We’ll always have Madrid… Here’s looking at you, Professeur

All things come to an end. All that is solid melts into air. We know this.

Yet, sometimes, the end is still shocking, sudden, and sad.

My father died suddenly when I was 22. Arséne Wenger, when he leaves the Arsenal at the end of this season, will have been manager of the club I love for 22 years. The symmetry of numbers is strangely apt for, in many ways, le Boss has been like a father to me.

A distant father, obviously. One that doesn’t know his sprog exists…but a dad nonetheless.

I was 11 when Arséne was brought in to replace Bruce Rioch, sacked immediately before the start of the 1996/97 season. At that time, I had only been a fan for a couple of years, had not seen us win a trophy and – not counting caretakers Stewart Houston and Pat Rice – was already seeing my third Gunners manager. So there was no sense that this new French fella would bring silverware or even stick around for too long.

He has now been in the job for two thirds of my entire life.

It is extraordinary, just how influential he has been. Not just on the world of football – you can find all the details of that elsewhere – but on me. On my life. On who I am as a person. His intellect, his honesty and candor, his wit, his sense of fair play and of right & wrong… He was just a tremendous person to look up too.

We live in a world where the term is bandied around far too often, but Wenger was a true role model.

The players he brought in…of such sheer, breathtaking quality that it was hard to believe that they had actually chosen to ply there trade here, at Highbury. Who comes to a pitch the size of a snooker table to play one-touch football in one of the most fiercely aggressive leagues in the world? Lots of people, in turns out. Lots of really, really great people.

People who came purely because of Arséne Wenger.

From Paddy Vieira to Pierre Emerick Aubemayang, footballers were attracted by Wenger’s reputation for getting the best out of his players. They could see how he prolonged and rejuvenated careers, how he developed young talent and extended the playing time of veterans. Most of all, players adored the footballing philosophy behind it all.

Highbury was known as THOF; ‘The Home of Football’…but, under Wenger, the ‘H’ might as well have stood for ‘Heaven’.

Wenger took a keen interest in the structure of a football club behind the scenes, something not very many coaches – even fewer today – ever do. He insisted on the construction of a state-of-the-art training facility in London Colney, and played a leading role in the relocation from the classy-but-cramped Highbury to the modern behemoth just down the road. At every stage, he spearheaded the development of the club, transforming them from a national institution into a global brand.

Arséne was – and is- no superman, of course. Nobody is. There is no such thing as a ‘self-made man’, no matter what the tabloids and biographies tell you. His successes relied on those around him, just as his failures were equally the responsibility of others; from the hard work of those who signed the players he targeted, to the under-performance of those footballers he entrusted to win games, he couldn’t do it all on his own. Win or lose, he had to delegate.

Those who he was right to rely on? Rice, Dein, Brady, Adams, Vieira, Cesc, Lehmann…

Those who he wrongly trusted? Gallas, Adebayor, Nasri, Squillaci, Arshavin…

He is only human, after all.

What a human, though. Arséne Wenger has brought us such joy, so many moments of wonder, that I could be here all day rattling off achievements and memories. If you’ll indulge me, there are just a few that stick out in my mind that would be nice to recount:

Ten straight league wins on the road to the Double of ’98… That season, my dad took me to my first Arsenal match, on my 13th birthday ; we watched from the North Stand as a pretty makeshift team, riven by injuries and suspensions, huffed & puffed to a (classic Arsenal) One-Nil win over Crystal Palace – the team that, unbeknownst to me then, trained across the road from the house I grew up in. Gilles Grimandi’s lovely – and, in retrospect, incredibly flukey – volley sending us back to Dublin happy.

Ooooooh, Arséne Wenger’s magic, he wears a magic hat…

Wins over United… Any of them. All of them. See, where I went to primary & secondary school, a solid proportion – maybe even a majority – of kids were Man U supporters. They were the champs. The favourites. The biggest club in the islands, the best team in the league. So when, en route to that first Double and beyond, we suddenly started competing with and even beating them…well, twas very nice. The 3-0 in the autumn of 1998 stands out, as does Henry’s parabolic perfection in October 2000, but the finest hour was indisputably the night we won the Title at Old Trafford. I’m wearing the WILTORD 11 shirt right now. Simply glorious.

