FA Cup Final

17.05.14

‘She WORE, she WORE, she WORE a yellow ribbon

She WORE a yellow ribbon in the merry month of may

And WHEN I ASKED Oh WHY she wore that ribbon

She said its for the ARSENAL and we’re going to WEMBLEY

WEMBLEY, WEMBLEY

WE’RE THE FAMOUS ARSENAL AND WE’RE GOING TO WEMBLEY’

The day before the final I realised that although I have an Arsenal shirt (the purple away kit, bearing my favourite player’s name, Giroud), everyone would be wearing some variation of the home kit. The iconic red and white strip: red chest, white sleeves, white collar. It seemed as if every Sports Direct had decided to not capitalise on this, however, deciding instead to stock limited numbers of produce.

So it was that I turned up at Arsenal tube at 3pm on Saturday 17th May, in 70’s jersey classic that was extra-extra-large, wondering whether I actually looked like more of a prick than I would in a cheap knock-off sold by the ticket touts. I decided to forget about and get wrapped up in the day instead.

It’s a sad consequence of modern day football that ticket prices for games are often inflated outside of a fan’s price range. When this is added on to a systematically poor ticket allocation – of Wembley’s 98,000 capacity, only 50,000 of the tickets had gone to Arsenal and Hull fans – it’s not difficult to find aggrieved fans. To make up for it all, Arsenal decided to screen the Final to 25,000 fans inside the Emirates stadium. It felt weird to be facing the players’ tunnel and for them to appear on the screen but not our pitch, and everyone really wished they were watching the game at Wembley, but the atmosphere was electric in a way that it really wouldn’t have been at my friend Eddy’s flat — or the sad little Railway Vue pub near my house.

It was sunny, we’d had a couple of Red Stripes before the game, and the mood coursing through the stadium was positive. The screening had an announcer guy present (ostensibly to keep the crowd entertained, but he was booed to the point of professional collapse when he tried to talk over much more exciting things happening on the screen) who led up to the game by asking about 15 different people what score they thought the game would be. ‘3-0’, was the common reply. The slightly more pessimistic amongst us thought that the game would more likely be 3-1, with Arsenal taking an easy 2-0 lead and then inducing panic by sloppily conceding after halftime and producing some exceedingly questionable defensive displays, before scrappily sealing up the game with a late Giroud header. Whatever the outrageous predictions shared between seats and screens, however, the common sentiment was that this would be a relatively simple affair: no shocks to the system.

The game kicked off, everyone cheered, adjusted themselves in the seats, and braced themselves with the mettle of a food enthusiast attempting to replicate his winning souffle from yesteryear. ‘We’ve done it before’, we thought. ‘Yes, souffle is difficult, but we’re world class chefs’, I thought, because nobody else was entertaining the oddly specific culinary metaphor.

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And then Hull scored. An outswinging corner was volleyed back into the box, and it looked like it bounced perfectly off a Hull player and round a diving Lukasz Fabianski. It all happened so quickly – 3 minutes into the game – that the mood was simply one of confusion. Not anger, or betrayal, or a sense of dread. Just confusion. It was impossible to work out how it had sneaked in. Was it offside? Who was marking the guy on the edge of the box? Should Fabianksi have done bet–

Hull scored again. For the second time in 8 minutes, the opening 8 minutes of the FA cup final, which Arsenal had been promised to sail through by little Jessie and her brother, Hull had scored a scrappy goal and pushed ahead. A Hull winger received the ball about 25 yards out on the left wing, and deftly tricked his way past our hero, Aaron Ramsey. He swung the ball into the box and a Hull striker rose to meet it, nodding it into the ground and towards the post. Fabianski had to dive into the net to push it round the corner, where a (probably offside) Curtis Davies, the Hull captain, was waiting to smash it into the far corner. Fabianski did his best to get off the ground to meet it but it had already flown into the net, and Davies was off – sprinting round the pitch, yelling with joy, convinced that he scored the goal that had BEATEN THE FAMOUS ARSENAL WHEN THEY’D COME TO WEMBLEY – and we could do nothing. Actually, worse than nothing. We weren’t even in the right stadium. We booed Davies but he couldn’t hear us, and we wanted to cheer on our team but they wouldn’t be able to hear us either. We were just pawns in seats and we’d been lied to by Jessie. How could you do this to us, Jessie? You promised.

We needed something. Slowly, unnoticeable at first, a heaviness sank over all 20,000 of us packed into the lower tier at the Emirates. The first glimmer of the idea that we might not be able to glide through this rose to the surface. Our chants began feebly and ended even more limply; the traditional Emirates stadium’s epithet of ‘library-esque’ seemed fitting. But only if it was referring to one of those inner city libraries, filled not with students with bright futures but the habitually unemployed and decaying issues of Asterix and Obelix.

Commentating tropes aside, Arsenal really did need ‘a moment of magic’. Less so the players. It was us. The fans. We, who could do nothing other than sit in increasingly oppressive silence, needed someone to lift us out of our dismay.

Step forward Santi Cazorla.

