Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Diary Of A Pessimistic Arsenal Fan - Why The FA Cup Needs Arsenal To Lose

By Shane Thomas

This time last year, it was unbearable. The nerves. The anxiety. The knot in my stomach as kick-off drew ever closer. The desperation of ending that trophy drought. And in a manner that was as nerve-shredding as it was circuitous, Arsenal managed it; 2013/14 winners of the FA Cup.
I'm sure I wasn't the only Gooner who felt like this. So given that Arsenal have made it back to the FA Cup final again this season, shouldn't my emotions going into this game mirror the ones I had 12 months previous?

For clarity's sake, I'll be disgusted if Arsenal fail to retain the cup against Aston Villa on Saturday. But I can't pretend that I'll approach the same level of delirium if we manage to triumph[1].

My reasoning is largely based on the paroxysms of joy from the Villa fans in their victory over Liverpool in FA Cup semi-final back in April. It was matched by the players on the pitch, as through a combination of ebullience, and ruthlessness in front of goal, they upset the odds (and ruined pre-prepared tabloid back pages).

While I often find an analysis of football that fails to go beyond the histrionic wearying, there is something to be said for the potency of a club being in tune with the feelings of its fans. Against Liverpool, there seemed to be an ambiance that decreed that this would be Villa's day. The fans demanded it, and the players acquiesced.

Being an Aston Villa fan has been a largely miserable experience for years. Despite their august reputation, their haven't had a decent team since arguably 2010 - a greater consequence of Randy Lerner's spending, rather than Martin O'Neill's management. And they haven't won a trophy since the League Cup in 1996.

Unlike sides who have won cups in recent seasons, like Wigan and Swansea, Villa are a club still reconciling with the epochal way English football has changed since the increased importance given to qualifying for the Champions League.

The ossification of "the top 4" and the rest have left a series of clubs, historically used to success, largely on the outside looking in; as well as Villa, teams like Everton, Tottenham, Newcastle, and even Liverpool are adjusting to a changed footballing landscape that hasn't worked out well for them[2].

So, when a chance for tangible glory arrives, it's understandable that Villa will be the choice of many a neutral on Saturday evening. Not only does it speak to the English tendency to root for the underdog, but a Villa win won't just be for their fans, it'll be for fans of all clubs who want a piece of the prizes normally divvied up between a select few clubs in England.

Arsenal will go into the game as warranted favourites, but Villa have players who can hurt them. I was at the Emirates in 2013 when a tremendous counter-attacking display gave them a 3-1 win, and left Arsenal fans disgusted.

I imagine many pundits will recommend Villa employ a similar strategy in the final. After all, if Gabby Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke can directly run at Arsenal's back four, they both have it in them to cause problems.

However, in his nascent managerial career, counter-attack doesn't seem to be in Tim Sherwood's wheelhouse. I expect him to replicate what his charges successfully did against Liverpool; outnumber Arsenal in midfield, high energy pressing, direct passing, and try to run the legs off them[3].

The template has already been laid out. In last year's final, Hull made a blitzkrieg start to the match. They came out swinging, Arsenal weren't ready for it, and the Tigers had a 2-0 lead inside of 10 minutes. Lest we forget that had it not been for Kieran Gibbs, Hull would have been 3-0 ahead, and killed any chance of an Arsenal comeback.

While it may not have the lustre of last season's triumph, one shouldn't underestimate how important this final is for Arsenal. If this current generation is to shake off the tag of nearly-men that has dogged the club for over a decade, then they must be able to turn one trophy into multiple trophies.

What makes the Villa story especially piquant isn't just a once dominant club getting a chance to relive their past successes, but the fact that the FA Cup is the setting for the occasion. Even though it's been denuded, the FA Cup still retains a special feeling for many in the game.

We hear a lot about "the magic of the cup". Most of the magic comes from the competition being the stage for moments that feel like they were scripted in advance. The FA Cup final is an occasion that's proved fertile ground for individuals to turn themselves into club heroes; Charlie George, Ricky Villa, Yaya Toure.

The prospect of Tom Cleverley, Fabian Delph or Jack Grealish making the occasion their own is one that will probably bring a smile to many fans of the game. I know I'd feel the same if Arsenal weren't the opposition.

This is why many will be hoping for a Villa win on Saturday (beyond the rampant epicaricacy that ferments whenever a big side loses a match). They want the FA Cup to remain important, and it can only be so if shocks aren't just a possibility, but an eventuality.

For the health of the FA Cup, Villa need to win. But for the sake of me, I sorely hope they don't.

[1] - I'm hoping these first three paragraphs are enough to tip you off that I'm an Arsenal fan.

[2] - Even worse has happened to clubs like Leeds and Nottingham Forest.

[3] - A recent Twitter conversation with a Villa fan seems to reinforce this view.

This piece was initially published on Think Football.

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