Sometimes the last thing anyone wants is perspective. Sometimes we just want to indulge in our own world view. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s especially understandable when you support a proud football club that hasn’t won a trophy in six seasons. For Arsenal supporters, winning the Carling Cup would mean many things.
Obviously, it’s a trophy. It doesn’t matter what kind of trophy it is. It’s a trophy in a competitive tournament for a team that is all-too-often reminded that it’s now been six seasons since Arsenal last won any silverware. Winning this trophy would remove a stigma from this group of players and from a manger who has no right to be dismissed over what amounts to a technicality in his brilliant tenure. For fans, it’s a chance to make the monotonous droning of the football media stop for a while. It’s a chance to celebrate and be rewarded for patience and dedication to Arsene Wenger’s philosophy.
Where I think we have to start to question certain assumptions, is when discussing what the League Cup would mean to the players. I think every Arsenal player who gets into the game will be happy to play at Wembley, although it’s unclear just how significant that will be to a team largely comprised of non-English players. But no player likes being dismissed as a loser and for the players generally, it will be a welcome chance to shed some of that reputation. But it’s also been suggested that lifting this trophy will be a massive psychological advantage and somehow teach the players how to win other titles. That assumption is not entirely convincing.
Most of the players who will start for Arsenal on Sunday have played only a minor role in the team’s progression through this tournament. And while beating Spuds is always meaningful for any Arsenal player, the run to this cup final also included wins over Newcastle, Wigan and Ipswich Town. Not exactly “murderers row.” And the team standing between Arsenal and glory is Birmingham City. Not exactly Barcelona at the Camp Nou. So while the occasion will be monumental for many fans, it remains to be seen just what the players would gain from lifting this trophy.
I do think there is a some psychological advantage to be gained by proving they “can” win a trophy, but I also know that there are few players from Spain or France or Russia or the Netherlands who grow up dreaming of lifting the Carling Cup. In fact, there probably aren’t many English footballers who dream of that either. Professional footballers measure themselves in many ways. There’s statistics, trophies, and even the ratings they receive in match reports. But I think most professional footballers are most concerned with how they measure up against the best, in the biggest competitions.
If you ask every Arsenal player to name the last five winners of the League Cup, I doubt you’d get more than one or two correct answers, if any. But if you asked them to name the last ten winners of the Champions League, or Premier League, you’d be likely to get near 100% accuracy. That doesn’t mean the League Cup is irrelevant, it just means that it’s probably not considered a priority by the players.
And that’s a reality that’s been borne out over the past few seasons. The manager has routinely used this competition to blood his talented youngsters. It’s been a showcase for Arsenal youth more than a genuine hunt for a trophy. The fact that we’re in the final doesn’t change the fact that this is the most minor competition in which Arsenal compete during the season. Everyone wants to win this trophy but I wonder if the urgency for the League Cup would be diminished if we had won the Premier League last season. I’d suggest our enthusiasm for this final is somewhat a reflection of our frustration at the current trophy drought.
My point is simple, although I’ve managed to make it more convoluted. The Premier League and the Champions League have really become the true trophies of the footballing season. The FA Cup and League Cup have become the “consolation” trophies. If I offered most gooners the FA Cup and Carling Cup at the beginning of the season, but told them if they took it that Arsenal couldn’t win anything else, most would decline the offer. That doesn’t mean they don’t count and it doesn’t mean we don’t care, but they simply don’t bring the glory of the other two. Let’s face it, what we want more than anything else are bragging rights. The right to look at our manc, spud, chav and scouse “friends” and laugh in their faces. We want to lord our triumph over the hordes of plastic Madrid and Barca fans. And you simply don’t get that by winning the League Cup.
