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

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CHAPTER 11 - Sticks And Stones

 

Gary O'Hara got a somewhat unwelcome awakening on the morning of Sunday 1 November. His alarm switched on to a radio news bulletin, which claimed that he was "under mounting pressure" following Arsenal's 5-0 home thrashing at Manchester City's hands the previous afternoon.

 

Several Arsenal fans could then be heard calling for his immediate removal as manager. Gary recognised one of the voices as that of Billy Khan - the controversial host of YouTube channel 'We Are The Gooners'.

 

"O'Hara's ruined this team, bruv," Khan ranted. "He's turned our defence into amateurs! We ain't gonna win nothing with him in charge! You know what we need right now, bruv? We need our saviour Arsène back!"

 

Gary's wife Laura recalled him recoiling in horror and muttering, "Not that f***ing c***! He always has to have his say, don't he?"

 

The under-fire Gunners boss continued to wallow in despair as the Elastica song "Waking Up" came on the radio. On this particular morning, he could clearly relate to some of the Britpop rockers' lyrics, including, "I can't take the pressure and it's starting to show. In my heart, you know that it pains me."

 

This was to be an untypically lazy day for Gary, who for once concurred with Justine Frischmann when she sang, "If I can't be a star, I won't get out of bed. Waking up and getting up has never been easy."

 

Days off in-season were scarce for an elite Premier League manager such as Gary. After phoning in 'sick' and asking Steve Bould to oversee a hastily-arranged training session, he opted to spend the whole day at home in Borehamwood with Laura and their children Adele and Lucy.

 

Later that afternoon, the O'Hara family heard a knock on the front door. Laura answered the door, and was greeted by two officers - one male, and one female - from the Metropolitan Police Service.

 

"Good afternoon," the female officer said. "Are you Mrs O'Hara?" Laura nodded, and then the officer stated, "My name is Police Constable Vicky Pritchard, and this is my colleague, Police Constable Grant Walters. We would like to speak to your husband, Gary O'Hara, in relation to an assault in Holloway last night."

 

Laura was filled with terror as she called her husband from the living room, where he was watching television with their daughters. Gary came to the door, and asked, "What's this about?"

 

Walters explained the purpose for the officers' visit and reassured Gary that he wasn't being arrested on the spot for any offence. Gary invited the officers into his living room, where they explained the situation further.

 

Pritchard began, "At approximately 8:20pm last night, a 21-year-old man of Asian descent was attacked by a middle-aged white male outside the Piebury Corner pie shop on Holloway Road. He suffered minor head trauma, fractures to his right cheekbone and right arm, and bruising to his face and torso. We also understand that some video-recording equipment belonging to the victim was destroyed by the assailant.

 

"At around 9:00pm, we arrested a 40-year-old man on suspicion on causing grievous bodily harm and criminal damage. The suspect in question identified himself as Paul O'Hara from Hemel Hempstead. We believe that Paul O'Hara is your brother. Can you confirm that, Mr O'Hara?"

 

Gary confirmed that Paul was his brother, and then had to declare his whereabouts at around the time of the assault. Gary explained that he had just arrived back home after an emergency board meeting, and added that he had not been in contact with his elder brother at any point that evening.

 

Gary continued to assist the officers with their enquiries for 15 minutes before the questioning came to an end. He was not to be apprehended nor charged in relation to any offences, but Walters said, "If you come across anything that can help with our investigation, feel free to contact us as soon as you can. If not, we will get back in touch with you once our investigation has been concluded."

 

Gary felt a greater sense of despair after the interview. To learn that his brother - and his best friend - had been arrested for GBH, on the same weekend that he had been threatened with losing his job, was a massive blow to his psyche.

 

"I hadn't seen Gary feel so depressed since he lost his mother," Laura sighed. "He was incredibly close to his big brother. He probably knew more about Paul than he did about me and the girls, and he could never have imagined that Paul would be capable of doing anything like that."

 

Paul O'Hara was released on bail on Sunday evening. He arrived at his younger sibling's house later that night to plead his innocence, insisting that he was nowhere near the scene of the assault when it took place.

 

"Paul claimed that he was at the Manchester City game," Laura said. "but he added that he went straight back home after the final whistle because he had to look after his three children.

 

"Gary later told me, 'I'm not sure if I really believe Paul's story. He's usually a calm man, but he was always very protective of me when we were little, and he could get aggressive if I was being threatened. If Paul did attack this kid, he wouldn't have done it without provocation.'

 

"Gary struggled to get to sleep that night. He was doing an awful lot of soul-searching."

 

Gary would have another serious meeting the following evening - around 1,500 miles from home, in the Ukraine.

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***

 

After training at their London Colney ground on Monday morning, the Arsenal team flew out from Heathrow to Boryspil International Airport, just outside of Kiev. O'Hara and his players arrived at their hotel later that evening. Before his troops turned themselves in for the night, though, O'Hara summoned them to an emergency meeting.

 

O'Hara began the meeting by humbly apologising to his players for occasionally being too quick to criticise them. He told them, "I have learned to appreciate that, while you are all exceptional sportsmen, you are also - at the end of the day - only human.

 

"You will make mistakes. Some of you have made mistakes, and so have I. But that's what this first season is all about - learning from where we've gone wrong, and putting things right again."

 

A few of the players took the opportunity to point out their own concerns about the team's underwhelming start to the Premier League season. Some said that they wished for O'Hara to lighten a gruelling training workload, while others argued that his team talks - before, after, and in the middle of matches - were not exactly inspirational.

 

In terms of tactics, many of Arsenal's key men were critical of O'Hara's gung-ho, all-action approach, which had started to look more 'thud and blunder' than 'blood and thunder'. They wanted a return to the Arsène Wenger way of playing football - possession-based football that was easy on the eye.

 

O'Hara reluctantly agreed to this compromise. He would get Arsenal back to playing in Wenger's continental way, though he would retain what he called "the good old English grit" of high-pressing and tough tackling.

 

There was also a climbdown from O'Hara on team talks. He conceded that, on more than one occasion, he had let emotions get to him in the heat of the moment. From this point onwards, he vowed, he would take a back-seat and let assistant manager Bould deliver the pre- and post-match speeches.

 

"That decision made sense, really," Bould said. "Gary was not a natural speaker by any means. Though he was a very clever man, he could sometimes click into the habit of speaking before thinking.

 

"Team talks are more in my area of expertise. I've been there and done that at Arsenal Football Club for many years, and I know exactly what to say to players to get the best out of them. I can tell when a player needs a kick up the backside or a hand on the shoulder. With all due respect to Gary, that was never his forte."

 

And so, on Tuesday night at the NSC Olympiyskyi stadium, it was Bould rather than O'Hara who roused Arsenal's players up for their fourth UEFA Champions League group match against Dynamo Kiev. After being held to a 1-1 draw in their home leg, it was vital that Arsenal got their continental campaign back on track with a more positive result in Ukraine.

 

O'Hara sat back on one of the dressing-room benches as Bould delivered his final words of wisdom to the Gunners. Every player took notice of every word the former central defensive hardman uttered, and they came out of the room feeling that they could achieve anything and beat anyone.

 

The decision to delegate some responsibilities to his assistant immediately paid off for O'Hara. Just nine minutes after the kick-off, much-maligned centre-back Gabriel Paulista hoofed a long ball from the halfway line and towards Kiev's penalty area. Olivier Giroud then rose high above home defender Aleksandar Dragovic to flick the ball into the path of Mesut Özil, who lashed in a sweet right-footed volley.

 

Bould recalled, "Gary's smile when Mesut scored that opener in Kiev was the widest I'd seen from him in weeks.

 

"I still remember him patting me on the back and going, 'You've done a real good job of geeing them up, Bouldy'. [Laughs] That really meant a lot to me. We both knew from that point on that everything was going to be alright."

 

Indeed, things would be more than alright for Arsenal. Their dream start became almost fantastical in the 14th minute. Theo Walcott closed down a throw-in from Dynamo right-back Danilo Silva before it could find Dragovic. The England winger then dribbled past the Austrian centre-half and calmly slotted the ball beyond goalkeeper Olexandr Shovkovskyi to put the Gunners 2-0 up.

 

Walcott missed an opportunity to score again within a couple of minutes, though he would go on to make it 3-0 after half an hour. He rounded off a lightning-quick breakaway move from the Gunners by slotting in Alexis Sánchez's delivery from out left. All of a sudden, the White-Blues were feeling very blue, and Shovkovskyi was perhaps feeling every single one of his 40 years.

 

That goal began arguably the greatest seven-minute spell Arsenal would ever enjoy under O'Hara. Two minutes after wrapping up his brace, Walcott surged past Dynamo midfielder Miguel Veloso to provide Özil with the assist for the German's second goal of the night.

 

Many of the Arsenal fans who'd travelled all the way from London - more in hope than expectation - could be excused for wanting to rub their eyes in disbelief. The Gunners were 4-0 up away from home... and they didn't stop there.

 

Giroud joined the goalscoring fun after 36 minutes. Following the hosts' failure to clear an Özil corner, Sánchez swung the ball deep into their box for Giroud, whose unstoppable half-volley made the scoreline look even more ridiculously one-sided. Dynamo Kiev 0, Arsenal 5!

 

It had been a truly breathtaking first-half performance from the Gunners, who had quite frankly made mincemeat of Kiev. Bould had little to say to his players at half-time other than, "Well... I guess we try to play more of the same in the second half, lads!"

 

Perhaps understandably, Arsenal could not maintain their blistering first-half pace and threaten to take their score into double figures. They went through nearly half an hour in the second period before finding the net again.

 

Özil had begun the rout, so it was perhaps fitting that he should finish it off. The mercurial attacking midfielder sealed his hat-trick after 75 minutes, drilling in a deep cross from left-back Nacho Monreal at the far post.

 

After the full-time whistle, Bould turned to O'Hara and said, "I don't think you'll see us play better than that all season!" O'Hara smiled and replied, "You ain't seen nothin' yet, Steve! After that, I think there's a lot more to come!"

 

6-0 wasn't Arsenal's biggest ever victory in European competition - they put seven unanswered goals past Standard Liège in 1993 and Slavia Prague in 2007 - but it went some way to restoring Stan Kroenke's faith in O'Hara. The club owner was now back home in Colorado, where he watched the match live on television. Needless to say, Silent Stan's threat to sack his manager was now in the past.

 

Kroenke would later declare, "Arsenal's performance in the first half was way beyond my wildest expectations. I have never previously felt such exhilaration as a supporter or an owner. Gary and Steve deserve enormous credit for rousing the players to produce their very best football, just three days after the disappointment of the home match against Manchester City."

 

'In the past' was definitely not where Arsenal's Champions League hopes lay. They were now top of Group D, and level on points with Benfica, who had overtaken Borussia Mönchengladbach by beating them 4-0 at the Estádio da Luz. If all went well for Arsenal in their next group game against Gladbach, they would be all set to qualify for the knockout rounds once again.

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***

 

O'Hara returned to England with a sense of renewed purpose. Next up for him and his Gunners was a trip to Merseyside, and a meeting with 14th-placed Everton at Goodison Park.

 

The Toffees had made an unconvincing start to their third season under the management of Roberto Martínez. The affable Spaniard had turned down the opportunity to take over at Arsenal in the summer following Wenger's decision to 'move upstairs'. With Everton just a point above the relegation zone, Martínez could perhaps be excused for wishing he hadn't been so dismissive of the Gunners.

 

Arsenal's top two candidates to succeed Wenger could both be found on opposite sides of the Scouse divide. The eventual successor to 'Le Professeur' had cruelly been dubbed 'Third-Choice Gary' by some quarters of the club's fanbase, and recent league results had done little to appease the more critical Gooners.

 

With less than two months to go until the transfer window opened, O'Hara was making plans to fix the glaring weakness in his team, namely the defence which had shipped five goals in their last league fixture.

 

He had already drawn up a shortlist of centre-backs that he wanted to sign. Right at the very top of that shortlist - in bold, capital letters, and probably even underlined as well - was a 21-year-old ball-playing defender from South Yorkshire by the name of John Stones. He just happened to play for Everton.

 

Everton won a corner five minutes into the match. Gerard Deulofeu floated the ball to the near post, where Toffees captain Phil Jagielka flicked it on to his central defensive partner at the opposite stick. Stones then powered a header past Petr Cech from a tight angle, and Goodison Park erupted. 1-0 to the hosts.

 

O'Hara cut a disgruntled figure in the away dugout. His leading transfer target had just unravelled all the good work Arsenal had done for themselves against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League four days earlier.

 

The Gunners tried to fight back quickly, but they were to find that another member of Everton's rearguard was in tip-top form.

 

Toffees goalkeeper Tim Howard was producing the sort of heroics that had earned him widespread plaudits following the United States' heroic defeat to Belgium in the second round of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Howard's 14th-minute save from a deflected Nacho Monreal cross would be the first of many from the 36-year-old in this match.

 

Howard would hardly let his guard slip at all in this match. He had one close shave in the 23rd minute, when Alexis Sánchez got his head to Héctor Bellerín's centre and flicked it agonisingly against the post. After that stroke of good fortune, the American would not be knocked off his stride.

 

Arsenal continued to knock hard on the Everton door in the second half, but they would not be allowed through. Their shots would either end up in the vicinity of Howard's hands, or in the vicinity of the Park Stand.

 

The last, fatal blow for the Gunners was a self-inflicted one. With 17 minutes remaining, Gabriel tripped Toffees striker Romelu Lukaku whilst already on a yellow card. The Brazilian was dismissed, and his team were condemned to a 1-0 defeat - their fifth loss in the Premier League already this season.

 

Arsenal's situation in the league was now even more dire. They had slipped to 10th place and were now 12 points adrift of leaders Swansea City, whose unlikely pursuit of Premier League glory was still showing no signs of being derailed.

 

Although Howard was lauded as the man of the match after a sensational defensive display from Everton, it was Stones who had caught O'Hara's attention the most. Any doubts that Arsenal's manager might have had about the young England international had disappeared completely.

 

The following week, during an international break, O'Hara met with the leading figures of Arsenal's recruitment network, headed by director of football Wenger and chief scout Steve Rowley. The manager was looking to invest heavily in the squad in January, and he left Wenger and Rowley in very little doubt about his number 1 target.

 

"Gary knew what he wanted, and he wanted it as soon as possible," Rowley recalled. "He told me, 'I don't care how much it costs; I want John Stones to be an Arsenal player by the end of January.'

 

"As much as I agreed with Gary that Stones would be a good fit for the football club, I had to give him a few words of caution. I said to him, 'High-calibre English players are a valuable commodity in the Premier League these days. A player of John Stones' quality will come with a very hefty price tag, and you'll almost certainly have to pay over the odds for him'."

 

Nevertheless, O'Hara pushed on in his pursuit of Stones. Arsenal made an initial enquiry to Everton regarding their young defender, with a view to submitting a firm offer in January.

 

"Everton's original asking price was something along the lines of £40million," Rowley said. "Gary reckoned that that was a very steep price to pay for someone who'd not yet played in the Champions League or a major international tournament, but he told me, 'I'm sure Everton will have lowered their demands by January'.

 

"After Gary left the room, I looked at a couple of my colleagues, and most of us shook our heads in bemusement. If he honestly believed that Everton would drop their asking price, even by a few million, then he had another thing coming."

 

O'Hara also had his eye on a number of exciting prospects from abroad, but if some media reports suggested anything, it was that he was unlikely to get the chance to spend any money in January.

 

Arsenal's next match - a home derby against arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur - would come a fortnight after the Everton defeat, on 21 November. In the build-up to that game, it was being widely reported that O'Hara's future as manager was already under major threat. The Sun and The Daily Mail even went so far as to say that defeat against Arsenal's arch-rivals would render his position untenable.

 

O'Hara lamented their attitude in a conversation with former Arsenal team-mate Martin Keown - now a BBC television pundit who still worked part-time for the Gunners as a scout. He quoted Don Henley when telling Keown, "People love it when you lose. They love dirty laundry."

 

In his 1982 hit single "Dirty Laundry", former Eagles frontman Henley criticised the sensationalism of tabloid journalism, and their inclination to, "Kick 'em when they're up, kick 'em when they're down, kick 'em when they're stiff, kick 'em all around." Over three decades on, O'Hara could sense the song's eerie relevance to his own career.

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CHAPTER 12 - Know Your Enemy

 

Gary O'Hara had been an Arsenal fan for most of his 37 years, and he never disguised the fact that he had utterly despised Tottenham Hotspur for almost as long.

 

As a schoolboy, O'Hara would go out of his way to disassociate himself from anyone with allegiances to the white-and-blue half of North London. One of his Physical Education teachers at school - a gregarious 40-something by the name of Malcolm Mason - was a former Spurs youth player who lived just a stone's throw away from White Hart Lane. Gary loved PE, but he never liked Mr Mason.

 

Around three decades later, O'Hara's disdain for anything related to Tottenham was to be aired out in public. Speaking at a press conference ahead of his first North London derby as Arsenal boss, he stunned a room of journalists into silence with some incendiary comments regarding the opposition.

 

"I hate Tottenham with every fibre of my body," he growled. "And it's about time my players started hating them just as much as I do.

 

"For too long, they have treated the local derby as just another game. That's the wrong mindset as far as I'm concerned. Is Inter Milan vs AC Milan 'just another game' to football fans in that city? What about Rangers vs Celtic to those in Glasgow, or Boca Juniors vs River Plate to the Argies?

 

"You have to go into these sorts of games wanting to kill the opposition, and I mean that literally. History tells us that the winners of derby matches are usually those teams who want to win more than their opponents."

 

In contrast, Tottenham's manager - the former Argentina defender Mauricio Pochettino - came across as rather more respectful to Arsenal. Though Pochettino appreciated how much victory would mean to both sets of supporters, he made it clear that he did not see the outcome as "life or death".

 

Pochettino said, "I understand the rivalry. I was at Espanyol for many years as a manager and as a coach, and the rivalry we had with Barcelona was a big part of our club.

 

"For me, though, there is no reason to 'hate' another club. That is not what football is about."

 

The handshake between both managers at the Emirates Stadium that weekend was a brief one, with next-to-no eye contact. It would set the tone for a fierce encounter that was destined to go down to the wire... or at least the neutral punters hoped.

 

O'Hara's words stirred Arsenal into action almost instantly, as they broke the deadlock after less than five minutes. As had been the case for a large portion of the Gunners' goals this season, Héctor Bellerín was the architect.

 

The attacking move that led to Arsenal's opener really clicked into gear when Bellerín centred the ball to Theo Walcott, who dribbled into the Tottenham penalty area. Walcott was dispossessed by Mousa Dembélé, but the ball was knocked on to Bellerín, who quickly floated it back into the danger zone.

 

On the receiving end of the Catalan right-back's cross was attacking midfielder Mesut Özil, whose header looped beyond a despairing Hugo Lloris in the Spurs goal. The Emirates Stadium erupted. It was 1-0 to the hosts.

 

A dream start for the Gunners almost became a sensational one after ten minutes. Özil set up a great chance for Alexis Sánchez to double the advantage, but Tottenham captain Lloris was determined not to be beaten early again.

 

Shortly before Sánchez's effort, Tottenham had created their first equalising opportunity through Nacer Chadli. Petr Cech produced a superb stop to frustrate the Belgian winger, and that was as close as the visitors would come to restoring the equilibrium before half-time.

 

Despite his team holding a 1-0 lead at the break, O'Hara was still not satisfied. His assistant Steve Bould recalled, "Gary told the players that he wanted them to destroy Tottenham. He wanted to send the Tottenham boys home totally demoralised. He wanted them to know without any doubt that Arsenal were the best team in North London."

 

Arsenal would rise to O'Hara's expectations in the second period. They extended their advantage to 2-0 in the 57th minute, courtesy of a mistake from Chadli, whose tackle on Bellerín in the Spurs area failed to remove the danger. Once Olivier Giroud pounced on the loose ball and fired it emphatically past Lloris, the derby already looked won.

 

Five minutes later, things went from bad to worse for Spurs. Giroud's long ball sent Walcott marauding up the right flank before he aimed a return cross to the Frenchman in the six-yard box. However, Tottenham's central defender Toby Alderweireld got to Walcott's delivery before Giroud... and diverted it into his own net!

 

With their team three goals ahead, Arsenal's fans were in an atypically jovial mood at the Emirates. Those same Gooners who'd jeered O'Hara's players off after their previous home game against Manchester City were now singing praise for the manager. To the tune of the 1972 hit single "Son of My Father" from Kent pop band Chicory Tip, they chanted, "Oh... GARY, GARY! Gary, Gary, Gary O'Hara!"

 

Those chants became louder still on 79 minutes, as Bellerín saved Arsenal's arguably best goal for last. Özil swerved the ball to Bellerín on the edge of the penalty box, and the wing-back rode past Son Heung-Min's sliding tackle before curled a delightful shot into the far corner. The Gunners were 4-0 up on their greatest nemeses.

 

Many pundits had predicted before kick-off that O'Hara's passion would boil over for Arsenal and ultimately cost his team dear. In truth, it was the Gunners who kept their heads, and Spurs who lost theirs. By full-time, Tottenham had conceded 17 fouls, compared to a mere four from the hosts.

 

The 'shots on goal' count was also 17-4, in favour of Arsenal. Even so, the last of Tottenham's four shots would see them come away with a consolation goal. Erik Lamela tucked it away from the penalty spot in the 86th minute after Spurs' midfield playmaker Christian Eriksen had been felled in the area by Gunners destroyer Mathieu Flamini.

 

Though there was to be no derby clean sheet for his team, a resounding 4-1 win over Tottenham was the perfect way for O'Hara to silence his critics. Arsenal rose to 8th place in the Premier League standings, whereas a defeat would have seen them slip into the bottom half, and perhaps even prompted Stan Kroenke to pull the trigger on his manager.

 

Swansea City were still miles ahead of Arsenal at the top, but they now had a sizeable lead on fellow pace-setters Leicester City. Back-to-back defeats against Aston Villa and Stoke City had left Leicester four points adrift of the Swans, while Liverpool and Chelsea were both breathing heavily down the Foxes' necks. It seemed that the upper end of the league table was about to return to some state of normality.

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***

 

O'Hara soon turned his attentions to another crunch home game that would take place four days later, against Borussia Mönchengladbach in the UEFA Champions League. Before he could put the Germans in his sights, though, he had to deal with another Kraut.

 

Arsenal's players had a light training session at their London Colney complex on the Wednesday morning before their fifth European match of the season. After that session concluded, Gary had planned to drive off to a coffee house in St Albans to have lunch with his wife Laura, who was working in the city.

 

Before he could get into his car, O'Hara was confronted by a blonde middle-aged woman, who called out in a strong German accent, "Gary? Do you remember me?"

 

O'Hara could not recall who this mystery woman was. When she gave her name as Anna-Lena Hofweber, he recoiled in horror. Hofweber was the German tourist with whom O'Hara had been involved in a drunken romp with in Benidorm in 1996, back when he was only 17 years old and still courting Laura.

 

Hofweber - a 21-year-old university student at the time of the encounter - was now aged 41, and working as a public relations adviser for an engineering company based in western Germany. She shed further light on the reunion with O'Hara some time later, saying, "It was not comfortable. He really was not pleased to see me. He threatened to call the police and have me arrested for, as you say in English, trespassing.

 

"I said to Gary, 'If you call the police, I will tell the newspapers about our baby', and he was like, 'What baby?' It was then that I told him about Leon - my son."

 

Hofweber held up her phone to O'Hara and displayed a photograph of Leon, who was then aged 18. Tall, dark-haired, and well-built, Leon bore some resemblance to a younger O'Hara. He was pictured wearing the white home kit of his local football club - Borussia Mönchengladbach, whom Arsenal just happened to be playing against that very evening.

 

Hofweber said, "Gary was surprised. He was sure that Leon was not his son. I had sex with a lot of men around that time, but believe me - I know that Leon came from Gary.

 

"I had brought Leon over to London to watch the Arsenal match, which was his first football match outside of Germany. I asked Gary if he would like to meet Leon after the game, but he said no and asked me to leave. I refused to leave, and eventually he just got in his car and drove away. That was it."

 

Hofweber insisted that her decision to meet O'Hara on the afternoon before he managed Arsenal against the team that she and her son supported was not an attempt to play mind games. Nevertheless, it did visibly unsettle the Gunners boss.

 

Bould had spotted O'Hara and Hofweber together in the car park towards the end of their heated conversation. He asked O'Hara about the meeting later that afternoon, just a few hours prior to kick-off.

 

Bould said, "Gary basically just said that he had bumped into a woman he'd met on holiday many years ago, long before he married Laura. That was all. He said nothing about having 'relations' with this woman, and he definitely didn't say anything about a kid."

 

O'Hara now had to refocus himself for a match that would surely go some way towards determining Arsenal's fate in Europe. Once again, he turned to music for inspiration.

 

While meeting his wife for coffee, Gary opened up to Laura about his anxieties for the night ahead. He expressed for the first time his fears that a poor result in Europe would put his job back under threat.

 

Recalling that meeting, Laura said, "I told Gary to listen to an up-and-coming synth-pop band named Chvrches. Their singer Lauren Mayberry had a voice like Harriet Wheeler's, from The Sundays.

 

"I went to my car, searched through a box of CDs, and then gave him my copy of their new album at the time 'Every Open Eye'. I told him, 'Try this before the game'."

 

Laura specifically told Gary to listen to the fourth track from that album. "Make Them Gold" had the following chorus:

 

"We are made up of our mistakes; we are falling but not alone.

We will take the best parts of ourselves, and make them gold."

 

After listening to the track later that afternoon, Gary phoned Laura to say, "You are a star, don't you know that? You've just given me another poster for the training ground!"

 

Laura still remembered her replay. "Now you take your team and make them gold!"

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***

 

Arsenal's Champions League fate was in their own hands at the Emirates on the evening of 25 November. Victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach would effectively put the Gunners through to the Round of 16. On the other hand, a repeat of their loss to the Bundesliga side two months earlier would potentially leave them needing to beat Benfica in Lisbon to have any chance of qualifying.

 

If the first few minutes of this match indicated anything, it was that the latter scenario looked more likely for Arsenal. Mönchengladbach enjoyed a strong start, with forwards Divock Origi and Raffael each forcing Gunners goalkeeper David Ospina into early saves.

 

Arsenal would have a bright patch midway through that first period. Their German captain Per Mertesacker looked a real danger from set-pieces, heading a couple of dangerous corners just wide.

 

Mertesacker's centre-back colleague Laurent Koscielny almost came good in the 27th minute. Following Gladbach midfielder Thorgan Hazard's foul on Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sánchez drifted in a corner from the right. Koscielny climbed above visiting left-back Fabian Johnson to get his head to the ball, which looped safely into the hands of Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer.

 

Eight minutes later, the Gunners' worst fears were realised. Origi turned past Koscielny and powered a shot that Ospina could only push into the path of Gladbach right-winger Patrick Herrmann, who stuck in the rebound. 'Die Fohlen' were 1-0 to the good, and that was how it stayed at half-time.

