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May 18, 2014

Wenger Takes All: Hirshey's FA Cup final diary

LONDON -- In the end, my voice was gone, my back was in spasms, my face was awash in sweat and my glasses were somewhere in the row behind me.

God, I felt great.

It was like, oh I don't know, nine years -- okay, 3,283 days to be exact but who's counting? -- of frustration, anger, disappointment, heartbreak, Gooner self-loathing and stratospheric bar bills had fallen away in the course of 120 gloriously infarction-inducing minutes. Or to put it another way, Arsenal not only flung that trophy-less monkey off its back, it stomped it to death on Saturday at Wembley with a 3-2, come from are-you-kidding-me behind victory over a Hull City side that forgot to read the memo about their role as patsies.

For a lifelong Arsenal fan -- have I ever mentioned that affiliation before? -- this felt like an exorcism being performed in front of 90,000 people at the sacred ground of English soccer and millions more watching on TV. So many demons had been banished in the course of the gripping, exhilarating match, not least the insult that puffed-up prankster Jose Mourinho had hung around Arsene Wenger's neck like an anvil: "specialist in failure". As Yaya Sanogo, who played 30 huge minutes worthy of Yaya Toure, tweeted: "How many trophies have Chelsea won this year?

This is not to say that Wenger is suddenly a specialist in trophy-winning, just that he will no longer have to endure being beaten over the head by the media, obnoxious managerial rivals desperate for a psychological edge and even a vocal contingent of Arsenal fans for coming up short on the big occasions. At least for another week. And make no mistake; while the FA Cup may have been eclipsed in recent years by the financial bonanza of winning the Premier League and Champions League, it is still quality silverware, especially to a team whose trophy cabinet hasn't needed to be dusted since Charles married Camilla.

For the long-suffering Gooner faithful, their wait for redemption has had so many false dawns -- 35 potential trophies have gone begging since Arsenal's 2005 FA Cup triumph over Manchester United -- that it's astonishing Arsenal fans were willing to pay up to $3000 for the privilege of witnessing yet another epic heartbreak.

I was one of the hopeful masses, although I managed to cadge a ticket for a tenth of that -- as far as my wife knows -- which afforded me a seat behind the goal at the North end of the Stadium where four of the five goals were scored. Not that I needed a seat because as it turned out, I never used it. For more than two hours I stood side-by-side with my hardcore Arsenal brethren, bellowing out songs and chants in full-throated support of our heroes while keeping up a steady stream of invective at referee Lee Probert who, by my estimation, missed about 87 nailed-on penalties.

I figured if the Gunners were to ever lift another trophy other than the Emirates Cup in my lifetime, I had to be there. And not just in my normal Gooner guise of Bergkamp shirt and Henry socks, but the full monty. Yes, I had the Arsenal crest painted on my face prior to kickoff, thereby earning the distinction of the only person over 10 years old who emblazoned their cheek.

I mean, if we couldn't beat Hull City, who could we beat? The new-look Cosmos?

The Tigers had reached the final by finishing 16th in the Prem, or 12 places below Arsenal. The Gunners had easily beaten them twice in the league this season (2-0 and 3-0) and that was with their first-team strikers in the team, Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long, a duo that was cup-tied for the final. There was such a yawning gap in talent and resources between them that even someone like me, who is normally cautiously pessimistic when it comes to Arsenal, was in an uncharacteristically buoyant mood from the second I touched down at Heathrow two days before the game.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one. Traffic notices had been posted in North London that the Gunners were planning an open-top bus parade for Sunday, the day after the final.

"That's pretty cheeky of your boys, considering what happened last time," said my affable cab driver Adrian on the way into town from the airport.

"What was that?" I asked, nonplussed.

"Don't you remember?" he replied. "You'd done the same thing before the 2006 Champions League final and then had to cancel it after you lost to Barcelona."

The tone in his voice was a tad too gleeful and made me suspicious that once again I had been trapped inside enemy territory.

"You don't happen to be a Spurs supporter?" I ventured.

"Only for 50 years, mate," he chortled.

Having some experience in these matters, I mentioned that on my last trip to London to watch Arsenal play Chelsea at the Emirates, one of his fellow Spurs-supporting drivers had dropped me off five blocks from the stadium in a torrential rainstorm.

