My stepfather’s father, Ken, has been like a grandfather to me since he came into my life as a teenager. We sat together at Highbury for a couple of years before he passed away in preparation for the 2003-04 season. A few days passed before the Gunners sealed the title at White Hart Lane, where 33 years earlier he had watched his beloved team seal the league title.
I sat next to him for most of the home games that unbeaten season and almost every home game Arsenal won the league in 2001-02. At one point in the season of Invincible, when I was 19, I distinctly remember him telling me to savor every moment. “You may not see such a good team again, I have never seen such a good team before.”
Superficially, I knew he was right at the time, but the years have made that wisdom more poignant. Sometimes the things people say really stick with you, even if they sound perfectly logical and simple. Ken has spent several decades watching Arsenal and has seen some great teams as well as some mediocre ones. He understood the cyclicality of this sport.
Perspective is the greatest gift of the age; after you go around the sun a few times, you start to observe patterns. It is both a tragedy and a blessing to understand that the good times are to be savored because emotions and experiences are fleeting. I’ve heard it and read it many times in my life, but it was Ken, with his decades of experience at Arsenal, who really taught me what it meant.
2002 parade in Islington. pic.twitter.com/IhpcXEOqUc
— Tim Stillman (@Stillmanator) October 9, 2015
I went back to it many times throughout my time as an Arsenal fan and it gave me perspective. But, to be honest, it also made me a little anxious. I still tend to be anxious when I feel good with Arsenal because I know it won’t last forever. I vividly remember how the honeymoon feeling in Wenger’s early years slowly (and then very quickly) turned into a bitter accusation.
I watched the George Graham era drift (albeit from a much less mature point of view) and watched that early sense of invincibility and promotion quickly fade as the manager’s message faded and transfer policy became unclear. The last two seasons of Arsenal’s revitalization under Mikel Arteta have been, in my opinion, the two most enjoyable seasons of the last 19 years, and by a long way.
It was uplifting to feel that the club that had been drifting was going from strength to strength again, with a young team and a renewed fanbase. Those old ties between the team and support started to renew, that “oh yeah, I remember what it was like” feeling. In both seasons, Arsenal far exceeded initial expectations, even if they did not quite reach their revised targets at the end of May.
At the beginning of last season, when stadiums reopened after covid, I wrote a reflective article about finding happiness in the age of the super club. I made some good reflections in it that resonated almost two years later: “To compete remotely at the level they enjoyed roughly 20 years ago, Arsenal must be a strong mix of excellence and luck.” I’m not sure which measure, excellence or fortune, Arsenal have failed this season. Probably both.
In this article, I made a vow to extract every drop of enjoyment from watching Arsenal, especially after 18 months away from live games. “I think I made the decision to enjoy the games as much as possible, especially when I’m in the stadium. This pleasure has been off-limits for so long that I am trying to cherish it,” was my final conclusion.
It was made much easier by Arsenal’s progress on the pitch, supported by a group of younger, hungrier and more likable players. However, in the back of my mind I always had this anxiety, this awareness that the feeling of watching the team go up with the young manager and the team would not last forever. Expectations and ceilings change as we witnessed under Arsene Wenger.
When Arsenal finished third under Arsene Wenger in 1996-97, it felt new and exciting. When Arsenal finished third in the 2009–10 season, a terse banner on the North Bank read: ‘Third or Fourth’. Wow.’ The exciting beginnings of a relationship quickly give way to familiarity and routine. Next season at Arsenal will be different.
Expectations will be different, which means the atmosphere will be a bit different and the emotions that it will all trigger will be different. All this is natural and not even in the slightest wrong, it is simply the evolution of the human condition. Still, I can’t help but long for that feeling that will last a little longer, the feeling that a pretty good Arsenal is a pleasant surprise, contrary to minimal expectations.
But that’s not going to happen and I’m preparing for it and I hope Arteta and the team are so good that they will create a level of expectation and ultimately authority that will make brilliance a routine. I planned the whole summer, analyzing the next steps, the accusations and the effects of a season that was mostly unbridled pleasure that sadly wilted under the lights in the spring.
There will be plenty of time and plenty of column inches to devote to this. For now, with the final weekend of the season approaching and this team playing their final home game of a largely exciting campaign, I plan to put forward thinking and side effects aside. I don’t take it for granted that Arsenal will be great next season, there is still work to be done and there are events to plot. All this can wait for another day.
I want to spend Sunday thanking these players and the coach for giving us a team we can believe in again, a team we can sing for and be proud of. I want to be able to show my gratitude to the team that made me re-study the league table, that inspired me to fulfill those predictions at the end of the season, and to be anxious and worried about what future matches might bring, to re-engage emotionally.
The last two seasons have represented the age of innocence for Arsenal and their fans, and I know that will probably start to pass as the dust settles on Sunday. This team will have to negotiate the transition from potential to realization, from boys to men. But this weekend, before we expose them to the brutality of the real world, if you’ll excuse me, I want to buy them all ice cream and ruffle their hair one last time.
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