 

Arsenal fans had even more reason for concern, as Benfica were also a goal up in the Ukraine against Dynamo Kiev. As things stood, Arsenal would drop to 3rd place in Group D, and nothing but victory against the Águias a fortnight later would keep them in the Champions League.

 

The exact words O'Hara used in the home dressing room during the interval have never been made public. Whatever he did say, though, undoubtedly inspired his team to show much greater attacking endeavour in the second period.

 

Mind you, Arsenal's hopes of a revival were nearly strangled at birth in the 56th minute. Mönchengladbach midfielder Granit Xhaka's direct ball was flicked into the penalty area by Raffael. Hazard then outpaced Gunners defender Gabriel Paulista to take the ball before squaring it to Raffael, whose close-range strike was clawed wide by Ospina.

 

Shortly after that narrow escape, news filtered through of a Dynamo Kiev equaliser against Benfica. If Arsenal could now find a leveller of their own, they would go back to the top of their group. That was precisely what happened after 61 minutes.

 

Welsh playmaker Aaron Ramsey cleared the German backline with a fantastic weighted ball ahead of Sánchez. The Chilean forward came under pressure from a couple of defenders, but he selflessly laid the ball off to Giroud, whose powerful finish essentially put Arsenal in the same position as they had been at kick-off.

 

Four minutes after that leveller, however, Arsenal were opened up again. Lars Stindl did the damage with a defence-splitting pass to Raffael, whose tidy finish rendered Giroud's earlier strike almost meaningless. With that goal, 'Die Fohlen' were leading again.

 

Arsenal desperately needed a hero, and it was Oxlade-Chamberlain who heeded their call. Barely two minutes on from Raffael's potentially fateful blow, the England winger drilled a stunning long cross to Sommer's right-hand post. Sánchez stabbed in the finish for 2-2, and the tie was delicately poised again.

 

Then, with 13 minutes to play, Oxlade-Chamberlain provided nigh on 55,000 Gooners at the Emirates with another moment to remember. 'The Ox' collected a pass from Gabriel in the corner of Gladbach's penalty area. He then ghosted beyond full-back Julian Korb and floated a sumptuous delivery towards Giroud, who swung his right foot and turned it beyond Sommer's reach!

 

It was all change in Group D again. With Dynamo and Benfica still deadlocked at 1-1, Arsenal now knew that victory would be enough to see them into the next phase - with one round of group games to spare.

 

The final quarter-hour was arguably the longest of O'Hara's young managerial career to date. One could visibly see beads of sweat pouring down his face as he anxiously urged his team to hold on for the win.

 

Bould half-laughed, "Gary looked like he'd been through 12 rounds with Lennox Lewis by injury time! He was virtually kicking every ball, and he was getting so intense that his suit was almost soaked in sweat. In fact, I thought for a moment that he was going to collapse in the technical area!"

 

Eventually, the final whistle blew, without Mönchengladbach getting particularly close to scoring what would've been a heartbreaking equaliser for the hosts. Arsenal had won by 3 goals to 2, and they were through to the knockout phase of the Champions League for an incredible 18th successive year.

 

That said, Group D wasn't completely cut-and-dried. Benfica's draw in Kiev had put them in pole position to join Arsenal in the last 16. If the Portuguese side could defeat Arsenal in their final game at the Estádio da Luz on 8 December, they would finish top of the group. Any other result would see the Gunners confirmed as Group D winners, and they would be more likely to get a favourable draw come the Round of 16.

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***

 

Before that decisive trip to Lisbon's 'Stadium of Light', Arsenal had a date with Sunderland at their own ground of the same name. The Black Cats, managed by the vastly-experienced Sam Allardyce, were 16th in the Premier League and - naturally for them - in the midst of a real battle against relegation.

 

This meeting of minds between O'Hara and Allardyce - two uncompromising, opinion-splitting English managers of different generations - intrigued many Premier League fans. While the match that followed was not a classic by any means, it was still somewhat fascinating.

 

Arsenal were clear favourites to win, and they underlined that status by moving in front after 18 minutes. It was Walcott who did the honours, powering home a right-wing cross from - of all people - the Egyptian ball-winning midfielder Mohamed Elneny.

 

The Gunners hoped to consolidate their advantage in the 32nd minute, when Walcott picked out Santi Cazorla with an excellent cross. Cazorla got his head to the ball, but he couldn't steer it beyond Sunderland's young homegrown goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

 

Arsenal remained a goal to the good at the interval... but if anyone expected them to cruise through the match with few problems, they would soon be proven very wrong.

 

Allardyce's Black Cats were not averse to literally battling back from adversity, and they showed fighting spirit that Arsenal seemed to lack. When all had been said and done, Sunderland had conceded 21 fouls and had four players cautioned by referee Kevin Friend. However, one of the booked quartet would win them a well-earned point.

 

Prior to the match, O'Hara had made some controversial comments about Sunderland's ultra-aggressive midfield tyro Lee Cattermole. "He's a nothing player," O'Hara claimed. "With his reckless tackling, he's nothing more than a yellow-card magnet in today's game. He'd have been great in the 1970s, but referees are much stricter nowadays."

 

Allardyce responded angrily to those comments, suggesting that his opposite number "should think before he speaks, otherwise he'll never get anywhere in football management". As far as Cattermole himself was concerned, he made sure to shove O'Hara's words down the Arsenal manager's throat.

 

in the 72nd minute, Sunderland full-back Adam Matthews saw his cross flicked into the six-yard box by Tunisian forward Wabhi Khazri. Cattermole then came forward to stab the ball past Cech and leave O'Hara fuming. It was only the Teessider's third Premier League goal in six-and-a-half years with the Wearside club.

 

The closing stages saw Arsenal waste a number of opportunities to silence the home fans and get back on top. In truth, the fact that they came largely from centre-back Gabriel said a great deal about how strong those chances were.

 

A 1-1 draw left Arsenal kicking themselves once again, and they remained 8th in the Premier League standings at the end of November. To make matters worse, the Gunners were now seven points adrift of the top four. They might have been going great guns in this season's Champions League, but they now looked increasingly likely to miss out on playing against Europe's elite in the campaign that was to follow.

 

"I don't think we showed enough fight out there today," O'Hara told a Sky Sports reporter afterwards. "We aren't killing off teams when we have them by the throat.

 

"The transfer window will be opening soon, and it's getting to the point where the players will soon be battling for their places. If they want to still be here at the end of the season, then they've got to buckle up, otherwise I'll happily drive them to their next club."

 

O'Hara was continuing to maintain a façade of bravado and determination in public. Behind closed doors, however, his true feelings were coming out.

 

"I noticed a change in Gary's attitude from November onwards," Laura O'Hara said. "He was very self-confident, bullish even, before he became Arsenal manager. As time went on, though, he seemed much more introverted.

 

"There were nights where he would just sit by the desk in his study, staring at the walls in silence. He'd barely talk to me or the girls. I couldn't explain to them why Daddy was acting so strangely.

 

"Other times, he'd listen to his music, and scribble down some lyrics on little post-it notes he had at his desk. He would then put on the fridge, so I'd see them when I went down for breakfast in the morning."

 

Laura kept all the post-it notes that Gary ever wrote, even after his untimely passing in 2017. She produced a couple of them, both of which had been written in the wake of the stalemate against Sunderland.

 

One note read, "I might seem so strong, I might speak so long, I've never been so wrong." Fans of the indie-pop band London Grammar would recognise those lyrics from the song "Strong", taken from their debut album 'If You Wait'.

 

Another note contained a reference to Irish band The Adventures' biggest hit "Broken Land", which reached the UK Top 20 in 1988. It said a lot about Gary's insecurity, and the widening divisions at the club he loved.

 

"Show me the love to keep us together.

Open up your hearts; don't turn me away.

Comfort me through this stormy weather.

From where I stand, I see a broken land."

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CHAPTER 13 - La Tristesse Durera

 

"So we destroyed Totteringham. So we beat Gladbach; big respect to The Ox for that. SO F***ING WHAT? We drew with Sunderland - that's SUNDERLAND, 16th in the league, managed by 'Fat Sam Who Ate All The Pies'!

 

"Gary O'Hara is still ruining Arsenal Football Club, man! He ain't no coach, bruv; he's just this chief man who thinks he's Mourinho 'cos he won the Mickey Mouse Charity Shield!

 

"We need our saviour Arsène back, or [Josep] Guardiola, or even Brendan f***ing Rodgers! What we don't need is that p***head O'Hara, 'cos with him, we won't be in the Champions League next year! Hell, bruv, we'll be lucky if we're in the Sunday League, man!"

 

It would be fair to say that Gary O'Hara was not a popular figure on 'We Are The Gooners'. Although WATG presenter Billy Khan's choice of words contained more than a little hint of hyperbole, he was saying what an awful lot of Arsenal supporters were thinking. They did not trust in O'Hara nearly as much as they had trusted in Arsène Wenger.

 

Khan had been conspicuously absent from WATG for the best part of November, and that rant late in the month was his first appearance on the channel since the 5-0 home defeat to Manchester City. Officially, Khan had missed much of that month for "health reasons". In truth, the young YouTube personality was recovering from serious injuries sustained in an assault outside a pie shop on Holloway Road on the night after that Halloween horror show.

 

Some tabloid newspapers had run reports that Paul O'Hara - Gary's elder brother - had been arrested in connection with the assault. Understandably, the O'Hara family would not confirm or deny that in public, and Khan remained tight-lipped about the attack.

 

Later in that video, Khan commented, "Next up for the Gunners is Villa at home. Gary O'Hara versus Rémi Garde - two Arsenal rejects from the 90s. As much as I love the Arsenal, I hope that Rémi's boys on Saturday, so that we can get O'Hara out ASAP!"

 

O'Hara and Garde had indeed been defensive team-mates at Arsenal between 1996 and 1999, during the first few years of Wenger's Highbury tenure. Like O'Hara, Garde had been forced to retire from professional football in 1999, although in the Frenchman's case, it was due to a serious injury rather than a heart condition.

 

16 years later, Garde returned to English football to succeed Tim Sherwood as manager of Aston Villa. The 49-year-old had had an indifferent start to his first season at Villa Park, and with the trigger-happy Italian businessman Massimo Cellino having recently bought the club from Randy Lerner, his job was undoubtedly under as much pressure as O'Hara's.

 

Arsenal vs Aston Villa would see a couple of goals inside the first four minutes. Mesut Özil got the hosts off to a flying start after three minutes, half-volleying in a fabulous weighted pass from in-form wing-back Héctor Bellerín. However, the Gunners' joy would not last.

 

Less than a minute after Arsenal took the lead, they lost it with a stroke of horrendous misfortune. Villa captain Gabby Agbonlahor's shot was blocked by Gunners goalie Petr Cech, but the ball deflected heavily off centre-half Laurent Koscielny and ricocheted into the net. As far as the Villans were concerned, it was 'levels, you devils'.

 

Aston Villa put the home side under further pressure early in the first period. Jordan Ayew could've put them ahead after pouncing on an overhit back-pass from Arsenal's other Spanish full-back Nacho Monreal in the eighth minute. However, Koscielny - eager to make amends after his own goal - intervened with a crucial tackle on the Ghanaian forward at just the right moment.

 

After 25 minutes, Arsenal fans were celebrating for a second time. An excellent cross from Alexis Sánchez was nodded into the away goal by Olivier Giroud, who had now found the net 10 times in a very up-and-down season. The French target man's latest goal gave the Gunners a narrow half-time lead.

 

Arsenal could have strengthened their lead further midway through the second period. A clumsy foul from Villa's defensive midfielder Idrissa Gueye on Özil in the 73rd minute gifted the German midfield maestro a chance to make it 3-1 from 12 yards out. However, Özil could not get his penalty beyond Brad Guzan, who read it perfectly and tipped it wide.

 

Guzan had fared rather well in goal for Villa, and his counterpart Cech also came to the fore during the closing stages. The veteran goalkeeper made a particularly impressive save late on to deny Villans substitute Rudy Gestede an equaliser, and Arsenal thus scraped home with a 2-1 win.

 

The Gunners climbed up one Premier League place to 7th, leapfrogging their next league opponents Stoke City, and narrowed their deficit on the top four from seven points to a more manageable five. However, an unconvincing home victory over one of the league's weaker outfits had arguably posed more questions than it had answered.

 

Few of the questions O'Hara faced at the post-match press conference were about that afternoon's events. Instead, he was routinely asked about his long-term future as Arsenal manager, to which he would reply with either a "No comment" or "That's none of your business".

 

O'Hara was also asked by one hack from The Daily Express if he still considered himself to be the right man for the job. "You lot ask some silly questions, don't you?" he laughed awkwardly, as if he was trying to conceal his anger. "If I didn't believe in my own abilities, I wouldn't even be here, would I?"

 

Once the press conference had concluded, O'Hara left the room with a face like thunder. He was then approached by Arsenal's head of public relations, who asked him about why he was in such a foul mood. O'Hara - unaware that his microphone was still switched on - suggested that she listen to the first verse of the Tori Amos song "Crucify", so that she would "understand where [he was] f***ing coming from".

 

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Amos' work, these were the lyrics O'Hara were referring to:

 

"Every finger in the room is pointing at me.

I wanna spit in their faces.

Then I get afraid what that could bring.

I got a bowling ball in my stomach.

I got a desert in my mouth.

Figures that my courage would choose to sell out now."

 

The press response to O'Hara's comments was savage. The Sun controversially depicted him as Jesus hanging on a cross under the headline "CRUCIFIED" and a subheading that declared "Gary Gormless can't survive latest rant".

 

Writing for The Daily Telegraph, Jonathan Liew claimed, "A football manager who goes to war with the media is a dead man walking. Gary O'Hara needs only to look at José Mourinho - a man he matches in ego, if not in career achievements - for an example of what can happen if you inexplicably lose the plot."

 

Despite growing concerns about O'Hara's attitude towards journalists, and his ability to cope with the huge pressure that football at such a high level brought, Arsenal's chief executive Ivan Gazidis stood by his man.

 

Gazidis recalled, "I always planned to have Gary here for the long haul. We'd hit a few bumps in the road during those first few months of Gary's reign, but to sack him when he was not even halfway through his first season would have been reckless. It would have given the impression that he should never have even been appointed in the first place."

Edited by CFuller

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Later in that video, Khan commented, "Next up for the Gunners is Villa at home. Gary O'Hara versus Rémi Garde - two Arsenal rejects from the 90s. As much as I love the Arsenal, I hope that Rémi's boys on Saturday, so that we can get O'Hara out ASAP!"

Were I a Gooner, I'd remind Mr. Khan that you either support the club or you don't. There's no middle ground.

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5 hours ago, tenthreeleader said:

Were I a Gooner, I'd remind Mr. Khan that you either support the club or you don't. There's no middle ground.

I concur, Mr Leader. I for one never will my team to lose!

Khan's a stubborn and very angry young man who knows what he wants - and he doesn't want O'Hara as Arsenal manager. Willing Arsenal to LOSE so that O'Hara's departure would be hastened is a sign of how far he would go.

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***

 

The win over Aston Villa had done little to boost Arsenal fans' faith in their team, and even less to improve the players' confidence in their own abilities. The Gunners went into their next match three days later fearful of a UEFA Champions League shellacking at the hands of Benfica.

 

This final Group D match at the Estádio da Luz would decide whether Arsenal or Benfica would top their pool, and therefore get a theoretically easier draw in the Round of 16. O'Hara's men could afford to take home a single point, whereas their Portuguese opponents - who were still not mathematically certain of qualification - had to win all three to finish 1st.

 

O'Hara sensed that Benfica would go on the attack early, so he instructed his players to sit back and wait patiently to hit the Águias on the counter. That gameplan would be thrown out of the window after just four minutes. 18-year-old midfielder Renato Sanches showed why he was one of Europe's most highly-rated young prospects by smashing Nélson Semedo's cutback in off the crossbar.

 

Having assisted for that opening goal, Semedo would soon get his own name on the scoresheet in the 13th minute. Right-winger Pizzi collected a left-wing delivery from forward Jonas and moved it out right to Semedo, who broke away from Sánchez and tapped a simple finish past David Ospina at his near post. That was the 22-year-old right-back's first ever competitive goal for Benfica.

 

The Águias were already soaring at 2-0 up, and they would soon reach even greater heights. Despite straining his groin in a challenge from Arsenal left-back Kieran Gibbs in the 23rd minute, Pizzi played on through the pain and provided a second assist nine minutes later.

 

Pizzi collected a centre from Semedo and then drilled it across Arsenal's six-yard box, though not before the delivery struck visiting midfielder Mohamed Elneny and deflected fortuitously to Nicolás Gaitán. The Argentine left-winger finished with ease, and the Gunners were three goals behind.

 

Although Gaitán broke his ankle in a tackle from Gabriel Paulista late in the first half, Arsenal's performance already looked broken beyond repair. They had been far too afraid to assert their authority on Benfica, allowing Rui Vitória's collection of exotic entertainers to rule the roost.

 

Sanches - a Portugal Under-21s international who would win his first senior cap before the season was out - continued to dictate terms from the middle of the park after the interval. The tenacious roaming playmaker missed a couple of great opportunities to score again in the 51st minute, but one of his colleagues would secure a brace five minutes later.

 

The hitherto goal-shy Semedo seemed to have transformed overnight into a top-level poacher, certainly if his 56th-minute finish from Pizzi's corner was anything to go by. That made it two goals for 'man of the match' Semedo, and three assists for the equally brilliant Pizzi. Benfica were 4-0 to the good and illuminating the 'Stadium of Light'.

 

Arsenal had had Group D in the palm of their hands, and Benfica had wrested it from their grasp without much of a fight. Although Özil scored a consolation goal in the 67th minute, shortly after replacing the injured Theo Walcott, it had come far too late for the Gunners. They would finish 2nd in their Champions League group for the fourth season in a row.

 

As Arsenal returned home from Portugal with their egos seriously deflated, the potential consequences for missing out on top spot became painfully obvious. While they would now avoid the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, both of whom had also finished the group phase as runners-up, their list of potential Round of 16 opponents looked daunting to say the least.

 

Bayern Munich and holders Barcelona were two teams that Arsenal desperately wanted to avoid, having been knocked out by both sides in recent years. Real Madrid - with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale - would surely be too strong for the Gunners as well. Roma and Wolfsburg looked dangerous too, while Zenit St Petersburg and Ajax were seen as the 'easiest' of the group winners to overcome.

 

When the draw for the last 16 was made about a week later, Arsenal fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. They wouldn't be playing Bayern, or Barca, or Real. Instead, they had been paired with Zenit.

 

The Russian Premier League champions - managed by former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur coach André Villas-Boas - would not be 'walkovers' by any means when the continental competition resumed in the New Year. That being said, it could have been a whole lot worse for the Gunners.

 

That piece of good news had come at just the right time of O'Hara, considering how his most recent league outing had panned out.

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***

 

The weekend before the Champions League draw had seen Arsenal travel to the Britannia Stadium to play mid-table Stoke City, who'd lost just once at home to them in the Premier League era. That statistic would not be altered in 2015/2016.

 

Potters goalkeeper Jack Butland became the latest custodian to produce his 'A-game' against Arsenal. The 22-year-old Bristolian, who was England's second-choice goalie behind Joe Hart of Manchester City, pulled off a string of magnificent saves to thwart Monreal and Özil. Those stoppages would prove even more significant as the match progressed.

 

At the other end, Stoke striker - and one-time Manchester United reject - Mame Diouf was causing Arsenal's defensive players plenty of problems with his movement. French destroyer Francis Coquelin was yellow-carded for fouling Diouf in the 12th minute, and a similarly clumsy challenge from Monreal six minutes later saw the left-back booked as well.

 

Then, in the 22nd minute, the much-criticised Brazilian centre-half Gabriel made a mess of his attempt to clear a cross from Stoke's ex-Barcelona forward Bojan. The header dipped towards Diouf on the outside of the penalty area. The Senegalese forward dribbled into the box, passing both Coquelin and Gabriel before applying a tidy finish.

 

Stoke carried a 1-0 lead into the second half, thanks to further heroics from Butland in the 43rd minute. When Monreal drifted a fantastic cross into the Potters' six-yard box, Alex Iwobi looked a cert to flick in a dream goal on his full league debut for Arsenal. It wasn't to be for the Nigerian teenager, whose header was brilliantly caught by Butland.

 

A bad day at the office for Gabriel worsened five minutes into the second period. The Brazilian could only flick Potters right-back Glen Johnson's cross back towards his own goal, and into the path of Bojan, who wasted little time in powering the ball past Cech.

 

Although Gabriel had contributed to both of Stoke's goals, his central defensive partner - captain Per Mertesacker - had arguably fared even worse. Mertesacker had struggled to nullify the threat posed by City's Spanish tandem of attacking midfielder Bojan and striker Joselu. To make matters worse, the German's woeful distribution of the ball just wasn't going to cut it for O'Hara, who liked his team to play from the back.

 

Mertesacker was substituted in the 54th minute, with Koscielny taking his place. Unsurprisingly, Arsenal were much more defensively assured with the excellent Frenchman present, and they wouldn't concede again.

 

At the other end of the pitch, the Gunners continued to misfire. Their attackers failed to remotely test Butland in the final half-hour before the full-time whistle blew.

 

A 2-0 defeat against one of their traditional bogey teams saw Arsenal fall even further off the Premier League pace, with leaders Swansea City and 2nd-placed Leicester City now ahead of them by 15 and 13 points respectively. Any fleeting hopes of a first league championship for the Gunners since 2004 had surely disappeared, just 16 matches into the season.

 

Criticism of O'Hara only grew stronger over the next few days. 'We Are The Gooners' conducted a poll of around 4,000 Arsenal fans in the wake of that defeat. Nearly half were in favour of O'Hara being sacked, after less than six months in the job.

 

"The fans have spoken," Khan declared in the YouTube channel's latest video. "We won't tolerate no more bad results, bruv! Lose to Watford, and I'm telling you, man... all hell will break loose!"

 

At the end of the clip, a scarecrow-style effigy of O'Hara was set alight whilst the drum-and-bass track "All Hell Is Breaking Loose" by London Elektricity played in the background. It perhaps went without saying that neither the video nor the music would have been to the manager's taste.

 

Owner Stan Kroenke was all too aware of the growing backlash against O'Hara. Kroenke had given O'Hara his first ultimatum about six weeks earlier, following the 5-0 home loss to Manchester City. After a brief resurgence from the Gunners, the American businessman's gravest doubts had now resurfaced.

 

Kroenke held a transcontinental video call with O'Hara, in which he warned his manager that he would have no choice but to dismiss him if Arsenal did not win their next match - a midweek clash with mid-table Watford at the Emirates Stadium. The 37-year-old was once again within 90 minutes of oblivion.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

On the day before Watford visited the Emirates, the Hornets' head coach Quique Flores turned the heat up on his under-pressure counterpart. "I do not have a lot of sympathy for Gary O'Hara," Flores said at a press conference. "If Arsenal continue to perform poorly and decide to sack O'Hara, I would not be surprised. Not at all.

 

"Football is a tough industry, and the Arsenal chairman has every right to change the coach if it does not work out. I know that I would not be allowed to stay at Watford if I did not produce good results, so why should O'Hara?"

 

Flores' comments fuelled a large fire within O'Hara. He recorded the Spaniard's press conference for posterity, and played it in full to his Arsenal players at the home dressing room prior to kick-off the following evening. The man of many words then sent his charges out with just three, "SHUT. HIM. UP."

 

The general mood in North London was an anxious one when the teams and their managers emerged from the tunnel. O'Hara hastily made for his technical area without giving Flores so much as a glance.

 

As the match was about to start, Flores approached the Arsenal manager with an outstretched hand. With his back still turned to his rival, O'Hara told him in no uncertain terms to "p*** off". This inflammatory remark was heard by several Arsenal fans near the home dugout, but - crucially - not by the fourth official. Had an official been within earshot, O'Hara could have expected to receive a touchline ban from the Football Association.

 

Although the visitors were at the wrong end of the table and battling against relegation, they almost stunned the favourites within nine minutes of kick-off. Özil was dispossessed by Valon Behrami, whose Watford colleague José Manuel Jurado lifted the ball over the Gunners defence and found striker Odion Ighalo. The Nigerian looked set to provide an easy sting in the tail for the Hornets, but he blazed his shot over.

 

Watford had their own stroke of luck on 20 minutes, as Gunners left-back Gibbs fired an effort into their side netting. Two minutes later, Hornets goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon comfortably caught Calum Chambers' header from a Santi Cazorla free-kick.

 

The hosts continued to perform well below expectations throughout the first half, which ended with them no closer to a breakthrough. Unless they picked up the pace after the restart, O'Hara's tenure would be coming towards a very early end.

 

Assistant manager Steve Bould remembered, "Gary was really anxious at half-time against Watford, and quite furious as well. I heard him mutter to me as we went through the tunnel, 'Those lazy b*stards are gonna cost me my f***ing job!' I just told him, 'Calm down, Gary. Leave it to me. I'll set them straight.'

 

"So yeah, I gave the lads one hell of a b******ing in the dressing room! I warned them that all our jobs would be on the line if we didn't pull our fingers from out our a***s."

 

Bould then laughed, "Looking back, I'd like to think it made a difference!"

 

Bould's words did make one heck of a difference. Arsenal returned to the pitch in a determined mood, and they would make the long-awaited breakthrough nine minutes into the second half.

 

Arsenal's shot at redemption came when Aaron Ramsey was felled in the Watford penalty area by former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Etienne Capoue, who could consider himself fortunate not to receive what would've been his second booking of the match. Capoue didn't get away completely scot-free, as Cazorla converted the resulting spot-kick to make it 1-0 to the hosts.

 

The tide had now turned firmly towards the Gunners. On 67 minutes, striker Giroud rattled the crossbar with a near-post header after connecting to a Gibbs cross. Substitute Walcott was first to the rebound, and a tidy finish put Arsenal in cruise control.

 

With the points seemingly wrapped up, O'Hara now felt confident enough to blood yet another of Arsenal's more promising youngsters. Six minutes before full-time, he benched Gibbs and gave a senior debut to another English left-back - the Essex-born 18-year-old Tyrell Robinson.

 

O'Hara's faith in Robinson would be repaid five minutes later, in the penultimate minute of normal time. Robinson swung a fantastic cross deep into the Watford box for Giroud, who emphatically volleyed beyond Pantilimon to put the icing on a very sweet cake.

 

Arsenal had won fair and square to the tune of 3-0, but there was no love lost between either manager at the final whistle. O'Hara once again failed to acknowledge Flores, who looked visibly disgruntled as he departed down the tunnel.

 

Flores spoke out in the wake of that match, stating, "I congratulate Arsenal for the victory, but I will not congratulate their coach. O'Hara is not a gentleman, and he has brought shame on a great football club with his attitude tonight.

