!

 

"Anyway, Gary had loads of friends at school - both boys and girls. As far as serious love interests went, though, there was only really one girl for him. Laura was the one."

 

In September 1991, the then-12-year-old Gary O'Hara was beginning his second year at a secondary school in Islington. It was on the first Tuesday morning of the new school term that he first laid eyes upon his future wife.

 

The sight of a tall, slender, attractive older girl with an overbite flowing locks of blondish-brown hair captivated Gary. In some ways, she bore a striking resemblance to a certain Kylie Minogue - the Australian pop princess whom Gary had had a secret crush on during the early 90s.

 

In other ways, though, Laura Sheridan seemed to be way out of the budding footballer's league. For one thing, she was a good year older than her new admirer. In addition, the 13-year-old Laura was a real swot - today's youngsters might have somewhat questionably termed her as a 'geek' - who had little interest in any form of sport, let alone football.

 

Then there was the difference in family backgrounds. Laura came from an affluent middle-class family - her mother Emma was a teacher, and her father Martin an accountant - who originally lived in Hemel Hempstead, in the nearby county of Hertfordshire.

 

The Sheridans had moved to Islington in the summer after Emma got a new job as head teacher of a struggling primary school in the area. Emma also entered her two children into a local comprehensive, as she wanted them to reap the benefits of state education after several years in the private system.

 

The O'Haras may not have exactly been precariats, but they were the archetypal working-class family, certainly in comparison to the Sheridans. David and Debbie certainly could not afford to put their sons into a private school, while the boys' attitude towards the school's dress code was somewhat lax. When a scruffy-looking Gary - his tie already loosened long before the first bell - initially introduced himself to the rather more kempt Laura in the school playground, she turned her nose up to him and simply walked inside.

 

While Laura's attitude on that first morning might have been off-putting to many aspiring boyfriends, Gary would not be repelled. He spent the following three months trying whatever he could to win Laura over, without success. She was more interested in studying than any, ahem, extra-curricular activities with the opposite gender.

 

Gary's obsession with football arguably didn't help his attempts to woo the distinctly unsporty Laura, but it would actually prove to be his 'way in'.

 

You see, one of Gary's team-mates on the football pitch - and one of his best friends and classmates off it - was a fellow Arsenal fan by the name of Richard Sheridan. He just so happened to be Laura's younger brother.

 

Richie - as the younger Sheridan preferred to be known - was a flexible and agile goalkeeper who aspired to be the next David Seaman. In the future, he would briefly play for Barnet's youth team and then turn out for Harrow Borough in the Isthmian League, only to hang up his gloves before his teenage years were over to concentrate on a burgeoning career as an architect.

 

Though football was far from her biggest passion, Laura would occasionally watch her sibling play for the school team. Whenever his crush was in attendance, Gary would be particularly determined to put in a good performance. Eventually, after one hard-fought victory against a rival school team in January, he registered another minor win of his own.

 

In the dying minutes of the match, with one goal separating the two sides, Richie appeared to have gifted the opposing team a late equaliser by fumbling a tame shot towards his own goal. Fortunately, just as the ball was about to cross the goal line, centre-half Gary rushed back to stop the ball and hack it safely into touch.

 

This hadn't gone unnoticed by Laura. After congratulating her brother on his performance, she turned to Gary, gave him the thumbs up, and told him simply, "Well played."

 

That small token of recognition did wonders for Gary's confidence around Laura. Although his next attempt to ask her out on a date would end in a disappointing rejection, he would eventually win her over through another passion that they did share.

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Loving the start to this story and as tenthreeleader has said the back story is brilliant. In my humble opinion your stories are becoming the benchmark which new writers should look to if they are looking at doing in depth detailed stories (Any other author reading this please don't take offence).

If you don't win alot more awards this year I will be very surprised

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On 8/20/2017 at 20:34, mark wilson27 said:

Loving the start to this story and as tenthreeleader has said the back story is brilliant. In my humble opinion your stories are becoming the benchmark which new writers should look to if they are looking at doing in depth detailed stories (Any other author reading this please don't take offence).

If you don't win alot more awards this year I will be very surprised

Thank you. :thup:

I'm not a writer who tends to do things by halves, which probably explains why it's taken me such a long time to make this story publishable. I'd originally planned to post the prologue shortly after last season's FA Cup Final, but dividing my time between FOUR different stories (this, 'An Impossible Man', 'House of Flying Daggers' and 'Bygmester Fuller') meant that the publication date was pushed back even further.

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***

 

Football might have been Gary's first love, but his other great pastime was music. That passion had been passed onto him mainly through his mother and elder brother, both of whom had eclectic musical tastes.

 

Paul in particular was a big fan of 'alternative' music, and he introduced Gary to acts such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Saint Etienne, and The Sundays. One evening, Gary composed a mixtape with songs featuring those three bands - and others - with a view to giving it to Laura the next morning before school.

 

Unfortunately, Laura would not be at school the next morning. Gary was horrified when he learned why.

 

While Gary was at home creating his mixtape, Laura was at a restaurant on Upper Street - Islington's major shopping street - with her dad Martin. After their meal, father and daughter were confronted by a group of three young Asian men, the tallest of whom held up a knife towards them demanding money. Martin refused their request, and was stabbed in his left thigh.

 

Laura was understandably hysterical, and she battled to restrain the attacker as he attempted to strike Martin for a second time. She was then grabbed by a second man and held against a wall while the third struck her with several punches to the face and a couple of kicks to the legs. If it hadn't been for the intervention of a passer-by who'd barked at the attackers to leave the helpless Sheridans be, who knew what grievous injuries could have been inflicted upon them.

 

Following the attack, Martin was rushed into hospital, where he would have to stay for a few days while he recovered from his injuries. Laura spent the first of those days by her stricken father's side. That afternoon after school, the pair received a visit from Gary, who gave Martin his best wishes before asking to meet Laura in private.

 

Although Gary realised that it probably wasn't the most appropriate time to hand Laura his mixtape, he did so anyway. When visiting hours were up, she returned home and listened to the tape.

 

Laura did attend school the next day - and when she spotted Gary in the playground, she gave him a strong, friendly hug. "Thank you, Gary," she said. "That really helped me through the night."

 

The pair continued to bond over their joint love of indie music, even getting to the point where they would regularly come over to each other's houses to listen to their respective collections. One album in particular was a mutual favourite - "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" by The Sundays.

 

"Gary introduced me to The Sundays, and that first album just blew me away," Laura said. "The lyrics and the music itself were dreamy, but they were also sophisticated. As for Harriet Wheeler's voice, it was just gorgeous... mellifluous, even!

 

"To this day, I cannot listen to 'Can't Be Sure' without the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. There's something about the lyrics, 'England my country, the home of the free, such miserable weather', that always makes me smile."

 

"After an especially hard day at school, I would love nothing more but to put The Sundays on and retreat to what I called my 'happy place'."

 

When it came to politics, though, the lovebirds could not have been much further apart. While Gary was from a left-wing family of staunch Labour supporters, Laura's parents were both Conservatives, and she openly admired Margaret Thatcher as one of her greatest role models.

 

"I tried to steer away from discussing politics whenever we met, but Gary would often go on about how he didn't trust the Tories," Laura admitted. "That was one of the few aspects of life where we would rarely see eye-to-eye.

 

"In a way, though, it was really fascinating, not to mention refreshing, to hear things from his point of view. He hadn't enjoyed the luxury of a comfortable upbringing like I had.

 

"Gary was forthright, confident and determined to succeed - and that really drew me closer towards him."

 

In May 1992, Laura plucked up the courage to ask her parents Emma and Martin how they would feel about her dating Gary.

 

"Mum wasn't particularly keen on the idea at first," Laura said. "She wanted me to concentrate on my studies and getting good grades in school before I could even consider dating.

 

"Mum even asked me, 'Do you really want to be dating some working-class boy who's beneath your station? Do you want to spend the rest of your life with an aspiring footballer who has no other career prospects? I'd hate to think what would happen to the pair of you if his football career doesn't take off.'

 

"Dad didn't see anything wrong with this, though. He was grateful for how helpful Gary had been to me after that night on Upper Street. He convinced Mum to give our relationship her blessing... and she said yes."

 

By the beginning of June, Gary and Laura - still aged only 13 and 14 respectively - were a couple. Their love continued to blossom throughout their formative years, so much so that Laura was even nicknamed 'Mrs O'Hara' by some of her classmates during her final year at school.

 

Laura left school with ten A*-grade GCSES in the summer of 1994 and subsequently moved on to college, where she began studying for her A-Levels. Because of her desire to get high enough grades to attend her preferred university, Laura asked Gary if they could cool down the relationship temporarily. Gary reluctantly agreed, and over the next couple of years, he would only meet his girlfriend on weekends and on the very occasional weeknight.

 

Laura said, "We did the usual activities most teenage couples liked to do back in the 90s. We ate out, went to the cinema, listened to music - we didn't do clubbing, though. Dance music was never our kind of thing.

 

"Something else was off the table. I grew up in a devout Anglican family, and I took a vow of celibacy early in my teenage years. Gary was never very religious - he was a lapsed Catholic - but he also agreed that we should abstain from sexual activities before marriage. He never once complained about that."

 

Gary tried to stay faithful to Laura throughout this cooling period. Then, in June 1996, he went with elder brother Paul and a mutual friend to Benidorm, for what was his first holiday abroad. His father David recalled, "The farthest we'd ever been out of London as a family was Lulworth Cove!"

 

On one evening during his time in the eastern Spanish resort, the 17-year-old got heavily drunk, even though he was underage. An intoxicated Gary was then seen 'snogging' a blonde German tourist four years his senior before the pair retired to his hotel room. What precisely happened that night would remain a mystery for many years.

 

Today, a young British footballer disgracing himself abroad would attract more than a few critical headlines from the press. In the summer of 1996, however, O'Hara got away scot-free. The English media, and the country's football fans, were already preoccupied with the small matter of the UEFA European Championship.

 

Laura remained blissfully unaware of events in Benidorm, and her relationship with Gary remained a strong one as they entered adulthood. Even while Laura - who had passed her A-Levels with ease - was attending University College London between 1996 and 1999, her beau never remained far from her thoughts.

 

After obtaining her master's degree in economics, Laura joined a North London-based marketing firm in late 1999 as a researcher. Just as her career was kicking off, though, her partner's was about to reach full-time.

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CHAPTER 3 - The Women In His Life

 

With his hopes of a lengthy career in professional football having been cruelly dashed, Gary O'Hara slumped into a deep depression late in 1999. Gary had never seriously contemplated doing anything other than playing for Arsenal, so to be deprived of his lifelong dream by a life-threatening heart condition was devastating.

 

Gary spent much the next few months holed up at his parents' home in Islington, even going so far as to put his relationship with Laura on ice. Then, on one March afternoon in 2000, it all got too much for him.

 

Gary drove into the centre of London before stopping his car on Tower Bridge. It was there that he prepared to end his own life by throwing himself into the River Thames. Just as he was about to take that fatal leap, he was wrestled to safety by a Metropolitan Police officer.

 

"I was a complete mess at that point," he would later admit. "I couldn't see myself being anything but a footballer. When I realised that I couldn't play anymore, I thought I'd wasted my life. I thought it was time to get it over and done with, and just top myself.

 

"I can't thank enough the policeman who wrestled me back to the ground. If it wasn't for him, I would not have the career I have had. Even more importantly, I wouldn't have had started a family. I wouldn't have married my gorgeous wife, and we would never have had two beautiful daughters."

 

Following his suicide attempt, Gary was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Only then did his loved ones discover the true extent of his battle with depression. Parents David and Debbie persuaded Gary to enter a treatment program at the Priory Hospital - a private mental health centre in Roehampton, south-west London. He would spend three weeks there before returning home refreshed.

 

Laura had regularly visited Gary at The Priory, and the pair would rekindle their relationship following his release. Gary was extremely grateful to his girlfriend for her support, so he decided to repay her a couple of weeks later.

 

In the middle of May, the couple went on a tour of the recently-opened Millennium Dome - now the O² Arena - in Greenwich. After witnessing a performance of the Cirque du Soleil-style Millennium Dome Show, Gary bent down on one knee, presented Laura with an engagement ring, and asked, "Laura Catherine Sheridan, will you do me the honour of being my wife?" Laura was stunned and surprised... but she said yes.

 

O'Hara's personal life was slowly taking a turn for the better. Later in May, he received a phone call that would completely transform his working life. It was from Arsène Wenger.

 

Wenger had spotted some potential in O'Hara outside of his footballing ability. He had been impressed by the youngster's leadership skills, and his ability to command the respect of his team-mates. Wenger saw those characteristics as signs of an up-and-coming young coach.

 

O'Hara was keen to stay involved in football after his retirement, so coaching seemed a natural next step to him. The 21-year-old took his first, tentative steps towards coaching in the summer of 2000. He was invited to shadow Wenger, the Frenchman's assistant Pat Rice, and Arsenal's other coaches in pre-season ahead of the 2000/2001 campaign.

 

The tutee took plenty of notes while observing 'Le Professeur', as Wenger was popularly known, and tried to take it all in for when he studied for his first coaching badges. He began taking his qualification for his FA Coaching Diploma later that year, while building up some work experience at Boreham Wood - a semi-professional club based in Hertfordshire with whom Arsenal had a long-standing relationship.

 

O'Hara assisted Boreham Wood's first-team coach Bob Makin during the 2000/2001 season, in which the club won the Isthmian League Division 1 title. For him, it marked the start of a five-year stint at Meadow Park, as well as the beginning of his family life.

 

Gary O'Hara and Laura Sheridan were married at St Mary's Church in her native Hemel Hempstead on 10 February 2001. Their mutual love of alternative music played an important part of the greatest day of their lives.

 

Martin Sheridan walked his blushing bride down the aisle to the dulcet tones of Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, and his medley of Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World". Later in the evening, the couple performed their first dance to "This Year's Love" by Mancunian singer-songwriter David Gray.

 

Gary and Laura subsequently moved into their first home together in Borehamwood, where they would start their new family. A little over nine months after the wedding, on 15 November, their first daughter - Adele Emma O'Hara - was born.

 

As was typical for a first-time mum, Laura was given three months' maternity leave to look after her new child. When she returned to work in February, Gary continued to play the part of stay-at-home dad. That seemed to be the best way forward for the O'Haras - after all, Laura was now the main breadwinner, while Gary was only working part-time at Boreham Wood.

 

O'Hara's hopes of a full-time career in coaching were raised when, in July 2002, he was awarded his FA Coaching Diploma. He had passed the course with distinction.

 

The 2002/2003 season would not be a particularly great one for Boreham Wood. Despite reaching Round 1 of the FA Cup, they endured the agony of relegation from the Isthmian League Premier Division after two seasons. They dropped back down to Division 1 North, where they disappointingly failed to win promotion at the first time of asking.

 

O'Hara's final season at Boreham Wood - in 2004/2005 - saw him work alongside a former Arsenal winger, whom he used to admire from the Clock End at Highbury. Ian Allinson played for the Gunners between 1983 and 1987, scoring 16 goals in 83 league games. He went on to coach several semi-professional teams across the south of England before arriving at Boreham Wood in 2004.

 

Boreham Wood were now playing in Division 1 East of the Southern League, at the eighth level of English football's league pyramid. A resurgence was expected from Wood, but they once again flattered to deceive. They would only finish in 7th place, missing out on the end-of-season play-offs by four points. Allinson's reign at Meadow Park did not last beyond that single season.

 

O'Hara, as he later admitted himself, was nevertheless starstruck by Allinson. He followed the experienced coach to his next club - Bedfordshire-based Stotfold - for the following season. Stotfold played in the United Counties League, one tier below where Wood were.

 

While O'Hara enjoyed his stint as Stotfold's assistant manager, the travelling time between matches was typically longer than at Boreham Wood, and his family life was starting to suffer as a result. He tendered his resignation to Allison in January 2006, on the advice of his wife, who was by then pregnant with their second child.

 

O'Hara spent the next few months applying for various coaching jobs in and around Hertfordshire and north London. He didn't have much luck on that front until May, when he was offered his first managerial role. His career was about to take off.

Edited by CFuller

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I like using music to convey tone and context, especially in a words-only forum. Good to see you doing this - you can really open up insight into a character this way.

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20 hours ago, tenthreeleader said:

I like using music to convey tone and context, especially in a words-only forum. Good to see you doing this - you can really open up insight into a character this way.

I've always wanted to convey my love for music in an FM story, and this particular work gives me an ideal platform to do so. I've also taken inspiration from other forms of media (if anyone can figure out exactly what I've been inspired by, then brownie points to you :D).

I'm hoping to make this a regular thing, potentially encompassing more genres than just indie pop/rock. For what it's worth, a good chunk of the songs you'll come across will be from the late 80s/early 90s, so slightly before my time, but I enjoy them all the same.

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***

 

Watford Ladies were in need of a new head coach for the 2006/2007 season. The Lady Hornets had just finished 3rd in the Women's Premier League Southern Division - just a couple of points off promotion to the top tier - and were now aiming to push on further.

 

Although he had no prior experience of coaching women footballers, Gary O'Hara put his name in the frame. The enthusiasm and knowledge he displayed at the job interview impressed the Watford hierarchy so much that they offered him the role immediately afterwards. At 28 years old, O'Hara was now a football manager.

 

In the mid-2000s, most women's football clubs in England - save for a handful in the National Division, most notably the all-conquering Arsenal Ladies - were part-time. Much like at non-league level in the men's game, the majority of female players juggled their sports careers with day jobs. That also applied to many coaches at women's teams, and the new Watford boss was no exception.

 

Managing Watford Ladies simply would not pay the bills for O'Hara, so the Hornets also offered him a full-time coaching job at their youth academy. Recent years had seen the likes of Lloyd Doyley, Adrian Mariappa and most notably Ashley Young come through the Watford system. While O'Hara was at Vicarage Road, he would help to develop players such as Lee Hodson, Ross Jenkins and Marvin Sordell into first-team regulars.

 

As O'Hara took on more coaching work, his family grew stronger and larger. Wife Laura gave birth to the couple's second daughter - Lucinda Deborah O'Hara, or Lucy for short - on 30 June 2006. In a role reversal of when the O'Haras were raising their first child Adele, Laura took several months of paid maternity leave while her husband went out to work.

 

O'Hara had a significant workload, putting almost as much effort into his part-time job with Watford Ladies as he did with the academy. All that work would pay off at the end of the season - and then some.

 

To say that Watford Ladies had an impressive season in the WPL South would be putting it lightly. The Lady Hornets won 19 of their 22 matches, drawing the other three, to go through the entire campaign unbeaten in their division. They also scored 99 goals - far outstripping their rivals - and finished ten points clear of 2nd-placed Portsmouth. Frankly, they could not have won a more emphatic promotion to the National Division.

 

O'Hara's assistant coach at Watford LFC was Sian Williams - a former player who had represented both England and Wales at international level. Williams had little doubt as to what the key factor behind the team's sudden success was.

 

She said, "Gary didn't have loads of coaching experience, obviously, but what he did have was natural talent. He was also very easy to get along with; he always expected a lot from you as a player, but you never really saw him get angry.

 

"The girls loved playing for Gary, and that showed in their performances. That promotion season where we went unbeaten was unbelievable."

 

Of course, the following season was likely to present greater challenges for Watford. They would have to get to grips with sides such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton - all of whom had received significant financial support from their male counterparts.

 

Despite being up against it, Watford gave their all in the 2007/2008 National Division season. O'Hara refused to abandon the all-out attacking brand of football that had served him and his players so well in the lower division. That would prove to be the key to their survival, which they secured with ease.

 

By the end of their first season up, Watford were 7th - comfortably in mid-table. Their goal tally of 53 had been surpassed only by champions Arsenal and runners-up Everton. Welsh international striker Helen Lander was the league's third-highest goalscorer, with 21 goals to her name.