After erupting in laughter, he assured me that wouldn't be the case this time. "I have no real hatred toward Arsenal fans, even though I wish you the worst," he said. "Let me tell you a story about my relationship with your lot. I have seven children from two marriages and last year I decided to get a vasectomy. So I go to hospital and I'm sitting there in my gown when the doctor walks in holding a scalpel of some sort and asks me what that tattoo on my arm is. I tell him that it's the Spurs crest and he says 'Pity, I'm an Arsenal supporter.'"

FA Cup Final coverage

- Brewin: Arsenal unconvincingly end barren run

- Johnson: Three Things

- McNicholas: Ramsey finds extra gear

- Wenger: Relief at cup glory

- Report: Arsenal 3-2 Hull City (AET)

Adrian dropped me off at The Tollington, a pub near the Emirates where hundreds of Gooners had gathered to celebrate the launch of a new book about Arsenal's unbeaten 2003-2004 season produced by the "Invincibles" of Arsenal websites, Arseblog. Needless to say, the beer was flowing like a Pires-Bergkamp-Henry attack but instead of a cocksure swagger among my brethren, I encountered a mood of cautious optimism. Too many of these fans in their 30s and 40s had experienced so much pain that thirty years later, the wounds were still raw. One fan named Martin said his Dad took him to his first Cup final at the tender age of three. It was in 1972 and Arsenal were playing a thuggish Leeds side that manhandled the Gunners en route to a 1-0 victory.

"I remember coming home and I was crying," said Martin, "My grandmum looked at me and asked what was wrong. I said 'Arsenal lost.' She said, 'C'mon, be a man.'"

Even the estimable creator of Arseblog, Andrew Mangan, said he was filled with a mixture of excitement and dread. "I still have nightmares in which I see [Wojciech] Szczesny and [Laurent] Koscielny colliding in the last minute of the Carling Cup final against Birmingham in 2011 and Obafemi Martins running clear on goal," he said. "No matter how many times I try to bring him down, the ball always ends up in the net and I wake up in a cold sweat."

Not me. I figured that the Soccer Gods had already punished us enough in the league, allowing us to perch atop the table for 128 days only to implode spectacularly down the stretch and have to scrap mightily to simply reclaim our birthright: fourth place. Then, they tormented us even further, allowing us to nearly choke to FA Cup semifinal death against Wigan only for the Gunners to squeak past the Championship side on penalties.

Finally winning silverware would offer up tangible proof to the world that Arsenal is more than just a bunch of twinkle-toed aesthetes but have the resolve to go the distance and win trophies. I was betting on the latter. Literally. On my way to catch the tube to Wembley, I stopped in at a bookmakers situated in London's Soho district on -- wait for it -- Gerrard Street. "I thought for sure there'd be a sign on the door saying 'Watch your step,'" said my friend and fellow Gooner Ed Brolin, who had also made the trip from New York. Instead, as we entered the shop all we saw was a sign that encouraged us to "bet responsibly," which we ignored.

Among the many quixotic bets we put down were Arsenal to win 3-2 at 28-1 and Aaron Ramsey to score at 7-1. (No need to dwell on the other wagers that didn't work out quite so well.) Then we proceeded to a pub to "drink responsibly," more advice that we promptly dismissed. Fittingly, the bar was named "The Slaughtered Lamb" and I asked the manager with the brazenness of a man laughing in the face of fate: "Is this the home base for Hull fans?"

"No," said the manager staring balefully at my Arsenal shirt. "Hull are Tigers, not lambs."

As I was soon to find out those beasts roared mightily throughout the final, taking up the opposite end of the ground and resplendent in their gold and black kits, waving flags that proclaimed them "the Pride of Yorkshire" and "UK Capital of Culture, 2017." Since they hadn't been in a Cup final in their 110-year history, they couldn't really advertise any past glories.

Meanwhile, vendors were selling Arsenal T-shirts that listed all of Arsenal's FA Cup titles under Wenger: a total of five, tying him with some guy they call "Sir Alex." Yet as both Arsenal and Hull fans knew all too well, this was the FA Cup, where both league form and previous triumphs are often obliterated by the so-called romance of the world's oldest national competition in which 776 clubs enter the tournament dreaming of winning the handsome piece of silverware festooned with the ribbons in the colors of the victorious team. Hence the Arsenal song "She wore a yellow ribbon" that many supporters wore on the back of their t-shirts and whose words crackled around the steel and concrete mega-dome.

