Thursday, December 7, 2023

Three is a magic number

We’ve truly entered the malnourished hinterland betwixt domestic season and World Cup. Even the journalistic parasites starve on the content carcass at this time of year. So I hope you’ll forgive me dear reader, for going a little Buzzfeed on yo asses this week and considering my 3 favourite things about 2013-14.

I’ve excluded winning the F.A. Cup because, frankly, it exists outside of this arbitrary sphere. It belongs outside the confines of this season, winning the F.A. Cup belongs to the ages. Alongside the birth of a first child, Henry’s nutmeg on Danny Mills or the time John Terry accidentally got his winky caught in a vice. (Still waiting on that last one). These are the three things that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside during 2013-14.

The emergence of Aaron Ramsey

Without wishing to introduce a measure of smugness (ahem) at the outset, I had written many times of my belief in Aaron Ramsey during his more indifferent periods. I don’t believe that this is because I am some sort of footballing soothsayer. I honestly always felt his qualities were fairly obvious to those willing to understand them and the (largely online) bile spewed towards him was simple scapegoating for wider frustrations.

Needless to say, watching this young man fight back from an appalling injury inflicted upon him and to cock a snook at the naysayers has been hugely satisfying. However, I think even his most ardent supporters during his tougher times did not believe he would rise to this sort of prominence. I mention the possibility of him becoming a goalscorer in that link in the previous paragraph, but I never thought he’d blossom into our principal goal threat.

He offers so much more than that too, his numbers in terms of successful tackles are truly eye boggling. He’s become the complete midfielder this season. It’s been a meteoric transformation and I can’t think of anybody more deserving. Two years ago, the idea of Ramsey scoring the winner in a cup final would have been considered the punchline of a cruel joke. This year that eventuality is barely remarked upon, so in keeping has it become with his renewed status.

In November 2012, I recounted an episode from an away match at Everton on these pages. After penning another defence of Ramsey, a young supporter confronted me at the urinal at Goodison Park and spat, “We’re in the shit we’re in cos people like you back cunts like Ramsey.” I see that young man at most away matches and, naturally, at one point this season I heard him not only signing, but attempting to orchestrate everybody else into singing the Aaron Ramsey chant in the away end.

I briefly felt smug and retributory and considered confronting him to remind him of our exchange of a season before. I decided against it and allowed my pride to evaporate and soon I found myself smiling. This to me was the ultimate sign of retribution for a young footballer who wouldn’t allow criticism and physical hardship to burgle him or, by extension, Arsenal, of his promise. Ramsey’s renaissance taught that young supporter a lesson that would render my petty intervention redundant.

Ramsey’s actions spoke louder than words ever could. Given the class Aaron showed throughout the entire ordeal, both his injury and the quite pathetic fallout, and the slings and arrows that flew his way from every corner, this was something the young Welshman obviously appreciated from the outset. He didn’t grumble, he stayed quiet, kept his head down, worked hard and reaped the rewards.

There’s a salutary lesson for all of us in there. I learned it too when I briefly flirted with the idea of blowing a raspberry at one of his most vocal detractors. If the player himself was not in the business of sticking two fingers up at the world (which you feel he would have been quite entitled to do), who was I to do it on his behalf? It’s not just that Aaron Ramsey showed everybody what a great footballer he is, it’s that he managed it with a measure of dignity that is so refreshing.

The Big Fucking German

It’s not important or necessary for a team’s success for a supporter to like the players. We don’t even really know them after all. However, when it happens, when a genuine connection is forged between a player and stand, when there is a mutual appreciation that is reflected between the two, it is quite special. We have certainly seen Per Mertesacker stitch his BFG sobriquet into the hearts of the Arsenal faithful.

Shortly after he signed, I recall speaking to a member of the Travel Club staff at Arsenal who told me, “He absolutely loves being an Arsenal player.” As with Ramsey, deed has outstripped utterance. Mertesacker has taken the amusing, slightly ironic yet affectionate “Big fucking German!” chant in exactly the spirit in which it is intended. Mertesacker is a classy defender, but this season, his stature has visibly increased, both with his teammates and with the supporters.

Despite his cuddly persona, Mertesacker’s season is a showreel of gritty fist pumping gifs. At the conclusion of every game, the sight of his fists shaking in acknowledgement of the supporters is a common sight. He recalls an old tradition of Arsenal centre halves that provide the umbilical cord between the seats and the grass, a tradition that takes in such defensive talents as Adams, McLintock and Mercer, all of whom were fiercely protective of the cannon on their chests.

This is perhaps an ingredient recent defensive lynchpins, such as Sol Campbell and William Gallas, have missed. Both were great defenders but you were never really left with the impression that Arsenal were anything more than an employer to them. Mertesacker definitely “gets” what it means to be an Arsenal player and it’s been such a pleasure to watch this mutual appreciation grow. The next logical step you feel is for Mertesacker to join the likes of Mercer, McLintock and Adams as an Arsenal captain.

The signing of Mesut Ozil

Footballistically, the German was the sort of player we needed. In 2012-13, we had lacked creative inspiration, leaving Cazorla to man a lonesome burden. But beyond that, this was a transformative signing. After years of watching the likes of Hazard, Mata and Silva being hovered up by other clubs and our own box office talents, such as Nasri, van Persie and Fabregas, pack their bindles and leave, the signing of Ozil made us feel relevant again.

It was a signing that much of Europe glimpsed with envy and vindication for a club that had spent so much of the summer promising that things had changed. In fact, the signing of Ozil almost reads like an allegory for Arsenal’s F.A. Cup success. With the promise of a new era of financial muscle, excitement levels were raised and yet as the summer wore on and inactivity plagued us, anxiety and desperation took hold of the fanbase.

Was this another false dawn after years of patience and a lot of fretting? But then, somehow, Arsenal produced at the 11th hour and our corner of North London was overcome with joy. All eyes were on the Gunners, finally, after years of prudence, the signing of a genuine world star that made all of football take note. We had collectively forgotten how it felt as a fanbase to procure such a player. The feel-good factor sustained us for months. All that was missing was an open top bus parade. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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