By Tim Charlesworth
I am starting to reflect on how lucky I am in life. I am blessed with a wonderful family, living in a world without war (my bit of it anyway), my health, the privilege of education, living in an age of prosperity, absent of pestilence, famine etc.
This is not usually a good sign. I am reminding myself of these things because I am sad about the performance of a football team. And it all seems so daft. When there are so many things in this world to be happy about, I am sad. I’m sad because a bunch of men, who I don’t really know (however much I think I do), are not doing very well playing for their football team. Just for the sake of clarity, this is a football team that I have never played for myself, and with whom my connection is largely imagined in my own mind.
Wouldn’t it be better, to just walk away? I don’t need to suffer like this. Most seasons, we don’t win, and of course this is true of all teams (even Bayern Munich have won less than half of the Bundesligas that they have participated in). The whole thing is pointless, and even if we win, I can only gain by someone else’s similar misery. My pain and nervous energy makes no difference to the team. They will do just as well without me, and I would be letting no-one down if I left.
And I think I am not the only one who feels this way. I hear talk of people who won’t renew their season ticket, people who want to ‘resign’ or even ‘switch to another team’ (the ultimate crime for a football supporter). Of course they won’t. I have wanted to resign on a number of occasions (particularly in recent years), but I have given up trying now. I know I never will. The next win just sucks me back in. I just have to enjoy the good times and suffer the bad ones. There is simply no other option. I don’t know why I can’t walk away, but I have given up wondering.
We’ve suffered before. 2007-8 was taken away from us in a truly cruel manner. 2013-14 was hard, and really frustrating. But this is worse. This team is stronger, the opposition is weaker. I really think that we are the best team in this league. The sudden run of bad results is both perplexing and surprising. It came from nowhere, and was accompanied by some bizarre losses of form (Walcott, Sanchez, Giroud, Gabriel)
And the prize seems greater too. It may be silly, but I genuinely care about Arsene Wenger. He is an amazing man. He suffers with us, he hurts even more than we do in defeat. He is a genius of football. If he could pull off just one more championship, it would be one of the great achievements of all time. Has any manager ever gone 12 seasons between triumphs – I don’ think so.
And there is something magical, in life, about the ‘old dog’ proving that they still have it. Sport is littered with people who were unpopular in their pomp, but we came to love them towards the end. Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, Stuart Pearce, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Brian Clough, Teddy Sheringham and Bobby Robson. We came to support all these people because they reminded us of times gone by, of happy days with friends and family lost, because they gave us all hope that we’re ‘not done yet’.
But also, there is a darker side. We know that if these older characters lose, they won’t get another chance. When a youngster is vanquished, the hope lives on. They will get another shot. A victory for Wenger would be one of the great comeback stories, and might finally earn him the universal affection that he deserves. But it seems we may be denied that uplifting story. And we start to wonder how many more chances he will get.
Worse than that, I fear for the club too. Arsenal looks like it is corporately over-reliant on Wenger, and under-prepared for the next chapter. His departure will leave a lot of holes, and they won’t easily be filled. This is the era of the internet, when every setback is accompanied by gaggles of baying fans, feeling sorry for themselves and working themselves up into a self-fuelled feeding frenzy of anger and outrage. Many boards of football clubs have made mistakes in the face of such provocation. Arsenal’s board has resisted so far, but will they last forever? It only takes one mistake after all. The Man U-Fergie experience is not a good precedent. The fans may be unhappy now, they may be angry, but I’m afraid that won’t stop things from getting worse.
Barcelona was disappointing, the Man U game was upsetting, but the Swansea game was a genuine disaster. By the time of the Tottenham game, I had gone apathetic. Like many of us, my pre-match feeling was one of dread and gloom. I knew we had to win to stay in the race. I knew an away win against the second placed team was unlikely. I expected us to lose, and for the final hope to be extinguished. I didn’t dare to hope any more. (Out of interest – all the Spurs and Arsenal fans I know were implacably convinced that their team would lose this match – how ironic that they were all wrong!) I couldn’t watch, but just kept an eye on my phone amidst the mother’s day festivities. I inwardly groaned when we took the lead. It was the first time this season I have failed to greet a goal with joy. Not more hope, I thought, not now, please.
