Arsenal were never going to do it the easy way were they? Despite the hope of just cruising to a two or three goal victory in the FA Cup final against Hull City, after the semi-final against Wigan, we should have known that Arsenal would put the supporters through emotional turmoil before winning a trophy again.
Despite the persistent media attention on the nine years, we’d be lying as fans if we denied that if wasn’t in the back of our heads on cup final day. So what was eight minutes in the context of nine years? When James Chester and Curtis Davies scored in those opening eight minutes at Wembley, it felt like the worst eight minutes in nine years. All the hope turned to despair. The atmosphere was strange at the stadium, as rather than outbursts of anger, every Gooner in the ground was just shocked. Everyone was staggered that Arsenal could make such a poor start in another big game. A nine year wait potentially extended because of eight minutes of madness.
Unlike in the big away games in the Premier League this season, Arsenal couldn’t crumble here. Most of them would struggle to show their faces again in an Arsenal shirt if they did crumble at 2-0 down. Liverpool and Chelsea are one thing, but capitulating against Hull would have been beyond unthinkable. Whilst clearly not at their fluid best, and against a stubborn Hull side, Arsenal dug seriously deep on Saturday to recover. Santi Cazorla produced some magic with a stunning free-kick, before chances came and went until Laurent Koscielny bundled the ball in during the second half. Much like the semi-final, sheer will and desperation forced the ball over the line for the equaliser.
In the end, it was a fitting finish to the game for Arsene Wenger, as his substitutions helped make the difference to get the team over the line. Yaya Sanogo, whilst his finishing still leaves a lot to be desired, took the pressure off Olivier Giroud when he came on, and helped occupy the three Hull centre backs with energetic runs. Then, with one half of extra time remaining, after holding back two substitutes, Arsene Wenger was able to give Arsenal an injection of urgency with the introduction of Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere. With Hull looking shattered, these two gave the Gunners a drive forward to get the winner before a penalty shoot-out.
It wasn’t just good use of substitutions that made it special for Wenger though. Aaron Ramsey’s winner was extremely symbolic, considering how he typifies the faith Arsene Wenger has in his team. He had more faith in Ramsey’s ability than the majority of fans did, so to have him score the goal, and a brilliantly taken one it was too, just seemed right. Wenger believed in this team without doubt, and finally they delivered.
Watching from the stands, the goal looked to be happening in slow-motion. Nine years waiting for that moment and 109 minutes waiting to get a lead in the final just built-up to one of the most incredible feelings I’ve had in a football stadium. Of course, in true Arsenal style it was followed by a couple of terrifying moments when Lukas Fabianski came flying out of goal, bringing the loudest intake of breath from fans I’ve ever heard, but Arsenal got away with it.
At the final whistle, the players collapsed on the floor, prayed, pumped the air and emotionally celebrated with the fans. That moment that those players had produced will be written into Arsenal folklore, and all the squad will have a place in history as FA Cup winners at the club. That seemed to hit them at the final whistle, realising they had become the players to bring glory back to Arsenal Football Club.
There were some many great images from Wembley, from Ramsey’s celebration, to the players lying on the turf at full time, to Thomas Vermaelen lifting the cup and to Arsene Wenger being lifted in the air when soaked in champagne. However, one of the abiding images for me of the weekend is of the trophy being held aloft outside Emirates Stadium after the parade. Arsene Wenger was finally able to present a reward for the move from Highbury. He’s taken the responsibility of keeping the team competitive whilst being financially restricted because of the stadium move, at a time when rivals have been bankrolled by wealthy owners, skewing the footballing landscape. He has made mistakes, but here he was able to show a team to a huge crowd of Gooners that has brought success back to the club. There’s finally a trophy at the new stadium, and with the red and white ticker tape in front if the ground, it just looked right. Here was Arsene Wenger’s vision from about 13 years ago beginning to come to fruition. It was beautiful.
In the streets of Islington on Sunday, it didn’t feel like celebrations at the end of something. It felt like the beginning. This win can only serve as an inspiration to the players to see the joy they brought so many fans around the world through winning on Saturday, but it will have been particularly striking to see the estimated 250,000 who packed the streets on Sunday. From next season, when the team walk out at the Emirates, they will see an FA Cup on the front of the top tier of the stadium with the year 2014 next to it. It’ll be a reminder that they have put a marker down at this club. They’ve made a little piece of history, and the opportunity is there to make it bigger.
Like most Arsenal fans, I’ve spent the past few days with a permanent smile. The nine years haven’t been fun. The longer it’s gone, the more opposing fans and the media have mentioned it, but now it’s over. Arsene Wenger now seems likely to stay, and as much as he looked knackered after the match on Saturday, he had the same enthusiastic smile that he had in 1998 during the celebrations on Sunday. It was almost as if he’d forgotten what it felt like to win a trophy, on top of just finishing in the top four. There seemed to be a hunger again, and relief that his patience and belief in the squad, the stadium move and the young players was finally bringing a reward.
Work needs to be done for next season to make sure this is the start of something and not just a one-off, but I’m not going to worry about that now. Arsenal are winners again, and it feels awesome.