Do you remember what you were doing on May 7, 2006?
My sister and I were holed up in the TV room with our uncle’s friend, watching Thierry Henry kneel down and kiss the turf at Highbury; beaming wider and pumping our fists a minute later as the news came through via our broadcast (in the days before smartphones) that West Ham had won at Upton Park against Spurs, whose result we’d needed to better on the day to seal that fourth spot.
On May 17, 2006 we were to face FC Barcelona in Paris in the finals of the Champions League after an astonishing unbeaten run on the way (not to mention clean sheets throughout our knockout matches versus Juventus, Real Madrid, and Villareal). A few years on from my first full season as a Gooner, I was certainly more aware in my emotional investment, more deliberate in my support than I’d been in 2003-04. Yet, looking back now, knowing and having been through everything that I have with Arsenal since, I didn’t have the perspective required to comprehend just how crucial a match that was for the club. What it would have meant to move to the Emirates with a Champions League trophy with us, given Arsenal’s European record, given the never-far regret that the Invincibles crew didn’t go further in the competition.
Back then I only wanted to see us win. The universe handed me my first experience of football heartbreak, instead. To this day I cannot watch any footage from it; even mere mentions of anything related ache deep. Writing this, I’m experiencing the wrenching all over again.
So it was fortunate that we had ensure Champions League at our new ground come August 2006, after a few (unnecessary) twists and turns, of course. That final game at Highbury against Wigan Athletic was as joyful a send-off to our spiritual home as it could have been within the present and future context.
How many of us realised that it was as good as it was going to get for a long while?
I remember the joy but it wasn’t until three years later—watching my first live match on a bright, spring day in 2009, Arsenal 2-0 Manchester City—that I experienced what it felt like to be a part of something bigger than myself, even though I didn’t quite have all the words yet.
Here I am, more than a decade later, with some words, more joy, and an inescapable lurching of pain on the back of a season that deserves the attempt at shouting into the void of football fandom.
On April 9, 2023, my cousin and I gathered at the house of a friend (incidentally the one who got me into PL football—a Man Utd fan who tried everything in his power to get me to follow suit, and, well…we all know how that turned out). The three of us, and one goodest, goldenest boy, watched the drama unfold at Anfield, running the gamut from joy to the particular kind of frustration only sports fans will understand. But it was Anfield, a place where we’d suffered many a crushing defeat in recent years, so a draw wasn’t the worst thing to happen? Yet it was tough to quash the years of Arsenal-induced trauma that promptly reared its head. Perhaps it was the West Ham draw that followed and not this result that precipitated it all, but how little it matters in the face of the cavernous heartache of April and May. A pain magnified because, because. A what-if despair that matches that night in Paris and won’t be dislodged anytime soon.
Are you sensing a ‘but’ here? Because you’re getting one regardless.
I’ve been to the Emirates many times since 2009 (the last being Unai Emery’s last PL match in charge—yep), but this is the first season the stadium has truly felt ours, even for me who has watched all of it on television across the seas in India. This is the first season I’ve realised what everyone lucky enough to experience Highbury meant when they used the word ‘sacred’.
My Arsenal journey began with the Invincibles, at a time when the fortunes of the club were at a fleeting, glorious peak, in retrospect already ebbing by the time the next season began. It was heady and magical, in part because that was my first experience of any of it but also because it was a landmark season which I couldn’t possibly fully grasp as a fresh fan. Being with a new football narrative cycle from well before the beginning, however, with more than two decades of proactive emotional investment, hits differently, through the elation and the grief. Visceral and personal in a way that was distant to me back then.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of that precious gold trophy when we shone the brightest we have on this side of the Premier League, it feels particularly poignant that through the pain, I find olive branches to hug and pull myself back onto solid shores; promises whispered that there is more to come.
When Mikel addressed the supporters in his end-of-season message and said, “it doesn’t mean the hurty bits don’t hurt, it’s just that the other stuff is worth prioritising,” it became a little easier to reflect on what has been, against the odds, an extraordinary season, wondrous and pure in its unexpectedness.
At the start of 2023, I was far from the only Gooner talking about enjoying each matchday as it came, no matter the final result in May. I was certainly not the only fan remarking on the fickle nature of the game, and how rare it is to know you’re in the presence of something special while you’re in it—so why shouldn’t we embrace the heady mix of emotions. I think even the most positive of us held quiet doubts about if we really could go all the way.
