Archive for April, 2008

Where does this leave them now?

Posted in Arsenal with tags , , on April 20, 2008 by marooner

Three Premier League titles (five times runners-up), four FA Cups (and another four runners-up medals), runners-up in the League Cup, again in the UEFA Cup, and again in the Champions League: I am drooling already, and I haven’t even mentioned the calibre of players he brought in (Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Cesc Fabregas), nor the forty-nine games his team went unbeaten for in the league, or the scintillating football with which they achieved this. If your interest in football hasn’t served that long, or if you happen to have the memory of a fish, perhaps you should try doing a bit of research. Trawl through YouTube, click through Wikipedia, maybe rent out a couple of DVDs, and experience those achievements and the journeys each one of those teams went through to about a millionth of the degree that I did over those twelve years. And then perhaps the few people (and yes, I realise it’s a minority who share about four brain cells between them) who’ve been calling for Arsene Wenger’s sacking might think again.

 

A lot of people forget the position Arsenal was in at the beginning of the season. They hadn’t won anything for two years (apart from being runners-up in the Champions League, and then again with a young squad in the Carling Cup), and had just sold two of their most experienced players in Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg. I still remember the first day of the season, and the initial stab of pain in realising, I thought, that it was going to be the same story all over again, when Jens Lehmann gifted Fulham the opening goal just two minutes into the game. It was a pain like no other, to have to sit through the next eighty minutes, one eye on the game and one on the away fans as they jumped up and down, sardonically rotating their song-list between “Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry” and the good ‘ole “We love you Freddie” classic, as if to highlight the fact that Arsenal was nothing without them. Some pundits predicted that Tottenham would finish in fourth place at Arsenal’s expense. A foreign takeover was imminent, Arsene Wenger would desert the Gunners, and with his departure we’d all see the likes of Cesc Fabregas heading for the door. Something happened, though. The board got their act together and made measures to ensure the club remained in the secure hands of its current shareholders, Arsene Wenger signed an extension on his contract, and the team started playing with a certain freedom we hadn’t seen properly since that unbeaten run, and when they needed to grind out a result, they could do it. Talk of the impending downfall of Arsenal FC slowly fell away, while talk of Real Madrid or Barcelona snatching away the talented twenty-year-old Spaniard amounted to nothing more than just that, and some were even so daring as to say that Thierry Henry’s departure from the club was a good thing.

 

What some people don’t realise, though, is that football is an emotional game. Even though it is, as I keep reminding myself, just a game, it’s one which has led to grown men blubbering like babies, and to groups of otherwise-sane human beings attacking total strangers, and to normal- albeit, slightly inebriated- adults attempting suicide. After Eduardo’s horrific leg-break against Birmingham in February, several players spoke with passion about how inspired they were to go on and win the title for their injured team-mate. I don’t doubt for a second that they tried. But if football is an emotional game, then the current Arsenal squad has to be one of the most emotional teams I have ever seen. Maybe that’s due to youth and inexperience; maybe that’s due to Arsene Wenger fathering his squad and sending them off to school equipped with Power Rangers lunchboxes and lollypops. A team like Manchester United, a squad bursting with experience in the form of Scholes and Giggs and Neville, and with a manager not afraid to spit his words of wisdom into his player’s faces, might have been better equipped to handle such devastating events, had the bad luck befallen them and not Arsenal. But as it was, the bad luck went Arsenal’s way, and it was such that the players had neither the mental nor the physical strength to overcome it. Four so-called ‘easy’ fixtures set Arsenal up with a mere four points, and by that point, it was too late for them to clamber back up onto the horse. Was it Arsene Wenger’s fault that the team didn’t have the strength in depth and mental stamina to overcome their run of bad luck? Perhaps. But one thing that the manager can’t be blamed for is standing by his players and instilling the faith in them that allowed them to come so far in the first place. He has won three Premier League titles (five times runners-up), four FA Cups (and another four runners-up medals), a runners-up medal in the League Cup, again in the UEFA Cup, and again in the Champions League. We as commentators have won nothing. So let’s all shut up and let him get on with it.  

 

The Silver Lining

Posted in Arsenal with tags , , on April 12, 2008 by marooner

I don’t want to be one of those plastic fans whose face-first dive into the world of football dries up as soon as their team has thrown every ounce of ambition straight down the shitter. Even though I feel well within my right to wallow in my own self-pity right now (having spent, I’d say, at least a grand on match tickets, shirts, stadium tours, magazines, membership subscriptions and the like, have pissed my boss off big time on numerous occasions by asking for days off work so I could go and see them play, and have only had about fifty minor heart failures during the season), I’m tired of mourning four thrown-away cup hopes (two particular cups spring straight to the front of my mind, though) and dwelling on the season that nearly was. I write this now as a Gooner, and as stupidly sentimental as it may sound, acknowledging that (almost) every cloud has a silver lining is, I’m quite sure, the only plaster strong enough to tape over my bleeding red and white veins. Time for some First Aid, Theo Walcott style. Hallmark that

 

That glorious run down the pitch, which for a moment caused memories of Thierry Henry storming through the Spurs squad fifty million years ago to flash through my mind, which should have and nearly did win Arsenal the match, was just one of the few glimpses we have seen lately of the just-turned-nineteen Pap’s Prodigy. He’s been hyped up so much in the last few years by senseless journalists hoping for another Wayne Rooney-esque English saviour (God knows they need someone to lift their fat-headed National Team), and I blame partly them for his apparent ‘slow’ development. But then again, what did we all expect? For a sixteen-year-old to automatically materialise into an English Thierry Henry and be banging them in left, right and centre every week? His talent may have been undeniably evident while he was playing for Southampton, but jumping up onto the big stage from there was a bit too much to ask of Theo Walcott. Arsene Wenger has done the right thing by him in allowing him to slowly flourish on the wing and not heap too much expectation onto the young lad. He’s given him the time the rest of us should’ve offered, to come into his own.

           

A few people have remarked just lately how horribly unfair it is on Theo, that each time he produces a moment of magic, his team are left shrivelled-up behind, defeated physically and emotionally. The first time was against Chelsea in the Carling Cup final, two short years ago. How raw that defeat still is. The Young Guns gave everything in that match and the lead-up to it, overcoming the likes of Liverpool and Spurs in breathtaking fashion. Theo broke the deadlock, but the combination of Abou Diaby almost breaking John Terry’s skull and Cesc Fabregas almost breaking Frank Lampard’s neck (not to mention the painful fact that we ultimately lost) overshadowed his first goal in red and white. Then of course there was that heartbreaking incident up north where, following Eduardo’s leg-break, Theo Walcott almost salvaged a deserved Arsenal victory. But no such luck. Another late penalty, and the events which followed killed not only our game, but our title hopes.

           

Just over a month ago, I said in great optimism that, if the same side that beat AC Milan in such astounding fashion turned up for the rest of the season, we would be well on our way to lifting trophies come May. I still stand by that. It’s just a shame a different side chose to show up for the remainder of the season.

 

In hindsight, that night at the San Siro almost feels now like a pointless waste. Yes, we screamed until our lungs burst when Cesc Fabregas scored that late goal, and we cried tears of joy at full-time- but for what? It was another stepping stone towards a Champions League cup victory, and our failure to overcome Liverpool has meant, some might say, that that 2-0 orgasmic performance was for nothing. I disagree. We showed on that night what we are capable of, and even though the goods may not be with us come next month, each memory of what those Gunners have overcome this season will lift us up and carry us through the next year. We can do it and we will do it. This just wasn’t our year.