Nick Hornby: Arsenal free to dream of better future after Arsene Wenger exit
(Editors' note: We asked Nick Hornby -- novelist and screenwriter who wrote about his obsessive fandom of Arsenal in "Fever Pitch" -- to assess the news that Arsene Wenger was leaving Arsenal Football Club after 22 years as manager.)
LONDON -- The school that my sons attend, a stone's throw from Highbury Stadium, a slingshot from the Emirates, does not allow mobile phones on the premises. Every morning, my boys and the friends that walk to school with them leave theirs in our kitchen, where they lie still and silent until the end of the educational day.
They surrendered them as normal on Friday morning, and I sat down to read the paper in the suddenly peaceful house, but then the phones all started to buzz and ping at the same time. There is only one subject -- Arsenal Football Club -- that can provoke that kind of simultaneous activity. Even news of a North Korean nuclear strike would probably drip through over several days. My own phone had started to buzz, too; by this stage, it was hard to imagine what else could have happened, apart from the resignation of Arsene Wenger.
The boys who leave their phones in my house every day are in their early to mid-teens. None of them saw Arsenal play at Highbury; typically, they started going to the Emirates between 2008 and 2010, and they have enjoyed some good times. They saw Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie at the peak of their careers. They celebrated three FA Cup final wins in four years. They were there the night that Andrey Arshavin scored the winner against Barcelona, and the night that Thierry Henry made his second debut for the club, aged 35, and came off the bench to tuck one into the far corner of the Leeds United net just as he did scores of times at Highbury.
But even these highs didn't count for much. Barcelona won the second leg comfortably, and Henry's goal came right at the end of one of the most dismal games I've ever seen. The FA Cup win over Hull City that ended the nine-year trophy drought was mortifying until Laurent Koscielny equalized late in the game.
For the most part, they have experienced more disappointment than pleasure: championship challenges that petered out in March, big games against big teams that frequently ended in humiliation. (However long the memory, no Arsenal fan had ever seen their team concede eight in one game until 2011). They have watched Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Eboue, Philippe Senderos and Sebastien Squillaci, Johan Djourou and Carl Jenkinson, Marouane Chamakh, Andre Santos and Manuel Almunia, frequently all at once. And those players were directly responsible for the loss of others they loved, notably Van Persie and Fabregas.
It's true that most football fans have been disappointed more than they have been elated, but the boys' parents remember something else: an eight-year period in which Arsenal were as good as anyone in Europe. To own a season ticket during that time was heaven, a passport to the best football in Britain, occasionally to the best entertainment in London. The team probably didn't win as much as it should have done -- bring up the subject of the Invincibles 2003-04 season with any Arsenal fan and the catastrophic defeat to Chelsea in the quarterfinals of the Champions League will be mentioned in the next sentence -- but my memories of Arsene Wenger's time will always involve Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell, Double-winning seasons and breathtaking, muscular, deadly football. The worst thing the opposition could do against Arsenal in the early 21st century was win a corner: you were much more likely to concede than to score.
But nobody under the age of 20 really remembers any of that. When pundits accuse angry Arsenal fans of having short memories, one could equally argue that their own memories are now too long. If you're over a certain age, the Golden Age of Arsene only seems like yesterday, but my sons and their friends are fed up of hearing about what a 68-year-old man did a decade or more ago. They are disoriented: Arsene has been the manager of Arsenal their entire lives. (By comparison, they have lived under four Prime Ministers and eleven Chelsea managers.) But they are excited, too. They have been yearning for the future for a while.
I am guessing that Wenger didn't want to leave until his contract had expired at the end of next season. He has always had faith in his players and in his own ability to turn things around, but the truth is that he hasn't been able to meet the new managerial challenges in the way that Sir Alex Ferguson did.
Ferguson saw off Wenger, then Jose Mourinho and even the financial muscle of Manchester City, but Wenger has been looking on for a while, frustrated and increasingly myopic.
For me, the league cup final in February against Manchester City became the moment when it all seemed hopeless. Manchester City are by far and away the best team in the country, so defeat was no surprise and no disgrace. But the manner of the defeat was dismal.
By my estimates, only 10 teams have lost by three goals in an English cup final in the past 50 years, which happens to be the time I've spent watching Arsenal: 10 out of 100. And some of those teams were lower-league sides out of their depth -- in recent years, Millwall against Manchester United, Bradford City against Swansea.
The only time I have ever seen Arsenal lose by more than one goal in a final was in 1969, when third-division Swindon beat them 3-1 after extra time, so even the most disappointing cup final performances provided a pounding nervousness and a sense of desperation in the last couple of minutes. Most finals are cagey affairs and when one team is (on paper) grotesquely inferior, they usually come up with a plan to stop the good team from playing. That's how Wigan beat Manchester City a few years ago, and how Wimbledon once beat Liverpool.
There was no evidence of any tactical idea when Wenger took on Guardiola. Arsenal did what Arsenal have often done over the past decade: fiddled around until conceding a desperately soft goal and then fiddled around some more until conceding a couple more.
I was one of the thousands of Arsenal fans that left early, with 25 minutes to go; by the final whistle, there was almost nobody in red and white left in the stadium. There was no anger, really, just a sense that the big clubs were now way out of Arsenal's reach, but Wenger & Co. were unwilling to compete in the way that a small club might, by scrapping, hustling and denying space.
Four days later, a very few of us went to the Emirates on the coldest night for years to see exactly the same performance and result. I lasted for an hour at that one. I never walk out of games early, and disapprove of those that do, but in these circumstances staying seemed like a form of self-harm. After that week, there were empty seats, thousands of them, at all the home games. Something had died, and it wasn't about to come to life again.
There will never be a better Arsenal manager and there will never be a smarter or more likeable one. The moment those phones started to buzz, it became possible to see the totality, the significance and the joy of Wenger's extraordinary career at Arsenal. The buzzing had to happen, however, before the bigger picture was again visible. And what a picture it was.
An English novelist and screenwriter, Nick is best known for his seminal football memoir "Fever Pitch," as well as his novels "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy."