Thursday, November 30, 2023

Put it in the ground where the flowers grow

“2-0 down! 3-2 up! That’s how Arsenal won the cup, with a nick knack paddy whack give a dog a bone, Aaron Ramsey poked one home.”

So sang a gentleman behind me at Leicester in August. Repeatedly. I joined him in his choral appreciation of Arsenal’s recent F.A. Cup win. I mean, why the hell not? It seems a good a thing as any to commemorate. Arsenal have existed for 128 years and have won the FA Cup 11 times. We have 28 major honours in that same time span. A very respectable haul but it reveals an obvious and naked truth. We don’t win trophies more often than we do. It’s the same for every other club. Most clubs have no prospect of winning any at all.

So it seems quite understandable to cherish honours when they come along. Especially after a pregnant pause of 9 years, during which time every other article, commentator and online guttersnipe has seen fit to punctuate their every comment on the club with that qualifier. I actually started to think Arsenal had added the words “who haven’t won a trophy since 2005” to their club crest. I joined that gentleman at Leicester in song, not only to celebrate a tangible achievement, but to boast openly to our detractors.

Because that’s one of the things that makes football so fun, right? It allows you behave like you did in the playground without attracting undue attention. It indulges the kind of behaviour that the ‘normal’ adult world encourages you to leave behind you at the school gates. Imagine serenading an office colleague with “WHAT THE FUCKING HELL WAS THAT?!” after a keynotes presentation. Prohibited behaviour for very obvious reasons, but it would be brilliant fun if you could. For those reasons and more, I joined that gentleman at Leicester in song.

After several repetitions however, it became clear that nobody else was in the mood to join our impromptu choir. It perhaps wasn’t the most opportune moment; we were drawing 1-1 with Leicester in a fairly frustrating game. Somewhat cheekily, I recently posited that new signings had replaced trophies at the vanguard of supporter aspiration. It’s not at all lost on me that the chant “sign a fucking striker!” tempted the vocal cords of the travelling support rather more easily that afternoon.

I have attended each game hence and not heard any further attempts at chants celebrating the cup triumph and I haven’t sensed the appetite to start any myself. Ever since, some questions have nagged away at me. Has the FA Cup win made Arsenal a happier club? Has it made any tangible difference at all? Should it have? The day and, by extension, the weekend of the cup win was celebrated with appropriate fervour. And maybe that’s the way it ought to be. Celebrate heartily on the weekend that the trophy arrives, spend the summer having a good old fashioned bask and then put it all to one side once business begins again in August.

It certainly ought to be that way for the players, whose primary focus should be to chisel future glories from the coalface of competition. They have long retirements in which to bask and reflect. I guess it just feels like a slightly incongruous attitude for us to have as supporters. Especially when so much emphasis was placed upon the trophy drought. For so long silverware was said to be at the foot of our Maslow’s triangle, as the underlying condition for our happiness. Now it’s arrived, I can’t escape the feeling that it was all rather fleeting.

Maybe the modern world moves too quickly for reflection. After all, who has time for a good old summertime bask anymore when we have a transfer window to fret about? I must admit that when I arrived at the first home game of the season against Crystal Palace, I expected the club to nod towards it more forcefully. Perhaps to have the cup on display on the pitch before kick-off. Or maybe even an official unveiling for the addition of the letters ‘2014’ on the stadium’s honours board. When the iconic clock face was reintroduced to the Emirates, there was an official inauguration complete with fireworks.

There again, I understand the club’s reticence to do so. Sensibilities are so precious and scrutiny so scathing nowadays. Arsenal may have been wary of accusations of ‘milking it’ or behaving in a manner deemed to be ‘small time.’ Remember the criticism the players attracted for celebrating the semi final win against Wigan? Arsenal wouldn’t want to intimate (or be accused of intimating) that winning the cup was the culmination of their ambition. I think we all want for this most fleeting of joys to be midwife to a legacy.

Back in May, I expressed doubts as to how significant a legacy it could realistically spawn. The target of course is to try and win the Premier League and the Champions League. But to be reductive for a moment, both of those things are really, really difficult to do. The competitive landscape has made it thus. There are several billionaire owners that will fail to land one or both of those prizes. That’s not to be too moon faced about that fact. Arsenal were at the forefront of the creation of the Premier League, which constructed a ring-fence of wealth in the English game.

If we’re feeling sore about Chelsea and Manchester City having altered the horizon, we’re unlikely to find much sympathy from those that were locked outside of the golden gates of the Premier League and the G14 in the 90s. Realistically, I think Arsenal fans can expect for the team to feature in the title race, perhaps as a threatening third horse. To advance to the quarter finals of the Champions League, a stage we have not graced since 2010; ought to be a sensible aspiration. Once you land safely on that lily-pad, then who knows what can happen? I think we can reasonably have expected the season to have started a little better as well.

But the FA Cup was never going to be the magic key that unlocked an all conquering Arsenal side. There is no doubt that this season, the same trophy represents our foremost chance of success. If we do make it to the semi final for instance, hopefully last year’s win will hold us in good stead. Personally, I find the devaluation of the domestic cups one of the most regretful by-products of the modern game. Champions League qualification and avoiding relegation have superseded the cups in importance for one reason and one reason only. Money.

I know a great many share that sadness too, but it does seem as though supporters have begun to partake in (or reluctantly submit to) that depreciation of value. Now, you may have reached this point of the article and found yourself asking, “So what do you want us to do, Tim? Dance a daily jig?! Sacrifice a farm animal? ” Perhaps you’d be right to ask. All happiness, indeed all emotion, is fleeting after all. Winning the cup in May doesn’t mean everything is perfect now. But before I get too Buddhist on you, maybe we ought to reflect on whether the fretting and the sniping over the ‘trophy drought’ was really worth it in hindsight?

If the absence of silverware led to so much pain and frustration, then surely the procurement of it ought to have led to a more sustained fanfare? Obviously it’s a subjective and cerebral thing to pin a judgement on, but I don’t feel like any of the old debates; or the anger with which they are conducted, have subsided at all. If you accept my twin conclusions that the F.A. Cup doesn’t seem to have placated us and that Arsenal can expect to compete for, but not necessarily expect to win the league or the Champions League, then it begs the question as to what will make us happy.

Maybe it’s the nebulous concept of progress. Perhaps people feel they aren’t seeing enough and they may be right. But then it doesn’t seem fair to consider domestic trophies as a measure of progress if finally winning one is now deemed insufficient evidence. Maybe we ought to make a collective decision and lay the precise conditions down for our own happiness. A merriment manifesto if you will. Otherwise we seem to be wed to perpetual unhappiness. And that sounds kind of shit to me. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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