 

That being said, only the two relegated teams - Cardiff City and crisis-hit former title contenders Charlton Athletic - had conceded more goals than Watford. Club bosses were not exactly thrilled with that particular statistic. Indeed, they took the controversial decision to remove O'Hara as head coach after just two seasons.

 

"We were all gobsmacked, really, when we heard the news," Williams said. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that Gary was like our José Mourinho. The team was only getting better and better while he was in charge. We thought that we could be in a position to challenge the Arsenals and the Chelseas in a few years had Gary been given the chance."

 

O'Hara's exit had significant ramifications for Watford Ladies. His former assistant Williams took over as manager and secured them another 7th-place finish in 2008/2009, albeit with much less offensive flair. The mid-season departure of Lander to Arsenal left the Lady Hornets without an attacking figurehead, and ultimately precipitated their decline.

 

Watford could only finish 9th the following season, after which a new era of women's football in England began. When the professional Women's Soccer League was established by the Football Association in 2011, Watford were not chosen to be one of the eight founder teams. They have not played in the top division since.

 

"Things were never really the same without Gary," Williams conceded. "We had another solid season in my first season in charge, but that was as good as it got. About midway through the second season, the club decided to take another route with a new coach, and things pretty much carried on going downhill from there.

 

"If me and Gary were still around, things could've turned out very differently. Watford might've been picked for the WSL, which could well have transformed the club overnight. At the end of the day, though, there's no point in complaining about it, as you'll never really know for sure."

 

O'Hara now had to focus fully on his day-to-day job as an academy coach at Watford, although the manner of his departure from the ladies' team had left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. He resigned from his academy role in November 2008, shortly after the Hornets' first-team coach Aidy Boothroyd had departed the club by mutual consent.

 

"Gary phoned me on the day after he left Watford," Williams said. "He felt disgusted at how he'd been treated by them. He even considered taking them to court and suing them for wrongful dismissal over his departure from the ladies' team, but he thought better of it.

 

"One of the things Gary said to me that day will always stick in my mind. He said, 'Watford have let a lot of honest people down, and I'll never forgive them for that. Mark my words, Sian; I'll get my own back on them one of these days.'

 

"And of course, he did just that, years later."

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***

 

2009 would prove to be O'Hara's 'annus horribilis' - on both a professional and a personal level. After taking a few months out of work, he was appointed to his first managerial job in men's football in March of that year. It just happened to be with Hemel Hempstead Town - a club based in his wife's hometown.

 

The Tudors were having a fine season in the Southern League Premier Division, and were sitting in 5th place when manager Steve Bateman left abruptly. O'Hara was brought in to keep them on course for promotion to the Conference South via the play-offs, which he did, although his first nine matches in charge yielded four wins and five defeats.

 

Hemel Hempstead remained in 5th when the league phase ended, and they went into a Play-Off Semi Final against runners-up Farnborough. Their visit to Hampshire ended in an agonising 4-3 penalty shoot-out defeat following a goalless draw, and they would have to rebuild for another Southern League season.

 

If O'Hara thought things would get any better in the 2009/2010 campaign, he would be very badly mistaken. His gung-ho approach to management might have worked in the women's game, but in the seventh tier of English men's football, it would come horribly unstuck.

 

After ten matches, Hemel Hempstead were 16th in the Southern Premier with a dismal record that read: Won 2, Drawn 3, Lost 5, Goals For 12, Goals Against 23, Points 9.

 

A single-goal defeat at Swindon Supermarine on 7 October proved the final straw for the club's chairman Dave Boggins, who gave O'Hara his marching orders the following day. He had been at Vauxhall Road for just 20 league matches over the course of six-and-a-half months and would not be remembered particularly fondly by Tudors fans.

 

O'Hara's life had already begun to fall apart before his departure from Hemel Hempstead. Four days prior to that loss in Wiltshire, Gary received a fateful phone call from his father David. It was about his mother Debbie.

 

"Debbie started getting a lot of headaches that summer," David recalled. "At first, we thought they were just migraines, and not much to worry about.

 

"But then her memory started to go. She started to forget things - basic things, really. We'd be watching something like EastEnders, and then she'd be asking me who 'so-and-so' was, when we'd seen them about five minutes earlier.

 

"It was my birthday in August - on the last day of August, to be specific. Any husband or wife would expect to remember their spouse's birthday, but she didn't. She honestly couldn't remember. I suspected then that something was wrong."

 

Debbie underwent an MRI scan a few weeks later, and the results were devastating.

 

"I told Gary that his mum had a brain tumour," David said. "He asked if it was malignant or benign, and I said it was malignant - the 'bad one', as we used to say when talking about these things."

 

"The doctors said that it was a 'grade 4' primary glioblastoma. Basically, that meant that the cancer was growing fast and was likely to spread. Unfortunately, this tumour had grown so large that surgery wasn't possible."

 

Debbie was offered chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat her cancer, but she declined both options. Either form of therapy would likely have taken several gruelling months and incurred various debilitating side effects, while there was no guarantee that Debbie would have been cured. The probability was that any treatment would merely, in David's words, "delay the inevitable".

 

David choked back tears as he said, "Debs didn't want to suffer... and she didn't want her family to see her suffer for a long time. She wanted to go out with grace, on her own terms. That's why she rejected 'chemo' and 'radio', and asked for palliative care instead, so that she could see out her final months at home.

 

"We hoped that Debbie would live long enough to enjoy one final Christmas with her family. We'd planned for everyone to be there - Paul, Gary, and our five grandkids, including Paul's newborn son Jack, who'd arrived that September.

 

"But... life's a bitch sometimes. Debbie didn't even get that."

 

On the morning of 16 December 2009, Debbie slipped into a coma while in bed. David called his two sons at work, asking them to come over immediately and "say goodbye to Mum". Gary and Paul would spend the rest of the day attheir ailing mother's bedside as she slipped away to the sound of her favourite music.

 

Just after 7:15pm that evening, at the age of just 55, Deborah O'Hara drew her final breath. Eerily, she passed away just as David Gray sang, "I'll see you on the other side," from his 2002 single of the same name.

 

Debbie's funeral was held early in the New Year, at the St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley, North London. Gary delivered the eulogy, calling her "a wonderful woman, and the most loving, caring, and inspiring mother that two boys could ever wish to have."

 

It was obvious that Gary absolutely adored his mother, and losing her - especially so suddenly - was a massive shock. The demon of depression, which had almost consumed his life following the end of his playing career, had resurfaced - and with renewed intensity.

 

"Debbie's death tore Gary apart," Laura recalled. "Gary didn't show much of his emotions when he was around us, but that all changed after she was cremated. He didn't leave the house for about a week afterwards. Instead, he would sit in the living room all day, sobbing almost uncontrollably every few hours or so, usually whenever something triggered a memory of his mum.

 

"This was obviously affecting the girls - after all, when you're still a little kid, it must be traumatising to see your daddy cry for the first time. They did their best to cheer Gary up, mind. I remember one day when Adele asked Daddy why he was still crying, and that he should be happy that Granny was now in heaven. He then started crying again... but he was laughing as well!

 

"Gary didn't work for the next six months. He would stay at home with Lucy, while Adele went to school and I went to work, and the pair of them would spend the day watching 'Peppa Pig', and programmes like that."

 

In 'Peppa Pig', Daddy Pig - father to the titular character and her little brother George - was written as an oafish, blundering figure of fun. As for Mummy Pig, she was a rather more educated working mother, whom some online observers argued had married a man 'below her station'.

 

It seemed that this cartoon porcine family had some similarities with the O'Haras... but Gary wasn't going to be the stereotypical useless stay-at-home father for much longer. He would soon have to pull his life together again and get his coaching career back on track.

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CHAPTER 4 - Learning The Ropes

 

"I really respected Gary when he was coming through the set-up at Arsenal. He had a tremendous attitude for his age and would always give 100% to be in the first-team. I really liked his enthusiasm, so I had an awful lot of time for him. It really was such a shame that his playing career had to end so early.

 

"I kept in touch with Gary after he retired, especially when I started working for the academy here at Arsenal. I liked to keep an eye of him and follow his progress on the coaching side of things.

 

"Then, a few years ago, when I heard that his mum had died, I went to his home to offer my condolences. I attended the funeral as well. I'd never met Debbie, but I'm sure she was a wonderful woman, because she brought up a top man for a son.

 

"Anyway, after that, I started speaking to Gary a bit more often, doing whatever I could to help him through the grief. We're like a huge family at Arsenal Football Club. As former team-mates, you always look out for one another.

 

"Then, in about June 2010, I was looking for a new coach to work with us at the academy. I knew about the good work Gary had done at Watford, so I asked him if he'd like to pop over for an interview. He did that, he got the job, and the rest is history."

 

Steve Bould had been a real idol of Gary O'Hara's in the mid-1990s. The young Londoner had always looked up to the big Staffordshire-born centre-half, who played in 372 competitive matches for Arsenal between 1988 and 1999. Bould even helped the coaching staff to educate O'Hara in the art of defending while Gary was steadily making a name for himself in the senior team.

 

An ageing Bould moved to Sunderland in 1999, winding down his playing career on Wearside before arthritis forced him into retirement a year later. He subsequently rejoined the Gunners in 2001 to coach their youth teams. By 2010, he had led Arsenal's Under-18s to back-to-back Premier Academy League titles, as well as the FA Youth Cup in 2009.

 

The chance to work with his former mentor, who was now excelling in his second career as a coach, proved irresistible to O'Hara. Eleven years after being forced into a very premature retirement, he was back at his beloved Arsenal.

 

O'Hara would assist Bould at the Arsenal academy for the next two years. The young Gunners did not get particularly close to regaining their Premier Academy League crown in either season, but that was not really the point. At this level of football, gradual technical and physical development was considered by the club to be of much greater importance than any short-term competitive success.

 

While working alongside Bould, O'Hara learned just how important it was to instil a sense of discipline into his players at a young age. Fancy-dans would not be tolerated at Arsenal, and neither would the idea of any prospect thinking they had 'made it' as soon as they had signed their first lucrative professional contract.

 

O'Hara adapted quickly to a new career coaching at the highest youth level. Though he was only in his mid-30s and lacked the influence that a true Arsenal stalwart such as Bould possessed, he still commanded respect.

 

"There were some days in training when I thought I was working with the next José Mourinho," Bould admitted. "Coaching just seemed to come natural to Gary. He was still very young and a little naïve, but he was also very talented and authoritative.

 

"I was certain that he would be managing a senior team at a high level within the next 5-10 years. That's easy to say now, to be fair, but I really did think that."

 

O'Hara's next big break would come in the summer of 2012, when there was a shake-up in the management of English youth football, as well as in the management of Arsenal FC.

 

Firstly, the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) led to a greater focus on player development at top-flight clubs. The Premier Reserve League and Premier Academy League were no more. In their place came the Professional Development League, which introduced brand new academy-focused leagues at Under-21s and Under-18s levels.

 

The other big development came at Arsenal, following the retirement of Pat Rice as assistant manager to the senior team. Arsène Wenger decided to promote a new assistant from within the club - and as a former player and a successful coach, Steve Bould was the ideal candidate. After a little over a decade with the academy, Bould was stepping up to be Wenger's new 'number 2'.

 

Bould's own former right-hand man was also in line for a promotion. Having impressed the club's management over his first two years with the academy, Gary O'Hara was offered the chance to manage Arsenal's newly-established 'development squad', which would compete in the new Under-21s league.

 

Of course, O'Hara was no rookie when it came to football management. But while coaching Watford Ladies and non-league Hemel Hempstead Town had presented their own challenges, managing what was now effectively Arsenal's second team would be a huge step up by comparison.

 

O'Hara was now charged with developing Arsenal's youth academy graduates in preparation for regular first-team football. As such, results in the Under-21s league were not massively important, although it would certainly have helped if there was some success down the line.

 

O'Hara's promotion from the Under-18s meant that he would continue to work with a number of players who had previously performed for him at the lower age group. Emerging talents such as right-back Héctor Bellerín, winger Serge Gnabry and striker Chuba Akpom would follow him from the academy into the development squad. That continuity allowed O'Hara to build a long-lasting rapport with a core part of his team.

 

As far as the league went, results were mixed. After the first stage of the 2012/2013 Under-21s league season, Arsenal were runners-up in their group, behind only West Ham United. However, when pitted into the elite group for the second phase of the competition, they could only finish 5th. With only the top three teams qualifying for the end-of-season play-offs, the young Gunners would be left disappointed.

 

The following season saw the Under-21s league format change again. The top 22 development teams would play each other once, with the top 12 teams going into Division 1 for the following season, and the bottom 10 dropping into Division 2.

 

With such a strong development squad, and a reputation for developing young talent, it seemed a given that Arsenal would do enough to qualify for Division 1, and remain at the top tier of Under-21s football. That was how it looked on paper. On the pitch, things were rather different.

 

O'Hara was very much a subscriber to the Arsenal mantra that football should be played in an entertaining, attacking manner. That is generally fine when you are managing a team that is indisputably amongst the strongest in your league. However, in a very competitive division, adopting such a bellicose approach would often see the young Gunners come unstuck.

 

Arsenal's Under-21s had some awful results in the 2013/2014 season. They were thrashed at home 4-0 and 5-1 by Leicester City and Sunderland respectively. They also suffered a humbling 3-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers. There were highlights, including a 4-3 win over a Manchester City team who would eventually finish 4th and qualify for the play-offs, but they were few and far between.

 

After 21 games, Arsenal finished in 14th place - below the likes of Leicester, Sunderland, and Bolton Wanderers. It was incredible to think that an Arsenal team in any age group had suffered relegation, 101 years after the senior side had last dropped out of what was then just the plain old First Division.

 

O'Hara didn't lose his job, mind you. The Arsenal hierarchy realised that he was still young, and still finding his feet, so to speak. As long as his players were progressing steadily enough to attract Wenger's interest and come under consideration for the first-team, he would be allowed plenty of time to learn from his mistakes and develop his own coaching skills.

 

The 2014/2015 season gave O'Hara an opportunity to rebuild and get the Under-21s back into the first tier. They were in a 12-team Division 2, and as the only so-called 'Big Six' representative outside of Division 1, they were rated as strong favourites to win the title.

 

Once again, there was to be disappointment for those who'd expected Arsenal to walk the league. As it transpired, they lost more than half of their away games and could only finish 4th - four points adrift of the promoted top two of Middlesbrough and Reading. A home defeat against the latter proved to be especially costly for the Gunners.

 

You could say, then, that O'Hara was nowhere near ready for top-flight management. That made his next major promotion - in the summer of 2015 - particularly startling.

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***

 

Arsène Wenger was the longest-serving and most successful manager in the history of Arsenal. However, he was not universally popular amongst the club's fans, especially during the final years of his reign.

 

The Gunners' heyday of the late 1990s carried on into the first half of the 2000s. They won another domestic Double of the Premier League and the FA Cup in 2002, which marked a fitting end to the career of legendary club captain Tony Adams.

 

Two seasons later, in 2003/2004, Arsenal were crowned Premier League champions again. In fact, they completed the entire campaign without losing a single league game, becoming only the second club to do so in England's top flight after Preston North End in the Football League's inaugural season of 1888/1889. That unbeaten run would continue for 49 consecutive league matches until October 2004, when Manchester United defeated the 'Invincibles' 2-0 in an infamous match at Old Trafford that became known as the 'Battle of the Buffet'.

 

Arsenal got their revenge on United at the end of that season, becoming the first team to win an FA Cup on penalties, following a goalless draw. However, that win would prove to be a hollow one for Gooners. Talismanic midfield aggressor Patrick Vieira, who'd succeeded Adams as captain three years earlier, was sold to Juventus in the summer and proved to be almost irreplaceable.

 

The 2005/2006 season would mark the end of Arsenal's time at their historic Highbury stadium, and the start of a nine-year trophy drought. By the time they moved into the brand-new 60,432-seater Emirates Stadium in Holloway the following summer, they were still reeling from an agonising defeat in the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final to Barcelona.

 

More Final heartbreak would come for Arsenal, specifically in the League Cup - the one major domestic trophy Wenger was never able to get his hands on. He had a couple of near-misses in 2007, when Chelsea won an ill-tempered decider, and in 2011, when a horrendous mix-up between goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny allowed lowly Birmingham City to steal an 89th-minute winner.

 

With Chelsea, Manchester United, and the 'nouveau-riche' Manchester City beginning to take control of the Premier League, Arsenal were rarely in a position to contend for the championship. When they did finally claim fresh silverware in May 2014, it was in the Final of the FA Cup.

 

Arsenal were up against Hull City, who were contending their first major Final. Despite their inexperience on the big stage, Steve Bruce's Tigers stormed into an unlikely 2-0 lead after just eight minutes, with defenders James Chester and Curtis Davies leaving some Gooners wondering if this was to be just another of those days.

 

However, Arsenal later proved that they were made of stern stuff by producing a stirring comeback. Santi Cazorla's stunning free-kick in the 17th minute was complemented by a headed equaliser from Koscielny midway through the second half. The Final went into extra-time, during which their Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey - a 'big-game specialist' if ever there was one - completed the turnaround and won the Cup.

 

Wenger was once again being hailed as a coaching mastermind by many Arsenal fans, some of whom had already begun to seriously doubt whether he could bring back the glory days. The general 'feel-good factor' around the Emirates would not last. By the end of the 2014/2015 season, thousands of Gooners would be publicly calling for a change of management.

 

Although Wenger had succeeded in securing Champions League football for Arsenal for a 17th consecutive season, many supporters had labelled his tactics and/or management style as 'predictable' and 'outdated'. Others feared that the Frenchman was not showing enough ambition to launch a serious challenge for the Premier League title. After all, Wenger had once compared finishing 4th - and thus qualifying for Europe's elite competition - to winning a trophy.

 

Arsenal had finished that Premier League campaign 3rd in the table, 12 points adrift of champions Chelsea. Though the Gunners had concluded the season strongly, losing just one of their final 14 games, they had left that surge too late to launch a serious challenge for a first league championship since the 'Invincibles' season.

 

Their Champions League adventure was also a tale of disappointment. Arsenal had started that competition with a 2-0 group defeat at Borussia Dortmund - a loss that would prove very significant in the final reckoning. Although they defeated Dortmund by the same scoreline in the return fixture at the Emirates Stadium, and subsequently qualified for the knockout phase, they finished behind BVB on goal difference. Arsenal would therefore be pitted against a group winner in the Round of 16.

 

On paper, the draw they were given for that opening knockout round could have been a whole lot worse. While big-spending French side Monaco had a formidable squad, it was hard to see how they could possibly dispose of one of English football's giants. Then came the first leg, on 25 February 2015.

 

Arsenal had home advantage in that first leg, but their campaign disintegrated as they produced one of their most abject performances of recent years. Monaco ran out convincing 3-1 winners, with Dimitar Berbatov - a former Tottenham Hotspur striker, no less - amongst the goalscorers. The dissenting voices of the anti-Wenger brigade grew louder as the Arsenal players left the field in a collective state of utter dejection.

 

When the two sides met again at Stade Louis II three weeks later, Arsenal launched another of their spirited fightbacks. French striker Olivier Giroud scored their first goal in the 35th minute, while Ramsey added a second on 79 minutes to make it level on aggregate. However, the Gunners were still trailing on the away goals rule, and they could not score again in the final 11 minutes, nor in extra-time.

 

Arsenal had been eliminated in the first knockout round of the Champions League for the fifth year in a row. They would have to look elsewhere for silverware.

 

Fortunately, Arsenal were still in the FA Cup, which they were looking to successfully defend after coming through that dramatic 2014 Final. They overcame Hull again in the first match of their defence, and then brushed off Brighton & Hove Albion, Middlesbrough and Manchester United to reach the Semi Finals. Providing the opposition at Wembley on 18 April were Reading - a Championship club.

