The Opposition View - Arsenal
1. First of all, how big a relief was it to end a long period of not winning any silverware by winning the competition last year?
It was massive for the supporters, the players, the manager and the whole club. We ended up doing it the hard way too. Having beaten Spurs, Liverpool and Everton on the way to the semi-final it should have been straightforward against Wigan and Hull but the players froze at Wembley. We got a late equaliser in the semi-final before winning on penalties and you thought 'that's our bullet dodged' only for the same thing to happen in the final. When you're 2-0 down after eight minutes at Wembley, having gone so long without a trophy, you just can't believe that we could be playing that badly. If Kieran Gibbs hadn't cleared one off the line a couple of minutes later we'd have been finished.
After that you have to say that the players showed plenty of steel and we should have won the game before extra-time really. In the end it was our extra quality that beat Hull. I thought I felt a sense of relief after the semi-final but that was nothing compared to the final. It was incredibly emotional at the end because off the time between trophies, and the way the game went. We'd been in three finals since 2005 and should have won all of them really, so to finally get over the line was great. I think you could see in the celebrations at the final whistle, and then the following day around Highbury, just what it meant to the Arsenal supporters to get that monkey off our backs. There isn't one of us that wasn't fed-up with the press banging on about how long we'd been without silverware, so to put a stop to that nonsense was great. More than anything it was just a reward to the fans that go week in, week out for our support.
2. Would you rather be in a Champions League semi-final right now, or would you rather be in the FA Cup semi-finals, obviously with a better chance of winning?
I would always pick the FA Cup over the Champions League. I'm 35 so I grew up with a European ban, while the FA Cup Final was the biggest day of the year. I would love to win the European Cup, obviously, more because we haven't yet done that than for any other reason. We've had teams that should have done better in the competition, but it is quite over rated for its quality. If you look at Liverpool in 2005, Porto in 2004, Chelsea and Man Utd sides that won it recently, even Arsenal in 2006 when we lost in the final, you don't have to be a great side to get to the end - after all it is a cup competition. By and large the best side in it should win it, but often they might not.
For me the FA Cup is special. The FA are doing their best to ruin it year on year, the game on Saturday being at Wembley rather than at Chelsea or Spurs is a case in point. But there is still something about the FA Cup that is magical - who'd have ever thought Bradford would score four goals at Stamford Bridge? I've been lucky enough to see Arsenal win it six times, and lose in a final as well, and there is nothing quite like that feeling of winning the Cup. I'd rather win the Premier League because it means you're the best team, but the FA Cup isn't far behind it for me. Maybe a younger generation will feel differently as there is so much football you can watch on TV these days, but I'm trying to teach my kids that it will always be more important than the European cash cow.
3. Where do you stand on Arsene Wenger and his future as Arsenal manager? How much longer do you want him at the helm?
I'm sure you know that there is a large divide among Arsenal fans where Arsene Wenger is concerned. I nailed my colours to the 'Wenger Out' mast many years ago. I wrote one of the first articles on the onllinegooner.com website calling for his head about six years back. I now get a lot of stick, as well as a lot of support when I write on the subject on my own site. Fans of other clubs seem to think that people like me are mad because of what Arsene has done as Arsenal manager, with the trophies he won, and the new stadium, and the brand of football etc. The fact is that in the last nine years, since we left Highbury, we've thrown opportunities away and the football has become much less easy on the eye at times - square passing for the sake of it is not entertaining.
People say we couldn't compete with the oil money, but the board and Arsene Wenger always told us they had money. I suspect they were being economical with the truth, in which case they were very ill-advised. But that doesn't change the fact that we lost in three finals in that time and blew the Premier League on three separate occasions. On each of those occasions a blind man could have seen where we needed one, maybe two players, in a January transfer window that would have got us over the line. Even accounting for a lack of large funds for transfers, there must have been a few quid that could have been invested in the squad to bring back the Premier League trophy. 2008, 2011 and 2014 were seasons where Arsene failed to make the couple of signings that would have added to his championships in England. Put together with a continual failure in Europe, and a propensity to get more than our fair share of hammerings, and it's a little easier to see why so many of us wouldn't mind him leaving. He decided to start calling fourth place a 'trophy' which became embarrassing as he fielded weakened sides in the domestic cups that the fans would have love to have won. Quite how he survived shipping an eight goal defeat at Old Trafford remains beyond my comprehension. Frankly he should have resigned immediately after that.
