Arsenal fans can look at a seventh season without a trophy, as well as their burgeoning status as a selling club to the glitterati, as hard evidence that things ain’t what they used to be. The question has now changed: no longer do supporters ask ‘Is this is a club in decline?’, but ‘What is a reasonable response to this decline?’.
I’ve often asked myself the same questions regarding The Simpsons, formerly the best television show of all time, whose goodness has been sadly diluted by years of contrived celebrity cameos, vapid pop culture references, and inconsistent characterisation. The Simpsons and Arsenal have both seen better days, leaving fans to pine for past glories that seem fainter with the passing of time. While the quality of both the show’s animation and the club’s stadium have improved, neither have masked the decline of the products they represent, illuminating their shortcomings. Now both institutions can only look back on their peak periods as glorious relics, as they desperately retrace their steps through the intervening years, in order to reclaim mislaid heritage.
One particular episode can be stretched like an allegorical balaclava and clumsily pulled over Arsenal’s symbolic head, in a suitably ham-fisted way of explaining the club’s malaise. The Joy Of Sect saw the residents of Springfield indoctrinated into the cult of Movementarianism (think Scientology meets Raëlism), based on promises of a journey to a planet named Blisstonia, which they would reach via a spaceship being assembled in the ‘secret barn’. Eventually, they discover that they have been hoodwinked all along by an oddly charismatic charlatan known only as ‘The Leader’.
The beginning of the episode is highly appropriate given the state of Arsenal, England’s crisis club du jour. Homer takes Bart to the airport in order to “welcome the team home”. The team in question returns to a big crowd, to their surprise since they just lost the big game. It then becomes clear that everyone is there to heckle them, throw garbage at them, and to upturn the plane in rage. Increasingly, Arsenal supporters are making like Moe Syzslak, and throwing rocks at their own by booing their own players (Emmanuel Eboue, now playing for Galatassaray, in 2008, and most recently Andrey Arshavin, now on loan at Zenit St. Petersburg.) This uprising amongst the support could well be the tipping point for the club. Whether it results in immediate change or not, either in the form of Wenger’s dismissal or, more feasibly, extra investment in the playing squad, the dissent has wrought its effects already. The parameters of success have been assessed and redrawn. Wenger has recently remarked that finishing fourth in the table should be considered “a trophy“, despite it’s lack of cup-like form, and lacking as it does any requirement for silver polish.
Marge, with her staggeringly tall blue hair, has often been said to bear a physical resemblance to Ashley Cole. But the two bear further comparison: when Cole left the club for Chelsea, it was famously due to Arsenal’s reluctance to pay him more money (as Barney Ronay notes, he may have been right to do so, as his departure from the club signposted a withering of the club’s financial muscle which still stymies them). Much like Marge, he saw the writing on the wall, and realised that the promises that were made were not as they seemed, and wouldn’t bring the bliss he craved. When Marge makes good her escape from the Movementarian compound, she has to dodge such obstacles as crocodiles, wolves and landmines. She is also chased by a sinister orb (a reference to ‘Rover’, the guard balloon from 1960’s TV show The Prisoner). Cole was escaping an orb of his own as he ran away from the club – an orb representing dwindling standards, transfer market atrophy and seven trophyless seasons. In the end, the orb crushes Hans Moleman, who Wenger would resemble more closely but for his Lego-like helmet of hair.
Marge convinces Bart and Lisa to forget life with the Movementarians by presenting the kids with ‘hoverbikes’- in reality just bikes suspended with wires, with Ned Flanders blowing a comb-and-paper to give them a mystical aura. Eventually Homer too is convinced that not is all as it seems and appeals to his fellow Movementarians to see the evidence for themselves. He opens the door to the secret barn, and everyone is stunned to see the spaceship present. Homer was expecting nothing, only to be presented with the apparent sum of all the promises made by the Leader. Such false dawns are not unfamiliar to Arsenal fans, with hopes raised in the past few years by such events as last season’s 2-1 defeat of Barcelona, reaching the Carling Cup Final, and Robin Van Persie’s recent goalscoring, injury-free hot streak. These dawns were the equivalent of Homer exposing “one hell of a spaceship” – a momentary, but illusory, promise of glory.
The leader flies away on a hoverbike of his own, absconding with the sacks of money extracted from the gullible saps that believed him. Wenger has been blowing through a comb-and-paper of his own throughout these barren years, by giving voice to promises never fulfilled, exalting a bright new tomorrow that never breaks through the carapace of recurrent false dawns. Wenger, like Flanders and the Leader, keeps making these mystical noises in an effort to disguise the depressing reality; that the promises are just as misleading as the kids’ hoverbikes, fanciful dreams suspended by wire, always destined to fall.
Ultimately the Leader crashes into the home of feckless hick Cletus Spuckler, who produces a shotgun with which to extract the bags of money that fell with him. In this scene, I cast Roberto Mancini as Cletus, using his position of power (substitute Cletus’ shotgun for Sheikh Mansour’s Monty Burns-like riches) to strip Wenger of his assets (not money, but players – Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, possibly Robin Van Persie in the summer). The Leader, once at the helm of an all-powerful cult, is by the episode’s end stripped of the relevance that had previously defined him. Where Wenger used to feud with Alex Ferguson and fight for titles, he is now managing a club that sees fourth place as it’s ultimate goal, and for whom a 2-0 FA Cup defeat to Sunderland doesn’t even register for the opposition as a ‘famous win’. Nowadays, such a result comes as no real surprise at all, just as it’s no shock when one watches a new episode of The Simpsons, with all the jokes and humour replaced by masturbatory, zeitgeist-pandering references to Apple or Facebook.
For Arsenal, recent victories against Tottenham and Liverpool (and a heroic near-miracle against AC Milan) have invigorated players and fans alike, but I suspect it may be yet another false dawn. As for The Simpsons, it’s trying to trade on happy memories of the old days by reintroducing former writer Al Jean, who has deployed the tactic of referring back to classic jokes and characters, to foster a sense of nostalgia amongst fans.
Jean remains with The Simpsons, now in it’s twenty-third season, while Arsenal’s own returning legend, Thierry Henry, returned to the club at a time of crisis and left all too soon. The fundamental difference is in the fact that The Simpsons acknowledged its state of decline and hired Jean to try and arrest the slump. Arsenal may soon be considering a change of personnel, whether it’s on the pitch or in the dugout.