My dad was an Arsenal supporter – still is, at the tender age of 97. I say supporter, rather than fan, because he’s never lived near London, so opportunities to attend matches have been limited. His attachment to Arsenal began during the days of the great Herbert Chapman, just as many have been drawn to Arsenal during the days of the great Arsène Wenger.
In the 30s, we were simply the best team in the country, and because we didn’t acknowledge that football was played in any other country (except, perhaps, Scotland), we were considered here in England to be the best in the world.
So I was brought up as an Arsenal supporter. My first memory of Arsenal is of listening to the 1950 Cup Final on a large wooden radio, or wireless as we then called it. That’s how I enjoyed my first taste of Arsenal success. Arsenal 2 Liverpool 0.
Just as well, really. There were very few successes in the years to come. Very occasionally a league title. Or an FA Cup win. Long arid patches (18 years was the longest) not just without a trophy, but languishing half way down the table with little to play for except winning the match itself.
And as we began to realise that they did indeed play football in other countries, we also realised our place in Europe. Which was nowhere. While teams like Liverpool, ManU, Nottingham Forest and even Aston Villa were winning the European Cup, just twice in 25 years we managed to achieve success in competitions for Europe’s second rate – competitions we’d be embarrassed to be in these days.
And so things remained from the end of the Second World War until the mid nineties, the first fifty years of my life. I don’t remember anyone being too distressed by all of this. Of course, we moaned and cursed when we lost. From time to time we had some brilliant players. And even the occasional manager who was a cut above the rest (Whittaker, Mee, Graham) and whose star spluttered with the glow of brief success.
And then, in 1996, along came Wenger and our world changed.
I won’t rehearse in detail what’s been achieved since. In summary, a glittering period of league and cup wins, an unbeaten season, consistent qualification for a European tournament we’d rarely before been good enough to get into and the wherewithal to build and move into a stadium big enough to match our ambitions. All this followed by a period of retrenchment in which, astonishingly, we have remained financially stable while maintaining our place at Europe’s top table.
And, perhaps most tellingly, a complete overhaul of our expectations.
At last we had a manager with both a flair for immediate success and a long-term strategy for the future. Planning in sport is a dangerous game. The elements of luck and timing which poker players call “variance” can quickly derail a plan. The pattern becomes clear only over time and few clubs have had the luck and judgement to retain a true visionary for long enough to see the map unfurl.
All these reflections were brought to mind by the jubilant scenes which followed the Cup Final, Who knew in just how much affection Wenger is held by players and fans alike? A true antidote to the poison of the clamorous small-minded who have constantly belittled his achievements for the club.
When a decision taken in a match backfires, it’s perfectly reasonable to criticise the manager (though much more interesting to work out why the decision was taken in the first place). But could anyone be as successful a manager as Wenger if scarred with fundamental flaws like excessive stubbornness, unwillingness to spend, poor man-management, tactical naivety, incoherent transfer strategy and all the other frailties which are routinely cited against him?
It doesn’t need a deep understanding of probability to work out how unlikely all of that is. Those who peddle these humdrum banalities seem blind to the fact that they are simply parading their own vacuity.
Even harder to take is the hypocrisy of those who understand full well, but pursue these rancid arguments simply to sway the emotions of others they see as gullible. (Especially when these “opinion-formers” are driven by financial motives.) Or those who insidiously suggest – without a trace of evidence – that we can ignore his earlier successes because he is “past it”. Or those displays of wallowing self-regard which dare to propose that future success or failure will depend on whether he has learned to do it “their way”.
Well, everyone’s entitled to a wrong opinion (though few of us know what it’s like to hold one), especially when spiced with a little wit. Like Shankly’s one-liner about football being more important than life and death, it doesn’t have to be true to be entertaining. So we can (and should) tolerate a wide range of views. But many of the attacks – from snide sniping to absolute abuse – are neither witty nor wise, and step well over the limits of acceptability.
Too much to hope, of course, that the criticisms of the intellectually bereft will now be silenced. There’s money in mindless denigration. Which is why the outpouring of joy not just for the club but also for its manager during Cup Final weekend was so striking. Surely the bellyachers must have noticed.
So perhaps we can hope, fervently hope, that he remains at the helm long enough to achieve the one outstanding ambition for him and the club – the Champions League.
Wenger must go.
But not, please, for a very long time.
Today’s post was by Merlot