I switched off the TV, plopped the remote on the couch, and got up from my seat. It was sometime around three in the morning, and the entire house was dark. However, the utter sense of disbelief and disappointment writ all over my face would have glowed brightly like a beacon in the blackness. The club which I had supported since 2001, whose players I had placed my faith in to put their best performance against a more illustrious opponent, had once again let me down, with a spineless and insipid performance. The abject surrender to Manchester United in the UCL semi-finals last season had rankled me, and made me question my loyalty to a club, which has more often than not flattered to deceive its fans and supporters all over the world in recent years.
The life of an Arsenal fan is never rosy, especially when you consider that Arsene Wenger had delivered quite a lot in the first half of his fourteen-year tenure; every match in the league and the championships unfailingly invokes reactions which invariably see-saw from happiness to gloom, week in and week out. Arsene seems to have made it his personal mission to prove to the world that trophies can be won with kids, disregarding the pain and frustration that the Arsenal faithful have had to endure throughout the last four seasons. However, despite the barren run, I decided the pride that comes with being an Arsenal fan is irreplaceable, and I must say I am indebted to Wenger for making me a huge fan of the best game in the world.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man
I started following football only in 2001; though Manchester United were stellar and Chelsea were playing some fantastic football with Zola in their ranks, the single moment that helped me make my choice was a truly brilliant piece of football by Dennis ‘God’ Bergkamp – one of the most skillful strikers ever to grace the Premier League – in a match against Newcastle Utd, when he ingeniously flicked the ball over the defender, completed a 360-degree turn and calmly placed it past Shay Given. This was followed by some fantastic link up play by Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, which elicited audible gasps from a wide eyed kid and made him enthusiastic about the game, something which even the World Cup failed to accomplish! With a strong defensive line up and a plethora of attacking talent, Arsenal were truly the team to beat at that time. Under Wenger, the finest moments in the club’s history were recorded in the annals of football lore. Therein ended my obsession with cricket, and soon I was glued to the TV for every Arsenal match in that year.
With every passing year, my love for the club grew by leaps and bounds. The unbeaten run in the league, the intense rivalry with Manchester United, the arrival of Chelsea as a threat to the title race under Mourinho, and many other such scripts spiced up the Premier League to giddying heights, and triggered a football epidemic all over the country. Having accomplished a lot in a short time, Wenger had a greater dream in mind -to play the same brand of football with younger players under his tutelage. However, he erred in one aspect of this scheme – selling off Arsenal’s most important players together, rather than ‘phasing’ them out. This would have a telling impact on subsequent seasons.
The stagnation begins
With the departure of Keown, Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Campbell and other older personnel within the same period of time, Wenger played raw and inexperienced, albeit promising, players in their stead, and that too out of their preferred playing positions. These youngsters like Fabregas, Clichy, Adebayor, Hleb and others dazzled the Emirates audience with their belligerent quality, but they lacked the composure and the ability to handle pressure in key matches. There was no experienced footballer to maintain discipline on the field and the mentality of the whole team suffered as a consequence of this lack of foresight.
Wenger has an eye spotting attacking talent, but manning the defense has never been his forte. The unbeaten team in 2003-2004 had a rock solid defense comprising of Sol Campbell, Martin Keown and Ray Parlour, along with Tony Adams to marshal them. These men could intimidate the opponent with their towering presence. Contrast this with their replacements in the next seasons – the defenders were quality, but lacked that killer instinct and the willingness to put their body on the line. Although Kolo remained in the team for six seasons after that, he couldn’t inspire his protégés the way Adams did, and a clean sheet was now considered a luxury for Arsenal! As of now, only Vermaelen shows shades of the no-nonsense defense we sorely lacked in the last few seasons, and hope Wenger signs more of his kind.
The wait continues
After the loss to Manchester Utd and Chelsea at our home turf this season, I was faced with a moment of realization. The current team lacks what it takes to sustain the challenge, as Wenger blindly ignores the glaring deficiencies in the line up and relies on his already overburdened kid players to carry forth the hopes and aspirations of a huge club. All the Arsenal merchandise I had splurged on – the jersey from London which I cherished dearly, the Arsenal banner on my office whiteboard, the keychain, the pair of shorts, the 2010 Arsenal calendar decorating the living room of my house – what use were these if I expect the team not to win anything ‘yet again’ this season? I put forward this doubt to a friend, and she replies ‘Yes. It doesn’t matter if your club doesn’t win anything. Your passion for Arsenal is evident from the amount of merchandise you possess; and it is something you should be proud of. If your faith is repaid, then the sight of these becomes sweeter than ever for you. As the Gooners say, “In Arsene, we trust.” So let’s continue to place our faith in him and give us his due.’
I might have to endure yet another trophy-less season, but it doesn’t change my love for Arsenal. I am cognizant of the fact that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and hope that Arsenal reaches that end sooner than later. One good thing I have managed to instill in myself is to put the game above the club, and to appreciate the success of other teams, even at the cost of my club’s loss. Not only has the Premier League cashed-in on its popularity and redefined business, it has made football the biggest winner above everything. It’s always a good feeling to watch even bitter rivals play fantastic football, but the day Arsenal wins a trophy next will be a red letter day in my ongoing nine years of support for the London club, and perhaps vindicate Wenger’s faith in his own philosophy. Let’s see what ensues in this season and the ones to follow.