Comebacks… 1-0 down, 2-1 up against Sp*rs in the FA Cup Semi of 2001. Two down with a quarter of an hour to go at Stamford Bridge, before the most incredible Kanu hat-trick. FOUR down away to Reading in the League Cup, culminating in an unbelievable 7-5 win on the night. Down to ten men and trailing two nil at half time in Bolton, only to seal three points with a multiple-deflection. Bottom of the CL group in 2003/04, with just a point from three games, before wins against Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Moscow sandwiched a blistering demolition of Inter Milan at the San Siro.

Cups. Lots of cups. A trophy per season between 2002 and 2005. Arséne taking a ‘Comical Wenger’ tee from the adoring crowd at the end of the 03/04 campaign – he had been ridiculed, during the 2002/03 season, for being “still hopeful that we can go through the season unbeaten“. What a joker! What a fool! The greatest FA Cup manager – period. Grinding our way to victory at Cardiff in 2005 – I thought that Wenger’s teams couldn’t graft? Upsetting Chelsea’s Double ambitions in 2017. Talking of comebacks; conceding twice in the first minutes of the 2014 final, rallying via a sensational Santi strike and eventually, in extra time, drawing last blood through Rambo. Just amazing.

My 21st Birthday. 21st of February 2006. A back four of Flamini, Senderos, Touré and Eboue. Nobody giving us a sniff. The most optimistic Gooners in the Café beforehand reckoning that we might snatch a 1-0…defeat. My dear brother Peter & myself amongst the Real Madrid supporters in the upper tier. Watching from afar as Henry danced his way through to score… One of the best, if not the best, experience watching the Gunners in the flesh.

I’ve rambled on for more than a thousand words so I’ll wrap it up.

This guy is like a father to me. I hope that, whatever he does for the rest of his life, he is happy and successful in everything he puts his mind to. Arséne Wenger is a living legend, as well as a fantastic human being. Bob Wilson’s testament to that effect is truly moving, I advise you to listen to it on YouTube. I hope that I never forget the lessons I learnt from Monsieur Wenger, and that I always cherish all the beautiful moments he brought to my life.

Au revoir, Arséne. Bon chance.

Solidarity, brothers & sisters… ⒶⒻⒸ

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East of Bull

When Ossie jetted over to stay with his sister in February of 2001, it was the first time in his life that he had travelled alone. Understandably, the teenager was excited but anxious at the prospect. He particularly looked forward to taking in an Arsenal match – his elder sibling had managed to wrangle two tickets to a home game against Ipswich – and seeing Bianca’s apartment.

The two were fifteen years apart in age; Bianca was the result of an unplanned adolescent pregnancy – as opposed to all those ‘planned’ ones – while Ossie was born after their parents finally got married. Yes, improbable though it sounds, and unusual though it absolutely is, they did have the same mother and father. Granted, the pair did not rekindle their romantic relationship until almost a decade after Bianca’s birth, but the continuity was quite sweet regardless.

After the football – a one nil win courtesy of Thierry Henry, who else? – Bianca took her little brother to Leicester Square. Dude, Where’s My Car? had just been released in the cinema there, so after much pleading Ossie managed to persuade his guardian to see it with him. As the title implied, the movie was enjoyably dumb, perfect for a fourteen year old boy. Emerging from the theatre, Bianca & Ossie decided to end their day with some Haagen-Dazs.

Little did Ossie know, that this would be his most transcendent ice-cream experience…

Solidarity, brothers & sisters…ⒶⒻⒸ

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3 Anxious Men

In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a trio of naval officers were forced to contemplate the use of their nuclear armament. Such was this standoff between superpowers, the most tense period of the Cold War, that the launch of a warhead seemed almost imminent. It it unsurprising that the world largely remains unaware of the events described here; the documentation was only declassified in 2002. Nonetheless, as you will see, the terrible ‘What ifs’ accumulate.

*****

1st of October, 1962. The Soviet submarine B-59 puts to sea from Murmansk, bound for the Caribbean. Its mission is to provide support for Operation Anadyr; the supply of thermonuclear weaponry to Cuba by the USSR. The B-59 sails from the Kola Peninsula together with its sister ships – B-36, B-4 and B-130 – but for the bulk of the patrol the crew will be on their own, in radio silence.

Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky was ostensibly in command of the boat, but in the Soviet Navy – and, in general, their armed forces as a whole – the Political Officer had significant authority too. This was Commissar Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov. In addition, the Commander of the Deployed Submarine Detachment, Captain Vasili Arkhipov was also present. While carrying the same rank as Savitsky, it was he who held seniority aboard the B-59.

Only these three men were authorized to launch a nuclear attack…and only if all three agreed to do so.

