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

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Great turnaround sir, wonder if this will be thing match that turns your Arsenal career around

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16 hours ago, mark wilson27 said:

Great turnaround sir, wonder if this will be thing match that turns your Arsenal career around

I didn't think we had it in us. Even now, I still don't know how we won! :D

I've made it clear from the outset that this is only a short-term story. That said, getting through to the Champions League Semis - if not further - could have been a potentially defining moment in a longer career.

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***

 

Of Arsenal's prospective opponents in the last four of the Champions League, Bayern Munich were without doubt the most fearsome. Josep Guardiola's side had eliminated the holders - and his former club - Barcelona 5-3 on aggregate to close in on what looked set to be a second European title in four years.

 

Roma - whose goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was on loan from Arsenal - had seen off Manchester City to reach this stage. The Serie A side were regarded as the competition's dark horses, but the 'underdogs' tag went to Benfica, whose shock 3-1 aggregate win over Real Madrid had moved them a step closer to breaking the 'curse' of Béla Guttmann.

 

When the Semi Final draw was made, Arsenal managed to avoid the might of Bayern and a reunion with Benfica. Instead, the Gunners would face Roma over two legs - at the Emirates on 27 April, and at the Stadio Olimpico on 3 May. If successful, they would return to Italy for the Champions League Final in Milan's San Siro on 28 May.

 

Arsenal's success in the Champions League allowed some Gooners to forget momentarily about their Premier League struggles. Even though the chances of a top-four finish looked extremely remote at best, there was now a very real possibility that they could still qualify for the following season's Champions League - by winning the trophy itself.

 

With that in mind, the intense scrutiny over O'Hara's position lessened significantly over the following week or so. The flood of hate mail slowed to a trickle, and Gary soon felt that it was safe enough for his family to return home.

 

Laura and the couple's two daughters had been living with her parents for a week-and-a-half, since the feud between Gary and certain sections of the Arsenal fanbase had reached its zenith. With the atmosphere now a lot calmer, Laura agreed that the time was right for her and the girls to move back in with Gary.

 

The O'Hara family reunion came on the Friday night before Arsenal's next league fixture, at home to mid-table Sunderland.

 

There was plenty of excitement amongst thousands of younger fans at the Emirates Stadium, where the legendary Brazilian winger - and recent Sunderland signing - Ronaldinho Gaúcho - was signing autographs aplenty. However, the 36-year-old wouldn't be taking to the pitch for Sam Allardyce's Black Cats, as he had twisted his knee a week earlier.

 

Another experienced head who'd joined Sunderland in mid-season was the 34-year-old former Marseille midfielder Benoit Cheyrou, who arrived in the north-east after a short stint in Canada with Toronto FC. Cheyrou gave Arsenal a couple of scares in the first half, most notably in the 12th minute, when he powered a shot inches wide.

 

The Gunners were slow to get their game up and running. 22-year-old Mackems goalkeeper Jordan Pickford wasn't tested until the 27th minute, when he got his gloves to a header from Campbell and then kept out a drive from Coquelin.

 

It was Campbell who would make it third-time lucky for Arsenal after 30 minutes. The in-form Costa Rican international surged away from Sunderland left-back Patrick van Aanholt to tuck in a deep low cross from Kieran Gibbs and open the scoring.

 

Arsenal's lead remained at 1-0 going into the second half, though they almost grabbed a second goal five minutes after the restart. Gunners right-back Bellerín floated a cross into the penalty box, where his Sunderland counterpart Billy Jones was fortunate not to head it into his own net. Only a quick-thinking fingertip save from Pickford spared Jones' blushes.

 

The visitors' luck was very much in come the 59th minute. French international midfielder Yann M'Vila found the experienced former England striker Jermain Defoe in space in Arsenal's penalty area. After being pressurised by Bellerín, Defoe cunningly cut the ball back to Cheyrou, who looped a spell-binding edge-of-the-area shot beyond Cech's reach with his left foot.

 

Though somewhat disgruntled at watching his side lose their lead, O'Hara was surprisingly magnanimous. He sportingly applauded Cheyrou's goal and told his assistant Steve Bould, "That might be the goal of the season." O'Hara's prediction wasn't quite spot-on, though that strike would indeed come 2nd in a BBC poll to find the best Premier League goal scored in April.

 

Arsenal huffed and puffed in the next half-hour to try and claw back the advantage, but they would have no joy. A 66th-minute half-volley from Campbell was superbly parried by Pickford, while the likes of Sánchez and substitute Danny Welbeck were also unsuccessful in their attempts to win the game.

 

Walcott did drive in a Cazorla through-ball from a tight angle when there were just two minutes left to play, but the England winger was caught miles offside. For the second time this season, Arsenal and Sunderland would have to share the spoils after a 1-1 draw.

 

This result mathematically confirmed that Arsenal's 12-year wait for a Premier League title would be extended into a 13th season. With just four matches left to play, the Gunners were in 6th place on 53 points - seven fewer than Liverpool in 4th, and 13 less than Leicester City, who'd battled their way back to top spot following some mid-season wobbles.

 

About half an hour after the final whistle, O'Hara's emotions spilled over at the post-match press conference. Speaking to journalists from the few organisations who hadn't been banned at his command, he began, "I suppose you can now add a bit more to your Gary O'Hara epitaphs. Well, you can write whatever you wanna write, as far as I'm concerned, because I am done.

 

"I am done with being treated like a criminal because of some bad results. I am done with the lowlifes in your ranks harassing my family 24-7. I am done with the physical and emotional threats being given to us by those 'militant Gooners' - those angry parasites that I'm too ashamed to call real Arsenal fans.

 

"Me and my wife have both received death threats. Our eldest daughter has been treated as a sexual object by the papers. Our youngest daughter has been VICIOUSLY ASSAULTED just because some Arsenal fans don't like what I'm doing!

 

"You can't possibly do any more damage to my reputation, or to my family's wellbeing. We have all been through hell these last few weeks. You have near enough destroyed us.

 

"So yeah, I'm done. I'm done with giving a crap about what you - or any of those online trolls - have to say about Gary O'Hara and his family. You can do whatever you want from now on, because I don't care anymore."

 

After a minute-long monologue attacking his harshest critics, O'Hara abruptly stood up and told the press room, "Now watch me rise up and leave all the ashes you made out of me." His final parting shot before walking out was taken from the song "Ashes" by Yorkshire rock band Embrace.

 

Gary O'Hara would never attend another press conference as Arsenal manager.

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***

 

O'Hara's dramatic walk-out from the Emirates press room after the Sunderland draw had left the media stunned. Many of the Sunday newspapers speculated that the Arsenal boss was close to resigning from his job, or even on the verge of suffering a nervous breakdown.

 

O'Hara's quote, "I'M DONE", adorned the back of the Mail on Sunday's pages. The Sunday Mirror claimed that he had "CRACKED", and the Sunday Times predicted that he would leave at the end of the season, come what may. There was no word from The Sun on Sunday, who had boycotted Arsenal and O'Hara since he'd banned them from his press conferences in February.

 

Sky Sports News was another media outlet that O'Hara had refused to speak to in recent months. On Sunday evening, their esteemed reporter Bryan Swanson claimed on air that O'Hara was "seriously considering his long-term future at Arsenal Football Club". SSN had already jumped the gun once with regards to breaking an 'exclusive' story surrounding his future, but they were perhaps hedging their bets this time around.

 

The man himself refused to publicly confirm or deny anything as he made his way into the Arsenal training ground on Monday morning. He walked past a large crowd of journalists, repeatedly telling them, "No comment; leave me alone."

 

O'Hara and his players were firmly focussing on their FA Cup Round 6 replay at Reading the following evening. Whoever won at the Madejski Stadium would subsequently move on to Wembley for a Semi Final against Burnley, which would take place just four days later.

 

Thousands of Gooners had confidently bought tickets to the FA Cup Semi Final, in anticipation of their team's expected Quarter Final victory over the 13th-best team in the Championship. They seemed to be taking the threat of Reading lightly - and so did O'Hara, whose starting line-up featured 17-year-old senior debutant Jordi Osei-Tutu at right-back. Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek, who'd celebrated his 19th birthday the previous day, was also selected.

 

Any thoughts that Arsenal had of this tie being won easily would perish after just five minutes. Left-back Nacho Monreal's cross into the Reading penalty area was intercepted by Michael Hector, whose team-mate Lucas Piazón cleared the ball out left to Simon Cox. The 28-year-old Irishman then knocked an excellent forward for Czech striker Matej Vydra to run onto and fire past a despairing David Ospina.

 

Arsenal were 1-0 behind, and so they turned to their lesser-spotted Basque warhorse Mikel Arteta for inspiration. The 34-year-old midfielder had just announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season, but he tried to roll back the years midway through the half.

 

Arteta unleashed a promising mid-range drive in the 25th minute, only to see it clawed behind by Ali Al-Habsi. Reading's popular Omani goalkeeper also kept out a powerful headed effort from the Spaniard a minute later.

 

The Gunners' next three scoring opportunities also came from headers. Welbeck and Bielik skimmed the crossbar in the 28th and 36th minute, but Sánchez went even closer in the 38th, when he nodded an Osei-Tutu cross against the woodwork. Close, but no cigar.

 

O'Hara was not in a great mood when his team retreated to the dressing room still trailing 1-0. He refused to lay any blame on the inexperienced Osei-Tutu, who'd enjoyed a solid opening 45 minutes by most accounts, but strikers Welbeck and Sánchez both came in for serious criticism. The latter would not return for the second half, as Giroud was brought on in his place.

 

Much to O'Hara's infuriation, his attackers continued to struggle after the resumption. Another promising right-wing delivery by Osei-Tutu in the 55th minute was met by a far from satisfactory header that Welbeck sent flying over the crossbar.

 

A minute after that miss, Arsenal were almost caught out by another Reading counter-attack. In a role-reversal of the move that had resulted in the Royals' opening goal, Vydra fed a sublime crossfield ball to Cox, whose strike cannoned off the bar before Osei-Tutu half-volleyed it into touch.

 

Reading were coming strong again, and by the 63rd minute, Brian McDermott's minnows were two goals to the good. Ola John's centre was met by the deftest of headers from Brazilian forward Piazón. Ospina had charged from his line to try and claim the ball ahead of the on-loan Chelsea youngster, but he could only look on as the ball bounced beyond him and rustled into the net.

 

For the second time in about a week, Arsenal were left needing two goals to stay in a cup competition. O'Hara once again threw Özil on for the last 20 minutes in a bid to turn the tide, but the miracle fightback against Juventus would not be replicated in Berkshire.

 

The final nail in Arsenal's FA Cup coffin was hammered in the first minute of injury time. Osei-Tutu's naïvety finally got the better of him when Reading left-back Jordan Obita - recently capped by Nigeria - shrugged him off to lift a cross into the box. Obita did more than that, however, as the ball floated over Ospina and into the target! It was as if Obita had suddenly summoned the spirit of Norwich City's Claudio Beauvue!

 

McDermott had notoriously seen his Reading team throw away a 4-0 lead against Arsenal in the League Cup in 2012, eventually losing 7-5 after extra-time. There was no chance of a similar capitulation this time around, as the erstwhile Gunners midfielder finally got one up on his former employers, by three goals to nil.

 

The Royals progressed to their second successive FA Cup Semi Final, where they would ultimately endure more Wembley woe and collapse to a 4-1 defeat against fellow second-tier side Burnley. The other Semi would see Premier League strugglers Watford squeeze past Manchester City 1-0 and close in on their first major trophy.

 

Arsenal's FA Cup defence had met a sticky end, and so O'Hara's first season as manager would now boil down to one competition. As far as he was concerned, it really was Champions League or bust.

Edited by CFuller

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CHAPTER 24 - Heroes And Villans

 

St George's Day was usually a day of celebration for many a patriotic Englishman or woman. Many an Arsenal fan felt that 23 April 2016 should've been a landmark day for their team as well, with the Gunners bidding to reach their third successive FA Cup Final and move one step away from becoming the first 'three-peat' cup winners since the 19th century.

 

Of course, a shock defeat to Reading in Round 6 had dashed Arsenal's hopes of making history. While their conquerors were getting smashed to pieces at Wembley by a ruthless Burnley side, the Gunners spent the Saturday afternoon playing out a dour Premier League match away to relegation-threatened Aston Villa.

 

The Villans went into this game third-from-bottom, and desperately striving to avoid tumbling out of the top flight for the first time since the 1980s. Ex-Gunners defender Rémi Garde was still at the helm, but volatile Villa owner Massimo Cellino appeared to be running out of patience with the Frenchman.

 

The hosts got off to a lively start at Villa Park, where they almost took the lead after just 15 seconds. Their controversial homegrown midfielder Jack Grealish surged past Arsenal's ageing skipper Per Mertesacker and then chipped a pinpoint pass to striker Jordan Ayew, who volleyed a close-range shot against the upright.

 

The opposite woodwork would also receive a couple of beatings, firstly from Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla in the 14th minute. A few moments later, Cazorla played an inswinging corner to Laurent Koscielny, whose header struck the post before being hacked clear by Villans left-back Aly Cissokho.

 

That was about as exciting as the first half got. Both sets of supporters greeted the half-time whistle with cheers for their slacking stars. There were even chants of "boring, boring Arsenal" from those of a North London persuasion.

 

The second half showed plenty more promise, mainly from the home team's perspective. Four minutes after the restart, a quickfire counter-attack from Aston Villa resulted in Ayew drilling home a sublime through-ball by captain Gabby Agbonlahor. The Ghanaian striker thought he'd opened the scoring, but one of the referee's assistants had correctly ruled that he was fractionally offside.

 

Ayew would be kept off the scoresheet twice more by a couple of impressive saves from Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech in the 57th and 69th minutes. In contrast, his strike partner Agbonlahor only racked up a solitary shot on goal, scooping it clean over the bar on 53 minutes. He was hauled off shortly afterwards, and his replacement Rudy Gestede was arguably even less of a threat to the Gunners defence.

 

At the other end, Villa's custodian Brad Guzan was tested on a number of occasions. Joel Campbell looked the man most capable of scoring, which he almost did in the 65th minute. However, Guzan was equal to the Costa Rican's angled attempt.

 

Another great opening arose four minutes from full-time for Arsenal substitute Kaylen Hinds, who'd replaced the disappointing Danny Welbeck up front midway through the half. The 18-year-old Londoner got his head to a free-kick from Mesut Özil, but he couldn't quite direct it past Guzan.

 

This match would also see Gunners boss Gary O'Hara give a Premier League debut to another 18-year-old - the promising roaming playmaker Ismaël Bennacer. While O'Hara's continued faith in youngsters was admirable, it couldn't disguise the fact that Arsenal's performance was once again leaving a lot to be desired.

 

This was O'Hara's 53rd competitive match in charge of Arsenal - and it would yield his first goalless draw. More significantly, that result confirmed that the Gunners could no longer finish inside the Premier League's top four. This was the first season since 1995/1996 in which they had failed to do so.

 

Ex-Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson had watched the match in the Sky Sports studio as a pundit for the Gillette Soccer Saturday programme, and he made his feelings very clear in the aftermath.

 

"As a former Arsenal player, and more importantly as a football fan, that match near enough brought me to tears," Merson told presenter Jeff Stelling. "It was just dire, absolutely dire. I know that both teams hit the woodwork in the first half, but the second half, Jeff... it really was some of the worst football I've seen since I was managing Walsall all them years ago.

 

"That Arsenal performance reminded me a lot of what they were like in the last few seasons when Arsène Wenger was manager. Everything they did just looked laboured and unimaginative, with no cutting edge. Nothing's changed since Gary O'Hara took charge. Nothing's changed at all.

 

"I love Gary O'Hara dearly, and I love Arsenal for giving a young English coach a chance at a top, top club... but I can't defend Gary anymore, and I can't defend Arsenal anymore. Not after this.

 

"I can understand teams giving a chance to someone who reckons he's the bee's knees if he at least tries to make a difference - at least tries to turn this football team into a team that wins trophies. But Gary ain't done nothing, and he's won nothing either."

 

Merson's fellow Arsenal-icon-turned-pundit Charlie Nicholas pointed out that O'Hara had won the Community Shield at the start of the season. Merson replied, "The Community Shield don't count. It's just a glorified friendly at the end of the day."

 

He then continued, "You know what's even more depressing for me? At this moment in time, Arsenal look more like an Arsène Wenger team than they did when Arsène was the manager! I'm serious."

 

When Stelling pointed out that Arsenal could still win the Champions League, and that O'Hara was perhaps now prioritising that, Merson replied, "That's all well and good, but I don't see that happening. I can see them beating Roma over two legs, but what about Bayern Munich in the Final? I'll eat my tie if they can do that, I swear.

 

"Seriously, I don't think Gary O'Hara was ever cut out to be Arsenal manager, at least not at this stage in his career. The club should've done everything - and I mean everything - to get [Jürgen] Klopp in when they had the chance. Now they should be looking for a Rafa Benítez or a Brendan Rodgers. They need someone who actually has what it takes to manage a big football club and compete at the top level week in, week out."

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***

 

While O'Hara's critics were increasingly making their voices heard, there was one man whose opinion carried much more weight than those of pundits and punters. Arsenal's chief executive Ivan Gazidis was now under intense scrutiny, with many supporters demanding that he clarified the manager's future sooner rather than later.

 

Gazidis had remained somewhat loyal to O'Hara, even when club owner Stan Kroenke had repeatedly demanded his dismissal. However, even the 51-year-old's monk-like patience was being tested to breaking point.

 

On the afternoon following the goalless draw with Aston Villa, Gazidis finally broke his silence. He conducted an exclusive interview with Sky Sports News reporter Bryan Swanson, in which he made the Arsenal board's position clear.

 

Gazidis declared, "It goes without saying that the team's results this season, particularly in terms of the Premier League, have been very disappointing. The prospect of Arsenal not competing in the UEFA Champions League in the 2016/2017 season is now a very real possibility, and one that is of major concern to our supporters and stakeholders.

 

"While the board still has confidence in Gary O'Hara, we are not yet convinced that he should remain first-team manager in the long-term. Mr O'Hara will remain in charge until the season has concluded, at which point all board members will gather here at the Emirates to discuss the next course of action."