But if this was a battle between the haves and have-nots of English football, Hull wasn't buying. To them, the FA Cup represented fantasy and happy endings and they reveled in their role as underdogs. Not only reveled, either, matching Arsenal's ear-splitting noise level in the moments before kickoff. Hull dared to dream and for eight mind-boggling minutes the dream was not only alive but threatened to become a living nightmare for Arsenal.

Up in my section, the boisterous chants had devolved into stunned silence with fans sitting, heads in hands, wondering how the Gunners had sunk to the occasion so abjectly that they were 2-0 behind. A group of young supporters next to me began to exhort our doleful neighbors by shouting "Believe! Believe!"

"I just realized that I've lived half my life since we won a trophy," said Richard Arends, a tall, gangly 18-year-old in a Mesut Oezil jersey. "We are not going to lose to Hull. It's physically impossible. Believe."

Despite my initial jaunty mood I found it hard to share his confidence, steeling myself for yet another Arsenal disappointment. Our backs were not just against the wall, they were molded into it -- with Wenger's making the biggest dent. While Steve Bruce jabbered and gesticulated on the touchline, the Arsenal manager had retreated to the bench, looking like a man who had run out of ideas, not to mention time at the club. If this was to be the game that brought down on the curtain on his paradigm-shifting era at Arsenal -- he had yet to officially sign a new contract, choosing to wait until after the match -- he deserved a more forceful response from his players than the jittery shambles of a performance they had so far given.

And then Santi Cazorla stepped up to a 25-yard free-kick, striking it with such power and precision that it curled beyond Allan McGregor's desperate dive and flew into the top right-hand corner. You would have thought Arsenal had lifted the trophy rather than just halved the deficit, such was the magnitude of delirious celebration in my row. Richard, who was still shouting "Believe" as Cazorla shaped to shoot, bear-hugged me at least two feet off the floor and inadvertently elbowed my glasses to the ground.

Still, Hull led 2-1 at the half and when a familiar face appeared on the field in coat and tie to conduct an interview, shouts of "I-A-N W-R-I-G-H-T" rang out before the Arsenal scoring legend looked up and bowed deferentially. If I were Arsene Wenger -- and mon Dieu, I'm not -- I would have seriously considered throwing the now 50-year-old striker a jersey and bringing him on for the second half. I mean, could Wrighty be any less effective than Olivier Giroud?

Clinging to their lead, Hull took their sweet time on goal kicks, throw-ins and corners, anything to drain a few seconds off the clock. While Arsenal pressed the attack, the stout Hull defense led by ESPN FC All-Prem pick Curtis Davies stood firm until with a half hour to go Wenger made what proved to be a bold and ultimately decisive tactical move, taking off a lackluster Lukas Podolski and replacing him with Sanogo.

Almost immediately, Arsenal began to cause havoc in the Hull penalty area, propelled by the young Frenchman's energy and aggression up front. When Koscielny equalized ten minutes later, taking advantage of a scramble in the box to scuff the ball across the line, you could sense the fight going out of Hull. They had played with great heart and courage but by scoring so early, they allowed a team of Arsenal's quality too much time to creep back into the game. With the specter of extra-time looming, they mustered all their strength to simply hang on but their legs, if not their spirit, were dead.

And when Wenger played his final tactical card, bringing on the fresh legs of Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky for the last 15 minutes, there was a sense of inevitability to the result. Still, it took a signature attacking move from Arsenal to put the glorious exclamation point on the comeback. Giroud's clever back heel found Ramsey in a sliver of space, and he drilled an exquisite, outside-of-the-foot first-time strike inside McGregor's near post.

At that point, bedlam descended on the Arsenal side of the stadium and I finally got to sit down, having fallen over into my seat after being buried under a sweaty, joyous scrum. Young Richard next to me tried to hide his tears but like the Arsenal and Hull players who had collapsed on the turf at the final whistle, he was too drained to even move. The release of tension both on the field and in the stands was palpable, no more poignantly than when Wenger allowed himself a little puff of the cheeks just before being drenched in champagne by his players who then joyously tossed the Frenchman into the air.

When he came down, his hair matted and clothes soaked, he looked a disheveled mess but one that, finally, was holding a trophy aloft.