There's plenty on the line for Arsenal as they contest an FA Cup Final this Saturday. FFT's Neil Humphreys warns of the perils that come with looking too far ahead.
Islington Council has not endeared itself to Arsenal supporters. The North London municipal meddlers have assumed FA Cup Final victory. The one thing long-suffering Gunners cannot do is assume. To misquote David Brent, to assume is to make an ass of you and Arsene Wenger.
Earlier this week, Islington Council put up a damning sign. It was a literal guidepost to glory, pointing out the road to victory. The sign detailed Arsenal’s victory parade plans and possible street closures. In an overzealous attempt to point out possible roadblocks, those unwitting town planners have erected the most unwanted of psychological obstacles.
As the FA Cup Final against Hull approaches, jittery Gunners will predict nothing. No one is willing to roll the dice or even consider passing ‘go’ to collect the booty. It’s a game of fraught emotions few are eager to play. Three years ago, they succumbed to expectation. They assumed. They anticipated. They believed. And those pesky upstarts from Birmingham collected the $200 when no-one was looking. They pinched the game and disappeared, skipping merrily along Wembley Way before disappearing into the fog of relegation and financial despair.
But the number-crunching desk jockeys at Islington Council are not swayed by such emotional whimsy and superstition. Their sign coldly states: “Arsenal FC will be playing in the FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday 17 May. If they win, a celebratory parade will take place in Islington the following day, Sunday 18 May 2014.”
These are the foolhardy assumptions of bureaucratic fools. To compound matters, the sign is black text on a yellow background. The Arsenal faithful will be wondering why their council didn’t go the whole hog and paint a celebrating tiger in the corner. It’s too obviously tempting fate, like a sprat being dangled above a performing seal. Such naïve expectation is beyond the jaded Gunner. Once bitten, twice shy, nine times over.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Then there are the voices; the incessant, echoing, deafening voices. Monkeys must be removed from backs. They’re all saying it. This FA Cup Final is about getting monkeys off the backs of anyone in an Arsenal jersey or blazer. The Emirates hosts an ongoing battle for the Planet of the Apes. Fans are in loin cloths, pounding the turf, staring up at the man-made behemoth that epitomizes their ambition – their expensive stadium – and shouting: “You really did it! You blew up Highbury! Damn you all to hell.”
(Yes, monkeys are not apes, but this not the time to quibble when such a debilitating simian struggle is taking place.)
They’ve all come forward to stress the vital importance of getting those nine-year-old monkeys off backs. Robert Pires talked about clearing psychological hurdles. Jens Lehman stressed the value of reasserting Arsenal’s global stature. Per Mertesacker refused to countenance Wembley failure. Everyone’s voice is being heard.
Arsenal fans must be on their knees, their ears bleeding from the ‘monkey-off-back’ talk, the thumping bass line of Queen’s Under Pressure stuck on a loop in the darkest recesses of their melting minds. That hope and despair analogy has been overworked, but the Gunners must be the only club that consistently endures both.
They are big, but they are small. They sit at the top-four table, but only on the very edge; like a second cousin at a wedding dinner. They sign one of the world’s brightest talents in Mesut Ozil, but he’s the only one. They flatter against the league’s lightweights, but deceive against the heavyweights. They are the most principled of clubs. They are the most penny-pinching of clubs. They are rich. They are poor. It’s the best of times. It is the worst of times. Arsenal exist in a surreal Dickensian dichotomy.
And in the middle of this maelstrom sits their savior and their Scrooge; the saint or the sinner, depending on whether they won or lost last weekend. As much as this FA Cup Final is about a club and its nervous, cautious supporters, it’s really about one man.
In Wenger's corner
Apart from anyone living around the Humber or White Hart Lane, most appear to be in Wenger’s corner this weekend. Never has one game had the potential to define the future direction of a veteran manager’s career. For some, this is the final hurrah for the last of his species; a shout out for the dinosaur.
There is just a hint of a proud coach being patronized. Wembley may feel like Christmas morning when the kids take on Granddad in the latest PlayStation game and their mother mutters: “Don’t embarrass him. Before you were born, he used to be really good at Super Mario. So go on, let him win this one.”
To thoroughly stretch the analogy, Wenger is still a masterful gamer. He reinvented the genre. But the game has moved on. It’s faster, slicker and involves more buttons than he’s got fingers. Muscle memory allows him to pull off the odd flourish, much to the surprise of the young upstart. But their superior game play usually prevails in the end.
Wenger could leave Arsenal after the FA Cup date, according to former Hull striker Dean Windass (and he would know, of course). Publically, the Arsenal manager has claimed that there are contract formalities to tie up after the final, but the Wembley result must have a bearing.
Lose and he’s lost the plot. He’s a man out of touch if he stays and slightly tainted if he goes. He’s the granddad unable to keep up with the kids. Never mind the town council’s premature optimism. This would be the real sign of the times. All roads lead to retirement.
Win, on the other hand, and he’s a manager resurrected; an astute empire builder on a budget in the more austere era of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations. But if he stays, he faces another dispiriting ride on the money merry-go-round, unable to keep up with the resource-rich roller-coasters of Manchester City and Chelsea. If he goes, he lays a solid foundation for both his successor and the inevitable statue outside the stadium.
Wenger faces critical decisions beyond his team-sheet this weekend.
But this is heading in the direction of an Islington Council street parade planning session. We are getting ahead of ourselves.
Arsenal supporters have got more pressing priorities than Wenger’s stalled contract.
They are not visualizing open-top buses. They still picture open-mouthed Brummies, staring down in disbelief at the League Cup Final celebrations back in 2011.
The burden is almost too much to bear. They’ve got to get the beast off their back. For Arsenal, it’s more than personal. It’s strictly monkey business.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.
'Arsene and Back Monkey Removal' sketch by Michael Alesich. You can find more artwork on his website here.