Football fans don’t do optimism very easily. It’s far safer and comforting to fall back on pessimism. After all, it’s the hope that kills you in this game.
Whilst I’ve never been one to sympathise with fans of clubs who actually win things, there is a universal suffering felt by all supporters.
Arsenal fans didn’t really have long to wait for a trophy in the context of what Rochdale have been trying to do for their entire existence, but for fans brought up on Arsene Wenger’s double winners or Invincibles it’s been a testing nine years. And after the opening few minutes of the FA Cup Final the wait for a trophy appeared to be lengthening. But they won the Cup and last weekend defeated Manchester City in the Community Shield with a stirring performance ahead of the league campaign.
The proper stuff begins on Saturday at home to Crystal Palace, and for regulars down the essential matchday eatery Piebury Corner, there’s also a chance to reflect on what exactly Wenger has achieved with his three league titles and five FA Cups.
The pie shop itself is a mecca for fans as the walls are plastered in club memorabilia and the tables outside are actual pre-war wrought iron turnstiles. But Saturday heralds a literary celebration. Before kick-off, Arsenal writer Layth Yousif will be launching his new book ‘Arsene Wenger: 50 Defining Fixtures’ to the Piebury regulars.
“Nine years is a long time without a trophy and over the last few years Wenger has divided opinion amongst many supporters,” explained Yousif.
“I have always been in the Wenger camp, not least because I grew up watching Arsenal in the early to mid-80s, getting soaked in the Clock End in front of crowds of 14,000.
“Wenger revolutionised our club from top to bottom. Of course there are things I don’t agree with and his stubbornness - as much as being a strength - is also a weakness. But his belief in his methods, his loyalty to the club and his players, his intelligence, his honesty, his passion, his articulacy, his undying commitment to the beautiful game under such severe financial constraints and criticism from many and sheer love of football means he is up there with managerial icons like Sir Alex Ferguson, Bob Paisley, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby.”
The relief shared amongst supporters on ending the trophy drought was clearly felt by those inside the club. Whether or not it had any impact on Wenger’s own job security is another issue.
“I think if we had had finished fifth and then lost the FA Cup Final to Hull pressure would have reached a critical mass,” added Yousif.
“Then it would have been a question of whether the board would still have had faith in him. Delivering Champions League football for 17 years in a row to a club with no money to compete at the very top level is vitally important to Arsenal. And the board recognised that. Whether fans were entirely happy with the situation is another matter.”
Yes, the fans. In recent seasons the Arsenal faithful have been criticised for their negativity. The Highbury Library taunt from visiting fans has followed them to the Emirates, with many Premier League matches passing off under a soporific atmosphere.
Yousif conceded: “I think we do moan. The Villa game at the start of last season was as toxic as I can remember an atmosphere. Certainly since Watford at Highbury in 1986 when Don Howe walked out and fans were after Peter Hill-Wood’s blood. But in general we don’t moan any more than Spurs fans moan, or Chelsea fans moan or West Ham fans moan.
“My season ticket cost me £1,100. My first Junior Gunners one cost me £12.50. At those prices no wonder we moan! Having said that, there are not many clubs in the world who could sell out a 60,000 stadium having gone trophyless for nine years. Nor many clubs in England who have sold out every away league game this millennium. We do moan but we also turn up week in week out, home and away, in massive numbers and I think that’s sometimes forgotten by non-Arsenal fans.”
There was certainly nothing to moan about during last weekend’s dismantling of Manchester City. As a Community Shield match it could never have made it into Yousif’s book but the victory has given cause for much optimism this season.
“I would love to see a real title challenge. It’s going to be an open league again this year and we’ve strengthened again which is great to see. Having just returned from the Community Shield at Wembley it was also gratifying to sense the players developing a real taste for silverware. I don’t want to comment too much on other clubs, but when George Graham broke an eight year trophy drought in 1987 the league title didn’t arrive the next year, it came two years later - so there’s a message from our history there somewhere.
“The last time we won the League in the Invincibles season we conceded 26 league goals. Last year it was 41. If Kos and the BFG can form an effective partnership once more, with both complementing each other whilst compensating for their partner’s weaknesses, then I think we will have a chance. This is also a huge year for Kieran Gibbs. If he can stay fit and find consistency of form defensively, which I think all Arsenal fans know he possesses, he will be a huge asset.”
Gooners attending the Palace game could do worse than popping along to Piebury Corner on Saturday. Pessimism, on this occasion at least, won’t be on the menu.
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