For the players, they want the kind of glory that lasts a lifetime. They want the kind of accolades that come from eliminating the “world’s best club side” or winning the “best club competition in the world.” And while nothing beats lifting a trophy, the League Cup is really just a footnote on a player’s resume. They’ll be glad to win it, but I’m not sure it’ll inspire the kind of seismic change in this team that has been suggested. With all due respect, if beating Birmingham City at Wembley is what this team needs in order to finally have a winning mentality, then something was wrong from the start. I think it’s much more likely that this Arsenal team would start to believe they are invincible by knocking Barcelona out of the Champions league at the Camp Nou.
Unfortunately, the psychological impact of a game can cut two ways. While I’m not convinced that the players would gain a mountain of self-belief from lifting this trophy, it worries me slightly that they could have their confidence badly shaken by losing to Brum. The criticism of the team would be deafening. There would be endless suggestions that this group of players just don’t have what it takes to win a trophy. And while I’m sure they’ve rarely taken that abuse to heart before, it’s possible that they might allow some doubt to creep into the dressing room if they let this one slip away. Beating Chelsea and Barcelona were evidence that this team is starting to overcome its “big game” ineptitude. Hopefully Sunday’s result will serve to confirm their progress.
In some ways this might be a case of having little to gain and everything to lose. Let’s face it, no matter how much we celebrate on Sunday night, the media will be hard at work dismissing this trophy as “just” the Carling Cup. And while we’ll rightly tell them to shove it up their arse, we’ll also know that they’re not completely wrong. If the season ends with a Carling Cup trophy in the cabinet but nothing else, most of us will be hard pressed to deny we’re disappointed. It won’t be classified as a successful season and for many, myself included, it will be seen as a missed opportunity to achieve something really special.
Consider the next fortnight and what it could mean to this club. United play Chelsea and Liverpool in the league. If we beat Sunderland next weekend, we could well be top of the table. We have a chance to complete a Champions League victory over two legs that the global football media would hail as one of the great European performances. It’s a victory that would enhance the club’s reputation the world over. And we could cap it all off by eliminating our old nemesis, Manchester United, from the oldest club football competition, on their ground. If I told you all three of those things would happen, but you’d have to sacrifice the League Cup first, would anyone have the slightest hesitation? I doubt it.
At this point, you’re probably shaking your head at me and calling me a miserable bastard. Am I trying to take all the joy and excitement out of a cup final and the prospect of finally winning some silverware? It seems like I am. But that’s not my intention at all. I think we should be ecstatic about the Carling Cup. If we win on Sunday, I think we should celebrate with abandon. I’m excited for the trophy drought to end so it can’t be constantly thrown back at us like some irrefutable indictment of our quality. I’m excited for Arsene Wenger’s philosophy to be finally rewarded with some much deserved end product. I’m excited for this group of players to hear pundits laud them as winners for a change. All in all, I think it would be absolutely fantastic for the fans, the players and the club.
Perspective is never a bad thing. Sometimes it’s unwelcome, maybe even a little inappropriate. But the reason I wanted to provide my perspective is because a lot of fans have built this game up to be the most important fixture of the season. And after years of trophy-less frustration, I understand that urge. But considering what this football club can achieve in the next fortnight alone, it’s important to remember that the Carling Cup should be just a little stepping stone, albeit a nice one, along the way to many great achievements.
Having completely qualified the importance of a win on Sunday, I do believe that this trophy would be massively important to the hordes of Arsenal fans all over the world who desperately need to expel all the pent-up frustration from six seasons of disappointments and near-misses. I think it’s a chance to feel the unbridled joy of knowing, for the first time in a long time, that we were the best team in a particular competition. No one can question that and no one can take that away. They can qualify it’s importance (as I have), but they can’t take away the trophy. Ultimately, football exists not for the media, or the players, or the managers, but for the fans. It exists to entertain us and bring us joy. And tomorrow we have to chance to be filled with joy by the team we love. Perhaps there’s no reason to examine its importance beyond that.
I believe we will win on Sunday. I believe we will win in resplendent fashion and watch the Arsenal finally hold aloft a trophy once again. I will celebrate the win as emphatically as I am able. I hope you will do the same. And then, hopefully, we will move on to the next great accomplishment in store for Arsenal this season.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!!!!