19 Minutes And The Social Media Cup

By The Other Geoff (@Hollefreund)

Saturday, April 12th, 2014.

For most, this day will mean nothing; another Saturday to do yard work, cruise down to the strip mall for malt liquor, take the kids to football practice, or go dancing with friends.

For Gooners, April 12th 2014 should be remembered and respected because for 19 minutes on that day, the Four Riders of the WOBpocalypse were nigh. For 19 minutes it looked like one of the biggest meltdowns in Social Media history was afoot and as a Gooner — I was terrified.

On April 12th, Arsenal found themselves in an FA Cup semi-final with Wigan Athletic.  After an unremarkable two thirds of the game, Wigan were awarded a penalty and duly converted. It was the 63rd minute.  Start the clock.

For the neutral and certainly for the Wigan supporters, this was the perfect scenario. For millions of Arsenal fans scattered across the globe, there was a collective anguish, a spasm of frustration, a sort of dance with a polar bear where we weren’t sure if it was about to maul us or pat us on the back.

In order to understand this, you have to understand a bit more of the mind-set of a Gooner at the time. Arsenal, after several barren years without a trophy to their name, were staring at their best chance in recent memory of making the FA Cup final and the potential for silverware.

In recent weeks, they had all but been eliminated from the race for the League title after leading the table for a significant amount of days, had crashed out yet again to a formidable Bayern Munich team in the round of 16 of the Champions League and had yet to see Arsene Wenger, the club’s manager for 18 years, sign a new contract.

They’d seen their best players hobble off injured at crucial periods throughout the season, suffered crushing away defeats at the hands of Liverpool, Chelsea, and Everton (the latter coming just 6 days before this semi-final) and watched a January transfer window pass by with only one loan signing coming in to strengthen the squad for the run-in. That signing, by the way, came with a fractured vertebra.

Layer on top of that some slim years where it was common to see the captain leave for other clubs every off-season (someone should have captained Park), rising ticket prices and media outlets regularly picking bitter rivals Spurz to finish above Arsenal every year (they never did) and it starts to paint a picture of a fan base with a communal complex.  Let’s be clear though, while that complex was shared, the fan groups were divided, turning on each other during the darkest moments with alarming frequency.

I’m not deluded or drunk enough to believe all Arsenal fans fit into the two loosely defined groups that have emerged over this period; the Arsene Knows Best (AKB’s) and the Wenger Out Brigade (WOB’s) — but the fact that we’ve named our extreme fan groups based on their feelings towards our Manager should tell you something.

There have been barren years before. The ’71 double didn’t see another triumph in the League until that special night at Anfield in 1989, only interrupted by the Five Minute FA Cup Final in ’79. While I’m too young to really understand this period, the mood seemed to be one of acceptance, an ambiguous gloominess based on a lack of expectation and generally uneventful results.

Nick Hornby describes this public disposition at the time in Fever Pitch. “It is a strange paradox that while the grief of football fans (and it is real grief) is private – we each have an individual relationship with our clubs, and I think that we are secretly convinced that none of the other fans understands quite why we have been harder hit than anyone else – we are forced to mourn in public, surrounded by people whose hurt is expressed in forms different from our own.”

Fast forward 25 years since Michael Thomas scored that goal in Liverpool and something has clearly changed. But what is it?

There are parallels with that stretch between 1971 and 1989 and 2005 and 2014, but, significantly, in the latter period the fans appeared to be much more divisive, always threatening to bubble over into conflict and in-fighting after a tough loss or a stagnant transfer period.

While the combative mood was the symptom, what was the cause? What could cause the barrage of vitriol being catapulted at our club, our manager, our players, our board, our owner, and our fellow fans?

One might say that the downgrade from serial winners in the early 90’s to perennial bridesmaids over the last 9 years had an effect. Selling our fan favourite players over the same period, leaving our beloved stadium Highbury after 93 years, a new American owner, a lack of big name transfers and the new global brand Arsenal are all potential reasons why we as fans could be upset.

I don’t think these are in and of themselves the reason we saw the levels of toxicity amongst each other. What could cause a grown man to go on camera and decry angrily that the club “should be ashamed of themselves?”. What’s more, why was I shaking my fist and agreeing with him?

I live over 7,500 km (4,600 miles) from London and yet I’d been beaten into a frenzy of anger after a league loss on the first day of the season by a man shouting at a camera.  Where had my life actually gone wrong?

The answer, I think, lies somewhere in those 7,500 km.

