Friday, 14 February 2014

One life, one love. And it's Arsenal.


It's a number well-known among everyone connected with Arsenal. The players, the fans, the manager - heck, even the backroom staff of Cardiff City are well aware of the significance of this number to Arsenal. Since 21st May 2005, millions around the globe are desperate for the club to break its long-standing nine year trophy drought, waiting to see Arsene Wenger lift silverware since the FA Cup triumph over Manchester United.

We have come close, oh so close. Thierry's miss when we were leading 1-0 at Paris still haunts a few, for Barcelona staged a comeback to ensure heartbreak at the Champions League final. Wenger's insistence to play young blood in the Carling Cup final against Chelsea resulted in Mourinho outsmarting him again, dumping Arsenal to runners-up.

A title challenge going much better than expected was abruptly and humiliatingly shattered, like Eduardo's left ankle. On that day, we lost our confidence and soon lost our lead, finishing third only 4 points adrift of winners Manchester United, despite a heroic comeback against Bolton. One prays that Theo Walcott's injury does not have similar implications on this season's title challenge.

A brave attempt to reach the semi-finals was thwarted by Lionel Messi's brilliance, who scored four at Camp Nou to put an aggregated 3-2 tie beyond our reach. Moreover, Fabregas had ended his season in the first leg and joined a promising talent - Aaron Ramsey - on the injury list. Another opportunity to win the league was wasted; we collected only 6 points from a possible 24 in the run-in, ending our league hopes at the DW Stadium.

Grief followed in the following season as well, where the kids on the pitch inexplicably blew a four goal lead to draw 4-4 at Newcastle. On that day, the immaturity of the squad was ruthlessly exposed, but it was displayed on the big stage when a Koscielny blunder gifted Birmingham the Carling Cup.

An exodus followed. Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy clearly lost faith in Wenger's youth project and headed straight for the exit door. With the manager unwilling to buy quality reinforcements and notice the ever-growing injury list, a severely weakened team got thumped 8-2 at the Theater of Dreams. Fans were convinced that the manager would throw in the towel the following day, but instead five panic purchases and Robin's undoubted brilliance carried the team to third.

On 4th July 2012, van Persie announced his decision to leave Arsenal. What made this transfer all the more painful to stomach was the presence of a third party - Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. With no recognized quality in attack and defence whatsoever, this bereft-of-world-class-players team endured shameful exits to Bradford and Blackburn, slipped to sixth in the table and lost convincingly to Bayern Munich. A 2-1 loss to Tottenham effectively ended our top four hopes as well.

Or so it seemed.

It was almost divine intervention when we went to the Allianz Arena and miraculously snatched a 2-0 victory, scaring Manuel Neuer and restoring a hell of confidence in the process. This rejuvenated Arsenal then amazingly staged another comeback, hilariously overtaking the Spuds once more. After Koscielny's scissor striker sealed CL for us, it was greeted by sighs of relief rather than cries of jubilation. From cruising to the title in 2004, the club has clearly gone backwards, scrapping Champions League on the last day.

And that's a good thing.

Yes, you heard me right. I don't think that going 9 years trophyless has all negative implications on the club. Arsenal are one of the few top clubs that are almost completely devoid of 'plastic supporters', because the fake ones left a long time ago. The rough-weathered journey has shown everyone's true colours. The loyal ones have stayed.

And that's not to say that the past 9 years have been all doom and gloom. No one will ever forget 'The Lasagne' which destroyed a bulk of Tottenham players and paved the way for us to overtake them. Thierry Henry - fitting as it was - scored the final hatrick on our beloved stadium which literally erupted in cheers upon full time. The Spuds had crumbled against WEST HAM, and gave us a secure path into Europe's elite.

However, what surely was the highlight of that season was our Champions League dream run. I remember Thierry reflecting on the Round of 16 draw. Says it all, really:

"I remember the year we got to the final. Everybody laughed when we were drawn against Real Madrid. I remember their officials leaving the draw and saying they were happy they got Arsenal. Then we beat them."

One doesn't only need trophies to make memories. What about that screamer from Cesc Fabregas against AC Milan that helped in a crucial 2-0 win over them? What about the moment when Arshavin scored four at Anfield, or nestled the ball past Valdes in the corner? What about Theo Walcott's amazing run that briefly restored hope and amazement among all?

Even in turbulent seasons, this club has managed to produce some magical moments. 2-0 down to Tottenham Hotspur and the prospect of going 13 points behind them was slowly sinking in. After losses at San Siro and the Stadium of Light vanquished hopes for a trophy, our consolation of fourth place also seemed  in danger.

Then Sagna scored, and the season literally turned on its head. From 2-0 down to 5-2 winners, Arsenal then won NINE on the trot and nab third place at the Hawthorns, at the expense of Chelsea as well. Victories against Liverpool, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Thierry's return and a sensational comeback attempt against Milan were also highlights in a colourful 2011/12, which remains my personal favourite season as an Arsenal supporter.

A new Arsenal was born at the Allianz Arena, where the team somehow found the mettle to beat Bayern of all teams. The team has never looked back since then. Acquiring Mesut Ozil dispelled the discontent among a large Arsenal fanbase. Amazingly, we currently sit one point shy of the top of the table despite a flawed manager, jaded players and half the world against us.

My love for Arsenal will never stop - I just know that. Apart from family and friends, Arsenal has become another constant in my life that will only let go once I die. The fact that I predict a disappointing campaign, yet pointlessly hope for more just indicates how madly obsessed I am with this football club.

It's difficult to explain such a personal relationship with football. I know people find it weird when I celebrate three points which such vigour and a loss with such disappointment. "It's just a game, after all" they reply, having absolutely no clue about the bigger picture.

The most annoying responses I get for being an Arsenal supporter is, "What have they done for you?" I mean, I know that most of them don't have a taste of the football fever, but it doesn't stop me from being absolutely livid with them, even though I don't have a logical response to their question.

That's the thing about football, though. When it comes to Arsenal, logic is hurled right out of the window. I consider myself a logical, practical person, but when an Arsenal game is on, I forget all reason and pin all hopes on three points. I know that it's emotionally harmful to put so much passion into a "football game", but it's a phenomenon I can't quite explain accurately.

For a long time, Arsenal's fanbase has been horribly split. There are people who want Arsene Wenger to stay, and there are those who want him to leave. Most often, the "Wenger Out"ers are made to look like plastic fans, a common misconception. I for one never sugarcoat the fact that I do want change at Arsenal, and my reasons will definitely be mirrored at the end of the campaign.

However, I don't want today to be a day for that argument. I am certain that all fans (whether pro-Arsene or anti-Arsene) all want the club to do better. Nine trophyless seasons have bonded the club's support and made it closer than ever. We are now a club filled with loyal Gooners and loyal Gooners alone.

Why am I writing this? It's 14th February, and I know that every Arsenal supporter - whether single or otherwise - has deep feelings for this club. Being an Arsenal supporter is significantly different than being a Chelsea or a Manchester City one; we are a club with class, not oil. It goes without saying that we need a day to reflect on the transitions our team has gone through, and I believe today is that day.

To conclude, I'd like to show a video that many may have already seen. Needless to say, this precisely reflects the feelings of a lot of people. Enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

Supporting a club without trophies for 9 years? Yeah, we may not be that smart.

But that's what LOVE is.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )