LIAM MACKEY: Going for the Gunners

Just what on earth was going through the minds of all those Gooners who booed long and loud at the final whistle in Arsenal’s scoreless draw with Manchester United at the Emirates on Wednesday night?

Look, we all understand that supporters are a key component of the life-blood of football. Just ponder the freakish reality of games which have to be played ‘behind closed doors’ to appreciate that, no matter how thrilling the exploits on the pitch, a top level match drained of the noise and emotion of the crowd is a much lesser thing.

We also accept that, in a modern game characterised by the shifting allegiances of managers and players, the fans represent the last bastion of the concept of loyalty to club, trooping the colours through thick and thin.

And we can go even further and say that, while no supporter has ever come on to score a winning goal, on certain nights of heart-stopping tension, when the division between success and failure is as fine as it gets, the 12th man phenomenon can actually make the difference, as in the Kop famously “sucking the ball over the line” as they like to say at Anfield.

Add in the financial cost of all this devotion and one can’t really find fault with the contention that, ugly though the negative soundtrack of the mob always is, football supporters have the right to express their displeasure, as stridently as they wish, when the going gets tough.

But, still, none of that answers our opening question: why were all those Gooners booing on Wednesday night? Admittedly, the game was a pale shadow of those epic heavyweight bouts between Manchester United and Arsenal which used to define the Premier League, but while such tepid fare was always going to leave the neutrals cold, it can’t fully explain the seething rancour of the home support. No, the only explanation, on the face of it, is that from even before kick off, Gooners believed their side ought to beat Manchester United. And when they didn’t, they felt entitled to boo the players and the manager off the pitch, while aiming a pointed two fingers at the boardroom..

Nor was it the case that the players hadn’t tried hard enough, as the busy David de Gea would surely testify.. Even Mesut Ozil, doubtless still smarting from the critical drubbing he received for swinging the lead in the 5-1 loss to Liverpool, put in a whole-hearted shift on Wednesday. And Olivier Giroud’s conspicuous failings in front of goal on the night were entirely for the want of a clinical finish, not lack of effort.

So perhaps, then, the booing was all about long-suffering fans being fed up with what’s perceived as an era of chronic under-achievement at the Emirates.

Certainly, the miserable drubbing at Anfield would have had them in a bad mood from the start but, as I write Arsenal are one point off the top of the Premier League and preparing to face Liverpool again, this time in the fifth round of the FA Cup while, looming large on the horizon, is that Champions League clash with Bayern Munich. How David Moyes, among many others, must yearn for that level of under-achievement.

So, maybe the deeper reason for Gooner unrest is that, if there’s one thing worse than eight years and counting of a trophy drought, it’s this season’s unexpected injection of hope where, at the very outset, there had been only despair. The booing might have burned Arsene Wenger’s ears on Wednesday but it was as nothing to the rank abuse which, according to those who were there, he had to endure at the final whistle when Arsenal were beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa on the first day of the season.

Everything seemed to be going according to season’s grim script at that point, only for Wenger and his players having to go and spoil it all by embarking on a 12-game unbeaten run. And they were on another ten-game unbeaten run before the wheels came off against Liverpool last week. Lest we forget, they have also lost key players in Theo Walcott and, crucially, Aaron Ramsey, the latter not only in contention for a Player of the Season gong but also arguably bringing the best out of Ozil before succumbing to injury.

Of course, such injuries have served only to cast a harsh light on the lack of depth in Arsenal’s squad, a problem sharpened by the club’s logic-defying deliberations in the January transfer window, which effectively amounted to two steps back for the big one forward which had been heralded by the arrival of Ozil.

But it’s what happens on the field of play which takes centre-stage again tomorrow. Liverpool are the side with momentum, Arsenal the team lower on confidence, so it’s hard to bet against a win or at least a draw for the visitors. And you feel it will be even more a case of advantage Merseyside should Wenger, as he has hinted, “rotate” his team for the game with one eye on his Champions League ambitions. I think that would be a mistake. The trophy drought has been so protracted at Arsenal that, exhausting and even risky though it might be for his players, I think Wenger should go for broke on all fronts for the remainder of the season.

An FA Cup is the least Arsenal deserve, not just for this campaign of over-achievement but for Wenger’s long-standing commitment to a philosophy of football which, for the neutrals if not always the supporters, has so often made his teams the ones go watch in England.

For that reason, and though I’m no Gooner, I really do hope that the final whistle at the Emirates tomorrow is greeted by cheers not boos.


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