It took a second before the reality of the goal set in. No one, not even the players on the pitch reacted in the way that players typically react when a goal goes in. But once I saw the ball spinning in the goal and the nets rippling I slumped into my couch. It was happening all over again.
Arsenal have this thing in big games where they can’t seem to overcome their own frailties and they make the same mistakes over and over again. Or at least that’s the perception and often times perception is stronger than reality and with this Arsenal team the perceptions of the sports writers and fans are that we are bottlers. So, there in my living room, I was watching Arsenal bottle a big game again.
And then the second goal came and I had to put my hands on my face to hide my shame. Two-nil down in the 8th minute of the FA Cup final and I could have cried. The Arsenal players visibly slumped. And when Hull nearly got a third but for the brilliant headed save from Kieran Gibbs* I honestly thought Arsenal were going to get blown out. 6-0 or something. The most humiliating loss in the history of histories. Everything was going to be criticized.
All the anger and frustration of 9 years of being told that we are just “one piece away” from glory. All the deferred gratification and of almost winning trophies welled up inside me. That second goal unleashed the anger of losing the Champions League final to Barcelona. I felt the frustration of losing the League Cup final against Chelsea. I felt the pain of losing the League in 07/08 when Arsenal fell apart in the aftermath of Taylor breaking Eduardo’s leg. And when Bruce won that looping header I felt the sharp sting of my own memory of Wembley, the League Cup final that Arsenal lost in the final minutes because of a Zigic header.
Perception, though, is not the same as reality. In the cold light of Monday morning, three days later I can watch those first two Hull goals and see that they were lucky. Hull may have worked that corner routine up in training but Huddlestone’s shot for the first goal was poorly taken and going well wide and but for the lucky deflection of Chester that would have been a harmless corner. And their second goal was scored from an offside position after a brilliant save by Fabianski.
But in the moment, I was devastated. I hate using the word “gutted” but I felt like a gutted fish.
But cup finals are the kinds of games where players make a name for themselves. Charlie George didn’t really have a sparkling career at Arsenal but Charlie George will always be a legend because he scored that goal in the 1971 FA Cup final.
The same goes for Santi Cazorla. Cazorla has been a good player for Arsenal and one of my favorites last year. This year he seemed to struggle to get back into form and to develop a real partnership with Mesut Özil. But all that is irrelevant. None of it matters, because Cazorla scored the goal that started the comeback. When he struck that ball he unleashed more than just a wicked shot, I leapt out of my seat and screamed “YEEES”. It was a primal scream, like I was letting out the pent-up rage and frustration of those cup final failures of years past. Cazorla’s legend grew three sizes with that kick.
The same goes for Koscielny. Koscielny was already a fan favorite but when he scored the second goal to send the match into overtime I didn’t really need to scream. I had already spat out my anger and instead a calm came over me. I was ready now for Arsenal to win the cup. What I did feel on that goal was fear. Watching on the replays as McGregor scissor tackled Koscielny and seeing his ankle turn over dredged up all the fears of Taylor’s tackle on Eduardo, Shawcross on Ramsey, and countless tackles on Diaby. But Koz got up. Koz played on. And Koscienly’s legend grew three sizes.
Did Wenger’s legend grow three sizes with the win? I remember questioning his substitutions in the moment of the game but he got them all exactly right. Sanogo came on and played an integral part in the win — his energy on the pitch was unrivaled by any player on either team. Not only that but he was a huge pest to the Hull defense just pulling their center backs apart to create spaces for the Arsenal midfielders to run into. Taking Podolski off and putting Sanogo on was a huge gamble and it paid off.
Wenger took another gamble to start the second half of extra time, he hauled off Özil and Cazorla for Rosicky and Wilshere. I remember thinking that he’d lost his mind. But in retrospect, Wenger took off Arsenal’s two most creative players, who had been fatiguing, and put on two of Arsenal’s most energetic players. It worked perfectly. Sanogo was already giving the Hull defense fits with his constant movement, Rosicky and Wilshere were creating pockets of space all around the Hull box, and it looked like it was a plan tailored to get Ramsey shots in good positions. In that period after the 90th minute, Ramsey took 6 of Arsenal’s shots, clearly he was the focus of the team. And when Rosicky and Wilshere came on, Ramsey got the shot that sent Arsenal to cup heaven.
Ramsey’s goal was a moment of catharsis unlike any I have felt before. Aaron Ramsey in many ways symbolizes the post-Invincibles era Arsenal team. Bought as a youth player with huge potential, his career was nearly cut short by an horrific tackle from Ryan Shawcross. Despite overcoming that huge obstacle, he endured years of criticism at the hands of the media, the opposition fans, and his own fans. Arsene stayed true to Ramsey through all of it and as we started to learn more about this young man the one thing you could always count on with Ramsey is that he wouldn’t hide. When you needed a player to step up, Aaron Ramsey has always been there for Arsenal, even when we weren’t there for him.
Ramsey has had a real break out season this year. He won games for Arsenal at critical times: the Champions League qualifiers, the match against Dortmund and so on. And so it had to be Ramsey who put the team on his shoulders in the 100th minute of the FA Cup final and said “I got this.”
Of course he was going to be the one to score the goal. And of course the goal was going to be a back heel from Giroud, into the path of the onrushing Ramsey, who hit it on the volley, with the outside of his boot, short-siding the keeper. When that goal went in, I didn’t yell. I didn’t make a sound. I sat back on my couch with both hands on my face, choking back tears of relief.
Aaron Ramsey, the player who suffered so much physically and emotionally and did so always with dignity and always played with heart, won Arsenal the FA Cup. His legend didn’t grow three sizes, he is the legend now.
This whole team is legend now.
The cup itself is physically empty but as a symbol it is ready to be filled with whatever you want. That is the magic of the cup. Is it the vindication of Wenger’s long-term plan? Will the cup make recruitment easier this summer? Does the cup mean that Arsenal have sloughed off the tag of almost-winners? Is Cazorla now a free kick specialist? Is Koscienly’s ankle made out of titanium or something? Is Aaron Ramsey one of the best players to ever play for Arsenal? Does the cup mean that we will now kick on and win more trophies?
Yes yes yes yes yes yes…
Winning the FA Cup shows me that this team has the potential to do great things. Think about it, Arsenal won the FA Cup without a goal-scoring striker and with an ageing defensive midfielder. Imagine for a second if this core group of players had both the striker and the midfielder that Wenger tried to buy this summer?
I think the cup will help there as well. Luis Gustavo turned Arsenal down last summer to move to Wolfsburg. No matter how much we wish players would look at Arsenal and simply say “yes, that’s a big club, I join them” the reality is that Arsenal had an albatross hanging around our necks for the last nine years. Now that we’ve won the cup, and been top of the League for 128 days, we have proof that Wenger has built a team that can challenge for trophies.
But most important, it was inconceivable to me that Arsenal would be able to overcome a 2-0 deficit and win a final. I’ve posted the “Never in Doubt” picture on Twitter many times this year, but the truth is that I had doubt. Plenty of doubt, plenty of times. But now, an incredible cup run in which we swept aside Spurs, Everton, and Liverpool and won on a day we were 2-0 down has restored a great deal of my faith in the players and the manager.
That’s the magic of the cup.
*You know that when you put a player on the corner like that it’s called “zonal marking”.