 

It seemed, then, that O'Hara would have to win the Champions League in his first season as Arsenal manager, simply to keep his job for a second term. With Roma lying ahead in the Semi Final, and then a potential Final meeting with either Benfica or Bayern Munich, that would be no mean feat.

 

The Emirates Stadium hosted the first leg of Arsenal's last-four clash with Roma on Wednesday 27 April. It was of paramount importance to O'Hara and the Gunners that they racked up a home victory ahead of a tricky second leg at the Stadio Olimpico six days later.

 

Roma's squad featured plenty of familiar faces to Arsenal fans, none more so than goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who'd been loaned out to the Giallorossi following Cech's arrival in North London. In the Premier League, on-loan players were not allowed to play against their parent clubs. This regulation did not apply to UEFA competitions, following a landmark ruling in 2014 that allowed Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois to feature against the Blues whilst on loan with Atlético Madrid.

 

Egyptian inside-forward Mohamed Salah and Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko were two other recognisable names in the Roma ranks. They each had prior PL experience with Chelsea and Manchester City respectively, though neither man had fond memories of their time in England.

 

Meanwhile, Roma's legendary captain Francesco Totti was bidding to finally lift the Champions League trophy in his final season before retirement. The former Italy forward, now aged 39, eyed up the perfect start with a stunning 35-yard strike after seven minutes. Sadly for him, the ball ended up safely in the hands of Cech.

 

At the other end, Szczesny had already made an important early against the club who still officially held his contract. The eccentric Pole looked in fine fettle when he parried away a left-wing cross from Arsenal full-back Kieran Gibbs after just three minutes.

 

Slovenian referee Damir Skomina brought out his yellow card for the first time on 12 minutes. Roma full-back Alessandro Florenzi had cynically pushed Alexis Sánchez over to stop him from connecting with a direct pass from Olivier Giroud. The 25-year-old Italy international, who'd spent his entire professional career at the Olimpico, was swiftly cautioned.

 

Szczesny displayed some more goalkeeping heroics for Roma in the 28th minute, acrobatically tipping away a shot from Giroud after Cech's long punt had eluded visiting defender Antonio Rüdiger. Koscielny went close to scoring from the subsequent corner kick by Özil, but it was another big-name Gunner who would finally end the stand-off a couple of minutes later.

 

Sánchez' 11th goal of the season was arguably his finest yet. The Chilean collected the ball from Gibbs deep in Arsenal's half. He then dribbled all the way to Roma's penalty box, where he turned past veteran hardman Daniele De Rossi and curled in a sublime finish from a somewhat difficult angle.

 

Sánchez continued to cause Szczesny problems in the latter stages of the first period. A quickfire breakaway move from the Gunners in the 41st minute saw the ball stroked quickly and efficiently across Roma's half before Sánchez's drive was parried away by the Giallorossi keeper.

 

Another Arsenal counter-attack, in the first minute of stoppage time, would prove even more incisive. Campbell held the ball up on the halfway line, and then moved inside before lifting the ball into the path of Giroud. The France striker then sent the home fans wild with an excellent strike that made it 2-0 at the break.

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Pressure's on! Enjoying how you are handling the scrutiny surrounding Gary's position. Well done.

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15 hours ago, tenthreeleader said:

Pressure's on! Enjoying how you are handling the scrutiny surrounding Gary's position. Well done.

Thank you. I've been putting a lot of effort in that side of the story, particularly at the back end of the season.

QUICK EDITOR'S NOTE: In case you haven't gathered already, I'm now looking to post daily updates of this story until its conclusion, which will likely be within the next two to three weeks.

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***

 

O'Hara was a rather contented man at half-time. He applauded his Arsenal players into the home dressing room, and then praised their first-half performance as one of the most convincing he had witnessed.

 

"It was very strange to me," Steve Bould recalled. "It was the first time I'd seen Gary smile for weeks - and by that, I mean a proper smile, not a fake one.

 

"You could tell how pleased he was. He felt like a manager who knew that his team was gonna win, and win well."

 

O'Hara was so satisfied by his team's display that he didn't make any personnel changes at half-time. Instead, he simply told his players, "Just keep doing what you're doing, and we'll be fine."

 

The atmosphere in the away dressing room could not have been any more different. Roma's head coach Luciano Spalletti - in his second spell at the Olimpico - was convinced that drastic action had to be taken if his beleaguered team were to stay in contention. He made the bold and arguably sacrilegious decision to substitute Totti, with Argentine wideman Diego Perotti replacing the ageing star.

 

Spalletti would make another controversial substitution just three minutes into the second period. The visiting supporters were already annoyed to have seen Totti depart early, and there were more jeers aimed in Spalletti's direction when chief midfield creator Kevin Strootman was sacrificed in favour of the aggressive Radja Nainggolan.

 

Arsenal certainly showed plenty of aggression early in the second half, with Héctor Bellerín and Francis Coquelin each picking up yellow cards for respective fouls on Stephan El Shaarawy and Florenzi. Gibbs had been cautioned in the first half, while no fewer than four visiting players had received bookings from Skomina come the 66th minute.

 

Roma had launched a number of preliminary attacks following the restart, but Cech wasn't seriously tested until the 71st minute. Substitute Perotti powered a header into Cech's hands shortly after his colleague Nainggolan's strike had been blocked by Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey.

 

O'Hara had kept all his substitutions in reserve up until that point. He then decided to rest both Ramsey and Campbell, with Cazorla and Theo Walcott being thrown on in their places. Within a couple of minutes, those two substitutes would work together to help secure a convincing victory for Arsenal.

 

Cazorla began yet another Gunners counterstrike by charging in on Nainggolan and knocking the ball on to Walcott. The winger then exchanged passes with Giroud before charging up the right flank and whipping in a sublime cross that Sánchez met with an even better finish.

 

Arsenal now had a 3-0 lead, not to mention one foot in the Champions League Final. What they didn't want now was to lose one of their defensive cornerstones for the decisive second leg in Rome.

 

A feisty but one-sided match boiled over in injury time, when Coquelin senselessly pushed Perotti - right in full view of Skomina. Coquelin had, of course, already been cautioned, so it came as no surprise that the referee issued him with a second yellow card, followed by a red. The aggressive French midfielder would miss the second leg, and what remained of the first, which wasn't much; Skomina blew his final whistle immediately afterwards.

 

While Arsenal had recorded a potentially crucial win, their celebrations at the end had been somewhat dampened by that late incident. All the players and coaching staff knew how sorely a tireless ball-winner of Coquelin's quality would be missed in Italy, none more so than the manager himself.

 

"What was the f***ing point of that, Franny?" O'Hara was heard screaming at Coquelin in the dressing room. "The game was nearly over! There was no need to lose your rag like that!"

 

Coquelin let out a Gallic shrug and meekly uttered, "Sorry." That apology did little to appease O'Hara.

 

"Sorry? Don't be all 'sorry' with me! That red card could be the difference between us playing in the Champions League Final next month, and us sitting on our a***s back home and watching it on TV!

 

"Franny, I really do love you, almost as much as my kids, but sometimes you can be an absolute nightmare!"

 

O'Hara then addressed his team to announce, "I want you all at training for 9:00am tomorrow, no later. You can thank your good mate Franny for that."

 

He then patted Coquelin on the back before departing the dressing room with a scowl. An hour earlier, he possessed the air of a manager who was on the verge of reaching the Champions League Final at his first attempt. That was perhaps not the case now, even with the Gunners in an even stronger position.

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Very new here but have over last few days read this from start to "finish". Such an absorbing read. I started writing one that was meant to have a similar arc of "inexperienced manager thrust into major club", but without anything like the detail of your compelling narrative. Looking forward to seeing it's completion.

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1 hour ago, paulinho86 said:

Very new here but have over last few days read this from start to "finish". Such an absorbing read. I started writing one that was meant to have a similar arc of "inexperienced manager thrust into major club", but without anything like the detail of your compelling narrative. Looking forward to seeing it's completion.

Thank you. The end is nigh, but I hope you'll enjoy it.

I've read through the opening chapters of your Manchester United story, and I'll try to find time to comment on it later.

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CHAPTER 25 - When In Rome

 

"I've been working at Arsenal for God knows how long. I've seen it all over the years - bust-ups, feuds, the lot. But that week before the trip to Rome was probably the one time in my coaching career where it felt like everyone in the squad was coming together.

 

"The lads had a real zip about them in those few days. They were all at training nice and early, and a lot of them stayed behind for extra hours. You could tell that they were really champing at the bit - really excited about what they felt they were about to achieve.

 

"For me as a coach, it was such a great time to be working for Arsenal Football Club. I could see that in Gary as well. He seemed to be in a really good place for the first time in weeks, since his brother sadly passed."

 

Those were the words of Arsenal's assistant manager Steve Bould, speaking about the build-up to the Gunners' UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg against Roma. The Gunners held a comfortable 3-0 first-leg lead ahead of their trip to the Stadio Olimpico in the Italian capital on 3 May.

 

Before then, manager Gary O'Hara had to get his team through what he saw as a Premier League dead-rubber. Arsenal would conclude April with their penultimate home game of a miserable domestic season.

 

Providing the opposition this time were Arsenal's traditional bogey team Stoke City, who were on course to record yet another solid mid-table finish under the management of Mark Hughes. The Gunners had withered to a pitiful 2-0 defeat at the Britannia Stadium in their last meeting back in December, but it looked early on that things would be very different this time.

 

Just seconds after kick-off, Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck dribbled beyond Stoke's on-loan Liverpool centre-half Joe Gomez and rifled in a shot that agonisingly hit the post. Potters goalkeeper Jack Butland then safely retrieved the rebound.

 

That miss would be a sign of things to come in a first half that Arsenal dominated, at least when it came to chance creation. Converting those chances into goals, however, was proving to be a real issue.

 

Captain Per Mertesacker flicked several headers off target during a frustrating first period for the Gunners. Their first shot on target didn't arrive until the 26th minute, when winger Theo Walcott shot from a tight angle and forced Butland into a fingertip save.

 

Butland would make another save in injury time, as three of Arsenal's Spanish contingent combined in a promising attack. Right-back Héctor Bellerín found Mikel Arteta in the City penalty area, and Arteta in turn squared the ball to Cazorla. Butland caught Santi Cazorla's subsequent drive, and the half-time score remained 0-0.

 

Stoke barely threatened Arsenal at the other end until five minutes after the second period began. Captain Charlie Adam found Xherdan Shaqiri in space, and the often-perplexing Switzerland winger turned sharply past Bellerín before hooking an angled shot just past the far post.

 

A tense match would finally see a goal in the 61st minute. Arsenal left-back Nacho Monreal tried to drill the ball to Welbeck in the six-yard box, but Welbeck went down under a challenge from Stoke defender Philipp Wollscheid. Play carried on, and after Walcott's initial shot at the back post was parried by Butland, the winger made sure that his follow-up found the net.

 

Butland's goalkeeping had been somewhat suspect on that occasion, though he did well to prevent the Gunners from bolstering their advantage. He caught a header from Welbeck in the 74th minute after the England striker had connected brilliantly with Walcott's hanging ball.

 

Stoke then looked to stun the hosts with a late equaliser from Spanish substitute Joselu, whose previous 21 Premier League appearances had seen him score only once. The former Real Madrid striker had one volley blocked by Mertesacker in the 76th minute and sent another over the bar shortly afterwards. His third and final attempt at goal was caught in the 86th minute by Petr Cech, who went on to save an even later strike from City midfielder Geoff Cameron.

 

Just like against Roma three days earlier, Arsenal held firm at their end. They successfully ground out a 1-0 win, not that it really mattered too much, considering that their hopes of breaching the top four were already dead and gone. Their priorities were now elsewhere.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

A couple of days after seeing off Stoke, the Arsenal squad arrived in Rome to begin their final preparations for their Champions League Semi Final second leg. The Gunners were no doubt hoping that this wouldn't be their only visit to Italy in May 2016.

 

Arsenal's 3-0 win in the first leg meant that they could afford a two-goal loss against Roma and still secure their place in the Final, which would be staged at the San Siro in Milan later in the month. Indeed, if the Gunners could snatch an away goal, then Roma would have no option but to beat them by at least four goals.

 

O'Hara prided himself as a manager who strived to win every game, but he was now willing to throw his principles away simply to secure a place in the Final. Expecting a Roma backlash, he fielded his team in a narrow 4-3-2-1 formation, otherwise known as the 'Christmas tree' tactic once made famous by Terry Venables. With his team playing very conservatively and trying to leave as few defensive gaps as possible, this was a strategy designed more to avoid defeat than to win.

 

All the pressure was on Roma to win, and win big. They sent out a clear message about their attacking intent in the very first minute, when Alessandro Florenzi found Kevin Strootman with a cross that went deep into the Arsenal half. Netherlands midfielder Strootman tried to flick his header in from a very tight angle, but it clipped the top of the bar and went behind.

 

In the seventh minute, Strootman knocked a long ball through the channel between Arsenal captain Mertesacker and right-back Bellerín. Stephan El Shaarawy ran onto the ball and floated it across to strike partner Edin Dzeko, whose effort was caught by Cech.

 

Dzeko would test Cech again on 11 minutes, heading Florenzi's whipped corner into the hands of the diving Arsenal goalkeeper. The Gunners' experienced goalkeeper rescued them again a minute later, turning behind a hopeful attempt from Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah.

 

A couple more Roma chances came and went before Arsenal launched their first attack in the 19th minute. Bellerín knocked a lovely square pass to Cazorla, whose drive found the side netting.

 

An away goal would've put the Gunners in a very comfortable position, but they were looking far from secure come the 23rd minute. Roma finally got the stroke of luck they needed when another Florenzi cross into the visitors' penalty area deflected off Bellerín and fell to Strootman, whose simple finish left Cech without a prayer. The Giallorossi were 1-0 up on the night, though they still trailed 3-1 on aggregate.

 

The travelling Arsenal fans were praying for a swift riposte from their side. On 26 minutes, star striker Olivier Giroud held up a pass from Aaron Ramsey, staving off the presence of Roma defender Leandro Castán before driving it goalwards. Home goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was very happy to see his former team-mate's shot drift pitifully wide.

 

The Gunners' defence was pressured again when Laurent Koscielny got up to intercept a cross from Roma left-back Lucas Digne in the 31st minute. The clearance would up at the feet of the Giallorossi's Greek centre-half Kostas Manolas, whose attempted piledriver went clean over.

 

An attempted Arsenal counter-attack broke down after 36 minutes, with Bellerín being upended by Digne. The 22-year-old French full-back, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, duly received the game's first yellow card from Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers.

 

Arsenal began stretching Roma out a bit more in the 42nd minute, putting together a delightful passing move that ended with Cazorla sidefooting the ball through to Messi. As several home defenders cried for an offside call, Ramsey struck the ball first-time, only to pull it beyond the far post.

 

Ramsey's miss would prove telling in the final minute of first-half normal time. Mertesacker cut out Strootman's attempted weighted pass to El Shaarawy and knocked it behind for a corner, but he would soon be regretting that decision. When Strootman nodded Florenzi's set-piece into the net, Roma took a 2-0 lead that left them just one more goal away from overall parity.

 

Pragmatism was not helping Arsenal's cause here. If their hitherto three-goal lead was not to disappear completely, they would surely need to go on the attack, but not before Bould went on the attack himself in the dressing room.

 

The assistant manager fumed, "Call that a Champions League performance? You're having a right f***ing laugh, aren't you? We had a strong position from the first leg, and you've near enough p***ed it away now!

 

"I'm sure Gary will agree with me when I say that you've got to pull your socks up and show some f***ing passion in the second half, else you'll regret it for the rest of your lives!"

 

Bould looked around the room for O'Hara, who he found sitting on a bench while shuffling through some music on his MP3 player. The manager eventually came across the track "Keep Your Head Up" by folk singer-songwriter Ben Howard, and played it loud enough for all his charges to listen to.

 

A couple of players tried to interrupt the song, bemusedly asking O'Hara what he was doing. O'Hara quickly hushed them and demanded they listen to Howard's soothing lyrics, which included the chorus:

 

"Keep your head up, keep your heart strong.

Keep your mind set, keep your hair long.

Keep your head up, keep your heart strong.

Keep your mind set in your ways, keep your heart strong."

 

After that calming musical interlude, O'Hara stood up and informed the team of his tactical changes for the second half. The 'Christmas tree' had not done its job, so the manager reverted to his more typical 4-2-3-1, and replaced the disappointingly stale Arteta with the potentially more explosive Joel Campbell. O'Hara hoped that putting more focus on attack would help the Gunners to defend their position and qualify for the Final.

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***

 

Ominously for the thousands of Arsenal fans who'd travelled to the Italian capital, Roma wasted little time in pushing forward at the start of the second period. Salah volleying a Florenzi cross over the bar within the opening minute.

 

Two minutes later, Salah burst through the Gunners' defence to latch onto a cunning through-ball from El Shaarawy. He would surely have levelled the tie had it not been for a last-ditch slide tackle from Koscielny.

 

Koscielny's intervention resulted in a corner, which Florenzi drifted into the box. Campbell's interception was a poor one, and the tenacious Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan played the ball short to El Shaarawy, whose powerful attempt led to another vital catch from Cech.

 

Cech would continue to produce moments of heroism for the Gunners as the second half went on. Nainggolan, El Shaarawy and Salah all had opportunities to equalise prior to the hour mark. None of them were able to get the ball past the determined Czech goalkeeper.

 

After 60 minutes, the impressive Dzeko attempted to whip a cross to Salah in the box. Bellerín did brilliantly to cut the cross out, but he failed to anticipate that Daniele De Rossi would run onto his headed clearance and blast it goalwards. In the end, Bellerín and his team-mates were relieved to see De Rossi's strike clear the bar.

 

Less than a minute after his potentially costly mistake, Bellerín recomposed himself. He collected a crossfield pass from Ramsey and sprayed it out to Giroud, who found Mesut Özil making a break for goal. Once Szczesny had charged from his goal line, Özil pulled the trigger and fired a bullet into the far end of the Pole's net.

 

There was the away goal Gooners had craved all evening. At 2-1 down, but 4-2 up on aggregate, the Gunners now knew that they could now afford to concede a minimum of two more goals and still reach the Final. Roma needed to strike three times in the closing half-hour or so if they were to advance to their first European Cup decider since 1984.