 

"In terms of our performance, I feel really let down. We were very, very poor in the second half - and that says a lot against an Arsenal team coached by Gary O'Hara. I still think that they would be crazy to stick with him, and I expect them to start searching for a new coach very soon."

 

O'Hara was informed of Flores' latest comments when he was interviewed by Sky Sports commentator Gary Weaver moments later. His reaction was one of apoplexy.

 

"You must be kidding. You are kidding, right?" He asked Weaver, who then reiterated that Flores had said he was likely to be sacked sooner rather than later. What then followed was a rant of nearly a minute long, in which O'Hara made clear what he now felt of Enrique Sánchez Flores.

 

"Wow. I can't believe what you've just told me, Gary. If I had any ounce of respect for that excuse of a man, that has gone completely out the window now.

 

"He's broken one of the cardinal sins of football management. You should never question the integrity of your fellow manager, but it seems like he basically called for me to be sacked! If that ain't a reason for the FA to discipline him, then I've lost all faith in how football is run in this country.

 

"His friends may call him Quique, but I've got another name for him. My wife can speak Spanish, and she'd say that people like him would be nicknamed 'El Culo'. I don't need to translate that for you, 'cos it'll get me a fine from the FA. I'm sure he will tell you what it means."

 

For the benefit of those with a limited Spanish vocabulary, Laura O'Hara clarified, "Culo is the Spanish word for the buttocks, or the 'a***', if you prefer. I learned to speak Spanish when I was at university, as one of my coursemates was from Galicia. She taught me a lot of Spanish swear words, and I then taught them to Gary one night, for a bit of a laugh.

 

"I am multilingual, to tell you the truth; I can speak English, French, Spanish, German, and I know basic Mandarin as well. Gary was really proud of me for that. He would often joke at parties that I could speak fluently in four languages, but that he had barely mastered English!"

 

Gary was familiar with one French phase, though. After returning home to Laura after the Watford game, the significance of the date dawned on him.

 

"Six years," he told Laura sorrowfully as he embraced her at the front door, referring to the anniversary of his mother Debbie's passing. He then muttered, "La tristesse durera."

 

That phrase was taken from the reported last words of the iconic Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. Vincent's brother Theo had quoted him as saying "La tristesse durera toujours" - or "The sadness will last forever" - before he died from injuries sustained in a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

 

Those words would later provide the inspiration for "La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh)" - a song from Manic Street Preachers' 1993 album 'Gold Against The Soul'. Incidentally, Gary was a big fan of the Welsh alternative rockers.

Edited by CFuller

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3 hours ago, CFuller said:

 Laura O'Hara clarified, "Culo is the Spanish word for the buttocks, or the 'a***', if you prefer. I learned to speak Spanish when I was at university, as one of my coursemates was from Galicia. She taught me a lot of Spanish swear words, and I then taught them to Gary one night, for a bit of a laugh.

 

Very elegantly put there Chris..Gary's got a keeper there haha

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32 minutes ago, mark wilson27 said:

Very elegantly put there Chris..Gary's got a keeper there haha

Laura O'Hara is certainly better-educated and a more eloquent speaker than either you or I will ever be. :D

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CHAPTER 14 - Fox Hunt

 

It had been a very stressful few weeks or so for Gary O'Hara. Arsenal's continued struggles in their pursuit of a top-four Premier League finish had left their manager feeling anxious and uncertain in his abilities.

 

On the Thursday evening after Arsenal's 3-0 win over Watford, Gary's wife Laura invited his father David over to their home in Borehamwood for a heart-to-heart.

 

"I could tell that Gary needed to talk to somebody, about both his professional life and his personal life," Laura said. "He was really struggling with his emotions, especially as he'd just passed the anniversary of his mother Debbie's death. That's why I asked David to come over and help Gary out."

 

David recalled their conversation, "We started off by talking about Debbie. We'd planted a memorial tree for her on Newington Green about a year after she passed. Gary told me that he'd been to see the tree earlier that Thursday morning. He would've gone on the Wednesday, exactly six years to the day, but he'd been so pre-occupied with work that he hadn't realised until late that evening.

 

"Gary then said, 'Sometimes I wish Mum was still around. She would have known exactly what to say when I'm feeling down like this. You know, it's a bit like that song by Mike & The Mechanics; there are some things I wish I'd told her in the living years'.

 

"I replied by saying that Mum wouldn't have wanted him pining for her all night. She would've wanted him to stay strong and plough on, no matter how tough things got. That's what me and Debs did when we lost our parents."

 

Father and son then discussed Arsenal's recent league predicament, with Gary expressing his fears that he would be sacked if his team slipped further away from the UEFA Champions League places. David told him bluntly, "If you're sacked, you're sacked. Football's a cruel business, and there's no excuses if you don't perform. Just look at Man United."

 

If Arsenal were underachieving by their stands, then heaven knew what words would have adequately described Manchester United's situation. The Red Devils had slumped into the bottom half after a shocking run of form, prompting the club's American owners to sack manager Louis van Gaal early in December. In the week-and-a-half since then, speculation had been rife about who would succeed the Dutchman, with a certain José Mourinho publicly declaring that he wanted the job.

 

Gary O'Hara appreciated that United's crisis did at least ease some of the media scrutiny off him, though he was concerned that a large section of Gooners had already turned against him. David suggested that he use the recent Watford victory as a springboard to success in upcoming matches against high-flyers Leicester City and Chelsea.

 

Gary was somewhat buoyed by the unexpected visit of his father. The following evening, he received another visit - this time from his elder brother Paul.

 

Though this was the brothers' first physical meeting since the start of November, they usually spoke together on the phone on a weekly basis. Recent conversations had been fraught with emotion, as Paul was on bail and anxiously awaiting news on whether he would be charged with assaulting a man outside a Holloway pie shop on 31 October.

 

Paul's arrest had been made public in the national news, and he had been suspended from his job as a journalist for a leading music magazine. All this had taken a heavy toll on the 40-year-old's health; a hitherto sprightly middle-aged man now looked old and haggard, and not unlike his sexagenarian father David.

 

It wasn't until 47 days after his arrest that, on 17 December, Paul O'Hara was informed by Metropolitan Police officers that he would not face any assault charges. He was a free man again.

 

"Apparently, there was no evidence that Paul had been involved," Laura recalled. "Paul had a strong alibi; he was at home in Hemel Hempstead, looking after his three young children while his wife was going to a work party. He was not in Holloway when Billy Khan was attacked.

 

"Billy Khan had been very cruel and public with his taunts about Gary. Arresting his brother seemed to us like the Met were putting two and two together and coming up with five.

 

"Paul believed that that something was not right with how the police had treated him. Usually, the maximum amount of time you can be on bail for is 28 days, but Paul had to wait much longer before finding out whether he would be charged or not. He suspected that a senior officer had extended that limit so that they could have more time to try and find any evidence linking him with the assault, no matter how flimsy it might have been.

 

"I became even more suspicious when Paul told us the names of the two officers who'd questioned him - PC Pritchard and PC Walters. They were the same two officers who'd spoken to Gary about the attack the following afternoon. Paul said they had been very antagonistic towards him and didn't believe a word of what he said. He added that it was almost as if they had some sort of agenda against either him or Gary."

 

Laura then provided more information on Paul's health issues. She claimed that he had told Gary that he'd suffered from occasional heart palpitations and breathing problems since his arrest.

 

Of course, Gary was no stranger to heart problems. Worried that serious cardiovascular diseases ran in the O'Hara family, he begged Paul to visit a doctor as soon as possible. Paul promised to do so, and he bade farewell to his younger brother with a firm hug before returning home.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Buoyed by the recent visits of his father and brother, Gary O'Hara was in a good mood as he and his Arsenal team travelled to the East Midlands on Sunday 20 December. They were about to pit themselves against an in-form Leicester City side at the King Power Stadium.

 

This would actually be the first of two meetings in the space of nine days between the Gunners and the Foxes. They were scheduled to confront each other again the following Monday at the Emirates Stadium, though not before Arsenal visited defending league champions Chelsea on Boxing Day.

 

While O'Hara had not exactly been on friendly terms with his most recent managerial adversary, relations between him and Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri were much more cordial. The 64-year-old Italian was, by all accounts, one of the Premier League's more amiable managers. That did not necessarily mean he would be a pushover.

 

Ranieri, who managed Chelsea from 2000 to 2004, had taken the helm at Leicester in pre-season, following the somewhat controversial sacking of predecessor Nigel Pearson. 'The Tinkerman' had since unearthed a winning formula with the Foxes, transforming a team who had barely avoided relegation a few months earlier into shock title contenders.

 

Keeping goal for Leicester's bunch of previously unheralded overachievers was Kasper Schmeichel - the son of Manchester United legend Peter. Schmeichel junior would produce an impressive save after only 90 seconds to deny Alexis Sánchez an early opener for Arsenal.

 

In midfield, the Foxes had another player with connections to the Red Devils - former Old Trafford trainee Danny Drinkwater. The 25-year-old box-to-box midfielder was left worse for wear after a collision with Olivier Giroud in the 18th minute, but he would struggle through much of this game before being subbed early in the second half.

 

Alongside Drinkwater was the tireless ball-winner N'Golo Kanté - a French-born Malian international who had been playing amateur football as recently as 2010. Kanté had scored his first goal for Leicester four days earlier against United, and he could've found the net again in the 23rd minute. Petr Cech managed to catch his volley, but he would only be able to keep the Foxes at bay for another ten minutes.

 

Then Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez found the Premier League's leading scorer - Jamie Vardy - with an excellent 30-yard ball. Vardy broke away from the Arsenal defence and powered in a stunning strike to put the Foxes ahead. That was his 17th top-flight goal this season - not bad for a striker who had spent many years in non-league football with the likes of Stocksbridge Park Steels and Fleetwood Town before getting his big break with Leicester.

 

Less than a minute after Vardy's opener, Arsenal threatened to respond through Theo Walcott. The explosive winger got past home left-back Christian Fuchs and only needed to beat Schmeichel from a tight angle. Schmeichel prevailed with the first attempt, and Walcott's follow-up hit the post before deflecting behind.

 

Mahrez also struck the woodwork for Leicester on the stroke of half-time. However, one of his team-mates - Argentine forward Leonardo Ulloa - was perfectly positioned to drill the rebound home and send the Foxes into the break with a 2-0 advantage.

 

O'Hara had taken a big risk with his team selection prior to kick-off. Regular right-back Héctor Bellerín was not in prime physical fitness, so the manager decided to start Calum Chambers in the Spaniard's position. In hindsight, that was not one of his most profitable gambles, as Chambers never looked comfortable against Mahrez.

 

O'Hara looked to correct his blunder during the half-time interval - Chambers was off, and Bellerín was back on. Chambers did not seem to take his substitution too well; it would subsequently be reported in the media that the moody full-back stormed out of the King Power Stadium during the second period, much to his coach's chagrin. Their notoriously frosty relationship had seemingly sunk to new depths.

 

That second period started well for Bellerín, who won a penalty in the very first minute after Fuchs tripped him up. Mesut Özil confidently powered the spot-kick beyond Schmeichel, and Arsenal were back in the game.

 

Özil would also play a key role in diminishing Leicester's lead altogether on 52 minutes. A fantastic pass from the German playmaker set up a powerful shot from Sánchez that flew right into the top corner. As O'Hara, Steve Bould and the rest of the Arsenal contingent rejoiced in the dugout, there was a sense that a great Gunners fightback would soon be completed in full.

 

On 56 minutes, Arsenal centre-half Laurent Koscielny lifted the ball over the Foxes' backline and sent Sánchez up the left flank to collect it. Once Sánchez had taken the ball into the area, he awaited the run of Giroud, who would surely bury his cross and make it 3-2 to Arsenal.

 

However, Giroud hadn't banked on Schmeichel coming up with a breathtaking save that his old man would've been proud of. Kasper, now regarded as a great Danish international custodian in his own right, pushed the Frenchman's effort aside before his colleague Fuchs removed the danger.

 

Leicester had been let off the hook, and by the 69th minute, the tide had turned back in their favour. Ranieri had only just brought on Jeffrey Schlupp as a replacement for Fuchs, and he would be instantly vindicated when the Ghanaian utility man outjumped Koscielny to head in a corner delivery from Marc Albrighton. The scoreline now read 3-2, but in the Foxes' favour.

 

O'Hara's shoulders slumped, and that sudden change in his body language said it all. Though his team would go all-out in search of an equaliser throughout the final 20 minutes, there was little doubt that Schlupp's goal had killed the Gunners' spirit.

 

Ranieri and O'Hara shared a warm handshake at the final whistle, with the Italian thanking his opposite number for providing plenty of entertainment and giving his high-flying team a real contest. O'Hara offered his congratulations, but added, "We'll get you next week."

 

Leicester's narrow win saw them pull ahead of Swansea City, whose shock 3-0 loss at Sunderland was just their second in the league this term, and take the initiative in the Premier League title race. Arsenal remained in 9th place, and hopes of even a top-four finish were already looking remote, even though they were only just about to reach the halfway point of the season.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

The Christmas break came at just the right time for Arsenal. Spirits were low in the red half of North London after the Gunners' seventh defeat in 18 Premier League games. To put things into perspective, they had lost precisely the same number of matches in the entire 2014/2015 league campaign.

 

It wasn't atypical of football teams in crisis to cancel any seasonal festivities and instead concentrate on turning their seasons around. O'Hara was considered by many at the Emirates Stadium to be a firebrand and a disciplinarian, but he would be damned if he attracted comparisons to Ebenezer Scrooge - the miserly protagonist of 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens.

 

Arsenal's Christmas party went ahead as planned, with O'Hara inviting his wife Laura to the festivities. The couple's daughters Adele and Lucy were babysat by Laura's parents.

 

Assistant manager Steve Bould said, "It'd been a difficult first half to the season, to say the least. We relished this rare chance to just let our hair down - not that I personally have any hair to let down - and enjoy ourselves for a bit.

 

"Alcohol was strictly off the table for pretty much everyone. It'd been that way at Arsenal since Arsène arrived. Mind you, I had a sneaky suspicion that Gary snuck a few drinks in for himself that evening, 'cos he looked properly out of it by midnight! [Laughs]

 

"I'll tell you what, though - Gary weren't a bad singer when we brought out the karaoke machine late in the evening. He and Laura brought the house down when they sang 'Fairytale of New York'; she was a great Kirsty MacColl, and he was a bit like Shane MacGowan, just with better teeth!"

 

Laura laughed, "I remember that! We'd rehearsed that song many, many times over the years. Gary practically knew the lyrics off by heart. To be fair, 'Fairytale of New York' is basically a Christmas staple for Irish families such as Gary's.

 

"We didn't get home until 1am that night. Gary pretty much passed out on the floor as soon as we walked through the hallway. He wasn't drunk or anything, though, just exhausted. He hadn't touched a drop of alcohol since he was a teenager, so believe me - whatever Steve said, that was a load of balderdash."

 

Regardless of whether O'Hara had been drinking or not at that party, he didn't have long to recover. He was straight back to work on Boxing Day, as Arsenal faced a daunting trip to Stamford Bridge. Awaiting them were 4th-placed Chelsea, who were very much in the hunt for back-to-back league championships.

 

The sides had last met at Wembley Stadium in August, when Arsenal cruised to a 3-0 win and retained the Community Shield. Chelsea striker Diego Costa had been labelled a "street-fighter" prior to that match and came off injured early on. The hot-headed Spaniard would not have the chance to exact revenge in the reunion, with a groin strain sustained earlier in December keeping him out.

 

Costa's role as the Blues' target man was instead given to the much-maligned on-loan Monaco forward Falcao. O'Hara had taken great joy in witnessing the 29-year-old Colombian endure the game from hell after coming on for his stricken colleague at Wembley, performing so abjectly that he was ultimately substituted by Guus Hiddink.

 

Five minutes into the renewal of one of London's fiercest footballing rivalries, Falcao put Arsenal on red alert with his opening attempt at goal. He powered a header goalwards from a right-wing cross by César Azpilicueta, only to see it caught comfortably by Cech.

 

Giroud had scored a brilliant hat-trick for Arsenal back at Wembley, but he wouldn't cause Thibaut Courtois much bother in the Chelsea goal here. Having screwed a curler horrifically wide in the second minute, the unpredictable Frenchman would enjoy only one more shot at goal, in the 14th. He headed it well off target.

 

Falcao tried again for the hosts in the 32nd minute, enjoying more success this time around. Following one of Azpilicueta's customary long throw-ins, Chelsea steadily probed the ball in and around the Gunners' penalty area. The final pass was squared by Eden Hazard into the path of Falcao, who duly volleyed the Blues into the lead with just his fifth goal for the club.

 

Chelsea looked to be in control of proceedings, but an injury to midfielder Cesc Fábregas in the 41st minute knocked them off their stride. The former Arsenal captain pulled up suddenly whilst in full flight, having strained his knee ligaments. His absence would be keenly felt to the Blues in the second period.

 

The match had just passed the hour mark when Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic - donning the captain's armband in lieu of the injured John Terry - was accused of upending Giroud in the area. Arsenal were awarded a penalty kick for a third game in a row, and Özil scored from 12 yards out for the second match in succession. The Gunners had drawn level.

 

Chelsea would be left enormously frustrated in the latter moments of this match, striking an Arsenal post on a couple of occasions. Former Barcelona forward Pedro fired a shot against Cech's left-hand post shortly after coming off the bench on 67 minutes. Falcao then hit the other upright nine minutes afterwards from a drilled cross by Hazard.

 

Arsenal's luck continued to hold out until the final whistle, and they took a point back home. O'Hara was more than satisfied to get a draw at Stamford Bridge, but he knew such an encouraging result would mean nothing if his team could not follow it up with another strong display two days later. Up next was Arsenal vs Leicester - Round 2.

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***

 

Leicester City arrived at the Emirates Stadium on a bit of a downer, having lost 2-0 at home to Liverpool on Boxing Day. As a result of their third home league defeat next season, Ranieri's men surrendered top spot to a Swansea City side who were continuing to defy all expectations. Things were still going swimmingly for the Swans, but had the Foxes been outfoxed?

 

One thing that was very much in Leicester's favour ahead of the second meeting with Arsenal was their away record. They had won an incredible 11 of their 12 away matches in all competitions this season, the odd one out being an inexplicable 4-1 defeat to relegation-threatened Aston Villa in early November.

 

The Foxes were masters of the counter-attack, but O'Hara was not afraid to play into their hands. He kept his Arsenal defence on high alert in the first half, and that paid dividends when Cech made a couple of crucial saves from City midfielder Albrighton in the first 20 minutes.

 

Vardy's free-scoring form for Leicester was reputedly attracting interest from some of the Premier League's major clubs. However, the Yorkshireman would not be extending his record to 18 goals in just 17 league appearances for the Foxes this term. Another fantastic save by Cech in the 32nd minute denied Vardy a chance to host one of the famous 'parties' that his supporters would regularly chant about.

 

Come the 44th minute, the only group of supporters in party mode were those in red and white colours. Arsenal full-back Kieran Gibbs crossed from the left to Walcott, who raced clear of Leicester defender Robert Huth and tapped in an easy finish for the Gunners.

 

Arsenal now had a 1-0 lead, and O'Hara was happy to sit on it. His team continued to defend doggedly in the second half and bat away the fast-paced counter-attacks that Leicester were renowned for. Although this was nothing like the "boring, boring Arsenal" of the George Graham era, it was refreshing for some to see a Gunners side defend so resiliently and fearlessly.

 

Arsenal attacks were rarer than usual, but they tended to be more effective. Substitute forward Alex Iwobi was unfortunate not to beat Schmeichel in the 76th minute, although the Nigerian would play a key role when the Gunners next went on the offensive.

 

It was in the final minute of normal time that 17-year-old winger Jeff Reine-Adelaide - making only his second league start for the Gunners - weighted a through-ball towards Iwobi. Reine-Adelaide hit the pass too hard for Iwobi to reach it before Schmeichel, but another opportunity arose when the onrushing goalkeeper dropped the ball - right on the edge of his penalty box!

 

It was perhaps worth stating that Schmeichel's decision to drop the ball in such a precarious position was not completely bone-headed. Had the Dane still been carrying the ball when he left his penalty area, he would almost certainly have been sent off. Regardless, Schmeichel didn't exactly look relieved when Iwobi claimed the loose ball and knocked it across to Walcott, who tapped it into an unguarded net.

 

Two late goals in either half from Walcott had earned Arsenal a priceless 2-0 win over one of the PL's dark horses. O'Hara was all smiles at the final whistle, when he shared a warm embrace with Ranieri, whom he would later describe as "a total gentleman and a credit to top-level football".

 

Ranieri took this defeat as graciously as one would expect him to, but the table was not looking quite so good from Leicester's point of view. They now trailed top-of-the-table Swansea by three points, and were only two clear of Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool in 3rd.

 

Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton were next in the standings, and then you would find Arsenal in 7th. Although the 15-point gap between the Gunners and Swansea looked too wide to bridge, they did at least have a real chance of getting back into the Champions League places. Only five points now separated them from 4th-placed Chelsea.

 

By now, O'Hara had long conceded that the Premier League trophy would most likely not be returning to the Emirates in 2016. He was now looking to build a title-challenging team for the following season, and that meant Arsenal would be rather more active in the January transfer window than usual.

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CHAPTER 15 - Four Days, Four Signings

 

Gary and Laura O'Hara celebrated the start of 2016 by joining over 100,000 revellers along the River Thames to watch London's New Year's Eve firework display. For them, seeing in the New Year in the capital had become an annual ritual since their marriage.

 

Although Gary was a rather more noticeable figure than he had been 12 months earlier, he still managed to mingle into the crowd almost unnoticed. Inevitably, there were some Arsenal supporters who identified O'Hara and approached him for a chat. Several asked the Gunners manager for New Year's selfies, and he was only too happy to oblige. There was no animosity towards him at all that night.

 

O'Hara was a contented man, on and off the pitch. For once, the leading football journalists were not overly analysing his antics or writing minute details about the struggles of his first season as Arsenal's top dog. Besides, they had much bigger fish to fry.

 

The major story from the first half of the 2015/2016 Premier League season was not a previously unconceivable title challenge from either Swansea City or Leicester City, or even Arsenal's inability to launch one of their own. Instead, the back pages were essentially reserved for coverage of a completely unexpected collapse from Manchester United.

 

Since beating Arsenal 2-0 on the opening day of the league season, United's season had inexplicably spiralled out of control. As reports spread that manager Louis van Gaal had fallen out with several key players, including captain Wayne Rooney, results started to drop off, along with their league ranking.

 

By early December, Manchester United had won just four league games - all at Old Trafford - and were ranked 12th. They had also crashed out of the UEFA Champions League, following defeats in all their first three group matches, and the League Cup, where they were eliminated in the Quarter Finals by Newcastle United.

 

A 2-0 home defeat to Watford signalled the end for van Gaal's reign in the red half of Manchester. The Dutchman was unceremoniously sacked, and his assistant - legendary former winger Ryan Giggs - took caretaker charge for the next couple of games.

 

About two weeks later, with United's fortunes having barely improved, the club's American owners brought in Unai Emery from Sevilla. The 44-year-old Spaniard was an ironic choice to succeed van Gaal, as his Sevilla side had just finished bottom of United's Champions League group, with the Red Devils dropping into the UEFA Europa League.

 

Emery's first three matches as Manchester United manager included a couple of defeats to arch-rivals Liverpool and a goalless draw at Crystal Palace. His new team now found themselves in 16th place, and only three points clear of the bottom three. It seemed incredible to think that arguably the biggest club in English football was now battling to avoid relegation from the Premier League - a competition that it had utterly dominated for the best part of 25 years.

 

United's biggest problem was arguably a lack of firepower. Only three other teams in the Premier League - Sunderland, Norwich City and Newcastle - had scored fewer goals than the Red Devils this season. Indeed, this plight had become so bad that Emery was reportedly about to spend a large chunk of his January transfer budget on the PL's top scorer - Jamie Vardy of Leicester City.

 

Emery had already brought in his first signing of the New Year, recruiting the 21-year-old French centre-back Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao for £35.5million. Laporte was cleared by the FA and FIFA to make his Red Devils debut on New Year's Day, when Emery took Manchester United to the Emirates Stadium.

 

There had been so many classic encounters between Arsenal and Manchester United over the years. This would not be another of them, and neither would there be another dressing-room food fight in the aftermath.

 

Gary O'Hara was confident that his Arsenal team would perform much better than they had done at Old Trafford on the opening day. For the first quarter-hour or so, it appeared that he would be proven right, as the Gunners kept possession beautifully, while also severely tested their opponents' defensive capabilities.

 

Emery's teams were not averse to spring the offside trap, and United did that to great effect early on, catching both Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott out. Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea also looked sharp in the fourth minute, when he parried an angled effort from compatriot Héctor Bellerín. The right-back's effort would be arguably Arsenal's best scoring chance of the opening stages.

 

The first sign of life in Manchester United's frontline came after 18 minutes, when yet another Spaniard - attacking midfielder Juan Mata - fizzed a shot just past Petr Cech's right-hand post.

 

Six minutes after that, the Red Devils went one better from a devastating counter-attack. Mata dispossessed Bellerín and knocked the ball down the line for Rooney, who then picked out Ashley Young's overlapping run. The England winger's first attempt at a cross was blocked in the Arsenal area by Bellerín, but his second found ex-Germany midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who finished at the back stick.

 

Arsenal were left badly shaken by Schweinsteiger's opener, and they were unable to regain either their composure or parity before half-time. Alexis Sánchez spurned a great equalising opportunity in the 33rd minute, as he skipped past United defenders Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo before powering his shot over the bar.

 

Manchester United would only launch a handful of attacks in the second period. Rooney had scored just five times all season, and his lack of belief was obvious when Cech made a routine catch from a desperate long-distance strike very early on. Another audacious attempt from the 30-year-old much later in the half would miss the target completely.

 

Arsenal also struggled on the attacking front. In all fairness to them, though, visiting goalkeeper De Gea was in blinding form. Sánchez and Theo Walcott each had dangerous efforts saved by the 25-year-old Madridian, who had arguably been one of United's star performers in an otherwise torrid season.

 

For all their attractive possession football, Arsenal were badly lacking an end product, not to mention any real passion. As far as many Gooners were concerned, O'Hara had effectively transformed into the manager he'd sworn he would never become - Arsène Wenger, Mk II.

 

Another cacophony of jeers from over 50,000 home supporters greeted the final whistle, which delivered Arsenal's eighth league defeat of the season - their third at the Emirates. O'Hara's respite from the scrutiny of the media was short-lived, as he was certain to face some more challenging questions in the press room.

 

O'Hara had barely finished shaking Emery's hand and congratulating him on a 1-0 win when he set his sights towards the future. Even a little over halfway through his first term as Arsenal manager, the time had already come for O'Hara to rebuild his team. He now had a clear idea of who he wanted in his team, and also of who he wanted out of it.

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***

 

Calum Chambers was one player that O'Hara most certainly wanted to get rid of, at least temporarily. O'Hara and Chambers had rarely spoken to one another since the end of November, and their tumultuous relationship came to a head the following month, when the versatile defender was subbed at half-time in the away defeat to Leicester City. Chambers abruptly left the stadium without his manager's permission and made his own way back home.

 

O'Hara had grown exasperated at what he saw as "laziness" from Chambers. He made the England international available for loan, and that was when AFC Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe offered to take him for the rest of the season. The Cherries' offer was accepted, and the former Southampton youth product would soon be on his way back to the south coast.

 

"It's obviously not ideal, but it's for the best that Calum leaves us for a while," O'Hara said after the loan deal was announced. "Calum's not pulled his weight at this football club of late. He needs to take this step back, learn his craft, gain some fresh perspective, and then come back to Arsenal as a stronger and more resilient player."

 

Chambers himself recalled, "I couldn't wait to get out of there, to be honest. O'Hara had made my life a nightmare since he took charge. He was an arrogant, self-centred bully. To be honest, his treatment of me got so bad that I even thought about quitting football and doing something else.

 

"I saw the loan move to Bournemouth as a chance to prove O'Hara wrong and get my career back on track. It also helped that I would be a lot closer to my family back home in Hampshire. Looking back now, those few months at Bournemouth were probably the most enjoyable of my career so far."

 

Chambers went on to play in 13 league games for Bournemouth, scoring one goal and assisting for another. He returned to the Emirates Stadium that summer, by which point O'Hara was out of the picture. However, Chambers again found first-team football harder to come by under Arsenal's new manager, and he joined Manchester City in 2017, with the Gunners recouping the £13million they had paid Southampton three years earlier.

 

The first player to leave Arsenal permanently in the O'Hara era was the much-maligned defensive midfielder Mathieu Flamini. O'Hara had never trusted the 31-year-old Frenchman, so he was only too happy to sell when Lille offered to sign Flamini for £500,000 - six months before his contract at the Emirates was due to expire.

 

Another midfielder who would soon be swapping Arsenal for Ligue 1 was Tomas Rosicky - a rather more popular figure amongst the club's supporters. After nine-and-a-half injury-plagued years with the Gunners, the former Czech Republic playmaker was granted permission to join Troyes on a free transfer.

 

Brazilian centre-back Gabriel Paulista was also on his way out of North London. The 25-year-old had made only 16 Premier League appearances since joining Arsenal from Villarreal less than a year earlier.

 

The writing was on the wall from Gabriel as early as November, when O'Hara was heard telling former Gunners defender Martin Keown in an off-the-record discussion, "I won't go so far as to say that Gabriel is stealing a living, but someone else could easily do his job better. There ain't a reason why an English lad can't do what he does."

 

O'Hara didn't rate Gabriel, but obviously Unai Emery did, as he offered £20million to bring him to Manchester United. That offer was accepted, and before long, Gabriel had joined a refreshed United team that now included Jamie Vardy - a £50million signing from Leicester City.

 

Vardy's transfer fee was the highest that had ever been paid for an English footballer, surpassing the £44million that Manchester City had forked out for Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling six months earlier. However, that record was soon looking like being broken once again.

 

O'Hara was hard at work in the first full week of January 2016. He approached director of football Arsène Wenger with a shortlist of players that he wanted to bring to Arsenal. Some of them had been strongly recommended by chief scout Steve Rowley.

 

Rowley said, "Gary had about six or seven players that he was really interested in. A few of them were from the Ajax team that had played us in pre-season.

 

"Gary was happy to leave the transfer negotiations to Arsène. He knew that he wasn't quite ready to talk to other clubs about transfer fees and sell-on fees and all that jazz. That was best left to Arsène; after all, he'd been doing it for pretty much the last 20 years at this football club."

 

Wenger approved five of O'Hara's transfer targets, including three from Ajax. However, he had strong misgivings about the manager's top target - Everton's ball-playing centre-back John Stones.

 

"I'd warned Gary beforehand that Arsène wasn't going to approve a deal for John Stones," Rowley said. "Arsène thought that Stones was a decent Premier League defender, but nothing more than that. As he saw it, he was too naïve and not dependable enough to play regularly for a top, top team of Arsenal's stature.

 

"Gary eventually persuaded Arsène to at least try and sign the player, but then there was the issue of Everton's asking price. Back in November, they weren't willing to sell for less than £40million. Now they wanted £60million.

 

"Arsène was very reluctant to go above £45million, but Everton didn't want to budge from their position either. That was when Gary asked Arsène to put in one final offer - £55million, take it or leave it. At that point, [Everton's managing director] Robert Elstone finally relented and gave us permission to speak to Stones.

 

" Arsène wasn't too happy about this, mind you. He asked Gary to seriously consider whether he really wanted John Stones, and so did I, to be honest. In terms of ball-playing defenders, I felt that we could've signed José Giménez from Atlético Madrid, or perhaps even Marquinhos from Paris Saint-Germain, for less than the £55million it would take Everton to part with John Stones.

 

"But no - Gary had to sign Stones, I think purely because he was the best young English central defender going. Quite simply, nobody else would do for Gary. He was a stubborn b*stard."

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Thankfully for Wenger, O'Hara's other transfer targets would not be quite so expensive. Indeed, negotiations went so smoothly that Arsenal were in a position to announce three new teenage signings - one per day - in the build-up to their FA Cup Round 3 match against Bury.

 

The first to arrive, on 6 January, was Breel Embolo - a £12.5million purchase from FC Basel. The Cameroonian-born 18-year-old had already scored 17 goals in the Swiss Super League for Basel and played for the Switzerland national team. With his power, strength, athleticism, and technique, Embolo had the makings of a complete centre-forward.

 

Embolo would soon be unleashed on the Premier League... but not by Arsenal. O'Hara opted to loan his new starlet out to another top-flight club, and he proved to be the perfect fit for an overachieving Leicester City team that was now sans Vardy. O'Hara was happy to let Leicester's affable manager Claudio Ranieri borrow Embolo for the remainder of the season.

 

24 hours later, Arsenal announced that they had also recruited Poland Under-21s goalkeeper Bartlomiej Dragowski. He was also 18 years old, but despite his youthfulness, he already been the first-choice shotstopper at Ekstraklasa club Jagiellonia Białystok for a season-and-a-half.

 

Dragowski was signed for £3.5million and would spend most of his first half-season at Arsenal in their development team. He would, though, be sent on a month-long emergency loan to Championship side Ipswich Town in March, following an injury to the Tractor Boys' first-choice keeper Bartosz Bialkowski.

 

On 8 January, Arsenal unveiled their third signing in as many days. Although Wenger had been unable to prise defenders Riechedly Bazoer and Jairo Riedewald away from Ajax, he did convince the Dutch giants to part with another exciting prospect for £7.5million.

 

That man was yet another 18-year-old in Donny van de Beek - the hard-working defensive midfielder who O'Hara felt had "something about him" after Arsenal had played Ajax in pre-season. He had since gone on to make his league debut for De Godenzonen, playing seven times in the Eredivisie before the Gunners came calling.

 

Unlike Embolo or Dragowski, van de Beek would immediately get a chance to impress his new club's supporters. The Dutch 'wonderkind' was named in the 18-man Arsenal squad that travelled to Gigg Lane in Bury for Round 3 of the FA Cup.

 

In all honesty, Bury were unlikely to seriously threaten Arsenal's pursuit of a third consecutive FA Cup triumph. The Shakers were 18th in League One under the management of Mark Robins, who'd previously lifted the Cup as a player with Manchester United 26 years earlier. Notably, Robins' match-winning goal at Nottingham Forest in this round of the 1989/1990 competition had purportedly convinced United's then-chairman Martin Edwards not to sack his under-pressure manager Alex Ferguson. What happened next was history.

 

O'Hara had chosen this match to blood several Arsenal teenagers who had impressed him in youth and reserve matches. The likes of midfielders Mikel Arteta and Mohamed Elneny provided some experience to the starting line-up, but it was a couple of those younger Gunners who combined to open the scoring after 17 minutes.

 

This was attacking midfielder Dan Crowley's first senior start, having previously come on as a substitute in a couple of matches in September. The 18-year-old West Midlander, poached from Aston Villa a couple of years earlier, marked his full debut by curling in an excellent free-kick that was headed home by Polish centre-half Krystian Bielik.

 

Once Arsenal took the lead, they never looked like relinquishing it. The prodigious Jeff Reine-Adelaide could've followed Bielik in scoring his first senior goal midway through the half, only to be thwarted by a couple of fine saves from Rob Lainton. Bury's goalkeeper would also withstand a strike from Chris Willock shortly before half-time.

 

O'Hara was reasonably satisfied with how things had gone thus far, but the tie wasn't quite over. He took off Arteta and Willock during the break, replacing them with van de Beek and Giroud.

 

Both of those substitutes would go on to make their mark, but not before Bury's John O'Sullivan made his mark on van de Beek's leg in the 59th minute. The on-loan Blackburn Rovers midfielder hacked the Dutchman down with an incredibly late two-footed challenge, and the referee did not hesitate to draw the red card.

 

van de Beek was lucky not to have been seriously injured in that horror tackle from O'Sullivan. Fortunately for Arsenal, he was able to dust himself down before shaking up the Shakers in the 68th minute. Reine-Adelaide showed superb vision to cross the ball from Bury's byline to the new recruit, whose lethal strike earned him a dream goal on his debut appearance in English football.

 

Reine-Adelaide still had more in the tank, mind you. The French teen sensation would set up another goal in the 83rd minute, this time for his compatriot Giroud. There weren't many spectators at Gigg Lane who would've expected Giroud to even take to the field in this game, but the big man himself was simply relieved to get on the scoresheet again following a recent barren run.

 

Bury never stood a chance in this match. Arsenal emerged from this little corner of Greater Manchester as 3-0 winners, and with a place in Round 4 of the FA Cup safely booked.

 

In the hours after the match, as their victorious stars were returning home to London, Arsenal released a couple of major announcements on their website.

 

The first announcement concerned the aggressive France midfielder Francis Coquelin, who had cemented his place as a regular starter for Arsenal under O'Hara. There had been reports strongly linking Coquelin with a big-money transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, but those rumours were quashed when it was revealed that the 24-year-old had signed "a new long-term contract" with the Gunners.

 

Coquelin's new weekly salary of £65,000 still dwarfed what many of his team-mates were making, but that was beside the point. He was genuinely happy and settled at the Emirates Stadium, having joined Arsenal as a 17-year-old in 2008, and he had no intention of leaving any time soon.

 

A couple of hours after Coquelin's new contract was announced, Arsenal revealed the identity of their fourth new acquisition in four days.

 

Arsenal had completed the signing of England international centre-half John Stones from Everton for £55million, shattering multiple transfer records in doing so. Not only was this the Gunners' most expensive signing in their history, it was also a record fee for an English footballer, AND a record fee for a defender. The latter record had previously been held by David Luiz, who moved from Chelsea to PSG for £50million in the summer of 2014.

 

Stones, who began his career in the modest surroundings of his hometown club Barnsley, couldn't disguise his delight at being snapped up by such an illustrious team. If anything, though, his manager was even more ecstatic, hailing the ball-playing defender as "the final piece in the Arsenal jigsaw".

 

"I felt we were one world-class defender short of having a team capable of challenging the very best in the Premier League," O'Hara elaborated. "Signing John Stones sends out the message that we're ready to challenge again.

 

"John is without doubt the most technically-gifted defender this country had produced in at least a decade. He's also blessed with a fantastic temperament and a real work ethic. I have no doubt that he'll be an invaluable part of the Arsenal and England squads for many years to come."

 

O'Hara also claimed that Stones "could be as good as Franco Baresi", referring to one of the key men from the legendary AC Milan team of the late 1980s and early 1990s. His prediction was a bold one to say the least, and it attracted plenty of mockery on social media.

 

O'Hara's post-Christmas shopping was now, to all intents and purposes, done. He'd brought in four new players - three for the future, and one very much for the here and now - and didn't feel the need to strengthen his squad any further.

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CHAPTER 16 - Through These Fields Of Destruction

 

11 January 2016 had been a somewhat ordinary Monday for Gary O'Hara. After a productive day's training with his Arsenal, he returned home to Hertfordshire to spend some valuable time with his wife and daughters.

 

O'Hara spent Monday evening in front of the TV, watching the draw for Round 4 of the FA Cup take place live on BBC One. Rather fittingly, the draw was conducted by an Arsenal legend in former striker Ian Wright, who was alongside ex-Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy. Overseeing proceedings was Matt Baker - presenter of 'The One Show'.

 

It wasn't until late in the draw that Wright picked Arsenal's number out of the pot. "Number 30, Arsenal, the current back-to-back holders of the FA Cup," Baker stated, before Murphy drew the Gunners' opponents. "And Arsenal will play Number 20 - that's either Sheffield Wednesday or Tottenham Hotspur!"

 

The joyful smile on Wright's face said it all. The prospect of an FA Cup clash between Arsenal and Tottenham was always a mouth-watering one, although Spurs needed to get past Championship side Sheffield Wednesday in a replay if it was to become reality.

 

O'Hara wouldn't have long to digest that news before real life threw him a curveball. Wife Laura was upstairs bathing the couple's youngest daughter Lucy when, at around 8:00pm, Gary received a distressing phone call from his father. It was about his elder brother Paul.

 

David O'Hara takes up the story, "I'd pulled a muscle in my back over the weekend and needed some help putting up some shelves in my bedroom. Paul was always a bit more into DIY than Gary was, so he offered to come over after work on Monday afternoon. It was his first day back at work since his arrest.

 

"While Paul was putting the shelves up, I left him to his own devices and went downstairs to make some tea for him. While I was stirring the tea, I heard a large thud upstairs and thought nothing about it. He'd probably just dropped a plank of wood, I thought.

 

"I then heard another thud, and a scream, and then I heard what I thought was the sound of a person falling to the floor. I rushed upstairs to the bedroom, and there he was, keeled over on the shelving."

 

Paul had gone into cardiac arrest. David called the emergency services and battled to revive his eldest son, who was rushed into Whittington Hospital - the same hospital where he and his brother had been born around four decades earlier.

 

Paul's heart had stopped for almost half an hour when hospital staff managed to start it up again. Their efforts would tragically prove to be in vain, as Paul suffered a second heart attack shortly afterwards and slipped into a deep coma, from which he would never wake up.

 

Gary arrived at the hospital just before 9:00pm, by which point his brother had been placed on life support. Rachel O'Hara - Paul's wife of 13 years - was there as well, sitting tearfully by her ailing spouse's bedside. A doctor informed the three of them that Paul was to be monitored overnight before undergoing a CT scan in the morning.

 

Gary left the hospital in a state of shock and spent the night at his father's home. He booked Tuesday off work, and at 11:00am that morning, he returned to the hospital with David and Rachel. Grave news would await the three of them.

 

A CT scan had found very limited activity in Paul's brain. His heart had been stopped for so long that his other vital organs were now failing. The chances of Paul making a full recovery stood at less than 1%. The O'Haras now had to help make the gut-wrenching decision of whether to switch off his life support, or hold out for a miracle.

 

As much as this pained him, Gary did not wish to see his brother suffer any longer. With his voice breaking, he told his father, "We have to let him go. There's no point in prolonging this."

 

Rachel initially wanted to keep her husband alive, in the hope that his condition would suddenly improve. However, David agreed with Gary's reasoning, and the pair eventually convinced Rachel to very reluctantly change her mind and let Paul go.

 

At around 11:45pm, the O'Haras instructed doctors to remove Paul's life support. They then sat by his bedside as he slowly slipped way, with some of his favourite rock music playing in the background.

 

David said, "We'd played Debbie her favourite songs in her final hours, so we thought we'd do the same with Paul. We had Led Zeppelin on, The Beatles, Pink Floyd... It was beautiful, and very tragic.

 

"That [switching off Paul's life support] was the hardest decision I'd ever had to make. As a dad, I never thought I'd have to pull the plug on my own offspring. I wish that no parent would ever have to make that choice.

 

"And when Paul did... pass on, that really was the most dreadful moment of my life. At least with Debs, I'd been preparing for it for weeks. With Paul... it was all out of the blue. One day, he seemed right as rain. The next day, he was gone."

 

Paul O'Hara was pronounced dead at 2:31pm on Tuesday 12 January 2016, at the age of 40. He was survived by his wife Rachel and their three children - Ben (aged 11), Becky (aged 9), and Jack (aged 6).

 

Gary was left utterly disconsolate, and inconsolable. He had now lost both his mother and his brother tragically young within a little over six years of one another.

 

Gary collapsed into his wife's arms sobbing as he passed through his front door later that evening. Laura recalled, "I didn't know what to say to him. Everyone expects to lose their parents at some point in their lives, but you never really expect to lose your sibling, certainly not in middle-age.

 

"There was an unbreakable bond between Gary and Paul. His big brother had always been there for him from Day 1, but now he had been taken away, so suddenly.

 

"Paul was his best friend, bar none. Even with me and the girls by his side, Gary had never felt so alone without him.

 

"Gary had told Paul a few weeks earlier to see a doctor about the heart palpitations he was having. He was up pretty much all night, wallowing over whether he should have done things differently. He went back and forth between thinking he should've been more forceful, and wishing he'd expressed his fears much sooner. In a way, Gary felt really guilty about his brother's death."

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***

 

Gary was given a week's compassionate leave by Arsenal, who publicly broke the news of Paul O'Hara's death on Wednesday morning. Thousands of fans expressed their condolences online, and a sympathetic video message was posted on 'We Are The Gooners' by a presenter who'd also lost their brother recently.

 

It was generally assumed that O'Hara would stay at home when Arsenal travelled to Anfield to play Liverpool the following Saturday, with assistant Steve Bould expected to take on his managerial duties. However, on the morning of the game, he phoned chief executive Ivan Gazidis to inform him that he would be returning to work there and then.

 

"When Gary told me that he was going to the Liverpool game, I was very surprised and, to be honest, a little worried," Gazidis remembered. "It was obvious in the tone of his voice that he was still grieving for his brother, and I feared that he wasn't going to be emotionally stable enough to take on such a high-profile match.

 

"I asked him to reconsider - to stay at home and be with his family in this difficult period. But Gary was nothing if not determined; not even his brother's death was going to keep him away from one of the biggest matches of the season for Arsenal Football Club."

 

O'Hara joined up with the rest of the Arsenal contingent at Heathrow Airport before their flight to Liverpool. He was consoled by many of his players and staff, including his assistant Steve Bould.

 

"Gary was a braver man than I ever will be, I'll give him that," Bould admitted. "He didn't have to come with us in the circumstances, but he felt that he had a duty to the club and its fans."

 

Once the Arsenal squad arrived at Anfield, O'Hara announced his starting line-up and substitutes, but left all the motivational talks to Bould. For once, the manager was keeping very quiet. Bould himself suspected that "something was not quite right with Gary; maybe it was too soon for him to come back".

 

As the players marched through the tunnel and onto the pitch, they were greeted to a loud - and, in O'Hara's case, particularly poignant - recital of "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the home fans. O'Hara's eyes welled up as he made his way towards the dugout, and then again after Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp offered him a hug before kick-off. The German's friendly gesture would earn him widespread praise from the footballing community afterwards.

 

Come the match itself, any niceties went flying out of the window. Arsenal - with former Everton star John Stones making his debut in the centre of their defence - knew almost immediately that they would be in for a battle against a Liverpool side that was fast closing in on Premier League leaders Swansea City and Leicester City.

 

In the 11th minute, Stones made a firm tackle on Daniel Sturridge to try and keep Nathaniel Clyne's cross away from the Reds striker. The Yorkshireman's efforts were in vain, as his new team-mate Héctor Bellerín inadvertently hacked the ball into the net whilst attempting to hack it away. 1-0 to Liverpool.

 

Another excellent delivery from Clyne in the 20th minute almost led to Liverpool grabbing a second goal. Clyne nodded a chipped ball from Anfield stalwart Lucas Leiva into the path of the latter's Brazilian compatriot Roberto Firmino, who headed it against the crossbar. Bellerín successfully cleared the danger on that occasion, but Arsenal would soon come back under pressure.

 

Another of Liverpool's Brazilian contingent would contribute to them pulling two goals clear after 33 minutes. Philippe Coutinho's delivery was flicked in at the near post by James Milner. Though the versatile midfielder was not exactly renowned for his scoring feats, that was his fifth goal of the season.

 

Barely a minute later, Klopp's Reds were at it again. Lucas split the Gunners open with a fantastic pass to Sturridge, who beat Petr Cech at his near post for what was also his fifth goal in this campaign. The injury-prone England striker followed it up with his trademark celebration dance, and there were more scenes of jubilation amongst the Liverpool faithful. Their team was now 3-0 to the good.

 

Arsenal's players returned to their dressing room at the interval in a collective state of utter despair. Their manager remained deathly quiet as he sat down on one of the benches in contemplation.

 

"I expected Gary to suddenly rise up and yell at the players to pull their f***ing socks up," Bould said. "He didn't. There was nothing coming from him. It was as if he'd lost that hunger, that fire in his belly, after his brother died.

 

"Instead, it was up to me once again to fire the lads up. The match had already been lost, to be honest, but I still wanted us to at least win the second half and show what we were really capable of. I didn't want to see us go down with a whimper."

 

Arsenal's response came within six minutes of the restart. New signing Stones repaid at least part of his £55million transfer fee by intercepting a pass from Coutinho and starting off a counter-attack that would result in Olivier Giroud pulling the first goal back.

 

The second would come about six minutes later. Giroud ran onto Santi Cazorla's through-ball into the Liverpool area and then cut it across to Mikel Arteta, who went down after a collision with Lucas. The referee pointed to the penalty spot, and after lengthy protests from the home players about that decision, Cazorla emphatically powered his spot-kick into the net.

 

Klopp was an angry man on the touchline. Like his players, he'd felt that Arteta had gone to ground too easily. In truth, the 33-year-old midfielder had strained his thigh in that clash with Lucas and would be ruled out of action for the next fortnight.

 

Arsenal threatened to complete the comeback in the 60th minute, but Giroud was unable to get a header beyond Liverpool's much-maligned Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. After that, their latest attempt to salvage points from a precarious situation ran out of steam.

 

One last equalising opportunity for Giroud went begging when he clipped the post in the 87th minute. Although the match would end with Reds captain Jordan Henderson receiving a red card deep in stoppage time following a second bookable offence, the outcome would not change. The final score was Liverpool 3, Arsenal 2.

 

Arsenal had now played two league matches in 2016 and lost them both. If the title had already effectively slipped from their reach, UEFA Champions League qualification was also becoming an increasingly forlorn hope for Gooners, who were now 11 points adrift of 4th-placed Chelsea.

 

As far as some Arsenal fans were concerned, O'Hara's 'grace period' ended rather quickly. The manager was subjected to fierce criticism online over his handling of the Arsenal team - or lack thereof - against Liverpool, and calls for him to be sacked grew louder.

 

A few of the manager's critics even greatly overstepped the line of good taste. To give one example, a 27-year-old man from Ealing in west London was arrested after sending the official Arsenal Twitter account a message claiming they were "glad" Paul O'Hara had died, and wishing that Gary suffered a fatal heart attack as well. They would later be sentenced to 12 weeks in prison.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

A tumultuous period in Gary O'Hara's life since becoming Arsenal manager came to a head on 21 January. Nine days after his sudden and premature death, Paul O'Hara was cremated in a memorial service at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery - the same place where his mother had taken her final journey barely six years earlier.

 

Among those saying goodbye to the late 40-year-old music journalist were Paul's closest friends and family. There was widow Rachel and their three young children, brother Gary and his family... and 62-year-old father David O'Hara.

 

"I went through every parent's worst nightmare," David said. "You never want to see your own child cremated. I tried to hold it together on the outside, but in the inside, I just wanted to scream."

 

A few of Gary's colleagues, from past and present, were also in attendance to show their solidarity. Assistant manager Steve Bould was taking charge of Arsenal training in O'Hara's absence, but director of football Arsène Wenger attended the funeral service, as did ex-Gunners captain Tony Adams.

 

Just like at his mother's funeral, Gary delivered the eulogy for his brother. He began, "Paul was more than just a big brother to me. He was a teacher, an inspiration, my best friend.

 

"I will never forget how helpful Paul was when we were growing up together in Islington. He encouraged me to stand up for myself, both in football and life in general. He introduced me to pretty much everything that North London had to offer.

 

"Most importantly, as far as I'm concerned, it was Paul's love of music that helped me get together with the love of my life, Laura. On one day in 1992, when I was 13, he let me use one of his spare cassettes to record a mixtape with some of our favourite songs. It was even he who suggested 'Nothing Can Stop Us' by Saint Etienne for the last track for that mixtape.

 

"I gave that tape to Laura the following day, while her dad was in hospital. She later thanked me for helping her through what was a difficult time. We've now been together for nearly 24 years.

 

"To tell you the truth, Paul deserved Laura's thanks more than I did. Regretfully, I never did thank Paul for his generosity that day. I wish I had."

 

He concluded his speech by echoing the opening verse of the song "Ocean Breathes Salty", from indie rock band Modest Mouse's 2004 album "Good News For People Who Love Bad News".

 

"Your body may be gone; I'm gonna carry you in.

In my head, in my heart, in my soul.

And maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both live again.

Well I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."

 

The song that was played at Paul's committal towards the end of the service was an especially poignant one for Gary. While the siblings had always had a shared passion for 'alternative' music, they also dabbled into more mainstream rock, and one of their favourite bands was Dire Straits. Their 1985 LP "Brothers In Arms" was a particular favourite of Paul's, especially because of its title track - the final track on the album.

 

"Brothers In Arms" was a song about the plight of soldiers battling together on the same side; Mark Knopfler had written it in the wake of the Falklands War. However, that phrase could also refer to literal brothers who would always fight for one another, come what may.

 

The second verse of that track, as sung by Knopfler, prompted Gary to break down in tears as he said one final goodbye to his brother.

 

"Through these fields of destruction,

Baptisms of fire,

I've witnessed your suffering,

As the battle raged higher,

And though they did hurt me so bad,

In the fear and alarm,

You did not desert me,

My brothers in arms."

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CHAPTER 17 - Recovery

 

Gary O'Hara tried to get his life back to some sense of normality after the sudden passing of his brother, and the depression that followed. Music had once again been an important part of his rehabilitation - a source of solace at this difficult time.

 

On the morning after Paul's funeral, Gary wrote another post-it note with the words, "Forget the horror here. Leave it all down here. It's future rust and it's future dust." Those were lyrics from the song "Spanish Sahara" - the final track on Foals' second album "Total Life Forever". He once again put the note on the fridge for his wife to read.

 

Although O'Hara had already completed most of his January transfer business before the tragedy, the Arsenal first-team squad was still subjected to a mid-January rejig - specifically in the wide attacking positions.

