Pinch yourself – yes it is Monreal

Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City

Imagine my surprise when Arsenal’s mojo – which I had prayed for in hope rather than in expectation before the match – emerged in the second half beneath Wembley’s arch.

There it was in full view in the shape of Chambo (the wing-back, do keep up) getting past his man time and again before crossing on a platter for Monreal (the other wing-back, scuttling forward) to lash home a volley with his right foot.

Or in the shape of Gabriel, all teeth and spring-loaded quiff, who had what must be his best game for Arsenal yet. Whodathunkit! Formerly possessing two left feet, he had a magnificent game.

And Rob Holding, just 20 and a Wembley first-timer, who’s waited patiently for most of the season for misfortune (Mustafi injury) and circumstance (back three experimentation) to combine in his favour. He took his chance again.

I pick these four out because they weren’t perhaps the players you’d expect to emerge from the shadows, and it’s not to gloss over some other fine performances. Because overall it was a game of real commitment and energy from Arsenal; manna from heaven in a season of strangely subdued predictability. Boy did we need it.

There was an element of luck involved, I won’t deny it. Both sides could have had a penalty, City hit the post twice and had a goal ruled out unfairly (easy to say in slow motion). The defending for their goal was iffy on several levels, but Arsenal kept battling and the more they did so the more fun it got. With a bit more ruthlessness, we could have had more. So yes, it was cathartic. Best of all, something clicked.

And counter to my expectations, here we are again in the FA Cup final – our 20th, and Wenger’s 8th. If someone ever tells you it’s not relevant or big enough, they’re lying. It never gets boring.

Yes, it’s only one game and we’re all too skittish and wizened to see it as anything else, but what a time to show the fight and nous needed. All the other stuff, we can put back in the box – for now – and just enjoy it. Because that is, after all, what it’s meant to be all about.

We’re in the cup final. Get in!

What do we want? Mojo. When do we want it? Now.

wingatefinchley
 

Yesterday I took my kids to non-league football for the first time, for a play-off hopefuls clash between my local team Wingate and Finchley, and the hipsters’ choice Dulwich Hamlet.

To say that it’s everything that Premier League football isn’t is to state the bleeding obvious. I’m not naive enough to think that there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the non-league rainbow, because standing with a few dozen others on a wet winter’s night would test the patience of many. But on a sunny spring day with a large travelling following (several hundred – the visitors swelled what is normally a home crowd of about 100 to a whopping 440), I can see the attraction. There’s a community spirit and a sense of relaxed enjoyment that is often entirely absent from football at the top level. For me and my two boys it was the sum total of £12 to get in.

The gulf between the players and the fans is about – well, about 6 yards. And despite a convincing 3-0 win for the Hamlet, both sides made the play-offs – Wingate and Finchley’s best season in their history. Hats off to both sides.

Now, this non-league eulogy wasn’t intended as a pointed barb at the Arsenal, though it did give me a pleasant contrast. But the sense of fun and excitement has withered somewhat in recent years for many – in particular this season for me – and how nice would it be to reconnect a bit?

Starting today, naturally. What better chance do we have than an FA Cup semi-final to make something of a hugely disappointing season? We might not be favourites, and rightly so, but it’s hardly a giant cognitive leap to see us getting something here, is it? Or is it?

Taking the game to City is not like climbing the Matterhorn: we drew 2-2 at home (perhaps fortunately) and lost narrowly away despite a poor performance.

To go from current form (average at best) to our true potential (home against Chelsea) won’t happen in one leap, and it might not happen at all, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask for a game of increased tempo at the very least – like yesterday’s semi-final. If we freeze in the headlights again and go through the motions in terms of application, we can forget it. I know it’s boring to have to even ask for basics like that, but that’s where we’re at.

Now, it’s all very well of me to take to the blog with a note of mild optimism, or to issue a flimsy call to arms, when I couldn’t even be bothered to go to the game myself. But that sort of encapsulates my current mindset: I want to believe, and I want to reconnect, but if the sparks aren’t there it’s hard.

Show me the sparks, Arsenal – and we can take it from there.

Come on you rip roarers!

The impossible announcement

Watching that clip of Arsenal players being abused by our own fans at Selhurst Park is really tough viewing – another low in a season that’s magicking lows out of nowhere.

It’s not pretty. But in the absence of any other way to air their grievances, with the board largely silent and Wenger not prepared to talk about his future, I understood why the fans did it. Had I been there, I may well have been caught up in the emotion of the moment too.

That being said, I’m not a banner holder or a marcher or a Wenger Out chanter by nature. My own protest – such as it is – has taken the form of burgeoning apathy.

How? Well, despite being a season ticket holder, I’ve been only twice since 12th December. A load of us got our £55 back on the exchange and went out for a curry instead of bothering with the Champions League return leg. I’ve stopped blogging (not, to be fair, entirely attributable to the current swirling eddies of misery, but partly – after all, what else is there to say?) Out of the eight of us who registered for the cup semi-final, only two ended up applying.

Like the players, I’ve given up a bit – and even allowing for Twitter and the web being an echo chamber, I know I’m not alone.

Maybe that makes me a plastic fan. If you level that at me, fine. But if my mood is reflected widely, then the club has a big problem on its hands.

Because if they’ve lost the fans, nothing they do round the edges of the problem will make the slightest bit of difference. It’s not tenable.

They’re aware of this, of course, which is why Wenger’s future is a such a taboo subject in the corridors of power.

In my mind I’ve been through Wenger’s strange deflection of the subject, and the general silence from the board, dozens of times. To me, if he was planning to leave all along, the silence doesn’t make any sense at all. He’d have announced it by now and basked in the long valediction.

So the new deal was always going to happen, irrespective of how the season panned out – it was to all intents and purposes a fait accompli. But the reason they won’t talk about it now is because they can’t. Imagine the response.

We have a manager who wants to stay and a board who want him to stay too, and they’re desperate for a break in the clouds so they can hang out the washing.

But as I said in my last post, ‘sometimes these decisions take on a life of their own’, and I think that’s what’s been happening. There is no break in the clouds – it’s lashing it down. The team’s descent to mediocrity and the fans’ mood have made this the impossible announcement.

It’s astonishing and bonkers, but it could still go either way.

However, for their preferred outcome (Wenger staying), they’ll need a volte face in supporter confidence that they can’t easily engineer, and currently looks like utter pie in the sky. There’s too much water under the bridge and I don’t see most people being assuaged by a few recuperative wins. Put simply, it’s broken.

So we’re in limbo.

What a mess.