Hull had been playing dirty from the off. The normal way to beat Arsenal is to pressure them quickly, score a couple of goals, and stop them from working their magic in midfield by giving them no time — and, if that’s not possible, scare them into thinking they have no time by hacking them whenever there’s an opportunity. By all accounts, 4 or so of Hull’s players should have been booked within the first ten minutes. Ramsey was brought down heavily a couple of times. Ozil took a knee to the body to stop him from shimmying past someone. Giroud was consistently dragged down to the ground when backing into players to receive the ball. But the ref — fucking hell, the ref was making a strong case for having ‘the referee’s a wanker’ as his perpetual theme tune. Free kicks were not awarded and Hull players were operating with impunity. It was the stuff of nightmares.

It was with an ironic cheer that we greeted being awarded our freekick in the 16th minute. Maybe 5 yards outside the box, to the left of the goal. Not an easy distance by any means. The commentators knew, as did we, that a ‘moment of magic here’ would lift the spirits of every fan watching the game. It would lift the players at Wembley, it would lift the fans at Wembley, and it would rescue us at the Emirates. Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski were stood on either side of the ball (Podolski is left-footed, and Cazorla looked set to strike it with his right), pulsing with the concentration of those that are ready to step up to the plate. They both seemed to run up to hit it, and then Cazorla struck it with curl with his right foot. And it was absolutely fucking glorious. It sailed over the wall and into the top hand corner. Hull’s keeper managed to get a hand to it but he could do nothing except turn it into his own net.

I don’t know if I’ve felt more alive this year than when I saw that goal. 20,000 people around me and I went absolutely insane. Everyone was perfectly poised on the edge of their seats when the ball was struck, ready for something to happen, and then we all leapt into the air as one. Shouting, screaming, fists pumping, tear-filled eye contact, head-back into the air joy — it was animal. Visceral. No holds barred. Just 5-10 seconds of pure emotion coursing through a huge body of 20,000 people. I was them and they were me. I lost my voice in that short period, and I’m pretty sure that my beer-induced buzz and time staring into the sun was building up for killer headache, but it was incredible.

People who talk about football as a meaningless distraction, or worse, a waste of time, simply don’t get it. In fact, people who clamber up onto their imposingly tall stallion and cry, “ ‘Tis nought but a silly game between spoilt boys” are bundled into the same category for me as thoroughbred racists, whose apparently carefully considered view of the world is a product of their drought of critical thinking. I don’t mean to strike an overly pretentious tone here, and I am somewhat aware that my use of language has changed slightly in this argument, but the whole situation just pisses me off. Until you’ve been surrounded by collective misery being transformed into collective joy with one action, and you’ve been bundled up and willingly lost yourself in it all, you can’t claim that football is meaningless. Until you accept the amazing highs and amazing lows that are brought about exactly because the situation is a) out of your control and b) shared instantly with awe-inspiring groups of people, you can’t appreciate the release afforded by a game. Yes, losing an important match is not the same as losing a loved one, and yes, being paid £250,000 a week is objectively ludicrous — but you simply can’t apply this objectivity to the game. No-one goes to be objective. You throw yourself in with the subjective lot with the promise of a moment like the Cazorla game that allows you, for once in your miserable week, to feel truly alive. Saying that anything – be it religion, a music concert, or, I dunno, an exceedingly exhilarating horseride – that can provide you with a reason to keep smiling is meaningless is an outrage.

I said that I haven’t felt that alive all year because there was a similar moment in 2013 that made me feel as equally stellar. Funnily enough, it was attached to Arsenal too. I wrote about it here — but, essentially, I was sitting in a sports bar in Brussels and watching first-placed Arsenal play Liverpool, who at that point were second, in a match that would supposedly set the tone for the rest of the season. In the second half, our hero Aaron Ramsey scored an absolute peach of a goal. 30 yards out, on the half-volley, outside of the boot, straight past Simon Mignolet — and the entire pub of expats and diplomats (a nice rhyme, right?) exploded.

I finished reading Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ before the Final, just to paper over any cracks in my Arsenal knowledge. Much like Hornby initially was, I am always worried that my relative lack of knowledge about Arsenal’s history will be exposed by some obscure class of ‘uber fan’, and there will be some form of ritual humiliation in which a gang of nearby fans shout ‘Brady’ and I am at a loss to say his first name, and then important figures from my life like my parents and supportive teachers and close friends and the women-that-got-away are all there, shaking their heads, sighing into the ground. So I read the book. More than anything, it’s great fun. And relatable. I get that it’s somewhat presumptuous to see parallels between your life and the life of a phenomenally successful author. But, I mean, come on. He had thinning hair and didn’t know what he was doing with his life in his early twenties either.

