06 June 2018

AFC-S Mithering – or – Football’s Mr. Sorrow

There's no good reason why a team like Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, 1996 to 2004, should exist. There's nothing inevitable about it. Much of football is an expanse of earnest attempts at creating a beneficent order, leaving behind a trail of small individual moments of triumph or beauty each of which could, nonetheless, have been a happy accident, a rogue episode, a cloud that momentarily looks like Australia. Maybe even something you could have done. You could, of course, happily mark your time by such moments — at the very least, they show that something is happening out there.

But when some of those points of light are threaded together; and, deeper still, when more follow, and the threads begin to connect, and the connections proliferate ... I don't just mean winning, or even winning frequently (how mundane — there's always a winner), but a team that seems to be operating with a higher intelligence — nothing mystical or transcendent or other such shite, but something very human. They create something new and unforeseen with the same materials available to everyone else. They don't defy the laws of the universe or the mind: they know those laws, their convolutions and nooks; they know how to work them. They know the hardness of reality. You can't transcend it, only ride its contours — and perhaps in so doing bring a fresh eye to them.

The "beautiful game" can be an abstraction if you forget that even the bowling greens of the Premier League leave muck between the players' studs. It's always a balance between sun and shadow, fun and serious purpose, play and fight. (And the cascade of red cards that fell upon Arsenal in the early Wenger years shows they certainly used to fight. Or did they just lash out?) It's power and grace, sleekness and blunt force hinting at violence...

Maybe it's not even really a balance. There seems to be a sweet spot where apparently opposing notions like teamwork and individualism are no longer in inverse proportion — where they don't conflict, but enhance and transform one another. Reach that state and a team can become so entirely fit for purpose that they give you the illusion (it's all illusion) that football has at last been solved.

That's beauty beyond prettiness. Most of football's primary pleasures are small and subtle: a well-controlled ball, a nice floodlight pylon, the opposition goalkeeper slicing a clearance out of play. It's mad, but it's not that mad. It's nice to have something bigger in reserve, though.

And for it to happen to your team, i.e. the side of all that's holy and righteous … I was already an Arsenal fan before Wenger became their manager. I was hardly "long-suffering": I was far too young for that; and besides, I came to Gooner consciousness during the George Graham era, which brought titles a-plenty, as well as a style of play that would make many a more recent convert puke. (When it worked, it was fabulous, by the way.) Nor, evidently, can I claim to be one of those converts, seduced by the beauty, drawn ever deeper by the refined pleasure of a Wenger team. I just got lucky. Jammier than the M50. Right place, right time.

If, as Roger Angell says, baseball is about belonging (Angell seems to have belonged to about four different teams, and fair play to him), so is football. And better that the good stuff belongs to you than to them.


The trouble with sport is that it's a never-ending story. Rare is the conclusion that is not provisional. No matter what you've done lately, there'll always come along a new table full of zeroes that somehow has to be shaped. To the defeated, "there's always next year" is a consolation; to the victorious, it's both a seduction and a threat. Next year gives you the chance to parlay your achievements into something more, and to deepen your exploration of the game's unknown possibilities. More than that — it demands it. It also, of course, gives you a chance to lose it. Whatever comes to pass, it's impossible to preserve the present glorious moment just as it is and leave the future well alone. Or the past.

The memory of those early Wenger teams was too vivid. Even as the constant forward movement congealed into the Islington Shuffle and thence into something even less self-assured, there were frequent manoeuvres and performances that rhymed with those from what increasingly became the old days. Even as good form failed to turn into a title challenge, or a title challenge was halted by the inexplicable refusal of a fence, there'd always be a reminder that the old spirit was still there — even if it rested solely in the person of Arsène Wenger, who seemed to be less and less able to get it to connect with the players in his charge, or with the changed realities of the game, or with the expectations of five-star football on a four-star budget, or with what tethers idealism to the ground.

(It’s by some pretty warped standards that losing to Bayern and finishing fourth could be seen as abject failure, but losing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to bayern and finishing fourht losingto bayern and finishing fourth losing to Bayern and finishing ourth losing to bayern anf finishing fourth lsing to Bayrn and finishing fourth losingin to Bayern and finishing fourth lsoing to Bayern and finihsing ofurth losinginto Bayern and finishing fourth losing to bayern and finishing fourth losinginto Bauern and finsihing fourth losing to Bayern anad finsihing fourth osing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to Byern and finishiing fourth is at least a tester, like being a weatherman in Punxsutawney.)

The hope prompted by that spirit, its myriad little inflations and deflations, was a gambler's hope. It became wearing, exasperating, ever more difficult to sustain. I don't know whether Wenger should have gone after the 2017 FA Cup final; I don't know how much of a difference another year in twenty-two really makes. That game was a stunning recapitulation of the Wenger way. In 2017, it was also a reminder of the bits in between the rhymes, and thus of the W. w.'s waywardness. It was proof of the faith, and of its opposite.

There was no real shock of finality at the announcement of Wenger's more-or-less forced exit: the end of his tenure was a slow dissolution, not a point in time. More final was the send-off at his last home game, which could have been called "Fuck Off & Thanks for Everything" but for Wenger's graciousness making it less weird for (almost) all concerned. But it hit home the hardest once the whistle blew to end the second leg of the Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid. Arsenal were not the pre-tie favourites — but on paper, and then on grass, it was winnable, and they lost. The thing slipped through their fingers one final time. And that was that. What would a Europa title have been worth anyway...? Too late to answer. Time's up. Here comes Just Another Manager, to be followed, no doubt, by Yet Another Manager.

The long-time Wenger-Outs – hard-line, hard-headed, possibly hard-hearted — were probably right, or at least accurate. Me? Like someone said after another doomed, damned escapade, I'm a little bit stupid regarding this type of thing.

"It's very unusual," says Amy Lawrence in the documentary 89, talking about Graham's Arsenal's title-clinching win in The Anfield Game,
when you're experiencing something in the present, that's happening to you now, and you know that it's going to be something you'll cherish for the rest of your life.
The corollary thought is: it may never be this good again. Into that moment which seems, magically, to be a frozen present tense, is fed the past, with all its hopes and disappointments, and the future, which won't be as good as this. There it is, right there: that strange figure in the background staring at the camera, who you only noticed the hundredth time you looked at the picture. Things fall apart; it's as true as the ecstasy. Everything a team does after they assert what greatness they have to assert is an attempt to hunt that thought down, capture it, and subdue it. Alex Ferguson's Manchester United chased the thought relentlessly and ruthlessly, plucking its wings off with savage glee. Arsenal did not, or could not, do that, so it constantly buzzed around them: occasionally swatted, never squashed. They became its emblem.


Webbie - FootieAndMusic 8/6/18 10:51 PM  

If only...
I thought I had, an imagination that if Arsenal had got to the Europa League final and then lost there. What a wrestling-type exit that would have made. To bow out defeated but still with head held high. I was hoping for an Undertaker retirement, but instead all we got was a T.S. Eliot one.

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