Arsenal, as everyone had become very fond of saying, had gone a long time without a trophy. Nine years, it seemed, if every boring journalist was to be believed.
Had it really been that long? It didn’t seem it. Then again, I missed the 2005 FA Cup Final to attend a wedding, and listened to Patrick Vieira whacking home the winning penalty with his last kick as an Arsenal player down a phone line in the garden of the sort of Yorkshire country house many of Imogen’s friends got married. In the following decade we’d got married ourselves, had two children and had another on the way. Life had changed in dozens of other ways, some tiny, some vast in their significance.
In the foreground and the background throughout all this turbulence had been going to the football. Weekends and evenings through autumn, winter and spring roll round as they always have done with the rhythm of the season, some good, some bad. Always fun and always there. But for those years not much of significance: a couple of swings and misses at the title, an agonizing Champions League final, two League Cup Final defeats. The second of these, to Birmingham, was on a bleak and frigid February afternoon which felt wrong right from the outset and ended dismally.
So during the winter of 2014 I’d learnt to not have high expectations from Arsenal. We were so obviously inferior to Chelsea and Manchester City that when we met these teams we’d go out of whatever competition we were in. Despite this, disposing of Spurs and Liverpool in the third and fifth rounds was, as you might expect, very enjoyable. But once we’d beaten Everton in the quarter final we found that every other ‘big’ team was out, thanks to Wigan knocking out Manchester City at the Etihad. The field, it appeared, was clear for us. From being no hopers who couldn’t win anything the papers suddenly declared there was no way we could fail to win the Cup.
As ever, it was not that easy. Wigan’s stubbornness exposed the short tempers among Arsenal fans and the semi-final was an ugly affair. Groups of drunken men who’d turned up for a party got nasty with each other when we struggled. Mertescacker’s equalizer and subsequent penalties were greeted by relief, not unbridled delight. I remember feeling like losing that game would have brought about the end of Wenger’s time in charge. Perhaps it would have. Kim Kallstrom’s penalty was one of several strange cameos that have an unreal air to them now. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why was he there? And where did he go?
On then to the final. Dad and I were back behind the goal in the lower tier, this time with old friends, randomly, for company. At a game like this who you sit with is a lottery, but I was relieved we didn’t have the drunken groups of men who were nearby at the semi. That said, our pals were pretty trollied. Perhaps the scarcity of tickets weeded out the day-trippers, but the people around us were (mostly) a bit older, more mixed and able to hold it together, I thought, if things went wrong.
All season Arsenal had fallen apart in big games, going down 6-0 at Chelsea, 5-1 at Liverpool and 6-3 at Manchester City. Again, here, Arsenal started like a legless greyhound. Before we had time to blink, we were 2-0 down to a Hull City team that probably could scarcely believe their luck. It could have been 3-0 as the mood went from dark to black, with a goal-line clearance saving the day. But it was early in the game, and I said either out loud or to myself that we were going to have to do it the hard way. I thought of George and Harry at home and fretted. No-one said much.
With almost 20 minutes gone we were awarded a free kick, a long way out. In 1991 Paul Gascoigne scored an improbable free kick for Spurs against Arsenal. I can still recall the sinking feeling, the delirium in the Spurs end, the instant sense that we’d lost the game. This time things went our way. Santi Cazorla bent and thumped the ball high over the keeper and into the goal. GOAL.
In some ways, the game was won at that point. Hull were looking at 70 minutes of defending a lead they suddenly seemed unlikely to extend. Arsenal didn’t quite throw everything at them, but kept knocking at the door. In the crowd, the drunk among us veered from swaying to angry to optimistic. Though missed chances were greeted with howls, the crowd mostly stuck with the players.
After one chance, a man in front of me produced the memorable line ‘people these days want everything now’. His words have stuck with me since and become a mantra for understanding modern times. Was he a kind of shaman, appearing on this important day to deliver a life lesson? I believe, on the whole, that yes he was.
Still, the minutes ticked by and our colony of hopeful supporters watched the ball come closer and closer to the goal without actually going in. The ultimate enigma, Yaya Sanogo came on and had his best game in an Arsenal shirt, still managing to miss a few good if not quite clear-cut chances. Then, with 20 minutes left, Laurent Koscielny spun and poked home a half-chance. Another eruption of relief. After this goal I fell over and pulled a load of others with me. What had been a terrible day was suddenly producing larks galore.
There was a long time in extra time to get the winner but it didn’t seem to be coming. Giroud hit the bar with a flying header from miles out. Sanogo continued to miss. Extra time came along, and suddenly we were in the lead. Ramsey’s goal was a beauty, though it wasn’t clear how good until later. For now, we cheered and hoped and prayed it would be enough. Even then Arsenal tried to blow it, with a kamikaze piece of goalkeeping nearly adding to the long catalogue of self-destructs that make up the latter years of the Wenger Era.
But hold on we did, and it was wonderful. The players, ascending those very long stairs, hoisted the trophy into the air. I felt some validation for Arsene Wenger, who must have carried the trophyless years around with him like a heavy weight, even more than we all had, and looked especially pleased. I remember Tomas Rosicky, on as a sub, charging along with the cup, something to show for his time with us beyond loads of injuries.
Wembley as ever took forever to leave, and it was 10pm by the time I got back to Finsbury Park for a drink. A very drunk man cycling down Stroud Green Road fell off his bike and crashed. I ran to his aide. He didn’t seem able to speak. I got home after midnight to hear how the boys had stuck with Arsenal too, and been brave. Just an FA Cup? Don’t believe it for a minute.
There’s a million tiny moments in what survives as in video clips, getting older by the year.
After the glow