By Matthew Wade
England international performances should remind us how lucky we are.
While enjoying basking in the last flickering embers of the simultaneously roaring and comforting log fire that was the FA Cup Final, I made the mistake of tuning in to ITV’s coverage of Republic of Ireland against England on Sunday.
The inner warmth of our recent date with Wembley destiny, stoked once more by the quality of Barcelona versus Juventus in Berlin, was replaced with the footballing equivalent of a damp tea-towel.
While one could entirely understand a lack of intensity and urgency in an essentially meaningless friendly after most players have had a week on a beach somewhere, it was the lack of technique, imagination, attacking intent and bravery that was so draining to watch. And that was even without the added misery that is Andy Townsend’s co-commentary.
The gulf between Arsenal’s Wembley technical masterclass or the excellent Champion’s League final and the dross served up in Dublin was a yawning chasm. Having purred at the instant control and delicate touches of Ozil and Cazorla, the determination and courage of Sanchez and the dynamic running of Ramsey, Bellerin, Walcott et al, it felt almost tragi-comic seeing Jack Wilshere trying to play similar combinations with Henderson and Milner.
In the absence of anything remotely stirring or stimulating on the pitch on Sunday, my mind drifted off…“Imagine if we had to watch this every week…what would the reaction be?”
There is a term scientists use to describe the situation many Arsenal fans, particularly the younger generation (who don’t remember the likes of Eddie McGoldrick and Jimmy Carter), are in. It is ‘Hedonistic Habituation‘.
Essentially, it refers to the fact that humans are incredibly good at adapting to their situation so that it becomes normalised. This can be very useful when it comes to survival, dealing with circumstantial changes beyond our control and recovering from trauma. The danger lies when all basic needs are taken care of and one becomes part of the consumerist society that most people reading this will belong too.
Relative affluence gives us the opportunity to obtain and consume things we don’t actually need. This capacity, combined with the endless bombardment of advertising and other forms of aspiration manipulation, means that we as individuals buy things or chase different experiences because we believe that they will make us happy in some way. However, due to our brains’ extraordinary capacity to adjust to the realities of our day to day lives, most people report relatively constant states of happiness on a day to day basis. The net result of this is that the big shiny exciting thing we buy or experience loses its lustre quickly as most of the pleasure we gain is derived from its ‘newness’.
Imagine you get a raise at work. Obviously this is great and makes more things possible. For a while you are really chuffed. Maybe you can even afford to live in a bigger flat or buy a new car. But after a while, the new wage, the new flat, and the new car all become just normal parts of your day to day life, and essentially if nothing else changes, a year later you don’t actually feel any happier than you did before. Unless your new wage dramatically changes your circumstances and quality of life, essentially you just get used to your new situation and it becomes normal.
This is backed up by all kinds of research, which basically confirms that barring life-changing events (and sometimes even then), most positive experiences only lead to brief spikes of happiness before the person reverts back to their ‘normal’ level of contentment (which obviously varies for the individual). We consume, we get used to things and then we want more. I suppose one could equate it to escalating use of narcotics.
So why am I rambling on about this?
Well, essentially, regardless of variable results, we’ve got it good as Arsenal fans.
The club, for so long derided as ‘boring boring’, is now regularly lauded by a broad range of second rate pundits for consistently ‘playing the best football in the Premier League’. Our club has now become one that is attractive to both players and supporters around the globe because of the style of football we attempt to play and the spirit in which we play it.
And yet, when the team isn’t providing the holy grail combination of endorphin hit, ego boost and bragging rights that come with the collective acquisition of silverware, many fans have over the last few years championed a return to a more old school, pragmatic approach. Others have been quick to get on the back of the team suggesting a lack of effort or talent, when perhaps what has been lacking has been balance and confidence. Arsenal fans have excelled at bitching and moaning on the internet over the last decade, while the supporters of all but about 20 teams across the world see us as spoilt with a false sense of entitlement.
