In 2004, Arsenal won the Premier League without losing a single match in a 38-game season, the only English team in history to do so. In doing so, they earned themselves the nickname The Invincibles and a legacy as one of the greatest football teams of all time. It was their third league title in six years and their sixth trophy since Arsène Wenger took over as manager in 1996, despite main rivals Manchester United being much richer.
In 2005, Arsenal beat United in the FA Cup final. Arsenal’s team that day included Kolo Touré, Robin van Persie, Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fàbregas, who Wenger had brought to the club for €180,000, €3.3 million, €4.2 million and nothing respectively, and would go on to sell over the following years for a profit of €98 million. Wenger’s eye for a bargain was unmatched and unprecedented. In 1999, having sold 20-year-old Nicolas Anelka for a profit of €27.5 million, he bought Robert Pirès and Thierry Henry, members of the Invincibles team and two of the best players in Premier League history, for €20.2 million combined.
The legend dictates that Wenger revolutionised English football when he arrived, changing Arsenal's diet of lager and Mars bars to one of mad foreign delicacies, like rice and fish. He also employed statistics, like how long players kept the ball for, to determine whether they should be sold: too long and they were out. With methods like these, he transformed the team long nicknamed Boring, Boring Arsenal into perhaps the most exciting on the planet.
By the time they won the FA Cup in 2005, however, football was deep in the process of changing. London rivals Chelsea had been bought by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and had already spent €187 million on players that season alone, three times more than Wenger’s entire eight-year net outlay. Over the following two seasons, they'd spunked a further €159 million.
But the change was bigger than money: everyone had caught on to Wenger’s methods and were now using them against him. What was once revolutionary had, suddenly, become standard.
In the 60s and 70s, my dad was raised in the Toxteth area of Liverpool by his gran, both his parents having died when he was very young. He loved football, supporting Everton and going to Goodison Park whenever his gran could afford it, and played both as an escape from the pain of being an orphan and the image of a mapped-out future: a narrow tunnel of manual labour, continuing poverty and eventual death. He played and hoped to become professional.
When that didn’t happen, he moved to Ireland at 18 to become a housepainter, playing for a Sunday league team until injuries forced him to stop, whereupon he became its manager. Then, craving more hardship, he met my mum at 28 and became a dad, welcoming that future of manual labour and continuing poverty with open arms.
From the beginning, I wanted his validation. Though a good dad, he’d a lot of interests outside of me, not to mention a brutal work life six days a week, meaning it sometimes felt like he didn’t give me enough attention. As well as that, I was a brat and wanted everything now, especially him, especially food. From the beginning, I was a bloater.
When I recognised that one of his interests was football, I loved it, too, kicking a ball against him at every opportunity until he kicked it back. We didn’t have a garden, however, living in a one-bedroom flat – and there were no parks nearby – so, to play, it was either in our living room, breaking my mum’s ornaments in the process, or in the alley down from our building, beside a supermarket, where we had to move aside every 20 seconds to let cars pass.
When his team played, I’d force him to take me along, watching as his players slid in the mud and covered their opponents in blood. One day, I hoped, I’d take their place and play for him myself, making him proud. However – though I’d shout and will them on like everyone else – in truth I’d be a little upset if they won. Hugging his players, patting them on the back, he was no longer interested in me. That was my validation he was giving them.
In 2006, Arsenal finished their league campaign in fourth place, beating Spurs to it on the final day of the season. That day was also the last at their 93-year-old home Highbury; they were moving to the larger Emirates Stadium down the road. This move had been masterminded by Wenger, its intention to increase revenue and propel Arsenal into the elite tier of football clubs, a tier consisting of United, Real Madrid, newly-crowned champions Chelsea and Barcelona.
Fans interviewed that day, though regretful about leaving Highbury, were optimistic about the future: “It’s sad but you’ve got to look at it like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. I think that’s the way, rather than a death.”
Four days later in Paris, Arsenal, the first London club to reach a Champions League final, were beaten 2-1 by Barcelona, having led the game until the final 15 minutes, despite their goalkeeper Jens Lehmann being sent off after 17.
It began as a mistake. Aged 5, passing the window of the local sports shop, I told my dad I wanted “that one” for Christmas, meaning a claret and blue Aston Villa jersey. Unwrapping a red one, however, I fell into hysteria until he told me that Santa had made a mistake but, for some reason, couldn’t exchange it until the shops opened again in January. Unwilling to wait, I put it on. By the following Christmas, I’d every piece of Arsenal tat in existence.
From the beginning, I was depressed. Being a bloater, every effort towards sociability was met with bullying: name calling, hitting, pulling down my pants. I was an easy target. My peers didn’t yet have the ability to consider my feelings, the same way I didn’t yet have the ability to see that they were acting out their own insecurities. No one wants to be the one getting bullied.
All this did nothing to quench my thirst for validation, which football increasingly seemed to offer. Not only could I play for my dad one day but, watching Arsenal, the possibilities appeared greater. Professional footballers were gods: the screaming, the singing, the jumping up and down. It wasn’t just validation I could achieve through football but adulation and fame.
With living in Ireland, however, came the burning frustration of not being able to see Arsenal live. It was too expensive to get to London, my dad said, and though watching them on telly was great – not Sky, we couldn’t afford that either – I wanted to go to Highbury and be where the action was, to see my favourite players, Paul Merson and Ian Wright, in person.
In Ireland, we'd our own sports, hurling and Gaelic football, both of which I hated. Being forced to play them at school, instead of real football, did them no favours. I wanted to believe in a game that could take me out of the country I lived in, not celebrate being stuck there. Despite the crimes of history, England still seemed like a land infinitely better than my own. Not only did it have football teams worth supporting, it had film releases before we did and a McDonald's in every town. All we had was the sting of knowing these things existed (via the telly) without being able to touch them.
Ironically, my dad tried to console me during this period by bringing me to Ireland games with him and his mates. We’d travel to Dublin on minibuses, them drinking lager and me – aged 6, 7 and 8 – feeling uncomfortable, hiding behind bags of chips and chocolate. Except when he didn’t bring me, that is, telling me he couldn’t get tickets before sneaking off, just him and his mates, and then I’d kick and rip shit until the next day when he’d apologise to me through his hangover.
In 2007, Arsenal – having replaced Pirès, Sol Campbell, Lauren, Ashley Cole, José Antonio Reyes and Dennis Bergkamp, all members of the Invincibles team, with William Gallas, Tomáš Rosický and Júlio Baptista – finished 21 points behind United, the league winners, their biggest point deficit from first place since, well, the year before, when they finished 24 behind Chelsea.
Then, in the League Cup final, a young Arsenal team, the like of which Wenger had increasingly been relying upon, lost to Chelsea, their more powerful and wily opponents.
My life was football, by which I mean the good part, the part free from bullying and loathing-induced eating fits, and my hero was Dennis Bergkamp, by which I mean other than my dad. I wanted to move the ball like Bergkamp, flicking it and lofting it with total control, dragging defenders this way and that, using my eyes as proficiently as I used my feet, calculating, misdirecting, manufacturing space.
My memory of Arsenal pre-Bergkamp is patchy: some dog-eared Merlin stickers of Chris Kiwomya, winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in '94, losing it in '95 to Nayim’s long-range shot, a shorthaired David Seaman backpedalling under it – but with Bergkamp, everything comes roaring into focus.
When he signed from Inter Milan in June '95, having been developed at Ajax under Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, I was 9. I'd read no great books, heard no great records, seen no great films, but studying him, I experienced what I’d later know as art. Something that transcended the parameters of the expected, something that went beyond “winning”, “losing” and even “football”. It was a man battling physics and, most of the time, getting the better of it.
I began to play on my own a lot, loving the rhythm of the ball bouncing off a wall and the feeling I got when a trick I’d seen Bergkamp do came off for me. Though my mates thought it was “sad”, I preferred playing alone to playing in a team. On my own, it was harder to be humiliated as there was no one there chasing after me, exposing my dire fitness, sending thick beads of grease-laden sweat down my face. On my own, I could convince myself that the things I was good at – twirling the ball around my foot, show-pony stuff like that – was all that the game required.
With my mates all doing it, however, my need for validation drove me, at age 10, to joining a football club. It was pre-season, and I trained with the A team at first but found it difficult to keep up – though I thought my skill more than compensated, the manager told me that, next time, I’d train with the B.