Of course I couldn’t ignore the siren call of the North London Derby. I had to watch the second half. I arrived in a pub full of Spurs fans, just in time to see Coquelin making a slightly silly tackle. “Oh, you’ll get booked for that”, I thought, not realising he already had a yellow – because I hadn’t watched the first half. Of course, I had arrived just in time to watch the worst ten minutes of the whole season (there is some pretty stiff competition for this title). I sat there and just wanted to cry (being an Englishman, of course, I didn’t – especially as I was the only Arsenal fan in a sea of Spurs). I thought I had got rid of all the hope, but I clearly hadn’t, there was still enough to hurt me on its way out.
Sanchez’s goal barely caused a flicker of a smile. It was too little too late, and anyway I expected Tottenham to score the winner (a Kane rabona from his own half seeming the most likely option). The Tottenham fans around me were charming by the way, full of sympathy, and equally convinced that their team was about to concede the winner.
But neither team did concede, and both NLDs end in draws that could end up expensive for either team. The draw keeps us in touch with Spurs, and still hoping for St Totteringham to come. And if you can still beat the second placed team, then it’s got to be possible to catch the leaders. Leicester are not out of sight. If they slip up, they are still catchable. And if ever you thought a team leading at this point in the season had a chance of slipping up, then surely Leicester would be the most likely candidate.
And that’s even worse. If Leicester do it this season, it will be one of the great sporting stories of all time. Surely their supporters deserve it, for all the years of loyal support, without hope, suffering the privations of the Championship. Surely, a Leicester win would be a good outcome for most fans, and for the game overall? And here’s me, wishing misfortune upon them, for my own petty selfish reasons.
My heart tells me that something, which I don’t really understand, has gone wrong with this talented team. My head tells me that you shouldn’t believe in mumbo-jumbo, and this is a high-quality team that can still do it. Of course, as observed above, my own assessment of the situation is now highly unreliable. And you can’t get around this problem by talking to fellow fans right now. We are all emotional wrecks who have lost the power of reason and objective analysis. I listen, even to respected commentators, and they are talking nonsense. Bookmakers seem to think that there is something around a 1 in 5, or 20% chance of Arsenal winning the premiership. This is actually quite similar to the odds at the start of the season. (And I wasn’t depressed then!)
So there is a chance in the Premier League. I struggle to see it myself, but that’s an emotional reaction, not a logical one. The objective bookies evidence suggests that there is enough of a chance to keep me interested, but also that I am very likely to suffer more disappointment. This is exactly what I don’t want now. I don’t know how much more I can take. And I think that’s why I really didn’t enjoy the Sanchez goal. It restored a glimmer of hope, in a hopeless situation, and that was the worst thing about it.
The truth is that, in the unlikely event of us winning the title this year, I will be delighted with everything that has happened (including, and especially, the Sanchez goal). I will say things like ‘what a ride’ and ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way’. Its all ridiculous isn’t it. I quit. Only, I don’t, of course, and I won’t.
So now its back to the FA Cup. And its really difficult to keep the hope away. Even the most pessimistic analysis has to conclude that we have a good chance in this one. Hull are surely beatable (albeit another Swansea-esque opportunity for unexpected heartbreak). And if we win, then its Watford at home, a good draw, and a good chance to make the semi–final. Even if the CL and the PL are gone, the FA Cup dream lives on.
The irrational side of me still thinks that somehow we are destined to meet Chelsea in the final and finally prove that we can beat them in an 11v11 match. And what a story that would be – three in a row, Wenger winning more cups than any other manager, Arsenal setting a new high watermark in FA cups won. All on a happy, sunny, May afternoon, with spring turning to summer and Spurs to come in the Charity Shield………