Imagine Alastair Cook lifting his bat to salute the Lords crowd after scoring his 20th run or Lewis Hamilton stepping on the podium with a bottle of champagne after securing pole-position at the Monaco GP. Obviously both are fine achievements, but were Cook or Hamilton to celebrate them, they would both look like sportsmen whose minds have derailed to the point where even non-trophies – or, in this case, personal achievements – are celebrated as major victories. In reality, of course this would never happen, but in yesterday’s final round of Premier League matches, it did.
Any non-football fan walking into a London pub yesterday would have been forgiven for thinking the title was at stake on the final day of the Premier League season, given the scenes of jubilation and agony across the Northern section of the capital. In fact it was fourth place in the Premier League that Spurs and Arsenal players and fans were pinning their hopes and dreams on. Nothing more than the opportunity to play a game to qualify for the Champions League in the 2013/14 season.
As Arsenal players celebrated wildly on the pitch together with the fans that had traveled to St James’ Park, one could have been excused for thinking Arsene Wenger and his players had won the league and were about to return to the dressing room ahead of the trophy presentation.
Therein lies the problem. Celebrating fourth place and another trophyless season is incredibly small time, particularly for a club the size of Arsenal. The real issue is not that the Gunners celebrated finishing fourth, rather that finishing fourth is something some considered worthy of a celebration. Even Piers Morgan was embarrassed and I hated the fact I had to agree with him.
Granted, the financial bonus deriving from Champions League participation is essential to any club, both in terms of attracting top players and in terms of revenue, while securing local bragging rights is something every football fan would cherish but, ultimately, a fourth-place finish is nothing more than “a springboard for success”, as Arsene Wenger described it last night.
While it might be a little easier to understand Spurs fans’ desire to finish fourth above Arsenal, considering that they haven’t managed to do so in 18 years and have picked up only three trophies in the last 22 years, Arsenal fans’ jubilation is harder to comprehend.
In the first 14 of those 22 years, Arsenal picked up 11 trophies but it’s now eight years since Arsene Wenger got his hands on any silverware and while Arsenal might have not declined, Wenger’s assertion that a fourth spot finish is like winning a trophy speaks volume for the stagnation into which his club has fallen.
Less than a year ago, Robin Van Persie, the man who had driven Arsenal to a fourth-place finish last season, made his desire to leave the club clear, many Arsenal fans reluctantly admitted that, unless the club won a trophy, they couldn’t expect their top players to be content with a top-four finish.
Yesterday’s scenes told a different story, one of lowered expectations. Money and European qualification are a panacea clubs can feed the fans only for so long for, as Wigan demonstrated a week ago, football is about winning titles and lifting cups.
Finishing fourth-best is a decent result and nothing more. Celebrating it like a victory is an admission that a club can no longer compete for the title and hoping that next season, with a couple of signings, it might just have a chance.