Doing so infuriated me. All my teammates were the wrong side of shit, some even fatter than I was, most playing passes and taking shots using only their toes, and almost everyone wearing the wrong-coloured socks. As well as that, our manager spent more time on his sit-down lawnmower than he ever did talking tactics or ways to improve our game. Quite quickly, I got the sense that – to everyone but me – our team meant nothing.
Our first match was a friendly at the tail-end of summer, which we won 3-0. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. The manager, had he been looking, would’ve seen me ping cross after cross into the opponent’s box, all of them landing in and around the danger area, as well as a couple of shots from distance that, had they been a few inches lower, would’ve been magnificent goals at any level.
This fuzzy feeling wasn't to last. The following Saturday, despite my performance in the friendly, I was dropped in favour of a girl. I only wish I was joking. She was the manager's daughter and, with no due respect, completely incapable of kicking a football. I was devastated but also embarrassed, for in the eyes of some it must’ve appeared that this girl, who shanked every pass – and who, by half-time, was single-handedly responsible for us being 4-0 down – was better than me.
I wanted to cry. It was such a blatant act of nepotism that I couldn’t understand how he’d even had the balls to try it. ‘What a bastard,’ I thought, kicking the spare ball against the dressing-room wall.
"Don’t do that!" he barked. "You’ll rip the leather."
It continued like that, me coming on for a few minutes here and there, every third or fourth game when we were already 6-0 down, attempting long-range screamers and refusing to pass, dribbling until I either ran the ball out of play or myself into an early grave, huffing and puffing, hoping to change the manager's mind. But after a season of trying, I couldn't take it any more – he didn't care what I did in training or in those final few minutes, and the sense of failure was too much for me to bear, so I gave up, both on the team and competitive football, for good.
As my dad worked Saturdays and could never make it to my games, I'd managed to keep my humiliation hidden but – now that I was quitting – it was time for me to come clean. I told him I was being dropped in favour of a girl and he, perhaps thinking I wanted him to, said he'd talk to my manager. Even at age 11, though, the idea of needing my dad to help me with anything was humiliating, so I begged him not to – it was bad enough admitting to him that I'd failed at the sport he loved.
In 2008, Arsenal finished third in the league, having led the table for two-thirds of the season, playing their best football in years before falling apart completely following an horrific leg-break to striker Eduardo. In said game against Birmingham, a shaken Arsenal conceded a soft penalty in the dying minutes, surrendering a lead and what felt like their grasp on the trophy, going on a run of four draws and then losing to both United and Chelsea in the closing weeks of the season. After the game, captain William Gallas sits in the middle of the pitch and cries, in an image that'll come to define Arsenal’s fragile mentality for years.
They're eliminated from the Champions League in similar fashion, conceding another soft penalty in the final few minutes, this time to Liverpool, Kolo Touré tripping Ryan Babel moments after Arsenal had taken the lead through a miraculous Theo Walcott assist, him running the entire length of the pitch and bypassing five Liverpool players.
Elation, once again, turned to heartbreak.
In 1998, ten years earlier, when Arsenal won their first league title under Wenger – and the first I’d been cognisant of, their previous being in '91 – they beat second-placed United by playing a more beautiful brand of football, full of pace and skill, Bergkamp and Dutch compatriot Marc Overmars setting the tone.
The day they won it, they beat Everton – my dad’s team – 4-0 at Highbury. He and I went to my uncle’s house to watch it on Sky. I was 11 – by then, I rarely smiled, so immersed was I in a misery that seemed endless, but I couldn’t help beaming at what'd been achieved. Watching Tony Adams lift the trophy, himself a recovering alcoholic who Wenger had rescued from the scrapheap, I thought, “Here's proof that bullies can be beaten.” And make no mistake, back then – with Ferguson and Keane – United were bullies. But not only that: They could be beaten in a way more laudatory than they, themselves, were capable of.
Bullies couldn't just be beaten, but schooled.
The 2008–09 season saw regular places for players such as Mikaël Silvestre, bought from United for €915,000, Emmanuel Eboue, neither a defender nor a midfielder but definitely incompetent, Denilson, capable only of sideways passes, and goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, whose outings in the team were so full of errors that they often took on the air of performance art.
