“I’ll tell you where it all went wrong for Arsene Wenger,” said a friend after the first leg of the Champions’ League quarter-final against Liverpool, a game that Arsenal were unlucky not to win. “That two-all draw against Bolton, when we threw away a two-goal lead.” Like many Arsenal fans, I remember the game well – it was a decisive moment in the race for the Premier League, and those two dropped points meant that Arsenal would not win the title…in 2003. According to my friend, we have been on a sad, slow but steady decline ever since.
“What about 2004? When we won the League without losing a match? You don’t think he temporarily stopped the rot that year?”
“That was a disappointing season,” he said. (My italics.) “We should have won the Champions’ League, and he chucked the FA Cup away.”
This is the mindset of a certain kind of football fan. Becoming champions of your country in an unbeaten season is no use if there aren’t a couple of cups to go with it; and the championship is not an end in itself, but only a stepping-stone that allows you to climb towards more championships and cups. This is the mindset, in other words, of a fan who will be disappointed every year. If he were a Manchester United fan, he might have allowed himself a brief smile at the end of the treble-winning ’99 season; but other than that, it’s hard to imagine where the joy of following a team might come from.
All Arsenal fans are disappointed this week. A season that had begun to promise so much has ended in calamity and despair. If I were Arsene Wenger, though, I would console myself with the thought that, had Arsenal held on for five minutes at Anfield on Tuesday night, seen off Chelsea in the semi-finals, and trounced Manchester United or Barcelona in the final in Moscow, some fan somewhere would still be complaining about his failure to shore up the defence in the 2003 run-in. In other words – what’s the point of winning anything, ever? Unless, of course, you’re going to win every game, for all eternity.