The abundant species of football’s diverse and complex ecosystem prowled the long grass of north London’s streets this weekend. To the seasoned wildlife observer, it wasn’t difficult to tell the specimens apart. And, it being FA Cup quarter final weekend, the full gamut of animal emotion was on display.
On Sunday, in neighbouring Haringey, the Lions of Millwall were on the prowl. The strutting Cocks of Tottenham were in equally aggressive mood, defending their territory while the game wardens of the Metropolitan Police kettled, truncheoned and escorted the beasts into their enclosures.
No one liked either breed, but they demonstrably did not care.
In Islington on Saturday those mystical creatures of folklore, the Imps, were abundant. Migrating down from the vast fens and marshland of Lincolnshire to these urban environs. Flocking around the varied watering holes of Holloway Road, they merrily hydrated themselves.
Close by, the poachers, called Gunners by those who reside in these parts, were irritable and discontented. Some tasted blood, others merely desired a change of scenery.
Eventually, as night descended, their team moved in for the kill and ended the Imps’ spritely dreams with five shots that all hit their target.
Arsenal progressed to the semi-finals beating non-league Lincoln City 5-0. There they could meet rivals Spurs, who put six past League One Millwall, in Monday night’s draw.
The real intrigue for Arsenal though is as much off the pitch as on it these days, and the presence of 9,000 travelling Lincoln fans experiencing the biggest day in their club’s history brought things into sharp perspective.
The Edward Lear pub (formerly The Quays) was literally turned into The Lincoln Imp for the day. The pub’s landlord replacing the signs outside to mark the historic occasion – their first ever quarter final and the first non-league club to reach this round in 103 years.
When they played Guiseley in the 4th qualifying round in December, just 765 Lincoln fans made the trip.
The contrast for Premier League giants Arsenal was obvious. Despite the club’s omnipresence in the Champions League, one of the world’s best stadiums and a team that hosts at least two world class players (for now), the disgruntlement grows louder every year.
One man takes the brunt of the criticism, Arsene Wenger. But soon it may be the man who employs him, Stan Kroenke, sitting less comfortably in his director’s box seat.
To supporters of most clubs, the dissatisfaction of Arsenal supporters is spoilt and entitled.
Lower league clubs simply can’t imagine what there is to complain about. Even the fans of Premier League rivals like Liverpool still regard Wenger as a genius. They warn Gunners fans against the far worse alternatives that could might lurk in the undergrowth in a Wengerless future.
But right now, there are a growing number who don’t care how bad things might get without him, they simply want change. They want the highs and lows, the euphoria and the bitter disappointment. They don’t want what they’ve been getting for a decade now: a predictable, inevitable Groundhog Day.
The last time the Emirates saw a game that made the hairs stand on end was May 2009 when they hosted Manchester United in the semi-final of the Champions League. The noise before kick-off was as loud as the new stadium has ever heard. Within minutes it was silent as United scored their first goal and sent Arsenal crashing out.
The club has never reached those heights again. Two years later they were beaten 8-2 at Old Trafford. To many that was the beginning of the end of the Wenger era. But three contracts later, he’s still at the helm.
Some ask why he would want to stay and endure the anguish the team’s shortcomings produce. There are 17 million reasons why. If Arsene signs the new two-year contract offer reportedly on the table, he pockets another £17m. He earns double what Zinedine Zidane earns at Real Madrid and £2m a year more than current league leader Antonio Conte.
Last year’s capitulation to the eventual champions was the breaking point for many. Arsenal sat top on New Year’s Day. The previous five teams in that position went on to win the league. Arsenal did not. Many now believe that Wenger’s multiple mental collapses since their last title victory in 2004 are now an inevitability, and that psychological shortcomings will prevent him ever winning the title again.
To some fans the money is less important than success. But they are in a minority. Just 300 supporters marched down Gillespie Road (once the name of the tube station before it was renamed Arsenal following the success of Herbert Chapman in the 1930s) holding Wenger Out placards. The other 60,000 shunned the protest. They feel that Wenger, who overtook Chapman to become the club’s greatest ever manager deserves more respect. He will get that respect: it’s as inevitable as a fourth-place finish. But the harmony and the victory in Arsenal’s club motto “Victory Through Harmony” become more distant each year.
We began with animals any mythical creature, so we might as well end with them.
If this were Dragon’s Den, fire-breathing Arsenal fans would have declared themselves out by now and Arsene would not be getting the investment he has come to expect. But, in the context of cold hard business, it’s clear that Wenger will be taking us to the zoo tomorrow, and he will be staying all day.