 

The Giallorossi's predicament could've been worsened further had Mohamed Elneny erased their second-leg lead altogether in the 63rd minute. Arsenal's Egyptian ball-winning midfielder had a rare pop at goal, which forced Szczesny to stretch his left arm out and divert the ball away.

 

Campbell was also looking desperate to finish the Italians off, missing three chances to do so within the next five minutes. His fourth attempt on goal, after 70 minutes, would be the charm.

 

Arsenal left-back Kieran Gibbs tried to knock the ball upfield to Cazorla, only to see Manolas intercept it just outside Roma's penalty box. However, Manolas couldn't spot Cazorla racing towards him from behind. The ball was hoovered up from his feet, and Cazorla drilled it across the area for the Costa Rican to apply what was surely the coup de grâce.

 

Barring an inexplicable four-goal collapse in the last 20 minutes, Arsenal were heading into the Champions League Final. O'Hara was now confident enough to make his final substitutions, sending on Krystian Bielik and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to replace Mertesacker and Cazorla. Though Polish centre-half Bielik was still only 18 years old and making just his second CL appearance, O'Hara saw no risk in throwing him on, with the tie all but won.

 

Roma were now desperately needing a ray of hope, and they got one after 72 minutes, when Bellerín upended Strootman just 25 yards from the Arsenal goal. Bellerín was booked, and Roma's iconic captain Francesco Totti - a 61st-minute replacement for Salah - stood over the ball waiting to take his free-kick.

 

On the night of his 101st - and almost surely final - continental appearance for the Giallorossi, Rossi chipped the ball over Arsenal's defence and into the box. Cech charged from his line to try and claim the delivery, but Dzeko beat him to it and slid the ball across his goal line.

 

Had a rare Cech mistake seen Arsenal go 3-2 down in a match that they weren't already comfortably leading on aggregate, O'Hara would surely have kicked up a real fuss about it. As it was, the Gunners boss was now so confident of overall victory that he simply shook his head and chuckled. Even though they'd now pulled one goal back, Roma surely couldn't score another three... or could they?

 

Things took a rather more serious tone in the 75th minute, when Koscielny was booked for upending Dzeko on the halfway line. Bould jumped out from his touchline seat and desperately urged his players to "f***ing calm down", which was perhaps missing the point somewhat.

 

Bould's and O'Hara's hearts skipped a few more beats seven minutes from full-time, when De Rossi bypassed the Arsenal defence and tapped in a first-time cross from Digne. De Rossi had already begun celebrating with his team-mates when Kuipers blew his whistle and disallowed the goal for offside. The hosts still needed to score another three times in a short space of time.

 

That offside call did for any hopes Roma still possessed of mounting an incredible comeback. With virtually every Arsenal player sitting deeper and defending for their lives, the Giallorossi could not conceivably break through again.

 

The final seven minutes, plus the one additional minute, felt like half an hour to O'Hara and Bould. When the final whistle did eventually blow, O'Hara let out a sigh, turned to his assistant Bould, and said, "We're almost there, Bouldy."

 

The Arsenal players were, unsurprisingly, overcome with rather more emotion than their manager. Though they had lost 3-2 on the night, they had won 5-3 on aggregate and were now just one step away from immortality.

 

Arsenal would be back in Italy for the UEFA Champions League Final on 28 May 2016, when they would hope to become the 23rd different club to lift the European Cup. Their opponents on that fateful night at the San Siro in Milan would be a team who had done it all before, on five separate occasions.

 

The following evening saw Bayern Munich comfortably dispatch Benfica in the second leg of their Semi Final, recording a 3-0 win in Lisbon to triumph 5-0 on aggregate. The Bundesliga giants would now be looking to emulate their previous successes from 1974, 1975, 1976, 2001 and 2013 - and, in doing so, become the third-most successful club in European Cup history, behind only Real Madrid and AC Milan.

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This continues to be excellent Chris, on many levels. As others have said, you're managing the speculation and combo of domestic misery/Euro success very well, and I'm enjoying the tour of your Gary's music collection on the way. Keep it up!

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On 1/17/2018 at 09:04, EvilDave said:

This continues to be excellent Chris, on many levels. As others have said, you're managing the speculation and combo of domestic misery/Euro success very well, and I'm enjoying the tour of your Gary's music collection on the way. Keep it up!

I'll let you in on a secret. Many of the songs I've linked to aren't in my music collection. I just like them, and think that they fit in well with the story.

Indeed, there are so many excellent songs that I have wanted to insert into this story in some form. Unfortunately, either they don't align with Gary's music tastes, they are too recent for the 2015/2016 season, or I just haven't been able to find a suitable place to slot them in.

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CHAPTER 26 - Time Is Running Out

 

At the start of May, The Sun's blatant boycott of Arsenal and Gary O'Hara had been ongoing for over two months. Since O'Hara had banished their reporters - and those of certain other media outlets - from press conferences over the publication of photographs taken of his eldest daughter Adele, they had hardly ever mentioned the Gunners or their manager.

 

On Wednesday 4 May, The Sun's back pages contained no reference whatsoever to Arsenal's aggregate win over Roma, which had secured them a place in the UEFA Champions League Final. Their main story concerned former Chelsea manager and media magnet José Mourinho, who had publicly announced his desire to replace Roy Hodgson as England's head coach after the upcoming UEFA European Championship in France.

 

On Thursday 5 May, however, the boycott was finally shattered - in stunning fashion. The headline on the front page of that day's edition of The Sun read: "GARY O'HARA'S SECRET SON: Kraut woman reveals one-night stand with Arsenal chief."

 

Anna-Lena Hofweber had gone public with details about her liaison with O'Hara in Benidorm in 1996. The Sun were not averse to sensationalist stories regarding prominent celebrities or sportspeople, and they lapped this one up.

 

The now 42-year-old Hofweber had flown from her home in Mönchengladbach to London, where she revealed all to one of the tabloid's newest reporters - Salma Mazhar. That was the same Salma Mazhar who had been quietly sacked by the Daily Mail just weeks earlier for publishing an article about O'Hara's 14-year-old daughter Adele.

 

Hofweber recalled O'Hara being "a nice British man", though the sexual aspect of their one-nighter was "terrible", mainly due to his being drunk.

 

Hofweber also provided photographic evidence of the affair. While a topless O'Hara was passed out head-first on the pillow beside her, the German blonde - sporting only a red silk bra - used her camera to take a photograph of the pair together in bed. Had the word 'selfie' been in the English vocabulary in 1996, that image would probably have been termed as such.

 

Anna-Lena's son Leon was born in March 1997, approximately nine months after the liaison. She initially brought him up on her own, but then began a relationship with businessman Johann Hundhausen, whom she married when Leon was six. Though Anna-Lena retained her maiden name, her son became known as Leon Hundhausen.

 

Hofweber also revealed in her interview with Mazhar that Leon had been diagnosed with a mild form of autism - a developmental disorder - while still at primary school. Since then, she and Hundhausen had struggled somewhat to support Leon financially.

 

Hofweber then pointed out that O'Hara's late brother Paul had an autistic son, saying, "Gary has a nephew with autism, but he will not acknowledge my son. He is a hypocrite."

 

O'Hara was furious when he read that statement with his wife Laura. How, he asked, could Hofweber have gathered such sensitive information about Paul's family? Had Mazhar - who of course had previous when it came to publishing controversial stories about the O'Haras - been involved in some way?

 

As far as Laura was concerned, that wasn't the point. Gary had had a sexual liaison with another woman without her knowledge three years prior to their marriage, whilst he was on holiday and she was studying at university.

 

A blazing row broke out between the couple, with Laura accusing her husband of betraying her and breaking their vow that they would never keep secrets from one another. Gary tried to defend himself, saying that he was a naïve 17-year-old at the time, and reiterated that he had been too inebriated to be fully aware of his actions.

 

"Why was he drinking?" Laura asked when interviewed about the revelation of Gary's drunken affair. "The legal drinking age in Spain is 18, just like it is over here. Surely he should've known that beforehand?

 

"And if he did have an affair behind my back, then what else was he hiding from me? I've only ever had sex with one man. How many other women had Gary had sex with?

 

"I married Gary because he was the one man in my life, other than my father, who I could trust with anything. After that story came out in the open, I really didn't know if I could trust him anymore."

 

Laura discovered another disturbing side to Gary during their confrontation about The Sun's story. During the row, Gary said, "Laura, I love you so much that I will never hurt you. My dad once told me never to lay a finger on a woman... but you know what? If I ever come across Salma Mazhar or that German bitch again, I might make an exception!"

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***

 

O'Hara had been confronted by Hofweber outside the Arsenal training ground back in November. A few weeks later, he had a similarly uncomfortable meeting with Watford's head coach Quique Flores.

 

Prior to Arsenal's last match against the Hornets at the Emirates Stadium in December, Flores had said that he wouldn't have been surprised if the under-pressure O'Hara was sacked sooner rather than later. Arsenal won 3-0, arguably saving O'Hara's job for the time being. However, the managers did not shake hands at the final whistle, and when Flores reiterated his earlier criticism, a furious O'Hara publicly branded him 'El Culo'.

 

When Arsenal travelled to Vicarage Road for the rematch on 7 May, though, there was no sign of 'El Culo'. Flores had been sacked early in February, with Watford desperately battling against relegation. Paul Lambert was brought in to try and steady the ship, but the Hornets now found themselves just one more defeat away from being sent tumbling back down to the Championship.

 

Though his old adversary was long gone, O'Hara would revel in the chance to relegate his former club Watford, whom he had left in acrimonious circumstances in 2008.

 

On the penultimate weekend of the league season, Arsenal did not take long to go about de-stinging the Hornets. Olivier Giroud split the hosts open in the fifth minute with a sublime pass ahead of Mesut Özil, who got past Watford centre-half Miguel Britos and laid on a powerful finish for Joel Campbell. 1-0 to the Gunners.

 

Watford began to battle back in the 11th minute, with midfielder Etienne Capoue striking a vicious half-volley that was superbly blocked by his French compatriot Laurent Koscielny. Three minutes later, though, the Arsenal centre-half was unable to prevent José Manuel Jurado's right-wing cross from reaching Hornets captain Troy Deeney, whose near-post tap-in levelled the scores.

 

Arsenal would click back into gear in the 22nd minute. Left-back Kieran Gibbs, who'd been booked just prior to Deeney's equaliser, reinstated the Gunners' advantage with an outstanding delivery that Giroud headed home.

 

Arsenal hoped to bag another goal two minutes later. Although the Hornets' on-loan Chelsea left-back Nathan Aké intercepted a crossfield pass from Özil just before it could reach Giroud, he could only divert it towards Gibbs, who played Alexis Sánchez through on goal. Sánchez burst clear and simply had to beat goalkeeper Tom Heaton from a tight angle, but he thumped the post.

 

Moments later, right-back Simone Padoin picked up Watford's first booking of the afternoon for tripping Koscielny. He was later joined in the book by team-mate Mario Suárez. The former Spain midfielder had now racked up 17 bookings in 37 competitive matches for the Hornets, though that didn't seem to put off title-challenging Chelsea, who would sign him for £6.75million in the subsequent off-season.

 

Arsenal's own yellow-card magnet - Francis Coquelin - notched up his 18th of the campaign after upending Deeney in the 35th minute. The French midfield destroyer would be replaced at the interval by Ismaël Bennacer, who was effectively his 18-year-old 'Mini-Me'.

 

The battle of Vicarage Road would continue to heat up five minutes into the second period. Next to test referee Paul Tierney's patience was Capoue, who felled Héctor Bellerín and consequently became the third Watford player to have his name taken.

 

Watford were losing their rag, but with survival very much on the line, none of their players would let up. Suárez certainly didn't in the 51st minute, when the volatile Spaniard knocked Özil to the turf in an off-the-ball incident. To further compound matters, Súarez had done it in the full view of Tierney, who swiftly drew out a second yellow card, followed it with a red, and then sent him packing.

 

That incident provoked yet another angry confrontation between the Arsenal and Watford managers. When Lambert angrily told the fourth official of his suspicion that Özil had dived to get Suárez sent off, O'Hara stormed out of his technical area and barked at him, "Why don't you just shut your big Scottish gob?"

 

Lambert and O'Hara tried to square up to one another, but the official stood between them and calmly ordered them to return to their respective dugouts. Both men obliged, but not before exchanging furious glances.

 

The tension rose further in the 54th minute, with Watford striker Odion Ighalo going down claiming that Koscielny had trod on his foot. The referee, who hadn't seen the incident, gave Koscielny the benefit of the doubt and told Ighalo to "get on with the game". Tierney's judgement proved to be spot-on, as video evidence showed no such altercation between either player.

 

Arsenal then pushed closer to taking a 3-1 lead before eventually doing so on 64 minutes. A skilful cross from Özil found Giroud, who got ahead of Aké to flick in his 25th goal of the campaign.

 

Watford's survival hopes were now hanging by the thinnest of threads, and they needed a quick reply if this wasn't to be their day of reckoning. Petr Cech was in no mood to give them any lifelines, with the Arsenal goalkeeper saving shots from Valon Behrami and Jurado in the 70th and 71st minutes respectively.

 

Arsenal almost finished the Hornets off in the 80th minute via substitute Jack Wilshere, whose fierce shot ricocheted off the crossbar before deflecting into Heaton's hands. Five minutes later, the other two Englishmen in this Gunners side combined to further increase the visitors' lead to 4-1. Theo Walcott - another substitute - broke free from Aké to drive in a sumptuous cross from Gibbs.

 

Watford's spirit was broken, and they were effectively relegated in the 87th minute, when Britos shoved Walcott over just as Bellerín had thrown the ball into the penalty area. Giroud steadied himself for the penalty, which he accurately powered beyond Heaton for a hat-trick, and a 5-1 scoreline.

 

Aké and Britos then picked up two more Watford bookings before the Hornets' late capitulation came to a head in injury time. Though Heaton had performed admirably all afternoon, he horribly misjudged the flight of a Gibbs cross, leaving Walcott free to secure his brace and put the seal on a 6-1 Arsenal win.

 

Unlike in December, the Arsenal and Watford bosses exchanged handshakes at the final whistle, though relations between them were still not amicable. In his press conference afterwards, Lambert said of his counterpart, "I don't know who Gary O'Hara thinks he is. The man's got absolutely no class, and he shouldn't even be managing in the Premier League as far as I'm concerned."

 

While Watford joined the already-doomed Newcastle United in planning for life in the Championship, they would also have UEFA Europa League football to look forward to in the 2016/2017 season. A fortnight after their relegation was confirmed, a first-half hat-trick from Almen Abdi at Wembley would see the Hornets overwhelm Burnley 3-0 and lift the FA Cup for the first time in their history.

 

The previous weekend had seen Arsenal's league fate decided. Had the Gunners broken into the top five and secured Europa League qualification at worst, or would they have needed to win the UEFA Champions League Final simply to stay in Europe?

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***

 

Ahead of the final round of Premier League fixtures, 5th-placed Manchester City were on 62 points. Arsenal were 6th on 60 points, with Tottenham Hotspur and Everton just behind them on 58. Everton were already assured of a UEFA Europa League place after winning the League Cup, but the rest had to finish in the top five to be guaranteed continental football next season.

 

Arsenal's final match of the league season was at home to none other than Chelsea - the defending champions. The Blues were top of the table on 72 points, leading 2nd-placed Leicester City only on goal difference.

 

Claudio Ranieri's plucky Leicester side had defied all expectations by taking their shock championship challenge all the way to the final day. Were they to register a better result at 3rd-placed Liverpool than Chelsea got at Arsenal, the Premier League trophy would be awarded to an East Midlands club for the first time.

 

As far as many underdog-loving Britons were concerned, Arsenal were now the good guys. They had the potential to stop 'big bad Chelsea' from grabbing their fifth Premier League title under Roman Abramovich's ownership, and - in doing so - open the door for Leicester to complete arguably the greatest fairytale in English football.

 

That said, Arsenal's main thoughts were on finishing in the top five. They would overtake Manchester City with a victory, provided that the Citizens lost at Carrow Road against mid-table Norwich City.

 

If that didn't quite work out, Arsenal would instead hope to finish above Tottenham at the very least. Not since 1994/1995 had Spurs eclipsed the Gunners in the Premier League. The red-and-half dominance of North London would stretch into a 21st consecutive year if Arsenal could defeat Chelsea, or Tottenham failed to win at 4th-placed Swansea City, whose own title charge had fallen apart spectacularly since the transfer window closed.

 

Arsenal fans had a name for the day on which it became mathematically impossible for Tottenham to catch them in the league - 'St Totteringham's Day'. However, just 11 minutes into the final round of the season, it looked like the Gooners' unofficial holiday would be cancelled for the first time in 21 years.

 

Home supporters at the Emirates Stadium had breathed a sigh of relief when Chelsea's centre-forward Diego Costa got behind Per Mertesacker and fired playmaker Willian's weighted pass just beyond Cech's right-hand post. However, their relief turned into disappointment when news filtered through from the Liberty Stadium that Harry Kane had put Tottenham 1-0 up on Swansea. As things stood, Spurs were set to finish above Arsenal.

 

Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had earlier come up with a couple of excellent saves to prevent either Sánchez or Özil from opening the scoring for Arsenal. The Belgian thwarted the Gunners again in the 16th minute by catching a tame effort from retiring Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta, who was making his 116th and final league appearance in an Arsenal jersey.

 

This fierce London rivalry got hotter still midway through the first half, with referee Roger East handing out a couple of bookings. Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma was penalised for tripping Giroud, whilst Arsenal's midfield destroyer Mohamed Elneny received his yellow card after pulling on Costa's shirt.

 

Zouma and Costa each came within inches of putting the Blues in front after 31 and 34 minutes respectively. The hosts were living very dangerously, but while they were struggling, their main rivals for Europa League qualification were faring even worse.

 

Inexplicably, Manchester City had gone 3-0 down at Norwich within the first 35 minutes, thanks to goals from Robbie Brady, Dieumerci Mbokani and Nathan Redmond. Barring an incredible revival from the Sky Blues, Arsenal now knew that a victory against Chelsea would guarantee them 5th place, and a spot in the Europa League.

