30 March 2014

Hair-shirt Chronicles: Reasons for hope

And so we emerge from what was our toughest remaining fixture of the season, and we claimed a draw that seemed remote before kick-off and hopeless by halftime. However, the fight that the squad showed in that second half was vital, and not just for the point we kept. Some will rue the idea that we might have spurned chances to take all three, seeing the two points dropped while forgetting the one in hand. What with Liverpool and Everton winning, it is a pity that we couldn't keep pace, but remember your own feelings ahead of our own fixture—pessimism and fear—and remind yourself that we have earned a right to feel quite a bit better than we did seven days or even five days ago. This draw, though not the kind of result that could catapult us to the top of the Prem, should remind us of the fight and the quality that we still possess. I'd like to take a small shred of the credit.

Once a talisman...
Just what am I talking about? The shirt, of course. It was once my good-luck shirt, but it got ensnared in too many negative results, and I've had to retire it, at least on match-days, wearing it every other day of the season until a trophy exorcises whatever foul spirit has inhabited it. The draw with Southampton was the first sign of trouble. Then came the mauling at Anfield. The draw at Old Trafford. The loss at Stoke. On and on, the evidence mounted that the shirt had lost its lustre in the laundry. Ever since the loss to Chelsea, I've vowed to wear it as a hair-shirt, as penance for first letting us all down back in January. Each day, all day, as long as it's not match-day.

I didn't wear the shirt against Swansea, and we struggled to a draw. I had only worn the hairshirt for three days (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday) and so it still needs time to ripen, to reclaim its musk. I wore it again Thursday and Friday before switching to a long-sleeved home jersey. Watching the match, I felt tetchy and uncertain and not just because of who we were facing or what was at stake. We started slow, and I looked down at the field of red that I was bathed in. Would it work? Would its powers cross the Atlantic and find their way to the Emirates as the 04-05 third kit once seemed to do? When Podolski was dispossessed in that 17th minute, it was as if I had my answer, and I could foresee how Man City's counter would come to pass. Even as the shot rattled the woodwork, I was already making plans to take the home-kit off, perhaps burn it. What's a man to do from 6,350 kilometers away but invest all of his passion in a shirt and hope that some kind of alchemy transfers that passion into the players on the pitch?

Just as I was doubting this new shirt, worrying that it was too new, too untested, I realized with shock and horror that the last time I wore it was...14.12.2014. If that set of numbers doesn't shake you to your core, perhaps this set will: 6-3. And so it was, during Man City's celebration of a go-ahead goal, just beyond the fateful 15-minute window that marked our previous debacles at Stamford Bridge and Anfield, that I wondered if I again was to be guilty of torpedoing our chances. No, I told myself. Stay with it. Don't lose faith so easily. I kept the shirt on, doggedly determined to be an asset even from afar.

I mentioned taking credit. I'm not invoking some half-arsed butterfly-effect (thank you very much, Ashton Kutcher, for ruining that reference once and for all). I'm appealing instead to that fervent, earnest belief I and many others have that we can and do affect the outcomes of matches. Some of you are fortunate enough to get to do in person, where the lads in red can actually hear you and draw their life's blood from your singing. I'm working on joining you all there, I swear it, but it's going to take some time. In the meantime, I get to The Globe Pub when I can, but more often, I'm in my basement, and the shirt I wear and the songs I sing will have to suffice. I sang every song I know and even tried inventing a few new ones. I'm not claiming that the shirt I wore or the songs I sang had any effect at all, but, like you, I noticed a very different Arsenal in the second half. Not just in the second half, but in weeks. It felt in many ways like we had the old Arsenal back—passing and moving with purpose, creating chances, even pinning City back for stretches.

When Flamini slotted home 53 minutes in, I exulted. It was a cathartic goal, one that Flamini himself celebrated, not with a knee-slide or a pirouette but by karate-chopping angrily to the crowd as if to say, "dammit! Dammit!! Let's get another!" Sadly, it wasn't to be, but it's what I among others called for. The draw is not enough to keep us alive in the Prem chase, of course, not with our ceiling at 82 points and City's at 91, Chelsea's at 87, and Liverpool's at 89. We depend on too many variables beyond our control. Is third still a possibility? It's distant but not impossible, not with Chelsea's Champions League progress to distract them. However, that's another issue for another day.

For now, we've reminded ourselves of what we're capable of when we focus and play with intent and energy. Man City, with an inside track to winning the Prem, dropped points in the Prem for the first time since 8 February. More importantly, we regained a bit of the grit, confidence, and, yes, verve that had been lacking for some time. With just six Prem matches left, it's a vital time for us to rediscover those qualities. We'll see if it can carry over to Sunday's trip to Goodison Park. In the meantime, I have a hair-shirt to wear. Seven long days to bear (although the real burden will fall to family and co-workers who come too close, especially come Thursday and Friday). Whatever small shred of support my hair-shirt provides the club is more than worth it.