When discussing an Arsenal v Norwich game, towards the end of Fever Pitch, Hornby sets out his criteria for a game to be ‘really, truly memorable, the kind of game that sends you home buzzing inside with the fulfilment of it all’:

1) Goals

2) Outrageously bad refereeing decisions

3) A noisy crowd

4) Rain, a greasy surface

5) Opposition misses a penalty

6) Member of the opposition team receives a red card

7) Some kind of ‘disgraceful incident’ (aka ‘silliness’, aka ‘nonsense’, aka ‘unpleasantness’)

Clearly, a measly FA Cup Final cannot compare to the beauties inherent in a titans clash at Carrow Road. But this game had its fair share of memorable elements:

1) Goals. Very simply, the game had five goals. Which, itself, is normally enough for an exciting game. But when you add on that Arsenal had to come from two behind, and that the winning goal – a spectacularly ‘Arsenal-esque’ goal, replete with a stunning backheel by Olivier Giroud and a sublime first time finish by Aaron Ramsey – did not come until the second half of extra time, it becomes all the sweeter. Plus, the stunner that Cazorla scored was electric. Goals can be recreated, but the meaning of a goal cannot.

2) Outrageously bad refereeing decisions. Probably the easiest one of the list. The referee was just so shit. Arsenal had four legitimate penalty calls, were taken down far too many times without consequence for the Hull players, and free kicks were consistently being given the wrong way. In truth, the corner that led to Arsenal’s equalising goal (who else but Koscielny would be there to save us by turning in a scuffed header?) came off our second striker, Sanogo, last. But who cares. One decision our way was not enough to upturn the amount of time we’d spent shouting ‘ref, what the fuck?’

3) A noisy crowd. It was a jubilant bunch for all of the game, except the ten or so minutes in between Hull’s second and Arsenal’s first. Constant chants of:

‘Arsenaalll, Arsenall FC

We’re by far the greatest team

The World has ever seen’

and the perhaps tenuously related:

‘WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TOTTENHAM?

(SHIT!)

AND WHAT DO YOU THINK OF SHIT?

(TOTTENHAM!)

WE HATE TOTTENHAM AND WE HATE TOTTENHAM

WE HATE TOTTENHAM AND WE HATE TOTTENHAM

WE ARE THE TOTTENHAM HATERS

Coursed through the stadium. It was mint.

4) Rain. No rain. I have no time for rain anyway. I accept that rain can make amazing things happen in football https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7Rnt5C2qaQ , but the truth is that I only had one layer of clothing and I prefer sitting with a beer in the sunshine than sitting in the ‘fine rain that wets you through’.

5) Opposition misses a penalty. OK, there were no penalties in the game (although, as I said before, there most certainly should have been). But there was a clear moment that felt like a gifted penalty. In the dying minutes of the match, Hull played a long ball up the field, capitalising on the fact that most of Arsenal’s players had pushed up to try and nick a fourth goal and close down the game. The ball bounced slightly behind Per Mertesacker – one of the most loveable centre-backs in the league, but certainly not one of the quickest – and, in turning to chase the ball, Mertesacker slipped. The Hull winger (it was probably el Mohamedy) pounced on the ball, realising that he was on the verge of a redemptive one-on-one. And then, for no reason that anyone of the 20,000 supporters in the Emirates, or 25,000 at Wembley, or the millions around the world could fathom, Arsenal keeper Fabianski decided to charge out of his goal – right out of his box, into a perilously dangerous territory that has been the downfall of keepers as accomplished as Barthez and Neuer – and to try and slide tackle the Hull player. With almost comic inevitability, he got nowhere near, and the Hull player was free to try and slot the ball home (although, admittedly, from a very tight angle). Hearts were in mouths. Heads were in hands. Eyes were on the verge of being screwed up tight as the ball rolled towards the goal, on target, with a chasing Kieran Gibbs seemingly too far away to make a difference. And then the gasp of breath: Gibbs’ head was not in the game. At all. He’d just missed a relatively easy chance at the other end, and had almost given the ball away as the last man on the halfway line. What if he accidentally turned it in? Oh god, we all thought. He’s going to turn it in. It’s all going wrong and we can’t take it and we’re going to penalties thanks to three incredibly ridiculous individual errors….

Thankfully, it rolled past the post. But that was close enough for comfort, and it can go under the bracket of missed penalty.

6) Member of the opposition receives a red card. This didn’t happen, it didn’t look like happening, and it probably would’ve been overkill if it did. The ref should’ve been faster to calm down the game with yellows, but there were no legitimate calls for a second yellow. I guess this element was lacking.

7) Silliness. Well, silliness is inherent in the celebrations of a huge win. As there were only Arsenal fans at the Emirates, and everything had gone swimmingly, a fight was not on the table. My favourite moment of silliness was probably class joker Podolski chasing a gleeful and much rejuvenated Arsene Wenger (the final whistle looked like it stripped the man of 10 years of baggage) with an open bottle of champagne, and the latter jogging away like the spitting image of Mr Burns. Good hearted silliness all-round.

All in all, the day was undeniably enjoyable. It had everything, from overturned upset to relief to unburdened joy. I loved watching it at the Emirates and feeling like I not only shared the experience with so many, but earned the experience. In my own way, with my ridiculously oversized jersey and my hoarse chanting prowess, I was part of the push to ensure Arsenal won their first trophy in 9 years. Beautiful.

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