And so months of endless navel gazing and pontificating begins.
If, like me, you’re a fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones and thought the much anticipated “Long Night” foreshadowed in the show ended up being something entirely anti-climatic, I can promise you as an Arsenal fan that this summer is going to be the complete opposite. It’s going to be a long, long summer, and one that will do little to assuage the concerns we all have as fans of this club. I always hated seeing us lose a game going into an international break as the two week wait to see us right some wrongs always felt like an eternity, so the idea of that feeling sitting with me for months is one that is particularly daunting.
For this reason I felt like writing this blog; a stream of consciousness at a time where the despair that all football fans feel from time-to-time feels uncomfortably warranted. Losing cup finals is never fun, and to win them consistently you’re going to have to experience falling to defeat on some occasions. However, Arsenal’s opportunity to win the Europa League tonight was more than just a chance to add some rare European silverware to the club’s trophy cabinet, but was rather a last gasp chance for redemption after a season where this side has performed the roles of both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with distressing aplomb. I don’t buy the idea that we’ve been shit all season, somehow fluking our way to a cup final and a point off of 4th place, but the collapse at the business end of the campaign has been the footballing equivalent of watching a car crash in slow motion, and the ramifications for that collapse don’t really bear thinking about.
In truth, Arsenal do not deserve to be playing Champions League football in the 2019/20 season. Despite ample opportunity to secure a place in Europe’s top tier in the final weeks of the Premier League campaign, the team managed to find new and inspiring ways to stumble over the season’s final hurdles in a manner that even the most grizzled, pessimistic of fans would have been surprised by. After the mockery Arsene Wenger endured for *only* finishing in the top four each season, we as fans now face a new reality of Arsenal’s position in the footballing world, something which Tottenham’s unlikely but undoubtedly admirable run to the Champions League final has shed a harsh spotlight on. This is a Europa League-level squad playing Europa League-level football, and after two seasons plying our trade in this competition, I see no reasonable argument as to why we deserve to be anywhere else.
So, where do we go from here? If anyone was in any doubt that Wenger was the biggest problem at Arsenal leading up to his departure little over a year ago, this season has surely cast those doubts aside. That is not to say that it was wrong to have him leave the club, but undoubtedly there are deeper-rooted, systematic problems at the club that stem from the top. Stan Kroenke, for all his mundane spiel about wanting to win trophies and see Arsenal compete with the world’s best, was not even in attendance at tonight’s game. Sadly though, the “Silent Stan” moniker does not accurately represent the influence this man has – he may be nowhere to be seen, but his mere existence as the club’s owner has a chokehold on the aspirations of this great football club; it all but condemns Arsenal to a continuing decline for the foreseeable future. We are firmly in the midst of our Hicks & Gillett era, but unlike Liverpool – who’s impressive progress casts a shadow on our own failures just as Spurs’ does – there is no likely timeline in which it does not continue for many more years yet, perhaps even decades.
It’s a bleak proposition, but Stan Kroenke’s ownership is the single greatest hurdle the entire football club beneath him faces in the way of serious improvement and brighter fortunes. There is little money to improve an average squad, with the lack of Champions League football and shambolic management at the top level stifling our financial power in the market. We can split hairs over whether Unai Emery, Mesut Ozil or half the first-team squad are good enough, but ultimately without the ability or resources to attract better players, nothing can can likely be done this summer to drastically improve our fortunes in the
wars seasons to come. There needs to be a serious change in how we approach our long-term growth as a team, as a club, and it will likely be in spite of the ownership rather than as a result of it. For now, Arsenal cannot reasonably expect to be playing Champions League football anytime soon. Is this an overly pessimistic take? Perhaps, but with the squads, coaches and competent management the sides above us have, as well as the financial might of Manchester United behind us, I cannot envisage a timeline in which Arsenal returns to Europe’s premier competition that isn’t laced with bias and fantasy.
It’s a difficult concept to accept, and for some, it’s likely unbearable. But it’s where we are right now and it’s something as fans we will have to live with. We hold little influence and when an absentee, billionaire owner is holding your club hostage, there’s nothing we can do to change those circumstances. All we can do is continue to support our team and remember, on a fundamental level, that football is intended to be an addition to our lives that brings joy and a sense of community. The sheer ecstasy of seeing eleven men running around a pitch, wearing the colours of the team you’ve chosen to support, winning a game of football would mean nothing were it not for the guttural, heartbreaking feeling that comes with losing one – and that’s what we’re all feeling tonight.
For all the doom and gloom contained in this prose, I’ll end with a pertinent quote from the non-flying Dutchman, who is cast in bronze outside the Emirates:
Remember this. Remember why you support Arsenal; why you go to games home or away, or why you might get up at an ungodly hour to watch some blokes kick a ball around for 90 minutes every weekend. Why you allow the fortunes of these men to dictate how you feel all week. I am not saying we as a fanbase are spoiled, or that we as a collective believes trophies are all that matter. Progress matters; feeling like we’re moving in the right direction matters. I know as much. Remember though, like a long-standing marriage you may doubt your part in from time to time, you’re it in for the long haul and agreed to take the rough with the smooth. We as fans have little choice.
And remember most that for as much as it will hurt, as worried or as desperate as you might feel, the Long Summer will end and that never-ending cycle we live through 9 months of every year always begins with that feeling of hope. Hope that things will improve, that greatness will befall our club once more. The one thing I can promise amongst all this doubt and hand-wringing is that Arsenal will have their day again – it might not be tomorrow, or next season, but they will. Just try and enjoy football for what it is in the meantime.
See you all in August.