Arsenal’s record of winning in Europe is far from great, so why do fans get so excited when it always leads to disappointment ponders Paul Williams…
As I write, Arsenal have just been drawn in Group A of this year’s Europa League tournament. We will face PSV, Bodo/Glimt and FC Zurich. After a year away from European competition and the long weeks sans Arsenal of last season, it is – as the song says – good to be back.
I’m not ignoring Arsenal’s brilliant start to the season, by the way. It’s just that, well, life moves pretty fast in football and so there’s little point in me talking to you about how great it’s been if, by the time you read this, we’ve been made miserable by Mitrovic and co. I am sufficiently encouraged by the start we’ve made to this season to be confident about our chances, but as Remo Gaggi says in Casino, “why take the chance?”
So, here I am to ponder on the European adventure we’re about to embark on and my slightly ambivalent feelings towards it.
“Ambivalent, Paul? But why?” I hear you ask.
It’s like this.
We have been in European competition, in some form or other, on an almost constant basis ever since winning the old First Division in 1991.
We missed out (just) in the 1991/92 season, qualifying – fatally as it turned out for George Graham – for the Cup Winner’s Cup the following year and then again as the tournament winners in 1993/94. And then we missed a year, finishing 12th in 1995, before Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt returned us to European competition in the following season. And, aside from last season’s blip, in European competition we have been ever since.
That’s a lot of European football, right? And what do we have to show for it?
One, admittedly epic Cup Winners Cup victory against a hotly fancied Parma team and a whole lot of heartbreak to go with it.
Football is full of what ifs, I guess that’s part of its appeal – the endless rehashing of scenarios – what if Arsenal had gone for the jugular at Stamford Bridge when Marcel Desailly was sent off in the first leg of our Champions League quarter final at Stamford Bridge in 2004?
What if Nicklas Bendtner hadn’t tried to rob a goal from Cesc Fabregas at the Emirates in the first leg of another Champions League quarter final 4 years later? Not only did he stop the ball going in, but he was offside anyway… From the same match, what if the referee had given an obvious penalty area foul on Alex Hleb? In the away leg, the dive from Ryan Babel, nearly 15 years later, still rankles – as, of course, does the fact that the referee brought it.
Of course, the biggest “what ifs” for us will relate to the finals we have competed in since that wonderful night in Copenhagen nearly thirty years ago. It’s a source of some frustration for me that whilst we are undoubtedly a massive football club, our European record is pretty paltry really. Especially given the fact that Arsène Wenger was a genius and had at his disposal some of the game’s greats. You don’t need me to name them for you.
My point is this, whilst we are one of the three great clubs of England (again, you don’t need me to name the other two), two European trophies in 136 years of history is, well, rubbish frankly. It could so easily have been different, our status as a genuine European superpower assured.*
Just in my lifetime, it’s not so hard to imagine a version of that last gasp Nayim effort in 1995 that didn’t render me, my uncle and granddad dumbstruck for half an hour afterwards, that he in fact sliced out for a throw in before David Seaman saved three out of five Zaragoza penalties to take us to more glory.
Or Martin Keown tapping a loose ball home from two yards out in the Parken Stadium in 2000. And of course, the biggest what if of all… Paris 2006. I know I definitely don’t need to go into detail there, I know you don’t want me to, but as we left Highbury and prepared for life at the Emirates, this match represents the biggest sliding doors moment of them all.**
We coulda been contenders Charlie…
So, yeah. I know we’ve had moments of sheer elation in Europe, I’ve even experienced a few of them personally. And obviously, I understand that the biggest players in the game want to be playing on the big stages of Europe, I just feel that for us as Arsenal fans, the dawn of a new campaign is just setting the stage for disappointment somewhere down the line – most likely when we end up drawn against Olympiacos. There’s something about disappointment in Europe that just seems to sting a lot more than losing at home to… oh, I don’t know, Brighton.
Maybe it’s the finality of knowing that is it for another season.
Having missed out on Europe last season, I am more up for it than usual (honestly), a state of mind helped by the fact that a persistent knee injury means I’m more likely to be watching football than playing it on these upcoming Thursday evenings. And yet, I still had to remind myself that FC Zurich were the last team to join our group, despite the fact that at the time of writing, the draw was made less than an hour ago.
Europe, I love you but you’re bringing me down.
*Okay, maybe not assured, but at least we wouldn’t have Aston Villa fans goading us whenever they come to the Emirates
**I realised after writing that paragraph that I’d forgotten another, more recent European final disappointment, but Emery? Chelsea? I just can’t…