They’ve been labelled ‘Doomers’, but what could be more optimistic than being constantly, painfully disappointed by the fact that the 4th wealthiest club in the country always seems to come...well...4th?
I recently had the misfortune of having Piers Morgan re-tweeted onto my timeline: ‘How can 3rd be an improvement for Arsenal after 9 years of trophy failure?’ opined the ever insightful and in no way pathetic and petulant Piers, ‘It’s just more failure’. Ignore for a second Piers’ questionable mathematics at not being able work out that third place is, in fact, an improvement on fourth place, because we all know that this general attitude is incredibly common amongst Arsenal fans. There is an undeniable sense of entitlement when Arsenal fans talk about trophies, or when they moan about finishing 4th year after year.
Perhaps the clearest expression of that this season was at the Emirates recently when an Arsenal team, sitting an unprecedented second in the league table and having just earned a draw with the defending champions, were subjected to boos from their own fans for failing to win. Now United are not the force they once were so a draw did feel like a missed opportunity, and this was the Emirates crowd's first meeting since the team were embarrassed 5-1 at Anfield, but even in that context the boos represented a bizarre disconnect from reality.
‘I’m not a pessimist, I’m a REALIST!’
Ah yes, 'reality'…'realist'… the words that are so often bandied about by a certain section of Arsenal's support. We all know the score – the optimists are ‘deluded’, the pessimists are just being ‘realistic’. And yet, over time I've realised something curious about the 'critical' wing of the Arsenal's support. They are, in a funny way, the most deeply optimistic – dare I say deluded? – fans of all. For example, have you noticed that some of the most virulently negative voices, those who are most convinced that the team is hopeless and about to plummet down the table, are often the most brashly confident on a match day. (On the day of the United match, Piers was busy taunting Van Persie about his upcoming certain defeat, before writing: 'This is it, Arsenal. This is the moment we take the nail and drive it right into United's season's coffin.')
Now I'm sure partly this is just a covering of the bases. If you are going to be horribly critical about our situation you can avoid being laughed at after a victory by saying 'I'm not negative! I predicted a 5-0 victory over Stoke, didn't you see?' But it also seems to represent a genuine, but misplaced, optimism about the club's place in the footballing world. After all, what could be more 'optimistic' than being constantly, painfully disappointed by the fact that the 4th wealthiest club in the country always seems to come...well...4th?
So let's put it out there: if you are ragingly, incandescently angry that Arsenal have failed to win a trophy for the last 9 years, you aren't a realist, or a 'doomer'. You are just an unrepentantly wide-eyed optimist. And if you have correctly predicted at the start of previous few seasons that Arsenal wouldn't have what it takes to win the title, don't announce it like you are some spectacularly gifted footballing oracle, because all you have done is stated the blindingly obvious! It would be a bit like me predicting at the start of the season that Marseille will miss out on Ligue 1 and then smugly pointing out that they are being trounced by PSG and Monaco!
It’s the money, stupid
Sure, if you're my age (34 on Friday, since you asked) Arsenal were, for a fair bit of your supporting life, comfortably the second, or even first, biggest club in the country. And although we all know times have changed, it seems to me that many are simply refusing to accept it. Years of parsimony have seen Arsenal build up a transfer kitty of £70 million or more. Now, of course if we spend that money well we will find ourselves with an even better squad than now, but Manchester City, with very little fanfare, spent nearly £100m in the summer. And in the last 5 years they have averaged a net spend of approximately £95m per season. We are holding up this 'one off' £70m transfer kitty like it is the holy grail that will charge us to title after title, and yet it is £25m less than City's average yearly spend. Just think about that for a second! That £70 million, fantastic though it is, is essentially a big red herring when it comes to what our realistic expectations should be. Even if we spend every penny this summer we’d still have no right to expect to come any higher than 4th place.
