The Irish Mail on Sunday
WENGER GETS HIS REWARD FOR STAYING TRUE TO HIS BELIEFS
Agony for Bruce as his meticulous preparations are undone by a moment of absolute brilliance
WHEN the winning goal burrowed into the Hull City net after 18 minutes of extratime, Arsene Wenger gave a brief, satisfied nod. Then he stalked from dugout to touchline, glaring at his team’s celebrations, aware that they risked being carried away by the moment.
There he stood, an angular figure in an impeccable white shirt, club tie in the neatest knot; lecturing, instructing, teaching.
His Cup Final afternoon had been heavy with dramas, most of them unwelcome, all of them nervewrenching. More lay in store. He was wary, almost to a fault. Twelve minutes later, a whistle screeched across Wembley, and all changed, changed utterly. Wenger punched the air, flung his arms high. He even began a little dance of untypical glee as the cuddles came flying in. A match had been won, a trophy gained, a managerial reputation salvaged.
With so many expectations, so many hopes resting on his shoulders, Wenger had tried to appear composed, controlled, serene. But he doesn’t do serenity terribly well, and soon, terrifyingly soon, all pretence was abandoned. It took four minutes before the Hull corner, pulled back to the brink of the box, was scuffed by Tom Huddlestone and almost involuntarily turned in by James Chester.
If that goal was excusable, the second, four minutes later, was a genuine calamity. Wenger had spent much of those intervening minutes pacing, brooding, hands in pockets of his dark suit, a sense of dread written across his shoulders. The Wembley carpet was smoothly green, a perfect stage for Arsenal’s passing game, but nothing was happening; no confidence, no coherence, nothing but nerves and frustration.
Then, in that eighth minute, the second goal struck them with shuddering force. A cross was poorly defended by a listless back four, a post was struck and Curtis Davies, loitering with vague intent, was scoring from an acute angle. Wenger was not at his best. Looking around for someone to chide, he chose the linesman for identifying the free-kick which started the move. He would have done better to bawl out his defenders for culpable negligence, but Wenger, in the manner of Sir Alex Ferguson, rarely turns publicly on his own team. Everyone else in the stadium is fair game, of course.
A few yards to his left, Steve Bruce was trying hard to restrain his celebrations. Physically, the two men could scarcely be more different; Wenger tall, lean, gravely professorial, Bruce plumply gnarled, Les Dawson reincarnated. But the Hull manager is a seasoned pro and a worthy foe. His preparations are famously meticulous and season by season he has worked hard and well to turn moderate performers into genuine achievers. Hull represent stirring vindication of his abilities.
‘Steeeve Bruuuuce!’ they chanted at the yellow-and-black end. Wenger sat and tried to compose his thoughts, aware retaliation had to be swiftly effective, before the roof fell in on Arsenal. The whole affair might have ended in 13 minutes, when Kieran Gibbs was required to head a header from Alex Bruce off his own line.
At this stage, we sensed Wenger’s professional obituary was being written. He had seen his team capitulate too many times this season, most notably against Liverpool and Chelsea. He knew they were capable of embarrassing surrender. He was horribly aware that a career’s work would come into question in the space of a single, submissive Wembley.
So he sat and he waited, and in 16 minutes Bruce Junior bundled over Cazorla and the avenging Arsenal man came up with a perfect, irresistible free-kick, which tore through Allan McGregor’s fingers and high into the Hull net.
Celebration was not expected from the Arsenal manager and none was
forthcoming. Instead, he planned and he plotted, filling the ears of his assistant, Steve Bould, with tales of rank injustice. Somebody once put a heart monitor on a Premier League manager to assess the tension and the strain. The machine has not been invented which could adequately convey the agonies of Wenger.
At this stage, he looked a manager whose team had not won a trophy since 2005 and who knew beyond question that he would be held responsible. You could almost hear the outrage from the ranks of red: ‘It’s Hull City, after all. I mean, Hull City!!!’
Wenger continued to struggle with his emotions, a task made infinitely more difficult by some time-wasting and niggly challenges which Hull employed to break up the game. But his nerves and patience had been stretched beyond reason when he found the relief of the 71st minute, and the eruption of unpredictable action in the Hull six-yard box and Laurent Koscielny’s wriggling contortion which saw the ball slip under McGregor’s legs for equality.
Arsenal, and quite possibly Wenger, had been on the point of accepting that the fates would again frustrate them, especially when referee Lee Probert declined to award the penalty which Davies’ challenge on Cazorla evidently deserved. Wenger retreated to the dugout, his jacket off, his nervous breakdown postponed, while Bruce rearranged his forces with increased positivity. We realised normal service had been resumed when the final whistle saw Wenger hissing complaints to the nearest linesman, as if he were personally responsible for Arsenal’s failure to finish affairs inside 90 minutes.
In the third minute of injury-time, his hands flew to his head when Olivier Giroud bounced a header off the bar, but during the brief interval after 15 minutes, he could be seen in urgent conversation with Jack Wilshere. The young man was sent into battle, alongside Tomas Rosicky. Wenger was placing his faith in midfield creators. It was a move which symbolised his entire career.