Their ship was the cream of the crop. It was a Project 641 vessel, reporting name ‘Foxtrot’ according to NATO designation, built by the Sudomekh Division at Leningrad. Larger than the obsolete ‘Zulu’ class it was built to replace, the Foxtrot had none of the structural weaknesses or vibration problems that had hampered its predecessor. However, the sub was quite crowded internally – a result of the fact that 2 of the 3 decks had to accommodate its batteries.

The B-59 was also armed with a T-5 nuclear torpedo.

****

The 27th of October, 1962. Units accompanying the aircraft carrier USS Randolph detect the B-59 near Cuba. This United States Navy force, comprising the Randolph and 11 destroyers, immediately begin pursuing the Soviet submarine. Ideally, they aim to force the B-59 to surface so that the Americans can make a positive identification.

To that end, the destroyers drop depth charges.

That these were ‘dummy’ weapons – the type used for training purposes, containing very little firepower – was not apparent to the crew of the B-59. Any messages that may have been communicated by the US Navy regarding the fact that they were using practice depth charges never reached the submariners, nor Soviet Naval HQ. In any case, the B-59 was too deep to monitor any radio traffic.

Making matters worse, the Soviet ship had not been in contact with Moscow for days.

The crew of the B-59 had no way of confirming that war had not broken out. As far as they were concerned, their vessel was being fired upon by the American fleet. Having been detected, and now heavily outnumbered by the surface forces ranged against them, the sailors believed themselves backed into a corner.

Captain Savitsky saw little choice; he wanted to launch his nuclear weapon.

***

The 10th of October, 1957. Soviet submarine S-144 – a ‘Whiskey’ class by NATO designation – carries out a test of the new T-5 torpedo at Novaya Zemlaya. Code named ‘Korall’, this weapon detonates 20 metres beneath the surface of the bay with a force of 4.8 kilotons, sending a vast plume of radioactive water high into the air. Of the three decommissioned subs used as targets – S-20, S-34 and S-19 – two are sunk and the third is critically damaged.

The targets were 6.5 miles from the explosion.

The T-5 was not designed to make direct hits. Rather, it maximized a kill zone in the water, sending out shock waves strong enough to crack a submerged ship’s hull or capsize a surface vessel. Tipped by an RDS-9 warhead, it had a payload of anywhere between 5 and 10 kilotons. To put that in context, ‘Little Boy’ – the bomb used on Hiroshima – had a 15 kiloton yield. ‘Fat Man’, used on Nagasaki, had just over 20 kilotons.

**

Aboard the cramped, claustrophobic interior of the B-59, with underwater explosions being heard and a veil of ignorance impeding any attempt to understand what was happening above, the pressure was mounting. An argument raged between the three senior officers over what action to take. Commissar Maslennikov was inclined to agree with his Captain; whatever decision Savitsky made, his political officer would support him.

On any other nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, that would have been enough.

The B-59 was the only ship in the flotilla that required the unanimity of three officers in order to fire the ‘Special Weapon’. The other three subs needed only the agreement of their Captain and Commissar; here, the presence of Arkhipov was all that prevented a launch. Faced with the demands, persuasion and insistence of his comrades, his refusal to assent must have been an act of personal bravery. The stress must have been intolerable. The uncertainty, unbearable.

Arkhipov alone opposed the use of the T-5.

With batteries running low, its diesel engine inoperable underwater, the air conditioner failing and destroyers circling overhead like vultures, there were just two options for the B-59: Launch the nuclear torpedo…or surface the boat. Somehow, Captain Vasili Arkhipov managed to talk round his fellow officers to his way of thinking. The B-59 would surface in order to engage its diesel engine, attempt to reestablish contact with Moscow, and, if no response was forthcoming…

*

Solidarity, brothers & sisters…☢

vs 
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More Shameful to Distrust than to Deceive

Rory and Brendan, sharing a few beers and more than a few laughs. Just like old times. They’d fallen out now and again, lost touch for a couple of years after college – who doesn’t? – but in eachother’s presence they were still the same cheeky bastards bitching about everything in the world and ripping the piss out of one another. You could set your watch to it; greetings, slaggings, braggings, moanings, chucklings, supportings, huggings, farewell…ings.