We couldn’t, as it turned out, and there were multiple reasons for this, as will be discussed and elucidated far better by others than I could or want to, but just because there was no fairytale ending, must we throw it all away?
Should we negate the buoyant belief of much of this season, the effervescent joy, the fist-pumping hope of the second-youngest team in the league led by the youngest manager?
Does it erase the connection I know I’m not alone in feeling, a belonging unlike anything I’ve ever felt in two decades of being a Gooner—and I’ve felt plenty?
Trophies are, of course, the destination for any successful sports story, but what are we left with if we don’t stop to embrace the glowing moments along the way (or even by themselves); what are we losing out on if we listen to those celebration police and mediocrity merchants, and don’t let ourselves dive head-first into those emotional battle-trenches until “success” has been achieved?
“I’m a human being, I have feelings!” to quote our beloved manager; and as he pointed out in his press conference after the Wolves match,
“We have to enjoy the journey together. Especially you have to enjoy the company. I said that today because we have a special group of people in this club, an incredible group of players, and amazing support. That has to be enjoyed. In the end winning can be about the margins but you cannot underestimate the rest because if we don’t do that, we are going to regret it.”
Football fandom is strange in that it allows us an escape from “reality” while being not all that different in its uncertainty, its lack of promises, or its ability to drive home the inherent futility of existence. On the pitch, we control even less than we do in our own lives. We may follow our range of superstitious routines; even the most fervent atheist among us will admit to praying to any and all gods and higher powers—but we’re all at the whims and mercies of those mercurial football deities. On the other hand, when the beautiful game does allow us mortals drips of the ethereal, it is like an all-enveloping nothing else. The most important of the unimportant things in life, as the great Arrigo Sacchi has said. And who are we to argue?
Would those glittering moments mean as much if we didn’t have anyone to celebrate with, though? Or, in those gutting moments, anyone who commiserates with equal intensity?
A few years ago, I wrote about how we come for the football, but stay for the community. That’s never been truer than this season, when the sense of the communal has been elevated to a level I’ve never experienced in over two decades of being a Gooner. When a full-throated Emirates stadium routinely gave me goosebumps (and brought me to tears) through a screen thousands of kilometres away; when I felt, and continue to feel, a physical pull to North London, and a fierce rush of warmth and protectiveness about this manager and group of players that leaves me an incoherent puddle in its overpowering potency.
The new murals, the genuine camaraderie between easy-to-love personalities, the connection between the players and the fans—none of this would have been as compelling if not for our performances on that pitch, but it’s a true give and take. The rarest of times when what happens on and off the pitch at a club, between its men and women and youth teams, is so comprehensive in its synergy. To me this is one of the most beautiful parts of this journey that we’re on with Mikel, his merry men, and this entire football club.
And to find out it’s not one-sided?
“It was one of my dreams, probably the biggest dream that I had, to connect again with the soul of this football club and our people.”
Mikel Arteta Amatriain took over a club that had been untethered for a long time, scrambling for an identity that floated ever far. This glowing reconnection he speaks of—plain to see for anyone who’s been paying attention or as the youth say “feeling all the feels”—is a testament to his vision, his intelligence, his passion, and his humanity. I’d always loved him as a player, but it is a gift to love him as our manager who’s returned The Arsenal to us in more ways than one, even as he leads us forward.
Any long-term process births within itself multiple phases; the progress never linear or even immediately visible, the hiccups many. Our exponential leap this season has ensured that the coming one will have finer margins of error and even finer margins of growth, all against sterner expectations sprung from the high standards we’ve ourselves set.
“Pain is part of football – when you don’t win, when you don’t perform at your level, it has to hurt. It has to hurt the right way and you have to use that pain to become better and to find answers and solutions that can help you win more.”
Next season will bring what it will bring, and I don’t expect any of it to be easy. But, for now, if we can’t pause to soak in and acknowledge all parts of our homecoming, whatever is the point?
So, thank you, Mikel, for making us believe again. For giving us a team to hand our hearts to and throw our support behind; for giving us no choice but to be emotionally vulnerable, to care. For reminding us why we keep coming back to this mad sport, and why we stay.