However, it is understandable
After the wondrously exciting and effective football telepathy exhibited by the Arsenal teams 2001-2005, almost every other iteration of the first team squad has seemed underwhelming. We had the perfect cocktail of skill, toughness, bravery, arrogance and panache for long enough that it became almost normal. Even though most of us were aware that that Arsenal side was truly special and the best we had seen in our lifetimes, we became accustomed to it. We allowed ourselves to create false expectations, the fulfillment of which was almost impossible, as the football landscape changed at the same time as the club found itself with one hand tied behind its back financially.
But that is only part of the issue. The other major element is that even when our players have lacked the collective skill, strength or mental fortitude to challenge the best, the football has remained progressive and ambitious in style. Every season since Wengerball arrived, there have been wonderful team goals, players in demand from the world’s biggest clubs and a regular collective desire to take the game to the opponents. Most Arsenal fans don’t talk about the club playing ‘good football’ unless as a sort of tribal badge of pride when arguing with those from enemy camps. Because it’s taken for granted. Because it’s assumed. Because we’ve become so used to it, it takes something really special and out of the ordinary for us to remember to take note.
It’s worth older readers (and writers *ahem*) pausing to remember that no Arsenal fan under the age of 21 could physically have a recollection of watching the team before the Wenger era. As for the rest of us, if science can largely prove that the extra happiness gained from increased wealth wears off within a relatively short amount of time, it’s probably fair to say that the greater pleasure derived from watching a team play ‘the Arsenal way’ (probably trademarked) may have normalised somewhat over the last 19 years.
That said, it’s not as if Arsenal teams never played exciting, technical football before. Even within my North Bank memories, the 1990-91 title winning team of the much derided George Graham (and to be fair the less successful 1991-92 side) played wonderful attacking football much of the time, and the dramatic underdog heroes of 1989 had their moments. Certainly it would have been interesting to have seen Wenger get his hands on the likes of Limpar, Thomas, Rocastle, Merson, Smith, Wright etc at the peak of the powers, seeing how well he liberated the footballing qualities of the famous old defence. Even Bruce Rioch who kept the seat warm for Wenger, brought back some attacking intent following the barely watchable last days of Gorgeous George’s team in the mid 90s.
Of course, this sense of expecting high quality attacking, technical football as a minimum is not a purely Arsenal phenomenon. The combination of high ticket prices and wall to wall football coverage of the world’s best players and teams have massively altered expectations. When it cost four pounds to stand at Highbury, when the pitches were often awful and the only time you got to see world stars was during world cup coverage, the expectations of myself and those I knew were a lot lower. When it costs £50 to get a ticket, and you can watch Lionel Messi and Ronaldo on the TV every week, you come to want a minimum level. Especially when you got used to seeing Dennis, Thierry, Bobby and Paddy every week for years.
I’m not making a great clarion call for change, or harking back, misty eyed, to a simpler, happier time. Quite the opposite. Football right now is brilliant, despite the best efforts of FIFA, and although I miss the prices, the connection with the players and the availability of Bovril of days gone by, I’m largely happy with the way things are. We have a global game, and as Gooners we get to support an international multicultural team in one of the world’s top three global cities, with players of extraordinary athletic and technical quality.
I’m just saying we should remember to take time to appreciate it and remind ourselves that our club and our team is special. In the late 1920’s and 1930’s, this club cemented its positional globally as THE Arsenal. Right now, even though we can’t quite guarantee a seat at the very top table in Europe, the Wenger years (with a little help from those who preceded him) have helped our fine old club regain some of that definite article.
We’ve just won the FA Cup for a record 12th time playing wonderfully on the big stage. In a world where we are now always instantly looking for the next thing, let’s slow things down, bask in that warm glow a little longer, and enjoy the beautiful football that The Arsenal, our Arsenal, play.
After all, we could just be stuck watching England…
Why not bask in that cup final glow again?
A reminder of some of the other high points of this season:
And some of the last 19 years:
And lastly, though not the finest football, a nice reminder of the final day of the season in 1991 (I’m there at the front on the video somewhere!):