 

Arsenal had a dearth of right-footed wingers or inside-forwards; indeed, O'Hara argued that he had too many of them. Though superstar Alexis Sánchez was almost always afforded a starting berth when fit, competition for a place on the opposite side to him was so fierce that some rising stars were struggling to make their mark.

 

O'Hara had played the Nigerian teenager Alex Iwobi in ten competitive matches this season, almost exclusively from the bench. Iwobi had shown some promise whenever called upon, but he was clearly not ready for the rigours of regular top-flight football.

 

O'Hara felt that it would be best if Iwobi went out on loan for the remainder of the season. After a proposed move to Melbourne City in Australia's A-League broke down, he instead joined Championship side Ipswich Town, where he would play alongside another Gunners prospect - the versatile Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

 

Jeff Reine-Adelaide was a youngster that O'Hara arguably rated even higher than Iwobi. By the time he'd reached his 18th birthday on 17 January, the Frenchman had already played in 11 first-team matches for the Gunners, providing five assists. Even at such a young age, he looked ready to establish himself in senior football.

 

A couple of Premier League clubs offered to sign Reine-Adelaide on loan, but O'Hara suggested that he instead return to France and join Ligue 1 side Montpellier until the end of the season. The move would pay off handsomely. In his four-month stint with Les Pailladins, Reine-Adelaide racked up seven goals and a couple of assists in 17 league games. A star had been born.

 

O'Hara's decision to loan out both Iwobi and Reine-Adelaide coincided with the return of Joel Campbell from his six-month stint at Swansea City. The left-footed Costa Rican forward had played his part in firing Swansea towards an unlikely title challenge, even if most of his appearances for the Welsh club had come from the substitutes' bench.

 

In retrospect, O'Hara regretted his decision to loan Campbell out after a row during pre-season. Without him, Arsenal were badly lacking any naturally left-footed widemen. The 23-year-old would have offered something different to the Gunners, but - just like under Arsène Wenger - he was once again neglected at the Emirates Stadium and shipped out to whichever club would take him off their hands.

 

Campbell only agreed to return to Arsenal on the proviso that he be given regular first-team football. Were he to have been left on the sidelines again, he would have demanded a permanent move away from North London before the transfer window closed. Ultimately, Campbell would not need to resort to such desperate measures.

 

O'Hara played his returning star from the outset when Arsenal hosted 13th-placed Crystal Palace in their next Premier League match. The Eagles' outspoken manager Alan Pardew had gloated in the press beforehand that the Gunners were "a bit fragile mentally" and "there for the taking". By full-time, Pardew was perhaps wishing that he had kept his mouth shut.

 

Arsenal controlled possession from the off, though their first few attempts at goal were not successful. Sánchez pulled a shot wide after just two minutes, and then had a header saved by Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey five minutes later. The Gunners' leading scorer Olivier Giroud also missed a chance at the halfway point of the first period.

 

Much to the home fans' relief, Arsenal would finally break the deadlock in the 29th minute. Santi Cazorla played a one-two with Giroud before the Spain international midfielder slipped a first-time shot beyond Hennessey's reach.

 

Giroud then linked up with another Spaniard to create a second goal just ten minutes later. Wing-back Héctor Bellerín's cross was headed home by the much-maligned French centre-forward, who was now on 14 goals for the season.

 

Giroud reached the 15-goal mark a couple of minutes later, finishing at the back post after centre-half John Stones had flicked Cazorla's corner towards him. Arsenal were now leading 3-0, and Crystal Palace's defence was in real danger of caving in altogether.

 

While Arsenal had been utterly ruthless in that first half, Campbell had been anonymous on the left flank. O'Hara was disappointed that the Costa Rica international had not repaid the trust he'd shown in him, and so he brought Mesut Özil on in his place for the second period.

 

After the Eagles missed a couple of chances to get themselves back in the game, Giroud killed them off once and for all in the 59th minute. Stones pumped the ball over the visiting defence and found the 29-year-old, who raced clear before tucking in a simple shot. Not only had that strike sealed a fantastic hat-trick for Giroud, but it had also brought him the 50th Premier League goal of his Arsenal career.

 

Arsenal's 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace had been so complete that they did not allow their opponents a single shot on target. Eagles midfielder Lee Chung-Yong did hit the post via a header in the 86th minute, but it was otherwise a very quiet afternoon for Gunners goalie David Ospina, who was making his first league start of the season.

 

O'Hara had been left unimpressed by the recent inconsistent form of first-choice goalkeeper Petr Cech, hence his decision to promote Ospina, at least temporarily. The Colombian was selected ahead of Cech again a week later, when Arsenal played in Round 4 of the FA Cup - against their fiercest foes.

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***

 

The dream of a North London derby in the FA Cup had come true following Tottenham Hotspur's 2-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in a Round 3 replay. Spurs' goals had come from two exceptional young English talents in striker Harry Kane and midfielder Dele Alli. However, when it came to Round 4, the Gunners' experienced heads would give their much more youthful rivals a real schooling.

 

Before the match, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino had played down the importance of the FA Cup to his team, stating, "Our objective one day is to win the Premier League, and then try to win the UEFA Champions League. For me, they are the two real trophies in football.

 

"I would like to win the League Cup and the FA Cup, but if you want to be a big team, if you want to fight for big things, I think it's impossible if you don’t use all the squad and rotate.

 

"To win the FA Cup would be fantastic. I would love to win the oldest competition in the world, but it doesn't change your life. What really changes your life is winning the Premier League or the Champions League. That is the truth. If you want to manipulate my words, go on, but that is the truth."

 

O'Hara responded to Pochettino's comments by saying, "He is having a laugh, isn't he? Look at the Premier League table. Where are the Spuds? They're 9th - a long way off the Champions League places.

 

"A club in their position should be treating the FA Cup like it's the only thing that matters this season. It's their only realistic chance of winning anything. They won nothing in Pochettino's first season, and if they win nothing this time, then sooner or later, the tide will turn against him.

 

"I'll be giving the FA Cup the respect it deserves tomorrow. If Pochettino doesn't, then shame on him."

 

O'Hara had quietly glossed over the fact that Arsenal were themselves only two places and two points above their arch-rivals in the league standings. It was also questionable whether fielding five teenagers - defenders Ben Sheaf and Julio Pleguezuelo, midfielder Donny van de Beek, and forwards Chris Willock and Kaylen Hinds - from the outset was 'respecting' the FA Cup.

 

The German duo of captain Per Mertesacker and attacking midfielder Özil were the only bona-fide 'key players' O'Hara named in his starting XI. By the end of the 90 minutes, though, hardly anybody at the Emirates Stadium was complaining about his squad selection.

 

In a repeat of Arsenal's last meeting with Spurs a couple of months previously, Özil blasted the Gunners into the lead very early on. This time, he took just four minutes to break the deadlock, firing a free-kick in off the post after Hinds had been tripped deep in the Tottenham half by Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen.

 

Vertonghen's yellow card for that foul on Hinds was the first of many from a Tottenham side who lost their self-discipline. Erik Lamela headed over an equalising opportunity in the 12th minute, and he was booked two minutes later after upending Arsenal left-back Kieran Gibbs. Alli and Danny Rose would then make it four cautions for Spurs before the match completely spiralled out of the visitors' control.

 

Lamela was already walking a tightrope, and he would overstep the mark when he tripped van de Beek in the 26th minute. Out came referee Mike Dean's yellow card again, followed by a red, which ended the Argentine's game and reduced Tottenham to 10 men.

 

Although Pochettino managed to calm his players down before they picked up any more needless bookings, O'Hara could already sense that the game was all but won for Arsenal. He went for the kill before the second half got underway, as he brought on Giroud for Hinds.

 

Giroud had played the role of supersub in Round 3 against Bury, and he would do so again here. The imposing Frenchman's header from Theo Walcott's corner in the 55th minute left Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris helpless, and Arsenal were 2-0 in front.

 

The Gunners grabbed a third goal three minutes later, with Özil getting on the scoresheet for a second time. Giroud set it up by flicking young right-back Sheaf's deep cross ahead of the resilient 27-year-old, who ran onto it before firing past Lloris.

 

With a three-goal lead in tow, O'Hara would soon feel confident enough to throw on the injury-stricken Danny Welbeck for the final 15 minutes. This was the England international striker's first appearance since he'd damaged his knee cartilage against Manchester City the previous April. He had spent approximately nine months on the sidelines.

 

Although Welbeck couldn't mark his Arsenal bow under O'Hara with a goal, a couple of his English compatriots did combine to complete the Gunners' rout in the 80th minute. Gibbs' cross from the byline was surprisingly headed home by Walcott - all 5ft 9in of him - and Arsenal ran out comfortable 4-0 winners.

 

Having seen their side thrash Tottenham twice in a little over two months, by the aggregate scoreline of 8-1, Arsenal fans were understandably delighted at the final whistle. The "Oh... Gary, Gary" chant reverberated around the Emirates again, and Gooners would have even more reason to celebrate over the next few weeks.

 

Following their humiliation in the cup, though, Spurs would register one minor victory over Arsenal a couple of days later.

 

O'Hara had targeted the 16-year-old Blackburn Rovers midfielder Joe Rankin-Costello as his fifth and final signing of the January transfer window. On deadline day, Arsenal agreed a £700,000 fee with Blackburn for the prodigious playmaker, who had been dubbed by the Daily Mirror as "the next David Beckham". However, Tottenham successfully lured Rankin-Costello to the other side of North London with a more lucrative professional contract.

 

Despite that disappointment, O'Hara remained in good spirits, and he was even happier after the draw for Round 5 of the FA Cup had been made.

 

Arsenal's next match in the Cup would be at home to Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers in mid-February. Before Kenny Jackett's Wolves paid them a visit, though, the Gunners continued an excellent run of form that would ultimately see them rack up five consecutive shutout victories.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

North London was buzzing early in February, when a revitalised Arsenal team welcomed their dishevelled opponents from Newcastle United to the Emirates Stadium. As it transpired, this wouldn't so much be a Premier League match as a mismatch.

 

Newcastle were bottom of the league, eight points adrift of safety. Much-criticised manager Steve McClaren was unceremoniously dismissed in mid-November, with former Wales boss John Toshack replacing him after being persuaded to come out of semi-retirement in Morocco. The 66-year-old's reign on Tyneside had started terribly, and many suspected that he was now regretting leaving a more secure coaching role at Wydad Casablanca for this car-crash club.

 

Arsenal would add to Toshack's woes after a mere seven minutes. The midweek fixture got off to a perfect start for central defender John Stones, whose clinical header from Özil's free-kick resulted in his first goal for the Gunners.

 

Özil himself had chances to bolster Arsenal's lead later in the first period. His 12th-minute header was saved by the Magpies' Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul, while centre-half Chancel Mbemba got in the way of another attempt from the German six minutes later.

 

Newcastle continued to defend resiliently before half-time, even though their right-back Daryl Janmaat - another Dutchman - was struggling with a thigh strain he'd sustained early on. Janmaat would be replaced before the second half, when his compatriot Krul really came to life.

 

Arsenal's central midfielder Aaron Ramsey had not been quite the goalscoring force of old this season. He'd found the net just one thus far - against Southampton back in October. Ramsey hoped to double his tally in the 52nd minute, when he volleyed Mbemba's clearance of a Gibbs cross back towards goal. Krul did very well to catch it.

 

Krul - now in his 11th season on Tyneside - would frustrate Ramsey again in the 72nd minute, tipping behind a vicious half-volley from the Welshman. Further saves from Sánchez and Mertesacker late on would send him firmly on his way to securing a second-half clean sheet, and keeping the scoreline respectable from a Geordie perspective.

 

Although O'Hara was a little annoyed not to have won this match by more than a single goal, he was arguably as impressed with his own team's defensive efforts as Newcastle's. Stones and co hadn't allowed United a single shot on target all game as goalkeeper David Ospina secured his third successive clean sheet.

 

"John Stones was playing out of his skin that night," assistant manager Steve Bould remembered. "He was making so many interceptions in the middle of the park that the Newcastle strikers didn't know what to do.

 

"Our full-backs - Kieran and Héctor - were outstanding as well. They were constantly putting crosses into the Newcastle box. Were it not for Newcastle's defence, I'm sure they would've created a bagful of goals.

 

"After that match, Gary told me, 'That was one of our best performances this season. I don't know how we've only won 1-0!' [Laughs] But yeah, we really were a joy to watch back then, and we got even better over the next couple of games."

 

Arsenal's fourth win in a row would come a few days later, at The Hawthorns against mid-table West Bromwich Albion. Mind you, Tony Pulis' Baggies had given the Gunners a real fright in their first encounter in September, and that would be the case again here.

 

The visitors were very sloppy with the ball in the first half. The usually consistent Cazorla looked a pale imitation of himself, losing possession very cheaply on a regular basis.

 

Arsenal's wastefulness also allowed West Brom to launch a couple of worrisome attacks. Albion captain Darren Fletcher gave Ospina something to think about with a pot-shot in the 26th minute, while winger Stéphane Sessegnon fired an arguably better chance against the post just before half-time.

 

Bould looked to address Arsenal's issues in the dressing room at half-time, telling the players, "You've been far too careless. Right now, it don't seem like you're thinking when you're passing.

 

"We need to control the ball more effectively, so that means passing the ball into space when there's plenty of space, and keeping hold of the ball when there isn't. Think carefully; don't make any rash decisions."

 

Bould's pep talk turned the tide inexorably towards Arsenal. The Gunners burst out of the traps in the 52nd minute, when Joel Campbell gave them the lead at the end of a fantastic 11-pass move. The decisive delivery was floated over Albion goalkeeper Ben Foster by left-back Nacho Monreal, who allowed Campbell to drill in his first goal for Arsenal this season at the back post.

 

O'Hara looked to his assistant manager and said, "F***ing hell, Bouldy! Talk about Mr Motivator! You know exactly what to say to them, don't you?"

 

Both teams would hit the woodwork over the course of the next three minutes. Firstly, Foster fumbled a Bellerín cross to Giroud, who somehow headed a point-blank header against the hosts' crossbar. Arsenal then had a major scare of their own, with the corner of the goalframe deflecting away a strike from West Brom's Salomón Róndon.

 

Róndon's narrow miss would prove the more significant, as Arsenal took advantage of some more unconvincing goalkeeping from Foster in the 71st minute. The England international could only parry a 20-yard volley from Francis Coquelin into the path of Giroud, whose strike secured a 2-0 victory for the Gunners.

 

It had been nearly five months since Arsenal's last league victory away from the Emirates, when they triumphed at Newcastle in late August. For a team that didn't usually falter on the road, that had been a rather concerning record, so O'Hara was understandably relieved to have consigned it to the dustbin of history.

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***

 

The following week saw Arsenal return to home soil against West Ham United, who'd spent most of this season in the top half before hitting a rough patch early in the New Year. The Hammers had lost five of their previous six matches in all competitions; this would make it six defeats in seven.

 

Mind you, the first half was a very frustrating experience for Arsenal. The tone was set in the very first minute, when Laurent Koscielny's header from Sánchez's corner was easily claimed by West Ham goalkeeper Adrián. Three minutes later, another Sánchez corner found the Gunners' other centre-half Stones, who flicked it well over the bar.

 

Although Arsenal went on to dominate play on almost all fronts, they were unable to break through a West Ham team that was defending in numbers. The hosts were well into double figures in terms of shots by half-time, yet had only been on target with a handful, all of which were either saved or blocked.

 

The Irons looked as strong as steel at the back, and a half-time substitution from manager Slaven Bilic said everything one needed to know about their approach to this match. Playmaker Dimitri Payet, who'd seen very little of the ball in the first period, was replaced by Reece Oxford - a highly-rated 17-year-old defender who had never previously played in the Premier League.

 

If Bilic thought that the addition of Oxford would strengthen his team's resolve and increase their chances of grinding out a point, he would be sorely mistaken. Just two minutes after the restart, left-back Aaron Cresswell's square ball to Adrián was intercepted by Giroud, who took advantage and bagged a soft opening goal for Arsenal.

 

The Gunners looked to turn the screw on the Hammers in the 62nd minute. Bellerín's first-time cross just evaded Irons stopper Angelo Ogbonna on its way to the far post, where Sánchez really should've secured a second goal. As it was, the Chilean put far too much power into his shot, which cannoned off the crossbar before being headed clear by Ogbonna's central defensive colleague James Tomkins.

 

Bilic then made a bolder substitution for West Ham midway through the half, bringing on striker Enner Valencia in place of winger Michail Antonio. In the 69th minute, the Ecuador international would have a couple of equalising attempts saved in quick succession by his fellow South American Ospina.

 

West Ham would not get so close to drawing level again, and their hopes of saving any points suffered a terminal setback in the 76th minute. Ogbonna sustained a knee ligament injury after Bilic had already used all three of his substitutes, and so United would have to conclude the match with only 10 men.

 

A minute after Ogbonna's exit, Arsenal stretched their lead to 2-0. It was a moment to remember for Welbeck, who beat Oxford to a byline cross from Bellerín and finished at the near post. That was the injury-prone Mancunian's first goal of the season.

 

Oxford's baptism of fire for the Hammers was completed in the final minute. The teenager's lack of experience was evident when he failed to intercept a centre from Gibbs before Özil emphatically drilled it home. It was 3-0 to the Gunners, and Oxford had been given a footballing education.

 

O'Hara took little joy in Oxford's plight, instead opting to criticise his opposite number for throwing the teenager in at the deep end. He said, "As a manager, you need to know when a young player is ready to play against the big boys. I'm afraid that Oxford was nowhere near ready, and Bilic shouldn't have put him in the firing line like that.

 

"Mind you, I'm not gonna complain about my opponent's mistakes; that's three more league points for us, and we can now look forward our Champions League game in midweek."

 

O'Shea certainly didn't have any reason to complain. His Gunners had won five matches in succession (four in the league), without letting in a single goal. They had also climbed back to the Premier League's top six for the first time in two months, and narrowed the gap on 4th place to nine points.

 

Qualification for next season's UEFA Champions League, which had looked very unlikely a few weeks earlier, was now a realistic target again.

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CHAPTER 18 - In A War

 

The UEFA Champions League kicked back into action in the middle of February. For Arsenal fans, it was that time of year where they would typically get their hopes up for a 2006-esque dream run to the Final, only for those dreams to be dashed by elimination at the Round of 16.

 

This year, though, there was a sense that things would be different. The draw had given Arsenal a favourable tie against Zenit St Petersburg - not one of the most feared teams in Europe by any means - and it was assumed that the Russian Premier League side wouldn't pose them much of a threat.

 

Mind you, Zenit's head coach would have something to say about that. After all, André Villas-Boas had won the UEFA Europa League with Porto in 2011, when he was a mere 33 years of age. Unsuccessful stints in England with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur had rather sullied the suave Portuguese's reputation since then, but he was still only 38, and still seemingly had his best years ahead of him.

 

Villas-Boas' meeting with Arsenal boss Gary O'Hara would be an intriguing battle between two of the highest-rated young coaches in European football. O'Hara - the younger man by one year - was the hot favourite to come out on top, but Villas-Boas could not - and would not - be underestimated.

 

Having finished runners-up in their group, Arsenal would have home advantage for the first leg of their Round of 16 tie. However, the Gunners' desperation to take control early on at the Emirates Stadium would see them get off to a very nervy start. Then again, one could have said something similar about the visitors.

 

With the first goal likely to be vital, both teams struggled to get any of their opening shots on target. Forwards Alexandr Kokorin and Hulk looked profligate for the Russian visitors before Arsenal's Santi Cazorla fired a free-kick towards their goal in the 26th minute. Zenit goalkeeper Yury Lodygin pushed it against his crossbar, and right-back Alexandr Anyukov cleared the rebound into touch.

 

The Gunners sensed another opening in the 32nd minute, when left-back Nacho Monreal slid a loose ball away from Zenit playmaker Axel Witsel and towards Alexis Sánchez. The Chilean managed to cut inside and find space deep in the opposition half, but his shot was pushed away by Lodygin.

 

Monreal's bravery had helped to fashion an opportunity there, but his positional awareness - or lack of it - would let Arsenal down badly in the 44th minute. A crossfield ball from Zenit counterpart Domenico Criscito caught Monreal completely unawares, allowing Hulk to slip past him and bend a shot into the net off the far post.

 

Nobody liked the 'Incredible Hulk' whenever Bruce Banner got angry in the comic book franchise, and O'Hara was a similarly temperamental character. Arsenal were 1-0 behind at half-time against a team who'd travelled over 1,000 miles from St Petersburg for what many had expected would be a towelling.

 

A furious O'Hara berated his players at half-time and then made two changes, bringing on Mesut Özil and Theo Walcott as replacements for Cazorla and Joel Campbell. Özil and Walcott were both regular sources of goals, but they would be left frustrated in the second half.

 

Villas-Boas was a former protégé of two managerial greats in Sir Bobby Robson and José Mourinho. Although the Zenit coach preferred a Robson-esque attacking philosophy, he'd also learnt more than a few tips in the art of defending from his compatriot Mourinho. Zenit effectively 'parked the bus' in the second half and sat very deep to minimise the threat posed by Arsenal's pacey forwards.

 

O'Hara - so used to playing in a fast-paced and attacking manner - had no answer to Villas-Boas' tactical mastery. Even replacing Olivier Giroud with Danny Welbeck failed to catch Zenit's defenders out, and after Sánchez missed a hatful of half-chances in the final 15 minutes, Arsenal resigned themselves to defeat. The Gunners had been downed by the Zenitchiki - the 'Anti-Aircraft Gunners'.

 

O'Hara now faced a difficult task to try and keep Arsenal in the Champions League. In three weeks' time, they would have to travel to Russia and get a win, otherwise they would be facing yet another early elimination from Europe's premier club competition. Mind you, the manager had at least one reason to feel optimistic about his team's chances.

 

"It's only half-time, and Zenit have only got one away goal," he said. "They reckoned that one goal would be enough and sat back in the second half, but I think they've missed a trick. There's no chance we're not going to score at least twice in Russia - not a cat in hell's chance. We ain't out of this tie yet."

 

Few Arsenal fans were convinced by O'Hara's words. Billy Khan - presenter of 'We Are The Gooners' - was most certainly not.

 

"You're having a laugh, aren't you, O'Hara?" Khan asked at the start of his latest YouTube video. "We ain't out of this tie yet? We lost at home against AVB and his Russian clowns! That's AVB, who f***ed Chelski up, and then f***ed Spuds up as well!

 

"I knew us winning five in a row was too good to be true! Then again, just look at the so-called teams we beat, bruv! Palace were crap, Spuds were crap, Newcastle were... Newcastle, Albion were s***, and do I really need to tell you what Wet Sham were like?

 

"The moment we come up against a team who actually know how to play football, we fall apart! That's how we are under that f***ing chief man! I tell you, bruv, he won't change until he's gone... and WE WON'T STOP UNTIL HE'S GONE!"

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Three days after that shock Champions League loss, O'Hara had to negotiate another home cup game - in Round 5 of the FA Cup. Few expected Arsenal's nerves to resurface when they hosted Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were sitting 14th in the Championship under the management of Kenny Jackett.

 

O'Hara once again utilised some of the Gunners' hottest prospects in the Cup. The young trio of right-back Ben Sheaf, midfielder Donny van de Beek, and inside-forward Chris Willock retained their places after playing their parts in blitzing Tottenham Hotspur during the previous round. Centre-half Krystian Bielik, whose opening goal had helped to see off Bury in Round 3, made it a quartet of teenage starters for Arsenal.

 

There was also a first competitive appearance of the season for homegrown playmaker Jack Wilshere, who'd finally recovered from a broken leg after several months on the sidelines. Wilshere could've marked his return with a goal after 14 minutes. His banana shot bent harmlessly wide, but Arsenal's next attack three minutes later would be more incisive.

 

Wilshere cleverly knocked the ball beyond the Wolves defence and towards Welbeck, who attempted to drive it in from a difficult angle. Goalkeeper Carl Ikeme could only parry the shot towards his far post, where Willock snuck behind right-back Dominic Iorfa and prodded it in for 1-0.

 

Arsenal struggled to build on their slender lead, with Welbeck being caught offside on a couple of occasions. The Gunners also left themselves open to a couple of visiting counter-attacks. Fortunately for them, Dexter Blackstock failed to capitalise, sending shots off target in the 27th and 30th minutes.

 

A clearer opportunity came Blackstock's way in the 42nd minute, when he sprinted clear of the Arsenal defence to convert an excellent weighted ball from Swedish winger Alexander Kacaniklic, whom Wolves had recently signed from Fulham. However, the Antigua & Barbuda striker was caught just offside, and the hosts remained narrowly in front.

 

In a mirror image of their last game, Arsenal sat deeper in the second half to try and nullify the threat posed by Blackstock's pace. O'Hara also deviated from his regular gameplan, and asked his players to slow down the tempo in a bid to take a firmer grip on the match.

 

Wanderers quickly grew wise to this plan, and started putting more crosses into Arsenal's box. One delivery from Rajiv van La Parra in the 62nd minute almost caught out goalkeeper Petr Cech, who looked far from comfortable when pushing it behind the byline.

 

Wolves had the Gunners running scared again in the 65th minute. van La Parra's corner was flicked across the goalmouth by Tommy Rowe, and captain Danny Batth looked a dead cert to tap it in until half-time substitute Héctor Bellerín made a last-ditch block for Arsenal.

 

O'Hara threw on a couple more big guns - Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey - late on as he tried to secure victory with a second goal. Willock's opener would be all that was required in the end, though, as Wolves ran out of puff and Arsenal eked out a 1-0 win.

 

The FA Cup holders remained on course for a third successive triumph, which had not been achieved since Blackburn Rovers dominated the competition between 1884 and 1886. Arsenal were now exactly halfway towards following in their footsteps. Next up for them in Round 6 - the Quarter Final stage, if you will - would be another home tie against another Championship team.

 

There was a sense of déjà vu when Arsenal were drawn against Reading, whom they had knocked out at the Semi Final stage last season. O'Hara would have a big decision to make when the Gunners faced the Royals again in mid-March: would he keep faith in the youngsters, or would he risk his more senior players in pursuit of cup glory?

 

Goalscorer Willock called on O'Hara to continue giving youth a chance, saying, "The gaffer's given us opportunities in the FA Cup, and we've made the most of them so far. Now we just want to keep on impressing him. We've taken Arsenal this far already, so why can't we play in the Quarter Final as well?"

 

O'Hara had thrusted so many youngsters into the spotlight over his first eight months as Arsenal manager - Willock, Bielik, and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, to name but three. However, there were two young people in Gary's life that he did not want in the public eye.

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***

 

"Gary was incredibly protective of our girls," Laura O'Hara said. "He wanted Adele and Lucy to live their lives as normally as possible, without having every single detail of their lives plastered all over the papers or the Internet. The Daily Mail crossed a line when it came to how they treated Adele."