Now, nothing I've written in that previous paragraph is remotely news to anyone, but isn't it curious the way it is so often brushed aside? Even now I feel like I should be apologising for using such a boring, predictable ‘excuse’. We've all read something along the lines of: 'Of course, the trophy drought coincides with the oil investment at City and Chelsea, but surely a club of Arsenal's stature blah blah blah...' In other words 'I'm going to blithely mention the single greatest change to the landscape of the English footballing world, and Arsenal's place in it, since the formation of the Premier League… and then ignore it for the rest of the article!'
There is a huge irony here – that the same people who never stop banging on about the importance of ‘marquee’ signings where Arsenal are concerned seem oddly unwilling to accept how far twenty marquee signings each might take Manchester City and Chelsea beyond our reach. And have you noticed how they have found all sorts of ways to keep criticising whilst carefully avoiding any real mention of this elephant in the room? One of their favourites is to compare our budget to the teams just below us instead, to show how we ‘under-achieve’. ‘We only just came above Spurs, and look how tiny their wage bill is compared to us’. Well, firstly, Spurs are showing right now just how difficult it is to maintain that kind of form for more than a season. Secondly, if they ever made the Champions league for any length of time their wage bill would shoot up and they’d need to spend a great deal more to remain competitive in all competitions. And most importantly, in the ‘trophies are all that matter’ world, it is completely irrelevant! Spurs having a few great seasons doesn’t make it any easier for Arsenal to beat Chelsea, City or United given their respective resources.
The Doom Delusion
So how has it happened? How has such an obvious delusion taken hold that it is pretty much the guaranteed narrative whenever Arsenal are discussed. For example, Arsenal have NEVER won the European Cup. Not under Chapman, not under Bertie Mee, not under Graham, and not with any of Wenger’s sensational title winning teams. Furthermore, at present we have the 9th highest average wage in European football, so in purely logical terms the last 16 would actually be where you would expect to us to exit. And yet somehow, if we fail to overturn a two goal deficit against the best team in the world, some will paint it as another embarrassing failure! When you take a step back and consider that impartially, that is truly bizarre!
Part of the problem is simply the speed with which the landscape has changed. Injections of cash have changed the fortunes of football clubs before, but never so quickly and so totally. As a result, it's almost as if people's perceptions haven't caught up with the change. And it doesn’t help that this change occurred just as Arsenal were enjoying such unprecedented success. Had the oil money flowed into English football in 1995, before the multiple double seasons and the Invincibles, perhaps it wouldn’t even be an issue. The early Graham years would just be seen as a brief time in the sun, before normal service resumed.
It also doesn’t help that in the macho world of football fandom, admitting that your team is not, in fact, the ‘greatest team the world has ever seen’ is tantamount to admitting that you’ve always had a lot of sympathy for Adolf Hitler and his progressive political ideals. It is much easier to rage and bluster about the club lacking ‘ambition’ than to accept that your club has been pushed a few rungs down the ladder by events outside of your control.
And I suppose some other frustrations fuel the fire a little, despite being irrelevant to what our trophy expectations should be. High ticket prices and promises made about our spending power with a new stadium, for example, are often used sticks to beat the club for the trophy drought, but in fact, they are pretty irrelevant. High ticket prices are absolutely something to be campaigned against, but Arsenal fans paying high prices doesn’t mean that Sheikh Mansour magically disappears (more’s the pity!).
And yet despite these partial explanations, the more I consider the issue the more I am convinced that it is mostly just completely irrational. Very simply Arsenal are a top 4 club being judged as if they are a top 2 club – a delusion that has been repeated so often into the echo chamber of football punditry that it has taken on a life of its own, an ‘Emperors New Clothes’ of footballing opinion. We have a wonderful club with traditions to be proud of, we have a fine squad that is, against the odds, challenging for the title, and all the evidence would suggest that the vision and foresight of those at the top has put us in a position to challenge for trophies long after Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour have lost interest in their playthings. The great shame for so many is that if they could rid themselves of their irrational, misguided ‘optimism’, they might see how much there is to genuinely be optimistic about.