 

Gooners sensed that their time to strike was imminent. Two minutes before half-time, Campbell was bundled over on the edge of the Chelsea area by the Blues' leading scorer Eden Hazard. Sánchez confidently lined up a free-kick, but he curled it against the corner of Courtois' woodwork.

 

Arsenal survived a scare of their own in the final few seconds of normal time. Willian cut inside from the left flank and dribbled into the Gunners' area, where he unleashed a shot that hit Cech's left-hand post before falling safely towards the goalkeeper.

 

The half-time score at the Emirates remained at 0-0. With an hour to go until the final whistle blew on this Premier League season, Arsenal were on course to finish 7th - below both Manchester City and Tottenham.

 

Some of Gary O'Hara's fiercest critics were now fearing the worst and using social media to go on the offensive, but Billy Khan was surprisingly hopeful. The 'We Are The Gooners' presenter tweeted, "We're Arsenal. WE ALWAYS FIND A WAY."

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***

 

O'Hara's way back from the brink of humiliation did not involve either Elneny or Arteta. He substituted both men at half-time, bringing the latter's professional career to an end, and brought on two more dynamic midfielders in Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla.

 

Despite those changes, Arsenal began the second half slowly, as if they knew things weren't going to plan for them. Four minutes after the restart, though, that all changed. Bafétimbi Gomis had equalised for Swansea against Tottenham, thus knocking Spurs back down to 7th and bumping the Gunners up to 6th.

 

Another goal was scored at the Liberty Stadium in the 56th minute... and it brought even more joy to the Gunners. Pablo Hernández had scored to give the Swans a 2-1 advantage. Tottenham now had to score twice, else they would be playing second-fiddle to Arsenal yet again.

 

While one Spaniard had helped the Gunners to consolidate 6th place, another was hoping to move them up into 5th. After 56 minutes, Bellerín - the newly-honoured PFA Young Player of the Year - turned past Chelsea left-back César Azpilicueta and eyed up what would have been just his third goal of the season. That was until he miscued his shot, sending it harmlessly wide.

 

Then, in the 60th minute, Chelsea's substitute wideman Pedro pumped the ball up towards Costa on the edge of the penalty area. The big Spanish international, who'd scored only seven Premier League goals in an injury-hit campaign, tried to take the ball past Koscielny, who upended him from behind just as he entered the area.

 

East awarded Chelsea a penalty, though Koscielny escaped with a yellow card, as he wasn't the last man. Hazard's spot-kick proved too clinical for Cech, and the Blues were 1-0 up. As things stood, they would retain the Premier League title, no matter what Leicester did. The Foxes were still being held to a goalless draw by Liverpool.

 

Hazard would cause the Gunners more aggro in the 64th minute, when his slide challenge on Ramsey left the latter with a dead leg. O'Hara told Ramsey to play on, though the Welshman was clearly hampered.

 

Six minutes later, Arsenal's other substitute Cazorla was the victim of another strong tackle - this time from Oscar in the Chelsea area. East ruled that Oscar had played the man and not the ball, and so he awarded the Gunners their own penalty kick!

 

Cazorla got back up before taking the penalty, which he hammered emphatically into Courtois' top-left corner. Arsenal were back level at 1-1. One more goal for the Gunners would see them leapfrog Manchester City into 5th place, and it would potentially hand Leicester the title if the Foxes could avoid defeat at Anfield.

 

Arsenal puffed and puffed for that second goal in the closing stages. Cazorla fired a free-kick over the bar on 75 minutes, two minutes before setting up an opportunity that Giroud drove just wide.

 

Arsenal's efforts produced no reward, and with four minutes to play, their supporters learnt of a potentially worrying development in south Wales. A late second strike from Kane had seen Tottenham level the scores against Swansea, and one more Spurs goal would send them back ahead of the Gunners.

 

As the final whistle blew at the Emirates with the scoreline still at 1-1, both teams anxiously awaited results elsewhere. When Chelsea learnt that Leicester had failed to break the deadlock against Liverpool, the travelling Blues players and their fans could finally celebrate retaining the Premier League trophy, which captain John Terry would lift about half an hour later. The most thrilling championship race in years had not had a happy ending for the underdog.

 

As for Arsenal, they now knew that they couldn't catch Manchester City, who held onto 5th position despite losing 3-0 at Norwich. The Gunners would not be parachuted into the Europa League, but could they at least finish above Tottenham?

 

Then the full-time result came from the Liberty. Swansea City 2, Tottenham Hotspur 2.

 

Arsenal had come 6th in the Premier League with 61 points, and 64 goals - more than any other team in the league. They had also - for the 21st season in a row - finished in front of their hated rivals Tottenham, who were two points behind in 7th.

 

"ST TOTTERINGHAM'S DAY HYPE!!!" came the tweet from Khan moments after the season ended. There was, at the very least, one thing Gooners around the world could celebrate after a tumultuous league campaign.

 

O'Hara acknowledged this mini-success in a post-match interview with the BBC - the only media outlet that he would now willingly speak to. He told their commentator Guy Mowbray, "This is a massive result. We might not have finished in the top four this time, but at least we, as Arsenal fans, can still say that our team is better than those chickens from across the road."

 

By 'chickens', O'Hara was subtly referring to the cockerel that adorned Tottenham's badge.

 

The manager wasn't wholly satisfied, mind. He said, "I'm not an idiot, Guy. I know that neither the fans nor the board will call this a successful season unless we win the Champions League.

 

"I'll be doing everything in my power to make sure that we take that trophy home from Milan on 28 May. It's the very least they deserve after the season we've had."

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Premier League Table (End of 2015/2016 season)

                                   P     W     D     L     F     A     GD    PTS
1.    C/CL  Chelsea                38    20    13    5     53    26    27    73
2.    CL    Leicester              38    22    7     9     59    40    19    73
3.    CL    Liverpool              38    19    12    7     54    33    21    69
4.    CL    Swansea                38    19    8     11    56    40    16    65
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
5.    EL    Man City               38    18    8     12    61    41    20    62
6.          Arsenal                38    18    7     13    64    46    18    61
7.          Tottenham              38    15    14    9     59    39    20    59
8.    EL    Everton                38    17    8     13    63    58    5     59
9.          Man Utd                38    14    12    12    43    46    -3    54
10.         Norwich                38    14    8     16    46    45    1     50
11.         Stoke                  38    14    8     16    50    56    -6    50
12.         Bournemouth            38    13    9     16    52    57    -5    48
13.         Sunderland             38    11    12    15    40    45    -5    45
14.         West Ham               38    12    9     17    53    60    -7    45
15.         Crystal Palace         38    12    8     18    52    62    -10   44
16.         West Brom              38    13    4     21    39    55    -16   43
17.         Southampton            38    10    13    15    45    64    -19   43
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
18.   R     Aston Villa            38    11    6     21    41    61    -20   39
19.   R     Watford                38    10    6     22    34    63    -29   36
20.   R     Newcastle              38    10    4     24    29    56    -27   34

 

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CHAPTER 27 - You Only Get One Shot

 

Arsenal's first UEFA Champions League Final was not a pleasant experience for many Gooners. 17 May 2006 could have gone down as the club's finest hour, but it instead delivered the cruellest blow in their illustrious history.

 

Arsenal were playing Frank Rijkaard's imperious Barcelona team, which included the likes of Deco, Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o, Carles Puyol, and ex-Gunners left-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst. The setting was France's national stadium - the Stade de France, in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.

 

Arsène Wenger's team took to the field in their classic yellow away strip. They were clearly hoping to evoke memories of when their similarly-clad class of 1989 had famously snatched the Football League championship from Liverpool in the final minute of the season.

 

After an even start, the match took a potentially fateful turn in the 18th minute. Arsenal's brilliant but eccentric German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann charged out of his area to bring down Eto'o, for which he became the first player to receive a red card in a European Cup Final. Backup custodian Manuel Almunia had to come off the bench to fill the void left by Lehmann, with Robert Pires' creativity being sacrificed to free up a place for the Spaniard.

 

Despite being down a man, Arsenal managed to overcome their deficit to strike a significant blow on 37 minutes. After full-back Emmanuel Eboué won a somewhat contentious free-kick off Puyol, Gunners captain Thierry Henry floated the ball into the box. An unmarked Sol Campbell then nodded it home to earn his team a shock 1-0 lead.

 

Arsenal comfortably held onto that lead until half-time and beyond. By the hour mark, Rijkaard was having to reshuffle his pack to try and effect a comeback. Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel was substituted in favour of Henrik Larsson - the Swedish striker who was regarded as a deity by Celtic fans, and who would later earn plenty of admirers at Old Trafford during a brief stint with Manchester United.

 

Larsson's introduction arguably changed the game. In the 76th minute, another Barca substitute - a fast-improving 22-year-old midfielder by the name of Andrés Iniesta - knocked the ball down the left for Larsson, who casually flicked it into Eto'o's path. The Cameroonian goal machine then beat Almunia at his near post to level the Final.

 

Four minutes later, the third of Rijkaard's subs would turn the match completely on its head. Full-back Juliano Belletti, who hadn't scored a goal in two years, ran onto an exquisite Larsson cross and smashed a diagonal drive between the legs of Almunia. The runaway La Liga champions had come from behind to take a 2-1 lead, which would eventually be enough to earn them just the second European Cup triumph of their history.

 

Arsenal had been tantalisingly close to claiming Champions League glory, only to see the trophy snatched from their grasp and handed over to Barcelona's long-haired, tough-as-nails captain Puyol. The Gunners would not return to the Final of European football's greatest club cup competition for a decade.

 

On that fateful night in Saint-Denis in 2006, a 27-year-old women's football coach by the name of Gary O'Hara was in the stands amongst thousands of his fellow Arsenal supporters. His wife Laura, who was heavily pregnant with their second child at the time, was resting back at home in Hertfordshire.

 

On 28 May 2016, O'Hara would witness a second Champions League Final with Arsenal. His seat at the San Siro would be rather closer to the action than it was at the Stade de France; specifically, it would be a pitchside seat in one of the dugouts.

 

This would be a big day for O'Hara and his family, even though Laura had rejected his offer to join him in Milan. She explained, "As you've probably gathered by now, I don't particularly enjoy watching football. I can watch it sometimes, but this match - it would probably have been too nerve-wracking for me.

 

"More importantly, I wanted to stay at home and look after our girls. The last few months had been really difficult for them, and I felt they needed me more than ever."

 

In contrast, Gary's father David was much more willing to come along. He said, "I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

 

"It's not every year that you get to see your own flesh and blood compete in the Champions League Final. Debs was never a great football lover, but I'm sure she would've come over as well if she'd still be around. She would've been so proud of Gary.

 

"I didn't get to go to Paris for the 2006 Final, as one of my brothers was very ill at the time, and sadly passed away soon after. When Gary asked me if I wanted to visit Milan for this Final, I couldn't say 'yes' quickly enough!

 

Domestically, Gary O'Hara's first season since succeeding the legendary Wenger as Arsenal manager had been regarded as an utter failure. However, he now had the opportunity to achieve in 11 months what the Frenchman couldn't in 18 years - turn the Gunners into European champions.

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***

 

In the two weeks that followed the conclusion of Arsenal's league campaign on 15 May, O'Hara and his assistant Steve Bould had gradually ramped up the training intensity at London Colney. They wanted their best assets to be as sharp as possible before they travelled to Italy for the Champions League Final.

 

The heightened workload would claim one victim. During one training session on 19 May, enigmatic winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain landed heavily on his ankle and was diagnosed with a sprain by head physio Colin Lewin. 'The Ox' would play no part in the Final.

 

Oxlade-Chamberlain recalled, "When Colin told me that I couldn't go to Milan, I just burst out crying. This was supposed to be the biggest game of my life, but to not even get to play in the Final... that was hard.

 

"Obviously, I was going to support the lads, no matter what. I had to stay home and watch the game on TV, but I told them that my spirit would be in Milan with them."

 

There was one player who wasn't subjected to the full rigours of extra-hard training sessions. Club-record signing John Stones was still recovering from the back injury he had sustained in training at the start of April. The coaching staff were managing his fitness very delicately, for even the slightest setback would almost certainly scupper his dreams of playing in the showpiece event.

 

Thankfully for O'Hara and co, Stones made a full recovery. The England centre-back's big fitness test came on the Saturday before the Final, when he and several other Arsenal squad players featured in a warm-up match against Bristol City's Under-21s team at Meadow Park in Borehamwood. The Gunners won 4-1, with Theo Walcott scoring a hat-trick, Aaron Ramsey also getting on the scoresheet, and Stones lasting a full hour.

 

"Gary thought it was vital that John got back to fitness in time for the Champions League Final," Bould said. "He knew just how important John was to our defence. He had the pace and acceleration to keep up with Bayern Munich's attackers, not to mention that eye for a through-ball from the back. Without meaning any disrespect, that wasn't something either Per [Mertesacker] or Laurent [Koscielny] had in their locker."

 

Stones was part of the Arsenal contingent that flew out of Heathrow Airport on 25 May, arriving in Milan three days prior to the Champions League Final. O'Hara would not underestimate the importance of acclimatising to the unpredictable Italian weather ahead of the big match.

 

When match day came around, O'Hara racked his head over his team selection for the night's big match. With everyone except Oxlade-Chamberlain fit and ready, the manager was not short on options - or tactical dilemmas.

 

When it came to cup competitions, O'Hara tended to prefer David Ospina in goal, though first-choice keeper Petr Cech was regarded as much more reliable, and he'd played in all four legs of the Quarter and Semi Finals. It was Cech who received the nod here.

 

In front of the Czech goalkeeper, who had won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012, were centre-halves Stones and Koscielny. O'Hara's concerns about Mertesacker's lack of pace meant that the club captain would have to make do with a place on the bench.

 

Héctor Bellerín - the brilliant young Spaniard who had played in all 12 of the Gunners' CL matches this season - was the obvious choice to start at right-back. O'Hara found it more difficult to decide who would play at left-back, though he eventually decided to field the homegrown Kieran Gibbs instead of Bellerín's compatriot Nacho Monreal.

 

Francis Coquelin, whose late red card in the first leg of the Semi Final put Arsenal's hopes in some jeopardy, was forgiven for that rush of blood and started as the Gunners' ball-winning midfielder. Welshman Aaron Ramsey would serve as the more creative of the central midfielders.

 

On Arsenal's flanks would be a couple of inside-forwards - match captain Alexis Sánchez on the left, and the in-form Costa Rica international Joel Campbell on the right. Playmaker Mesut Özil operated just behind lone striker Olivier Giroud, who'd found the net 26 times in 50 matches this term.

 

The opposition for this match were German giants Bayern Munich - coached by the suave and charismatic Catalan icon Josep 'Pep' Guardiola. Though Bayern had lost their Bundesliga title to fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund a fortnight earlier, they were determined to take their frustrations out on Arsenal and win a second Champions League crown in four seasons.

 

Standing between the posts for Guardiola's Bayern was arguably the best number 1 in the world at the time. The term 'sweeper keeper' was a more than fitting description for the eccentric but excellent Manuel Neuer, who was arguably as comfortable with the ball at his feet as in his hands.

 

Three of Neuer's back four were fellow German internationals. 32-year-old right-back Philipp Lahm was Bayern's ever-reliable captain, while Jérôme Boateng was partnered at centre-half by Holger Badstuber, who was sure to enjoy this occasion after several years of injury hell. At left-back was the marauding Austrian David Alaba, who'd been heavily linked with a big-money summer move to Manchester City.

 

Javi Martínez sat in the 'anchor man' holding role between defence and midfield. Just in front of him was another former Barcelona midfield man in Thiago, as well as the tireless and aggressive Chilean destroyer Arturo Vidal. Thomas Müller played as a roaming 'raumdeuter' on the right wing, with the very dangerous Arjen Robben on the left side.

 

Bayern only had one man up front; then again, they only really needed a single striker. Robert Lewandowski had found the net on 28 occasions this term, and with his combination of power, technique and execution, the Pole was the very model of a modern complete forward.

 

Simply reeling off the names of those 11 Bayern starters would strike fear into many a football team... but not Arsenal. The players were focussing too much on the potential prize to worry about their opponents' formidable reputations.

 

Standing in the middle of the Arsenal dressing room 15 minutes before kick-off, O'Hara rallied his troops with arguably the most stirring and personal team-talk he had ever delivered.

 

"I don't need to tell you how big this match is. I'm sure that all of you have been dreaming of this very moment since you were young kids growing up in London... Barnsley... Cardiff... Barcelona... Germany... France... Chile. I could go on.

 

"But just because you're here now doesn't mean that the job is done. If you return to this room in two or three hours' time wondering if you - as a player - could have done better, you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

 

"I was born 37 years ago, to a dad who'd supported Arsenal all his life. I grew up a stone's throw from Highbury. I watched all the Arsenal legends of the 80s and 90s from the Clock End - Adams, Thomas, Seaman, Wright, Bergkamp. I even had the fortune of playing alongside some of them after coming through the youth academy.

 

"When I was 20 - a little bit younger than Héctor is now - I had the same dreams as you. I wanted to win the Champions League, and I wanted to do it with Arsenal. I was convinced that my dream was come true.

 

"That was until one day in July 1999, when I played in a friendly match against Notts County, and then collapsed in the shower about five minutes after the final whistle. I had suffered a heart attack. I could never play professional football again.

 

"I would give anything to be in your position right now - playing in a Champions League Final with a healthy heart and at peak physical fitness. I want you all to enjoy this moment, and also to make the most of it, because you might never play in another match as important as this.

 

"You only get one shot at greatness. Don't waste it. Don't let it pass you by. It's either tonight or never.

 

"So, gentlemen, what's it gonna be?"

 

As the buzzer sounded in the dressing room, captain Sánchez affirmatively nodded, got up from the bench, and quietly instructed his colleagues to follow him out. As the Arsenal players regimentally lined up and departed the room with minimal emotion, O'Hara turned to Bould and asked, "I've not p***ed them off again, have I?"

 

"No, Gary," Bould confidently replied. "They've got their game faces on. I've a great feeling about tonight."

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Led out onto the San Siro pitch by Italian referee Antonio Damato, Arsenal's players - donning their black away strip - walked side-by-side with their red-clad adversaries from Bayern Munich. Heading the respective lines were Sánchez and Lahm, who would meet with Damato for the coin toss after the traditional pre-match handshakes. Lahm correctly called heads, and it was Bayern who kicked off the 52nd European Cup Final.