 

Summer signing Alexis Sánchez fired Arsenal into the lead after 39 minutes, only for Garath McCleary to restore parity for Reading early in the second half. Extra-time followed... and then, just as the first additional half was about to expire, the Gunners got an extraordinary piece of luck. A tame shot from Sánchez sneaked underneath the body of Royals goalkeeper Adam Federici and into the net, thus gifting Arsenal what would prove to be the winning goal.

 

Arsenal were through to their 19th FA Cup Final, and on course to win the trophy for a record 12th time. Only Aston Villa, who had finished just three points above the Premier League relegation zone, now stood in their way. The Villans were coached by Tim Sherwood - a boyhood Arsenal fan who went on to play in midfield for, and then briefly manage, Tottenham.

 

When Arsenal faced Villa at Wembley on 30 May, it was very much a case of men against boys. The Gunners dominated from the outset, although it took them 40 minutes to break Villa's resistance via a fantastic rifled shot from winger Theo Walcott. Once they got their noses in front, they never looked back.

 

Chilean forward Sánchez and German centre-back Per Mertesacker were also on target in the second half before Giroud applied the coup de grâce in the dying moments. 4-0 to the Arsenal. The FA Cup was staying at the Emirates Stadium.

 

Wenger had made FA Cup history in that match, becoming only the second manager to win the trophy six times. The first man to do it was George Ramsay, whose six wins with Aston Villa came between 1887 and 1920, and thus in a rather longer space of time than Wenger's.

 

Ramsay continued to serve as Villa's manager for another six years following his final FA Cup victory. Wenger would not be sticking around for that long.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Throughout June 2015, it was widely reported in the British media that Wenger's time as Arsenal manager was coming towards an end. The Frenchman had apparently decided that he would retire from his current post and move into the boardroom as the club's new 'Director of Football'. Neither Arsenal nor Wenger spoke publicly about the rumours, but behind the scenes, plans were afoot for his successor to be appointed.

 

The Arsenal board of directors - chaired by the wonderfully-named Sir John Chippendale Lindley Keswick, also known as Sir Chips Keswick - had identified a number of possible candidates to succeed Wenger as manager.

 

Top of the shortlist was Jürgen Klopp - the charismatic, bearded, and bespectacled head coach of Borussia Dortmund. Since arriving at the Westfalenstadion in 2008, Klopp had revolutionised Dortmund, transforming them from sleeping giants into major players on the European stage. They won back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 before reaching the Champions League Final in 2013, losing to national rivals Bayern Munich.

 

Arsenal and Klopp seemed like a match made in heaven. However, just as Keswick and chief executive Ivan Gazidis were planning to invite Klopp over to England for an interview, they were beaten to the punch.

 

On 16 June, Liverpool announced that they had anointed the 48-year-old German as their successor to previous manager Brendan Rodgers, who'd been dismissed at the end of a lacklustre league campaign. Keswick and co would have to look elsewhere.

 

The Gunners turned to their second choice - Roberto Martínez, who was generally considered to be one of the brightest young coaching talents in British football. The Catalan had famously guided unfancied Wigan Athletic to victory over Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup Final before moving on to Everton, where he'd spent the past two seasons.

 

Arsenal agreed a compensation package with Everton, who gave them permission to interview Martínez at the Emirates Stadium. However, just as the move looked set to be completed, Martínez decided at the 11th hour to continue with his current 'project' at Goodison Park.

 

A large poll of thousands of Arsenal supporters found that their number one choice to replace Wenger was another man from Catalonia - a certain Josep Guardiola. Such an idea was fanciful at best. The Gunners didn't have a cat in hell's chance of persuading the Bayern Munich coach to leave a club that was dominating its league and going far into the UEFA Champions League for a club that wasn't succeeding on either front.

 

With their two main options preferring Merseyside over North London, and Guardiola not a realistic target, Arsenal decided to try a different route to finding a new boss.

 

They were all too aware about the dangers of replacing a legendary manager with an outsider. Two years earlier, the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson had retired as Manchester United boss. He was succeeded by David Moyes, who proved utterly incapable of continuing Ferguson's legacy of sustained success. Though Moyes was subsequently replaced with a proven champion in Louis van Gaal, United had not been quite the same force since then.

 

Arsenal wanted to avoid making the same mistake as the Red Devils, so they instead looked to promote from within. Assistant manager Steve Bould was asked first if he would like to step up from number 2 to number 1. He politely declined.

 

"I could never be a Premier League manager," Bould said. "I've not got the right mindset for it. Besides, I like to concentrate on the coaching side of things, rather than the administration and all that.

 

"After I told the board that I didn't want to be considered for the manager's job, I was asked if I could put forward someone else's name instead. I told them to speak to Gary O'Hara."

 

O'Hara was on a summer holiday in Marbella with his family when he got a life-changing phone call from Keswick. He was asked if he would like to be interviewed for the job of Arsenal's first-team manager.

 

O'Hara's wife Laura said, "Gary looked like he'd seen a ghost when he got off the phone. He told me, 'That was Arsenal. They want me to take over from Arsène'.

 

"He really didn't know if he would be up to the job, but I told him, 'This is your dream, and you might never get another shot at it. If you want to go for it, just go for it. Anyway, what's the worst that could happen?'

 

"I always knew that becoming Arsenal manager was a big deal to Gary, but I didn't realise at the time just how big a deal it would actually be. Sometimes, I wish I could go back to that day in Marbella, so that I could tell Gary exactly what he would be getting himself into if he took that job."

 

O'Hara left his wife and their daughters in southern Spain and flew back home to London to be interviewed by Arsenal executives the following morning. Amongst the interviewees were Keswick, Gazidis, and the club's so-called 'owner' Stan Kroenke, who spoke via a videolink from his base in Denver, Colorado.

 

Enos Stanley Kroenke was a wily but reclusive billionaire businessman in his late 60s. Having made his fortune through real estate (and, to some extent, his marriage to a Walmart retail heiress), Kroenke invested in several major American sports teams from the mid-1990s onwards. The NFL's St Louis Rams, the NBA's Denver Nuggets, the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids from Major League Soccer all came under ownership of his holding company 'Kroenke Sports & Entertainment'.

 

Kroenke first invested in Arsenal FC in 2007. Shortly after that, Uzbek-born Russian business magnate Alisher Usmanov made a rival bid to take over the club after buying out then vice-chairman David Dein's stake. The club's board of directors were sceptical about Kroenke's motives, but they welcomed him onto the board in 2008.

 

By 2011, the American had become Arsenal's majority shareholder, holding a 67% stake in Arsenal Holdings plc. His rival Usmanov owned a 30% stake.

 

O'Hara had no desire to woo the powers-that-be with fancy PowerPoint presentations or overly-complicated business jargon that would've made André Villas-Boas seem like a Neanderthal by comparison. Instead, he demonstrated his passion for Arsenal and criticised the direction that the club had taken in recent years.

 

"Arsenal Football Club have stood still for far too long," he told the board. "We've become complacent; we're set in our ways.

 

"We were ahead of our time in 2004. Now it's 2015, but we still think that The Libertines will change rock music forever, and that 'Coupling' is the best thing on TV, if you catch my drift.

 

"In the last decade since we went unbeaten, we've allowed Chelsea to overtake us. City have overtaken us as well now, United are still up there, and now you've got Liverpool pushing forward again. Are you going to let them walk all over us and wait another decade to win the Premier League again?"

 

O'Hara then slammed the club's tactical approach, saying, "It's no good playing fancy possession football like Barcelona or Bayern if there's no substance to your game. Far too often, we stroke the ball across the opposition half without ever really penetrating our opponents. And we usually look flimsy and soft at the back; we don't have any warriors on the pitch like an Adams or a Vieira.

 

"I want to change all that. I want us to get into our opponents' faces and bully them off the pitch. I want us to adopt the Fat Les approach of 'we're gonna score one more than you'. Our style of football will be ambitious and aggressive, not passive and pensive. That's the Arsenal way we know and love!"

 

O'Hara was questioned about his somewhat unconvincing managerial record, to which he replied, "I might not have won the Premier League or the Champions League, but I know exactly what this club is all about. Give me a chance, and I'll make sure you won't regret it."

 

All in all, a gruelling interview went on for close to an hour. Once the panel had finished questioning O'Hara, Keswick thanked him for attending the interview, and told him that a final decision would be made "in due course".

 

O'Hara would learn his fate just a couple of days later - on 26 June 2015. While Laura and the girls were preparing to fly out from Marbella to Heathrow following the conclusion of their holiday, O'Hara received a phone call from Keswick - a phone call that would change his life.

 

The chairman told O'Hara, "At about 2 o'clock this afternoon, we're going to put out a press release. This statement will announce that Arsène Wenger is standing down as manager to become Director of Football, and that you are to be appointed as our new first-team manager.

 

"I would like to give you my warmest congratulations."

Edited by CFuller

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CHAPTER 5 - New Big 'Ead

 

Arsenal's announcement of their new management structure sent shockwaves reverberating across the footballing world. After 18 years at the helm, Arsène Wenger - the Gunners' most iconic and arguably most successful manager - would be leaving that role and 'stepping up' to a new executive post. His successor, promoted from the development team, was a complete rookie when it came to managing at the highest level.

 

There was much disbelief amongst the media. "GARY WHO?" and "WHO'HARA?" were just two of the headlines splashed across the back pages of the tabloid newspapers the following morning.

 

The press would get the opportunity to find out just who Gary O'Hara was, and what made him tick, when the new manager was publicly unveiled at a hastily-arranged press conference at the Emirates Stadium on 28 June. Such media events very rarely took place on a Sunday. Then again, this was no ordinary media event.

 

O'Hara had the broadest of smiles strewn across his face as he shook hands with Keswick for the gathered photographers. Just a week earlier, he'd been on a Spanish beach, clad in T-shirt and shorts. Now, he was dressed to the nines, suited and booted in preparation for the massive job that would lie ahead of him.

 

O'Hara had an air of confidence about him - a swagger, if you will - and that carried over into the press conference, where he answered questions from some of football's most forthright journalists. He was a man with plenty to say.

 

"I feel like I am living the dream right now," he beamed upon being asked about his thoughts after being handed the biggest job of his life. "I was honoured enough just to be managing Arsenal's development team, but to coach the first-team this early in my career... it just means the world to me.

 

"I've loved Arsenal all my life, and I even got to play for them a few times before, obviously, I had to stop for health reasons. Since that day the doctor told me I couldn't play anymore, my goal in life was to become the manager of Arsenal Football Club... and now it's happened. It's unbelievable."

 

O'Hara was then asked if he thought that immediately succeeding Wenger would be a so-called burden around his neck. He scoffed, "I don't think so. It's a huge responsibility, for sure, but I don't see it as a burden.

 

"Arsène is my idol, and I'm glad he'll be sticking around as Director of Football, at least for the next few years. I feel more comfortable knowing that he'll be there to give me any advice I might need as I settle into this role. Also, it gives me more time to concentrate on the coaching side of things, and then gradually take on more responsibilities that you'd expect a manager to take on."

 

O'Hara was then asked his first difficult question, which concerned his salary. Arsenal's new manager had signed an initial two-year contract worth a staggering £110,000-per-week, which was about £100,000 more than he was earning weekly while in charge of the development team. Only one other Premier League manager - Manchester United's Louis van Gaal - would take home a larger paycheque.

 

"I'm not complaining," he shrugged. "I wasn't demanding 100 grand a week straight off the bat, let me get that straight. Arsenal were willing to pay me that much, and as far as I'm concerned, they've got every right to do so."

 

One journalist questioned Arsenal's use of job titles - Wenger was now the 'Director of Football', yet O'Hara's job description was that of 'Manager', not 'Head Coach'. That raised another startling question: who exactly was in charge at the Emirates?

 

"I'm in charge," O'Hara stated. "I don't expect much interference from Arsène, as I know that Arsène doesn't want to be as hands-on as he used to be. But if he ever wants to do something that'll benefit the team in the long run, then I'll still be happy to go along with it.

 

"Anyway, I don't give a stuff about job titles. I'm calling the shots at Arsenal now, and that's that."

 

When asked about his plans for the summer transfer window, O'Hara said, "To tell you the truth, I don't have any concrete plans at this moment in time.

 

"Obviously, Arsène has already made a couple of key signings before handing this job over to me, so I don't want to make many more changes. I'm sure the chairman will agree with me when I say that you must never change too much too soon at a football club.

 

"I won't lie when I say that there are a few areas in the squad where I'd ideally like to strengthen. However, I'm going to consult with Arsène before I make any firm decisions."

 

O'Hara's next questions regarded his coaching and squad management skills. He said, "I'm going to meet the players for the first time tomorrow, and I doubt they'll have any real problems with me.

 

"Some of the younger players already know me from when I was coaching the youth team and the Under-21s. They all have great respect for me, and I have great respect for them.

 

"I'll also be looking to blood more youth players into the first-team, which will tell them that there's a pathway to success you won't find at many other clubs. If you're a young footballer who wants to make it in the game, then Arsenal's the place to be."

 

Finally, he declared, "Even though we won the FA Cup last year, and the year before that, this club's been stuck in a rut for a long time. Now I'm here, my aim is to get us out of this rut and get Arsenal winning major trophies again on a consistent basis.

 

"Obviously, I'll be aiming for the Premier League first and foremost. The fans have waited a long time for us to win the league while Chelsea and the Manchester clubs have taken control of things. Now's the time to change that, and put Arsenal Football Club right back where it belongs - at the top of the table.

 

"I want to have a real crack at the Champions League as well, you know. It's coming up to a decade since we last reached the Final, and since then, we really haven't performed. For me, we need to rediscover our passion, our hunger, our desire, if we want to go all the way. It's no use strolling through the Group Stage if you roll over against Barcelona in the first knockout round.

 

"Things have got to change around here. For far too long, we've been happy to settle for mediocrity, but that stops now. We are Arsenal - we are the greatest football club in the land, and it's about time we made everyone aware of it!"

 

Few Premier League managers before O'Hara had shown such passion at their public unveilings. After the 36-year-old's introduction, most of those men and women in the Arsenal press room knew that he was going to be quite different from everyone else.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

The new Arsenal manager had inherited a squad full of international-calibre players, including two men who'd been brought in before O'Hara was promoted and Wenger officially 'stepped up'.

 

The first new signing - and one that had appeased many Gunners - was that of Petr Cech. The 33-year-old Czech goalkeeper had been part of Chelsea's squad for just over a decade, winning four Premier League titles and a Champions League with the Blues. However, after losing his starting place to the young Belgian Thibaut Courtois, Cech took his gloves - and his famous headguard - across London, joining Arsenal for a fee of £10million.

 

Following Cech's arrival, Arsenal's erstwhile number 1 - the wildly erratic Wojciech Szczesny - had been sent out on loan to Roma for the forthcoming season. Second-choice keeper David Ospina remained to provide cover for Cech, though O'Hara planned to play the 26-year-old Colombian international in cup matches.

 

Another Gunners regular who had followed Szczesny out of the Emirates Stadium, at least temporarily, was right-back Mathieu Debuchy. Having been usurped by the fast-improving Héctor Bellerín midway through the 2014/2015 season, the Frenchman returned home and joined Bordeaux on a season-long loan.

 

The Gunners' youngest first-teamer at just 20, Barcelona-born Bellerín was renowned for his exceptional pace, which could easily have seen him become an Olympic sprinter in an alternate life. His main rival for the right-back slot this season was likely to be another youngster in Calum Chambers, who'd won three senior caps for England since his £12million arrival from Southampton the previous summer. Chambers could also play at centre-back if required.

 

In terms of left-backs, Arsenal had another Anglo-Spanish duo battling for supremacy. 25-year-old local lad Kieran Gibbs had been first-choice for the greater part of the last three seasons, though he had recently been usurped by Nacho Monreal - a 29-year-old from Pamplona.

 

Laurent Koscielny was in pole position to start at centre-half for Arsenal. Also aged 29, the French international was in his sixth season with the Gunners, having recovered from a very shaky start to become a strong and consistent defensive stopper.

 

Koscielny's regular partner in the middle of the Arsenal defence was likely to be the club's vice-captain. Per Mertesacker - a 2014 FIFA World Cup winner who was nicknamed the 'Big F***ing German' by many Gooners - excelled as a ball-playing covering defender. While the 30-year-old was rather slow out of the blocks, he compensated for that with his excellent positional play and anticipation.

 

Completing Arsenal's quartet of central defenders was Gabriel Paulista - a 24-year-old Brazilian who liked to be known only by his given name. Gabriel had been signed from Villarreal at the start of the year and had yet to fully convince many supporters that he was Champions League-quality.

 

Arsenal fans also had reservations about the second of their summer signings. Egypt international Mohamed Elneny was an aggressive ball-winning midfielder brought in from Swiss champions FC Basel to provide backup for Francis Coquelin - a 24-year-old who'd recently established himself as the regular starter in that position. Some supporters had wanted to see a bigger name than Elneny brought in to challenge Coquelin. Wenger was nothing if not a bargain-hunter, though, and £7.5million looked like a fantastic price for the then-22-year-old workhorse.

 

Arsenal's ultra-professional club captain Mikel Arteta also played mainly in a defensive midfield role, though at 33, his physical powers were clearly on the wane. The same could arguably be said of 31-year-old Mathieu Flamini - a resilient but inconsistent Frenchman who was in his second stint with the North London club.

 

Aaron Ramsey was rather more universally popular. The 24-year-old from Cardiff had become a scoring machine over the last two seasons, and his passing and technical skills were up there with the best. It was no wonder, then, that Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard had hailed Ramsey as "the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League".

 

Spanish magician Santi Cazorla (30) was a virtuoso with both his left and right feet, and could play in attacking midfield as well as an inside-forward on either flank. Another top-quality attacking midfielder was former youth product Jack Wilshere, though the 23-year-old England international's career had been dogged by a spate of injuries.

 

Arsenal's chief playmaker was, without a doubt, their record signing Mesut Özil. Since arriving from Real Madrid for £42.5million in 2013, the left-footed German had thrilled many Gooners with his game-changing creative abilities. That said, the 26-year-old did have a tendency to 'go missing' in high-pressure matches.

 

On the flanks, Arsenal had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (21) and Theo Walcott (26) - two English right-wingers who had, like Chambers, been acquired from Southampton early in their careers. Joel Campbell, whose very local-sounding name belied his Costa Rican nationality, was a 23-year-old inside-forward with a fantastic left foot but not much else.

 

Arsenal's main attacking threat from out wide would be their big £31.7million signing from the previous season. Former Udinese and Barcelona forward Alexis Sánchez had scored 16 Premier League goals in his first campaign at the Emirates, and the 26-year-old Chilean was bound to net plenty more under O'Hara. With his energy, work rate, and dribbling ability, he was arguably as pivotal to the Gunners as his old team-mate Lionel Messi was to Barca.

 

Ex-Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck was also in his second term with the Gunners, though he couldn't start it until January at the earliest. The skilful but fragile Mancunian had suffered knee cartilage damage against Manchester City late on in the previous campaign, forcing him on the sidelines for an extended period. At 24, his best years were arguably ahead of him, provided he could stay fit.

 

In Welbeck's absence, the tall and powerful 28-year-old Olivier Giroud was Arsenal's only fit senior centre-forward. Giroud's previous three seasons with the Gunners had seen him score 41 goals in the PL, though more had arguably been expected of a man who'd cost £9.75million from French club Montpellier in 2012.

