A team of cosseted, direction less players – some ‘stars’, some younger – travel north to an away League Cup game, a quarter-final. It is seven years since the club last won a trophy, the FA Cup – the year after which the team had lost a major European final to a Spanish team, and then had broken up. If the team can win this quarter-final, the way looks clear to finally capture a trophy after the lean years – many of the team’s major rivals are already out of the competition. On a cold winter night, somewhere North of Watford, the team are beaten, play badly, and suffer the insults of the fans.
In the aftermath, the board go behind the manager’s back to seek a replacement. The manager is a man who has been synonymous with Arsenal for decades, one of the greatest coaches in the club’s history, the mastermind of a momentous League and FA Cup Double. After he discovers the board’s machinations, the manager resigns. In the summer, the board appoint a disciplinary Glaswegian (albeit not their first choice) with a mandate to rejuvenate team and club. The manager sweeps out the old stars, puts faith in a generation of young players, which include an iconic English future captain. At the end of the first year, the remnants of the old guard, some new additions and the young generation win the League Cup, and follow it up 2 years later by winning the league, against the odds.
I am talking, of course, about 1986. The team was Don Howe’s, full of ageing and under-performing stars like Paul Mariner and Tony Woodcock, Steve Williams and Charlie Nicholas (who would both be there for the 1987 League Cup win, but were dumped thereafter). They played the quarter-final at Aston Villa, who would themselves fail to go on to win the trophy (it was won that year by Jim Smith’s Oxford United). In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby relates that night as a kind of nadir, after which the years of frustration and inertia in the early and mid-1980s, after the FA Cup-winning side had been broken up (with Frank Stapleton going to Man United, Liam Brady to a European giant), came to a head. Hornby relates a kind of self-mutilating refusal on the part of the fans that season – in one match, the crowd had even ‘switched sides’ and started cheering the opposition. The team of fading stars were, according to Hornby, never good enough to win anything, but never bad enough to be relegated (or even be in relegation trouble), and the sense of frustration made him want to scream.
I would guess that most Arsenal fans in 2012 feel the same way. The parallels are unnerving, though you’d need to replace ‘relegation’ with ‘failing to qualify for the Champions League’. I started writing the Arsenal blog years ago because I wanted to lay my long involvement with the club to rest, or to turn it into something else, something less likely to ruin my weekend, to affect my moods, to waste my time. And it succeeded – I still seek out the results, but no longer watch the team on tv, avoid Match of the Day, and despise the Premier League as a whole. And eventually I stopped writing the blog, because there was nothing left to say – it went round and round. I looked at my previous entries (from 2011 back to 2008) a few weeks ago and with a bit of tweaking, the change of a few names, they could have been about this season. Or last season. Round and round, history repeating.
But I wonder whether it’s like 1986, the frustrating inertia of a team going round in circles, rather than a terminal disaffection. We will have to see, of course. If Arsene leaves, this year or next, and a new manager comes in, will it rekindle my Arsenal spark? Will I start caring again?