Trouble was, something had changed. On the surface the banter and back an’ forth appeared the same, but it merely hid a darker reality. A mutual acquaintance, a fella they knew from school – not well, but to see, ya know? – had suffered the incredible misfortune of dying. As a result of using drugs. Rory’s drugs. Any other person would be ok with this. Well…not ‘ok’ exactly, but they might just bemoan fate, or luck, or amateurs not taking the fucking shit properly, or cutting/lacing/mixing it with some lethal stuff that really did the damage. Then they’d shake their heads, tut once or twice at the sadness of it all, and leave it at that.

Plus, Rory and Brendan shared everything; when Brendan lost his virginity – finally, at 23 – who was the first bloke he boasted about it to? Rory. When Rory got engaged, Brendan was the only possible person he had in mind for Best Man. When neither wanted to go to college after getting their Leaving Certs, each talked the other into it…with the usual mixture of bullshit, compliments, insults and wise-assery. When either became a little too full of themselves, the other would be sure to bring them back down to earth.

So it cut Rory up that he couldn’t confide in his longest and most trusted friend. For you see, Brendan was a cop. Not just any Garda either – Brendan was a Detective Inspector…with the National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his explicit remit was to investigate narcotics fatalities and pursue those responsible. He had a whole Task Force at his disposal!

There was, therefore, an undercurrent of finality to this meet-up. A Last Supper quality. Brendan could detect this subtle atmosphere, even if he was unaware of its cause. And Rory…Rory now had absolutely nobody to turn to. Nobody to hear him, console him, absolve him. Was this his penance? Or was it just a prelude to the real punishment that was to come?

Solidarity, brothers & sisters…

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The Vatican Pimpernel

A more motley collection of individuals could not possibly have been assembled. Across Europe, a network was created that included in its ranks some of the most unlikely figures; communists, priests, two Free French secret agents, a few escaped Prisoners Of War, a Swiss count… The man responsible for wrangling this bunch together was Hugh O’Flaherty.

The Very Reverend Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.

It was 1943. Il Duce’s removal had resulted in thousands of Allied POWs being released. Germany’s immediate occupation of Italy endangered the freedom of these men. Monsignor O’Flaherty aimed to construct an organisation with one purpose; to aid and abet the escape of as many people as possible from the clutches of the Nazis.

In the early years of the Second World War, O’Flaherty had toured Italian POW Camps in order to discover the fate of those Allied servicemen who had been reported Missing In Action. Via Radio Vatican, he would broadcast any news of such inmates, in the hopes of reassuring their families back home. Some of these men, remembering his visits, asked for the Monsignor’s assistance upon being set free.

O’Flaherty did not wait for permission from his superiors in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He and his aide, Major Sam Derry – himself an escapee – coordinated the response. Over the next few years of war they would shepherd to safety thousands of desperate refugees. As well as Allied soldiers, the needy were Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust.

The Nazis tried everything to stop the Monsignor. Obersturmbanführer Herbert Kappler, head of the SD and Gestapo in Rome, ordered a white line painted on the pavement of St. Peter’s Square, where Italy meets Vatican City. The threat was simple; if O’Flaherty crossed into Italy, he would be murdered. The head of the fascist police in Rome, Ludwig Koch, was explicit in his intention to torture and execute the man of the cloth.

To no avail. Every SS attempt to assassinate Monsignor O’Flaherty met with failure. He wore various disguises in order to travel freely when outside the Vatican, and he could rely on the protection of his numerous allies. One such friend was the British Ambassador to the Holy See, whose butler John May was so brilliant in his help that O’Flaherty was moved to call him, “A genius…the most magnificent scrounger”.

When Rome was finally liberated by US forces in 1944, 6,425 of the aided escapees were still alive. They came from over 25 nations, including Britain, South Africa, Russia, Greece and the USA. Their diversity reflected the principle expressed in one of Monsignor O’Flaherty’s favourite sayings:

“God has no country”

Solidarity, brothers & sisters…✞ ☾ ✡ ॐ

 

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A Wake To Remember

The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 was a devastatingly lethal example of Mother Nature’s wrath. In November of that year, the event variously known as the ‘Big Blow’, the ‘Freshwater Fury’ and the ‘White Hurricane’ tore through the Great Lakes Basin of North America and killed more than 250 people in the process. It was the deadliest natural disaster to hit the lakes in recorded history. The Great Lakes Storm also sank 19 ships.

One of those ships was the SS James Carruthers.

After the winds blew themselves out, copious amounts of wreckage washed ashore. At first, evidence of the SS James Carruthers was slow to arrive…but then a large field of flotsam was discovered to the south of her known course. The grim news was confirmed when the bodies of several crewmembers made land at Point Clark.

