They used to go everywhere together …
For some fans of Arsenal, the relationship they have with the club is akin to what I imagine a failing marriage, patched up ‘for the sake of the kids’ but fundamentally dysfunctional, feels like.
The feeling of having been here before, the compromises, the same old arguments, the same old sticking points.
Eventually though, the kids all grow up and flee the nest.
And maybe that’s where the analogy, thankfully, ends.
In some retail circles, the idea of under-promising and over-delivering holds currency as the risk of angering and then losing disappointed customers is considered too great to play games with. If you falsely promise a customer that an out of stock item will return to stock sooner than is actually the case, customer anger general exceeds the level of the original frustration of the item being out of stock in the first place.
In the ‘90’s the unknown Wenger promised less than nothing when he first pitched up at Highbury and in his first full season, as we all know, over-delivered in delightfully outrageous fashion. Who knew it would be anything more than a one-off but that first title was followed by success after success all the way through to the opening of the Emirates.
In many ways, the Emirates Stadium was the ultimate symbolic example of the appearance of a football club over-promising and subsequently seemingly under-delivering.
To some extent, we have all become the old married couple trying to get back to the way we once were. Oh for the spirit of Highbury! The romance of the cups, the hopes for the future. As upstarts, over-coming the odds, Wenger’s early years seemed so much more harmonious, so much more fun and the brick bats of outrageous fortune felt easier to handle, somehow, even when we didn’t have it all our own way.
The move to the swanky new stadium, with its swanky seats and prices to match proved to be a damp squib for too many of us, as much of a let-down as the lamentable food and drink on offer within the stadium concourse, over-priced and unloved in equal relative measure.
Most of the fans keep plodding along of course, determined to keep some semblance of the old magic alive and with most of them certain, in their heart of hearts, that our time will come again. And it’s been by no means all bad news with European competition an annual given, a couple of cups and the odd near miss punctuating ten years of a riveting, compelling style of football, widely regarded, according to many neutrals, as the nation’s favourite.
But still the underlying issues remain. The vulnerability to injury. The subsequent disruption and loss of form. The perceived annual wobble as we reach the ‘business end’ of the season followed by the frustrating recovery as thoughts turn to the next season, set up with ephemeral promise and seemingly illusory potential, over and over again.
All of the above, of course, is only true when taken in the context of the aggregation of the whole of Arsenal’s Emirates’ years.
In truth, for most other clubs, most seasons since 2006-16 would have been considered pretty exciting and very nearly very ‘successful’.
However, it is the cumulative effect of all our near-misses that is causing the problems in the marriage. Sure, there are set-piece setbacks most seasons and losing to Man U is just one of a number of ‘accelerants’ causing the bonfire of supporter frustration to flame up in what is now alarming – and alarmingly predictable – fashion. Losing (or even drawing) with Spurs is another. We all know the rest, some seasons they come and some seasons they go.
So, losing on Sunday in Manchester by a goal was always going to be disappointing for all connected with the club.
But it’s the context of the defeat, coming as it does as one of ten years’ worth of defeats at Old Trafford, that causes otherwise moderately sane fans to completely lose their rag. Their very sense of perspective causes them, ironically, to lose perspective. In reality, it was only one game. In our heads – as it is in the record books – Arsenal have failed to win in the League at OT since 2006, a remarkable statistic when looked at as a block of results.
And of course, THIS year, due to circumstances we are all familiar with, we were favourites to win this particular encounter. More fuel to the flames.
To make it all worse, much worse, Spurs only go and win from 1-0 down and the upstarts in the Midlands continue their glorious streak. That neither clubs have been able to perform at this level for more than one season will remain unnoticed by the majority of observers; the ‘fact’ is, and despite the absence of petro-dollar funding, they appear to be over-coming the odds as Arsenal continue to underwhelm.
So it wasn’t just an irksome defeat on Sunday, it was defeat whilst all around, our nearest rivals were winning, and winning in some unanticipated style. Under-promising and over-delivering, if you will.
In some ways, Wenger’s temerity in keeping us so competitive for so long has in rather bizarre fashion, been at the heart of the questioning dilemma experienced by the critical Gunner.
The glamour of European competition, the excitement of extended cup runs and lengthy unbeaten spells in the league sits on one side of a football supporting equation. On the other side, our inability to beat everyone all the time has the now default effect of causing the club to perennially over-promise and under-deliver. Season after season.
Every other manager in the league has come and gone as ultimately they failed to keep their club competitive. This includes Ferguson who knew the game was largely up when he over-paid for van Persie for a final season hurrah which ended in triumph at the cost of many years subsequent rebuilding.
Only one man has outlasted every other serving manager in the country and his record – when taken in context with the records of every single one of his competitors – really should speak for itself.
So where does that leave the Arsenal fan base?
Still leaving home games ten minutes early as they mutter about players who don’t give 110% for all 90+ minutes? Still not turning up for cup games at home, if the empty seats were anything to go by during recent encounters.
The years have ground down many of us into a whimpering mass of half-hearted support, bearing the club colours with resentment over prices and anger at the unspent sums seemingly gathering dust in the accounts. Pissed off with the pies and the, er piss on sale in the stadium. No longer focussed on the delivery of unconditional support for the club they once truly loved, their energy dissipated by the latest outrage vocalised and amplified on social media.
At the end of the day, on Sunday, Man U played rather unexpectedly well for their three points which were hardly undeserved. For 70 minutes we kept Barca at bay. And against Hull, whilst we never looked like losing, our out of form attack could not find a way through.
They say this could – and still might – be Arsenal’s season to win the Premier League. Momentum is clearly not with us in the way it has been with Leicester all season and, more latterly, Tottenham. It will take a monumental effort from the players to regain traction to overtake rivals who will be unlikely to repeat the trick in 12 months’ time with the burden of European Cup Competition added to their unlikely fixture mix.
I agree with many who suggest the Arsenal squad this season have failed to truly hit the heights of the form we all assume they are capable of. The Ozil assist record sits uncomfortably alongside our missed chances tally.
But as fans we all have to ask ourselves one question.
Let’s imagine the team rediscover their shooting boots, remember to lock the back door and deign to dominate midfield to go on a season-ending marauding run that takes us to the very front door of being next year’s champions.
Will we as fans have managed to stay with them? To help push them through the door and over the threshold of footballing bliss.
Or will our boys end up winning – or losing – regardless of the fans.
Have we as fans become irrelevant to the success and failure of our own club?