Thursday, July 18, 2024

Full Nelson

Just over half of my Arsenal supporting life ago, the club moved to a new stadium. That move has provided a very definitive bookmark for my Arsenal experience. (It doesn’t feel right to me that, by now, I will have seen more games at the Emirates than I did at Highbury). I think one of the things that it has really brought home to me is the rarity of the unforgettable moment in football.

Moments that you recall with fervour forever more. Your ‘WOULD YOU BELIEVE IIIIIIIIIT?’ moments that earn instant immortality. The Emirates has had comparatively few of these  because Arsenal have found their biggest successes at Wembley Stadium. FA Cup Finals and semi-finals happen on neutral territory and the club has not won the second leg of a European semi-final on home soil since the stadium move.

Constructing a top five of adrenaline propulsing, fist clenching, stranger hugging moments at Emirates Stadium actually becomes quite difficult after you list two to three. That’s almost entirely because the team have so seldom competed for the league title during this period. In the final season at Highbury, we had the run to the Champions League final which incorporated those memorable nights against Real Madrid and Juventus.

Great Emirates moments are often underscored with regret. Arshavin’s winning goal against Barcelona in 2011 was never hugely meaningful to me because Arsenal lost the second leg of that tie. In hindsight, Danny Welbeck’s stoppage time winner against Leicester in 2016 quickly felt bittersweet, not least because the subsequent collapse in the league was immediate. Arsenal lost their next two games and checked out of the title race as quickly as they had appeared in Leicester’s rearview mirror.

Thierry Henry’s story book goal against Leeds is not tinged with any sort of regret but it is a homage to the past. After an unsuitably inauspicious exit in 2007, this was a returning hero editing his final chapter with a far more apposite flourish. In short, the context is the only important thing about the goal. A winner in an FA Cup 3rd Round tie at home to Championship opposition (Arsenal were eventually eliminated in the 5th round) meant little outside of the fairytale context.

Then we come to Reiss Nelson’s 97th minute winner against Bournemouth in March. At the Arseblog Arsenal Vision live event at Union Chapel last month, one of the talking points we considered was ‘moment of the season.’ Obviously we varied our answers for the sake of, well, variety, but there was a unanimity, on stage and in the audience, that Nelson’s goal was the undoubted moment of the season, the one Arsenal fans will really take away with them from 2022-23.

On the face of it, the goal, the moment, whatever nomenclature you want to affix to it, should be tinged with the same regret as Welbeck’s effort against Leicester. Yet, somehow, it just isn’t. I still look at it, the goal, the footage, the renaissance painting style images of the pitch flooded with Arsenal staff and raise a broad smile. I don’t really feel that when I see Arshavin’s goal against Barca or Welbeck’s header.

Arsenal, as we know, did not go on to win the league, or even really come that close- even if it really felt like we would in the wake of that endorphin inducing moment. City had the title wrapped up with three games still to play. So why don’t I feel the same level of emotional taint? I think there are a few reasons. For a start, the 2015-16 title chase capitulation felt like the end of something.

Arsenal lost at home to Swansea and then meekly surrendered to an injury ravaged Manchester United team at Old Trafford after defeating Leicester in dramatic circumstances. Trudging towards Manchester Piccadilly after the final whistle at Old Trafford, I came to terms with the idea that I really thought that it was time for Arsene Wenger to leave. Arsenal finished 5th in the proceeding season and then 6th. It was the end of something.

History may yet prove me wrong but 2022-23 feels much more like the start of something. There is also a difference in regret levels in allowing Leicester City to run away with the title compared to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, which just feels inevitable sadly. I was grabbed by something the Athletic’s Charlie Eccleshare said about West Ham’s Europa Conference League triumph and the jubilant scenes that followed it.

I think the way that City have skewed the competition domestically has meant that some supporters have had to reckon with a redefinition of success and enjoyment in a football sense. I wrestled with this a little in a column I wrote in August 2021. Domestic trophies are harder than ever to win which has attached a new importance to smaller pleasures.

Winning the North London derby, Eddie Nketiah flicking home a stoppage time winner against Manchester United, Reiss Nelson lashing one into the far corner to briefly make you feel as though, yes, Arsenal really can win the league against the odds. These moments take on renewed importance where, even to win the Carabao Cup, you probably have to beat Pep Guardiola and his band of space mutants.

I am also fascinated by the idea that we have very recently lived through- and are still living through- a seismic event in human history in the covid pandemic. Taking us away from football stadia for 18 months was among the least severe impacts of the pandemic but I still think that period of enforced abstinence has changed, and is still changing, the stadium experience.

We are in a period of history that will eventually be recognised as he immediate post-pandemic landscape and the way society behaves and acts and interacts is changing in ways we probably don’t even realise yet. In London, in particular, social interactions have reduced, people work from home a lot more, so football stadiums have become a rarer form of shared experience for many.

The Bournemouth game has an enlarged significance for me because it was he first time I sat with both my friends Jon and Trevor, who I have sat with for over 20 years now, in three years. We had not been together at a game since that disconcertingly uncomfortable fixture against West Ham in March 2020 just before the world shut down. Covid meant, for different reasons, they couldn’t take the risk of being in football stadiums even when they fully re-opened in the summer of 2021.

For this to be our first game together again felt very special, the sense of community we had missed in one another’s company for the last three years washed away in an instant. After the game we celebrated long into the night- so much so that I somehow ended up on the Metropolitan Line on my way home. I have never lived within 20 miles of a Metropolitan Line station.

Perhaps I am over thinking it but I think all of those things contribute to that moment feeling untainted, a young team on an upward trajectory, the Manchester City behemoth era, the immediate post-pandemic era where shared experience feels even more euphoric and vital. Every now and then I look at that incredible photo taken by Stuart MacFarlane of the celebrations that followed and I just catch myself smiling.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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