It’s the Support, Stupid…
What was different about the FA Cup semis and final? Why were Arsenal able to overcome two of the biggest Money-Down-a-Hole clubs in England: Manchester City and Chelsea? Was it the genius of Arsene Wenger, who now has hoisted the trophy more than any other man in the history of this, the longest running cup competition in all of competitive football?
Maybe… Maybe not…
Was it that Arsenal simply played the better football on the day(s), that the bounces fell our way instead of theirs? Again, maybe, maybe not…
My thought is that, given a level playing field–in this case a neutral site to which the fans chose to make the trip after their team qualified and where expectations were–if not low–at least set aside for the day, any team can win against any other. And Arsenal did just that. Twice.
For those two matches, Arsenal ceased to be a financial venture, a club striving to compete with the best (read “richest”) clubs in England and Europe but doing so without an injection of outside (read “sugar-daddy”) funds. Instead, even if it was just for a couple of sunny days towards the end of the season, Arsenal became just a football team, albeit one with very good players and a tactically savvy manager who knows how to bond his boys together and get the best from them. Give that same group a supportive environment similar to what we witnessed at Wembley and who knows what might happen? Like we did last Saturday, we might go on and get the results we need in those matches and hoist a(nother) trophy as our reward.
So, why can’t Arsenal translate those sorts of results into the longer grind of a Premier League season or a Champions League campaign? Part of the answer is in the 2nd part of the title, but, if you’re daft enough that you cannot remember it, I’ll spell it out once again: it’s the support.
I’m not saying that it’s all about the support. And, most certainly it’s not all about rabid and blind support. Hell, if that were true, Spurs would’ve won the league at some point over the last 50 years, including, perhaps, one of these last two. What I’m suggesting is that–in a game with tiny margins–having true support matters.
It matters because it creates an environment where good things can happen. Supporting your team allows the players the ability to play the game as it comes to them instead of thinking of each touch in the context of the points at stake and the pressures inferred by such a perspective. Each mistake shouldn’t be about the thousand tweets saying “not fit to wear the shirt” or some variation of it. Instead, it should be about the lesson learned and how to improve upon it, with just such encouragement actually coming from the supporters. Each triumph should be enjoyed and built upon, not merely, “Yeah, but it’s only ___” or, “Even a clock is right twice a day.”
That’s the effect a positive, i.e., supportive, environment can have on the players. Then there are the refs. With poor support, there is little or no referee intimidation. Would Anthony Taylor have given that opening goal in the cup final at Stamford Bridge (or at the Emirates, see below)? Would he have seen Victor Moses’ penalty claim as a dive? Perhaps, perhaps not. Let’s not forget his “performance” on that opening day match vs Aston Villa from 2013, played in an environment (the Emirates) that became hostile to our own players as it became apparent that we weren’t going to win it at a stroll–as the (home) support expected.
When the fans bring a negative narrative into the stadium it affects the atmosphere. If the “support” are waving signs suggesting the management of the club is ineffectual, why should the cast of characters (players, refs, opponents) not be encouraged to believe that it’s true? If the fans trickle in, wait for something promising to happen (a goal or three) before they allow themselves to cheer the spectacle; or, if them come ready to hurl nothing but invective, vitriol and boos and are ready to walk out if the team struggles–then what have we got? Once again, at the risk of insulting your intelligence, I’ll tell you. It’s the perfect atmosphere for the other team to play in.
These things happen at all clubs, but it seems worse at Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, perhaps due to his long reign at the helm, his early successes which have led to high expectations and his willingness to take on much of the responsibility for the club’s successes and failures. The fans–whose ticket money, in conjunction with television and sponsorship revenues–do help carry the club and have every right to complain. I’m not arguing that point, I’m just saying that it has its effects. When you pay your money but go to the stadium with low expectations–as surely those who went to Wembley for the City and Chelsea matches must have had–a world of possibilities opens up. Arsenal beat those teams and raised the cup (for the 3rd time in 4 years). If you didn’t enjoy it, maybe because it didn’t suit your Wenger-Out narrative, well, that’s stupid too.
How to be Smart
Enjoy the football–win, lose or draw. There is football being played and it’s being played by some of the world’s best athletes. Celebrate it. Enjoy the great skill on display as well as those moments that don’t quite come off, followed by the professional (and often passionate) determination of the lads to do better the next time the ball comes their way. Watch the match, not just the scoreboard. You might even go so far as to be impressed by the opponent and note players you think might someday be worthy of wearing the red with white sleeves.
Stop getting your opinions from other sources. Just because it’s splashed across the back-pages or written on the internet or coming out of the mouths of pundits–former (usually not very good) players, talk show hosts and other attention mongers of all varieties–doesn’t make it true. I know it’s not always possible to actually watch the matches. Still, you can do what you can to keep your eyes open and judge things for yourself.
Have realistic expectations. In terms of spending–both on transfers and in salaries–Arsenal are the 4th team in English football. That means that both Manchester clubs and Chelsea should finish ahead of us, year over year over year. This past season we finished fifth in the league so we must give some grudging kudos to Spurs and Liverpool for jumping the queue. Manchester United? Well, 100 million pounds of Pogba helped buy them the Europa Cup, even if those games featured Mourinho’s nearly unwatchable football. Kudos to them too, I guess. While we’re at it, let’s give a hand to all the other clubs in English football, who, despite their more modest means, still send teams out and try to win matches. If we could get behind our team, maybe we could make it tougher on them. In the end, the thing you must remember is that sports is a form of entertainment that does not guarantee a happy ending. If you cannot accept that basic fact, then…
Walk away. It’s very easy for me to say these things from behind my keyboard and with my link to the team being my television and computer screens. Who am I to criticize (note the American spelling) when I’ve only seen Arsenal in the stadium a couple of times? Still, if you have a measure of free will–if you’re not just Sheep-le (as we say)–you still have a choice. If you truly don’t like the product being served up, give up that season ticket, stop traveling to those away matches, stop watching on the television or internet (waking up at ungodly hours, as some of us in some parts of the world have to do). Change your life–even if might require some very big changes–for the better. If Arsenal are playing well, maybe you can choose to sneak a peak, if only to confirm that they can (and probably will) let you down.
On the other hand, Wenger doesn’t seem able to walk away, so maybe you shouldn’t either. This could be a very nice thing we’re building here. Together. Victoria, Concordia, Crescit and all that sort of thing…
Support your club–give them at least that little bit you can–and let the chips (sir chips, -perhaps…) fall where they may.
Go on then…