ARSENE Wenger was talking a few weeks back about his nostalgia for the FA Cup final, an occasion he used to watch on television when he was a schoolboy in Alsace.
He recalled the grainy black-and-white images of managers exchanging pleasantries in the dugouts, and the well-groomed Englishmen who graced an immaculate Wembley pitch.
The Arsenal manager would be forgiven were he similarly wistful about his team’s last success in the competition, indeed any competition. The memory isn’t quite sepia-tinted. It is not baggy shorts and Brylcreem, captured on a Pathé newsreel with commentary delivered in the plummy tones of Mr Cholmondley-Warner. It just seems that way.
When Arsenal line up against Hull City on Saturday in an intriguing climax to the most famous knockout competition in domestic football, the aim will be to do what they have singularly failed to do at any point in the last nine years. Not since Patrick Vieira lifted the FA Cup in 2005, after beating Manchester United on penalties, have Wenger’s team won a trophy.
Many have waited longer, much longer, but for Arsenal supporters, reared on Wenger’s Invincibles of 2004, and the early-noughties rivalry with Manchester United, patience is wearing thin. The lengthy transition period that has followed their expensive move to the Emirates is all very well, but a touch of silverware every now and then should not be too much to ask.
If they neglect on Saturday to beat Hull City, who were barely a league club when Wenger arrived in England, questions will be asked, once again, of the 64-year-old Frenchman. It will cast into doubt his hopes that, once Arsenal have cleared their stadium debt, and started to capitalise fully on their increased matchday revenue, they will sweep all before them. It will stretch to the limit his frequent suggestions that trophies are not the only currency with which to measure progress.
For a while now, Wenger has been able to claim, with some justification, that Arsenal have been making subtle strides. The theory is that homegrown players, frugality in the transfer market and an identifiable football philosophy will enable them to emerge from what has been a challenging financial period as a sustainable rival to the game’s nouveau riche.
Wenger has said that qualifying for the Champions League in each of the last 17 seasons has been worth more to the club than any shiny trinket. He has argued that, for all the criticism of their abortive title challenges, they are heading in the right direction. As they approach today’s final league match, against Norwich City, they trail the leaders by seven points. They were 16 off the pace at the end of last season, 19 the season before that.
He would also be entitled to point out that, when they have got themselves into a trophy-winning position, luck has deserted them. If it is not sendings-off (the oft-forgotten 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona), it is last-minute goals (the 2011 League Cup final against Birmingham City) or controversy (the 2007 League Cup final against Chelsea) that has determined the outcome.
But there comes a time when a club runs out of excuses. At some point in this protracted plea for patience, the supporters need to be thrown a bone. Otherwise, it all sounds a bit like Colin Montgomerie pretending that the Ryder Cup and eight European Orders of Merit are more important than major championships.
However courageous they have been in sacrificing instant gratification for long-term gain, Arsenal are no less equipped than some who have lifted trophies in recent years. Since 2005, Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic have won the FA Cup, while Swansea City and Birmingham City have won the League Cup.
More worryingly, Arsenal have developed a chronic inability to do themselves justice in the biggest games. Quite apart from their travails in knockout competition (which nearly continued in their FA Cup semi-final shootout with Wigan), they have consistently come up short in pivotal league matches, especially away from home. They led the title race for 128 days this season, only to concede six goals at Manchester City, six at Chelsea and five at Liverpool.
Wenger’s historic failure to get the better of Jose Mourinho betrays a softness at the centre of his teams, a reluctance to compromise his principles when circumstances demand. Arsenal have won none of their last six matches against Chelsea, none of their last six against Manchester United and one of their last eight against Manchester City.
The longer the drought continues, the more they need big players in key positions. A change to the club’s hitherto cautious transfer strategy was signalled last autumn by the lavish acquisition of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, but the German international has been a disappointment.
With three league titles and four FA Cups in his 18 years at the club, Wenger’s achievements are unarguable, as is the care and tenderness with which he has negotiated a tricky period in the club’s modern evolution, but as the title race becomes more competitive – and more expensive – than ever, he must prove that he is the man to spend Arsenal’s expanding budget.
The club have faith in him. On the table is a lucrative new contract to replace the one that will expire at the end of this season. So far, he has not signed it, preferring to wait until the FA Cup has been won, but he has given his word that he will do so.
He wants to be the manager who benefits from the groundwork undertaken in his name. He wants to be in charge when football is played on a more level economic playing field, which is why he has claimed that those who break UEFA’s financial fair-play rules should be kicked out of the Champions League.
His biggest challenge will be keeping the supporters and the media onside. They need something to cling to. They need proof that, after all this time, he still knows how to win, starting at Wembley this weekend.
A few years ago, when one of those long, fruitless seasons was slow to take shape, he famously asked his critics to judge him in May. If Arsenal don’t beat Hull City on Saturday, they will gladly oblige.