The FA Cup final only ever means anything to two groups of people: the respective fans of whoever’s taking part. The season is over, the open wounds of the league are still congealing and, every other year, we’re all just waiting for the World Cup or a European Championship to start. For most fans, the FA Cup final is just background noise on the telly – no-strings-attached football that takes place in an early summer daze, a mirage that only warrants a glance up from the 'paper when the commentators get extra shouty.
But for Arsenal and their fans, the 17th of May, 2014 was the portentous climax of so many narrative threads. They last won a trophy in 2005. Since then, they've fallen from Invincibles to laughing stocks and their manager, Arsene Wenger, has gone from lauded visionary to a man widely seen as doomed by his own myopia. There's more context – including a season that has withered from deadline day excitement and a title challenge to familiar fourth-placed retreat – but it's probably most concise to say that the game against Hull City was always going to be treated as either the dawning of a new era or a death rattle. For the Arsenal fans themselves, it was always likely to be the most riotous, pissed-up day of the year. But would North London be full of happy drunks or sobbing ones punching police horses?
I'm a Chelsea fan, so I thought it would be interesting to surround myself with people who cared so deeply about something, when my own interest was cursory at best. Can the excitement of a rival be contagious? Could I be happy for these Gooners – these arseholes – who, for 99 percent of the year, I would rather see beaten with silverware than winning it?
There was only one way to find out.
Despite the fact I was in team-neutral colours, walking out of Finsbury Park tube station felt a bit like going to a Mafioso’s birthday party wearing a wire. The streets were littered with Arsenal fans, most of them young – geezers in their twenties and early thirties roaming in packs – and most of them bopping about in their glaring red or yellow tops.
I felt like they could tell there was an intruder lurking around their home turf, like they could somehow see it in my eyes. I spent the first 15 minutes expecting to get sucker punched by a nasally-gifted Gooner who was somehow able to sniff out worried Chelsea fans. This, of course, was ludicrous; but I kept my head down anyway, especially after watching a particularly smashed Gooner bullying a terrified Tesco security guard for not letting him drink a beer in the shop.
In fact, the theme of not being able to drink indoors was a running one. There was no room anywhere – boozer after boozer after boozer was packed to the windows. Had I turned up too late? Had I fucked it?
There was a bit of room outside The Twelve Pins, where they’d fashioned a kind of loose, makeshift cage out of upturned benches. It wasn’t really keeping anything out or in, but I figured it was probably just there to look the part when the whole area gets smashed up at the end of the match. Inside, though, was a different story, and the people running the place didn't seem too keen on our camera, as you'd expect of any pub with blacked out windows, I guess.
The fans outside the 12 Pins were hoofing footballs at some other fans who'd stationed themselves at a pub directly opposite. It was fun to watch but ultimately we still hadn't found anywhere we'd be able to see the game without battling our way through 300 people. So, we headed up to Arsenal's Emirates Stadium to see if there were any tickets left for the screening they were putting on.
That might have been a little optimistic. Arriving at the ground, there was this small group of fans making a racket towards no one in particular, but no tickets available. In retrospect, I should have expected it to be busy; I was less than a five-minute walk from the stadium where a Big Four team who hadn't won a trophy for nine years were playing a club that had spent the previous season in the Championship – people were excited, confident and wanted to spend the afternoon drinking beer and shouting at a screen.
Luckily, we came across a pub called The Horatia, a posh-ish place that serves stuff like Camembert burgers, paprika chips and "seasonally foraged mushrooms". But the menu didn't matter; it was chock-a-block with Arsenal scum, which was exactly what I needed.
I'm as blind as a mole with cataracts, so by the time I arrived, I had to ask someone what the score was. "Two-nil to Hull," he replied. I feigned shock and horror in an effort to seem like one of them, but I'm not sure how convincing I was. I, like everyone else in there, thought they were on the verge of pissing it all away, especially when Kieran Gibbs had to head a shot off his own line and Arsenal were nearly three down within the first ten minutes.
The fear began to set in – the fans' jubilant grins turning into vicious screwfaces, screeches of, "That's a fucking red, you blind cunt!" and other wildly unreasonable things. Arms began to fold, brows began to furrow. Could it be that these bottling shitters had once again failed miserably? Were we going to have to endure another 12 months of footballer banter Twitter accounts claiming that the Arsenal trophy cabinet is dustier than a skip full of lint rollers?
One goal back before half time – a beautiful free kick from Santi Cazorla – and the place erupted. I wanted to feel it, to break a smile, but all I could manage was polite applause. These people were different to me – their songs, their chants; it was like they were in a different language. I knew all the words, and many of them were the same songs I’d sing, only with different teams and sentiments. But they didn’t sound right, like Portuguese – a bizarre hybrid of things that sound vaguely familiar but aren’t at all.
Nevertheless, all the goal seemed to do for the Arsenal fans was heighten their stress levels. I guess after the recent years they've endured, being 2-0 down is a familiar kind of capitulation. At 2-1, though, there's cause for optimism – and as every Arsenal fan must know, it's the hope that kills you.
Another goal came. It was now level pegging. The match wound to a close and extra time approached. Timid whispers of penalties started mooching around the pub. A victory on penalties is a lesser victory; it’s football’s Russian roulette. It makes it seem like the whole previous 120 minutes was pointless and you could have wasted less of everyone's lives by just blasting five spot kicks at each other.
But in the second half of extra time, after 109 minutes, Aaron Ramsey scored the winning goal. A friend of mine who lived round the corner from the pub came charging at me, shirtless, and told me he was going to climb on my shoulders. Maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the fluid draining from my spinal cord as it got pushed into my pelvis bone, but I was starting to feel it. I was grinning, willing the final whistle to arrive not just because my legs were about to give way, but because the victory now felt like it was earned.
The Arsenal fans were jubilant. Even if their songs still sounded foreign to me, there was no mistaking the joy and expectation etched onto their faces.
The ref finally blew, and people started losing their shit.
The fans spilled out onto the road, cars tooted, men relieved themselves of their shirts and people danced in front of moving traffic.
My blue blood couldn't hold me back any longer; as the police vans pulled up and a bottle of champagne was spilled over the pasty chests of a dozen rabid Gooners, I lost it. I sat down in the road because I hated Tottenham, and stood up for the same reason. I danced with the Arsenal fans, shouted their team’s name, fist pumped to the sound of air horns.
The unmitigated joy I saw – the way these men were celebrating – was impossible to shy away from. Naturally, come the 16th of August, I’ll go back to hoping the dreams of all the men, women and children who support any team that isn't Chelsea are ruthlessly crushed, urging the footballing gods to make them weep in the stands of their own stadiums.
But Saturday afternoon wasn't just about the football; it was about relief, concern, sweaty delusions of grandeur than can turn sour in a heartbeat. Of course, once it's all done it doesn't matter any more; save for a few goals, the game will largely be forgotten. However, it was what happened afterwards – the shirtless men marauding through the streets, the kids screaming out the rear windows of flag-flying cars, Gunnersaurus leading the next day's victory parade in his Popemobile-esque convertible – that really mattered. The catharsis exhibition managed to move this hateful, spiteful Chelsea shrew to the point where I started clapping my hands, chanting Arsenal songs and throwing my arms around the people I'd usually jeer at from the other side of the stadium.
I felt ashamed and dirty, but that was alright – the struggle was finished. Arsenal had ended nine years of drought on the hottest day of the year and I’d won the victory over myself; for one day only, I loved Arsenal FC.
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