Man City's FA Cup run might be vital to avoid protests like the ones at Arsenal
In recent days, social media has been crackling with the indignant sound of Arsenal supporters incandescent with rage at their club's current predicament. As Manchester City prepare to meet the North London side in the FA Cup semifinal in just over a week's time, a spotlight has been thrown on the two clubs' approach to success.
For many followers of Manchester City, it's hard to fathom the depth of anger felt toward Arsene Wenger and his players, a vibe that reached a nadir following their sloppy and lifeless beating at the hands of relegation-threatened Crystal Palace. With the chant of "you're not fit to wear the shirt" being aired, it was interesting for City fans to work out whether the song was aimed at the likes of Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Hector Bellerin and Danny Welbeck or other lesser lights in the away side that evening.
This sentiment is familiar to City supporters and was particularly apt between 1995 and 1998, when the club descended through the English league system as far as the third tier. And herein lies the conundrum: Is it, as some Arsenal followers were suggesting sarcastically on social media, only sides that have felt the keen edge of relegation -- a so-called "real disaster" -- that can have a proper perspective on things, or is perspective constructed on a particular club's expectations and historical performance?
Similarities between Arsenal and Leyton Orient, for example, are clearly superfluous despite the smaller London side's fans feeling the pain of impending extinction, a fate carrying a slightly deeper pain than Arsenal's much-vaunted and oft-discussed sixth-placed finish.
Even a comparison with City -- a club that was, until 2008 at least, far more likely to do the unpredictable than follow Arsenal's example of 20 years of consecutive top-four finishes -- seems risky. In that same period, City have traversed the English football pyramid, offering their loyal supporters the chance to test the pies and the crush barriers at Northampton, Wycombe, Wrexham and Chesterfield among others. Some of the performances witnessed during that mid-1990s slump were disconcerting to a level that most would not readily want repeated.
With a double decade of Champions League participation, winning the double and enjoying sundry cup conquests, Arsenal have in all that time been nowhere but first, second, third or fourth. Does the prospect of a single sixth-placed finish really warrant street marches, banners at the training ground and chants of "Wenger Out" to the one man who helped bring all of these goodies to the table? Over the same period, City have burned their way through no fewer than 14 managers, three divisions and six changes of division.
How can a side stacked with internationals like Sanchez and Walcott be treated to the same song that filled the airwaves for Tony Vaughan, Jamie Pollock and Neil Heaney as City scraped the depths in 1997?
Arsenal, of course, have become used to a certain level of achievement and a certain degree of security. This is a side that has never been relegated and those fans packing the stands at the Emirates probably never will have to wipe away the traditional tears of frustration that accompany such an embarrassing experience. Title rivals Tottenham, Chelsea and City have all experienced at least one relegation since 1970. Even Manchester United spent a season down in the old Division Two back in 1974-75.
Certainly, it should not be thought that either witnessing your club trying to survive (like Orient) or being part of a relegation season is the only way to gain proper football perspective. Arsenal fans have watched their club spend a fortune on players and have been asked to pay through the nose to see the same expensive recruits fail to progress domestically or internationally.
For some City supporters, there is already a shift underway from the old mentality, one of being contented with any small mercy beyond the yearly fight against relegation twinned with an embarrassing cup exit, to something far more lofty. In many ways, the performances of both clubs this season can therefore be deemed a palpable failure. Whoever manages to struggle through to the FA Cup final will still face either Chelsea or Tottenham in the final and will still be the underdog. It's probable that even an unexpected victory for one or the other would be greeted as a mere token from a season of serious underachievement.
Still, a possible Wembley victory is likely to be welcomed in different ways by the two sets of supporters. City's more recent arrival at the top table means supporter patience -- if not that in the boardroom -- still runs relatively deep given that the idea of underachievement is written through much of the club's historical efforts since 1880. If, however, City do not taste success this May, it will be interesting to see how another failure to deliver next season might be treated by those same fans who watched their team in Division Three 20 years ago.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.