 

O'Hara was not entirely satisfied with his initial squad for the 2015/2016 season. However, after consulting with Wenger and the Arsenal board in the early days of his reign, he took the brave decision not to buy or sell any players in the remainder of the summer transfer window. Instead, every player at the club who was in or around the first-team squad would be given chances to prove that they had what it took to perform at the highest level.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Back in the 1970s, the undisputed grandmaster of English football - as far as management was concerned - was Brian Clough. To any football historian or follower of a certain age, he needed no introduction, but to those of a rather newer vintage, his achievements were perhaps worth repeating.

 

The charismatic and outspoken Teessider led Derby County from the Second Division to their first ever Football League championship in the 1971/1972 season. He then achieved even greater success at Nottingham Forest, whom he took over in 1975 before guiding them to back-to-back European Cup triumphs in 1979 and 1980. He would remain in charge of Forest for 18 years, until their relegation from the top flight after the inaugural Premier League season of 1992/1993.

 

His triumphs in the East Midlands notwithstanding, Clough was also noted for a rather less triumphant spell at Leeds United in 1974. After Don Revie resigned from the newly-crowned league champions to succeed Sir Alf Ramsey as England manager, Clough was lured to West Yorkshire to help usher in a period of dominance at United.

 

Under Revie, United became known as 'dirty Leeds' for their rather physical approach to the game, and their unsurprisingly poor disciplinary record. Revie's Leeds were the team that virtually everyone besides their supporters loved to hate, and Clough - a connoisseur of attractive passing football, and an advocate for good sportsmanship - loathed them.

 

Upon his surprise arrival at Elland Road, Clough sought to transform 'dirty Leeds' into a team more in keeping with his footballing philosophy. After conducting one of his first training sessions with renowned hardmen such as Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray, and Peter Lorimer, he was reported to have told them in the dressing room, "Over the last 10 years, you've won everything going. As far as I'm concerned, you can throw every one of those medals in the bin, because you never won one of them fairly."

 

Most of the players stormed out in disgust. Clough had already figuratively 'lost the dressing room'. He lasted just 44 days at United before a poor start to the season resulted in his dismissal.

 

As first impressions go, Clough's at Leeds was regarded as one of the worst ever made at the top level of English football. Then, on 29 June 2015, Gary O'Hara met Arsenal's senior players for the first time since becoming their new manager.

 

O'Hara was definitely not to Arsène Wenger what Clough was to Revie. O'Hara had huge admiration for his former coach, who had moved up to a 'Director of Football' role at the Emirates Stadium after nearly 19 years as Gunners manager. What he didn't like about Wenger's Arsenal was that - as he saw it - they had become "too soft" and "not hungry enough to win major trophies".

 

O'Hara, like Clough four decades before him, sought to stamp his own mark on his team right from the word go. It would most certainly not be a case of "meet the old boss... same as the old boss", as Roger Daltrey - the Arsenal-supporting frontman of legendary rock band The Who - once sang.

 

Upon greeting his new charges, the 36-year-old formally laid out his plans for Arsenal's philosophy moving forward. According to one Gunners player, who did not wish to be identified, he began with the words, "Okay, you lot, it's time to forget about everything you've ever learned and achieved under Arsène Wenger.

 

"Tiki-taka is all well and good when you're Barcelona, but let's face facts. None of you are Lionel Messi. None of you are Luis Suárez. None of you are Neymar. Hell, I can't even see [Gerard] Piqué or [Jordi] Alba or [Andrés] Iniesta here... but that doesn't matter.

 

"There is no point in trying to copy Barcelona and their tippy-tappy. What you all need to do is play in the good old Arsenal way - the attacking way, the 'you-score-one-and-we-score-two' way, the 'we're-not-scared-of-you' way. While I am managing this football club, there will be less faffing around on the ball and more action. That is what our fans want from us.

 

"This is a new age for Arsenal Football Club - an age where we will strive to be the very best in every single game across every single season. We will no longer settle for 4th place and call it a trophy. We will no longer settle for the FA Cup and call it a successful season. Our aim from now on is to win the Premier League, win the Champions League, and make Arsenal the most feared football club the world has ever seen."

 

O'Hara's opening speech was not a resounding success. Although there was no mass Leeds-style walk-out, most of these internationally-renowned players were still left unconvinced about their new rookie manager, who had virtually no credentials in top-level football.

 

The new boss also announced at the end of the first day of training that Mertesacker would be taking over the captaincy from Arteta with immediate effect. Arteta was coming towards the end of his career with the Gunners, and O'Hara felt that the armband should be handed to a player who was capable of starting week in, week out.

 

Arteta respected O'Hara's decision, saying at the time, "Per is a fantastic leader with a lot of passion for Arsenal. He is the right man to lead this team into a new era."

 

Other players were not so convinced about their new manager's decision-making. One player was reported to have called O'Hara "arrogant and conceited". Another player said that he was a "nobody" who would be a "disaster". Another even threatened to leave Arsenal and instead move to a club where he wouldn't be coached "by an amateur".

 

Those three players' identities would remain out of the public domain, but one member of the squad did make his feelings clear to the press. In an explosive interview with The Sun, Chambers claimed that he was "a little worried" about O'Hara and added, "I think this football club needs a new manager with new ideas at this moment in time, but we also need someone who's been there and done that."

 

Those comments came out just before Arsenal were due to fly out to China for a pre-season tour. Chambers remained part of the travelling party, but he was strongly reprimanded by O'Hara about his future relations with the media. That was the pair's first major dispute, and it wouldn't be their last.

 

As Arsenal began their journey to the Far East, Martin Samuel - a veteran football journalist with The Daily Mail - raised what he saw as a parallel between Clough and O'Hara.

 

Samuel began, "Those of you who'd watched Tom Hooper's film 'The Damned United', or read the book by David Peace, will recall that Brian Clough's opening gambit at Leeds - the one about the players throwing their 'undeserved' medals away - was a fateful blunder. I suspect that Gary O'Hara might have already had his 'Damned United' moment at Arsenal.

 

"Clough was arguably the cockiest and haughtiest manager of his time; it wasn't for nothing that he earned the moniker of Old Big 'Ead. Importantly, though, he had a reputation as a proven winner - someone who could turn provincial clubs into champions. His arrogance was justified.

 

"O'Hara's arrogance is not justified - not yet, at any rate. He has achieved absolutely nothing of note whatsoever, unless you regard the Women's Premier League Southern Division as something worth putting on your CV.

 

"Here you have a young manager who has been massively overpromoted without justification, and who now suddenly thinks he's the top dog. The truth of the matter is that O'Hara is not a small fish in a big pond; he's a clownfish in the Pacific Ocean. He's not so much José Mourinho as 'Finding Nemo'."

 

The Pacific Ocean wasn't too far away from Arsenal when they arrived in eastern China for their first pre-season friendlies. The O'Hara era was about to get underway.

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***

 

Arsenal kicked off their preparations for the new campaign with a couple of matches against teams from China's second division. First up were Zhejiang Yiteng - a club based in the costal province of Zhejiang. On 8 June 2015, they would have the honour of hosting Arsenal, and giving Gary O'Hara his first taste of managing the Gunners at senior level.

 

This bold new era certainly got off to an encouraging start at the Shaoxing City Sports Centre. Arsenal took the lead after 15 minutes, albeit in very fortuitous circumstances.

 

As Mesut Özil floated a corner into the Zhejiang area, home goalkeeper Bai Xiaolei boldly rushed out of his box to try and catch it. However, Bai spilled the ball, which bounced into the path of centre-back Laurent Koscielny. The Frenchman then half-volleyed in the opening goal of the Gunners' brave new era.

 

A second Arsenal goal would follow in the 23rd minute. Özil was the creator again, playing the ball through to Alexis Sánchez before watching the Chilean provide a typically cool finish. It was already 2-0 to the Gunners, and many onlookers expected to see even more goals before the final whistle. In the end, they would be left feeling rather short-changed.

 

Although the Gunners' attacking football was proving too much for their Chinese counterparts to handle, they displayed the sort of lacklustre finishing that would've been punished by stronger opponents. That theme would carry over into their next friendly, against the Qingdao Zhongneng club of Shandong province.

 

Four days after Bai's calamitous error for Zhejiang, Qingdao's goalkeeper Móu Pengfei restored some honour for China's football shotstoppers. Móu was in excellent shape against the Gunners, making a string of excellent saves to frustrate O'Hara and his charges. He would be beaten just once, by a tidy 62nd-minute finish from Theo Walcott that was set up by Santi Cazorla.

 

Although Arsenal had only managed to score three times during their mini-tour of China, some players had shown early promise. O'Hara had given run-outs to several younger Gunners, including Jeff Reine-Adelaide - a 17-year-old winger recently signed from Lens. The French youth international had a number of chances to score against Qingdao but was frequently denied by some fantastic goalkeeping from Móu.

 

O'Hara was certainly impressed by what he had seen of Reine-Adelaide. During the teenager's cameo in the Qingdao game, he turned to his assistant Bould and said, "Jeff looks like he could be a Premier League player already. Mark my words, that kid's gonna be a superstar."

 

Reine-Adelaide was one of the final signings that Wenger had finalised before moving to his new 'Director of Football' role. Wenger's talent-spotting abilities were priceless to the Gunners, and O'Hara for one was delighted that the Arsenal board had not yet completely dispensed with 'Le Professeur'.

 

Despite the encouraging start to O'Hara's reign, some Gooners remained unconvinced about his pedigree. One fan made his thoughts perfectly clear to thousands of his comrades online.

 

'We Are The Gooners' - or WATG for short - was a popular YouTube channel that was targeted at teenage or young adult Arsenal supporters. This channel, which had over 50,000 subscribers and about half a dozen contributors, specialised in providing its viewers with lively debates, opinion pieces, and Arsenal-based sketch comedy.

 

One of WATG's most outspoken contributors was Billy Khan - a brash and self-assured 21-year-old from Camden. Since joining the channel at the start of the previous season, his regular confrontational pieces to camera had become essential viewing for many viewers.

 

Khan began his latest video by asking, "Our new manager: who is he? What's his name? Gary O'Gara? Gary O'Mara? Is he related to Jo O'Meara from S Club?

 

"No, really, bruv, who's Gary O'Hara? From what I can tell, he played for the Gunners when I was at school. I don't remember him! I would say, 'Ask your dad', but he probs wouldn't have no clue who he was either!

 

"Anyway, bruv, our saviour Arsène has moved up to a higher place, and he's been replaced by... some guy who got the rezzies relegated! WTF? Have you gone INSANE, Wonky Kroenke?

 

"You can't replace a legend with a nobody! It's like ManUre appointing David Moyes when Fergie jacked it in! That was a Disaster with a capital 'D'. This could be a DISASTER in ALL CAPS, bruv!

 

"I tell you, mate... if and when this goes Pete Tong, we'll be the laughing stock of the whole country! People have only just stopped laughing at us since we won those two FA Cups! But while Gary the Nobody is coaching us, the only cup we'll have a cat in hell's chance of winning... is the Fuh!"

 

O'Hara was reportedly shown the video by one of his senior British players shortly after the team arrived back in London. He was said to have laughed it off, claiming, "He's just some YouTube nobody who doesn't know what the hell he's on about! Trust me, he'll come round when we start winning things!"

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CHAPTER 6 - One Guvnor, Two Cups

 

Mid-July 2015. The Emirates Stadium. Arsenal had just completed their first home match under the management of Gary O'Hara, having faced Major League Soccer side Philadelphia Union in the Semi Final of the annual Emirates Cup pre-season tournament.

 

After Arsenal's players entered their dressing room at the end of the match, they faced a torrent of expletives from their new boss. O'Hara's screams were so piercing that they could be heard from the tunnel.

 

"What the p***ing hell was that all about? You just let Philadelphia walk all over you! It was like you were a bunch of f***ing amateurs who'd never played together before in your entire lives!

 

"They're an American team, for f***'s sake! Everyone knows that the f***ing Yanks are s*** at football - or soccer, as those pricks like to call it! You're all meant to be top-class players, either now or in the future, yet you all made things look so f***ing difficult! Sloppy passes, awful positioning, p***-poor attacks - you served up a whole load of horses***."

 

Taken out of context, one could have assumed that O'Hara was fuming about a shock defeat. His dressing-room rant had actually come after a 2-1 win, albeit a hard-fought one.

 

Fielding a mix of reserve players and up-and-coming talents, Arsenal looked very ordinary in the first half. They would fall behind after 40 minutes, with Philadelphia's young German forward Fabian Herbers scoring from a deflected corner by the veteran Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta.

 

O'Hara brought on some more experienced faces in the second half, but the Gunners would actually turn to a couple of 17-year-olds for salvation. Their equaliser came in the 52nd minute, when Krystian Bielik - a Polish defender - half-volleyed in an excellent delivery from first-team winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

 

Arsenal then laboured through the rest of the match before grabbing a late winner four minutes from time. Ismaël Bennacer - a teenaged French midfielder who'd recently arrived at the Emirates from Arles-Avignon - played the ball upfield as he looked to find the run of Olivier Giroud.

 

Union defender Anderson Conceição tried to hook Bennacer's pass away, but he could only find yet another member of Arsenal's youth brigade. Chris Willock - a London lad who played mainly as an inside-forward - then unleashed a stunning howitzer that left the visiting goalkeeper Andre Blake absolutely dumbfounded. Willock had spared the Gunners potential humiliation, but O'Hara was far from pleased.

 

When he spoke to a BT Sport journalist shortly after full-time, O'Hara's language was rather more family-friendly than he would use in the dressing room just moments later, but he still made his displeasure perfectly clear.

 

"To tell you the truth," he said, "The Arsenal fans who showed up tonight deserve a refund. We didn't put together a good enough performance tonight, and I'm very disappointed that we've disappointed them."

 

One player in particular took umbrage to O'Hara's criticism. Forward Joel Campbell had laboured through that awful first half, and the opening stages of the second, before being substituted.

 

Campbell appeared to be furious when he was sacrificed in favour of eventual match-winner Willock. One spectator who was seated near the Arsenal dugout recalled hearing O'Hara lambast the Costa Rican, "What's the f***ing problem with you, thunder-face? I've got a nine-year-old who sulks less than you do!"

 

Campbell's attitude didn't improve the following evening, when he was left out of the squad altogether for the Emirates Cup Final. Providing the Gunners' opposition would be RB Leipzig - a second-division team from east Germany who'd overcome Dutch side NAC Breda in the other Semi Final.

 

Leipzig had recently shot up the German football pyramid thanks to significant investment from an Austrian energy drink manufacturer. Coached by the vastly-experienced Ralf Rangnick, and with several of Europe's best young players in their ranks, 'Die Bullen' were targeting promotion to the Bundesliga in time for the 2016/2017 season.

 

Although Leipzig bosses insisted that the RB in their name stood for 'RasenBallSport', literally meaning 'Lawn Ball Sports', the truth behind the acronym was obvious to many, including O'Hara. In his pre-match and post-match interviews, the Arsenal manager deliberately - and disdainfully - referred to his team's opponents as 'Red Bull Leipzig' at every available opportunity.

 

O'Hara's utter contempt for Leipzig was obvious, but he most definitely did not take them lightly. Arsenal's starting line-up was about as strong as it could be, and although the eventual outcome was not surprising, it was a little underwhelming as far as many Gooners were concerned.

 

Leipzig almost took the lead in the 15th minute, when Austria winger Marcel Sabitzer struck the crossbar. Sabitzer looked far too capable to be playing for a second-tier club, and that could also be said of goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi. The former Liverpool shotstopper put in a brave performance and would only be beaten once by Arsenal. That was in the 37th minute, when Alexis Sánchez took a second attempt to score after his initial effort had been parried by the Hungarian goalkeeper.

 

Both teams had several scoring chances throughout the second half, though Sánchez's strike would prove to be the decisive one. The Gunners were crowned winners of the Emirates Cup, with captain Per Mertesacker and erstwhile skipper Mikel Arteta lifting the trophy jointly.

 

While that tournament would not count as an official honour, it was O'Hara's first trophy as a professional football manager. With four wins from his first four warm-up matches in charge of Arsenal, he could not have dreamt of a much better start.

Edited by CFuller

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Following the Emirates Cup, O'Hara informed Campbell that he intended to send him out on loan until January, when his long-term future at Arsenal would be fully assessed. Campbell wanted to fight for his place with the Gunners, but he reluctantly acknowledged his manager's decision.

 

Several clubs made offers to take the flamboyant 23-year-old on loan. Three of them - AFC Bournemouth, Swansea City and Udinese - had their offers accepted. Campbell eventually chose to make a temporary move to Swansea, who had recently appointed the Italian Francesco Guidolin as head coach and were expected to finish comfortably in mid-table.

 

O'Hara's assistant Steve Bould admitted that the decision to loan Campbell out gave him cause for concern, saying, "I'm going to be brutally honest with you. When Gary told me that Joel was going to Swansea, I thought, 'What the f*** do you think you're doing?'

 

"Gary's main tactical approach was a 4-3-3, with two inside-forwards alongside your main striker. When you're using that system, it's vital that you have a variety of players who are very strong on their left foot, as well as those who are predominantly right-footed.

 

"Here's the thing, though. When you were talking about inside-forwards at Arsenal, we had Alexis (right-footed), Theo (right-footed), The Ox (right-footed), Iwobi (right-footed), and Jeff Reine-Adelaide (right-footed). See where I'm coming from now?

 

"Okay, we had Santi [Cazorla], who was naturally talented with either foot, but Joel was the only proper left-footer we had out wide. He brought something different to the table. I thought Gary was badly underestimating him, simply because he saw him as inconsistent, and a bit of a trouble-maker. I'd known the kid for four years, and I can tell you now that he was nothing of the sort."

 

Another young forward who'd played for Arsenal in the Emirates Cup, but wouldn't be part of the first-team squad just yet, was Serge Gnabry. The prodigious German, who was barely out of his teens, was offered out on loan to several European clubs and eventually agreed a season-long deal with Celtic - the defending Scottish Premiership champions.

 

Meanwhile, the Gunners concluded their pre-season preparations with three more friendlies. Firstly, they arrived in the Netherlands to play Ajax in Amsterdam, followed by a meeting with Feyenoord in Rotterdam.

 

Although O'Hara was born slightly too late to have enjoyed Ajax's golden era of 'Total Football' in the 1970s, he had huge respect for that club. That respect had been passed on to him by his father David, who had delighted in watching the iconic Johan Cruijff and his colleagues on television throughout his teens and early-20s.

 

Although this particular Ajax team couldn't hold a candle to the heroes of four decades earlier, they would thoroughly impress O'Hara when his Gunners faced them at the Amsterdam ArenA. Arkadiusz Milik, Daley Sinkgraven and Jairo Riedewald - all aged 21 or under - fired Ajax into the lead on three separate occasions. Arsenal responded with three equalisers - from Olivier Giroud, Sánchez and Francis Coquelin - and the spoils were shared.

 

O'Hara was waxing lyrical about his opponents after the game, and he didn't exactly hide his desire to sign at least one of Ajax's young starlets in the future. He would instruct his chief scout Steve Rowley to compile substantial reports on two of the goalscorers - 20-year-old midfield playmaker Sinkgraven, and 18-year-old centre-half Riedewald. He also had his eyes on another midfielder in De Godenzonen's ranks.

 

"Gary wanted me to keep tabs on this 18-year-old kid by the name of Donny van de Beek," Rowley said. "He reckoned that there was, and I quote, 'something special about him'. He saw an exciting career as a deep-lying midfield playmaker in his future, and having seen him in action, I couldn't really disagree.

 

"Sinkgraven was already an established Netherlands Under-21s international, and Riedewald was regarded as one of the best teenage defenders in Europe. Both would both command significant transfer fees. van de Beek had played in six Eredivisie games for Ajax the previous season, but from what I could gather, wasn't likely to be as expensive as the other two.

 

"Of course, though, Gary asked me to follow the progress of all three lads, with a view to potentially signing them in January, if not the following summer."

 

The next game against Feyenoord was not quite as thrilling, although it did give O'Hara plenty of cause for optimism. Mind you, after eight minutes, it had looked like yielding his first defeat. The manager's already-fractured relationship with Calum Chambers didn't exactly improve when the right-back was beaten to midfielder Marko Vejinovic's lofted ball by one-time Southampton forward Eljero Elia, who volleyed the Rotterdam club in front.

 

Despite that slow start, the Gunners showed real fortitude to recover, with reserve winger Alex Iwobi equalising from left-back Kieran Gibbs' drilled cross midway through the first half. The omnipresent Sánchez then added another goal in the second period, thus sealing a 2-1 win.

 

Arsenal would complete their pre-season unbeaten after recording another narrow victory in Romania, though not before their hosts Rapid Bucharest gave them yet another scare.

 

Just three minutes into the game, Willock demonstrated that he was still a raw talent by catching Rapid forward Mădălin Martin with a high foot in the penalty area. Czech winger Jiri Jeslinek took the resulting penalty for the hosts, but goalkeeper Ryan Huddart - another Arsenal youth-team player who'd been thrusted into senior action - produced a fantastic save to keep the deadlock intact.

 

Following his let-off, Willock made amends with an excellent cross that Theo Walcott converted to put the Gunners in front after 29 minutes. Although both teams had plenty of chances to score afterwards, it wasn't until the 88th minute that Arsenal secured victory through Iwobi - a Nigeria Under-20s international who happened to be a nephew of the great Jay-Jay Okocha.

 

All in all, Arsenal's pre-season performances had been reasonably encouraging, even if they hadn't exactly set the world alight. Their focus now turned to the English football season's annual curtain-raiser.

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2 August 2015 saw O'Hara's reign as Arsenal manager kick off in earnest. His FA Cup holders took on reigning Premier League champions Chelsea at Wembley Stadium, with the season-opening Community Shield on the line.

 

In the 2014/2015 season, Chelsea had possessed an aura of virtual invincibility. They had blown away everything put in their path in the Premier League, winning 26 out of 38 games and losing just three as they stormed to the title. It was their third championship under the management of José Mourinho, and the first of his second stint at the club. However, the so-called 'Special One' would not return to defend his crown.

 

Mourinho's self-confidence was sky-high after the latest of many triumphs in his managerial career. However, just days after his captain John Terry triumphantly lifted the PL trophy, the Portuguese's facade began to show cracks.

 

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports presenter Jim White, Mourinho claimed that referees and PL executives "plotted" to try and "fix" the season in favour of their closest title challengers - Manchester City. The 52-year-old argued that "everyone wanted City to remain champions, and everyone wanted Chelsea to fail". His comments caused a massive media storm, but that was only the beginning of the controversy.

 

A couple of weeks later, Chelsea's physiotherapist Dr Eva Carneiro resigned from her role at the club, accusing Mourinho of making sexist comments about her. On one occasion, while Carneiro was treating star player Eden Hazard for an injury on the sidelines during a league match, Mourinho was alleged to have called the 41-year-old a "filha da puta" - a "daughter of a whore".

 

Mourinho tried to dismiss Carneiro's allegations, but the damage had been done. In the middle of June 2015, Chelsea announced that they had placed their beleaguered manager on 'gardening leave', reportedly after he stubbornly refused to attend anger management classes at their request. Owner Roman Abramovich turned to his go-to 'firefighter', and appointed former Netherlands manager Guus Hiddink for a second spell in charge at Stamford Bridge.

 

Over the course of his career, 68-year-old Hiddink had won five Eredivisie titles, an FA Cup, a European Cup, an Intercontinental Cup, and he'd twice taken teams to the Semi Finals of the FIFA World Cup. His adversary in the 2015 Community Shield - Arsenal's new manager - was a man three decades younger whose biggest coaching achievement to date had been winning the Women's Premier League Southern Division.

 

When it came to experience, there was no contest. But although O'Hara's CV was nowhere near as extensive as Hiddink's, the younger coach did have a plan to trump the wily old Dutchman.

 

O'Hara knew that Chelsea's main striker Diego Costa had a bit of a reputation as a fiery hothead. Indeed, in a pre-match press conference, he said of the 26-year-old Spain international, "He's a bully, a street-fighter, a bit like Didier Drogba was. He's an angry young man who needs to be put in his place... and trust me, we will put him in his place on Sunday."

 

O'Hara wanted to give Costa hell at Wembley, in the hope that he would lose his cool. Before kick-off, he instructed French centre-half Laurent Koscielny to "kick lumps into him" as often as possible. Koscielny took his new manager's plans to heart, picking up a booking after just three minutes for tripping up Costa, who clearly looked riled afterwards.

 

Costa would become even more annoyed ten minutes later, as Arsenal hit Chelsea against the run of play. Mesut Özil played a sublime pass that Olivier Giroud drove home at goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' near post to fire the Gunners into an unexpected early lead.

 

As Costa struggled to get into the game, his Arsenal counterpart continued to thrive. A second goal came Giroud's way in the 20th minute, when he half-volleyed the ball home following a poor clearance from Blues defender Branislav Ivanovic.

 

Afew moments later, Koscielny clattered into Costa for a second time, leaving the Brazilian-born Spaniard on the floor in agony. Chelsea's players bombarded referee Michael Oliver with calls for him to give the Arsenal man a second booking, but no action was taken by the Northumbrian official.

 

Koscielny's mission had been carried out. Costa had broken his toe in that latter challenge and was out of the match. Coming on in his place was Colombian substitute Falcao, who'd recently joined the Blues on loan from French giants Monaco following a notoriously unsuccessful stint at Manchester United.

 

Chelsea would soon be effectively out of the match completely, as Hazard felled Walcott in the penalty box to concede a spot-kick to Arsenal after 29 minutes. Giroud stepped forward to convert the penalty, which secured him a first-half hat-trick. Arsenal were now bang on course to retain the Community Shield, which they had won 12 months earlier against Manchester City.

 

Chelsea looked utterly lost without the unfaltering drive of either Mourinho or Costa, and there would be no chance of a stirring second-half comeback from them. Gunners goalkeeper David Ospina would only face two meaningful tests following the restart, catching a header from centre-half Kurt Zouma in the 48th minute and a strike from Hazard in the 61st.

 

An utterly shambolic day for the Blues would be summed up when Falcao was himself substituted in favour of Alexandre Pato nine minutes before full-time. As a bemused Falcao demanded answers from Hiddink, O'Hara reclined in his dugout seat, with a broad smile on his face. His first competitive match would end in a comfortable victory.

 

Although Arsenal would not score in the second period, Giroud's earlier treble was more than enough to claim the spoils. O'Hara's first season as manager had begun just like Arsène Wenger's final campaign, with the Gunners lifting the Community Shield aloft in Wembley's royal box.

 

O'Hara revelled in his team's success afterwards, saying, "This is the perfect start for me. To give the league champions a thrashing is a massive boost to our confidence as we head into the new season.

 

"I really feel that this is going to be our season. With these world-class players at our disposal, and my new way of thinking, it's gonna take something special for Chelsea and the Manchester clubs to stop us competing for the title.

 

"12 years is a very long time in football, and we want our trophy back!"

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CHAPTER 7 - No Escape From Reality

 

Gary O'Hara had yet to experience defeat as Arsenal manager as he headed into his first Premier League match on the afternoon of 8 August. Pre-season had gone reasonably well, save for a few hiccups, while a 3-0 Community Shield win over Chelsea had sent out a clear message that the Gunners were desperate for league glory again.

 

The pre-season predictions suggested that Arsenal were not quite ready to launch a firm challenge to early favourites Manchester City and defending champions Chelsea. The general consensus was that, without a world-class centre-forward or a high-quality midfield destroyer, they could realistically expect to finish no higher than 3rd.

 

Former Arsenal forward Paul Merson was one of the few pundits who expressed quiet confidence about the Gunners' chances of success. Speaking on Sky Sports News, he said, "I don't think Arsenal will win the title this year, but I reckon they've got what it takes to push City and Chelsea all the way.

 

"Arsène Wenger was a top, top manager, and he'll be almost impossible to replace, but I've been impressed with Gary O'Hara so far. He's saying all the right things for me, and he seems to have added a bit of steel to this Arsenal team - and that's something they seemed to lack under Wenger.

 

"Give him two or three years, and I reckon he'll do it. He'll win them the Premier League, maybe even the Champions League."

 

That was a bold prediction from Merson, but - as the old saying goes - the proof of the pudding would be in the eating. Arsenal's opening two fixtures of the Premier League season would provide O'Hara with some very early - and very strenuous - tests.

 

Arsenal's first home game was scheduled for 15 August, when Liverpool would arrive at the Emirates Stadium. A week before then, the Gunners were on the road to Old Trafford - and a showdown with the mighty Manchester United.

 

O'Hara wasn't exactly delighted with having to play two of the so-called big guns so early in the season. Speaking on the eve of the opening day, however, he added, "We've got to play United and Liverpool at some point in the season, and it might actually help us to get them out of the way early."

 

He then took swipes at some of the Red Devils' players, presumably in an attempt to play mind games. He said, "I look at the United squad, and I see a lot of players who are overrated but underperform.

 

"Wayne Rooney may be 29, but he looks like and plays like someone who's 39. If we can get stuck into him like we got stuck into [Diego] Costa last week, he won't last 90 minutes. He'll either be sent off or stretchered off.

 

"Their Dutch winger, Memphis Depay... what did he cost them? £20million, was it? They've wasted their money on a one-trick pony. And I don't think much of their other winger, Ashley Young. For my money, he's the greatest diver England has produced since Tom Daley!

 

"Daley Blind at centre-back - that's an appropriate name, alright! Luke Shaw at left-back - he's not very sure of himself, I can tell you. And [Bastian] Schweinsteiger - that guy was a brilliant midfielder at Bayern Munich, but he's done nothing since he started dating that Serbian tennis player [Ana Ivanovic]!

 

"So yeah, I'm confident about our chances tomorrow. Louis won't know what's hit him."

 

The Premier League's newest and youngest coach was in a bullish mood, having already seen off one veteran coach from the Netherlands in competition. As it transpired, the legendary Louis van Gaal - in his second season at the helm at Old Trafford - would not be wrestled off his throne and defeated as easily as Chelsea's Guus Hiddink.

 

Manchester United vs Arsenal - the very first game of the 2015/2016 Premier League season - kicked off at 12:45pm. The first goal was scored at around 12:47pm.

 

van Gaal had spent big money - £19.25million, to be precise - to sign Netherlands left-winger Depay from PSV over the summer. Depay immediately repaid his former national team manager's faith in him by escaping Héctor Bellerín's clutches and tucking away Young's first-time cross at the back post. Barely a minute into his competitive debut, Depay was already running towards the Stretford End in celebration, and basking in the adulation of thousands of United fans.

 

Arsenal's early attempts to equalise fell below O'Hara's standards. Olivier Giroud screwed wide a shot from the edge of the area after three minutes, while captain Per Mertesacker also missed the target four minutes later.

 

Then, in the 17th minute, O'Hara's Premier League 'baptism' became a whole lot fierier. Argentine defender Marcos Rojo was not exactly among United's most prolific scorers, but he still managed to find the net with a deflected shot after playmaker Juan Mata's corner caused panic amongst the Arsenal defence.

 

Arsenal were already 2-0 behind, and Rojo would give the visiting fans even greater cause for concern nine minutes later. A firm but fair slide tackle from Rojo caught the ankle of Mesut Özil, and the German playmaker twisted sharply before collapsing in pain. Özil's game was over, and his injury would have to be properly assessed by Arsenal's medical and physiotherapy teams, headed by Colin Lewin.

 

While Lewin and co set about treating Özil, Young set about rubbing salt into the Gunners' wounds. The England right-winger beat Nacho Monreal to United midfielder Ander Herrera's backheeled through-ball and slotted in what he thought was a third goal for the Red Devils after 29 minutes. The 'goal' was subsequently disallowed for offside, but Young would continue to torment Arsenal until his substitution late in the second period.

 

Angered by what he saw as "dirty tactics" from United, O'Hara opted to fight fire with fire in the second half. Although this Arsenal team was completely built by Wenger, they adopted the non-Wengeresque approach of hacking down the opposition with rash tackles like it was the 1970s all over again.

 

Predictably, referee Stuart Attwell didn't take too kindly to Arsenal's aggression. Three Gunners - Monreal, Alexis Sánchez and Francis Coquelin - would receive yellow cards before the game was up.

 

Nevertheless, O'Hara's plan worked... at least to the extent that Manchester United did not add to their two goals. The one significant downside was that Arsenal's own attacking movement had suffered as a result of their new manager's more aggressive strategical change.

 

Home goalkeeper David De Gea only needed to make a handful of saves, the best of which was from a Giroud header in the 66th minute. The Spaniard kept a comfortable clean sheet, and O'Hara's honeymoon period was over.

 

While this Old Trafford defeat wasn't on the same scale as the 6-1 thrashing in 2001 or the 8-2 demolition in 2011, it was still yet another poor result for Arsenal against the most successful team in English league history.

 

The Gunners' next opponents would be the second-most successful team in English league history. They would have to approach that opening home fixture against Liverpool without their German talisman Özil, whose ankle injury was worse than initially feared. A scan revealed that Özil had broken a bone in his ankle, and the prognosis was that he would be out of action for at least two months, if not three.

 

"I hope Rojo can sleep happily tonight," O'Hara bemoaned after the United match. "It was an awful tackle from him on Özil. If this was the 1980s, Mesut probably wouldn't play again after that. Rojo should be banned for the next three months as far as I'm concerned."

 

Rojo was not banned, but O'Hara was warned by the Football Association about his conduct in relation to those comments. The Premier League's new kid on the block was already getting a reputation as a 'bad boy', which was in stark contrast to that of another newcomer to English top-flight management.

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2 hours ago, morsabel said:

It's too long yet it's worth it. You did a great job with this story pitch. 

"Too long" - I don't know if that's meant to be a compliment or not. Erm... thank you?

Anyway, welcome to FMS. Looking through your previous posts tells me you're an Arsenal fan. Nice to see that this story is attracting interest from other Gooners. :thup:

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19 hours ago, CFuller said:

"Too long" - I don't know if that's meant to be a compliment or not. Erm... thank you?

Anyway, welcome to FMS. Looking through your previous posts tells me you're an Arsenal fan. Nice to see that this story is attracting interest from other Gooners. :thup:

It's actually the Gunners not the Gooners... :herman:

I used to be a football writer for an online sports bookie brand. :onmehead:

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3 hours ago, morsabel said:

It's actually the Gunners not the Gooners... :herman:

I used to be a football writer for an online sports bookie brand. :onmehead:

I know what I'm writing about. Arsenal are nicknamed the 'Gunners'. Arsenal fans are nicknamed 'Gooners'.

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***

 

Jürgen Klopp was the football hipster's football manager. Bearded, bespectacled, and very amiable, Klopp had guided Borussia Dortmund to Bundesliga success - and a UEFA Champions League Final in 2013 against fierce rivals Bayern Munich - before leaving Germany and moving to Anfield. He had been installed as Liverpool boss after Brendan Rodgers' men went from finishing 2nd - just behind City - in 2014, to a disappointing 6th within 12 months.

 

Klopp's Liverpool reign had begun with an unconvincing goalless draw at home to Crystal Palace. The Reds' critics would start to chirp up again during the opening quarter-hour of their visit to the Emirates Stadium.

 

Arsenal racked up a host of corners in the early stages of their first competitive match at home this season, though it would take them 14 minutes to beat Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Giroud lofted the ball forward to Theo Walcott at Mignolet's left-hand post. Walcott unleashed a volley that the much-maligned Belgian could only parry to Sánchez, who fired the Gunners into the lead.

 

O'Hara was fist-pumping vigorously in his technical area after Sánchez's opener - his first Premier League goal as a manager. He was about to do a repeat performance in the 26th minute, until his Chilean superstar pulled an excellent opportunity into the side netting.

 

Arsenal carried a slender 1-0 lead into the second half, and threatened to improve it four minutes after the restart. A dangerous corner delivery from Santi Cazorla was met by the head of Sánchez, but Mignolet made an assured catch. Now that was something not even the most forgiving of Reds fans could say every day!

 

As the match wore on, it became increasingly clear that Liverpool were starting to make real inroads. Nathaniel Clyne was feeding Christian Benteke with plenty of crosses from right-back, and the Gunners were fortunate that the big target man couldn't make the most of them.

 

Even with Liverpool looking more dangerous going forward, O'Hara refused to hold back. His Arsenal team continued to press forward and attack the visitors, almost with reckless abandon. Their defence was leaving large areas of open space - space that Klopp would soon encourage his players to exploit.

 

Nine minutes before full-time, Brazilian playmaker Roberto Firmino sprayed an excellent ball out right to Clyne, who floated in yet another cross towards Benteke. The Belgian international then shrugged off Arsenal centre-halves Laurent Koscielny and Calum Chambers to lash in a close-range volley and level the scores.

 

Liverpool did not finish there. They were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position three minutes later, after midfielder Joe Allen had been tripped up by Mathieu Flamini. Adam Lallana calmly lifted the set-piece into Arsenal's box, where centre-back Martin Skrtel flicked it beyond the reach of Petr Cech. The mini-comeback was complete.

 

As Klopp left the Emirates Stadium with a smile wider than the Cheshire Cat's, O'Hara departed to a chorus of boos from the home supporters. Arsenal had not lost their opening two fixtures in a league season since the inaugural Premier League campaign of 1992/1993. They now found themselves second-from-bottom, with only Watford trailing them on goal difference.

 

O'Hara admitted that Arsenal's failure to take any points from the first couple of weekends was not exactly ideal. He did, though, reiterate that his team's start had been one of the toughest on paper in the division. The music lover also put a Queen-style spin on the Gunners' predicament.

 

He told a press conference on the Monday after the Liverpool defeat, "I'm sure you all know the song 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. That starts off slowly, but then the tempo steadily builds up as the song moves along before reaching its great climax. I can see Arsenal's season being like 'Bohemian Rhapsody'."

 

The reaction in the press gallery to O'Hara's quote was a mixed one. There were a few laughs, although most seemed to be at the manager as opposed to with him. One journalist from the Daily Mirror described O'Hara to a colleague as "a parody of Ron Manager", in relation to the cliché-spouting football coach played by Paul Whitehouse on BBC sketch comedy programme 'The Fast Show' in the 1990s.

 

Barney Ronay - a leading columnist for The Guardian - referred to the opening lyrics of O'Hara's song of choice when he wrote, "Gary O'Hara must realise that this is the real life, not just fantasy football, and he must live and die by his results. Arsenal's poor start suggests that they will be caught in a landslide unless O'Hara drops this bohemian charade soon. There can be no escape from reality.

 

"Open your eyes, Gary. Look up to the skies and see what you're doing wrong, before Arsenal fans start wishing that you'd never been born at all."

 

Other media outlets were even less kind, with The Sun branding him as "O'Horror" and "Gary Gormless". O'Hara retaliated by declining to answer a question asked by a journalist from the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid at his next press conference, saying, "Sorry, mate, but I don't speak to comics."

 

O'Hara had nothing but contempt for The Sun, which he accused of publishing "right-wing propaganda" and "treating women like sex objects". Although he had no personal ties to Liverpool, he had - like many in the footballing community - boycotted the paper in protest over its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster.

 

Even after only 180 minutes of league football, some hacks were perhaps starting to think about writing their draft obituaries for Gary O'Hara's Arsenal career. Were the Gunners to start the Premier League campaign with three successive losses, the knives - or, perhaps more accurately, the laptops - would be out.

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On 9/22/2017 at 14:27, CFuller said:

I know what I'm writing about. Arsenal are nicknamed the 'Gunners'. Arsenal fans are nicknamed 'Gooners'.