The Captain, William H. Wright, was identified by his thick red moustache.

By the following evening, a number of corpses remained in the local morgue, waiting to be claimed by family members. Along with many other fearful men and women, Thomas Thompson of Ontario scanned the lifeless forms, looking for signs of his son John. ‘Missing’ still provided hope…but a body brought a chance to properly grieve and say goodbye to his beloved boy.

Thomas suddenly stopped short, his breath caught in his throat. A cadaver whose face and hair looked just like John’s. A cadaver whose eyetooth was missing, just like John’s. A cadaver whose left forearm had a tattoo – ‘J.T.’ – just like John’s. Even then, Thomas did not want to believe that it could be his son lying on the slab…but the presence of several scars and a birth defect affecting the toes represented overwhelming evidence.

Convinced, Thomas Thompson arranged to take possession of the remains and began the process of notifying his family.

***********************************

Organising a respectable funeral did not come cheap. A coffin had to be purchased, as did a plot of land, gravediggers had to be hired, as did catering and a whole host of other apparently necessary services. Add to that the cost of mailing relatives spread out across the Canadian landmass, and Thompson senior was forced into considerable debt in order to provide Thompson junior with a proper send off.

So Thomas can be forgiven for having decidedly mixed feelings when, in the middle of his own wake, John strolled into the family home with nary a scratch on him.

JT, it transpired, had overslept on the morning of his ship’s departure, so had spent the fateful voyage as a landlubber enjoying the sights and sounds of Toronto. He subsequently read accounts of the sinking, and even spotted his own name among the lists of the dead, but chose not to inform his family as soon as possible via wire, telephone or even mail. Rather, he thought it best to take a slow train to Hamilton…whereupon, instead of heading straight home to explain in person, he ambled about and visited friends.

Eventually, at the urging of one of those mates, John Thompson reluctantly made for his parents’ house.

Upon the arrival of her boy, Mrs Thompson broke down in tears of overwhelming joy, thrilled to see him alive and well. John’s father, however, was practically apoplectic – partly because of the financial losses incurred, but also probably because now he looked like a complete idiot for identifying a total stranger as his son.

“It’s just like you to come home and attend your own wake!”, Thomas yelled.
“You can get right out of this house until this whole thing blows over!”

Solidarity, brothers & sisters…

*The crewman who Thomas Thompson mistook for John remains unidentified to this day
*The wreck of the SS James Carruthers has never been located, and is the largest sunken vessel in the Great Lakes Basin yet to be found.
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Sporadic Emotional Break

A bloke with “Workers of the World Unite” emblazoned on his t-shirt sits in a stairwell, sipping tea & occasionally nibbling a pecan danish, because he is too frightened of his fellow workers to countenance having lunch in the office canteen. In between bites of the shaking danish – due to his anxiety, it’s not just some sort of naturally tremulous pastry – he wonders what it is that made him this way. What it was the made him so scared of strangers, and crowds of strangers in particular, that he suffers an emotional reaction similar to a panic attack.

He had tried to enter the canteen at lunchtime. It was busy but not packed. Nonetheless, the fact that people kept getting in his way, and he in theirs, began a chain reaction of nervousness. Then he had to clean a cup. Then he had to fight for access to the bags of tea. Then he had to gormlessly stand there, sticking out like a snowman on a sodding Sicilian beach, while the kettle boiled. Then there was no milk. He didn’t bother searching for spoons – there was a workmate whose endless activity around those drawers indicated that he must have been stocktaking the contents – and made his escape ASAP.

The stairwell wouldn’t have been so bad, except that coworkers kept coming up and down it. Technically speaking, he was sitting on a table at the top of the 3rd floor stairwell, but there was a door right next to him and there they would periodically come; entering and exiting with all the second hand awkwardness that comes from encountering a random paint-covered man having his lunch outside what you consider to be ‘your’ door.

He was employed painting the office studio. I probably should have mentioned that.

‘Fuck it’, he thought, his physical reaction reaching the stage that the medical community term Really Fucking Anxious, Actually. ‘I cannot hack this’. So, with a cursory text to his immediate boss conveying his apologies, out the front door he went. Hating himself with every step. The co-morbidity of anxiety and depression being explained yet again with another episode of his life.

Anxiety makes him do things, or prevents him from doing things.

Depression arises from all the things he did, and all the things he couldn’t do.

On and on it goes, no end in sight.

Fit for work? He isn’t fit to paint a wall.

Solidarity, brothers & sisters…

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