As a member of the X Generation, computers have been a part of my entire life. Chat rooms were replaced by MySpace, which in turn was replaced by Facebook, which in turn has been replaced by the kingdom of the reactionary human condition, Twitter. This is Social Media packed into 140 characters ladies and gentlemen.

My personal choice to join Twitter came from a desire to be closer to Arsenal and the various star players that wore the famous Red and White. Amongst the first people I followed were a certain Cesc Fabregas and the infamous Arseblog.

While my connection to the club and players has grown exponentially since this decision, a quite different and unexpected outcome has occurred; I have connected with fellow fans.  Where once I was alone in my anguish at a loss, I can now go online and share the feelings of someone at the game, or in India, or across town, inevitably without the space of time to soothe raw emotions.

Twitter should come with a warning when used to follow sports teams: “You will experience extreme highs and aggravating lows which will be compounded exponentially by the collective consciousness you find on here.”

Put simply, Twitter has the effect of magnifying our mood as fans and sharing that mood instantly; for better or for worse.

Enter me stage right on the morning (time difference) of April 12th, sitting in front of a pixelated computer screen with my phone in hand checking Twitter and we concede that penalty in the 63rd minute.  We’re down 1-0 to a Championship side in what should be our penultimate moment.  Fuck.

The loss the week before to Everton, the years of non-success, the rails coming off our season, none of it would compare to the meltdown that was about to happen virtually across the world.

I’m not an optimist, nor am I a pessimist, but the mood on Twitter was ominous. Feelings from the Birmingham League Cup final came flooding back 100 fold. It was happening again but this time I had an acute awareness like never before of the collective attitude thanks to Social Media.

If the score stayed like this, the Manager wouldn’t renew his contract, the team and club would be plunged into disarray, the fans would destroy each other, the media would once again brandish us losers and I had convinced myself that I would quit Twitter. Indeed, the end felt nigh.

Was this a sensationalist reaction? Yes, this was Twitter at its simultaneous best and worst. For 19 minutes, anguish, frustration and terror took over. These were 19 of the longest minutes I’ve ever experienced as an Arsenal fan.

Then, something happened in the 82nd minute. Our Big Fucking German, a man whom I’ll never be able to thank enough, scored that stooping equalizer. I will never forget that moment. For me, it rates up there with the absolute best moments I’ve experienced as an Arsenal fan; my contorted face replaced by genuine relief and excitement.

This was the moment when it changed. This was it. Perhaps it could be called anti-climactic because we had to still win (in penalties no less) and then go on and win the Final in extra time, but in that moment, on April 12th at Wembley in London, that’s when the cup was profoundly won.

Twitter exploded after the shoot-out. We all knew we were going to the Final and somehow, where once doom had occupied our thoughts, there was a renewed optimism.  We went on to finish fourth in the league, securing Champions League football for the 17th season in a row.

The final itself was tense. Underdogs Hull scored twice in the opening ten minutes and threatened more goals before Santi Cazorla, our beautiful little Spaniard, struck a stunning free kick to spark the comeback. We won of course, which was spectacular in its own right and Social Media played its part in that game as well.

I remember the night before the game, being on Twitter and sharing moments of optimism and anticipation with my fellow fans. Stuart MacFarlane, one of the club’s official photographers, was re-tweeting out all of the places fans would be watching from — it was unbelievable.  Jakarta, Nashville, Rio, Maui, Victoria…the list went on and on.

I had some conversations with Gooners in Portland, Wales, Paris and Vancouver, wishing them well and hoping that we could collectively celebrate afterwards.

We did celebrate. We celebrated long into the night and Twitter played a part in that too.  If those 19 minutes in the semi-final were the lowest of lows, this was undoubtedly the peaks of Everest itself.

With one kick of Aaron Ramsey’s boot, unadulterated joy eradicated any remaining partisan thoughts from the semi-final. Virtual hugs and high fives were shared as we drank beer together and danced and sang the names of our heroes; all the while connected by technology.

If you ever wonder why people join Twitter, for me this was the most definitive of answers; the basic need to connect to other people who share our passion and views all over the world.

This Cup will always be one of my favourites for so many reasons. Beating Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton along the way was fantastic.  The final itself was thrilling in the same way careening down a cliff in a flaming automobile might be. It also put to rest some of the demons from over the last 9 years.

I’ll cherish this cup for a long time, probably forever. Part of that memory, too, must be dedicated to 19 agonizing minutes where it all looked unbelievably lost before the balance shifted and we celebrated our first Cup in the Social Media age; the FA Cup 2.0.

You can follow him on twitter : (@Hollefreund)

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