 

Within barely a minute, the Germans launched the first preliminary attack, which ended with Lewandowski being flagged offside. Robben received the game's first booking shortly after play resumed, having tripped Bellerín.

 

Damato would be reaching for his yellow card again in the fifth minute. Coquelin evened up the scores on that front when the typically steadfast Arsenal midfielder felled Vidal, adding a 19th caution to his collection for the season.

 

After a shaky start from both teams, it was Arsenal who arguably settled down first. In the eighth minute, Campbell slipped a through-ball past Alaba and found Ramsey, whose shot was charged down by Badstuber in the six-yard box. Ramsey had only scored once all season, but he would not be doubling his tally in Milan.

 

After 15 minutes, Coquelin smartly searched out the overlapping run of Bellerín on the right. The Spanish speedster floated his cross between Alaba and Robben, but Boateng managed get a block in for Bayern just before the delivery could find Giroud. Though Arsenal did create another promising attacking move in the immediate aftermath, their momentum was eventually snuffed out by an excellent clearance from Martínez.

 

Two minutes later, Boateng almost went from goal-saver to goalscorer. The Berlin-born former Manchester City centre-half got his head to Thiago's free-kick delivery into the Arsenal box, only to nod it off target.

 

The first shot on target would be registered after 22 minutes. Sánchez exchanged passes with Coquelin before holding off Alaba and playing in Gibbs. The 26-year-old left-back was one of the few Arsenal outfielders who hadn't yet scored this season, but a determined save from Neuer kept his duck intact.

 

Giroud headed Arsenal's next chance over the bar in the 23rd minute, while Sánchez's volley cannoned off a typically brave Lahm a minute later. The Gunners were steadily cranking up the pressure, and it remained to be seen whether Bayern could hold their nerve for much longer.

 

After Gibbs headed away a Robben free-kick in the 26th minute, Thiago rushed back to collect the loose ball for Bayern. Sánchez and Bellerín then began to close the Spanish midfielder down, gradually forcing him back towards the Bundesliga giants' half. When Bellerín did knock the ball off Thiago's feet, he left Özil with virtually a free run at goal.

 

Özil took the ball up the right flank, needing only to beat Neuer and Boateng for a 1-0 lead. Once he got into the penalty area, Özil spotted Giroud making a run down the middle. As Giroud called for the ball, his colleague weighted an excellent pass, and the Frenchman's subsequent strike whistled past Neuer and into the top corner. Just like 10 years previously, Arsenal had drawn first blood in the Champions League Final.

 

"There was a deafening roar amongst the Arsenal fans when Giroud scored that goal in Milan," David O'Hara recalled. "I don't think any of us have celebrated as wildly in years! I personally hadn't cheered so loud since Michael Thomas won us the title at Anfield in '89!"

 

David's son was in a similarly exuberant mood in the Arsenal dugout. Gary O'Hara pumped his fists vigorously as his more reserve number 2 Bould simply applauded a brilliantly-worked goal. The pair then hugged a delighted Giroud as he rushed over to the touchline to conclude his celebrations.

 

For a striker who'd been derided by many Gooners for being too inconsistent, Giroud's scoring record in the 2015/2016 season was not one to be sniffed at. His 27th goal of the campaign was potentially his most significant.

 

Bayern were so used to dominating matches under Guardiola that they didn't take kindly to being on the back foot. A team who typically were so confident on the ball became rather sheepish, as if they were afraid to take any risks lest Arsenal hit them on the counter again.

 

A disappointing first half from the Bavarians' perspective ended with Müller shoving Sánchez in full view of the referee after 43 minutes. Despite his impressive record of 30 goals in 67 caps for Germany, Müller had only found the next six times in all competitions for Bayern this season, and not at all in the Bundesliga. The 26-year-old was once again flattering to deceive.

 

Arsenal carried a narrow 1-0 lead into their dressing room, but there was still all to play for, as O'Hara was quick to remind his players. He told them, "You've played really well and put Bayern on the back foot, but don't let up now. I want you to keep putting in the hard yards, just like you have done throughout this Champions League campaign,

 

"Guardiola's teams are always great on the ball and they can steamroller you given the chance, but they're not the strongest mentally when they're behind. They only know how to play one style of football. If you can keep pressing Bayern and keep the pressure on them in the second half, they won't know how to dig themselves out of trouble.

 

"Take your time on the ball, especially in midfield, and keep risky passes to a minimum. If you have to slow play down to a crawl to stay in control, then so be it. For me, that's better than just carelessly giving the ball away.

 

"Defenders, I want you to keep isolating Lewandowski as well whenever Bayern go on the attack. Don't let him get a sniff on the ball when he's close to goal.

 

"You've got one hand on the trophy, lads. Now make sure you get that other hand on it!"

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***

 

O'Hara's only personnel change at half-time was one many could've predicted. Coquelin was always likely to come off between halves if he was carrying a yellow card, and the Frenchman was sacrificed again here, with Mohamed Elneny replacing him in the ball-winner role.

 

Guardiola kept his original XI intact and did not have the air of a manager who was panicking. The Bayern coach's confidence in his starters was not misguided. Three minutes into the second half, Alaba flicked a deep Thiago corner back towards Robben, whose curling strike from 30 yards out missed the target by a matter of inches.

 

Robben went close again in the 52nd minute. Following a one-two with captain Lahm, the flying Dutchman evaded tackles from Elneny and Sánchez and tried to hook the ball past Cech. Though Arsenal's goalkeeper had done very little in the first half, Cech showed no signs of rustiness whatsoever as he confidently beat the ball away.

 

Robben's third early attempt in the second half was inadvertently blocked by the heel of Gunners defender Koscielny after 55 minutes. The ball then fell to Gibbs, who calmly hoofed it back upfield.

 

Gibbs was not the epitome of composure in the 59th minute, when he was cautioned for upending Lahm. Three minutes later, Bayern's skipper had his shirt pulled by Elneny, who would also receive a yellow card from Damato. The Egyptian would now have to be much more careful with his tackling if he wasn't to collect another.

 

Though their discipline was once again coming under scrutiny, Arsenal were still taking the game to their arguably more illustrious opponents. After 64 minutes, Gibbs advanced ahead of Badstuber to reach a lofted free-kick from Özil, which he met with an admittedly far from impressive header.

 

In the 70th minute, Sánchez pleased many of Arsenal's nervy supporters by swivelling on a pass from Giroud and dribbling into Bayern's penalty area. Though his subsequent shot was too tame to seriously worry Neuer, that was still an impressive skill move from the Chilean forward.

 

Neuer quickly punted the ball upfield for Lewandowski, only to see Elneny brilliantly close the big Pole down. Sánchez calmly distributed the loose ball out to Özil, whose 45-yard punt had Campbell eyeing up the goal. Campbell was about to go one-on-one with Neuer when Alaba came from behind and superbly knocked the ball off his feet and back to the goalkeeper.

 

Ten minutes from full-time, with victory looming large, O'Hara sought to add a pair of fresh legs to his defence. Gibbs had enjoyed another strong performance at left-back, contributing a lot going forward while also keeping Müller extremely quiet at the other end. His race had been run, though, and so Monreal came on for the closing stages.

 

Shortly after that change, Özil breached Bayern's offside trap and connected with a delightful lob from Campbell. The German magician had a great chance to silence his countrymen once and for all, but Neuer stood firm and pushed Özil's strike behind.

 

Guardiola had not yet used any of his substitutes, but after 83 minutes, he felt he could wait no longer to bring about a change. Surprisingly, his first swap was at centre-back, where Badstuber - who'd surprised many onlookers by lasting this long - made way for Moroccan international Medhi Benatia.

 

Winger Douglas Costa and attacking midfielder Mario Götze would also be brought on for Müller and Thiago respectively in the closing stages, but not before another of their colleagues went into the book. Martínez became the third Bayern player to receive a yellow card following a cynical trip on Özil in the 85th minute.

 

Even with all that extra energy on the pitch, Bayern were now struggling to get the ball off an Arsenal team who were quite content to slow the tempo down and see the match through. Elneny temporarily strayed from their gameplan in the penultimate minute, when he hit a 40-yard shot that could've easily flown into the net were it not for Neuer's quick reactions.

 

O'Hara took 'playing it safe' to another level in the 90th minute. His final tactical change was to replace midfielder Ramsey with centre-back and club captain Mertesacker. Arsenal's gameplan for the two minutes of stoppage time was, quite simply, to defend their fragile lead.

 

And defend it they did. After Koscielny flicked away a last-ditch corner delivery by Costa, and Robben was flagged offside from the subsequent Bayern attack, even the most pessimistic Arsenal fan knew that this was their time. The Gunners even tried to break away for another goal in the last few seconds, only for Giroud to be stopped in his tracks by Benatia, whose trip earned him Bayern's fourth yellow card.

 

Mertesacker quickly laid the free-kick left to Elneny, who then tried to find Monreal out wide. However, before the ball could reach Monreal, Damato started to blow the final whistle.

 

Arsenal 1, Bayern Munich 0. Arsenal were the European football champions for the first time in their 130-year history.

 

As an exhausted Gary O'Hara sank to his knees in his technical area, his substitutes and most of his coaching staff streamed onto the San Siro turf to celebrate their finest moment. Among them was Coquelin, who ran towards match-winner Giroud and planted a kiss on his French compatriot's forehead, à la Laurent Blanc and Fabien Barthez at the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

 

After being helped back onto his feet by Bould, O'Hara rose his arms triumphantly into the air, struggling to keep his emotions in check in the process. When he did compose himself enough to speak for the first time since that final whistle, he simply told Bould, "F*** me, that was incredible."

 

David O'Hara too was overwhelmed by emotion. He said, "I still well up just thinking about it. I was certain that Bayern were going to roll us over, but we showed strength, determination, resilience... you couldn't have said that about Arsenal too often in recent years, could you?

 

"I was the proudest man in that stadium that night. My son had just won the Champions League, so why wouldn't I have been? It's a moment I'll remember for the rest of my days, for sure."

 

10 minutes later, Gary O'Hara and his players went up to collect their winners' medals. Ángel María Villar - the acting President of UEFA - then handed the European Cup over to Arsenal captain Mertesacker, who roared with delight as he hoisted it into the air.

 

As had become the norm whenever a sportsperson or team received a major trophy, the Queen classic "We Are The Champions" was played throughout the San Siro. Though Arsenal were not officially "the champions of the world", winning such a prestigious competition suggested that they might as well have been given that honour.

 

Millions of proud Gooners - in Milan, London, or elsewhere - were sure to bask in the glory for some time to come.

Edited by CFuller

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Well well sir, congratulations sir on an epic win. Looking forward to see what happens from here

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CHAPTER 28 - Down To Earth

 

After celebrating their UEFA Champions League success long into the night, many of Arsenal's players and staff members woke up on the morning of 29 May 2016 with sore heads.

 

Manager Gary O'Hara had gone out of his way to stay sober for the best part of 20 years, ever since that night in Benidorm. However, after the greatest moment of his career, he decided to make a break from his teetotal lifestyle while perusing some of Milan's most popular bars and clubs.

 

Assistant boss Steve Bould said, "Gary's attitude to drinking that night was a bit like his attitude to life in general - once he got into something, he just wouldn't stop. He was drinking a whiskey, a lager, a cider... basically anything mentioned in that song by Chumbawamba.

 

"I know from my experience with Tony Adams that alcohol can often take control on your life. In retrospect, that night out in Milan was perhaps one of the worst things that could have happened to Gary as a person."

 

Just like in Benidorm two decades previously, O'Hara ended that night in bed with a German. One could only have imagined the shock on Mesut Özil's face when he awoke on Sunday evening to discover that his manager had passed out beside him.

 

Özil was a devout Muslim who abstained from drinking alcohol and did not join any of his team-mates' wild parties. Needless to say, he did not take particularly kindly to O'Hara's behaviour, especially when the hungover coach started calling him 'Laura'.

 

The Arsenal squad flew out from the Milan-Malpensa Airport later that morning. O'Hara - still a little worse for wear - spent most of the flight listening to some acoustic music. The first song he played was Ellen and the Escapades' cover of the R Kelly track "The World's Greatest".

 

"I am a mountain. I am a tall tree.

I am a swift wind, sweeping the country.

I am a river, down in the valley.

I am a vision, and I can see clearly.

 

If anybody asks you who I am, just stand up tall, look 'em in the face and say.

 

I'm that star up in the sky. I'm that mountain peak up high.

Hey, I made it. I'm the world's greatest.

I'm that little bit of hope, when my back's against the ropes,

I can feel it. I'm the world's greatest."

 

O'Hara and his Gunners literally came back down to earth when they landed in Heathrow just before midday. They were greeted by thousands of delighted Gooners, many of whom would continue their celebrations at an open-top bus parade around the London Borough of Islington on Monday evening. However, a key figure from that Champions League triumph would be absent from said parade.

 

Just hours after arriving back on home soil, O'Hara was summoned to an emergency board meeting at the Emirates Stadium. The last such meeting, back in March, had ended in O'Hara's suspension from the club, and his arrest for an alleged assault on Billy Khan.

 

All of Arsenal's leading board members and executives were in attendance, including interim chairman Eric Holmes and chief executive Ivan Gazidis. The club's American owner Stan Kroenke also took part in the meeting via videolink.

 

After greeting his bosses and taking his seats, O'Hara was given an end-of-season debrief by Gazidis.

 

"Firstly, Gary, we would like to extend our sincere gratitude to you and your players for finally delivering the Champions League trophy to Arsenal. Your contribution to the history of this wonderful football club will never be forgotten."

 

Weary of what was possibly lying ahead, O'Hara warily interjected, "You're very welcome. I'm sensing that there's a 'but' coming here."

 

Gazidis sighed, "Yes, there is. While your success in continental competition has delighted all of us, we cannot ignore the fact that the Premier League campaign has been an unmitigated failure. For a club of our stature to finish in 6th place is completely unacceptable."

 

O'Hara argued that while Arsenal had indeed slipped out of the top four for the first time since 1996, they had actually only finished 12 points adrift of champions Chelsea. Gazidis was not buying that excuse.

 

"You should still have finished in the top three at the absolute minimum," he said. "The truth of the matter is that this has been the worst season in Premier League history, in terms of the quality of the top teams. No team in the Premier League has ever finished top with as few points as Chelsea have, yet Arsenal were still nowhere near them in the final reckoning."

 

Kroenke then chimed in, adding, "Ivan has made a very strong point, Gary. We discussed your long-term future at length before yesterday's match, and we concluded that you should not be the manager of Arsenal moving forward."

 

A perplexed O'Hara laughed, almost out of disbelief, but his mood darkened further when Gazidis reiterated, "Believe me, Gary, it really pains me to say this, but the board has indeed voted in favour of your dismissal."

 

O'Hara bellowed, "BUT I WON THE F***ING CHAMPIONS LEAGUE!"

 

After instructing O'Hara to calm down, Gazidis continued, "We came to this conclusion for a number of reasons, not least Arsenal's poor results in the league. We also had to take into consideration your attitude to the press, your impending court case, and - most importantly - the views of our global fanbase, most of whom desire a more established manager."

 

O'Hara scowled, "So these are the thanks I get, eh? I give you the one trophy you've always wanted, and then you stab me in the back and chuck me into the sea?

 

"I really thought that you lot were all about the club, our identity, our honour. Now I can see that you're just typical businessmen, only in it for the money. You know what? I'm delighted that I don't have to work for any of you conniving toerags anymore!"

 

O'Hara then had one final parting message for the executives before he left the boardroom. "The fans might hate me, and I might hate them... but the sooner they rise up and take over this club, the better!"

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EDITOR'S NOTES: I'm going to be completely honest with you now, readers. When I started this FM16 career in March 2016, I had no intention whatsoever of turning it into a proper story. This was simply going to be a personal Arsenal career save, with me as the manager.

However, that all changed after the 3-1 defeat to Manchester City in mid-March. I was called into a board meeting, which ended with me being sacked. It was the first time I had ever been sacked in a Football Manager career (though I had lost jobs in Championship Manager careers before).

After my sacking, I came up with the idea of turning this career into a fully-fledged FM story, about an inexperienced manager who'd been thrown in at the deep end. That was how Gary O'Hara came into being.

Initially, the story was going to end with O'Hara being sacked after that loss against City. A few months later, though, I had this nagging urge for some proper closure. Arsenal were still in the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup and the Champions League when I got sacked, and to me, it wouldn't have felt right for O'Hara to have been replaced in that situation (*cough* Roberto Di Matteo *cough*).

So I reverted to a save from after the City defeat, but before the board meeting. I successfully convinced the board to keep me/O'Hara on this time, and I then managed to finish the season, shortly before FM17 came out. To this day, I still can't believe how it ended!

I should add now that I was not actually sacked after the Champions League Final. My job security was simply 'Insecure'. However, I had no intention of playing beyond the first season after resuming the career, so I resigned as Arsenal manager. I then simulated a couple of seasons into the future, for reasons that will become clear over the coming days.

The plan is to have this story finished and fully published by the end of next week. I hope you enjoy these closing chapters as much as you have the main story.

20 hours ago, mark wilson27 said:

Well well sir, congratulations sir on an epic win. Looking forward to see what happens from here

It's the first time I've ever won the Champions League on CM/FM. What a way to finish my FM16 career! :D

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Absolutely excellent short story. This can be measured by my frustration at getting to the bottom of the third page and finding it not (quite) finished! Looking forward to the closing chapters.

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On 1/26/2018 at 13:01, Gricehead said:

Absolutely excellent short story. This can be measured by my frustration at getting to the bottom of the third page and finding it not (quite) finished! Looking forward to the closing chapters.

I don't think it counts as a 'short story', but it's certainly short by my standards. :D

Thanks for the kind words. I hope the climax doesn't disappoint.

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***

 

The Arsenal players and coaches finished their open-top bus parade in Islington at around 8:00pm on Monday 30 May. Barely 15 minutes later, they were informed by chairman Holmes that O'Hara had been sacked as manager.

 

Goalkeeper Petr Cech recalled, "That was a big surprise. We had just celebrated the biggest result of our careers, so to then be told that the manager had lost his job... we did not expect that.

