Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Thank you for the good times (before the good times fly away)

My stepdad’s father, Ken, was like a grandfather to me from the point that he entered my life in my teens. We sat together at Highbury for a few years before he died during the run-in to the 2003-04 season. He passed a few days before the Gunners sealed the title at White Hart Lane, where he had watched his beloved team seal a league title 33 years earlier.

I sat next to him for most of the home games during that unbeaten season and for pretty much every home game when Arsenal won the league in 2001-02. At some point during the Invincible season, when I was 19, I vividly remember him telling me to savour every moment. ‘You might not see a team this good again, I haven’t seen one this good before.’

Superficially, I knew he was right at the time but the passage of years has made that wisdom increasingly poignant. Sometimes things that people say really stick with you, even if they sound perfectly logical and straightforward. Ken had spent several decades watching Arsenal and he saw some great teams and he saw some average teams. He understood the cyclical nature of the sport.

Perspective is the greatest gift of age; once you circuit around the sun a few times you start to observe patterns. It is, at once, a tragedy and a blessing when you understand that good times are to be savoured because emotions and experiences are fleeting. I had heard this and read this many times throughout life but it was Ken, with his decades of experience following Arsenal, that truly taught me what it meant.

I have revisited it many times throughout my time as an Arsenal fan and it gave me perspective. But, honestly, it also imbued me with a little anxiety too. I still have a tendency to fret when I feel good about Arsenal because I know it won’t last forever. I vividly recall how the honeymoon like feeling of the early Wenger years slowly (and then very quickly) turned into bitter recrimination.

I observed the drift of the George Graham era (though from a far less mature standpoint) and how that early feeling of invincibility and upward mobility soon sagged as the manager’s message faded and the transfer policy became muddled. The last two seasons of Arsenal’s revitalisation under Mikel Arteta have been the two most enjoyable seasons of the last 19 years in my estimation and by quite a distance too.

The feeling that a club that had drifted was again on the rise, with a young team and a re-energised fanbase was uplifting. Those old connections between team and support began to rekindle, that feeling of, ‘oh yeah, I remember what this was like.’ In both seasons, Arsenal enormously outstripped initial expectations, even if they didn’t quite reach their adjusted targets come late May.

At the beginning of last season, as stadiums were re-opening after covid, I wrote a reflective piece about the quest for happiness in the age of the super club. In it, I made some pointed reflections that resonate nearly two years later, “To remotely compete at the level they enjoyed 20 years or so ago, Arsenal have to be a heady mixture of perfect and lucky.” I am not sure which of those measures, perfection or fortune, Arsenal quite fell short in this season. Likely both.

In that article, I made a vow to wring every last drop of enjoyment that I could out of watching Arsenal, especially after 18 months of absence from live games. “I think the decision that I have made is to enjoy the games as much as possible, especially when I am in the stadium. That pleasure was unavailable for so long that I aim to cherish it,” was my final conclusion.

That was made far easier by Arsenal’s on-pitch progress, buttressed by a group of younger, hungrier and more likeable players. However, in the back of my mind I always had that anxiety, that knowledge that the feeling of watching a team on the rise with a young manager and team would not last forever. Expectations and ceilings change, as we witnessed during Arsene Wenger’s reign.

When Arsenal finished 3rd under Arsene Wenger in 1996-97, it felt new and exciting. When Arsenal finished 3rd in 2009-10, a pithy banner in the North Bank read, ‘third or fourth place. Wow.’ The exciting early days of a relationship soon give way to familiarity and routine. Next season is going to be different at Arsenal.

Expectations will be different, which means the atmosphere will be slightly different and the emotion that engenders it all will be different. All of this is natural and it’s not even remotely wrong, it’s just the evolution of the human condition. Still, I can’t help but yearn for this feeling to last a little longer, for the feeling that Arsenal being quite good is a pleasant surprise as opposed to the minimum expectation.

But it won’t and I am preparing for that and I hope that Arteta and the team are so good that they create a level of expectation and, eventually, entitlement that makes brilliance feel routine. I have an entire summer of content planned analysing the next steps, the recriminations and the fallout of this season which has, for the most part, been an unbridled pleasure that unfortunately wilted under the lights in the spring.

There will be plenty of time and plenty of column inches to devote to that. For now, as the final weekend of the season approaches and this team plays its final home game of a largely exhilarating campaign, I plan to put the forward thinking and the fallout on hold. I don’t take for granted that Arsenal will be excellent next season, there is work to do and there are events to conspire. It can all wait for another day.

I want to spend Sunday thanking these players and the coach for giving us a team to believe in again, a team to sing for and be proud of. I want to be able to show my gratitude for a team that made me study the league table again, that inspired me to fill out those end of season predictors and to fret and worry about what future games might bring, for making me emotionally invested again.

The last two seasons have represented an age of innocence for Arsenal and its fans and I know that will probably begin to pass once the dust settles on Sunday. This team will have to negotiate the move from potential to realisation, from boys to men. But this weekend, before we expose them to the brutality of the real world, forgive me if I want to buy them all an ice cream and ruffle their hair one last time.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

 

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