In the end, Arsenal finished 20 points behind winners United, having succumbed to eight draws in 11 matches beginning in September, salvaging fourth place only after signing Russian forward Andrey Arshavin for a club-record fee of €18 million halfway through the season. By contrast, Chelsea’s record at the time was €35 million, United’s the same and Liverpool – who finished second that year – theirs was €25 million.
Then, in 2010, it seemed like Arsenal would win the league at last, shaking the demons of Eduardo’s leg-break by holding their nerve to beat Stoke after Aaron Ramsey, their young Welsh midfielder, suffered a similarly horrific break. They conspired to throw it away again, however, drawing with Birmingham and losing to Blackburn, Spurs and Wigan in the closing weeks of the season, in games marked by the chronic ineptitude of their defence and goalkeeper.
When Arsenal lost the Champions League final in '06, I was supposedly an adult, 19 years old, downing whisky in a pub with my mates when Barcelona scored their winner. I was disappointed, yes, but walking home that night – that hot May night, the summer stretching out in front of me, a girl I liked texting me and the booze running through my veins – it was easy to think about other things and pretend that football didn't mean to me what it once had.
I could laugh now at how fervently I’d been under Arsenal's spell, shaking my head at all the insane shit I'd done over the years, like throwing the remote control at my dad in '99 when Batistuta scored against us at Wembley, or the same year throwing a Walkman at him when Giggs buried it past Seaman in the FA Cup semi-final just because he asked me who'd scored. And these were just the times I'd thrown things.
As I walked home that night in '06, it wasn't like I made a conscious decision to take less interest in a team that was on the wane. I'd no idea Arsenal were going to be unsuccessful for another eight years or more. Football had simply been my main obsession for so long, and I felt a pull away from it as a natural response to what my life had become: a failure. I needed to find my own way and turn my life into its own success story, instead of relying on Arsenal to do it for me.
There were girls and booze but also books, films and music. Sometimes I went for weeks without watching a game, keeping up to date online just out of habit or to have something to talk to my dad about. For almost a decade, from when I was 15 to when I left home at 23 – especially, though, after my mum died in '07 – we'd sit in the living room every night with the telly muted, talking about football as he smoked fags.
It wasn't that we planned to talk about football or, in my case, even wanted to. It was simply safe ground to which we both gravitated out of fear of revealing our real inner lives: mine of failure and depression; his of the weariness he must've felt having lived a life of so much death and toil, compounded no end, I'm sure, by the early passing of my mum.
I knew at the time that keeping our feelings from each other was unhealthy, but I was as much to blame as he was. Yes, I'd learned from him to keep quiet, to grin and bear things – things that were better out in the open but which, through insecurity, never made it out – but past a certain point, I was my own man, simply afraid of confronting these things myself.
I learnt to accept that this was what our relationship was and, in fact, always had been. For many reasons, we hadn't turned out the same person – my heroes, over the age of 20, were more Berger than Bergkamp, more van Gogh than van Basten. It wasn't that he disapproved of me in any way. He loved me enough to accept who I was, who I was becoming, and knew enough about life to embrace that everyone was different.
As time went on, my disinterest in football wasn't to last. Despite Arsenal not being successful, I was dragged back into watching regularly, especially in the last few years, since I left home and the distance between my dad and I has increased.
Am I reaching when I suggest that the main reason I watch football today, 25 years after recognising he loved it, is my dad? I can't be waiting on it to change my life any more: Lord knows I'm older than most players, the dream I had about being a professional long since faded – and frankly, I'm so jaded on Arsenal that I sometimes wonder if they'll ever win another trophy again. And yet I'm still drawn to it, to watching each game and texting my dad during them, talking to him about managers, trophies, transfers.
I suspect that these texts are motivated by me wanting to maintain a connection, a connection which, because we no longer live in the same house, I'm fearful our distant personalities will erode. It's sad, admittedly, that a relationship between a son and a dad must rely on texts sent during Super Sundays to sustain it, but in the end, I think we're both just thankful that football is still there after all these years to keep the lines of communication open and let the other one know that someone is listening, if not always for the right thing.
