@foreverheady gathers ye footballing rose-buds this Autumn afternoon
‘Judge me in May’, Arsene used to say, and for many, many years those who had clamoured to dismiss him after a couple of poor games had to eat some kind of pie come the end of the season – though with the rise of social media and YouTube celebdom that pie was increasingly less humble.
Not much of the Uriah Heep about the modern fan, to be honest. But as time went by the teeth got sharper, the barbs deeper (and maybe the competition a little steeper too) and suddenly it was no longer possible for him to deliver his much derided (though seemingly much prized these days) top four finish.
Two years in a row saw the team falter in the second half of the season, and eventually the Arsenal powers that be saw fit to draw a line under a managerial career of much dignity and success. Those who had campaigned viciously for his removal crowed in triumph, those who had loyally supported perhaps felt relieved that at last it was all over – though I suspect most fans found it hard when it was finally time to say goodbye. I certainly did.
But I got over myself in time, realised no one had actually died, and as is the way of things found myself beginning to wonder who the new man in the dugout might be. I knew little of Unai Emery, so his appointment underwhelmed me to begin with, but as the long weeks of summer crept by, I began to warm to him – despite not being that convinced initially by the new signings that were made.
Pre-season seemed to go well enough, and to be honest I wasn’t expecting much from the first two games against City and Chelsea. Two losses as I felt would be the case, but not nearly as bad as I feared, and the spirited fight back at the Bridge suggested things might yet turn out well. Nevertheless, the next game, at home to West Ham, began to take on real significance. I was lucky to see the game live, and the first thing I noticed was a very different warm-up to previous seasons, with time spent on sweeping moves and players moving to convert crosses from both flanks. But as we wobbled and then went one down, the prospect of three losses and all that that would entail began to emerge.
Be careful what you wish for and all that, but fortunately our very own Nacho Man (surely one of one of Arsene’s cannier purchases) hadn’t read that script and was there at the far post to steady the ship and set in motion a sequence of results that were certainly beyond my wildest imaginings. A fourteen-match unbeaten run no less, with notable wins, progression in both League and cups and lately a fine home draw against a potent Liverpool side who many had predicted would find us easy meat and ripe for the taking. What, as the saying goes, is not to like?
Well … one or two things, I think – and in particular the shoehorning of evidence to try to fit a narrative. The old Wenger knows best, Wenger out divisions are still there, and this seems silly to me, but I suppose the wounds of Civil War take more than a while to heal. Suddenly some are suggesting that the fantastic run we are currently on is all down to Emery: the coaching is better, the signings more astute, the players happier, the spine stronger, the character more robust, the years of failure at long last over. Oh brave new world, we’ve got our Arsenal back!
Meanwhile others point to similar runs of success in the quite recent past, to the impressive signings made in the last months of Arsene’s stewardship, to the investments made in coaching and fitness and medical centres, to the careful way the whole succession was orchestrated and managed. And also to the slices of fortune enjoyed on the pitch, to the gilt edged chances offered up to profligate opponents, to the sense that whatever else is going on, cracks are only being papered over.
What is most wonderful of course is the sudden reversal of position. Now it is the Emery enthusiasts who are seen as delusional, the old AKBs as the sober realists. Lord what fools these mortals be.
And where lies the truth in all of this? Somewhere near the middle I suspect. Arsene et all had probably been planning for his departure for a couple of years, and the players must have sensed that he wasn’t going to be around forever. I guess that that as much as anything stopped them giving their all when the football was suddenly difficult, when they didn’t really fancy the away trips. At the same time they were still capable of turning on the style for him when it was easy enough to do so. I am quite sure that they have been inspired by a desire to impress the new man and have probably found it easy to buy into whatever new methods and tactics are being employed (which I guess are pretty similar to most of what went on before). And I think too they will have enjoyed the growing chorus of approval from press and pundits (which in turn spreads quickly to the fanbase) and are starting to feel more valued and special.
It interests me that now Kroenke has sole ownership the club’s PR seems ever more positive. And on that note it is surely ridiculous to try to pretend that Arsene Wenger was hopeless in the last few years, or to try to airbrush the three FA Cups in four years out of History – just as it is equally ridiculous to suggest that Unai Emery’s pretty brilliant start has got nothing to do with his footballing knowledge and his outstanding motivational powers. I would like to think that it is now time to be proud of both past and present – and to let them unite in healthy anticipation for the future.
I went to see the home game against Leicester, and was expecting a sparse enough crowd given the game was on a Monday and on television. Far from it: the ground was packed, and the second half display lifted the roof. Even allowing for the normal buzz that surrounds an emphatic win something felt different queuing for the Tube after the game: a collective excited happiness and identity was in the air. I expect it must have felt like that after Lacazette’s imperious finish last Saturday – and I hope that won’t be lost should results start to go a little bit awry as the winter fixtures bite. We have a couple of games to negotiate later this week – and then a bit of a break in which to recharge batteries and take stock again. I am looking forward to it all, and hope that come May the judgment will be a positive one: if my reading of the signs are correct it could indeed be so.