Welcome back to Losing My Favourite Game, the feature that takes all the joy from the experience of football fandom, casts it to one side, and zones in on the pain, anguish and suffering instead. Every week this season, we’ll be publishing stories from a host of voices across the world of football and beyond, with each and every one relaying their personal memories of a particularly galling defeat.
Taking her turn in the Chair of Despair this week is Jasmine Baba, editor for Betfair, freelance writer, and long-suffering Arsenal supporter. A child of the Wenger Era, Jasmine grew up on a diet of free-flowing football, incredible goals, and trophies galore. The good times, it seemed, would never end. In their final five years at Highbury, the Gunners lifted two Premier League titles, including their season as ‘The Invincibles’, and three FA Cups, as they prepared to head to their new home at Ashburton Grove. Unbeknownst to Arsenal’s supporters however, the penalty shootout victory over Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final would be the club’s last honour for nine years.
Reaching the Champions League final the following season, only to lose out against Barcelona in Paris, the nucleus of Arsene Wenger’s second double-winning side began to disband, as Dennis Bergkamp retired, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry packed their bags for Spain, and Ashley Cole and Freddie Ljungberg moved to opposite ends of London. In their stead, a fresh breed of exciting European youngsters were charged with restoring Arsenal to the top of English football, with Cesc Fabregas - already a stalwart of the side despite his tender years - Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott becoming integral to the first team. Seasons soon passed without a sniff of silverware. A League Cup final here, a Champions League semi there, but nothing to add to the FA Cup beginning to gather dust in the trophy cabinet.
By the 2012/13 season, Arsenal’s supporters were beginning to lose patience with their longstanding leader. With little to spend in the transfer market thanks to the move to the Emirates Stadium, Wenger had seemingly lost his knack of unearthing bargains from overseas and, since the departure of Jens Lehmann, a team formerly famed for their miserly defence had suffered instability at the back. Languishing outside the top four in the Premier League, and with a tricky tie against Bayern Munich to come, the FA Cup was looking the best bet for Arsenal to end their trophy drought.
Having limped past Swansea City in a third round replay before hurdling the banana skin of Brighton away in round four, the fifth round draw had thrown up a kinder tie for the Gunners, with Championship side Blackburn Rovers due to make the trip down to North London. What could go wrong?
Arsenal 0-1 Blackburn Rovers
FA Cup Fifth Round
16th Feburary, 2013
Cast your mind back to 16th February 2013. The blistery cold of winter was still clinging onto dear life, without showing signs of spring. The Premier League season, and the summer before, had already been a long one.
At this time I was 21, working in retail, and was throwing myself more into the one thing I felt I really had. Football.
I had always been more into watching football matches as a child, mainly because of my three, much older, siblings who would make me watch and listen with them. I loved it. It was one of those aspects that you and your family had, a special bond that you all enjoy. It was within my blood.
I remember when I was in my early teens, boys would be surprised by someone with my knowledge, and my defiance as an Arsenal fan. I remember “bandwagon” Manchester United fans taking the mick - in a North West London school - just before the FA Cup final in 2005. Safe to say the Monday after I wore my Arsenal bag with pride.
Even in the latter parts of college, there were nights out where, sat on pub benches, I’d go into a football-laced rant at peers and people I had just met, and they’d look shocked and say, “you really know your stuff!”
Now, that date I mentioned at the start of this piece might be insignificant to you, and probably to many Gooners too, but it was important to me. As I said I was throwing myself more into my love and that year I was earning enough to get myself to more matches and bought an Arsenal red membership. A milestone.
We were playing three games in seven days, in three different competitions. For some reason, in the second half of a season where we’d lost our best player to a rival team (that was Robin Van Persie to Manchester United, they went onto win the league), and where we’d already lost six games in the Premier League, leaving us fifth, four points off our bitter rivals Tottenham, I thought to buy tickets for each one of these home games at the Emirates.
The 16th February 2013 was the first of those. An FA Cup fifth round clash against Championship outfit Blackburn Rovers, a more than winnable game. The tickets were cheaper, so we made a family day out of it, consisting of my siblings and one of my closest cousins. The next two games that followed was a Champions League round of 16 fixture against Bayern Munich, and then to round it off, a home game against Aston Villa. Tickets were harder to come by and more expensive for the other two, and FA Cup matches are always fun. Our minds were decided, we were all going to go to Arsenal v Blackburn.
The day started with optimism. Arsene Wenger had never lost to lower league opposition in the FA Cup before, a record spanning 17 years. We hadn’t exactly looked good in December but the new year-round of fixtures, apart from a little wobble away at Chelsea made us look like we were coming back into form. We were already 21 points off Manchester United at the top of the Premier League table and we were playing for top four, but we still could win the FA Cup, and we were still in the Champions League. Blackburn were nothing to fear.
We got to the stadium and found our seats, we were four rows from the goal, if any goals came in our side, we’d be in shot. Lovely scenes.
Except, they never did.
Pre-match optimism had been eroded by the a typical Arsenal performance; we looked on top, had most of the possession, all the chances, yet nothing came. As fans it was nothing we weren’t used to, but it was a strong line up against a Championship team. The atmosphere became tense. How many times had the Gunners been dominant only to lose pathetically? Many. It’s just that I had never seen it happen in front of my own eyes before.
Tomas Rosicky showed flashes of brilliance, but any balls threaded through the Blackburn defence were greeted by Gervinho, and one football memory that will always be burnt onto my brain is him missing what was essentially an open goal by four yards. Just metres away from me. Funnily enough it wasn’t the first time that season he’d done it; in December we crashed of the League Cup to Bradford and he’d missed a similar chance.
The deadlock was broken in the 72nd minute by Colin Kazim-Richards. You could hear a pin drop in the Gunners end (no jokes please), and a jubilant Rovers crowd overtook North London. You didn’t watch the last 18 minutes. We had already seen this film, read this story, been here, done it and got the t-shirt. Full-time was almost a relief.
“Well we still have the Champions League,” – I’m not sure I felt that at full-time. Going from a loss against a lower league team up against one of the best teams in the world didn’t have me exactly excited for the next few days. My worries weren’t for nothing, as we lost 3-1 at home to Bayern, which all but sealed our exit from the Champions League. Yet again, for an eighth season we’d be empty-handed.
However as down as I was that day, it was all made up next season; we sold Gervinho (who managed to only muster nine goals in 46 apps) and we won the FA Cup. Our first bit of silverware for nine years.
That defeat, along with the success after, taught me that football is a funny old game indeed.
Thanks to Jasmine for sharing her memories of Arsenal’s dismal defeat to Blackburn from 2013. You can follow Jasmine on Twitter, and find examples of her work at That Baba Girl, alongside her weekly Major League Baseball column.