 

"To be honest, a few of the players were happy that Gary O'Hara had gone. They thought he was maybe a bit too arrogant, and maybe not experienced enough to coach a club like Arsenal.

 

"I was sad when I heard the news. I had a good relationship with Gary and felt that we could have gone on to bigger things after the first season. But the chairman, he reassured us that a top manager was on the way to replace him."

 

Arsenal then made the news public, putting out a statement on their website at 8:45pm:

 

Quote

"Arsenal Football Club has today parted company with first-team manager Gary O'Hara.

 

"The board acknowledges the unprecedented Champions League success that Gary brought to the club in Milan on Saturday. However, domestic results have been unsatisfactory, and the board feels that a change is necessary if the club is to sustain a Premier League title challenge in the near-future.

 

"We would like to express our sincere thanks to Gary for the tireless work he has put into the football club, in often trying circumstances, over the past 11 months. He leaves the club with our very best wishes for the future."

 

Much like the players, Arsenal fans were firmly polarised on the board's decision. While many Gooners supported the installation of a more experienced manager for their team's Champions League defence, others had wanted the young coach to at least be given another year.

 

Arsenal's now erstwhile manager found himself with one very unlikely ally - Billy Khan. In a video released on 'We Are The Gooners' 24 hours after the news broke, an untypically solemn Khan said, "So, we did it. O'Hara is out... but did we really want that?

 

"Gary O'Hara did in one season what our saviour Arsène couldn't do in 17. He brought the Champions f***ing League to Arsenal Football Club! That's the kind of thing we do in computer games, not in real life!

 

"Because of that great night in Milan, I will forgive O'Hara for our crap league season. I won't forgive him for going to war with the fans or the media, but as a football manager... [beats chest] he now has my respect.

 

"The board should've given him at least another year, so that he could turn this good Arsenal team into a great Arsenal team - a team to rival Arsène's Untouchables, a team to rival the legends of 1971.

 

"I really hope the board have one of THE top managers coming in to replace him, else there's gonna be uproar. This channel is called 'We Are The Gooners', and we will always hold the owners to account if we feel they aren't acting in our best interests."

 

The Arsenal board had indeed lined up one of the leading coaches in world football. In the week leading up to the Champions League Final, chief executive Gazidis had held preliminary discussions with the former Liverpool and Chelsea manager Rafa Benítez about taking over from O'Hara.

 

The 56-year-old Spaniard had been out of work since leaving Napoli at the end of the 2014/2015 Serie A season. After a year away from football, the man who had led Liverpool to an incredible Champions League triumph over AC Milan in 2005 was ready for a Premier League return.

 

However, there was one major sticking point between the two parties. Arsenal wanted a head coach to work alongside director of football Arsène Wenger, but Benítez was a manager first and foremost. He had no desire to delegate transfers elsewhere.

 

That left the board in a tricky situation. They would have to decide whether to retain Wenger and look for another coach, or appoint Benítez and remove the man who'd delivered unprecedented success to Arsenal over the best part of two decades.

 

In the end, though, the decision would not be Kroenke's or Gazidis' to make. Wenger had recently grown disillusioned with how Arsenal was being run behind the scenes, and he was sensing that his power over the club's affairs was diminishing, even though he still had the final say on all transfers in and out.

 

Wenger ultimately decided that the time had come for him to bow out graciously. On 10 June, Arsenal released a short statement to announce that they had parted ways with Wenger after 19-and-a-half years. The Frenchman subsequently left London and retired to his home city of Strasbourg.

 

Wenger's exit paved the way for Benítez to take over at Arsenal. His appointment was confirmed 24 hours later.

 

Much like O'Hara's sacking, Benítez's hiring was met by a mixed reception from Gooners. Many applauded the appointment of a manager with a strong reputation, and an impressive CV to match. Others were deeply concerned that a former manager of two rival clubs was now running affairs at the Emirates.

 

Benítez's first major signing for the Gunners helped to appease some of those sceptics. Just days after arriving in North London, he stood on the Emirates pitch to parade his former Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuaín in front of the world's press. The 28-year-old Argentinean beamed as he held up an Arsenal jersey bearing the number 11 on the back.

 

Higuaín's track record was unquestioned. He'd scored 49 goals in 101 Serie A matches over three seasons at Napoli, the first two of which were under Benítez's management. He'd notched up over 100 goals in La Liga for Real Madrid before then, while his international record for Argentina stood at an impressive 25 goals in 52 caps.

 

Higuaín was the complete forward Arsenal fans had craved, and he did not come cheap. The Partenopei were paid £54million, with the fee potentially rising to an English-record £78million if the Gunners won the Premier League and the Champions League during Higuaín's time in North London.

 

To put the initial transfer fee for Higuaín into context, it was slightly less than the £55million that Arsenal had paid Everton up front for John Stones five months earlier.

 

Benítez' approach to transfers marked a shift from when O'Hara and Wenger were in charge. However, there was continuity in the Arsenal backroom, where he kept the majority of his predecessors' coaching staff, including assistant manager Bould.

 

"I've been Arsenal through and through for about 20 years now," Bould said at the time. "My loyalty is to the football club, not to Arsène or to Gary. I cannot wait to work with Rafa to make this team the best football team that it can be."

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Arsenal were moving on from O'Hara, but the 37-year-old's personal life would soon go the way of his professional career. A little over a week after parting with one of the two great loves of his life, he would lose the other.

 

"Our marriage had been on the rocks for some time," Laura O'Hara admitted. "I thought that we would survive the storm, but perhaps I was being too optimistic.

 

"Before he became Arsenal manager, we had the perfect family - me, Gary, and the two girls. Gary was kind, thoughtful, generous, intelligent - he was still the same guy I'd married 15 years earlier.

 

"But that year with Arsenal - that year in the full view of the public eye - changed everything. Gary had become rather more stressed, more temperamental... and dare I say more distant from Adele, Lucy and me. He was spending a lot less time away from us - often out of necessary, but sometimes seemingly out of choice.

 

"After Gary lost his job, we went on a week-long family holiday to Portugal. We all wanted to spend some time out of the country, away from the spotlight, especially with Gary's assault trial starting the week afterwards.

 

"I wanted to patch up our marriage while we were in Portugal, but our relationship was still very cold. I couldn't see past the story that Gary had cheated on me with that German woman while we were still teenagers. I'd tried to forget about that and stay strong. To tell you the truth, though, that's not something you can simply forget about.

 

"I also had a feeling that Gary was hiding something else - another skeleton in the cupboard that he didn't want to show me. One of the vows we made on our wedding day was that we wouldn't keep secrets from one another.

 

"About three nights into the holiday, I asked him to tell me everything I needed to know about his life. He wouldn't reveal anything at all. He thought that I was being paranoid.

 

"That was when I gave him an ultimatum; either he told me right there at that moment, or I would leave him. Gary just said that there was nothing to tell me.

 

"It broke my heart to leave Gary. I still loved him, and I still do to this day. It was just that I was no longer in love with him, and I couldn't trust him anymore."

 

An infuriated Laura abandoned the holiday and returned to Hertfordshire, with 14-year-old Adele and 9-year-old Lucy in tow. The three then left the family home in Borehamwood and moved in with Laura's parents once again. They would later relocate to another property, in the nearby village of Shenley.

 

Gary was left living on his own, this time for good. From that point on, he would only have occasional contact with his wife and their two children. After 15 years of marriage, the O'Haras had gone their separate ways.

 

Laura continued, "Do you know the song 'Fade Into You'? That sums up my feelings towards Gary at that moment in time."

 

For the benefit of those who weren't au fait with the alternative rock scene in 1994, "Fade Into You" was by far the most successful single released by Californian band Mazzy Star. Written by Hope Sandoval and David Roback, it expressed the feelings of a woman who'd fallen in love with a person who was damaged and emotionally introverted.

 

"I want to hold the hand inside you.

I want to take a breath that's true.

I look to you and I see nothing.

I look to you to see the truth.

 

You live your life, you go in shadows.

You'll come apart and you'll go blind.

Some kind of light into your darkness.

Colours your eyes with what's not there."

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CHAPTER 29 - Watch Me Fall Apart

 

Rafa Benítez had promised major changes in his maiden season as Arsenal manager, and he delivered. Superstar striker Gonzalo Higuaín - a £54million purchase from Napoli - was only the first of several high-profile signings at the Emirates Stadium during the 2016/2017 campaign.

 

Benítez also strengthened the Gunners' options out wide by signing Norwich City winger Nathan Redmond for £19million. The 22-year-old had impressed greatly during the previous Premier League season, notching up four goals and seven assists for Alex Neil's Canaries.

 

Redmond then travelled to France as part of the England squad that sensationally went on to win the UEFA European Championship, beating Spain on penalties in the Final in Saint-Denis. Four of his future Arsenal team-mates - Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, John Stones and Theo Walcott - were involved in Roy Hodgson's triumphant squad.

 

The arrival of Redmond meant that there was no longer room at Arsenal for Joel Campbell - the Costa Rican forward whose love-hate relationship with Gary O'Hara had come to characterise the former manager's regime. Campbell was sold for £9million to - of all teams - Manchester City.

 

Another attacking Gunner who'd been forced out by a new face was Danny Welbeck. The injury-prone England striker could not realistically hope to keep Higuaín out of the team, so he made an £11million move to Swansea City ahead of their first UEFA Champions League campaign.

 

Two of Arsenal's most exciting teenage talents - Breel Embolo and Jeff Reine-Adelaide - were loaned to an Inter Milan side that would finish 5th in Serie A. Meanwhile, midfielder Donny van de Beek temporarily returned to the Netherlands for a season-long loan at PSV.

 

Benítez' Gunners made a slow start, losing 3-1 in the UEFA Super Cup to the reigning Premier League and UEFA Europa League champions Chelsea. Following Guus Hiddink's retirement in the summer, Chelsea now had David Moyes in charge of first-team duties. That was the same David Moyes who had barely avoided relegation with Southampton just three months earlier.

 

League runners-up Leicester City and their new manager Brendan Rodgers awaited Arsenal on the opening day of the new PL season. Leicester won 1-0, but that was just the kick up the backside the Gunners needed. They went on an excellent run that would see them challenge for the title and lose just one more league match before late January.

 

In the Champions League, the holders took 16 points from a group that included Roma - their Semi Final victims from the previous campaign - as well as Ajax and AA Gent. That put them comfortably through to the Round of 16.

 

Though the Gunners would be knocked out of both domestic cups by Southampton, they did succeed on another front. A mid-December visit to Yokohama in Japan saw them defeat Mexican side Tigres and Argentine outfit San Lorenzo by 3-0 scorelines to lift the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time.

 

Arsenal went into that Club World Cup without Higuaín, who'd scored 21 goals in his first 22 competitive matches for the club. However, he had a 29th birthday to forget on 10 December, when he pulled up in training and was diagnosed with knee tendonitis. The Gunners' most extravagant summer purchase would be unavailable for the best part of the next four months.

 

Despite Higuaín's injury, it was the Arsenal defence that Benítez opted to reinforce in the new year. He acquired Ajax's newly-capped Netherlands left-back Jairo Riedewald and Barcelona's right-back Martín Montoya for a total of £24million. 20-year-old Riedewald had been strongly linked to the Gunners while O'Hara was in charge.

 

Arsenal then resumed their defence of the Champions League, knocking Zenit St Petersburg out at the Round of 16 for the second successive year. However, they would then come unstuck in the Quarter Finals against Bayer Leverkusen. Riedewald was sent off in a 1-0 home defeat to the Bundesliga side, who ground out a 1-1 draw at the BayArena and would later be knocked out in the Semi Finals by eventual champions Bayern Munich.

 

Arsenal's Premier League challenge faltered at around the same time. A run of just one win in nine matches saw the team temporarily lose their top-four position and left some Gooners baying for blood again. Benítez eventually managed to pull the team back up into 3rd place at the final reckoning. Arsenal had qualified for the Champions League for the 20th year in a row.

 

All in all, Higuaín's first season at the Emirates had been a success. He'd finished on 23 goals, and though only nine of them were in the Premier League, his Champions League tally of 11 was unsurpassed in that competition. Winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was surprisingly Arsenal's second-highest scorer with 13 goals, while Alexis Sánchez and Theo Walcott each reached double figures in terms of both goals and assists.

 

Arsenal's defensive record was vastly improved compared to the previous campaign. A large factor behind that was the continued improvement of 22-year-old right-back Héctor Bellerín, whose consistently excellent performances saw him named as the PFA Young Player of the Year once again.

 

Elsewhere in the PL, Leicester and Swansea were - unsurprisingly - unable to recapture their incredible form from the previous season. The Foxes finished in a more respectable 8th place, while the Swans were way down in 13th.

 

Meanwhile, Chelsea put up one of the tamest title defences in recent memory. Not unlike when he was at Manchester United, Moyes proved utterly incapable of filling a bona-fide champion's shoes, and he was sacked in January after only 191 days at the helm. Former Bayern and Manchester City boss Josep Guardiola came in to steady the Chelsea ship and guide them to a 6th-place finish, just behind Manchester United and Liverpool.

 

Guardiola had begun the season with hopes of building a dynasty at Manchester City, but he only lasted 11 matches before being sacked with the Citizens in mid-table. The Citizens then replaced Guardiola with his great nemesis - a refreshed and reinvigorated José Mourinho. The 'Special One' produced an incredible turnaround in fortunes as City raced up the table and finished runners-up - one point ahead of Arsenal, but 13 adrift of the eventual champions.

 

And who were the new kings of the Premier League? Why, they were the one team Arsenal fans did not want to see at the top of the tree - Tottenham Hotspur.

 

Mauricio Pochettino had built a young-ish and very entertaining team around the attacking talents of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Gökhan Töre. Not only were they lethal up front, but they were also almost impenetrable at the back, with captain Hugo Lloris keeping 18 clean sheets in the league.

 

Tottenham took the Premier League by storm - and for a long time, it seemed they would even go undefeated in a complete league campaign, just like Arsenal in 2003/2004. However, they inexplicably slipped up 2-1 at home to lowly Sunderland in mid-March - their only PL defeat from a season that yielded 24 wins and 13 draws.

 

As if a first league championship since 1961 wasn't enough, Pochettino's Spurs emulated Bill Nicholson's heroes from yesteryear by winning the domestic Double. After drawing 1-1 with Manchester City in the FA Cup Final at Wembley, Tottenham won the penalty shoot-out 4-2, with Welsh left-back Ben Davies netting the history-making spot-kick.

 

Watching their bitterest rivals finish above them for the first time since 1995, before lifting the two biggest prizes in English football, was a real body-blow to many Arsenal supporters. Their North London supremacy had been destroyed in devastating fashion.

 

Worse news was to come just weeks later, with the death of the man who'd brought the European Cup to the Emirates. Gary O'Hara's life had slowly unravelled in the 12 months leading up to his premature demise.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

Gary O'Hara appeared at St Albans Magistrates' Court on 13 June 2016. The now erstwhile Arsenal manager was awaiting trial over an alleged assault on self-proclaimed 'YouTube personality' Billy Khan outside the club's training ground in London Colney three months earlier.

 

O'Hara had originally intended to plead 'guilty' to the charges of causing grievous bodily harm and causing criminal damage. He was willing to take responsibility for his actions, so that his family would not have to endure the stress that came with a lengthy trial.

 

However, he was advised by his lawyers to plead 'not guilty'. They argued that they had evidence that the Metropolitan Police's criminal investigation had been - in their own words - "greatly compromised". O'Hara agreed.

 

The case was referred to the Central Criminal Court - otherwise known as the Old Bailey - within the City of London. Lady Justice Gardner-Newell oversaw the trial, which began in late August and ran for three weeks.

 

The prosecution put their case forward first. Acting on behalf of Khan, Sayeed Islam argued that the attack had left his client "severely traumatised, and unable to work for a number of weeks". The destruction of his video camera had also "deprived Mr Khan of a means to earn a living", in Islam's words.

 

Islam also claimed that O'Hara was "a mentally unstable man with a history of violence". BT Sport reporters Andy May and Des Kelly testified to say that the then-Arsenal boss had physically attacked them at Dean Court in February and at White Hart Lane in April respectively, following a couple of demoralising defeats.

 

Islam then rocked the courtroom by alleging that O'Hara had racist motives for his assault on Khan. He called Laura O'Hara to the witness stand.

 

Laura was asked by Islam about an incident outside a restaurant at Upper Street in Islington in early 1992. She and her father Martin had been attacked by three British Asian men, with Martin suffering injuries so severe that he had to spend several days in hospital.

 

Islam questioned Laura, "Has your experience 24 years ago adversely affected your opinion of people within the British Asian community?"

 

Laura doubted whether Islam's question was relevant to the trial, but the judge insisted that she delivered an answer. She stammered, and then admitted, "Yes. I hate to say it... but yes, it has."

 

Islam declared to the courtroom that he reckoned Laura's negative attitude towards Asians had "rubbed off" on Gary, hence his public disdain for people such as Khan and journalist Salma Mazhar. The O'Haras were noticeably dismayed by Islam's claims.

 

The prosecution rested their case. Before the defence argued their case, O'Hara was verbally heard asking his solicitor Miranda Croft to "make those f***ing b******s pay".

 

With 25 years of experience at the Bar, Croft was regarded by many in law circles as one of the country's leading defence lawyers. O'Hara had spared no expense in acquiring her widely-coveted services.

 

Croft opened up by arguing that O'Hara had been "viciously and relentlessly targeted online" by Khan and his colleagues from the 'We Are The Gooners' YouTube channel. She referred to an incident in which Khan compared O'Hara to Slobodan Milošević, for no other reason other than the fact his Arsenal team had just lost 3-0 at home to Norwich City.

 

Khan had also "instigated a psychological war against Mr O'Hara and his family", according to Croft. The 'Meat Loaf incident' - in which Khan's fellow YouTubers Matthew Baynes and Richard Oluwadare played the American singer's biggest hits at full volume outside the O'Haras' home in the middle of the night - was also referred to. Baynes and Oluwadare had since spent time in prison for their crimes and were subsequently dismissed from 'We Are The Gooners'.

