I have never written a blog about football. This blog is about football, but it is also about appreciating the whole experience for what it is, so that we can value the moment.
The column inches devoted to whether Arsene Wenger should leave Arsenal football club are only exceeded by the social media commentary accompanying every game, every player selection, every transfer or non transfer. In summary, he has been one of the “greats”, but he has stayed too long, he is too powerful, he doesn’t win enough and basically he should just go. At the more benign end of the remarks is the thought that he won so much in his early career that the longer he stays without winning he is somehow damaging his own legacy. At the other end of the spectrum is the assessment that he will never win the league title again, that Arsenal are now a team that plays on his vanity and he is a destructive influence on a great club.
The Premier League is dominated by billionaire backers; it feels less like sport and more like a high stakes card game in an implausibly lavish casino. It isn’t a place where the moral compass is easy to discern. It doesn’t feel real. The press, television companies, on-line betting sites, the agents, the sponsors, the hospitality customers and the owners are all in thrall to an idea of entertainment that glances at the idea of sport, but is really about just winning as glamorously as possible.
I am an Arsenal fan. In 1971 I had scabby knees, an orange Wembley size 5 football and a picture of Charlie George on my bedroom wall. I loved my team – Wilson, McNab, McLintock, Simpson, Rice, Kelly, Graham, Storey, Armstrong, Radford and Kennedy and I devoured every copy of Shoot magazine as if it was the most important thing a boy could ever read, ever.
I still love my team; but things have changed. To listen to the negative clamour around Arsene Wenger is to hear so much that is wrong with the game.
Arsenal should win every game, win every competition and win well. Arsenal should be better than everyone. Arsenal should spend more money. Arsenal should not lose players to another club. Arsenal should never lose to a weaker team and Arsenal should never let the fans down.
The whiff of entitlement hangs in the air in self-regarded indifference to any debate and in the impatient assertion of angry, binary analysis.
…But I thought this was sport. A chance to win, but not with any certainty; a chance to see if our eleven are better than their eleven and letting the game unfold with all its skills, strategies, mistakes, luck and petty injustices. If it is only winning, then let’s find every way to win. We can cheat, we can spoil the competition with rules that favour the already mighty, we can buy only the very best players for fees no-one else will afford; we can bully everyone not on our side, we can be funded by anyone with money no matter how amoral the source of the wealth and we can pamper the players, the owners and the hangers-on until they are gilded ornaments in a world so devoid of connection to sport that we see more written about the jewellery they buy their pets than we do the spectacle of sporting chance.
…But I thought that losing was part of sport and made winning more sweet. I can remember queuing for an FA Cup final replay ticket in 1993. I queued for hours to buy a ticket having never seen my team win any competition in person. A fan for 22 years and not once had I been there to see my team win a cup. A few days later Andrew Linighan in the last minute of extra time in a quite dreadful game scored the only goal in the Cup Final replay. I saw his header cross the line and in that moment I felt a connection and a completion that was a kind of perfection. I cried most of the way home, dazed and enthralled that winning could be so special. Winning was 22 years in the losing.
…But I thought that actually going to a game was the best reason to be a fan. The beer before the game, the first sight of that impossibly green pitch, the players warming up, the match-day programme studied, the cheering of the team being announced, the noise we make one second before kick-off… all this joyful ritual even before the game has begun.
The problem for football clubs like Arsenal is not whether Arsene Wenger stays or goes. The problem is whether fans can reconnect with what it means to be a fan and to enjoy the ride of winning, of losing, of despairing and of dreaming.
Arsene Wenger has created more memories than any fan should dare to hope for, a tapestry of golden threads. He has built legendary teams of balletic skill, iron will and character. Teams who can make you cry with the joy of the moment and teams that have lost unfairly, but still kept their dignity. Above all I feel he has absolutely relished the sense that this is sport and I for one have loved the whole sporting journey.
These things are not bestowed on every fan, but every fan can recall their special moments and even one moment can last a lifetime if it sits in your heart.
It is sport. Teams win and lose. Players come and players leave. Fans are the constant and to be a fan is to have the privilege to witness moments we remember forever. We are not entitled to these moments; they are our reward for investing in the whole experience. In football and in life it is the whole experience that creates the value of the moment.
Take care. Paul