Oops.. my apology for being mean. :eek:

Thanks for the correction. 

Edited by morsabel

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***

 

"Well, I know what's right,

I got just one life,

In a world that keeps on pushin' me around,

But I'll stand my ground,

And I won't back down."

 

Most of Arsenal's players were more into hip-hop or EDM than Tom Petty, but their manager was full of admiration for the legendary American rock singer and guitarist. O'Hara listened to a compilation of Petty's greatest hits on the way to his next match, and the 1989 track "I Won't Back Down" resonated strongly with him here.

 

O'Hara had been singled out for heavy criticism over his all-out attacking approach to football, especially after Liverpool's late show at the Emirates. However, the new kid on the Premier League block was prepared to stand up for himself, and he wouldn't compromise on his beliefs - not yet, anyway.

 

The journey Arsenal took on 22 August was one of the shortest they would have to make this season - just an hour's drive south to Selhurst Park in Croydon. That was the home ground of Crystal Palace - the only current top-flight club in South London.

 

Palace were embarking on their third consecutive season in the PL, and their first under the management of Alan Pardew. The relationship between the silver-haired former Palace midfielder and O'Hara was friendly to begin with, but things would soon take a more hostile turn.

 

In the 12th minute, Walcott collided with Crystal Palace left-back Pape Souaré and went down clutching his knee. O'Hara waved an imaginary red card in his technical area, signalling for the Senegal international to be sent off. That reaction infuriated Pardew, who launched a tirade of expletives at O'Hara. The pair then prepared to square up to one another, with only the fourth official preventing them from actually coming to blows.

 

Walcott's injury was a game-ending one, and he wouldn't play again for several weeks afterwards. However, it was a heavily-disguised blessing for Arsenal.

 

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on in his fellow English wideman's place, and it was he who would open the scoring for the Gunners after 29 minutes. A tidy finish from Giroud's incisive pass left Palace's Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey in a helpless position.

 

Cazorla would double Arsenal's money in the 41st minute, with his opening goal of the campaign from close range. 2-0 was how the scoreline remained at half-time, and it would surely take something extraordinary for O'Hara to be denied a first league win here.

 

Crystal Palace did their best to try and turn the match on its head. Six minutes into the second half, French midfielder Yohan Cabaye narrowly missed a chance to halve Arsenal's deficit.

 

The Gunners effectively clinched the points when attacking talisman Sánchez came to life after 69 minutes. He exquisitely chested a Bellerín centre beyond Hennessey's reach and then finished off the move with a lethal half-volley.

 

O'Hara brought on his skipper Mikel Arteta shortly after that third goal. The experienced Spaniard would complete an emphatic win with seven minutes to go, as he fired a sledgehammer into the top corner. Arsenal had been dominant throughout, and were it not for some excellent goalkeeping by Hennessey, they would surely have racked up even more goals.

 

Palace did finish off with a consolation goal in the last minute of normal time, as Bakary Sako scored from the penalty spot after his Eagles colleague Connor Wickham had been felled by Bellerín in the area. Nevertheless, a 4-1 win away from home was just the tonic for O'Hara after his early struggles.

 

The victory didn't stop O'Hara from openly criticising Pardew over his conduct after the incident involving Walcott and Souaré. He said, "He's an embarrassment to his profession. I was making my thoughts about the incident perfectly clear, and then Pardew stormed over and started effing and blinding at me! My old man would've washed my mouth out with soap if he'd caught me using that kind of language!"

 

Pardew responded to O'Hara's comments by saying, "He's a fine one to talk about class, isn't he?

 

"I know all the ins-and-outs in terms of manager conduct; I've been in the business for about 15 years now. Gary's not been here for 15 minutes, yet he's already rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way with his antics and his play-acting. It's embarrassing, really.

 

"I hope for Arsenal's sake that Gary will mature a lot more quickly going forward. Arsenal are a great football club with great people, and they deserve better than this."

 

Another away victory would come Arsenal's way the following weekend, against one of Pardew's old clubs. This time around, though, they would find the going slightly tougher.

 

Newcastle United had earned just a single point from their first three matches under former England head coach Steve McClaren. Mind you, McClaren's Magpies had not enjoyed the easiest of starts, losing at Leicester City and Liverpool either side of a home draw against Manchester United.

 

The hosts made a positive start at St James' Park, with Seydou Doumbia having a shot parried by Cech after just 30 seconds. The Ivorian striker - a loan signing from Roma - went close again in the sixth minute, pulling a shot wide following an excellent set-up from the young Spanish 'trequartista' Ayoze Pérez.

 

Doumbia would eventually go one better after 37 minutes, slotting home a square ball from fellow Newcastle newcomer Georginio Wijnaldum. Just three minutes earlier, Cazorla had clipped the crossbar with a shot that could've given Arsenal the opening goal instead.

 

This time around, the Gunners did not baulk after going behind. Giroud rectified the situation for them shortly before half-time, volleying in a fabulous left-wing delivery by Sánchez. The teams would head into the dressing rooms locked at 1-1.

 

Doumbia spurned a glorious opportunity to restore Newcastle's advantage very early in the second period. He broke through the Arsenal defence to latch onto a fine delivery from Andros Townsend, only to horrendously scoop it over the bar. That would prove to be a costly miss for the Magpies.

 

In the 73rd minute, Oxlade-Chamberlain played a one-two with fellow substitute Mathieu Flamini before crossing towards Newcastle's back post. Sánchez was there to flick forward a header that Tim Krul could only help parry into the net. The Chilean had scored his third goal in as many games.

 

Determined not to repeat the mistakes he'd made a fortnight earlier, O'Hara ordered his team to "back up". That was his go-to word when instructing his players to defend deeper and narrower.

 

This new conservative approach almost backfired in the closing stages, as the Magpies had a host of opportunities to pinch a point. Henri Saivet miscued a chance in the 89th minute, though Townsend's injury-time header forced what would be a crucial fingertip save out of Cech.

 

Arsenal eventually held onto their 2-1 advantage and secured back-to-back victories. Though the Gunners were still only in 8th place after four rounds of the Premier League campaign, the situation wasn't looking as bleak as it could have been for O'Hara. The new manager seemed to have found his feet.

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CHAPTER 8 - The New World Man

 

There was an international break at the start of September, but Gary O'Hara could still be found hard at work at Arsenal's training ground in London Colney. While most of the senior players were flying out to represent their countries, the young Gunners manager began to redesign his team's Hertfordshire base in his own image.

 

O'Hara's idea was to emblazon the walls of the training ground with motivational images for the players to encounter whenever they were at work. But he was not one for simply putting up photographs of previous Arsenal successes; he had no desire to simply look back on the past.

 

Instead, O'Hara turned to his second passion - music - for inspiration. On their way to the dressing room, Arsenal's players would see the walls covered with lyrics from some of their manager's favourite songs.

 

One song that O'Hara chose was "New World Man" - a 1982 hit by the Canadian progressive rock band Rush. The words of lyricist and drummer Neil Peart, as sung by Geddy Lee, would serve to remind the Gunners' stars of their fallacies, as well as their strengths.

 

"He's got to make his own mistakes, and learn to mend the mess he makes.

He's old enough to know what's right, and young enough not to choose it.

He's noble enough to win the world, but weak enough to lose it."

 

While O'Hara's intentions were good, the reception of his players was one of general bemusement.

 

"I think a lot of those words went over the lads' heads," goalkeeper Petr Cech revealed. "Most of them preferred 'urban' music and did not really understand lyrics from rock songs. I am not sure that there were many of us who'd even heard of these bands before!

 

"Personally, I had quite similar tastes in music to Gary, so I could see what he was trying to do. I appreciated that he was trying to motivate us in his own way, strange as it seemed to some of the younger players!"

 

O'Hara could himself have been seen as the titular character in that Rush song. In some ways, he was a "rebel and a runner", and a "restless young romantic" who "wants to run the big machine".

 

Arsenal's first home game following the international break would see the 'New World Man' of the Premier League come up against a wilier coach from the 'old school' of football management.

 

West Bromwich Albion were a formidable mid-level team coached by Tony Pulis - a veteran of over 900 Football League games as a manager since he'd entered the profession at AFC Bournemouth in 1992. The straight-talking, baseball cap-wearing Welshman preferred his teams to play a no-frills, long-ball game, with a strong emphasis on keeping things compact at the back.

 

O'Hara - a man 20 years Pulis' junior - was very much a manager built in the 21st century. Mentored by Arsène Wenger, he was an advocate for a more exciting 'brand' of football, and the belief that attack was the best form of defence. Like Pulis, though, he didn't mind his team getting stuck in whenever possible.

 

On this occasion, just like in the Community Shield a month earlier, the new breed would get one up on the old-stager. Arsenal made the perfect start after three minutes, when Santi Cazorla made the most of a fantastic cross by 17-year-old competitive debutant Jeff Reine-Adelaide.

 

When Reine-Adelaide was denied a dream debut goal in the 13th minute by a fantastic save from West Brom goalkeeper Boaz Myhill, many were starting to hail the French starlet as Arsenal's next big sensation. His reputation would only grow further after 32 minutes.

 

Albion's defence was pulled apart when Olivier Giroud flicked Nacho Monreal's deep cross ahead of Cazorla in space. Though Baggies right-back Craig Dawson stepped in to slide the ball away from the Spaniard, he could only knock it as far as Reine-Adelaide. The youngster then found Sánchez making a run inside from the left, and the Chilean superstar knocked the cross down before drilling it past Myhill from a tight angle.

 

Sánchez had now racked up four goals across four consecutive matches. The 26-year-old's scoring streak would not continue any longer, but over the course of those few weeks early in the season, he really did look unstoppable.

 

The only disappointing aspect of Arsenal's first-half display was that vice-captain Mikel Arteta had been forced to come off injured between halves. The experienced Basque 'regista' had twisted his knee in a challenge from West Brom winger Chris Brunt late in the first period and would be out of action for the next fortnight.

 

O'Hara had shown faith in youth and was duly reaping the rewards, but there was still time for Pulis to show that his Baggies were no pushovers. Lone striker Salomon Rondón, as the main focus of Albion's attacks, banged on the Arsenal door on several occasions before eventually breaking through in the 55th minute.

 

Rondón exposed Per Mertesacker's pace - or lack thereof - by rounding the home skipper and driving an excellent shot past Cech. The big Venezuelan had sent nerves jangling across the Emirates Stadium, and there was now a real fear that Arsenal would not hold onto their advantage.

 

In the end, though, those first-half assists from Reine-Adelaide would prove to be enough. The teenage sensation was substituted in the 82nd minute, to a rapturous reception from the home supporters. He then looked on as his colleagues, inspired by some solid defending from Laurent Koscielny, saw the match through. The 'new school' had beaten the 'old school' by two goals to one.

 

A third straight win saw the Gunners break into the Premier League's European qualification places for the first time this season. They were now in 5th position - four points adrift of surprise leaders Swansea City, who possessed the last remaining unbeaten record in the division. Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Chelsea rounded off the top four.

 

After seeing off what was effectively the strongest team the West Midlands had to offer, Arsenal set their sights further afield. The UEFA Champions League was about to start up.

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On 9/26/2017 at 14:25, CFuller said:

CHAPTER 8 - The New World Man

As a massive Rush fan, that was one of my favourite all-time FMS posts. Mr O'Hara seemed to be enjoying living in the limelight for the time being, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this modern day warrior evolves through the season...

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11 minutes ago, EvilDave said:

As a massive Rush fan, that was one of my favourite all-time FMS posts. Mr O'Hara seemed to be enjoying living in the limelight for the time being, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this modern day warrior evolves through the season...

You can thank my dad for the Rush references. They are one of his favourite ever bands, if not his outright favourite, and that love has been passed onto me. As far as I’m concerned, “Moving Pictures” is one of the greatest albums of all-time.

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I'm very much the same - they got my dad into prog rock, and I picked up the mantle I suppose. One of the first bands I ever saw live as well - I was spoiled!

Anyway, I should stop derailing your thread...

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32 minutes ago, EvilDave said:

I'm very much the same - they got my dad into prog rock, and I picked up the mantle I suppose. One of the first bands I ever saw live as well - I was spoiled!

Anyway, I should stop derailing your thread...

Lucky you. I've not been fortunate enough to see many bands live. My first concert was a Cliff Richard one, which tells you more about my mother's taste in music than my father's! :lol:

Okay, let's not 'derail' this thread any further. I think you deserve the next part of Chapter 8...

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***

 

Arsenal had a proud record of qualifying from the Champions League Group Stage in 18 successive seasons - a feat surpassed only by Real Madrid. If they were to extend that sequence, they would have to negotiate a group filled with three opponents that, while not exactly in the elite bracket of European clubs, were still very strong in their own right.

 

As second seeds in the draw, Arsenal faced the prospect of potentially facing Bayern Munich - who'd knocked them out in two of the previous three seasons - or another continental superpower such as Real or Barcelona in the group phase. As it transpired, they would end up with one of the so-called 'lesser' top seeds.

 

Heading Arsenal's group - Group D - were Portuguese Primeira Liga champions Benfica. Inspired by some of the best young talents Europe had to offer, such as Portugal Under-21s internationals Gonçalo Guedes and Renato Sanches, they were expected to go deep into the tournament.

 

Benfica would be a major threat to the Gunners, as would third seeds Dynamo Kiev. The previous season had seen Dynamo end a six-year wait to be crowned Ukrainian champions, with their success being delivered by manager Sergei Rebrov. While at the peak of his playing powers as a striker in 2000, Rebrov joined Arsenal's bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur for £11million, though he would fall well short of expectations during his stint at White Hart Lane.

 

Completing Group D were Borussia Mönchengladbach - the underdogs, and potential dark horses, of the pool. Gladbach had recently finished 3rd in the Bundesliga, and their squad included the likes of enigmatic Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka and on-loan Liverpool striker Divock Origi.

 

It was Gladbach whom Arsenal faced first - at Borussia-Park on 15 September. Although the Germans were technically the lowest seeds in the group, O'Hara had called them "a serious danger" before the game. He would not be wrong.

 

The first half was a very tense affair between two teams who were desperate to record an early victory. Each side had their opportunities, and both would be cursing potentially costly misses.

 

Gladbach were a little quicker to get going, almost taking the lead after six minutes through two men with strong Chelsea connections. After being felled on the edge of the Arsenal area, attacking midfielder Thorgan Hazard - Eden's younger and arguably less talented brother - swung a free-kick to on-loan Blues defender Andreas Christensen at the far post. The young Dane's half-volley was awkwardly parried by Gunners goalkeeper David Ospina, whom O'Hara initially saw as his go-to goalkeeper for cup matches, with Cech mainly used in league games.

 

The Germans' best chances later in the first half came from Lars Stindl - a hitherto unheralded 27-year-old forward who'd recently joined 'Die Fohlen' following an impressive season at lowly Hannover 96. In the 28th minute, Stindl unleashed a first-time shot from an excellent pass by teenage midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud. That strike was well caught by Ospina, who would then deny Stindl again just before half-time.

 

Arsenal's wasted openings were not quite so obvious, and as the second half entered its opening stages with the scoreline still 0-0, O'Hara was still waiting for his team to create a clear-cut chance. He would soon have another reason to be annoyed.

 

Six minutes into the second period, Stindl looked to pick out the run of his Gladbach strike partner Raffael. The Brazilian was about to take the ball into the penalty area when he was brought down from behind by Chambers. Slovenian referee Damir Skomina adjudged Chambers to have denied the opponent a clear scoring opportunity, and he duly sent him off for a professional foul.

 

O'Hara was apoplectic on the touchline, but his fury was directed at Chambers rather than the referee. There was no doubt that the defender had to be dismissed for such a cynical foul - a foul that would ultimately cost Arsenal a great deal.

 

'Die Fohlen' would put together an excellent attacking move from the resulting free-kick before Hazard helped Raffael to open the scoring. Hazard skilfully knocked the ball beyond Gunners midfielder Francis Coquelin - recently capped by France for the first time - and found Raffael, who fired it into the far corner from a tight angle.

 

Thanks to a series of fine saves from Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer, Arsenal's attempts to draw level would end without success. Indeed, the Gunners were fortunate not to slip further behind in the closing stages. Origi had a couple of great chances to put the hosts 2-0 up after replacing Stindl for the final quarter-hour. Ospina saved the first of the promising Belgian's attempts, while the second clipped the post.

 

The evening ended with Borussia Mönchengladbach still 1-0 up on Arsenal, who slipped to the bottom of Group D, courtesy of a 1-1 draw between Benfica and Dynamo Kiev. O'Hara's first game in European football had not exactly been a rip-roaring success.

 

As far as O'Hara was concerned, only one man could shoulder the blame for this opening group loss. The manager verbally tore into Chambers in the dressing room at full-time and informed him that he would be fined a week's wages. £45,000 was not exactly a massive fine for a millionaire such as Chambers, but it was a token punishment.

 

Chambers looked visibly upset as he boarded the Arsenal team coach before it departed Borussia-Park later that night, and rumours of a major row with O'Hara would receive significant press coverage over the next few days. It perhaps didn't help matters that O'Hara reportedly called the young and versatile defender "naïve" and "lazy".

 

Chambers later revealed, "That was a really difficult time for me, not just personally but also professionally. I felt that Gary was treating me like a naughty schoolboy.

 

"I remember him telling me something like, 'You may have had a comfy upbringing on the south coast, but you have to work hard and grow up if you want to make it in professional football'. He said that in front of all the lads as well.

 

"I was only 20. I was expecting a manager who could give you a helpful arm around the shoulder, not someone who'd fly off the handle and scold you given half a chance. Having Gary O'Hara as a manager didn't exactly inspire me with much confidence."

Edited by CFuller

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As I touched on at the top of the thread, this story will occasionally feature posts that cover topics of a controversial nature. This is one such post. Advance apologies to any readers who may find the following post disturbing.

***

 

While O'Hara appeared to have serious misgivings about one former Southampton youngster, his relationships with Arsenal's other two ex-Saints were noticeably rosier. By all accounts, the 36-year-old was a big admirer of England wingers Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the feeling was mutual.

 

Mind you, the relationship between O'Hara and Oxlade-Chamberlain did have one minor hiccup early in his tenure. It just so happened to be in Arsenal's very next match, at West Ham United.

 

This was Arsenal's final league visit to the Boleyn Ground, often referred to simply by its location in Upton Park, East London. The old ground would be demolished the following summer, after West Ham's controversial relocation to the Olympic Stadium in nearby Stratford.

 

It was the hosts who attacked first after nine minutes, with a powerful header from Diafra Sakho forcing Cech into an early catch.

 

Arsenal's first shot on target was a blistering 13th-minute shot from Aaron Ramsey that was superbly tipped away by the Hammers' Spanish goalkeeper Adrián. While those Gooners at the Boleyn would soon be buoyed by a few more promising attacks later in the period, the home fans would be the ones cheering loudest at the half-time whistle.

 

West Ham made the breakthrough after 39 minutes, thanks to a sublime strike from Chelsea loanee Victor Moses. The Nigerian winger powered Pedro Obiang's delivery beyond his former Blues team-mate Cech from the edge of the area, thus swinging an end-to-end game towards the Hammers.

 

Arsenal recovered from that minor setback early in the second half, with Koscielny's header converting a Cazorla corner after 59 minutes. Koscielny's leveller would be the last goal in an exciting 1-1 draw, but the spectacle on the pitch would not be the biggest talking point come the final whistle.

 

After 77 minutes, O'Hara sent Oxlade-Chamberlain from the Arsenal bench to replace Walcott, who'd put in a decent shift on his return from an ankle injury. The manager had sensed that West Ham's left-back Aaron Cresswell was tiring, and he felt that Oxlade-Chamberlain's fresh legs would help the Gunners to take control out wide.