 

Khan was called into the stand and questioned about his actions by Croft. He apologised for many of the things he had said about O'Hara, and admitted that he had "gone too far" on occasion. However, he denied intending to harass O'Hara or his family.

 

Croft then brought up the defence's long-held belief that Khan had exaggerated the extent of the assault. While O'Hara had admitted throwing a single punch to the victim's left eye, photographs taken at the police station afterwards showed Khan with multiple injuries to his face and left arm.

 

Islam angrily branded Croft "a liar", but Khan himself admitted that not all the injuries shown on the photograph had been at O'Hara's hands. He claimed that he had been the victim of another assault later on the afternoon of 18 March.

 

Croft then alerted the jury to CCTV footage of O'Hara being remanded in custody and questioned by police about the attack. She noted that several minutes of footage taken in O'Hara's cell on 19 March was missing, and that the accused could be seen reeling in agony in his seat on multiple occasions.

 

Police Constable Vicky Pritchard was subsequently called to the stand. Croft interrogated her intensely for several minutes, asking her to explain why some CCTV footage was absent from the tape, and also whether O'Hara had been physically or mentally intimidated in any way while in custody.

 

Pritchard eventually cracked, admitting, "Yes. We did use aggressive methods to try and extract information from Mr O'Hara."

 

Pritchard revealed that she and her colleague - Police Constable Grant Walters - had been "under orders to do anything necessary" to extract a confession from O'Hara. This, she revealed, would often involve her physically restraining O'Hara in his seat whilst Walters threw punches at him or kicked his shins. Any incriminating footage was then wiped from existence.

 

When asked to name the person who had instructed her and Walters to carry out these orders, Pritchard revealed, "The order came from our commanding officer - Superintendent Faisal Khan."

 

There were some visible gasps from inside the courtroom. Faisal Khan was one of the longest-serving and most venerated Metropolitan Police officers in North London, having been with the force since the mid-1990s. He also happened to be the father of the alleged victim - Billy Khan.

 

The claims that one of the Met's most senior policemen had been involved were startling, to say the least. Lady Justice Gardner-Newell adjourned the case almost immediately.

 

After careful deliberation, Croft and the rest of the defence team asked Gardner-Newell to declare a mistrial, claiming that the investigation had been compromised by "police collusion". She agreed to their request, and the trial collapsed.

 

Gary O'Hara remained a free man, with no criminal record to his name. However, he offered to pay Billy Khan an undisclosed six-figure settlement to settle their dispute once and for all. The pair were photographed exchanging a handshake outside the Old Bailey afterwards.

 

A few days later, Pritchard and Walters were arrested and formally charged with perverting the course of justice. They were suspended from the Metropolitan Police, and then dismissed with immediate effect upon their convictions the following year. They were each sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment, but were released after serving only six.

 

Meanwhile, Faisal Khan was charged with perverting the course of misjustice, and of misconduct in a public office, with his trial due to commence in August 2017. In the meantime, the Met had suspended him on full pay.

 

It was after seeing Faisal Khan in the courtroom that Laura O'Hara came to a startling realisation.

 

"I recognised that face, and the name as well," Laura shuddered. "Faisal Khan was one of the three young men who attacked my father and me on Upper Street. Specifically, he was the man who held me up against a wall while the other two assaulted us.

 

"Faisal Khan and the other two men got community service for what they did to us. I couldn't believe that he had gone on to become a respected police Superintendent. But now people knew what he was really like."

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CAUTION: This post covers a very sensitive topic and contains some dialogue that some readers may find very distressing. Reader discretion is advised.

***

 

On 16 November 2016, the English footballing community was rocked to the core by the shocking revelations by a former professional that he had been sexually abused by a coach whilst still a schoolboy.

 

Andy Woodward - a long-retired defender who'd played for various Football League teams in the 1990s - revealed all in an emotional interview with The Guardian's esteemed reporter Daniel Taylor. Woodward claimed that, from the age of 11, he and several team-mates in Crewe Alexandra's youth set-up had been abused by Barry Bennell.

 

Bennell's crimes went unreported for several years until he was arrested in the United States in 1994. He was subsequently returned to the United Kingdom, where he received a nine-year prison sentence for 23 charges of sexual offence against six underage boys.

 

Woodward went on to play professionally for the likes of Crewe and Bury, but the psychological scars of his childhood would not heal. He retired at the age of 29, and he did not reveal the shocking truth about the horrific abuse he'd suffered until 14 years later, aged 43.

 

Woodward's claims spurred several other ex-professionals to report that they'd been sexually assaulted, either by Bennell or other football coaches. One-time England striker David White and ex-Northern Ireland defender Mark Williams were among those who alleged abuse by Bennell. By the start of December, over 350 individuals had come forward to police with allegations of child sexual abuse by football coaches.

 

Then, on 7 December, another high-profile footballer came on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme to tell his story. Speaking to the TV presenter of the same name, former Arsenal manager Gary O'Hara revealed that he had been targeted by a paedophile at school.

 

"It all started when I was about ten years old, and my school got a new PE teacher," he began. "This man was not like other PE teachers. He could be really fun and chummy at times, but there were other times where he'd be your worst nightmare.

 

"He would always watch us get changed - before and after lessons. He'd even go so far as to pull your clothes off you if he felt you weren't doing it quickly enough. And when you were showering, he would just stand there smiling at you, smoking a cigarette. There was no privacy with him.

 

"I remember days when, after PE, he would get us to rub ourselves in oil. There was no real reason for it. I didn't want to do that, but then he'd just go on top of me and smother me in the stuff.

 

"That was about as bad as it got for me," O'Hara said, before choking up as he recalled a more harrowing story. "Unfortunately, one of my best friends at school wasn't so lucky.

 

"My friend - I'll call him 'J' - was a Muslim. Our teacher hated Muslims. He would often treat 'J' especially badly. He'd be effing and blinding at him all the time, calling him the P-word and loads of other anti-Islamic terms.

 

"Then, one afternoon, after we'd all finished PE and got changed, he made 'J' stay in the shower completely naked and told the rest of us to... go away, basically. I don't know exactly what happened next, but when 'J' described it to me a few weeks later..."

 

O'Hara then broke down before telling Derbyshire a minute later, "Anyway, the teacher left our school about a week after this incident with 'J'. He said that he was travelling to New York to visit his mother, who was apparently terminally ill. We never heard from him again.

 

"I feel like I have to tell you this story about 'J' because... well, about seven years ago, I think it was... he killed himself. Carbon monoxide poisoning, in his car. He was 31. He had a wife and a two-year-old daughter.

 

"I can't tell you how devastating that was to me personally. 'J' died around about the same time I was losing my mum, so it was obviously a dreadful time for me.

 

"I thought I'd never be able to tell his story, but the bravery of men like Andy Woodward and David White has encouraged me to come forward now and say my piece. I want to make sure that all those horrible men who abused me and 'J' and other innocent young people like us are brought to justice."

 

Derbyshire then asked O'Hara if he had reported the crimes to the police. O'Hara said that he would do so, though he could not say for certain whether the abuser was still alive, let alone still living in the country.

 

The man in question was indeed still alive and still resident in the UK - and O'Hara wasn't the only victim to have disclosed his identity to the police. On 9 December 2016, a 74-year-old man by the name of Malcolm Mason was arrested at his home in Southgate, North London, in connection with allegations of "non-recent child sexual abuse". He was later charged with five counts of sexual assault against boys aged under 14, alleged to have taken place between 1986 and 1989.

 

Mason appeared at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales - colloquially known as the Old Bailey - in May 2017, pleading not guilty to all five charges. The case was adjourned until August, when a three-week trial began.

 

On 7 September 2017, Malcolm Mason was unanimously found guilty of five counts of child sexual abuse. Upon sentencing Mason, the judge took into account that the convicted paedophile was now 75 years old, very frail, and extremely unlikely to be a threat to society. Nonetheless, the six-year prison sentence imposed upon Mason was considered by some to be outrageously lenient.

 

Mason's sentencing was particularly poignant, as it had come exactly three months to the day that his most high-profile victim was found dead at his home. Gary O'Hara had not lived to see his former abuser face justice.

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

"I had absolutely no idea that Gary had been sexually abused at school. None of us did. Goodness knows how he managed to stay strong for so long with those horrible memories from his childhood.

 

"I can understand why he never talked about it to me. Sometimes, though, I can't help feeling that if he'd opened up sooner, things might be different. Gary might still be alive today. We might still be married."

 

Laura O'Hara felt an air of regret as she talked about the shocking revelations made by her estranged husband Gary in December 2016.

 

"I tried to reach out to him after he went public with the news," she continued. "Lord knows I tried. But every time I tried to get back in touch, he just pulled further way. He wouldn't even return any of my calls or text messages.

 

"One day, early in the new year, I went back to the family home, where he was still living at the time. I could just about hear a song playing inside the house. 'I Need My Girl', by The National. I thought then that he really wanted me back.

 

"Anyway, I knocked on the door, but he wouldn't answer. I stood my ground, and continued knocking on the door and ringing the doorbell until - about 15 minutes later - he finally relented.

 

"Gary opened the door, but he looked nothing like my husband. He was unkempt, unshaven, his hair had gone grey... he smelt like he'd been drinking heavily, and his eyes suggested that as well. In other words, he was a complete mess.

 

"Gary just said, 'I don't want to talk right now. Go away', before slamming the door shut. That was the last time we ever saw each other."

 

The O'Hara family unit had disintegrated. Laura continued to raise the couple's two daughters by herself in Shenley, while Gary carried on living as a recluse in Borehamwood. Later in the year, he would sell the family home and move to a smaller abode elsewhere in the town.

 

The O'Haras never formally divorced, though Laura added, "It was in the spring that I first seriously considered filing for divorce. Then came that day - the day our lives fell apart."

 

Little is known about the final five months of Gary O'Hara's life. He was very rarely seen in public and appeared to shun contact from anyone except his closest friends - and his father David, who shed some light on his son's final few days.

 

He said, "I'll never forget this one afternoon, about two weeks before Gary passed, when he phoned me out of the blue. His voice sounded a bit shaky, and he was struggling to get the words out.

 

"I got Gary to calm down and gather his thoughts, and then he said, 'I think someone's stalking me.' There was a mysterious car parked on the opposite side of his road through the day, but it didn't belong to any of his neighbours, and it would just drive off every evening. I asked Gary who the stalker could be, and he went, 'I think I recognise them from somewhere... but I can't quite figure it out'.

 

"He had phoned the police about his suspicions. They did nothing. They told him not to worry about it.

 

"My final conversation with Gary was on the first Sunday of June. Gary was pretty sure that the stalker had disappeared, or at least gone into hiding, so he was feeling a bit happier. He said to me that he'd come round my house the following evening for dinner. I said that he'd be more than welcome to come over.

 

"Gary never showed up that Monday evening. He wouldn't answer any calls either. He would always stick to any promise he made to his old man if he could, so I was immediately concerned.

 

"Tuesday came, and still I heard or saw nothing. There was no answer when I arrived at Gary's house. His car was still on the drive, which suggested to me that he was probably still inside. I feared that he might've come to harm, so that was when I reported him missing."

 

The Metropolitan Police began their search for Gary O'Hara that evening, scouring Borehamwood and other neighbouring towns for the former Arsenal manager. A few hours later, deep into the night, they took their search straight to his house.

 

It was upon breaking into the property that the police discovered Gary's grizzly fate. An officer found him hanging lifelessly from a ceiling fan in his study.

 

David recalled, "When the police told me what had happened to Gary, I was in complete shock. I felt so much pain inside of me that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It's bad enough for a father to lose one child... but to lose another? Words can't describe the feeling.

 

"The police asked me if Gary had had any suicidal thoughts prior to his death. I told them that he'd been quite depressed over the last few months - because of his separation from Laura, being away from his two girls, and also the stalker outside his home.

 

"But Gary was always an honourable man; he wasn't a coward. He wasn't the type of person who would give up on life when it got difficult. That was why I told the police, 'Gary didn't hang himself. He's either got himself into a horrible accident... or somebody's killed him.'

 

"I broke down when I said those last few words. I didn't want to think that something like that had happened to my son, but I just felt that it was true."

 

Laura was also unconvinced that Gary's death was of his own making. She said, "Gary loved our daughters and couldn't bear to leave them without a dad. He was too brave and too dignified to have taken the coward's way out.

 

"I had an inkling straight away that he'd been murdered. He'd made a lot of friends in his life, but he'd also made quite a few enemies."

 

Meanwhile, a coroner examined Gary's body for further clues as to how exactly he had died. He quickly discovered that the deceased's neck was still fully intact, whereas there would have been broken bones in the event of a hanging. He also discovered ligature marks around the neck, as if Gary had been strangled with a rope or an electrical cord.

 

There was heavy bruising below Gary's left eye, suggesting that he had sustained blunt force or trauma to that area of his face. The coroner also discovered bruises to both of Gary's elbows, and his lower back. It seemed that he had been punched, then pushed to the floor, and then held down before being suffocated.

 

Such evidence seemed to back up David's and Laura's claims that their loved one had not killed himself. As police saw it, his death was more likely to have been the result of a homicide than a suicide.

 

Gary had made many enemies during his time at Arsenal. It was entirely possible that any of them could've killed him, yet the police were struggling to figure out a clear motive behind the killing.

 

On 12 June 2017, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police announced that the death of Gary O'Hara was now being treated as "suspicious", and called for members of the public to assist them in their inquiries.

 

One of the most high-profile murder investigations in recent British history was underway.

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CHAPTER 30 - Farewell

 

The investigation into the murder of Gary O'Hara was in full swing by the middle of June 2017. The Metropolitan Police were exploring several leads to find out the truth behind the former Arsenal manager's death.

 

Gary's father David and wife Laura were each interviewed by officers on 13 June. Although neither David nor Laura were under suspicion, the police wanted to eliminate them from their inquiries as quickly as possible, which they did. Their alibis were watertight, and their DNA did not match any found at the crime scene.

 

Several members of the playing and coaching staff at Arsenal FC were also questioned and subsequently eliminated.

 

'We Are The Gooners' YouTube presenter Billy Khan was also ruled out as a potential suspect, despite his previous, very public run-ins with O'Hara. Standing at only 5ft 9in tall and weighing in at a little under 12 stone, the now 23-year-old Khan was simply not capable of physically overwhelming a big, heavily-built man 17 years his senior.

 

The Met then turned their attentions to O'Hara's suspected stalker. In the weeks leading up to his death, O'Hara would often see a mysterious car - a silver Volkswagen Scirocco R - parked across his street, in view of his property. He'd reported his findings to his father David and to the police, but when the latter arrived, the car had disappeared.

 

"When he first told me about his suspicions, I asked Gary to write down the number plate of the car," David recalled. "He said that he had noted it down somewhere. When the police told me that they were investigating the car, I asked them to search his house for that note."

 

The police scoured Gary's property for any written notes containing a number plate, but they were out of luck. One officer then suggested that they explore Gary's personal iPad - which had been held in storage - for clues.

 

There was one problem; they didn't have the passcode required to unlock the iPad. David did not know the passcode, and neither did Laura... but one of her daughters would suddenly provide the police with a breakthrough.

 

"The police visited my house about a week into the murder inquiry, and asked me about Gary's iPad," Laura said. "I told them that Gary always kept his passcode secret from me. I assumed that it would have been our wedding anniversary, or one of the girls' birthdays, but no.

 

"But Adele was listening in on our conversation. She walked into the room and said, 'I know the passcode. It's 3011.' It turned out that Adele had snuck in on Gary typing it in one day."

 

And what was the significance behind the passcode? Laura quickly figured it out, "30 November was the date on which Gary made his first-team debut for Arsenal, in 1996."

 

Adele's tip-off was just what the police needed. They unlocked the iPad and searched through the Notes app, which contained several short notes, including shopping lists, instructions... and a car number plate.

 

The number in question was that of a British registration plate, originating in Kent. Using that registration number, they found that it did indeed refer to silver Volkswagen Scirocco R. They then asked the DVLA for the registered owner and their address. The result would startle them, and edge them closer to breaking the case.

 

The Volkswagen had been registered to a "Mrs AL HUNDHAUSEN", living in Dartford. Two officers arrived at the property, where they were greeted by Johann Hundhausen - the husband of Anna-Lena Hofweber, O'Hara's former one-night stand. It seemed that the Hundhausens had relocated from Germany to the London suburbs.

 

Johann revealed that he and his wife had immigrated to the United Kingdom "for a business venture", and that Anna-Lena had taken up his surname to avoid any awkward questions people might've had about Gary. However, Mrs Hundhausen was nowhere to be found at the family home. More importantly, neither was the car.

 

Johann explained his wife's whereabouts, saying that she had returned home to Mönchengladbach to care for her mother, who was in the final stages of terminal cancer. The police were not completely convinced. Later that day, they publicly declared a Europe-wide hunt for Anna-Lena Hofweber in connection with the murder of Gary O'Hara.

 

British and German investigators found no sign of Hofweber over the next few days. However, the Met then uncovered CCTV footage of a silver Volkswagen driving erratically on the A206 just outside Dartford at 3:45am on the morning of 13 June. Significantly, it had been less than 24 hours since police announced that they were investigating O'Hara's death as a murder.

 

There were several lakes and rivers beside the A206, in which - the police reckoned - the vehicle could have been dumped. These were all explored individually until another breakthrough was made on 21 June, when a Volkswagen Scirocco - matching the description of that which had been parked outside O'Hara's house - was dredged out of a lake.

 

Upon clearing the car from the lake, police officers discovered a horrifying sight. The lifeless body of a middle-aged blonde-haired woman was found buckled into the driver's seat. The rear windows had been opened, allowing water to gush into the vehicle.

 

The Met's forensics team soon identified the deceased as a 43-year-old German national residing in the UK - Anna-Lena Hofweber. Police suspected that she had committed suicide by driving her car into the lake. That still left them asking the most important question: had she been involved in O'Hara's death?

Edited by CFuller

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***

 

On the morning of 22 June, the Metropolitan Police visited Johann Hundhausen at his home in Dartford again. This latest visit was to inform him that his wife Anna-Lena Hofweber had been found drowned, having seemingly taken her own life.

 

Johann was beside himself with grief. He said that Anna-Lena had been "in good spirits", and hadn't expressed any suicidal thoughts in the lead-up to her death.

