Nick Hornby looks back on Arsenal's worst season in 21 years
(Editors' note: We asked Nick Hornby -- novelist and screenwriter who wrote about his obsessive fandom of Arsenal in "Fever Pitch" -- to assess Arsene Wenger and the Gunners after a painful campaign that saw them finish outside the top four.)
Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager -- if "manager" is not too demeaning a description of Wenger's all-encompassing role at Arsenal -- and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition in Great Britain, have been joined at the hip for much of the last year or two.
Both are associated strongly with the borough of Islington in North London: Corbyn represents the constituency of Islington North; Wenger works there. Corbyn is an Arsenal fan who has been quoted several times as saying that he believes Wenger is the best man for the job. (Wenger hasn't yet returned the compliment, perhaps concerned about the income tax he would have to pay on his nine million pounds a year under a socialist government.) Both have somehow managed to survive in their positions despite repeated calls to quit; both approach the summer more secure in those jobs, after moderate but unlikely triumphs.
There is one crucial difference between them, however. While it now seems possible that Corbyn could lead the Labour Party to a victory at the next General Election, very few Arsenal fans believe that Wenger will win another Premier League trophy at the club, and a Champions League victory seems further away than ever.
Oh, and while there is a democratic process that could, in theory, see Corbyn deposed as Labour leader, no such mechanism exists at Arsenal. Arsene Wenger, it would appear, is at the club until he decides he's not. He's a kind and thoughtful man, and so it's hard to see him sending in the heavies to remove dissidents; but one suspects that he probably could, if he wanted to. To understand his power base, it's probably most useful to think of Arsenal as a small and troubled banana republic, and Wenger as a stubborn despot.
Last season was, as the Premier League table tells us, Wenger's worst in his 21 seasons in charge. There were protests, banners attached to airplanes and flown over stadiums, occasionally fistfights between fans. The atmosphere inside the Emirates was often poisonous. I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but I talk to a lot of Arsenal fans during an average week, and it appeared to me that there was no real debate about whether Wenger should stay at the club. If there was a schism among the supporters, it was between those who wanted him sacked immediately and those who felt that, on balance, and with gratitude and respect, he had gone on too long, and the time had come to bow out.
"After all he's done for you," some pundits said -- an argument which should mean that Sir Bobby Charlton should still be playing for Manchester United every week. "Be careful what you wish for," said others, as if it only looked as though the grass were greener at Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester City and Liverpool.
The Arsenal fans who've had enough know that there's a chance of failure under a new manager. They just want to fail in a different way. (And, by the way, perhaps the next failure could be bigger, and involve missing the Europa League altogether?)
And then, just as it looked as though Wenger wouldn't survive the disgruntlement even if he signed a new contract, the season ended with two glorious and genuinely surprising victories at Wembley. A plucky team rode their luck to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinal; an injury-hit and apparently inferior team beat Chelsea in the Final, after controlling the game for 89 and a half minutes of it.
I was so sure I was going to have a miserable afternoon that I agreed to meet up outside the stadium with friends sitting elsewhere when our team went three goals down, and I doubt whether we were the only group which had a bale-out trigger. We could hardly believe our eyes as Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey won the midfield battle, Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding behind them looking like Bobby Moore and Tony Adams, Mesut Ozil finally producing a performance against a top-six team.
I have seen Arsenal in 12 Cup Finals, but I can't remember a better or happier one. Every year for the last four years, Wenger has sent the fans home happy after the last game of the season -- three Cup wins and last year's unlikely second-place finish, when Spurs collapsed at 10-man relegated Newcastle. How maddening to spend the summer hoping, once again, that better things are to come. We were given a glimpse of something at Wembley. Can it be recreated every week?
What was particularly perturbing about the season just finished is that, for the first time since the move to the Emirates, the squad didn't seem short of good players in key areas. Xhaka was bought to provide strength in midfield. Shkodran Mustafi and Holding looked like they might sort out the perennial defensive problems. Lucas Perez would put pressure on Olivier Giroud. In all, 90-odd million pounds was spent and only Holding, an investment for the future, has turned out to be an unalloyed success. Mustafi spent much of the season injured. Xhaka, who finished the season well, spent some of the campaign suspended after a couple of rash red cards, and Wenger ignored Perez, most of the time.
In the last couple of home games, the crowd finally found an outlet for its frustration (the anti-Wenger protests are small, and those of that disposition can't be heard at the Emirates): the American owner, Stan Kroenke. Yet apart from failing to sack Wenger, it's difficult to see why the owner is more to blame than the manager. There is a lot of money out on that pitch, whoever plays.
The low points of the season were the dismal 5-1 defeats against Bayern Munich. If Sutton United can send out a team to stifle Arsenal, we wondered, why can't Arsenal at least make the games more difficult for the European giants? It doesn't help, of course, that fans pay giant prices to watch their team being beaten by European giants. The dream that we were sold on leaving Highbury in 2006 -- that the move would put the club on a par with Bayern, Barcelona, Madrid and the rest -- is still over the next horizon.
Jeremy Corbyn has proved popular with young voters in part because he has promised an end to austerity. Austerity at the Emirates ended a few years ago, but despite the Cup triumphs, there isn't much to show for it. "The rule is," said the White Queen to Alice in 'Through The Looking Glass,' "jam tomorrow and jam yesterday -- but never jam today."
If Jeremy Corbyn and Arsene Wenger ever do meet for a chat, one wouldn't be surprised if the subject of jam came up.