 

While O'Hara was overseeing his team's FA Cup win over Wolves, he was blissfully unaware that the Daily Mail had photographed his eldest daughter Adele, and a couple of her friends, at Barnet Market. Those photos were then published on their website - Mail Online - on Monday morning under the disturbing headline: "Meet Arsenal's new striker! Gunners boss Gary O'Hara's daughter Adele is looking swell at FOURTEEN".

 

Gary was first alerted to the article by his secretary after overseeing that morning's training session at London Colney. In a state of distress and anger, he almost immediately phoned his wife Laura, who was at work.

 

Laura recalled, "I was in the office when Gary called me, yelling 'Go on the Mail website right now, and see what those bastards have written about our daughter!'

 

"I logged on to the website, and when I saw that article, I just wanted to scream. I phoned the Mail up and told them to 'take that f***ing article down or we'll take you to court'.

 

"I knew that the Mail weren't exactly liberal when it came to their portrayal of women, but this was just too much. It was bad enough that they photographed her, but they wrote such lecherous things about her that the article seemed to be written by a paedophile.

 

"Adele was only 14 years old, for God's sake! The Mail even emphasised her age in the headline, in capital letters!"

 

The Mail received widespread condemnation for publishing the article, which they retracted later on Monday evening. They issued a public apology the next day.

 

The journalist who had written the article - Salma Mazhar - was suspended from her job, and then sacked with little fanfare. The photographer also lost his role within the publication. The Mail's actions had staved off the threat of any potential legal action from the O'Hara family, but Gary was still not wholly satisfied.

 

A press conference was held at Arsenal's training ground on the Thursday afternoon before the Gunners travelled to AFC Bournemouth for their next league match.

 

Before taking questions, O'Hara asked the gathered journalists, "Which of you is from the Daily Mail?" Riath Al-Samarrai raised his hand and was told, "You can f*** off. I won't have anything to do with your lot from now on."

 

As Al-Samarrai was escorted from the press room shaking his head in bewilderment, O'Hara continued, "If you're from The Sun, you can f*** off as well. The same goes if you're from the Metro, the Times, the Express, or the Daily Star. Or Sky Sports. I won't have anything more to do with you toerags."

 

Although most media outlets had strongly criticised the Mail's article and refused to republish any photos of Adele, both The Sun and the Daily Express had printed the offending photos uncensored in their Tuesday editions. O'Hara therefore decided to ban all journalists representing those three newspapers - or any other organisations owned by their holding companies - from his press conferences.

 

When it came to Premier League managers censoring the press, Sir Alex Ferguson's lengthy boycott of the BBC was about as far as things had gone previously. O'Hara's move was unprecedented. He was essentially distancing himself from over half of the UK's newspaper readership, not to mention its most prominent sports television network.

 

From that point on, any 'blacklisted' journalist who tried to get in touch directly with O'Hara would be put on hold. They would then be subjected to a blast of the chorus from the Foals song "Inhaler", which sent out an arguably confrontational message.

 

"So can you not go away?

If just for one day?

Impossible possible.

How d'you feel now?

How d'you feel now in a war?

War sends out for you.

Throw your fortune away,

Cause I can't get enough space."

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***

 

O'Hara's media boycott did not stretch as far as BT Sport, who were broadcasting the early Saturday afternoon kick-off between AFC Bournemouth and Arsenal at the Vitality Stadium. He was quite happy to speak to their reporter Andy May before kick-off, and was in a surprisingly boisterous mood.

 

"I just want to put the personal business aside today and get a big win under our belts," he said. "Bournemouth are a good team, and Eddie Howe's a fantastic manager who deserves a lot of credit, but they're fifth-from-bottom. We really should be beating them; in fact, I reckon we'll beat them comfortably. You can mark my words."

 

O'Hara's words were marked, but after just 10 minutes, he was perhaps eating them. Arguably the best player in Bournemouth's team was the on-loan Roma winger Juan Iturbe, who stunned the Gunners by dribbling past their right-back Bellerín and cutting the ball beyond goalkeeper David Ospina from a tight angle. The home fans' cheers were so deafening that the smallest ground in the Premier League was suddenly rocking as if it was Anfield.

 

Striker Callum Wilson took a lot of credit for assisting Iturbe with that opening goal. The pair linked up for another great scoring opportunity in the 18th minute, but Iturbe put Wilson's through-ball into the hands of Ospina.

 

Those Bournemouth chances were the exception rather than the rule. Arsenal would, in fact, dominate the first half-hour with regards to creating openings. It was largely down to some excellent goalkeeping from the experienced Artur Boruc that the Gunners' attempts to equalise would yield no fruit.

 

Arsenal's plight would worsen further in the 31st minute. A fantastically-worked one-two between Wilson and Iturbe left Gunners defender Laurent Koscielny chasing after the young Argentine, who then popped the ball past Ospina for his and the Cherries' second goal.

 

Everything that could've gone wrong for the Gunners was going disastrously wrong. Three minutes before half-time, Kieran Gibbs' cross into the Bournemouth box was met by a half-volley from Walcott. Boruc parried the initial effort, and Walcott's follow-up struck his near post before defender Tommy Elphick bundled it behind for a corner. Arsenal would have two bites at that 'cherry' before Boruc dispelled the danger by catching Gibbs' header.

 

After the first minute of the second period, any hope of an Arsenal comeback was dead in the water. Gibbs failed to keep tabs on Bournemouth winger Matt Ritchie, who prodded in a deep cross from Marc Pugh. The minnows were now three goals clear.

 

BT commentator Darren Fletcher - no relation to the West Bromwich Albion captain - announced, "The writing's on the wall for Arsenal... and if Sam Smith was here, he would be singing it loud and clear."

 

The rest of the match was torturous for those Gooners who had travelled to Dorset expecting to see their team hand out a thrashing, rather than get thrashed themselves. O'Hara threw virtually everybody forward after that third home goal to try and save some face, but it was all to no avail. Sánchez skimmed the crossbar with a free-kick in the 52nd minute, while substitute Welbeck fired a long-ranger into Boruc's hands about a quarter of an hour later.

 

The Gunners would have a total of 23 shots at goal in this match. Only eight were on target, and none of them found the net. Bournemouth's statistics showed a rather more clinical team - nine shots, six on target, and three goals.

 

AFC Bournemouth 3, Arsenal 0. Few travelling supporters at the Vitality Stadium had thought such a scoreline was even possible before kick-off. Even fewer had faith in the Gunners manager, and the chorus of "O'Hara Out" chants at the final whistle said it all.

 

Shortly after full-time, May approached O'Hara in the tunnel and ambitiously asked if he'd do a post-match interview for BT Sport. O'Hara thrusted the microphone back towards May and replied, "You can shove that mic up your arse."

 

The Arsenal boss then stormed into the away dressing room, and once again tore into his underperforming stars after their tenth league defeat of the season. A full transcript is perhaps not necessary.

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CHAPTER 19 - Anything Is Possible

 

By the end of February 2016, the war between Gary O'Hara and most of the British sports press was intensifying. The Sun had responded to O'Hara's boycott of them by fighting fire with fire - and boycotting Arsenal themselves.

 

Their match report for the Gunners' chastening defeat at the Vitality Stadium was very provocative. The scoreline was printed as "BOURNEMOUTH 3, NORTH LONDON 0", Arsenal were referred to as simply "the visitors", and neither O'Hara nor any of Arsenal's players were explicitly named. Instead, there were subtle references to "the visiting goalkeeper" and "the away team's striker".

 

The Sun also issued a strongly-written warning in bold type: "SunSport will not tolerate any attempts to censor our world-leading sports coverage from any individual or organisation, no matter how big or small."

 

This stand-off between O'Hara and the media was very troubling for the Arsenal hierarchy, and for owner Stan Kroenke in particular.

 

Chief executive Ivan Gazidis said, "Stan got in touch with me after the Bournemouth match to express his concerns about how Gary was managing the team, not just on the pitch and also off it. As far as Stan was concerned, Gary's attitude was damaging the Arsenal brand.

 

"He told me, 'We've got to sort out this mess pronto. If he doesn't get consistent results soon, or he can't come to a truce with the media, then we've got to look for a new manager.'

 

"Stan added that he would give Gary six more matches, up to the Manchester City game before the international break. If our situation hadn't improved by that point, then I would be instructed to terminate Gary's contract."

 

Arsenal went into the new month in 7th place, 11 points adrift of the top four with 11 matches left to play. Their first fixture of a busy March schedule saw them pitted against Swansea City at the Emirates Stadium in midweek.

 

The bad news for Gunners fans was that Swansea were still at the Premier League's summit, where they had resided for much of the season. The good news, as far as Arsenal were concerned, was that Francesco Guidolin's underdogs were finally starting to feel the heat of leading the title race.

 

Following defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool, and a draw with Manchester United in February, Swansea's lofty position was now in real jeopardy. Defeat in this match would potentially see them drop as low as 4th, with Chelsea, Leicester City and Liverpool all primed to pounce if given the opportunity.

 

Mind you, it was Arsenal who looked on edge in the opening minutes. In the third of those, a slack pass from Santi Cazorla was intercepted by Swansea midfielder Pablo Hernández, who drove the ball deep into the hosts' half. France striker Bafétimbi Gomis got to the ball ahead of John Stones and then slotted it to Petr Cech's left, drawing first blood for the Swans.

 

Arsenal fans were already fearing the worst, though their players would soon give them reason for optimism. Swansea goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski was forced into a couple of unorthodox saves from the Gunners' Spanish duo of Héctor Bellerín and Cazorla at around the 15-minute mark.

 

The third of Arsenal's Spaniards - left-back Nacho Monreal - would also make his mark in the 24th minute. His long throw into the Swansea box evaded the jump of visiting defender Federico Fernández and landed at the feet of Danny Welbeck, who stroked it past Fabianski. The England striker looked towards the referee's assistant for an offside flag before being given the go-ahead to celebrate just his second goal this season.

 

Fernández might've been culpable for that Arsenal equaliser, but he was determined to see Swansea through this storm of home attacks without conceding again. The Argentine centre-half produced a host of sublime interceptions later on to try and keep the Gunners at bay.

 

Arsenal's best chance to take the lead before half-time came from their captain Laurent Koscielny in the 43rd minute. Koscielny - who'd been booked just prior to that equaliser following a trip on Swans striker Alberto Paloschi - met Mesut Özil's corner with a looping header that went over the bar.

 

The Gunners pushed forward again ten minutes into the second period. Welbeck's powerful header from a deep Bellerín cross was met by another great save from Fabianski, who seemed to hurt his wrist in the process. Although the 30-year-old Pole was in some agony, he was adamant that he could continue playing.

 

Fabianski confirmed his fitness in the 57th minute, when he pushed a Joel Campbell strike against his near post after the former Swansea loanee had burst past Ashley Williams. Swans captain Williams then recovered brilliantly to tackle the rebound away from Welbeck before Özil scuffed the follow-up wide.

 

Three minutes later, Cazorla whipped a corner into Swansea's penalty area. Up leapt Stones, who flicked it into the far end of Fabianski's net and completed Arsenal's turnaround from 1-0 down to 2-1 up.

 

There was still half an hour left for Swansea to strike back, so the Gunners couldn't afford to leave themselves open. They did just that in the 65th minute, when Gomis lobbed the ball through their defence and found the run of Ángel Rangel. The substitute wing-back evaded some late pressure from Monreal to get a shot in, but the upright came to the hosts' rescue on that occasion.

 

Gomis exploited Arsenal's high defensive line again in the 72nd minute by playing a wonderful pass ahead of Nicolai Jørgensen. The Denmark forward - who'd been signed from FC Copenhagen in January - burst through the channel and then attempted to lob Cech, only for the ball to drift wide.

 

Arsenal would survive a few more mini-scares before they looked to kill the game off late on. Bellerín could've settled their nerves in the 86th minute, but his attempt to beat Fabianski from a tight angle only resulted in him hitting the post. Nevertheless, the Gunners had still done enough to claim a 2-1 win, and some vengeance for their late defeat to the Welsh side in October.

 

The final whistle ended Swansea's lengthy spell at the top of the Premier League, with champions Chelsea taking over as the new leaders. Meanwhile, Arsenal's top-four hopes were given a much-needed boost, and team morale was high again as they prepared for a second successive weekend on the south coast.

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***

 

It was fair to say that Arsenal's trip to Bournemouth right at the back end of February could not have gone any worse. O'Hara hoped that things would be very different seven days later, when his team travelled back down the M3 to pay Southampton a visit.

 

Despite the midweek victory over Swansea, O'Hara was feeling somewhat anxious and unsure as his team were driven down to Hampshire. He spent the whole trip listening to music on his MP3 player. One of the songs that came up was somewhat obscure, yet inspiring to O'Hara.

 

Back in the summer of 2010, the O'Hara family went on holiday to Oregon, in the western United States. After battling severe depression for several months following the death of his mother, Gary had recently agreed to rejoin Arsenal as an academy coach, working alongside Steve Bould.

 

During his time in America, Gary heard the song "Swim" by Californian alternative rock band Jack's Mannequin play on the local radio. Jack's Mannequin had a substantial following at home, though they were almost completely unknown in the UK. They had now acquired a new British fan.

 

Nearly six years on, O'Hara had never forgotten that song. When he was reacquainted with it again on the M3, he was roused to life by the lyrics of lead singer Andrew McMahon:

 

"When you're not so sure you'll survive,

You gotta swim, and swim when it hurts.

The whole world is watching.

You haven't come this far to fall off the Earth."

 

Later that afternoon, he quoted those lyrics - word by word - when speaking to his squad in the away dressing room at St Mary's. Arsenal's players were now champing at the bit. The same probably couldn't have been said about their hosts.

 

Unlike local rivals Bournemouth, Southampton were not a team in the highest of spirits. The Saints had won just twice in the Premier League since David Moyes succeeded Ronald Koeman as manager in mid-November, and their terrible run had left them third-from-bottom.

 

Arsenal looked to take the initiative right from the outset and "pass Southampton to death", as O'Hara had instructed his team to do before kick-off. The Saints struggled to cope with their opponents early on, and they were lucky not to concede in the sixth minute, when Welbeck's shot was deflected off right-back Cédric and into goalkeeper Fraser Forster's hands.

 

In the 16th minute, Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin weighted a long ball down the left to wing-back Kieran Gibbs. Gibbs chested the ball into Southampton's area and crossed to the far post, where Campbell was hoping to head it home.

 

Unfortunately for the Gunners, Campbell couldn't get a clean connection to Gibbs' cross, allowing Southampton left-back Ryan Bertrand to try and hoof the ball away. However, Bertrand's clearance struck Olivier Giroud in the chin and deflected into the net! Giroud had scored his 20th goal of the season, but not in a manner that many people at St Mary's had expected!

 

Arsenal were soon attempting to bolster their rather fortuitous lead. Giroud and Bellerín were each caught offside on a couple of occasions, while Welbeck raced through on goal in the 30th minute, only for Forster to parry his shot before Saints defender Virgil van Dijk hoofed it clear.

 

Arsenal were also making great use of the space Southampton were giving them out wide. On 32 minutes, Campbell found the overlapping run of Bellerín, who essentially had the freedom of the right flank. Although van Dijk got in the way of the Catalan's attempted cross to Giroud, the rebound was fired home by Özil, and it was 2-0 to the Gunners.

 

A third goal would follow in the 39th minute, thanks to an awful mistake from Southampton captain José Fonte. The Portuguese centre-back managed to knock a Welbeck cross away from Giroud, but not from Özil, who sprinted through, sidestepped past Forster, and then completed a first-half rout.

 

Southampton's defending had been comical at times during that first period. To be fair, Moyes did straighten things out for the second period, which started very positively for the Saints. Though Cédric put a dreadful shot wide in the 60th minute, his team-mate Marko Pjaca would've had a great chance to score a consolation goal two minutes later were it not for a vital block from Bellerín.

 

Arsenal goalkeeper Cech faced a couple of stern tests from England internationals James Ward-Prowse and Jay Rodriguez midway through the period. The experienced Czech's reactions were still as sharp as ever, and his saves helped the Gunners on their way to a fifth clean sheet in seven Premier League fixtures.

 

After following up a 2-1 victory over the then-leaders with a 3-0 win away from home, Arsenal climbed up to 5th place. The top four still looked distant, but the Gunners were on the right track again - at least domestically.

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***

 

Arsenal's UEFA Champions League charge was on the brink of collapse. The Gunners were trailing Zenit St Petersburg 1-0 following the home leg of their Round of 16 tie. They travelled to Russia in midweek needing nothing less than a victory to stay alive.

 

Unsurprisingly, it was Arsenal who made the more attacking start at the Petrovsky Stadium. Cazorla was looking really fired up in particular, and the attacking midfielder caused Zenit more than a few problems in the opening stages.

 

Mind you, after eight minutes, the deficit that Arsenal were hoping to erase looked like being increased. Alexandr Kokorin sprung their offside trap to run onto a long ball from Oleg Shatov, which he fired just over the bar. The Gunners would survive a couple more scares in the 16th minute, when Shatov struck the post from close range before Axel Witsel had a long-distance effort parried by goalkeeper David Ospina.

 

Witsel's shot would result in a corner, but Shatov's delivery went wrong and was hoovered up by Welbeck. The Gunners then launched a lightning quick counter-attack, and within a matter of seconds, Cazorla had buried a Theo Walcott cross in at the back post. The visitors were 1-0 up on the night, and the tie was level on aggregate.

 

The rest of the first half saw an array of corners at both ends, but the best scoring opportunities didn't come until late on. In the 35th minute, Zenit's holding midfielder Javi García - latterly of Manchester City - unleashed a 25-yard drive that Ospina acrobatically tipped over.

 

Two minutes later, Welbeck's defence-splitting ball to Özil left the German playmaker with only goalkeeper Yury Lodygin to beat. However, Özil screwed his shot the wrong side of the target, and the interval came with nothing separating two evenly-matched sides.

 

Zenit looked to push their visitors onto the back foot again four minutes after the restart. Belgium midfielder Witsel's drive was parried by Ospina, and Brazilian striker Hulk could only put the rebound out of play after coming under pressure from Koscielny.

 

That unsuccessful attack would come back to hit Zenit in the 52nd minute, when Arsenal hit them on the break. Midfield destroyer Coquelin bravely took the ball off García's feet on the edge of Arsenal's penalty area and knocked it to Welbeck, who squared it to Walcott on the right flank.

 

Walcott then dribbled forward, evading a slide tackle from García, before crossing the ball into the Russians' six-yard box. Once again, Cazorla was at the far post to apply the finish, and Arsenal were leading 2-1 on aggregate. Zenit now had to score twice to stay in the Champions League; due to the away goals rule, one goal wouldn't be enough for André Villas-Boas' side.

 

Zenit urgently went on the offensive. Shatov and García each had shots saved by Ospina in the 59th and 64th minute, but a bigger opportunity would come the home team's way in the 68th.

 

Hulk latched onto an excellent direct ball from García after advancing ahead of Arsenal right-back Bellerín, who would subsequently trip him up in the penalty area. The referee showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot.

 

Witsel was the penalty specialist in Zenit's squad, so it was no surprise that he stepped up to face Ospina from 12 yards. It was even less surprising that the 27-year-old drilled in a clinical spot-kick that evaded Ospina's dive and levelled the aggregate scores. Arsenal were still leading the tie, but only on away goals.

 

O'Hara then took one of the biggest risks of his short Arsenal managerial career, and instructed his team to push for another goal, even though one more against the Gunners would eliminate them. Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey would each have opportunities to make Arsenal's position more comfortable, but their misses meant the tie remained delicately poised in the closing minutes.

 

Ospina was given an almighty scare in the 85th minute by a deep cross from Zenit's substitute winger Alexandr Ryazantsev that he had to push over his crossbar. The Colombian would have to be on his guard again a minute later, when he caught an effort from the 6ft 5in target man Artem Dzyuba - another home sub.

 

Another minute after that, a wayward clearance from Bellerín ended up being intercepted by Witsel. The ball was then fed forward to Ryazantsev, whose first-time pass through the Arsenal defence left attacking midfielder Danny with a golden opportunity to break the Gunners' hearts. The travelling supporters held their breaths, but a horrible miscue from Danny left them mightily relieved.

 

That attack was Zenit's last chance to save themselves. After clinging on for dear life, Arsenal had won 2-1 away from home and clinched the tie on away goals. They were into the Champions League Quarter Finals for the first time since the 2009/2010 season.

 

The Quarter Final draw would take place in the interval between Arsenal's next league games against Norwich City and Manchester City. Before then, though, O'Hara had to try and guide the Gunners through another last-eight cup tie back at home.

Edited by CFuller

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CHAPTER 20 - Meltdown

 

On paper, Arsenal's FA Cup Round 6 tie at home to Championship side Reading on 12 March looked to be a doddle. In reality, it was likely to be anything but. After all, the Royals had taken the Gunners to extra-time when these teams met in the Semi Final of last season's competition.

 

Arsenal manager Gary O'Hara saw Reading as a genuine threat and thus wouldn't take any liberties with his squad selection. Instead of sticking with some of the youngsters who had helped the Gunners negotiate the previous three rounds, O'Hara went almost exclusively for tried-and-tested first-teamers. The only two teenagers in his squad were centre-back Krystian Bielik and midfielder Donny van de Beek, both of whom started.

 

Bielik would actually have the Gunners' first scoring chance, in the very first minute. The 18-year-old Pole flicked Santi Cazorla's corner over the bar after Alexis Sánchez had won said set-piece off a clumsy slide tackle from Royals right-back Chris Gunter.

 

Surprisingly, Reading goalkeeper Jonathan Bond didn't have to make his first save until the 14th minute. Arsenal wing-back Héctor Bellerín ghosted past Ola John and whipped in a byline cross that was intercepted by centre-half Michael Hector. Sánchez was first to the clearance, but the Chilean's header fell safely into Bond's hands.

 

Further chances from Sánchez and Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker went to waste before their curiously-coloured visitors showed that they were far from shrinking violets. A difficult season for Mertesacker continued in the 24th minute, when Simon Cox beat the ageing German to a left-wing cross from John and headed Reading into a 1-0 lead - against the run of play.

 

The old Arsenal anxiety was coming back to O'Hara's team. Meanwhile, a Reading outfit managed by former Gunners midfielder Brian McDermott grew in stature and soon threatened to stretch their advantage further. Their best opportunity to do so was fired wide by Czech striker Matej Vydra after 37 minutes.

 

Arsenal needed a saviour, and they got one with just three minutes left before half-time. A holding foul from Gunter near the Reading byline led to the Gunners being awarded a free-kick, which Cazorla delicately chipped into the area. On the other end of his delivery was - of all people - left-back Nacho Monreal, who volleyed in his first goal of the season and levelled the match.

 

Regular service was expected to resume in the second period. The inexperienced van de Beek made way at half-time for the more established Aaron Ramsey, who helped to assert the Gunners' midfield dominance shortly after the restart. Another big-name player - Olivier Giroud - would have their next shot on target in the 52nd minute, though the frontman's point-blank header wasn't quite a match for Bond.

 

Reading were having to defend deep to try and prevent Arsenal from pulling ahead. By the 78th minute, though, Bond was struggling to cope with the sheer pressure he was being put under.

 

The young goalkeeper had only just saved an attempt from Jack Wilshere when he was called upon to withstand a strike by Gunners substitute Danny Welbeck. Arsenal's third attempt in three minutes was nodded wide by Ramsey. Their fourth in four would finally break the Royals' brave resistance.

 

Giroud beat Hector to a right-wing cross from the Jamaican defender's near-namesake Bellerín, and although his initial volley was parried by Bond, the follow-up was easily converted. With ten minutes to play, Giroud had put Arsenal 2-1 up. The hosts were on the brink of reaching yet another FA Cup Semi Final.

 

However, there was to be another late twist in this tale. While one Frenchman had put Reading on the verge of defeat, another would come to the minnows' rescue just four minutes before the end.

 

Reading's first-half hero Cox sent a deep cross into Arsenal's box from the left flank. Bielik looked to have it covered for the Gunners, but the experienced Royals forward Yann Kermorgant managed to get in front of him and chest Cox's delivery home.

 

The match finished level at 2-2, precipitating the need for a replay at Reading's Madejski Stadium. Because of Arsenal's UEFA Champions League priorities, the only available date in the calendar was Tuesday 19 April - less than a week before the eventual victors would travel to Wembley for their Semi Final.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

The Champions League Quarter Final draw would be staged after Arsenal's next home Premier League fixture. The latest visitors to the Emirates Stadium were Alex Neil's Norwich City, who had not been outside the bottom six all season. However, the Canaries' campaign would reach new heights after what was - quite frankly - an extraordinary encounter.

 

Arsenal's game got off to an ominous start when Norwich opened the scoring after just seven minutes from a free-kick by Nathan Redmond. John Stones - playing at right-back as a replacement for the unfit Bellerín - was too slow to react to Redmond's delivery, which Canaries captain Timm Klose volleyed home from close range.

 

The Gunners had quickly been unsettled, and Norwich would continue to pile pressure on them as the first half progressed. They almost doubled their lead via another Redmond set-piece in the 10th minute, as the England Under-21s winger's corner led to a scramble in the box before Martin Olsson's effort was pushed behind by goalkeeper Petr Cech.

 

Cech would have to bail his team out again on 38 minutes. Canaries striker Dieumerci Mbokani turned past both Stones and Mertesacker before curling a shot into the goalie's hands. When the half-time whistle blew, Norwich remained 1-0 up, and Arsenal had barely tested their defence.

 

O'Hara was appalled by his team's first-half performance and made a couple of substitutions before the restart. Stones came off for regular right-back Bellerín, while Cazorla replaced the lacklustre Theo Walcott. If the Arsenal manager thought those changes would turn the tide, he would be proven wrong very wrong four minutes into the second half.

 

Norwich's attacking midfielder Steven Naismith sprayed the ball out to Claudio Beauvue out on the right wing. The former Celta Vigo player then turned past Arsenal left-back Kieran Gibbs before attempting to whip in a deep cross. Much to the astonishment of virtually everyone at the Emirates Stadium, the ball ended up flying over Cech's head and into the far end of his net!

 

As those in the Norwich dugout celebrated ecstatically, O'Hara could barely control his anger in Arsenal's technical area. His assistant manager Steve Bould recalled, "I don't think I'd ever heard anyone swear so much in such a short space of time!"

 

Beauvue - a 27-year-old Guadeloupe international - had embarrassed Arsenal and left them trailing 2-0 on their own ground. For one particularly vexed Gooner, it all got too much.

 

Shortly after Beauvue's fluke goal, a burly man in his early 30s - sporting an Arsenal jersey from the 2003/2004 'Invincibles' season - evaded stadium security and ran towards the home dugout. The man then spat in O'Hara's face and hurled a tirade of abuse at him before being wrestled to the ground by a couple of police officers. He was subsequently escorted from the ground as O'Hara wiped the spit off his face.

 

By the 58th minute, though, it was O'Hara who lost control of his emotions once again. Beauvue was being substituted, to an incredible ovation from the away fans as well as a chorus of boos from the home supporters. O'Hara yelled at the departing Caribbean, "Yeah, it's about time you f***ed off, you lucky c***!"

