The Question of 'Us' and 'Them'
I picked up a copy of fourfourtwo this morning and sought sanctuary in it away from the hustle and bustle of profanity happy commuters. I chanced across a short article written by a sports psychologist, focussing particularly on Leeds United's inspiring form in the face of a 15 point deduction. Dr. Martin Perry performed quite an entertaining diagnosis on the importance of enemies in sport. He described the Football League's decision to deduct Leeds 15 points as 'a hand wrapped gift to Dennis Wise.' In doing so, Leeds had an identifiable enemy and all the motivation they needed for their scinitilating form. Wise, Perry reasons, would simply have pointed to the suited bigwigs and told his players, 'they hate you, they want to destroy you. Go and prove them wrong.'
As with pretty much everything else that has the good fortune to muscle it's way into my consciousness, I started to apply this scenario to Arsenal and was surprised at how quickly I could name a plethora of examples where an undiluted persecution complex has been the catalyst for our greatest successes. The earliest example I can remember from my Arsenal supporting existence (circa 1990), would undoubtedly be the Old Trafford brawl and subsequent two point deduction endured by Arsenal in the early part of the 1990-91 season. In a 21 man brawl, instigated by a McClair foul on Winterburn (who had 'a bit of previous'), Arsenal were deducted two points whilst United, astoundingly, only deducted one. (This despite the fact that the only player not involved in the brawl was Arsenal's David Seaman, and there seemed to be little in the melee to suggest that one side was more guilty than the other). I have on an old video at home a transcript of the speech George Graham gave to his side the day after the F.A's decision. 'Not much comes out of Arsenal, and they are absolutely loving it.' A couple of months later, captain Tony Adams was jailed. Needless to say, this gave Arsenal the perfect platform to storm to the league title, the Highbury crowd infamously singing, 'you can stick your f*****g two points up your arse,' at the coronation. This chant perfectly encapsulated the defiance which the squad had used to power to the championship. In fact, in retrospect, one wonders whether we had won the league at all if the United brawl had never happened or if Tony Adams would have stayed in for a cuppa.
My mind wandered to other examples. The 1994/95 season was perhaps our most traumatic in recent history. Arsenal endured a number of fruitless campaigns in the 1980s, but few could mimmick the soap opera nature of that campaign. George Graham was sacked for taking a 'bung', star turn Paul Merson confessed to a shocked nation that he would go into rehabilitation for alcohol, gambling and cocaine addiction. With Limpar, Rocastle having recently been sold and Paul Davis and Alan Smith playing through their final campaigns, the most unimaginative side in Gunners' history limped to a 12th place finish and suffered the indignity of being knocked out of the Cup by Millwall. (Given the footballing make up of my social group, I still bear the scars of that one to this day). But fuelled by scandal, managerial changes and general negativity over Graham's crumbling empire, the Gunners' unbelievably made it to the Cup Winners' Cup Final. We all know how that ended so let's not drag that up!
By Arsene Wenger's astronomical standards, 2005/06 was a similar campaign, used to fighting out the holy grail of the League title, Arsenal were battling with Spurs to even qualify for the Champions' League. (We all know how that ended, feel free to drag it up ad infinitum). But the saving grace of an otherwise unremarkable season was the extraordinary run to the Champions' League Final. I cannot dismiss the importance of two aspects which fuelled this run. Firstly, the sheer weight of injuries saw Flamini playing left back and the Gunners' reverting to one upfront. This appeared to stack the odds firmly against us from the Bernebeu onwards, but I cannot help but feel this focussed the players to work even harder for each other. The other prime factor was Alan Pardew's ill judged comments regarding the patriation of our squad, I can't help but feel that this created something of a siege mentality in the squad. Seemingly confirmed by Wenger's obvious rebuttal once the other English sides had been eliminated, 'we will represent this league with style and dignity.'
I accept on both of the aforementioned impressive, if ultimately ill fated, sojourns to European finals probably were aided by indifferent League campaigns, thus focussing the players onto Europe. But the most pertinent example I can think of regarding the issue of persecution would be our unbeaten season. The circumstances surrounding our league games at Old Trafford in both the 90-91 and 03-04 seasons are uncanny. Early in the season Arsenal travelled to Manchester and came home marked men. The infamous brawl at the final whistle, forever chrystalised by the image of a demonic looking Keown jumping onto Ruud van Horseface, saw Arsenal derided as evil. Of course, this simplistic portrait ignored van Nistelrooy's history of unprovoked and unpunished violence against Arsenal players, those who were at the game will have noticed Nostrilface clearly gloat in Keown's direction when the last minute penalty was awarded. But Sky, who coincidentally owned 9.9% of United at the time, glossed over such incident and depicted Arsenal as devils incarnate. (Doesn't it take two sets of players to house a 22 man brawl?)
Fuelled by injustice from the media and the predicatbly spineless F.A, who did what good bitches do and did exactly as Master Murdoch commanded them, Arsenal closed ranks, players and fans alike. It was the springboard for the unbeaten season, within six months we were being lauded as the most extraordinary side in British football history with the aesthetic purity to match it. The bile of the media and the public in general had been beautifully recycled into the most golden moment in our history. Perhaps this has epitomised so much of what we have been missing for the last two seasons. With two years in the relative obscurity of fourth place, we have been lauded for our great football, but it's felt a little patronising at times. Slightly dismissive, nice boys happy to receive a dismissive ruffle of the hair. I am minded of a Bill Hicks documentary I have at home on DVD, where Jay Leno talks of his comedy workshops, 'when you get the student who stands up, walks out of the class in disgust and calls you an asshole, you know that guy's gonna be the best comedian in the room.'
Is it me or have we rediscovered some of this missing impetus this summer? I think Wenger recognised this and influenced his appointment of Gallas to the captaincy, usurping the affable, likeable Gilberto. Wenger went for that guy that storms out of the room and calls you an asshole. Much has been written about the sale of Henry, lazy complacent hacks saw it is the final eroding pillar in our crumbling empire. Spurs would usher in a new era of North London dominance, we were widely written off by all and sundry. (Of course, on the 25th June, yours truly produced an article referring to Henry's sale as a 'renaissance' and predicted great things for the team as a result of his departure!) Once again, Arsenal had an impetus, every reason they needed to take the league by the balls. Now we see an Arsenal side described as favourites by Didier Drogba and taken seriously as title contenders. But I wondered, now the self same hacks who wrote us off are proclaiming Henry's departure as a great triumph, has some of that impetus faded. That burning desire for revenge compromised by the jounos and their salivating superlatives. This is where I think Ferguson has scored a massive psychological own goal this week. With his various amusing tirades from everything to dodgy refs, stadium security and the common cold being landed squarely at our doorstep, he has revealed his fear and acknowledged us as players at the top table of Premiership supremacy once again. Ferguson has revealed his hand very early, and he might just have reinvigorated our desire and given us every excuse we need to march relentlessly to glory once again.LD.