For all that I would like to see him go I am resigned to the fact that he is here until at least the end of next season, barring something very odd happening. At the moment we are playing really well and there is a lot of optimism about what might happen next season. Again, Arsene will need to spend the money that is there to strengthen certain areas. Nothing would make me happier than for Arsene Wenger to prove people like me wrong. If he was to bring back the Premier League and regular success again I'd be more than willing to hold my hands up and admit I'm an idiot. In an ideal world, for me, he would have gone after winning at Wembley last May and done so on a high. Perhaps he has earned the right to leave on his own terms, but he deserved to bow out with a trophy. Obviously we have another chance of that this season, but it might not be the happy ending it ought to have been.
4. Which Arsenal players do you think will be the match winners in this game to watch out for?
Arsenal have a lot of potential match winners. The question is whether or not they freeze again like last year. The wins over Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool in recent months lead me to believe that they now know what they're doing in the big games. You'd have to think that Cazorla, Ramsey, Ozil, Alexis, Giroud, Welbeck, even Walcott, have the ability to take Reading apart on the day. If I was picking one player out to do the damage it would be Alexis Sanchez. He's been a revelation since he arrived, a truly great signing. I was worried a few weeks back that he was running out of steam a bit - he never stops working as you will see if he plays at Wembley. I would also like to see Ozil turn it on when it matters. We all know how good he is and I want him to show everyone what he can do.
5. What team and shape do you expect to see from Wenger?
I wouldn't be surprised if Wenger changed one or two players on Saturday, but I don't expect wholesale change. I also don't expect any change to the formation he now favours. I'm fairly certain Szczesny will replace Ospina in goal, though I don't like this whole 'cup keeper' scenario. For me you pick your best team and try to win the game properly. Koscielny has been carrying a knock all season but I think he will play alongside Mertesacker. The other possible changes are most likely at full-back where I think Kieran Gibbs will come in and, depending how fit he is, Mathieu Debuchy might replace Bellerin but more likely he will be on the bench. In the previous round at Old Trafford we had Danny Welbeck in attack instead of Giroud and he might do the same again at Wembley. I can see a team a bit like this:
Bellerin Koscielny Mertesacker Gibbs
Ramsey Ozil Alexis
6. Which Reading players do you rate and why?
It's difficult to say who I 'rate' as such. Reading's squad has changed completely since they were last in the Premier League, and with the side struggling this season it's difficult to say who might pose a threat to Arsenal on the day. Pogrebnyak has played at the highest level and, on his day, can still produce the goods so I fear him a little. Hal Robson-Kanu might have a enough pace to trouble us if Reading can get the ball to him enough. I'm also interested to see Nathaniel Chalobah. He impressed when he was at Watford and seemed to be very highly rated so I was a bit surprised when he didn't end up at a Premier League club. I think a lot of Arsenal fans might be interested to see how Niall Keown develops for obvious reasons. He scored the winner for Reading U21s against Arsenal on Monday but I don't expect him to be involved this Saturday.
7. Prediction for the game?
I never like predicting Arsenal results as they often come back to bite me. If I'm feeling confident then it's usually a bad sign for us. However, it would be hard not to be confident ahead of Saturday. Our players know Wembley very well now, we're on a great run, Reading are struggling, and it's the team who are second in the Premier League against a side near the foot of the division below. You'd be a fool to bet against Arsenal and they should win comfortably. But this is the FA Cup and Reading have nothing whatsoever to lose.
Arsenal showed in last years semi-final that they are more than capable of not performing on the big occasion. Arsenal's players need to turn up properly on Saturday and work at least as hard as the Reading players. If that happens then Arsenal's superior football should see them win by 3 or 4 goals. That said, I'd still take a 1-0 win with an own-goal in injury-time! If Reading were to pull it off then it would be one of the great FA Cup shocks. I'm old enough to remember York City and Wrexham - I don't want Reading at Wembley added to the list.