 

Neil was a 34-year-old, 5ft 7in Scottish terrier of a man, though he was not afraid to confront the rather taller and older O'Hara in defence of his player. An increasingly furious O'Hara then harangued his opposite number before the referee rushed over to the touchline, and ordered the Arsenal manager to the stands.

 

O'Hara would have to watch the final half-hour of a sorry Arsenal performance amongst some of the club's most vocal followers. Their chants for the manager's sacking would grow louder in the 81st minute, when Redmond compounded their misery with a third Norwich goal. Redmond skinned Bellerín to collect Mbokani's through-ball before cutting past the full-back and slipping a shot through a wafer-thin gap between Cech and his near post.

 

A harrowing 3-0 defeat on home soil to a newly-promoted team was arguably the most humiliating moment of Arsenal's season, even when taking the 5-0 Halloween reverse against Manchester City into account. The Gunners really could not have sunk much lower.

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***

 

On the evening after Arsenal's latest mishap, the manner in which they had conceded Norwich's second goal was lampooned on a video sketch uploaded onto the 'We Are The Gooners' YouTube channel.

 

The sketch began with a man claiming to be "Claudio Beauvue, from the sunny Caribbean island of Guadeloupe" boasting that he would score against Arsenal. 'Beauvue' was then seen taking a shot from a 'beach' on his homeland.

 

The video cut to a backdrop of one of the goals at the Emirates Stadium - "about 4,000 miles away", according to the subtitles. 'Petr Cech' - portrayed as helmet-wearing racing driver 'The Stig' from the BBC programme 'Top Gear' - was then seen looking on as a ball fell from the sky and bounced into his net.

 

'Cech' then shrugged his shoulders and walked off before the video cut back to 'Beauvue', who beamed, "I told you so, didn't I?"

 

At the end of the video, WATG host Billy Khan appeared on screen and declared, "Enough's enough. We've already told O'Hara millions of times what we on WATG feel about him, but now it's time we expressed our feelings to the man himself in person.

 

"For our next video, on the Saturday morning before the Man City game, we'll have a WORLD-EXCLUSIVE interview with the Arsenal manager Gary O'Hara - a man guilty of more CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY than Slobodan Milošević!"

 

O'Hara can't have been too chuffed about being compared to a Yugoslav war criminal, so imagine his anger when he encountered Khan upon arriving at the Arsenal training ground on Friday morning. Khan rushed forward with his state-of-the-art video camera to confront O'Hara almost as soon as the manager had got out of his car.

 

"GARY! GARY!" Khan screamed as he thrusted the camera into O'Hara's face. "Would you like to have a quick word for our viewers?" O'Hara tried to ignore him as he made a beeline for the training ground entrance.

 

The interrogation continued. "Gary, when you gonna resign? When you gonna quit, eh, Gary? When you being sacked, bruv? Tomorrow, bruv?"

 

That was when O'Hara snapped. He snatched the camera from Khan's grasp and smashed it to the ground. He then squared up to the young YouTuber before dealing a right hook to his left eye.

 

"You aren't any better than them real journalist scum," he growled. "All of you have made these last few months a nightmare for my family! You should be ashamed!"

 

Khan apologised profusely, but O'Hara barked, "Get out of my sight! If I see your face again, I'll call the police!"

 

O'Hara then turned back to the entrance and walked on. Meanwhile, Khan picked up the remnants of his broken camera and staggered away, covering his left eye whilst trying to stifle sobs.

 

O'Hara later revealed to Bould what had happened. Bould recalled, "Gary was just in total shock. He had enough grief from the press as it was without this vlogger harassing him of a morning. I would probably have reacted the same way as him if I'd been in his position.

 

"I still remember Gary telling me, 'If it weren't for people like Billy Khan, my brother Paul would probably still be alive.' He honestly felt that."

 

The UEFA Champions League Quarter Final draw took place in Nyon, Switzerland later that morning. Arsenal were one of two English representatives left in the competition alongside Manchester City, whom they would face in a Premier League match at the Etihad Stadium the following day.

 

The Gunners really wanted to avoid Barcelona and Bayern Munich for obvious reasons, not to mention Real Madrid. O'Hara perhaps didn't fancy a reunion with Benfica either after the Primeira Liga side had pipped them to top spot in Group D.

 

The other two sides Arsenal could've faced were the Serie A giants of Roma and Juventus. They ended up with the latter, whose intimidating squad featured marquee names such as Gianluigi Buffon, Mario Mandzukic and Paul Pogba.

 

Arsenal's first meeting with Italy's Old Lady would come at the imaginatively-named Juventus Stadium on 6 April, six days before the second leg would be played at the Emirates Stadium. However, there were serious doubts over whether O'Hara would still be in charge of the Gunners for those matches, especially if his next league game ended badly.

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***

 

The back pages of most newspapers on 19 March carried the same narrative. As they saw it, if Arsenal suffered a heavy defeat away to Manchester City in the 12:45pm kick-off, then Gary O'Hara would be sacked as manager after less than nine months in the post.

 

As things stood, Arsenal were 5th in the Premier League, with City just behind them in 6th. A home win at the Etihad Stadium would see the teams swap positions.

 

Citizens boss Manuel Pellegrini wasn't under anywhere near the same scrutiny as O'Hara, as it'd already been confirmed that he would be leaving the Etihad in the summer to make way for a new coach. Bayern's esteemed coach Josep Guardiola had signed a pre-contract agreement to take over in time for the 2016/2017 season.

 

Arsenal were at their lowest ebb, and in no mood to play against a team who'd already put five unanswered goals past them this season. They could've conceded a sixth after 13 minutes, but Sergio Agüero's powerful effort was well held by David Ospina. The Colombian goalkeeper had been reinstated by O'Hara after Cech's horror show against Norwich.

 

Two minutes later, young England winger Raheem Sterling drilled a low cross from the byline into Arsenal's area. He hoped to find Agüero, but the ball was diverted into the net off Laurent Koscielny, who was donning the Gunners' armband in lieu of the benched Mertesacker. 1-0 to City.

 

Arsenal attempted to equalise in the 21st minute, but an attack broke down deep in City's half when a Bellerín header was intercepted by Yaya Touré. The Ivorian midfield powerhouse then pumped the ball long to Agüero, who eased past Koscielny before firing home the Sky Blues' second goal.

 

Even worse was to come for the Gunners on 27 minutes. There wasn't a single red-and-white shirt in the vicinity of Citizens right-back Pablo Zabaleta when playmaker Kevin De Bruyne found him making a run into the penalty area. Ospina was soundly beaten at his near post, and Zabaleta joined his fellow Argentinean Agüero on the scoresheet.

 

Those Arsenal fans who'd made the journey from North London were dreading another rout. The only thing missing from their first-half humiliation was the agony of seeing an ex-Gooner score against them, as Samir Nasri had done back in October. Right-back Bacary Sagna had the opportunity to rub more salt into his former colleagues' wounds on 34 minutes, but Ospina saved the Frenchman's effort to keep the deficit 'only' at 3-0.

 

The away dressing room was deafly quiet at half-time. Even the usually boisterous O'Hara was unable to find the words to describe his team's performance. After about five minutes of silence, he shrugged, "F*** it. We're going for broke again."

 

Just like in the previous meeting between Arsenal and City, O'Hara had decided to take a gung-ho approach to the second half. In all likelihood, the Gunners would either claw back a goal or two to appease their suffering supporters, or they'd go down to another heavy defeat.

 

Before the second half kicked off, some bookmakers were offering generous odds on City bettering their result at the Emirates Stadium, and winning by at least six goals. That incredible outcome wasn't looking too farfetched come the 51st minute, when midfielder Fernandinho almost scored a stunning fourth goal from outside the penalty area. Only a sublime fingertip save from Ospina denied the Brazilian his big moment.

 

Ospina would face more shots midway through the first period. Former Aston Villa midfielder Fabian Delph had not scored a league goal for City since his £8million transfer the previous summer, yet he came close to breaking his duck after 68 minutes. Following a clever one-two with De Bruyne, Delph dribbled past Francis Coquelin and hit a decent attempt that Ospina just about pushed wide.

 

Agüero flicked a David Silva free-kick wide in the 70th minute, while Silva himself also sent a header off target four minutes later. Sterling was next to go for goal with five minutes remaining, but Ospina displayed the reflexes of a goalkeeper determined to at least get through the second half without conceding.

 

Come the latter stages, Arsenal had launched a few attacks on the Sky Blues without ever really looking like scoring. They would eventually find the back of the net after 88 minutes, but Cazorla was ruled to be in an offside position when he drilled in a weighted pass from Danny Welbeck.

 

Another excellent Welbeck set-up a minute later did result in Arsenal finally grabbing a consolation goal. Welbeck sidefooted the ball to Joel Campbell, who turned past Sagna and then prodded the ball home to reduce the Gunners' final deficit to 3-1.

 

The result saw City jump into 5th place ahead of Arsenal, who were now seven points adrift of 4th-placed Liverpool, having already played two games more. In addition, league leaders Chelsea and Swansea City were 12 points clear of the Gunners, on whom they also had games in hand.

 

O'Hara declined to answer any difficult questions from the media after the loss, but he would have to face some from Arsenal executives upon his return to London that evening.

 

The manager had been summoned to an emergency meeting at the Emirates boardroom, where chairman Sir Chips Keswick and CEO Ivan Gazidis were amongst those demanding answers. Ominously, Gazidis had earlier received a phone call from owner Stan Kroenke, who instructed him to "cut his head off now".

 

Keswick reluctantly told O'Hara at the start of the meeting, "It pains me to say this, Gary, but I'm afraid that this project is not working out. The team's results and performances have not been satisfactory, and we are now in real danger of not qualifying for the Champions League next season. That is just not acceptable."

 

Gazidis then added, "We've also received a tip-off from the Metropolitan Police that they want to speak with you regarding an assault on a man outside our training ground. At this moment in time, this football club cannot afford to stake its reputation on your shoulders."

 

"Wait... are you sacking me?" O'Hara asked, his voice trembling.

 

"We have little choice but to suspend you from your duties," Gazidis responded. "At least while the police are carrying out their enquiries. In the meantime, the board will have to discuss your performances and determine whether you should be allowed to remain as first-team manager going forward."

 

O'Hara was devastated, but that wasn't the end of his day from hell. Upon leaving the Emirates, he was confronted by two Metropolitan Police officers - the same two who had previously spoken to him when his late brother was accused of assault after the Gunners' previous defeat to Manchester City.

 

"Excuse me, sir, are you Gary James O'Hara?" he was asked by Police Constable Vicky Pritchard.

 

When O'Hara replied affirmatively, Pritchard told him, "Mr O'Hara, I am arresting you on suspicion of assault and causing criminal damage. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you say may be given in evidence."

 

O'Hara was then accosted by Pritchard and her colleague, Police Constable Grant Walters, before being bundled into a police car. His arrest was filmed by several bystanders near the stadium and quickly uploaded onto social media. The press were about to have a field day.

Edited by CFuller

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CHAPTER 21 - Black And Blue

 

Laura O'Hara had spent the afternoon of 19 March shopping with her two daughters Adele and Lucy, while her husband Gary was managing Arsenal in Manchester. The three of them then went to a cinema watch a movie, expecting Gary to be at home upon their return.

 

"We got home at about 6:30pm that evening," Laura said. "Gary wasn't home, but he'd left a voicemail message saying that he'd been ordered to attend an emergency meeting. He couldn't contact me on my mobile because I'd switched it off while I was at the cinema with the girls.

 

"We spent close to an hour waiting for Gary to come home. Then we received a phone call from the police. They said that Gary had been arrested and questioned in relation to an assault.

 

"My heart sank when I heard those words. Gary had never been violent, as far as I was aware. I asked myself, 'How? How could he have been arrested?'

 

"I went over to the police station in Islington and asked to speak to Gary, but the officers wouldn't let me in. I had to wait until the following afternoon before I could get so much as a phone call from him."

 

Gary was held in a police cell overnight after being questioned over an incident outside Arsenal's training ground at London Colney on the morning of 18 March. He was shown CCTV footage of a young Asian man staggering gingerly outside a nearby pub, covering his left eye with his left hand and clutching what appeared to be a broken camera in his right.

 

Gary confessed to throwing a punch at 21-year-old Billy Khan and destroying a video camera, though he argued that his actions were in self-defence. He also claimed that Khan had been harassing him immediately prior to an attack.

 

Laura said, "Gary admitted assaulting Billy Khan; he was too honest to ever deny it. However, he said that he'd been provoked by Khan's antagonistic actions, such as thrusting a camera right into Gary's face. He also argued to police that Khan's injuries were grossly exaggerated."

 

O'Hara stated that Khan had received one punch, suffering a black left eye. Upon being shown photographs taken of the victim after the incident, though, he was left repulsed. The photos showed Khan with a black eye, but also cuts to his right cheek and bottom lip, and lacerations to his left arm. There also appeared to be a large rip in the left arm of the grey hoodie Khan was understood to have worn.

 

After a day in custody, Gary O'Hara was formally charged with causing grievous bodily harm and criminal damage. However, he was released on unconditional bail, and summoned to appear at St Albans Magistrates' Court in June.

 

Gary arrived back at home later that night, much to the relief of his children, who embraced him upon his return. That was when eldest daughter Adele noticed something was not quite right.

 

Laura said, "Adele spotted a couple of bruises on Gary's faces. She asked him what had happened, but he just brushed it off and told her not to worry about it.

 

"I discussed this with Gary before we went to bed. That was when he told me the police had been 'a bit rough' with him when they were apprehending him. He wouldn't say anything more than that.

 

"I suspected there was a bit more to it than that. The Met had a track record when it came to police brutality. Gary was a tall and strong man, but could the police have intimidated him into possibly admitting a crime he hadn't committed? I wouldn't have put it past them."

 

O'Hara would keep the true story of what had happened well-hidden for some time. Meanwhile, he was now free to resume his managerial career... if he still had one, that was.

 

While O'Hara was still in custody, Sky Sports News conducted a live TV interview with Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis. Explaining his decision to suspend the manager, Gazidis said, "It was a regrettable decision and a very difficult one. Unfortunately, a combination of results on the field and conduct off it meant that we ultimately had no choice but to take this course of action."

 

Gazidis was asked if O'Hara's position would be rendered untenable if he was charged with assault, but stated, "For obvious reasons, I cannot possibly pre-empt any action that could potentially be taken by the police. Once the dust has settled and the skies are clearer, we will re-evaluate Gary's long-term future at Arsenal Football Club."

 

Looking back on that interview, Gazidis said, "I stand by my comments at the time, as ambiguous as they were. There was no way that I was going to compromise a police investigation into whether Gary had attacked that young man outside the training ground.

 

"I hoped Sky Sports would understand where I was coming from and leave it at that. Unfortunately, they got completely the wrong end of the stick and horribly misinterpreted our words."

 

Later that evening, as O'Hara was returning home to be reunited with his family, Sky Sports broadcast an audio clip that they claimed was a recording of a private conversation between Arsenal chairman Sir Chips Keswick and an undercover journalist.

 

Keswick was alleged to have told the reporter, "I do not condone what Gary O'Hara did, or what he reputedly did. At any rate, I do not think we will have to worry about his situation for much longer."

 

Meanwhile, SSN displayed a big yellow 'Breaking News' box near the bottom of the screen, with bold black text stating, "SKY SOURCES: ARSENAL SACK GARY O'HARA".

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14 hours ago, tenthreeleader said:

Nicely written post, Chris. Continues to be an engaging read. Good work!

Thank you again, 10-3.

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***

 

The mood at London Colney was a subdued one on the last full week of March. Recent defeats against Norwich City and Manchester City had all but killed Arsenal's hopes of achieving another top-four Premier League finish, and the club was now facing a potential leadership crisis.

 

Despite having been charged with assault, Gary O'Hara was still officially Arsenal's manager, contrary to Sky Sports' claims that club executives had already decided to sack him. He remained under suspension, though, which meant assistant manager Steve Bould took charge of first-team training for the next few days.

 

Most of Arsenal's first-teamers were away on international duty. Many had left British soil uncertain as to who would be in charge upon their return. As for the rest, Bould had to try and reassure them that matters would be resolved prior to their next match at home to Everton in early April.

 

Bould admitted, "To be honest, none of us knew whether Gary was coming back or going, and the camp was pretty much split 50/50 on whether he should be reinstated.

 

"Personally, I wanted Gary to come back. The Premier League might've gone, but we still had the FA Cup and the Champions League to aim for. The last thing we needed at that moment in time was yet more upheaval.

 

"Whatever the outcome, we all wanted everything to be resolved before the Everton game."

 

Following nearly a week of wild speculation, O'Hara's future as Arsenal manager was finally decided on Friday 25 March. He returned to the Emirates Stadium for discussions with the club's board, headed by chairman Keswick. Gazidis was also in attendance, as was owner Stan Kroenke, who had flown in from the United States.

 

Gazidis revealed, "Stan went into that meeting with every intention of sacking Gary O'Hara. He'd had enough of all the underachievement and all the controversies. He made it perfectly clear to me, to Sir Chips, to everyone else on the board - Gary had to go.

 

"Stan's plan was to put Arsène [Wenger] back in charge of first-team duties until the end of the season. In the meantime, he would commence a search for an elite manager who could guide Arsenal Football Club forward in the long-term.

 

"I fought hard at that meeting in favour of keeping Gary. Recent results couldn't be ignored, obviously, but we were still in the Quarter Finals of two cup competitions. There was still time for Gary to salvage the situation.

 

"Stan was seething when I made my thoughts clear to him. He warned me that if Gary was kept on, then I would be sacked as Chief Executive if Arsenal didn't win a trophy or qualify for the Champions League this season.

 

"We, as a board, took a vote on the matter. We then called Gary into the boardroom to inform him on our decision."

 

O'Hara entered the boardroom with some trepidation, deeply fearful of losing his dream job. However, even though league results had been very poor, and even though he was awaiting trial for assault, the Arsenal board had narrowly voted in favour of giving him more time. His suspension was to be lifted, and he would be reinstated as manager in the week leading up to the Everton match.

 

O'Hara was a relieved man, but not a contented one. He told the board that he would agree to stay on, but on one condition - that Keswick stepped down as chairman.

 

O'Hara had taken umbrage with Keswick's comments in an interview that had been broadcast on Sky Sports News while he was in police custody. Sir Chips' claims that Arsenal would not "have to worry about his situation for much longer" had particularly offended the manager.

 

"Stan couldn't believe what he'd heard," Gazidis said. "This was an incredible situation; the manager was essentially demanding that the chairman be removed from his position! Stan was apoplectic with rage, and he ordered him out of the boardroom.

 

"To be honest, I agreed with Stan. It showed incredible arrogance for Gary to make such a demand. At that point, I was ready to go back on the board's vote - and my own stance on the matter - by dismissing Gary with immediate effect."

 

Once again, though, O'Hara was to be saved at the last moment. Keswick stood up and declared, "On reflection, I have come to realise that my position as chairman is no longer tenable. My comments last week regarding Gary were deeply regrettable and wholly unacceptable.

 

"As Arsenal chairman, I had no intention whatsoever of undermining our manager. However, if Gary feels that he has been undermined, then perhaps it would be for the best that I should tender my resignation."

 

Kroenke reluctantly accepted Keswick's resignation. After over a decade on the board, and nearly three years as chairman, the 76-year-old merchant banker's involvement with the club had come to an abrupt and sorry end.

 

Keswick's departure from Arsenal was almost universally welcomed by the club's supporters. Since succeeding Peter Hill-Wood in 2013, he had been regarded by many Gooners as an "out-of-touch buffoon", or words to that effect. A particularly controversial comment from Keswick stating that he preferred to watch horse-racing over football hadn't exactly done much good to his reputation either.

 

Islington-born businessman Eric Holmes - another long-standing board member with a banking background - was elected to take over as interim chairman. A permanent successor to Keswick would be appointed at the club's Annual General Meeting in October.

 

And so, at the end of a dramatic afternoon at the Emirates, O'Hara had narrowly clung onto his job. He was now expected to see out the season at the very least.

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***

 

As March drew towards an end, Gary O'Hara was getting his seemingly flagging managerial career back on track.

 

Shortly after his suspension was lifted by Arsenal, the Football Association announced that they would take no further against O'Hara in relation to an incident in the 3-0 home defeat to Norwich City on 16 March. O'Hara had been sent to the stands after angrily confronting his Norwich counterpart Alex Neil during the second half. However, the FA ruled that "mitigating circumstances" meant it was "inappropriate" to charge the Gunners boss with any breach of conduct.

 

O'Hara formally returned to work on the Monday morning of 28 March - a mere five days before Arsenal's next home game against Everton. His reinstatement was not unanimously celebrated by his first-team players, one of whom was alleged to have asked Bould, "What the f*** is he doing here?"

 

However, the manager did have one very vocal supporter - the club captain. Speaking in the build-up to the Everton game, Per Mertesacker said, "I think it is important that the coach is still here. It has been a very difficult season in the Premier League for sure, but the players have faith in the coach.

 

"We are coming to an important stage in the season, where we can still win the Champions League, and maybe win the FA Cup for a third time in a row. Even though it is probably too late to win the league, there is still a chance of this becoming a successful season. To change the coach now would be very, very bad for us."

 

Mertesacker's own form in the centre of the Gunners' defence had declined in recent weeks, and he was an unused substitute for the Gunners' most recent game at Manchester City. The German would regain his place in the starting line-up for the Everton game, though for O'Hara, this change was more out of necessity than choice.

 

Barely 48 hours before he was due to play against his former club, John Stones overexerted himself during a weight training session. After being assessed by club doctors, the England defender was found to have sustained a stress fracture in his lower back.

 

Stones was ruled out of action for at least six weeks, potentially bringing his season to a premature end. Were Arsenal to go all the way to the Final of the UEFA Champions League on 28 May, which was still very much a possibility, Stones would face a battle to be fit for the trip to Milan.

 

The 21-year-old's untimely injury meant that Mertesacker - a man 10 years his senior - would partner Laurent Koscielny at centre-half for Arsenal in their first match after the international break.

 

Everton were in 9th place, though their form had been rather patchy since they'd ended a 21-year trophy drought by lifting the League Cup at the end of February. Two defeats and a draw had severely damaging Roberto Martínez's hopes of guiding the Toffees into the top four.

 

While O'Hara had been welcomed back into the Arsenal fold by most of his players, the fans were rather less forgiving. As soon as the manager emerged from the tunnel prior to kick-off, he was subjected to a torrent of boos from thousands of Gooners. Some supporters had even paid for a plane to fly over the Emirates Stadium with a banner that read, "WE WANT WENGER BACK #OHaraOut".

 

Arsenal seemed a more divided club than it had ever been since the advent of the Arsène Wenger era. However, the team would unite to produce one of the most complete Gunners performances of recent times.

 

A second-minute attack set the tone for what would lie ahead. Aaron Ramsey lifted the ball deep into Everton's half, and Olivier Giroud held the ball up brilliantly before finding the overlapping run of Nacho Monreal. The Spanish left-back then swung a deep cross to the far post, where Joel Campbell got in front of Toffees stalwart Leighton Baines to head in the opening goal.

 

Campbell had been one of the few bright sparks from a dull Arsenal display at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City. The Costa Rican continued his fine form in the sixth minute, when his delivery into the penalty area found Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. 'The Ox' broke free of Everton right-back Seamus Coleman and craftily slotted the ball through a gap between Joel Robles and the goalkeeper's near post.

 

Oxlade-Chamberlain was ecstatic after doubling Arsenal's advantage, and understandably so. This was his first start for the Gunners since sustaining a back injury late in January, and he'd marked it with just his second goal of the season. The first had come at Crystal Palace way back in August.

 

Mind you, Arsenal needed to be wary of a potential fightback from Everton. Shortly after Oxlade-Chamberlain struck, Toffees midfielder Ángel Correa - a young Argentine who'd been loaned in from Atlético Madrid - cut inside from the left flank and curled a shot narrowly off target.

 

Gunners fans would not have much more to sweat over in the first period. Petr Cech's only save before the interval was from a drive by Everton playmaker Ross Barkley in the 34th minute, by which point Arsenal had already missed an array of opportunities to go 3-0 ahead.

 

The second half began with another opportunity for Everton - and specifically for their long-serving Republic of Ireland international Coleman. A 52nd-minute counter-attack from the Toffees resulted in Coleman's vicious effort being acrobatically tipped over the bar by Cech, who also kept Romelu Lukaku off the scoresheet six minutes later.

 

Arsenal's own attack had lost its way since that quickfire start. The Gunners' killer instinct appeared to have eluded them, and that was certainly evident in the 75th minute. After Robles beat away a free-kick from Mesut Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain was left with just a simple tap-in, albeit from a tight angle. He ended up striking the near post before the rebound was scrambled away from team-mate Danny Welbeck by the visitors' defence.

 

Five minutes later, Özil attempted to find substitute Welbeck with a weighted pass into the Everton area. Brazilian centre-half Renan Fonseca muscled the ball from Welbeck's feet, but he could only divert it to Campbell, who drove home an excellent shot from out wide. That was Campbell's second goal of the evening, and Arsenal's third.

 

The Gunners were playing like an orchestra again, with Campbell as the conductor. In the 86th minute, he breached Everton's offside trap with a delicate chip to Özil, whose shot was parried by Robles. Özil managed to keep the rebound in play before drilling it across for Welbeck to tap it home.

 

Arsenal had emphatically won 4-0 at home to Everton. John Stones - the scorer of the Toffees' winning goal in the reverse fixture at Goodison Park five months previous - hadn't even been needed by his new club.

 

This was the type of consummate display that Gooners had not witnessed on a consistent enough basis during O'Hara's reign. As far as they were concerned, they hoped that this would be the start of a typically Arsenal-esque late-season surge, and not just another false dawn.

Edited by CFuller

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CHAPTER 22 - Gone, Gone, Gone?

 

It'd be fair to say that there weren't many football personalities who conducted exclusive interviews with music publications. Mind you, Gary O'Hara was no regular football personality.

 

It was common knowledge that O'Hara's love of music was almost as fierce as his passion for the beautiful game. The Arsenal manager crossed over into that other universe when he was interviewed by the music journalism magazine NME - or the New Musical Express, to give it its full title.

 

One afternoon in early March, O'Hara travelled to NME's headquarters in Southwark in central London to talk to one of their leading reporters. He discussed his favourite indie music and retold some of his favourite stories, including the mixtape that helped him connect with the childhood sweetheart who would later become his wife.

 

There were mentions for bands such as The Sundays, Voice of the Beehive and the Cocteau Twins - all favourites of Gary's from his formative years. However, the interviewer also probed into the football manager's mind for some artists that he did not have much time for.

 

When asked about his least favourite music act of all-time, O'Hara was very quick off the mark. "Meat Loaf - I cannot stand that guy's music. It's just over-the-top progressive opera rock to me.

