In many respects, Arsenal’s 2-1 hammering of the newly crowned Premier League champions, Chelsea, in the Wembley sunshine last May can now be regarded as the cruellest of false dawns.
The manner of the victory, on a day when four or five goals wouldn’t have flattered the Arsenal, hinted at brighter things ahead. Hinted at the ability of Granit Xhaka to dominate a match, at the terrible things the pace and power of Danny Welbeck could do to a defence, at the Ox’s ability to master new positions.
Ultimately, this FA Cup triumph, Arsenal’s 13th on total and Arsène Wenger’s 7th, hinted that greater glory may lie ahead.
It wasn’t to be. The league season which has followed has, in perhaps slightly hyperbolic fashion, been referred to (by me) as a total shambles, a disaster.
I say “hyperbolic”, because the home form has, as usual, been excellent. Only the two Manchester clubs have left London, N5 with three points in the bag. Balanced against that is the fact that Arsenal have won on the road just three times this season, at Everton, Crystal Palace and, contentiously, Burnley.
This may not exactly be a disaster, but it is certainly not good enough for a football club like Arsenal. Particularly when we have yet to win a solitary point on the road in 2018. Particularly on the back of last year’s run of games which saw us thrashed at Chelsea, Liverpool, West Brom and Crystal Palace in successive away games.
It is this, and the increasing apathy of the home support- who are, let’s remember, watching a team which is very strong in their own surroundings – which has done for Arsène Wenger.
Ivan Gazidis once said that the Arsène was ultimately “accountable to the fans”. I think what we have seen today is the truth of that statement. For the last few years, the fanbase have become progressively more enraged.
I remember first seeing fighting at the Emirates when Arsenal played out a drab 0-0 against Blackburn Rovers in the spring of 2011. On the pitch, it would get much worse that year. I remember more fighting at the Wigan FA Cup semi final, as we teetered on the brink of a humiliating elimination.
Clearly, Arsenal Fan TV have given birth to the rise of (or profited from) the hot take. Perhaps it is they who have charted the bubbling discontent more accurately than any other outlet with their dispatches from the Emirates- and away games. Ultimately though, that anger could only boil away for so long before it dissipated into apathy. The empty seats tell their own story; once they had begun to spread through the stadium like a virus, illustrated by the increasing visibility of the white cannon in the East Stand’s lower tier, the writing had to be on the wall for the boss.
To go back to that Cup Final, I felt then, and do now, that there was a hint in Arsène’s post match interview that all was not well behind the scenes. In fact, I came away from that interview thinking he was toast. Perhaps the manner of our victory persuaded Stan Kroenke, if not the rest of the board, to let him have one more go.
Without the infrastructure now in place at the club, maybe that was the logical thing to do, but Arsenal stand today further away from the league title than they ever have under Arsène’s stewardship. This is not how it was supposed to go.
A friend of mine commented to me recently that the first time he had heard me say “Wenger out” was after a dismal defeat at Newcastle in 2006- a year in which we really suffered on the road. The truth was I just wanted Arsene to sort our problems out and he usually did. Then.
However, over the years, I gradually lost faith that he would. In the back of my mind, every twenty match unbeaten run was tainted with the knowledge that the wheels would soon come off – and usually spectacularly.
To today: The mixture of reaction, of relief, sadness and in some cases genuine heartbreak has been clear to see on social media. Instinctively, I felt a shiver go through my body, then a brief flash of euphoria, then sadness and then, ultimately, relief.
It is with that overriding emotion I write now.
I am genuinely sad that Arsène Wenger, author of two doubles, an unbeaten season and some of the best football I’ve ever seen, as well as the most decorated man in the history of the FA Cup will not be sitting on our bench next season, but it is time for a change.
It has been time for a change for a while now. The fans who had given up on the journey – understandably so as we seemed only to be on a road to nowhere – should now be energised by the prospect of whatever change is to come.
If nothing else, at least the football club now feels properly geared up to make that change. Let’s embrace it.