 

The Met also informed Johann that they had recovered Anna-Lena's mobile phone from the car that she had driven off the A206 and into a nearby lake. While looking through the deceased's text messages, they had found that she had been in regular contact with a woman named 'Salma', and a man named 'Sayeed'. Some of the messages sent by or to Anna-Lena had raised suspicions that she had been planning a crime of some sort.

 

A police officer had called the mobile number linked to 'Sayeed'. A male voice answered the call, "How the hell did you get this number?" The officer recognised the man's voice almost instantly.

 

'Sayeed' was an alias of Faisal Khan - a former Met Superintendent. Khan had been suspended on full pay since the previous September. It had been alleged that he'd instructed two Police Constables to use force to extract a confession from O'Hara while the then-Arsenal manager was in police custody for assaulting Faisal's son Billy.

 

Hundhausen was asked if he'd known whether Hofweber had been in touch with Khan or explicitly talked about killing O'Hara. The widower shook his head; he was completely unaware of anything that his wife might have been planning with Khan.

 

After undergoing and passing a lie detector test, Hundhausen was formally cleared of being a suspect in the murder of Gary O'Hara. The Metropolitan Police would then issue an arrest warrant for one of their own - Faisal Khan.

 

Khan was apprehended later that afternoon at his home in Camden. He initially protested that he'd had no involvement in the murder. He admitted to having been in touch with Hofweber, whom he'd claimed had tearfully phoned him on the evening of 5 June, confessing to killing O'Hara. However, DNA evidence would prove to the contrary.

 

Khan's fingerprints were taken, and forensics experts found a match to those found on the deceased's neck. The large, firm hands of this 6ft 2in, 14-stone veteran cop also suggested that he was far more likely to have strangled the victim than Hofweber, who was a foot shorter and physically feeble.

 

Facing insuperable evidence against him, Khan eventually came clean. He revealed that he had been introduced to Hofweber via his wife - the tabloid journalist Salma Mazhar. The two women had stayed in touch since Hofweber sold the exclusive story about her one-night stand with O'Hara in 1996 to Mazhar and The Sun.

 

Hofweber told Mazhar in the autumn of 2016 that she and her family had moved to Dartford. The German secretly revealed that she longed to enter a relationship with O'Hara, now that he had separated from his "slut wife" Laura. She would then seek to divorce her husband, whom she claimed had been very violent towards both her and her autistic son Leon.

 

Mazhar sought to assist Hofweber, uncovering O'Hara's new address for her. Hofweber would then - on two or three occasions every week - drive her car towards O'Hara's home, and wait outside for several hours, hoping that Gary would come out and meet her. He never did.

 

Hofweber also tried on a number occasions to confront O'Hara directly, ringing his door bell. Every time, she was left fruitlessly standing outside, with O'Hara stubbornly refusing to answer the door.

 

After several months, Hofweber grew tired of waiting for O'Hara to requite her lust. She texted Mazhar, "I want to kill him. If I cannot have Gary, no woman can have him."

 

Mazhar replied, "My husband was a Met super. He can fix this problem for you."

 

There then followed a series of text messages between Hofweber and Khan, who was initially sceptical about her plans but eventually agreed to assist her. He texted, "I will see if I can convince Gary to take you. If I cannot, then I will deal with him another way. Deal?"

 

Hofweber replied succintly, "OK. Deal."

 

In his confession, Khan said, "I hated Gary O'Hara; I absolutely hated the man. I felt he was a b****** for what he did to my son. If he wasn't going to do a favour for my wife's friend, then I wasn't afraid to kill him."

 

At approximately 5:00pm on 5 June, Hofweber drove Khan to O'Hara's home. The disgraced officer rang the door bell and requested to speak to O'Hara, who answered very reluctantly.

 

Khan concocted a story about a burglary that had occurred at another house two doors down, and asked for O'Hara's assistance. O'Hara revealed that he had installed CCTV cameras outside his house, and he invited Khan upstairs to view the recordings. Meanwhile, Hofweber quietly snuck inside and followed the pair.

 

O'Hara had just shown Khan into his study when Hofweber came upstairs, demanding, "Take me, Gary! I love you! I have always loved you, ever since Benidorm!"

 

O'Hara refused Hofweber's pleas, but was then violently accosted by Khan. He was given a 10-second deadline to agree to talk to his former one-night stand, otherwise he would be killed. O'Hara remained tight-lipped.

 

When the 10 seconds expired, Khan threw a right hook at the former football manager's left eye, dazing him before pushing him to the floor. Khan then sat on top of O'Hara while Hofweber retrieved a laptop charger and handed it to the officer, who wrung the lead around O'Hara's neck until his victim had suffocated to death.

 

Once O'Hara had died, the murderers set about making his demise resemble a suicide. Khan stripped the deceased of his clothes, which he threw across the bedroom, and then hanged the body from a ceiling fan in the study. He also confiscated the CCTV video recorder, which he later destroyed.

 

Meanwhile, Hofweber scoured O'Hara's music collection and took out the CD case for "Born To Die" by Lana Del Rey. She placed the case on the office desk and then took one of O'Hara's post-it notes, writing on it, "Sometimes love is not enough, and the road gets tough, I don't know why."

 

Police would later discover a second post-it note, which Hofweber had hidden in the glove department of her car. On it, she had hurriedly written some more lyrics from the title track on Del Rey's album: "You and I, we were born to die."

 

Having revealed the full story behind Gary O'Hara's death, Faisal Khan was formally charged with his murder. In addition, his wife Salma Mazhar was arrested and charged with being an accessory to murder.

 

Khan and Mazhar would go on trial at the Old Bailey in October 2017. The couple pleaded guilty to their crimes and made no efforts to defend themselves.

 

After a fortnight-long trial, the jury unanimously found Khan guilty of murder. Upon sentencing him to life imprisonment, with a minimum tariff of 20 years, the judge - Lord Justice Lockyer - said that Khan was "a contemptuous person who misused his authority and, even after pleading guilty, showed no remorse for his actions".

 

Mazhar was found guilty of being an accessory to murder, also by a unanimous verdict. She too would receive a life sentence, but would become eligible for parole after serving at least 10 years.

 

As the couple were led from the dock and down to the cells, a man was heard angrily shouting from the gallery, "Rot in hell! You should be hanged for what you did!" That man was none other than Billy Khan.

 

During the trial, Billy had testified against his father, saying that he was "a manipulative tyrant" with "a very short fuse". Both Billy and his mother Nida had been regularly assaulted and subjected to psychological abuse at the hands of Faisal, often for reasons as trivial as forgetting to buy milk at the local supermarket.

 

Tragically, in 2013, Nida threw herself in front of a bus on a busy road in Camden, having been unable to tolerate her husband's abusive behaviour any longer. Billy had privately blamed his mother's suicide squarely on his father, and was angered even further when Faisal remarried just two years later.

 

Billy also revealed why the injuries he'd apparently suffered in an assault by Gary O'Hara outside the Arsenal training ground in March 2016 had been 'exaggerated'. Shortly after the incident, in which Billy had sustained a black eye and had his video camera broken, he was confronted by his father. Angered by his son's harassment of O'Hara, and the destruction of some valuable recording equipment, Faisal dragged Billy into his car and viciously attacked him.

 

Laura O'Hara recalled, "That trial was when I saw the full story behind Billy Khan. He was an angry young man, but he was emotionally very heavily scarred by his father's actions.

 

"Looking back, I can understand a bit more why he was so antagonistic towards Gary in those videos. In a way, they were a means for him to vent out his anger. I just wish he'd used his anger in a more productive way. I wish he'd been brave enough to stand up to his father sooner, otherwise none of this would have happened.

 

"Can I forgive Billy Khan for how he and his colleagues treated Gary? Yes... yes, I can forgive him."

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***

 

The Finchley area of North London fell silent on the morning of 19 October 2017. After many months of agony for his family and friends, Gary O'Hara would finally be laid to rest, on what would have been his 39th birthday. His funeral service was held at the St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where his mother and brother had been cremated previously.

 

There was much media interest in the funeral of the man who'd become the first English manager to lift the European Cup during the Champions League era. Sky News and BBC News had each enquired about broadcasting the memorial service live on their television stations, but Gary's family declined, stating that they wished for the event to be private.

 

The funeral cortège was headed by Gary's widow Laura, and the couple's two daughters. 16-year-old Adele had to put on a particularly brave face to provide emotional support for her mother as well as her 10-year-old sister Lucy. Those three were accompanied by Laura's brother Richard, who had been one of Gary's best friends at school.

 

Behind them was the patriarch of the O'Hara family. At just 64 years of age, David O'Hara had now lost his wife and their two children, as well as two of his siblings. He looked visibly frail as he was accompanied to the cemetery by his surviving siblings - elder brother William, and younger sister Patricia.

 

Gary's sister-in-law Rachel O'Hara - the wife of his deceased elder sibling Paul - was also in attendance. Rachel had brought along the three children she had raised alone since Paul's fatal heart attack over a year-and-a-half earlier.

 

Many of O'Hara's closest colleagues had also been invited to the service. They included former players and coaches from Boreham Wood, Watford, and of course Arsenal. His mentor and assistant Steve Bould was in attendance, while former manager Arsène Wenger had arrived from Strasbourg to pay his own respects.

 

Also paying tribute to the late Gunners boss was Billy Khan. Some question marks had been raised beforehand over whether it was suitable for the son of O'Hara's murderer to attend the service. However, Billy - once such a fierce critic of Gary's - had publicly disowned his father Faisal and step-mother Salma Mazhar following their convictions and had made peace with the O'Hara family.

 

Khan had also resigned from his role as a presenter on 'We Are The Gooners' in the wake of O'Hara's death. He was now working for a rival Arsenal fan channel on YouTube, and this hitherto brash rebel had adopted a rather less frenzied attitude.

 

As the mourners entered the crematorium building, they were greeted to the strains of Harriet Wheeler from The Sundays performing "Wild Horses". This melancholic cover version of the classic track by The Rolling Stones appeared on the US release of The Sundays' sophomore album "Blind", released in 1992.

 

There were eulogies from several of Gary O'Hara's closest friends and family. Bould said of his colleague, "I've never met another coach with more passion for the game or more determination to learn from past mistakes than Gary. He was one of a kind."

 

Gunners right-back Héctor Bellerín said, "Gary was a huge inspiration to me. He brought me up from the youth team, to the development team, and then the first-team, and made me the player that I am today. If it had not been for him, my life would be very different, so I cannot thank him enough."

 

David O'Hara said that his youngest son was "a wonderful boy, and an even better man". He continued, "Gary was a selfless man who would always make time for his family and friends. If anyone got in the way of those he loved, he wouldn't back down until they did.

 

"I am so proud to say that he was my son, and I'm sure Debbie would say the same if she could. I'm also sure that, somewhere up there, she is making him and Paul a lovely roast dinner as we speak."

 

Laura then stepped forward to pay an emotional tribute to her late husband. She began, "When I first met Gary O'Hara at school way back in 1991, I thought he was a cocky, untidy so-and-so. I was right... but I later saw in him a man who was kind, protective of his family, and extremely passionate about his beliefs.

 

"To me, Gary was someone who could always provide me with some intelligent conversation, comic relief, or occasionally a shoulder to cry on. We had a lot of arguments and disputes during our 24 years together, but when all was said and done, we would always leave with a hug and a kiss.

 

"Gary was also a doting father who had eyes only for his two daughters. He thought the world of Adele and Lucy. His purpose in life was not to become a successful football coach, but to ensure that they grew up into two incredible women. He would be very proud to see how much they have grown now, even in the months after he was suddenly taken from us.

 

"As a lot of you here today will testify, football was always Gary's greatest passion. Those who were closest to him will also remember his fondness for music, and it was our mutual love for that which brought us together in the first place. Once I listened to 'Can't Be Sure' by The Sundays on that mixtape he gave me when I was 14, I knew that he was a man with great taste, and a man that I wanted to spend the rest of my days with.

 

"At the start of today's service, you will have heard The Sundays' cover of 'Wild Horses'. Gary would himself have told you that 'wild horses couldn't drag me away' from those he loved.

 

"Another band we grew to love together later in our lives was Band of Horses. I thought I would finish my eulogy by leaving you with this song, which sums up how I feel about Gary James O'Hara. Thank you."

 

As Laura returned to her seat while wiping tears from her face, the song "No One's Gonna Love You" - from Band of Horses' 2007 album "Cease To Begin" - was played out.

 

"It's looking like a limb torn off,

Or altogether just taken apart,

We're reeling through an endless fall,

We are the ever-living ghost of what once was.

 

But no one is ever gonna love you more than I do.

No one's gonna love you more than I do.

 

And anything to make you smile,

It is a better side of you to admire,

But they should never take so long,

Just to be over then back to another one.

 

And no one is ever gonna love you more than I do.

No one's gonna love you more than I do."

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EPILOGUE - Here's Where The Story Ends

 

It is June 2018. A year has now passed since Gary O'Hara died in such tragic circumstances. For his widow Laura, and their daughters Adele and Lucy, the pain and agony that his death caused is still very raw.

 

Laura is sat on the settee in the living room of her home in Shenley, Hertfordshire. The room is adorned with several photos of the O'Hara family, but there are few other visible mementos from Gary's life.

 

"It probably goes without saying, but this last year has just been so stressful for all of us," Laura said mournfully. Now in her early 40s, her once flowing blondish-brown locks have been cut short, and her face displays the wear and tear that comes with 12 months of widowhood.

 

"I couldn't bear to go to work anymore after Gary passed. I quit my job and retired on his inheritance, so now I just spend my days doing housework while the girls are at school.

 

"We've decided as a family that we will be moving out of Hertfordshire this summer. We want to make a fresh start in the country; we're looking in places like Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, away from the hustle and bustle of the London suburbs. It's an ideal time for the girls to move, as Adele completes secondary school next month, while Lucy is just finishing primary school.

 

"Gary's death obviously hit the girls hard. Adele was always Gary's 'special girl'. She's become a lot more reclusive, much less outgoing since then... but she's also become more grown-up and independent. She's had to stay strong emotionally, for Lucy's sake more than anything.

 

"Lucy was torn to pieces when I told her about Dad. Even today, she's nothing like the same Lucy as before. She's been very depressed for a year now, and things got so bad that we had to arrange for a counsellor to visit her at school."

 

Had Laura watched any football since Gary's death? She shook her head. "As you well know, I'm not a big lover of football, and I'm even less so now. Nowadays, I cannot even watch a match without bursting into tears."

 

Laura was then asked why there were so few mementos of Gary in the house. She answered, "Gary left me everything in his will... but a lot of the stuff he had, I either sold it, gave it to charity, or simply threw it away. They just brought back too many bad memories for me, and I hate that, because I loved him so much."

 

There is, though, one significant item of Gary's that Laura kept after his death. Taking pride of place in the living room cabinet is his 2016 UEFA Champions League winner's medal, which Laura cleans every week.

 

"I couldn't give that away," she stated. "Gary would never have forgiven me if I had. And besides, it's priceless.

 

"It reminds me of the finest moment of Gary's career - that one moment where all his troubles drifted away, and everything clicked into place for him.

 

"This medal also reminds me of one of our favourite songs - 'Here's Where The Story Ends', by The Sundays. You know how the chorus goes: 'It's that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes my eyes feel sore.' Even now, I can fell my eyes welling up.

 

"When I look at this medal, I often think of all those great times I had with Gary, and how much I regretted leaving him. I just didn't realise it until he was gone."

 

Laura then went into the kitchen and collected a letter, saying, "I got this in the post last week. This letter here shows you just how appreciative people can be at difficult times."

 

The letter - addressed to Mrs L C O'Hara, and dated 5 June 2018 - was sent from Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis on the club's letter-headed stationery.

 

Quote

Dear Laura,

 

On the first anniversary of your late husband Gary's sudden and tragic passing, I would once again like to express my sympathies - and those of the Football Club - to you, and to your two children, Adele and Lucy.

 

We will always be grateful for the tremendous work Gary gave to Arsenal Football Club - as a player, coach, and manager. While his solitary season as first-team manager in 2015/2016 will not be looked back on fondly at a domestic level, and while the manner of his departure was deeply regrettable, the team's victory in the UEFA Champions League will go down as the greatest moment in our history.

 

Gary was a lifelong Gooner who brought passion and desire back to Arsenal, at a time when it was badly needed. He was a manager who could deliver results with style as well as substance, and he could also lead the team to incredible triumphs over major European rivals when the odds were stacked heavily against him.

 

I am certain that Gary would have been thrilled to have seen how the club has developed over the last two seasons, especially the season just gone, under the management of Rafael Benítez. He surely would have revelled in Arsenal defeating Sevilla to lift the UEFA Europa League trophy - the club's second continental honour in three years - and even more so in the club securing a first Premier League title since the 'Untouchables' season of 2003/2004.

 

We at Arsenal believe that it is doubtful our successes of 2017/2018 would have happened were it not for the small role Gary played in shaping the club's future. He shall never be forgotten at the Emirates Stadium.

 

On behalf of Rafa, Stan Kroenke, the board, and everyone else connected with Arsenal Football Club, I would like to express my sincere gratitude for Gary's hard work by donating £2million to the mental health charity Mind. I understand that Gary was a supporter of that charity and its work, and I believe that he would have been thankful for our gesture.

 

If you and your daughters ever wish to visit the Emirates Stadium in future, you will always be welcomed with open arms. You shall forever be a part of the Arsenal family.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Ivan Gazidis

Chief Executive Officer, Arsenal F.C.

 

Laura wiped away a couple of tears from her eyes as she read Gazidis' letter. Would her husband have been proud, she was asked?

 

"Yes," she replied. "Gary would have been very proud, and very humbled. He'll have been delighted that his contribution to Arsenal is still remembered, and that the club is continuing to succeed. I know that up there - somewhere - Gary is looking down smiling.

 

"As for me? Well, Ivan's letter also reminds me of that Sundays song. 'It's that little souvenir of a colourful year which makes me smile inside'."

 

And is Laura O'Hara smiling inside?

 

"Yes. You could say that, yes."

Edited by CFuller

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CFuller my friend all I can say is that story was pure brilliance, loved every paragraph of it. If this doesn’t enter the Hall of Fame one day with youself it would be a travisity 

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