First, please kneel, place your hands together and join me in reciting the Prayer of St Totteringham:
“Our Neighbours, who art in shadow
Fallow be thy game.
Thy fandom – scum;
Thy players – plums
(In truth, none would make our eleven).
Give us this day our Champions League,
And forgive us for taking the p*ss
As we laugh at those who finish behind us,
And lead us not into N17,
But deliver us from Levy
For Arsenal’s is the kingdom,
The power, and the gap,
For ever and ever,
I thank you.
And now for the sermon. Or rather, a confession:
This time last year, after a nail-biting conclusion to the Premier League season, I was confident that we would never have to go through such agonies again for a very long time.
We had had our worst start to a season for 50 years (as the media enjoyed telling us). We had been 10 points behind the jealous neighbours in January (“mind the gap”) and for a long time the prospect of making the top four seemed very distant.
But a great run got us back into contention and, even though we faltered with the finishing tape in sight, we crawled over the line just ahead of the enemy thanks to a 3-2 win away at West Brom, whose ‘keeper (Martin Fulop) was like a 12th man for us.
I really thought that qualifying for the Champions League last May was going to be a watershed. We would strengthen in the summer and make a serious title bid in the 2012/13 season. There would be no more last-day anxiety about trying to clinch fourth. I said as much here on Arsenal Arsenal.
Well, we all know by now that I was wrong. Our summer was scuppered by Brave Sir Robin, who had apparently been listening to a little boy he keeps locked up somewhere.
What should have been a summer of building steadily on strong foundations became another case of major transition and losing our most important player. Van Persie was followed out by Song (plus our excellent loanee Yossi Benayoun); and another bunch of new players came in – many at the last minute.
With hindsight – and from the comfortable position of having qualified for the CL yet again (albeit, again, by the skin of our teeth) – it was obvious that it would take time for us to find our groove this season.
When eventually we did, we became very, very effective (although perhaps not as pretty as we had been previously).
So now I will repeat the claim I made 12 months ago – and this time I am sure I will be right:
A year from now we will not end up scrapping for fourth: we will be battling for the league title. The Tiny Totts – if they can exceed expectations again with their one-man team – will be the ones trying to scrape into the CL positions again, but they will not be our concern. St Totteringham’s Day 2014 will fall much earlier than it has in recent years.
There are two reasons why I feel my prediction has more merit this time round: firstly, we will have stability on the playing side: none of our “star” players will be leaving the club; there will be no summer-long “will-he-won’t-he” soap opera like we had with Van Judas, Na$ri and Fabregas.
Secondly, the new revenue streams coming on tap really do give us the power to move strongly in the transfer market this summer. I thought that would be the case last year, but I can see now that the finances were still not in place for a real “statement” buy.
As it happens we did good business anyway, with Podolski, Giroud and, especially, Santi Cazorla all having contributed significantly to our season.
But the announcement of the Puma kit deal, plus massively increased TV revenue and a range of other commercial deals have now all fallen into place and the good times are set to roll.
Actually, there is a third area of optimism: it relates to our “mental strength.” Usually when Arsene Wenger talks about mental strength you get the feeling that he is trying to convince the players that they have it, when in fact they don’t. Or at least not enough of it.
This was apparent even last year when, despite our great run to haul back Totteringham, our collective bottle went a bit at the end and we won only one of our final five games and were arguably a bit lucky to get the final win at West Brom.
That type of run-in had, sadly, become a bit of an Arsenal trait and we were in danger of patenting the late-season collapse.
In 2011/12 our final nine games were: W2, D5, L2 – giving us only 11 points out of 27.
And the year before we were W1, D1, L3 in our final five, for four points out of 15.
So I am greatly encouraged that the current crop of players were able to keep their form going during this year’s run-in, remaining unbeaten and winning most of the games despite the high pressure nature of the contest. It reflects what I believe is a new, tougher mentality among the group of players we now have.
When the going got tough, so did they.
As I mentioned in a comment recently, the Spuds – to the great surprise of most people – did not choke this year: they, too, kept getting mostly decent results right up to the final day.
But as it turned out, we didn’t need them to choke: we were strong enough to throttle the life out of them with our own bare hands.
Expect some exciting news this summer.
And expect a proper title challenge next season.