Eight months have passed since I wrote an article for this website entitled The Professor in the Boardroom with the Chequebook, in which I asked whether Arsene Wenger was leading Arsenal through a period of stagnation or evolution. As an incredible campaign reaches its conclusion – a season where the club led the Premier League for longer than City, Liverpool and Chelsea, only to fall away in the spring – it appears the answer to the question depends exclusively on the outcome of Saturdays FA Cup final against Hull.
The English game’s showpiece occasion now represents Arsenals most important match since the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona and the result will certainly influence the direction, not to mention the mood of the club for the next four or five years.
Make no mistake, May 17th will be a landmark day in Arsenal Football Club history, for better or worse. But you know that already.
If the brilliant German defender Per Mertesacker raises the trophy aloft around 7.15pm, Wengers approval barometer may yet veer towards the positive again, and the campaign can be regarded as a marginal improvement on seasons past. A cup win would surely embolden the manager to remain for a few years yet, and buy the Frenchman more time to pursue the title that has proved so elusive since 2004
If Hull claim the cup – and for Arsenal fans that eventuality is surely unthinkable - the undercurrent of hostility towards the manager is likely to re-emerge. The pressure on Wenger, one of the most decorated and important figures in the clubs illustrious history, would become impossible to withstand.
Defeat would demand a new direction.
The immediate destiny of the club then, is in the hands of a talented and cosmopolitan bunch of professionals, who one assumes will be desperate to climb the Wembley staircase as winners.
While the story of Arsenal and Wenger is endlessly fascinating, it is ultimately the players who will be the main protagonists. They will train this week with the heavy burden of expectation upon them. On Saturday they must demonstrate their mental fortitude as much as their ability.
For so long this group looked like bona fide contenders in the title race until their season hit turbulence in February and the old, dormant failings re-emerged. The spring provided an injection of reality and fans prone to excessive pessimism decided categorically that the club was going nowhere.
Except it wasn’t quite as clear cut as that.
I have said on these pages before that it is probably easier to be an Arsenal admirer, as I am, than a born and bred supporter. I wont feel the joy many of you who are reading this will perhaps experience at the final whistle and the crushing defeats to title rivals don’t wound me in the same way, but sometimes a dispassionate interest leaves more room for objectivity.
From the outside looking in, the improvement is minimal, yes, but it is significant. While the top teams have inflicted unimagined devastation on Arsenal, results that fatally undermined their title credentials, the lesser teams have barely been able to lay a glove on them, and were routinely despatched with comfortable scorelines.
Arsenal have accumulated their highest points total in six years. While it may seem perverse, the word that springs to mind when appraising the season is consistency.
Wenger continues to embrace soaring ideals as a football manager, although with a greater degree of belligerence than brilliance these days. On Saturday, for one night only, principles should be left on the team bus and the overall importance of the result must take precedence over purity of performance.
As the old saying goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard enough. The eleven who take the field must outwork their opponents from start to finish to allow their superior ability to flourish.
As luck would have it, the path to the final provides a framework. Tottenham, Coventry and Everton were dismissed with relative ease but the hard fought victories over Liverpool and Wigan spoke more to a collective strength of character than sublime footballing skills. All of this and more will be required at the weekend.
To see off the five teams above and then win a final would be a major achievement, it could not be diminished or undermined no matter how much others may try to.
The eyes of millions of football fans in hundreds of nations will be trained on Wenger and his men on Saturday. The outcome will shape the future of the club moving forward. Victory will not wash away years of disappointment but would provide a platform for next season, free of incessant references to trophy droughts.
But in many ways Saturday shouldn’t be about the future, Arsenal have been building for that for a decade. An FA Cup final at Wembley is an occasion to be savoured and my fervent hope is that Arsenal succeed.
Enjoy your day.