 

Things didn't quite go as O'Hara had planned, and it was West Ham who came on strong as the match neared its climax. Indeed, the Hammers would come agonisingly close to restoring their lead seven minutes from time. Substitute centre-forward Andy Carroll angled an excellent ball out wide to Moses, who half-volleyed into the side netting.

 

Two minutes later, O'Hara was ready to bring on another substitute - the Egyptian holding midfielder Mohamed Elneny. The fourth official raised his substitutes board... and Oxlade-Chamberlain's number 15 was lit up again, this time in red as opposed to green. 'The Ox' had only been on the pitch for eight minutes, and he looked quite bemused as he trudged off. Many of Arsenal's fans were feeling equally bewildered.

 

O'Hara's intention was to tighten up the Arsenal defence and stop West Ham from building up a head of steam late on, but even that sudden switch to conservatism almost backfired. Cheikhou Kouyaté, Dimitri Payet and Carroll all threatened to win the game for West Ham with shots that narrowly missed the target.

 

The points were shared, then, and Arsenal lost yet more ground on the early pacesetters. The Oxlade-Chamberlain fiasco would be discussed at length over the next few days, but the player himself took a light-hearted view on it.

 

"It was a bit weird at first, but I could understand what the gaffer was trying to do," Oxlade-Chamberlain confessed. "Gary wanted some more pace out wide in the final 15 minutes, so he sent me on for Theo, but then we were looking more exposed at the back, so he brought on Mo to replace me.

 

"I didn't take that as an insult. At the end of the day, the team has to take priority."

 

Oxlade-Chamberlain's view wasn't shared by many at Arsenal. The incident came up for particular criticism on one of YouTube's biggest Arsenal fan channels - 'We Are The Gooners'.

 

A couple of days after the West Ham game, WATG uploaded a three-minute sketch, in which a parody of the Sky Sports reporter Geoff Shreeves 'interviewed' a character who was clearly based on O'Hara. Distastefully dubbed 'Gary the Spaz', this character spouted gibberish sentences and would spontaneously burst out with ridiculous decisions he had taken, such as "THEO IN GOAL!" or "1-1-8!".

 

Thousands of WATG subscribers saw the funny side of this video. However, many people throughout the country were appalled that the Arsenal manager was being portrayed as an out-of-date and repugnant caricature of a 'mentally disabled' person.

 

O'Hara himself was understandably disgusted with the video. His wife Laura said, "I discovered this video on the Internet while I was at work. I showed it to Gary that evening after we'd put the girls to bed. We watched it the whole way through, and then Gary said, 'Laura, I think I'm gonna be sick'.

 

"Both of us have family members with learning disabilities; I've got a cousin with Down's syndrome, and Gary's brother has a boy with Asperger's. This wasn't comedy to us. This was just vulgar, extremely vulgar."

 

The O'Haras took swift action, seeking legal advice with a view to suing WATG. The channel pulled the offending video after less than 48 hours, following a mass media outcry, and its main presenter - 21-year-old Billy Khan - subsequently released another video apologising for the skit. However, this was not to be the last time that O'Hara clashed publicly with some of Arsenal's most hardcore supporters.

Edited by CFuller

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CHAPTER 9 - The Grind

 

Arsène Wenger liked to use the League Cup as a breeding ground for Arsenal's stars of the future. Gary O'Hara would continue that tradition in late September, when the Gunners entered the 2015/2016 competition in Round 3.

 

Arsenal were away at The Valley against Charlton Athletic - a mid-table Championship team based in South London and owned by the controversial Belgian millionaire Roland Duchâtelet. O'Hara fielded a mixture of reserve and youth players, with several making their first competitive appearances for the Gunners.

 

It was Charlton who started more positively, with Iranian striker Reza Ghoochannejhad having a shot saved by David Ospina after just two minutes. Shortly after that, Addicks right-back Marco Motta skimmed the Colombian's crossbar with a header.

 

In truth, though, even an under-strength Arsenal side never looked like losing. They would go ahead after eight minutes, thanks to a couple of 17-year-old forwards. Jeff Reine-Adelaide continued his meteoric rise when the Frenchman flicked a Kieran Gibbs throw into Charlton's six-yard box. The recipient was Kaylen Hinds, whose poacher's finish made it a memorable senior debut for the youth striker, originally from Brent in the north-west of the capital.

 

The rest of the first half was a fairly humdrum affair, though the second was somewhat more exciting. Charlton hit the woodwork again in the 53rd minute through Zakariya Bergdich. However, José Riga's side could not add to their solitary shot on target from Ghoochannejhad, and they would soon be consigned to defeat.

 

After 76 minutes, Addicks defender Chris Solly was accused of tripping Calum Chambers - making his first Gunners appearance since that infamous night in Germany - in the penalty area. Mohamed Elneny made light work of the resulting spot-kick to score his first Arsenal goal and send his team through to the next round as 2-0 winners.

 

All in all, O'Hara considered it a good night's work. Two other youngsters who'd caught his eye on their maiden outings were the Polish ball-playing defender Krystian Bielik and the locally-bred inside-forward Chris Willock. Bielik and Willock were also yet to celebrate their 18th birthdays, and both prospects would see more first-team action before the season was out.

 

The Gunners were up and running in the League Cup, and they would face what looked like another easy tie - at home to struggling Newcastle United - in Round 4. Steve McClaren's Magpies would arrive at the Emirates Stadium late in October.

 

The Emirates staged a couple of home games in the final week of September, the first of which was in the Premier League against newly-promoted AFC Bournemouth. It seemed incredible to think that the Dorset-based Cherries were embarking on a maiden voyage in the top division, just seven years after they had plunged into administration, and subsequently come close to plunging out of the Football League altogether.

 

Eddie Howe's side had enjoyed a dream start to life amongst the big boys, picking up seven points from their first three games, including an astonishing 3-0 victory away to champions Chelsea. Reality soon hit home, and Bournemouth went on to lose their next four games in all competitions. Arsenal would stretch that record to five by the time they had finished with them.

 

Mind you, the hosts did not have things all their own way against the plucky underdogs. Things looked ominous for Arsenal when Alexis Sánchez badly gashed his head in a collision with Bournemouth's journeyman full-back Simon Francis after just 14 minutes. O'Hara didn't want to take any undue risks with the Chilean forward, whom he quickly replaced with midfielder Aaron Ramsey.

 

Another South American attacker would soon give the Gunners further cause for concern. While assembling his squad over the summer, Howe had unearthed a potential star in former Argentina youth international Juan Iturbe - a flamboyant 22-year-old who was on a season-long loan from Roma. Iturbe showed a glimpse of what he was capable of in the 18th minute, half-volleying a Callum Wilson cross agonisingly past the post.

 

Another Cherries star went close to silencing the home fans at the Emirates on 29 minutes. The impressive Wilson set up another opening, this time for Scotland winger Matt Ritchie, who forced Petr Cech into a difficult save.

 

Meanwhile, the Gunners were finding it difficult to get the ball past Bournemouth's veteran goalkeeper Artur Boruc. The Pole turned behind a promising strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 26th minute. Then, just before half-time, Boruc swept the ball from Santi Cazorla's feet just as the latter was about to finish Spanish compatriot Nacho Monreal's cross at the far post.

 

As the home fans grew increasingly restless, Arsenal ploughed on and - uncharacteristically - tried to grind down their opponents. However, they never really looked like scoring until they brought on another of their Spanish contingent in the closing stages. Right-back Héctor Bellerín had not quite been fit enough to start, but with less than 20 minutes to go, O'Hara sent him on to replace Chambers.

 

Bellerín would decide the match with a moment of magic in the 89th minute. After seeing a corner from Cazorla cleared by the Cherries' ex-Arsenal striker Benik Afobe, Bellerín unleashed a fierce drive that cut through a crowded penalty area and found the net. It was only the third league goal of the 20-year-old Catalan's senior career, and it had won Arsenal the points.

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***

 

O'Hara was now starting to warm to the idea that attacking wasn't always the best way forward. Pragmatism could often pay off for even the most entertaining teams on occasion, and that would be true again when Arsenal rounded off September by staging their first home match of the UEFA Champions League season.

 

The football matchday programme was becoming a dying medium, but not where O'Hara was concerned. He'd spent many a season collecting the souvenir booklets while watching Arsenal from the stands at Highbury.

 

One of the perks of becoming first-team manager was that O'Hara would get to write his own pre-match notes for the programme. His column in the programme for Arsenal's home meeting with Benfica looked back on the past, while also looking ahead to the future.

 

He began, "As a child, I was obsessed with football, and not just where Arsenal were concerned. I would quite happily watch any game that was on, whether it be in England, Scotland, Europe, wherever.

 

"These days, you can watch big European games pretty much anywhere on digital TV or on streaming platforms. Back when I was growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, opportunities to watch the continent's top teams - the likes of Ajax, Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, and today's opponents - were much more scarce. Those few opportunities were always eye-opening experience for someone like me, especially in the five years during which English clubs were banned from the European and UEFA Cups following the Heysel disaster.

 

"I always dreamed of one day playing in the European Cup - or the Champions League, as it later became. Sadly, I never got the chance to do that, though I was an unused substitute for Arsenal's only home win of the 1998/1999 Group Stage.

 

"It was the end of September, and we were hosting Panathinaikos at the old Wembley Stadium. The Greek team were very tough to break down, but we eventually took a 2-1 victory, in front of over 70,000 passionate Gooners. Tony Adams and Martin Keown scored the winning goals that day, both from set-pieces. We demonstrated that we could still win with patience and power, and not just with the attacking flair we often showed in the early Wenger years.

 

"17 years on, we find ourselves in a very similar situation. We might not have started off like a house on fire, either in the league or in Europe, but we can still grind out wins when all hope looks lost.

 

"Take Saturday's visit of Bournemouth, for example. Héctor came off the bench in the closing stages to power home one of the best goals I'd seen at the Emirates in years, and what would've been a disappointing goalless draw turned into three invaluable points.

 

"Sometimes in life, you have to be patient, and I would like to ask you - the fans - to show some more patience with me. I've heard whispers of discontent, but the season is still young. There is plenty of time for us to mount a serious challenge for major silverware this season, and a strong performance against a team of Benfica's quality could put us in good stead for the Champions League."

 

Benfica arrived at the Emirates Stadium as the reigning Portuguese Primeira Liga champions, and the team who were perhaps most likely to qualify for the Champions League knockout rounds as Group D winners. However, overall success in Europe's elite competition did not look likely.

 

Over half a century had passed since Benfica's finest hour, in which a team inspired by 20-year-old 'Black Panther' Eusébio defeated the great Real Madrid 5-3 to win the 1962 European Cup, thus retaining the title they had first lifted 12 months earlier. Iconic Hungarian coach Béla Guttmann - the José Mourinho of his time - acrimoniously left the Estádio da Luz shortly after that latter triumph and subsequently declared, "Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion."

 

Benfica had not won the European Cup since Guttmann's departure, losing five Finals between 1963 and 1990. They were also defeated in the 1983 UEFA Cup Final, and back-to-back UEFA Europa League Finals in 2013 and 2014.

 

The Águias - or 'Eagles', for those not fluent in Portuguese - were ready to spread their wings and take flight in the early stages at the Emirates. Captain Luisão and winger Pizzi each tested home goalie David Ospina with efforts in the 12th and 20th minutes, prompting some Gooners to fear that a second straight European defeat was on the cards.

 

On 26 minutes, Arsenal showed their counter-attacking qualities to hit Benfica on the break. Four days after scoring the winner versus Bournemouth, Bellerín set up what would prove to be the decisive moment in this game. He whipped in a cross to the back post, and Sánchez outpaced visiting right-back Nélson Semedo to finish off the move.

 

Benfica did have a great chance to draw back level two minutes before half-time. After Cazorla's corner kick for Arsenal was intercepted by defender Jardel, Semedo carried the ball out of danger and found the overlapping run of Pizzi on the right flank. Pizzi's subsequent lob over the defence sent Raúl Jiménez clean through, but the Mexican striker could only find the side netting.

 

After a quiet start to the second half, Arsenal threatened to double their advantage in the 57th minute. Unfortunately for Sánchez, his pot-shot was kept out by Benfica's 36-year-old former Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César.

 

Amongst Júlio César's colleagues was a man half his age - 18-year-old right-winger Gonçalo Guedes, who would go on to win his first senior cap for Portugal before the calendar year was out.

 

Guedes had just entered play as a replacement from Pizzi when he got a chance to make a name for himself in the 59th minute. Gibbs' decision to press Jonas on the edge of the Arsenal area left Guedes in plenty of space to receive a weighted pass from the Brazilian attacking midfielder. An away equaliser looked certain until Ospina pulled off a magnificent fingertip save.

 

Play continued to switch back and forth in the final half-hour, though neither team had much luck in front of goal. In the end, Arsenal managed to hold onto their lead and grind out a second successive 1-0 win.

 

The Gunners went off to tongue-in-cheek chants of "boring, boring Arsenal" from the supporters, but the Group D table now looked much more exciting from their point of view. They were up to second place behind Borussia Mönchengladbach, who had won their second game in a row, easing past Dynamo Kiev 3-0.

 

O'Hara's appointment was suddenly looking like a pretty smart move from the Arsenal board. Despite a somewhat shaky start, the Gunners were now hitting their stride, both domestically and in Europe.

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***

 

As the Premier League season rolled into October, it already seemed that competition for the championship would be fiercer than it had ever been. After seven rounds of matches, a mere six points separated the entire top half.

 

Tottenham Hotspur headed the pack with 16 points, although they were only ahead of two surprise pacesetters - Swansea City and Leicester City - on goal difference. After them came Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool and holders Chelsea, who were on 14 points apiece.

 

Arsenal could be found in 7th place with 13 points, fractionally behind Manchester City by a solitary goal. West Ham United, Manchester United and Crystal Palace were all within touching distance of the Gunners, while the rest seemed to be more concerned with survival than challenging at the upper reaches.

 

The next match on Arsenal's itinerary was a 'championship six-pointer' that not many could have foreseen when the season got underway. The Gunners travelled to south Wales to take on Swansea City, who had enjoyed a fantastic start under new manager Francesco Guidolin.

 

The unfancied Swans had achieved an admirable 8th-place finish the previous season under Garry Monk, only for him to abruptly leave in the summer following a dispute with club chairman Huw Jenkins. Monk was surprisingly succeeded by Guidolin - a man who had accumulated over 25 years' coaching experience in Italy but had never worked outside of his homeland, save for a brief stint at Monaco a decade earlier.

 

Despite his somewhat limited knowledge of British football, Guidolin would quickly silence the doubters by winning five of his first seven Premier League matches with Swansea. The odd ones out were a goalless draw at home to Chelsea, and a single-goal defeat at Anfield against Liverpool in their most recent fixture. A key factor behind the Swans' strong start was their new striker Alberto Paloschi - a £7.25million signing from Chievo Verona who'd burst onto the scene with four goals from five games before breaking his arm in mid-September.

 

Swansea's previous home fixture had seen them shock Manchester United 3-1, thanks largely to a couple of goals from French target man Bafétimbi Gomis. Now it was Arsenal's turn to take on a well-drilled Swans team whose direct, defensive game was providing a strong challenge to the PL's established order.

 

Guidolin would be particularly keen to take a positive result from this match, as it took place on his 60th birthday. After 14 minutes, though, it appeared that his party would be gatecrashed by a ruthless Chilean. Bellerín got beyond Swans left-back Neil Taylor to float in a delightful cross, which Sánchez planted past former Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski with a fine header.

 

Arsenal were 1-0 up - and as things stood, they would be going level on points with the Swans. O'Hara could sense that his charges were about to take the initiative in the Premier League title race.

 

Then came a moment of catastrophe for Cech in the 28th minute. Arsenal's usually rock-solid goalkeeper came off his line to try and reach a Taylor cross ahead of Swans talisman Gylfi Sigurðsson. It was the Icelander who prevailed in the race to the ball, and the Gunners' number 1 was left flat-footed as Sigurðsson's header bounced past him and into an unguarded net.

 

A minute after levelling the scores, Swansea rattled the visitors with a fast-paced counter-attack. Midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung found André Ayew in acres of space, and the Ghana striker went through on goal with just Cech to beat. On this occasion, Cech's decision to charge forward was the right one, as he parried Ayew's strike and kept the scores level.

 

The second period saw Swansea grow stronger and stronger. Although Sigurðsson was hurt in a strong challenge from Arsenal's ball-winning midfielder Francis Coquelin, the Swans' playmaker would carry on and keep his team going until the 83rd minute, when Guidolin replaced him with Leroy Fer. O'Hara also made a substitution at the same time, sacrificing the ineffective Olivier Giroud in favour of the prodigious Reine-Adelaide.

 

On 87 minutes, another of Swansea's substitutes - Marvin Emnes - cut the ball across the Arsenal area and found Gomis. The Frenchman's close-range strike smashed the crossbar, and Cech frantically pushed the ball behind for a corner. Gunners midfielder Aaron Ramsey cleared the resulting corner from his Wales colleague Taylor, but a counter-attack broke down, and Swansea were coming forward again before long.

 

That was when Fer spotted that Gomis was looking to make a run past Laurent Koscielny in the centre of the Arsenal defence. Fer weighted his lob perfectly, and Gomis burst clear of Koscielny before hammering in a lethal strike. The Gunners' protests for an offside decision fell on deaf ears. Swansea were leading 2-1, yet they wanted more.

 

The boisterous Swansea Jacks in the Liberty Stadium would grow louder still in the second minute of injury time. Taylor floated an outswinging corner over to Swans centre-back Federico Fernández, who got above Reine-Adelaide and secured the win with a devastating header. Swansea City 3, Arsenal 1.

 

O'Hara looked like death warmed up at the final whistle, when he shook Guidolin's hand and whispered something into the Italian's ear. After taking his anger out on the Arsenal players in the dressing room, he cooled down sufficiently to take questions from the press. When asked to disclose what he had whispered to Guidolin, he replied, "I just said, 'Well played', and told him, 'You could win the league this year'."

 

Guidolin had laughed off O'Hara's suggestion, and many in the press gallery didn't think that the Arsenal boss was being serious. He declared, "I'm not kidding. I'm actually really serious.

 

"You might not rate those guys, but they're like a rock band that's greater than the sum of its parts. Sigurðsson, Gomis, Paloschi - they're all decent players, but they become even better when they're working together.

 

"I feel much the same way about Leicester, who've made a fantastic start under Claudio Ranieri. They're playing at the Etihad as we speak, aren't they? You know, I quite fancy them to beat Man City as well tonight."

 

O'Hara's prediction was spot-on. Two goals from in-form striker Jamie Vardy saw the Foxes record a stunning 2-1 win at Manchester City in the evening kick-off, leaving the league table with a very peculiar look about it after eight rounds.

 

Swansea were now back at the top, leading Leicester on goal difference. The underdogs were now two points clear of Tottenham, who slipped to 3rd place, having only been able to draw at home to struggling Watford the following afternoon. It now wasn't inconceivable that either Swansea or Leicester could pull off one of the greatest shocks in Premier League history.

 

As for Arsenal, they were now in 8th position - six points adrift of the leaders. Even at this early stage, they couldn't afford too many more slip-ups.

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CHAPTER 10 - And It All Falls Down

 

Following their agonising late defeat to Swansea City, the October international break had come at just the right time for Arsenal. Most of Arsenal's regular first-teamers would now go off to spend the best part of the next fortnight on international duty. For the rest, though, two weeks of high-intensity training followed.

 

O'Hara wanted to push his players to their physical limits. Those two late goals for Swansea had hurt him badly, and he did not wish to see another late collapse any time soon.

 

Right-back Calum Chambers recalled, "Those few weeks after Swansea were brutal, absolutely brutal.

