(by ESPN Arsenal Correspondent David Young)
Arsenal rounded off their season in comfortable style on Sunday with a comprehensive 4-1 victory over Stoke City at Ashburton Grove. Though nothing was riding on the match, it was a pleasing way for the team to sign off after a torrid couple of weeks. It was heartening too that the crowd, the manager and players all headed off into the summer on good terms with each other. Throughout the game, Arsene Wenger’s name was sung loudly all round the stadium and any residual friction arising from the annual shareholders’ meeting appeared to be forgotten. The consensus seems to be that Wenger is still the man for the job but with the proviso that a few changes are made in the close-season. To his credit, the manager himself has acknowledged this in the interviews he has given so all we can do is sit back and wait to see what moves he makes before the new season kicks off again in August.
Either side of the victory against Stoke, Arsenal fans were treated to two fabulous performances by the Arsenal under-18s as they beat their Liverpool counterparts both home and away to lift the prestigious FA Youth Cup 6-2 on aggregate. A crowd of over 33,000 turned up at Ashburton Grove to see the first leg last Friday and they were royally entertained with a 4-1 win. The young Arsenal players showed speed, skill and appetite and after going in 2-1 up at half-time blew their visitors away in the second period. Particularly impressive were the midfield pairing of Jack Wilshere and Francis Coquelin, who, between the two of them, controlled the match and up front Sanchez Watt showed pace and skill and scored the goal of the night.
The return leg at Anfield on Tuesday night might not have been quite as dazzling as the home match but, nonetheless, the boys still did enough to win 2-1 with relative ease. The celebrations that followed the final whistle showed what picking up this trophy meant to the players. They were already champions of the Premier Academy League and taking the FA Youth Cup as well showed what an exceptional group of players the Gunners have on their hands at this age group. Academy Director Liam Brady and his staff have been working with most of these boys for eight years now and though producing top class players is the main objective at this level rather than winning trophies, it must have been a moment of great pride for the Arsenal legend to see the players deliver both the league and the cup.
As wonderful as it was to see such a talented group of young players in action, most of them clearly have a long way to go before they are seen making regular starts either in Arsenal’s first-team or elsewhere in the Premier League. Many of them are still young enough to be eligible for next season’s FA Youth Cup! The feeling is though that in the decade or so that Liam Brady has been at the Academy’s helm this is the strongest crop of players that have ever been brought through. It would be very surprising if several of them did not get onto the first-team scene in the next few years.
So, despite the disappointments that have befallen the club this season, there are a few reasons to be cheerful going into the summer. The now regular first preseason friendly at Barnet is less than two months away. It is not long before we can start dreaming about what next season might hold. Let’s hope that the manager does what he needs to do in the transfer market as early as possible so we can really look forward to the middle of August.