Reliving the FA Cup Final again.
In the lead up the FA Cup Final, my Arsenal life sort of flashed before my eyes. I was in Faisalabad, the third biggest city in Pakistan, on a business trip. I hated being away from Karachi, where other fans had set up shop at a cinema where the match was being screened live. But I was in my hotel room, and sitting there with the match on it seemed as if this was destiny: the nearly 9 year hoodoo ending at new Wembley. I began to remember all the years that had gone by with me following Arsenal.
I started watching Arsenal play way back in 1998/99, after I fell in love with Dennis Bergkamp in the World Cup. I saw them lose the title again and again to United, till we won the double in 2001/2 (Wiltord getting us the goal at Old Trafford), and then the invincible season of 2003/4 (2-2 away to Spurs to win the league). I saw the FA Cup final when Giggs missed an open goal and that miss was compounded when eventually we triumphed on penalties. At the time, it seemed like a given that we would keep winning something or the other. I recall the Arsenal website would have a banner every year proclaiming us champions of one thing or another.
And then followed a period in which we flattered to deceive, and disappointments that seemed short lived (losing arguably one of our two best chances at the UCL to a Wayne Bridge goal at Highbury in the quarterfinals in 2004) began to feel more long term. There are memories a plenty post that period, and most of which are of disappointment. Losing a good chance at the Premiership when Eduardo’s leg broke, losing the final of the League Cup to Chelsea after Walcott had scored his first goal (what a free kick), there was a League Cup semi-final loss in the second leg after Van Persie had put us ahead and we let in a goal (was it against Birmingham?), the UCL final against Barcelona which we all but won (barring 11 minutes, Pires off the pitch and Thierry missing a one-on-one with the goalie with us 1-0 up – not sure I ever got over that), and of course the wonderful League Cup final against Birmingham which was to be our destiny. Kos and Scez, two of the first names on the sheet in the current team sort of cost us that one, as did a collective fear to win. Between and around all of that were losses to United in the UCL and the league, and an 8-2 that shook everything up.
I’ve always been a big Wenger fan and it hurt me to see him reduced to this, being booed by our own fans. Hunted by the press and having an inability to ‘close the deal’, whether that deal be much needed transfers or big games. Then came Ozil, the second coming of Ramsey, a long time on top of the EPL and hope. And then implosion. Despite all of that I kept hoping that this team had something extra, surely it wouldn’t throw away another chance at glory? Wigan almost took it from us in the Semis, and what followed was arguably the most professional display of penalty taking I’ve seen in a while. From Arsenal. What? My team? Professionally killing another team? On penalties?
Pardon the long winded context, but the final meant the world to me. Somewhere, I kept avoiding telling myself that this was surely it. Surely. Our team wanted it too much. And then 10 or so minutes later we are down 2-0, almost 3-0 (saved thanks to Gibbs). And I’m dumb struck. A friend calls me asking me if I’m watching and I can’t even reply to him. He tells me that there is a long while left. That’s the only good thing about this. I shift my superstitious posture and keep watching numbly from another angle.
Then steps up Santi, and scores a direct free-kick after such a very, very long time. I’ve forgotten the exact time, but the last one was scored at the back end of last season by Poldi I believe. I jumped up and screamed in my room and ran the length of it to the corner and celebrated wildly with my imaginary audience.
Someone tweeted that this was how arsenal were going to break the jinx, with a monumental comeback. I tweeted back to please don’t tempt fate.
Sanogo came on and became a cat amongst the pigeons of the Hull defense. Kos made it 2-2 with 11 minutes or so to go and I was up and screaming again… quieted only by the thought that someone might come barging into the room thinking I was having a heart attack. Or something.
Extra time began and we were in charge, Giroud (I still rate him, despite all of his failings) should have gotten a worthy winner but it banged off the bar, and I began to wonder if this was going to be another flattering to deceive. Second period of ET and Jack and Tom came on. It began to be clear in my head that despite us winning on penalties in the previous round I wasn’t sure we could do it again in the final.
And then… Ramsey! Ramsey glorious Ramsey! And what a back heel to boot! To be honest all I remember in the live moment was the goal and the relief. The look of relief on Ramsey’s face and I too collapsed on my bed. I did not want to jump up, I just wanted to be happy that it could be over soon. Then I saw the replay and the beauty of it. What a winner. Someone tweeted that suddenly the Arsenal team didn’t know what to do if they ACTUALLY won. Hull had a couple of chances but the game ended and it was over.
The sight that made me most happy was the look on Wenger face as he pumped his fist. You could see how much it meant to him. Then he was mobbed like a rock star and the trophy was raised. London Calling, 7 Nation Army played and none of it mattered. What mattered was that we had won. Arsenal had won. Wenger had gotten something.
Someone in the studio asked one of the pundits if this made it a successful season for Arsenal, vs. say, Liverpool. The pundit (I’m forgetting who) replied that he still thought it was a better season for Liverpool. I laughed. HA! We have a trophy.
Do I think this is a successful season for us? YES. For the simple reason that we move forward in a positive direction, just like we did when we signed Ozil and broke the hoodoo of Wenger not spending. Yes, we blew a chance at the Premiership, Yes, we still need 3-4 players in key positions, yes, Wenger still needs to be more flexible tactically; but the narrative has improved. We move forward, on to the summer, on to the new season, on to new signings and a new hope. What do Liverpool get? Zilch. And even though I like Rodgers, and I liked watching them scare everyone I knew in my heart of hearts if they had won, the internet and the press would have crucified Arsenal with the narrative that a small squad coached ‘brilliantly’ and with the right passion can win the EPL. But whether this was a successful season for us or not requires a more in-depth write up.
But for now, WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS! And it feels SO GOOD to be an Arsenal fan!
And oh, Arsenal has not won anything for 10 days. #WengerOut. 😉
Written by Umair Naeem.