In 2011 Arsenal finished fourth, but did reach the League Cup final, losing to Birmingham in what at this point was typical Arsenal fashion: a defensive blunder in the last minute. Then, the season after, having sold two of their three best players, Samir Nasri and captain Cesc Fàbregas, they finished fourth again, 20 points off winners Manchester City who, since being bought by oil billionaire Sheikh Mansour in '09, had spent €460 million on transfers compared to Arsenal's minus €55 million – yes, minus. (€26 million of that City money had been on Nasri.) That year, Arsenal were also thrashed 8-2 by United, Wenger's biggest defeat since he took over in '96, and 4-0 by Milan in the second round of the Champions League.
The next season, 2012-13, the last part of the triumvirate was sold – Robin van Persie – to United for €29 million, who went on to win the league. As the boy Wenger had raised danced around at Old Trafford with the Premier League trophy, Arsenal were busy beating Spurs into their now customary fourth place.
When I was a child, I demanded only two things from my parents: crap food and validation. I didn't care what their needs were, nor how hard they had to work to fulfill mine; I wanted what I felt I was owed.
Growing older and becoming a teenager, I demanded their tolerance. Because of a fatness I had or hadn’t caused myself, I’d been bullied and become depressed, inflicting on them my mood swings, intolerable shows of rage of which throwing remote controls and Walkmans was just the tip of the iceberg.
Then, as I became an adult, I was forced to acquire a humility, accepting that the things I felt I was owed, I wasn't – the same way I had to accept, during this period, that Arsenal mightn't win a boatload of trophies, that my relationship with football was going to be less comforting and more painful than it had been before.
I had to adapt, embracing the fact that, as an adult, nothing came free, that if I wanted to achieve something in life I'd have to work for it, but that this made success better because, in the end, it'd really be earned. Likewise with football – I had to embrace what Arsenal losing could teach me: patience, perspective, a gratitude for what things were giving me, regardless of success.
And yet – nine years after beating United in '05 – Arsenal will play in the FA Cup final again next Saturday, this time against Hull, a team from the lower half of the league and one they should beat. Of course, there's no guarantee Arsenal will win, but it's worth asking, surely, what doing so would mean going forwards. Would it, like a lot of Gooners are hoping, make them significantly better equipped to win one of the bigger trophies, like the Champions League or the league, where this season they'll again finish fourth?
Photo by Ronnie Macdonald
I'm not convinced. I think it's abundantly clear that the mental block that has kept them from winning for so long runs too deep to be eradicated by winning the FA Cup. Though a step in the right direction, and one I'll certainly celebrate in a puddle of lager, the league and Champions League require a much more sustained handling of pressure – which, no matter what happens next Saturday, they aren't yet capable of.
Building the Emirates has undoubtedly played a big role in their shying from glory – the resultant inability to compete on transfers with billionaire-owned clubs like City and Chelsea, not to mention the global juggernaut of United. In the past nine years, however, there have still been numerous instances where Arsenal could've won a trophy but didn't. Were the players just not good enough? Certainly they were good enough to get into those situations in the first place, not to mention that – when Arsenal were winning things – they were hardly spending big, either.
It's not rocket science to suggest that, because this failure to handle pressure has gone on for so long, affecting so many players, the common factor and cause has got to be Arsène Wenger. It's cruel to ask – because he may only be a victim of uncontrollable circumstance and the high standards he set in the beginning – but would a manager like Mourinho or Ferguson have allowed this to stand?
Of course, Wenger may be conscious of all this himself. With his current contract expiring at the end of the season, he hasn't yet signed a new one, despite saying that he will. Maybe he sees winning the FA Cup as the perfect opportunity to ride off into the sunset and protect his legacy from further being tarnished.
But in the end: managers, trophies, transfers, what do they really matter? I mean, really. Whether we'll admit to it or not, football is what we make it, like anything in life – a blank screen onto which we project our hopes and fears, a means of escape, of relief; we imagine victory and see ourselves overcoming all the obstacles in our lives, not just United or Chelsea, or we experience a defeat and process the pain that these obstacles cause in a way that society deems acceptable – by throwing a remote control at our dads, for instance. So let's face it: win, lose or draw, we find a way to make football work for us.
On Saturday, I'll find a way to make football work for me – again – by watching the FA Cup final and texting my dad. Shit, maybe I'll even take the three-hour journey south and watch it with him in person. We can crack open a couple of beers – just like he used to do with his mates on the way to those Ireland games – and talk about it. Talk about Wenger, trophies, transfers – anything, I suspect, instead of talking about this article.