 

"We would train for two-and-a-half hours in the morning, have our lunch, and then do another two hours of rigorous fitness training in the afternoon. It wasn't like anything I'd ever experienced at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger, or even at Southampton when I was starting out as a pro.

 

"Some of us felt that the new manager was going too far. I said that straight to O'Hara, but he just told me to p*** off and get back to work. He was a coach who had no regard for our wellbeing."

 

Meanwhile, another image of motivational lyrics went up on the walls outside the team's dressing room. While 1990s pop songstress Des'ree might not have personified O'Hara's eclectic taste in music, the chorus from her smash hit "You Gotta Be" told his players exactly what he demanded of them.

 

"You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser.

You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger.

You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together."

 

Steve Bould was somewhat sceptical about O'Hara's use of a modern soul standard to pump up professional athletes. O'Hara reportedly responded to his assistant manager's complaint by sarcastically suggesting that he replace them with these lyrics from "Life" - one of Des'ree's somewhat less-acclaimed singles:

 

"I don't want to see a ghost, it's a sight that I fear most.

I'd rather have a piece of toast, and watch the evening news."

 

Bould quickly backed down.

 

While O'Hara's new intensive regime was being greeted with growing resentment amongst players, the fortnight passed by without any serious injuries - at least not at London Colney. Over 7,000 miles away in Santiago, however, the Gunners' leading scorer Alexis Sánchez twisted his knee whilst preparing for Chile's FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Paraguay.

 

Sánchez was fully assessed by Arsenal's medical team upon his return to the UK. He was ordered to rest for at least a fortnight, thus ruling him out of several matches, including a crunch home game against Manchester City right at the end of October.

 

That situation was far from ideal for O'Hara, especially considering that playmaker Mesut Özil was still a week or two away from returning to the side following an ankle injury. He would have to make the best of what he had when the Gunners hosted Southampton in their next Premier League fixture on 17 October.

 

Southampton were in 14th place after an underwhelming start to the campaign that included four defeats and only three victories. The recent appointment of legendary Spanish goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta as 'Director of Football' had put manager Ronald Koeman under serious pressure to turn the Saints' form around and kick-start a challenge for European qualification.

 

If Koeman thought that an Arsenal side without Sánchez or Özil would be somewhat easier to overcome, he would be sorely mistaken. The 'weakened' Gunners enjoyed a fantastic start, with Olivier Giroud converting a Santi Cazorla centre to break the deadlock after a mere six minutes.

 

Two minutes later, however, another injury was added to Arsenal's list. Holding midfielder Mohamed Elneny was concussed in a collision with Southampton striker Graziano Pelle and was forced out, with the evergreen Mikel Arteta coming on in his place.

 

Elneny's exit did not disrupt Arsenal's rhythm, mind you. When Saints defender Virgil van Dijk failed to effectively deal with a dangerous cross from Gunners right-back Héctor Bellerín, midfielder Aaron Ramsey took full advantage and drilled the home team into a 2-0 lead.

 

Ramsey was somewhat unfortunate to be denied a second goal seven minutes before half-time. The experienced Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg clawed the Welsh midfielder's strike away, but that was only damage limitation as far as the sorry Saints were concerned.

 

Arsenal took total control of proceedings five minutes into the second half, when Laurent Koscielny was caught with a high challenge from Southampton full-back Cuco Martina in the penalty area. Cazorla powered the subsequent spot-kick beyond Stekelenburg's reach, and O'Hara's men never looked back.

 

The beleaguered Saints were now battling simply for pride. One-time England international striker Jay Rodriguez came off the bench to have a couple of shots at goal, but Petr Cech never looked like surrendering his clean sheet.

 

The Gunners would put the seal on an emphatic 4-0 victory in the 89th minute. It was perhaps fitting that a player who had started his career at Southampton over a decade earlier should score the final goal. The pacey Theo Walcott skinned visiting skipper José Fonte and stroked the ball home to rub salt into Koeman's wounds.

 

In terms of the final scoreline, this was the biggest victory of O'Hara's Arsenal career to date. The Gunners were now up to 4th, and into the UEFA Champions League qualification spots for the first time this term. However, such a positive result would immediately be followed by the new manager's longest slump yet.

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***

 

A poor spell for Arsenal began when they played host to Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League group stage. Though that match had come just four days after the thrashing of Southampton, the Gunners showed little of the ruthlessness they had demonstrated while despatching the Saints.

 

Dynamo provided the hosts with a major scare after only eight minutes. Arsenal's usually ice-cool captain Per Mertesacker dawdled in possession deep in his own half before being muscled off the ball by Junior Moraes. Kiev's Brazilian striker could well have scored from 25 yards out were it not for a vital save from David Ospina.

 

Arsenal shrugged off those early nerves and pushed forward in the 18th minute. Young full-back Héctor Bellerín was once again looking dangerous on the right flank, and when he whipped an excellent delivery into Dynamo's box, it seemed that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would tap the opener past the visitors' goalkeeping captain Olexandr Shovkovskyi. What he actually did was tap it into the side netting.

 

Shovkovskyi had featured in over 400 league matches for Dynamo since making his first-team debut way back in 1993. At 40 years old, he was in the unusual position of being significantly older than the manager of the opposing team. O'Hara was only a couple of days into his 38th year, and one of his favourite Arsenal players would soon deliver him a belated birthday present.

 

Oxlade-Chamberlain might not have taken his big chance, but Arsenal's other English winger looked rather sharper. Theo Walcott capped off a well-crafted move by finding space in the penalty box and prodding Giroud's weighted pass into the net for a 1-0 lead.

 

Oxlade-Chamberlain could well have doubled the hosts' lead seven minutes after that. Eugene Khacheridi's headed interception of a left-wing cross by Arsenal left-back Kieran Gibbs only went as far as 'The Ox', whose shot crashed against the bar. Former Portugal midfielder Miguel Veloso hacked the ball behind for a corner, which Cazorla could not turn into a meaningful opportunity for the Gunners.

 

It seemed for a while that Dynamo would eventually cave in, especially after Khacheridi was dismissed for a second bookable offence just moments into the second half. The giant centre-back had paid the price for two poor challenges on Giroud, who looked to be back to something like his imposing best.

 

Despite being a man down, the Ukrainians continued to push for an unlikely away point, with Moraes having a number of efforts saved by Ospina. Meanwhile, Mertesacker showed his excellent defensive qualities by throwing himself in front of a powerful shot from Polish forward Lukasz Teodorczyk in the 69th minute.

 

As full-time neared, it seemed that Dynamo were not getting any closer to equalising. O'Hara soon felt confident enough to give European debuts to teenage widemen Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Alex Iwobi from the bench. It would eventually become apparent that what Arsenal really needed was some experience - and some defensive savvy in particular.

 

Ospina produce one massive save in the first minute of additional time to prevent defender Aleksandar Dragovic from snatching a late point for Kiev. However, he could not produce similar heroics in the following minute, when Moraes volleyed home a corner delivery from left-back Antunes. The hosts had been denied victory at the death.

 

A win would have left Arsenal excellently placed to qualify for the Round of 16. As it was, they found themselves 3rd in Group D at the halfway point. Benfica edged in front of them on goal difference after an impressive 2-0 win at Borussia Mönchengladbach, who remained top with six points.

 

This latest result drew plenty of criticism from several former Gunners players, including Ray Parlour. The much-loved 'Romford Pelé', who played alongside O'Hara in the late 1990s, said the following afternoon on Sky Sports News, "I thought he was very naïve last night.

 

"A more experienced manager would've tried to close the match out at 1-0 up. Instead, he just threw a couple of kids in the attack and left them to it. Dynamo's players must've licked their lips when they saw that. They must've thought, 'Blimey, we've got a real chance of getting something from this match now.'

 

"I worry for Arsenal right now, I really do. They're making a bit of a habit of dropping points late in matches. They done it against Liverpool, they done it against Swansea, and they've been close to throwing away other games as well. Gary needs to sort that out, otherwise you can forget about us winning anything this season."

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***

 

Arsenal tried to recompose themselves for their next Premier League game at Carrow Road against Norwich City, who were third-from-bottom and perhaps struggling to cope with life back in the top division. That being said, Alex Neil's Canaries had won their most recent home fixture, against none other than Manchester United. Prior to that, they had taken just two points from seven matches.

 

As far as the Gunners were concerned, O'Hara was delighted to have Özil back to full fitness - and back in the starting line-up - after a two-month injury lay-off. The German playmaker would look very rusty in Norfolk, though one of his fellow Arsenal midfielders almost got off to a flyer. Ramsey rifled a half-volley at goal just 10 seconds after kick-off, drawing a very early save out of Norwich goalie John Ruddy.

 

City had an injury scare just four minutes in, as star winger Nathan Redmond pulled up with a thigh strain mid-run. The England Under-21s international did play on, though he wouldn't threaten Arsenal's defence. The same could not be said of another of the Canaries' main attacking threats.

 

A lapse in concentration from Koscielny proved costly for Arsenal after 22 minutes. The French centre-half failed to intercept a cross from Norwich midfielder Steven Naismith before striker Dieumerci Mbokani fired it home. The Congolese striker - a loanee from Dynamo Kiev, no less - had scored his first goal for the hosts after an injury-hit start to life at Carrow Road.

 

The Canaries remained 1-0 up ahead at the break, as Giroud missed a host of opportunities to draw Arsenal level. The big centre-forward had been wildly inconsistent early in O'Hara's tenure, and this would prove to be one of his less productive performances in the red-and-white.

 

To his credit, Giroud did show a bit more of what he was capable of midway through the second half. After 65 minutes, he cracked a powerful shot from the edge of the area, leaving Ruddy in some bother as he pushed it behind.

 

Though the resulting corner did not directly lead to an Arsenal equaliser, Norwich's resolve would be broken barely a minute later. Another unconvincing save by Ruddy from Ramsey pushed the ball on to Cazorla, whose strong finish salvaged a point for the misfiring Gunners.

 

O'Hara was more relieved than overjoyed to have avoided defeat, but failure to take away all three points would see Arsenal drop down to 6th.

 

Meanwhile, Swansea City and Leicester City continued their dream starts, each recording their eighth victories in 10 matches. The underdogs were now an astonishing seven points clear of nearest challengers Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Liverpool, with Arsenal and champions Chelsea a further point adrift.

 

Following back-to-back draws, Arsenal attempted to get back to winning ways when they welcomed Steve McClaren's Newcastle United to the Emirates Stadium in Round 4 of the League Cup.

 

O'Hara had given opportunities to several reserve and youth players during the Gunners' victory over Charlton Athletic in the previous round. Two of them would return for this fixture, with Chris Willock and Kaylen Hinds playing in attack from the outset. Several more experienced players - most notably Özil, Walcott and Mertesacker - were also named in the starting XI, but this was most certainly not a full-strength Arsenal team.

 

The manager's continued faith in Hinds could have been repaid after eight minutes. Walcott intercepted a slack pass from Magpies defender Jamaal Lascelles and rolled it on to the 17-year-old striker, whose shot was awkwardly parried by visiting goalkeeper Karl Darlow. Hinds almost got to the rebound, but Lascelles got back and slid it away just in time.

 

Newcastle's best chance of the first half would prove to be more successful than Arsenal's. After 36 minutes, a couple of members of the strong French contingent assembled under previous manager Alan Pardew combined to put the north-easterners ahead. Midfield powerhouse Moussa Sissoko played a clever one-two with left-back Massadio Haïdara and drilled the ball beyond Ospina.

 

Newcastle had won just twice in the Premier League up to this point and were labouring in the relegation zone. Despite that, the League Cup was giving McClaren and the Geordie Army reason to be hopeful of winning a first major trophy in nearly half a century.

 

The Magpies looked significantly stronger than Arsenal throughout the first half, not to mention more determined. They could well have moved further in front in the second period with some more accurate finishing, particularly from striker Seydou Doumbia.

 

Arsenal hadn't won the League Cup since 1993. Back then, captain Tony Adams celebrated the Final defeat of Sheffield Wednesday by lifting up match-winning midfielder Steve Morrow, only to see the Northern Irishman slip from his grasp and break his arm in the resulting fall. The Gunners' 23-year wait to lift that trophy again would be extended to 24 when Mathieu Flamini shot himself in the foot late on.

 

Flamini was already carrying a yellow card when, in the 73rd minute, he committed to a reckless challenge on Sissoko. The volatile midfielder was dismissed, and Arsenal subsequently whimpered out of the League Cup after just two matches.

 

Though the League Cup was not high on O'Hara's list of priorities, he was furious to have seen one chance of major silverware slip away so early in the season. After begrudgingly congratulating McClaren at the final whistle, he entered the home dressing room and delivered what had already become - to some Arsenal players - an all-too-familiar dressing-down.

 

Chambers was amongst those who'd played in that Newcastle defeat. He recalled, "The boss was raging at the final whistle. He said that we'd all let the club down and embarrassed the fans.

 

"I remember one player saying, 'Oh yeah, boss, but it's only the League Cup'. O'Hara hurled his notepad at him, only just missing his face.

 

"I knew the manager had a temper, but I hadn't seen him get this violent before. I knew from that point on that I didn't really want to be at Arsenal anymore."

 

Morale at the Emirates was at its lowest ebb, but things were likely to get worse for the Gunners before they got any better. Awaiting them next was arguably their toughest test yet, against the pre-season title favourites.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Manchester City had been the biggest spenders in the Premier League over recent years, rising from mid-table mediocrity to become perennial title contenders. City were crowned Premier League champions in 2012 and 2014, but it already looked unlikely that they would follow that up in 2016.

 

About a quarter of the way into the new season, the Citizens found themselves in a disappointing 10th position, and 11 points off the championship pace. Rumours that club bosses were already looking for a replacement for manager Manuel Pellegrini were spreading like wildfire, with Bayern Munich's renowned coach Josep Guardiola reportedly at the top of their shortlist.

 

City were also on a seven-match winless run on all competitions, putting Pellegrini under additional pressure to break that sequence. On 31 October, the Chilean would smash that streak to smithereens against Arsenal in North London.

 

O'Hara was wary of the attacking threat that would be posed by Argentine striker Sergio Agüero and his fellow sky-blue superstars. To begin with, he instructed his Arsenal players to keep things tight at the back, and not leave too much space for the opposition to exploit. He would then hope for some counter-attacking opportunities to arise.

 

The problem with O'Hara's more cautious approach was that it simply played into the hands of a Manchester City team who loved to charge forward and destroy anything in their path. They set their stall out after just seven minutes, when Agüero struck an excellent volley towards goal. Though Cech did superbly to tip the shot onto his near post, that was about as 'good' as the hosts' afternoon would get.

 

Two minutes after Agüero's near-miss, Samir Nasri - who spent three years at Arsenal between 2008 and 2011 - marked his latest return to the Emirates by haunting his former colleagues. The skilful French attacker passed Bellerín and collected a through-ball from Fabian Delph, which he fired plum into the far corner.

 

Former Aston Villa captain Delph would set up another Nasri goal in the 22nd minute. After nodding in the England midfielder's flick-on from a difficult angle, Nasri gleefully sprinted over to the baying Arsenal supporters, cupping his ears in response to a chorus of boos.

 

There would be further hecklings from the Gooners at half-time, but this time, they were directed at their own players. Arsenal's underperforming stars were jeered off trailing by a 2-0 scoreline - a scoreline that could yet have been worsened further but for a series of excellent Cech saves late in the first period.

 

O'Hara was irate in the home dressing room during the interval. He roared at his players, "Where's your f***ing passion, lads? Do you even want to play for this f***ing club? Right now, I don't think any of you lot do!

 

"Perhaps you'd rather be at City, like Nasri or [Bacary] Sagna, or [Gaël] Clichy, or even Kolo Touré when he was there. Let me tell you one thing. The way you're going right now, you'd be lucky to get trials at f***ing Chelmsford City!"

 

O'Hara also made a bold change of strategy between halves, as he sacrificed any defensive principles and urged his team to go all-out. Arsenal would come out for the second half looking to take the game to Manchester City at every possible opportunity. The end result was absolute carnage.

 

The Citizens knew exactly how to exploit the gaps Arsenal would inevitably leave in defence. Nine minutes into the second half, centre-half Martin Demichelis controlled a cross from full-back Aleksandar Kolarov and sent a blistering strike beyond Cech's reach. 3-0 to City. More boos rang out at the Emirates.

 

Four minutes later, Nasri ran through Arsenal's sorry excuse of a backline and was denied a hat-trick only by a brave save from Cech. Alas, it was to no avail for the veteran goalkeeper, who could only watch on as Agüero made light work of the rebound. 4-0 to City. More boos rang out at the Emirates.

 

Had this been a boxing match, the trainer would surely have thrown in the towel before the referee decided to stop such a one-sided bout. O'Hara refused to wave the white flag, or even to drop back a little bit.

 

Arsenal continued to attack with abandon, and they almost snatched a consolation goal when skipper Mertesacker flicked a header against the bar on 67 minutes. Not long after that, teenage substitute Reine-Adelaide was denied his first senior strike by Citizens goalkeeper Joe Hart, who'd otherwise seen very little action.

 

The visiting refused to show any mercy against an opposing team that was completely devoid of self-control. Arsenal's implosion would end after 81 minutes, with Demichelis securing his second goal of the afternoon from a centre by substitute David Silva. Prior to this game, the 34-year-old from Argentina had found the net three times in his previous 67 league appearances for City.

 

The 50,000-or-so Gooners in attendance could not believe what they had just witnessed. Arsenal had never previously lost a match by FIVE goals at the Emirates Stadium.

 

The other two Cities that Arsenal had been concerned about - Swansea and Leicester - would win their matches that weekend and move 11 points clear of the Gunners, who fell from 6th to 9th. O'Hara had endured his fair share of bad days at the office thus far during a managerial reign that was barely into its fifth month, and this was undoubtedly the worst of the lot.

 

O'Hara's fiercest critics came out in force in the wake of that disastrous result. There were widespread calls - on social media, and around the Emirates Stadium - for O'Hara to be sacked, with many Gooners demanding that director of football Arsène Wenger be reinstated as manager.

 

Even the likes of Paul Merson, who'd been quick to praise O'Hara earlier in his reign, had lost faith. The ex-Arsenal striker exclaimed, "You can't go all hammers blazing [sic] all the time! You definitely can't do that against City! That's football suicide!"

 

Merson later added, "I just don't know what's going on in Gary O'Hara's head. In fact, at this moment in time, I'm not sure that even Gary O'Hara himself knows what's going on in his head! He's a total nutcase, that's what he is!"

 

What O'Hara was doing - in the hours that followed the 5-0 loss - was having crisis talks with leading Arsenal executives in the club boardroom. Owner Stan Kroenke, who'd made a rare trip from his native United States to watch the match in person, was in attendance, along with chairman Sir Chips Keswick and CEO Ivan Gazidis.

 

Kroenke may have been nicknamed 'Silent Stan', but he couldn't keep quiet about his discontent any longer. The 68-year-old made it clear to O'Hara in no uncertain terms that he had not flown out to London to "watch Manchester City hand our asses to us on a silver platter".

 

O'Hara tried to reassure Kroenke that it was just "one of those days", and that there was still time for Arsenal to turn their league season around. The American was not wholly convinced.

 

Kroenke issued his manager with an ultimatum. "You're in Kiev on Tuesday," he began. "I expect a massive improvement against Dynamo, otherwise you'll be out on your ass," then he clicked his fingers, "just like that".

 

A despondent O'Hara nodded in acknowledgement. He knew now that, after a little over four months in charge, he was already walking a tightrope.

 

This was turning out to be the most disastrous period of Gary O'Hara's career, and there was still worse to come.

Edited by CFuller

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20 hours ago, mark wilson27 said:

And you leave us in suspense like that tut tut

Nah, I would never do that, surely... :p

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