 

"Queen have done a bit of opera rock in their time but I can tolerate them; 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is a musical masterpiece. Nothing Meat Loaf has ever done could be called a masterpiece. If I wanted to listen to theatrical music, I'd go to the West End."

 

O'Hara's disdain for the Texan rock musician was now out in the open, and his comments would come back to haunt him on the night after Arsenal's 4-0 home win over Everton.

 

The O'Haras were fast asleep at their home in Borehamwood when, almost at the stroke of midnight, they were woken up by the piercing sounds of guitars. Specifically, they were startled by the unmistakeable opening instrumental of "Bat Out Of Hell" - the title track from Meat Loaf's 1977 breakthrough album, and his signature tune.

 

Laura O'Hara recalled, "It was all peaceful and quiet, and then out of the blue came these guitar riffs, and then Gary screaming at the top of his voice, 'OH, FOR F***'S SAKE!'

 

"The next thing I knew, Gary had switched the bedroom light on, and Adele and Lucy were running in covering their ears wanting to know what was going on. How do you explain something like that to a nine-year-old girl?"

 

Virtually the entire street was woken up by the song, which was played at full blast until it was over. The track in question was the album version, which ran on for close to 10 minutes.

 

Police were called to investigate the source of the disturbance, but they came up empty-handed. The perpetrator - or perpetrators - appeared to have fled the scene, for the time being.

 

Three hours later, the same thing happened again. "Bat Out Of Hell" blared out at maximum volume, once again disturbing dozens of Borehamwood residents in the middle of the night.

 

Laura said, "When that happened the second time around, Gary told me, 'This is obviously some sort of vendetta against me. Someone's read that NME interview and is using it to wind me up.'

 

"I said to Gary that it was probably just some young prankster who thought he was being funny. I honestly thought that this would be a one-night thing, and that everything would quickly return to normal."

 

Laura's forecast would be proven wrong the very next night. At around 12:30pm, the street was subjected to eight-and-a-half minutes of "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" - another epic Meat Loaf track from 'Bat Out Of Hell'. Ironically, that particular song contained the lyrics, "Let me sleep on it. Baby, baby, let me sleep on it."

 

Laura recalled her husband yelling, "IS THIS SOME KIND OF F***ING JOKE?!" as he stormed out of bed and left the house - wearing only his boxers - to investigate the source of this prank. Meanwhile, several disgruntled neighbours banged on the O'Haras' door, demanding answers from Laura, who was just as clueless as they were.

 

This time, the police managed to apprehend the culprits. 22-year-old Matthew Baynes from Islington and 21-year-old Richard Oluwadare from Camden had both been caught playing the song on maximum volume on boomboxes at opposite ends of the street. The pair were arrested for being in disturbance of the peace, and - specifically - breaching the Noise Act of 1996.

 

On Monday morning, the 'We Are The Gooners' Twitter page posted a cryptic tweet that stated, "A champion never shows his weakness." Baynes and Oluwadare were both known to be regular contributors to WATG's YouTube content. It was now obvious that O'Hara had been specifically targeted.

 

"I'd never been so scared in my life," Laura recalled, her voice trembling. "These people now knew where we lived, and they were using that to try and effect some sort of response from Gary. But they weren't just ruining his life; they were ruining mine, Adele's, Lucy's, even our neighbours', just because they didn't like what he was doing at Arsenal."

 

Mercifully, the following night would not see any disturbances. But as Laura continued to fear for her family's safety, Gary flew out to Italy with the Arsenal squad on Tuesday ahead of their next continental match.

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***

 

Arsenal's first UEFA Champions League Quarter Final in six years saw them face their strongest challenge yet. Awaiting them in Turin for the first leg were the reigning kings of Italian football.

 

Managed by Massimiliano Allegri, Juventus were top of Serie A and on course for their fifth consecutive 'scudetto'. Champions League success had eluded Juve since 1996, when the likes of Didier Deschamps and Fabrizio Ravanelli were taking Europe by storm. The Bianconeri had finished runners-up to Barcelona in 2015 and were now bidding to go one step further a year later.

 

Even an optimist like O'Hara was bracing himself for an almighty onslaught from the Italian giants. Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic formed one of the deadliest strike partnerships in Europe, and against a backline as fragile as Arsenal's, many were predicting a goal glut.

 

Dybala - a 22-year-old Argentinean who'd already scored six Champions League goals this term - gave Arsenal a sign of what they could expect to come in the third minute. After running onto an excellent direct pass from compatriot Roberto Pereyra, Dybala cut inside Gunners centre-back Laurent Koscielny and unleashed a shot that Petr Cech somehow diverted over his crossbar.

 

Juventus would go on to take the lead after eight minutes, but not from a player who was particularly well-known for his scoring exploits. Pereyra sprayed an excellent crossfield ball to Switzerland wing-back Stephan Lichtsteiner, who ghosted past Nacho Monreal and buried his first goal of the season.

 

Arsenal left-back Monreal was eager to make amends in the 11th minute, when he set up an equalising chance for Alexis Sánchez. The Chilean forward dribbled past Juve's holding midfielder Sami Khedira and then let rip with a strike that was tipped behind by the evergreen goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon.

 

Though the Gunners did make the occasional attacking foray, they were vastly outnumbered by those from Juventus. Dybala forced another tricky save out of Cech on 18 minutes, as did midfielder Claudio Marchisio five minutes later.

 

Arsenal had tightened up massively to try and shut the Bianconeri out in the middle. That left them exposed on the flanks, and when Khedira searched out Lichtsteiner in the 28th minute, the 32-year-old had licence to roam the right wing. He skipped past a hopeless sliding tackle from Sánchez and then curled in a byline cross that Mandzukic met with the most clinical of headers.

 

At 2-0 down, the Gunners' Champions League hopes were in real peril again. They were now relying on Juventus to make a mistake - and Khedira did exactly that in the 32nd minute, when he met Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker's long ball with a heavy first touch.

 

That Khedira slip-up allowed Joel Campbell to burst from behind and cut inside, leaving him with only Buffon to beat. Campbell powered an excellent shot over the despairing Buffon's dive, but his strike rebounded off the bar and was expertly cleaned up by Bianconeri defender Leonardo Bonucci.

 

The woodwork had denied Arsenal there, but it would also save them at the other end in the 40th minute. Pereyra dribbled effortlessly past a challenge from Gunners destroyer Francis Coquelin en route to the penalty area, where he smashed a shot against Cech's left-hand post. But for a matter of inches, Arsenal would have had a daunting half-time deficit of three goals, rather than merely two.

 

Juventus continued to pepper their visitors with shots after the break, though their accuracy was somewhat suspect. Dybala and Lichtsteiner each missed fine chances for 3-0, while midfield playmaker Paul Pogba fared slightly better with a 53rd-minute header that did at least draw Cech into a catch.

 

The Bianconeri were famed for boasting a rock-solid defence with an Italian core in the shape of centre-halves Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Those two would threaten to put the tie out of Arsenal's reach in the 71st minute.

 

Chiellini's long throw into the Arsenal area found Bonucci, whose header clipped the post and deflected back into play. Mandzukic then stretched out a leg in a vain attempt to divert the loose ball over the line. The ball evaded everyone in the six-yard box bar Héctor Bellerín, whose clearance left thousands of travelling Gooners mightily relieved.

 

Lady Luck was very much against the Old Lady come the 79th minute. Lichtsteiner had tormented Arsenal's backline all afternoon, and he would do so again after connecting with another incisive Marchisio pass. He evaded a tackle from Monreal and then chipped the ball towards Mandzukic, whose header cannoned off the bar.

 

Juventus had now struck the woodwork on three occasions, and their misfortune would prove significant in the 83rd minute. Arsenal gave them a taste of their own medicine when Bellerín's cross from the right was slammed home at the back post by Sánchez, thus finishing off a lightning-quick counter-attack from the visitors.

 

Sánchez' late strike was just what Arsenal needed. Though the Gunners had lost the first leg 2-1, the Chilean's away goal at least sent them into the return fixture with a realistic chance of going through. A simple 1-0 home win at the Emirates Stadium six days later would be enough to send them into the Semi Finals on the away goals rule.

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***

 

Those Champions League Quarter Final matches with Juventus came either side of another crunch game for Arsenal. Their next league fixture was at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur - the one team that every Gooner loved to hate.

 

Preparing for a match that Arsenal dared not lose was stressful enough for O'Hara without his personal life plunging into deeper turmoil. When he returned home from Italy, he found that his wife and two daughters were nowhere to be seen.

 

While Gary was working in Turin, Laura O'Hara had received a number of threatening letters, all of which were directed at her husband. The final straw for her was when she received a call from the Metropolitan Police to say that the Royal Mail had uncovered a suspicious package addressed to Gary. The package was destroyed, and subsequently found to have contained bullets.

 

"It just wasn't safe for us to live where we were anymore," Laura said. "That Wednesday night, whilst Gary was in Italy, I packed up some essentials and took the girls with me to my parents' house. We would be staying with them until the 'madness', as I called it, blew over.

 

"Obviously, I phoned Gary first to tell him about what we were doing. He completely understood where I was coming from. He would always put our safety and wellbeing before his own.

 

"It was the first time Gary and I had lived apart since we were engaged. It tore at my heart, but it had to be done, for the good of our marriage and our children. This was only going to happen for a few days, and I was sure we'd get through it in the end."

 

Gary O'Hara would sleep alone for the two nights before the North London derby. The stress of recent days was apparent on O'Hara's face when he shook the hand of Tottenham counterpart Mauricio Pochettino prior to kick-off. While Pochettino appeared bright and energetic, and eager to get going, the Arsenal boss looked atypically pale and haggard for a 37-year-old.

 

The teams' first-half performances closely reflected their managers. Tottenham were lively and full of hope; Arsenal were nervous and low on confidence. A repeat of the Gunners' earlier derby wins on home soil this season - 4-1 in November, and then 4-0 in January - looked extremely unlikely.

 

It came to nobody's surprise that Spurs went very close to taking the lead after merely three minutes. Turkey international winger - and big-money January signing - Gökhan Töre swung a corner towards the near post, which Erik Lamela struck with an angled effort from just inside the six-yard box.

 

Another Töre corner would cause Arsenal's defence some issues in the fourth minute. Tottenham centre-half Jan Vertonghen rose high above Coquelin to reach the former Beşiktaş winger's delivery, which he flicked wide.

 

Gunners goalkeeper Cech was forced into his first save after 11 minutes, parrying Christian Eriksen's strike after the Danish midfielder had run onto Lamela's through-ball. Seven minutes later, it was Mousa Dembélé's turn to have an effort saved by the Czech veteran.

 

Arsenal did show some fighting spirit in the 30th minute, when left-back Kieran Gibbs almost headed home a corner from Mesut Özil. That narrow miss was bookended by a couple of clumsy tackles that led to yellow cards for Gibbs' defensive comrades Bellerín and Koscielny. The latter's foul on Kane in the 34th minute would prove especially costly.

 

From holding midfielder Nabil Bentaleb's free-kick, Tottenham steadily probed the ball through Arsenal's half, waiting for an opening. That moment arose when Eriksen knocked the ball past Mertesacker for the young England striker Harry Kane to drive in a fine left-footed strike. Gibbs unsuccessfully protested for an offside call against Kane, and Spurs would go into the interval leading 1-0.

 

O'Hara's only half-time change was to replace the ineffective Sánchez with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. However, before the winger could make an impact, Kane had a great chance to double Tottenham's advantage in the 47th minute. Fearful Arsenal fans were left breathing a sigh of relief when the 22-year-old's header from Lamela's cross bounced wide of Cech's left-hand post.

 

In the 51st minute, Oxlade-Chamberlain set out to restore parity for Arsenal with a delicate lob to Aaron Ramsey on the edge of the Spurs 'D'. The Welsh midfielder went for goal, but he didn't remotely trouble Spurs' goalkeeping captain Hugo Lloris.

 

On 61 minutes, Koscielny brilliantly intercepted a long ball from Dembélé to set the wheels in motion for a Gunners counter-attack. His header wound up at the feet of Danny Welbeck, who would later be replaced with Theo Walcott. Welbeck's attempted pass to Joel Campbell was cut out by Tottenham left-back Danny Rose, whose tackle diverted the ball towards the penalty area... and towards Oxlade-Chamberlain.

 

With just Lloris left to beat, a clean-through Oxlade-Chamberlain looked odds-on to equalise. That was until the Tottenham captain rushed forward and pushed his strike away. Lloris would make another fabulous save just seconds later, smothering the follow-up drive of Özil.

 

Arsenal's hopes of parity had been dashed, and by the 64th minute, it appeared that their aspirations of taking any points from this match had also gone west. Lamela punished some chaotic Gunners defending by knocking Dembélé's crossfield lob ahead of Kane, who powered home his and Tottenham's second goal.

 

The 22-year-old's brace inspired Spurs fans to launch into the popular "Harry Kane, he's one of our own" chant. In one way, that was a deliberate taunt at their hated rivals. While Kane had been on Tottenham's books since he was aged 11, the then budding schoolboy footballer had spent a year in Arsenal's youth set-up prior to that. Contrary to some media reports, though, Kane had been a lifelong Spurs supporter rather than a hardened Gooner.

 

At the away end, there was no encore of the once-popular "Oh, Gary, Gary" chant that had echoed around the Emirates Stadium back in November. When the manager's name was chanted by Arsenal's supporters, it was "O'Hara out", to the tune of "Allez les Bleus" - a popular cry from followers of the France national team.

 

Though an excellent passing move involving the British triumvirate of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Walcott would see the latter pull one goal back for Arsenal in the 78th minute, it wasn't enough to save face. The Gunners went down to a demoralising 2-1 defeat that saw them slip to 6th place - just one spot above a Spurs team who were now closing in on them.

 

O'Hara's most recent interview with BT Sport - away to AFC Bournemouth in February - had not panned out well, and neither would this one. During the interrogation, reporter Des Kelly quipped, "I know it must hurt you to lose to Tottenham at the third attempt, but I suppose it's a bit like what Meat Loaf once said, isn't it - that two out of three wins ain't bad?"

 

"Are you trying to be funny, Des?" O'Hara sputtered, before veering off into an emotional tirade. "Are you trying to make light out of the living hell me and my wife and kids have been put through by some good-for-nothing punks all this week? Is this what journalism has become? Do you like seeing me suffer? DO YOU?"

 

O'Hara then walked off, prompting the BT Sport producers to quickly cut back to a stunned Jake Humphrey in the studio. The presenter then said, "Wow. Arsenal have lost the North London derby... and it seems that Gary O'Hara has lost his sense of humour as well!"

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CHAPTER 23 - No Quarter Given

 

In all honesty, Gary O'Hara was never the most popular Arsenal manager amongst the club's most passionate supporters. The backlash against him from many Gooners only intensified after the North London derby defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.

 

"HOW THE F*** did we lose to the f***ing Spuds?" Billy Khan asked on 'We Are The Gooners'. "They've been s*** all year! We'd p***ed all over them twice before at the Emirates this season... but when we went over to White Hart Lane, it was as if the players left their brains back home!

 

"This wouldn't have happened if the Arsenal boss spent more time training up his players instead of talking to a music mag! Hell, bruv, this wouldn't have happened if the board SACKED O'Hara when they had their chance last month! Why couldn't our saviour Arsène have come to the rescue then, eh?

 

"We've p***ed away the top four; that ain't gonna happen no more. We'd better not p*** away the Champions League or the FA Cup now, else there's gonna be a riot, bruv! You heard me! THERE'S GONNA BE A RIOT!"

 

O'Hara had once again made his views on the Arsenal manager perfectly clear. The same applied to a prominent supporters' club who'd asked hundreds of Gooners from across the UK about whether they felt O'Hara should be retained. An overwhelming 83% of those polled called for O'Hara to leave, with only 11% in favour of him staying on.

 

The fan reaction was also taking an even heavier toll on O'Hara's personal life. An increasing amount of hate mail was sent to the family home in Hertfordshire, and even though his wife Laura and their two children had temporarily moved out to avoid being caught in the crossfire, they would also be targeted.

 

Laura's eyes welled up as she conjured up memories of one Tuesday afternoon, when she was contacted at work by the head teacher of her youngest daughter's primary school. Nine-year-old Lucy O'Hara had been the victim of a mindless assault from an older pupil who supported the team that her father was managing. She was left with a black eye, and several bruises on her face, torso and legs.

 

"I was so shocked when I saw her face," Laura sobbed. "She was badly swollen; she barely looked like my Lucy. The head teacher told me that it was the worst act of violence she had ever seen in 20 years of working with primary school children.

 

"I was naïve to think that only Gary would suffer the consequences if Arsenal's results didn't go as hoped. It'd started to affect me a few weeks earlier, especially when it came to the Meat Loaf incidents and that bullet parcel. Now our daughters were being targeted.

 

"Lucy was only attacked because of who her daddy was. That was the final straw for me."

 

Even though Gary's salary was more than enough to afford public education for Adele and Lucy, the O'Haras had persisted with sending their daughters to state schools. That would not be the case any longer.

 

Laura continued, "I decided right then that I wanted to pull the girls out of their schools, and pay for a tutor to teach them at home before finding them new public schools in the new year. Gary was on board with that, but he said that he'd think it through after the Juventus game."

 

That evening, Gary O'Hara was at the Emirates Stadium, hoping to win over an increasing army of Arsenal doubters by leading a comeback in their UEFA Champions League Quarter Final against Juventus. The Italian giants had won the first leg 2-1 in Turin six days earlier, and many onlookers expected them to complete the job in this, the return fixture.

 

Though they were behind on aggregate, Arsenal did have a couple of things in their favour. The first was, obviously, their home support. The second was that consolation goal Alexis Sánchez scored in Turin, which meant that a 1-0 home win would be enough to send the Gunners through on the away goals rule.

 

A clean sheet would certainly be high on O'Hara's agenda, but first, he had to inspire his team to take the lead.

 

"You might be on the back foot right now, but believe me, it's Juventus who have all the pressure in the world," he began. "If I know enough about Italian teams when they're leading for the first leg, then I know that they'll be playing to avoid defeat, rather than playing to win.

 

"You've got the desire. You've got 50-odd thousand Londoners willing you to win. Most importantly, you've got the ability. I believe that you can go out there, win us the game, and take this great club into the Semi Finals!"

 

Sánchez - who'd been appointed to captain the Gunners - then let out a Spanish war cry. "¡Vamos, hombres! ¡Vamos!" Even those Arsenal players who couldn't speak the Chilean forward's native tongue were fired up as they left the dressing room and emerged from the tunnel.

 

The determination in this Arsenal team was plain to see right from the off. As early as the second minute, they took the game to a Juventus team who - as O'Hara had predicted - had started the match in a conservative manner.

 

Spanish attacking midfielder Santi Cazorla searched out the overlapping run of Kieran Gibbs with a crossfield ball to the left flank. The wing-back then swung in a deep cross just before Juventus right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner could close him down. As the ball swerved across the penalty area, Joel Campbell raced forward to get ahead of the visitors' other full-back Alex Sandro and poke it in at the back post.

 

A deafening roar went up across the Emirates. Arsenal had taken an early 1-0 lead, and they now had the overall advantage on the away goals rule.

 

Arsenal had shaken off the shackles and were playing with more freedom than they had done in months. Another Gibbs crossed caused Juventus problems in the fourth minute, when Gianluigi Buffon awkwardly pushed it round the left-hand post that Campbell had just beaten him at. The iconic 38-year-old goalkeeper then did brilliantly to catch a volley from Sánchez after his centre-back Giorgio Chiellini had struggled to clear Cazorla's corner.

 

Juventus were now the team that needed to chase a goal, and they began their pursuit of one in the sixth minute. Argentina international forward Roberto Pereyra dribbled past a challenge from Gunners centre-half Krystian Bielik - making his Champions League debut at just 18 - en route to the penalty area, where his shot was saved by Petr Cech from point-blank range.

 

Cech would be severely tested by another Argentine in the 13th minute. Striker Paulo Dybala flighted a free-kick over the Arsenal wall and towards Cech, who parried it away for Olivier Giroud to clear into touch.

 

The attacking momentum continued to shift from half to half as the match went on. In the 19th minute, Cazorla lobbed the ball over Lichtsteiner and to the feet of Sánchez, who cut inside and drew a stunning reflex save out of Buffon. A minute later, it was Cech's turn to display cat-like agility in catching Mario Mandzukic's header from a Domenico Berardi cross.

 

Paul Pogba - Juventus' powerhouse playmaker - sent a piledriver just over the crossbar in the 23rd minute as Arsenal's defence struggled to contain their opponents. The increasing pressure took its toll on Bielik nine minutes later, when the Polish rookie pulled on the back of Mandzukic's shirt, for which he received a yellow card.

 

Hungarian referee Istvan Vad would book a second Gunner - ball-winning midfielder and yellow-card magnet Francis Coquelin - three minutes from half-time, following the Frenchman's trip on Berardi. By then, Cech had successfully seen off a couple more worrisome Juve strikes from Dybala and Berardi.

 

Arsenal were barely clinging onto their 1-0 advantage at half-time. O'Hara and his assistant Steve Bould would need to deliver the team talk of their careers to inspire the Gunners to see the job through.

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***

 

As O'Hara quietly surveyed his dressing room at half-time, Bould addressed the Arsenal players. "You're doing well, lads, but there's still a long way to go," he began. "You can bet your life that Juventus come at us in the second half. The onus is on them to attack now.

 

"Even if Juve do get that goal back, you've gotta believe that you can take the lead again. You came back against Zenit in the last round, so you can do it again tonight."

 

That was when O'Hara chimed in with some words of inspiration. "I want to tell you a story, lads. Some of you may still remember four years ago, when we lost 4-0 against AC Milan at the San Siro. In the return leg at the Emirates, we were 3-0 up at half-time. Unfortunately, we didn't score again in the second half. Milan went through to the Quarter Finals; we went out.

 

"I was in the North Bank stand that night. It was a fantastic performance, but most of us Gooners were so, so disappointed at full-time. I was sitting behind a load of children in Arsenal shirts, and with their red-and-white scarves. Most of them were in floods of tears at the final whistle. When your team comes so close to achieving something truly great but doesn't quite get there, it hurts.

 

"When you run back onto the pitch for the second half, think of those kids in the stands - those young Arsenal supporters whose only memories of Europe have been of last-16 defeats, or Quarter Final defeats. They've become used to disappointment, but every loss is just as bad as the last.

 

"If you can get through these next 45 minutes and reach the Semi Finals, then they'll start to believe that anything could happen. They'll start to believe that you can make their dreams come true."

 

O'Hara had now decided that this was the perfect time to replace his youngest defender with his most experienced. Bielik was substituted to avoid a possible red card, and club captain Per Mertesacker was sent on to help hold the fort.

 

Mertesacker had not enjoyed the best of seasons for the Gunners, but he faced few problems in the opening stages of the second half. It wasn't until Pogba drove an effort into Cech's hands on 57 minutes that supporters of the Bianconeri started believing again that they could equalise, and thus take the lead in the tie.

 

In the 63rd minute, Pereyra cut the ball through a crowd of Arsenal shirts in the home penalty area and spotted the run of Pogba. The 23-year-old midfielder's strike was blocked by his French compatriot Coquelin, who then won the ball off Pereyra when Juventus were attempting to build another attack moments later.

 

Pogba was a resilient character, though, and he had a habit of making a major contribution at exactly the right time. After just under 70 minutes, Juve left-winger Dybala caught out the advancing Mertesacker by drilling the ball across to Pogba, who was in bags of space in the penalty box. He then unleashed a left-footed strike that Cech - for the first time that evening - wasn't quick enough to react to.

 

It was now 1-1 on the night, and 2-1 to Juventus on aggregate. Arsenal had to score one goal in the next 20 minutes simply to force extra-time, and two to progress into the Semi Finals.

 

Mesut Özil's recent form for Arsenal had been very 'hot and cold', but O'Hara had kept the flamboyant German on the bench in case he would be required. Now was the time for him to throw on the club's most expensive attacking player, as a replacement for Cazorla.

 

Özil would have his first opportunity to make his mark after 76 minutes. Sánchez brilliantly dispossessed Lichtsteiner just outside the Arsenal area and fired the ball up the left flank for Özil to run onto. As his team-mates advanced forward, Özil took the ball to the byline and drilled it back to Campbell on the edge of the area. Campbell's strike was a powerful one... but not quite accurate enough to keep on the right side of the post.

 

Özil tried again in the 83rd minute, lifting a wonderful pass up to frontman Olivier Giroud, who surged past Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci and only needed to beat Buffon. That was when the Juve captain summoned up all his experience to tip Giroud's strike behind.

 

Two minutes later, Gibbs' cross into the Juventus area deflected off Chiellini and fell fortuitously into Özil's path. He lashed a shot with so much venom that Buffon could do little other than push it on to Sánchez, who half-volleyed in a rebound shot from a tight angle.

 

Arsenal were now 2-1 to the good. If the situation didn't change again within the next five minutes plus stoppage time, the tie was heading for extra-time. However, as it transpired, this fixture would be settled within the 90 minutes.

 

With three minutes to play, Juve's substitute midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah drove the ball through to an unmarked Pereyra on the left flank. Pereyra shimmied beyond Arsenal right-back Héctor Bellerín and attempted to curl the ball home from an angle. One goal for the visitors here would leave the Gunners needing two more to stay in the Champions League.

 

As it was, those Gooners who'd feared the worst when Pereyra whipped that delivery into the box wouldn't need to worry after all. Cech was in no mood to be beaten for a second time this evening, and his save kept Arsenal's continental dream alive.

 

Then, as the match advanced into the 89th minute, Lichtsteiner squared a pass to Asamoah deep in the Juventus half. What Lichtsteiner didn't count on was that Asamoah would be closed down by Arsenal winger Theo Walcott, who'd recently come on as a late replacement for Campbell.

 

Özil was first to the loose ball, which he powered towards Buffon in the Bianconeri goal. The usually unflappable veteran uncertainly parried the ball again, and he would be swiftly punished by another rebound strike. This time, though, it wasn't Sánchez who sent the Arsenal fans into hysterics. Instead, it was Giroud's 22nd goal of the season that had put the Gunners on the brink of the last four.

 

Juventus now had two minutes of injury time to try and force in a late goal that would save their skins and break Arsenal's hearts. However, Sánchez had the chance to finish them off once and for all when he ran onto a last-minute through-ball from Özil. The Gunners skipper fired his shot against the corner of Buffon's goal frame, but that miss wouldn't be a costly one.

 

Vad's final whistle a few moments later brought an end to a genuine Champions League classic. If there were any tears shed amongst the home supporters in the immediate aftermath, they were of joy and pride. Arsenal had produced what many pundits later claimed was their finest European display in 10 seasons at the Emirates.

 

The Gunners had won 3-1 on the night - and 4-3 on aggregate - to defy all the odds and eliminate Juventus. Their reward was a place in the Semi Finals for the first time since the 2008/2009 season.

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