Arsenal reached their first FA Cup Final in 1927, two years into the era defining tenure of Herbert Chapman. They were the favourites against unfancied Cardiff City at Wembley but conspired to lose 1-0 after goalkeeper Dan Lewis fumbled Hughie Ferguson’s shot into his own net in the 74th minute.
Arsenal dusted themselves down and returned to Wembley three years later, beating Huddersfield Town in the 1930 FA Cup Final, kickstarting an era of unprecedented success that included five league titles and a further FA Cup before the Second World War broke out in 1939.
By the time that Arsenal team won their first league title in 1931, Cardiff had been relegated to the Football League Third Division South. Ferguson, who scored the winner in the 1927 showpiece, tragically committed suicide in January 1930. Sometimes winning signals the end of something, sometimes disappointment signals the start of something.
We can trace this phenomenon through Arsenal’s history. When a trophy starved Gunners side lost the 1968 League Cup Final to Leeds United, there weren’t too many post mortems conducted. Arsenal had a young team and Leeds were the emerging club of the moment. Despite having not won a trophy since 1953, that defeat didn’t cause significant alarm.
However, a year later when they lost the 1969 League Cup Final to Third Division Swindon Town, concerns were raised. Captain Frank McLintock later said, “It was a dreadful game, maybe my worst day as a professional. But out of it came a resolve that led me, and the team, to glory. Something changed inside me.” The guts of that team went on to win the 1970 Fairs Cup, breaking the club’s 17-year trophy duck, followed by the domestic double in 1970-71.
Under Terry Neill, Arsenal got to four cup finals in three years- FA Cup Finals in 1978, 1979 and 1980 as well as the 1980 Cup Winners Cup Final. They only won one of them and in the summer of 1980, their star turn Liam Brady left and the club drifted. None of those disappointments were the catalyst for anything bigger.
The twin final defeats in 1980 signaled the continuation of a drift, not the start of a new chapter. I think you could say much the same for some of Arsenal’s FA Cup triumphs in the later Wenger years and the 2011 Carling Cup Final defeat to Birmingham certainly felt like the beginning of a slide. However, the pain of the 2000 UEFA Cup Final and 2001 FA Cup Final defeats helped to forge the spirit required to win the domestic double in 2001-02.
Arguably, the two most glorious achievements in Arsenal’s history were prefaced by painful defeats. While the 1987 Littlewoods Cup triumph over Liverpool felt like the beginning of a brave new era with a young team (the parallels between the early George Graham era and now are numerous, in my view) that team had to deal with immense disappointment a year later.
Arsenal lost the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Final to Second Division Luton Town in comical fashion, really. The Gunners were 2-1 ahead on 80 minutes when they were awarded a penalty. Nigel Winterburn missed and Luton scored twice in the final eight minutes to seal an unlikely and, for their vanquished opponents, chastening victory.
13 months later, they hoisted their first league title for 18 years at Anfield, the scar tissue of that defeat to Luton stung enough to help propel them to glory. In 2002-03, Arsenal tossed the league title away in the spring as the team lost focus. Surrendering the title to Manchester United stung the team into what followed- an unbeaten league season in 2003-04. The pain of 2003 was, in my view, a springboard to the heights of 2003-04.
Sometimes defeat is the end, sometimes it’s the beginning. When Arsenal finished 5th under Unai Emery in 2018-19 having passed up a presentable opportunity to finish in the top four, it represented an improvement on a very disappointing final campaign under Arsene Wenger. Emery’s Arsenal offered an improvement of seven points on the season that proceeded it.
Personally, I didn’t feel like it was going to be a launchpad. When Emery’s disconsolate Arsenal were taken apart by Chelsea in the subsequent Europa League Final, I trudged back towards a bar in Baku and wrote this tweet. That felt like the end of something or, at least, like we hadn’t properly rebooted from the drawn-out decline under Wenger.
I don’t think it’s working with Emery and I’ve little faith it will. He was given a really hard job and I’m not into sacking willy nilly per se, but just because it was a hard job, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done badly. You don’t give more time for the sake of being nice.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) May 29, 2019
On planet Arsenal at the moment, the sun is shining, the team is playing well and the fans are in concert- almost literally. William Saliba, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus have given the team a shot of quality in different areas of the pitch and that is translating into performances.
The swiftness with which the deals for Jesus and Zinchenko were completed have had the dual effect of allowing both players a full pre-season with their new team as well as energising the fan base. Optimism abounds and these feelings are to be treasured as a fan and as a player because they can be transient.
All of this stands in stark contrast to how last season finished. The timing of the release of the ‘All or Nothing’ series has been very interesting, because Arsenal fans have relived that campaign. We see the building blocks that have formed the foundations for this “project” set against current context, we also see the gaps that the club have filled during the summer.
However, we also relive the anguish of how the season unravelled. It could scarcely have been more traumatic, in truth. There can’t have been many seasons in the club’s history that have finished in a more painful manner when you allow yourself to think on it. Yet nobody seems to have carried that baggage into this season.
It could be that the players have used it as a motivating force, it’s more likely they have learned lessons from it and, even more likely still, that they have spent money on the sort of players who make it less likely to happen again. In the stands, from the first minute of the season, I have seen very little evidence of scar tissue or trauma.
It feels good to be an Arsenal fan at this very micro moment in time but disappointment is the true barometer for how a fan base feels about a team. Those are the moments that test your faith and Arsenal fans had theirs tested in a very meaningful way just three months ago, yet the majority have emerged on the other side defiantly chanting hallelujah. Last season’s disappointment didn’t feel like the end of something, it felt like the beginning.