Arsène Wenger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Every sports fan has to learn how to lose. Some more than others. Whether you shrug your shoulders, sulk or kick the cat (and I’m not recommending the latter), you have to accept that no matter who you support, you can’t win ’em all. There can be something rather noble in following a struggling team and backing them no matter what, just to experience the occasional thrill of victory amongst the pummellings. Often, we can overlook a lack of talent as long as they’ve done their best. What’s much harder to swallow is when they don’t even try.
When it comes to football, I’ve always considered myself fortunate to be an Arsenal fan. I’ve seen some of the best players in the world turn out for my team, play fantastic football and win umpteen trophies. They even went an entire league season unbeaten, a feat unheard of in the modern game. Some of my fondest memories have been connected with Arsenal, and it’s been a huge part of my life. However, I now find a lifelong passion ebbing away, something that would have been unthinkable as little as three months ago.
As the media is so keen to remind us whenever possible, it’s been x years since Arsenal last won a trophy (eight at the moment). No-one has a divine right to win trophies, but when you support a club who reputedly charge the highest ticket prices in world football, the least you expect is that they do what’s necessary to have a decent crack at winning the league, which includes identifying areas where your squad is below-strength and bringing in players who can improve it. Since the move to the club’s new stadium in 2006, money has been tight, leading the club to sell its best players and replace them with those of significantly lower quality. Despite this, Arsene Wenger has kept Arsenal qualifying for the Champions League every year, a tremendous achievement given the sale or retirement of one club legend after another. However, simply finishing in fourth place has increasingly seemed the limit of the club’s ambition and led to a real schism in the Arsenal support recently. Many think that the manager has had his time and needs to be removed; others have continued to back him for keeping Arsenal at Europe’s top table on a relative shoestring with the promise of better days ahead, given how he’s revolutionised the club over the last seventeen years.
Being a patient sort, I’ve been largely in the second camp. However, where losing Wenger would once have been unthinkable, my view had come to be that replacing the manager was no longer something to be dreaded. Things have changed, however. At the end of last season, after pipping Spurs to fourth place again, big statements were made by CEO Ivan Gazidis about the club’s renewed financial muscle, thanks to the reduction in debt on the new stadium and some new commercial deals. The cash was finally going to be splashed, with some world class players bolstering the squad to fuel a serious tilt at the title, something by no means unrealistic given that Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs had all changed manager.
With the minimum requirements being a goalkeeper, centre half, holding midfielder and striker, Arsenal fans waited nervously throughout the summer for news of reinforcements. For the last few years, transfer windows had been something of a wasteland, but it had to be different this time. A deal for Gonzalo Higuain looked on the cards but fell through and then, to my utter disgust, it was revealed that a bid had been made to Liverpool for Luis Suarez. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that there haven’t been some unpleasant people to have turned out for the club in its history, but to court someone known for diving, racially abusing an opponent and biting two others made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t possibly support Suarez in an Arsenal shirt, and nor could I support a manager who would think that signing him was a good idea. Many Arsenal fans would be happy to take him for his undeniable talent, but even from a business point of view, it makes no sense to me at all. You could write the script now: the dives, the non-awarded penalties, the suspensions and finally walking out when another club more to his liking comes to call. Liverpool have shown a ridiculous degree of loyalty to him and he’s thrown it right back in their faces, which says everything about the character of the man. The now-famous £40,000,001 bid was, funnily enough, designed to just trigger a release clause. What a coincidence. Anyone would think that Suarez’s agent had tipped Arsenal off. As that release clause has now been found to be non-existent, perhaps Suarez would be better advised to find someone else to pocket his ten per-cent.
Ironically, then, when I’ve been aching for the club to spend big, the main source of my anger has been their intention to smash their transfer record. With that seemingly haven fallen through (although possibly not for good), where were the other desperately-needed signings, who even the current players have been begging for? Despite removing a raft of dead wood from the books, Arsenal’s sole signing of the summer is Yaya Sanogo, an injury-prone midfielder from the French Second Division, arriving on a free transfer. The fact that the transfer window remains open until September 2nd is an irrelevance: new signings should have been bedded in long before the start of the season, ready to play from day one. The fact that this hasn’t happened, yet again, amounts to a dereliction of duty by Arsene Wenger, in which the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke and the septuagenarian board are complicit. Like many others, I’ve come to the conclusion that Wenger is no longer the right man for the job and should go as soon as possible. However, Arsenal are nothing more than an investment for Kroenke, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, he’ll no doubt be keen to keep the status quo. Trophies are incidental. Whether Wenger walks away at the end of the season once his current contract expires is another matter, but the Arsenal Supporters Trust were absolutely right to state that the offer of a new contract would not be appropriate at present.
When I first started this blog, it was to communicate my love of sport and the positive feelings it engenders. It was absolutely not to use it as a platform to sound like a grumpy old man or be controversial. Therefore, it pains me greatly to write a piece so negative towards Arsene Wenger, possibly the greatest manager the club has ever had. He’s been responsible for giving me some of my happiest days, but on his watch, I now find my enthusiasm for Arsenal and therefore football in general at an all-time low. Having already stumped up my club membership fee in May, I would normally have been eagerly poring over the fixtures and deciding which games to buy tickets for. The idea of not watching or listening to every game was unthinkable, yet I’ve completely avoided the first two games of the season because I just can’t bring myself to care anymore. The opening day defeat to Aston Villa left me indifferent, whereas before, I would have been gutted, angry or both. Likewise, looking up tonight’s score to see that a 3-0 win has been achieved over Fenerbahce left me equally cold. Is this what it feels like to get divorced? How long my self-imposed exile from the game lasts, I can’t say. Maybe I won’t miss it at all, but if my passion is ever rekindled then I doubt that Arsene Wenger will still be in charge. That’s probably the saddest thing of all.