Arsenal are a joke that gets funnier in the retelling but they do not amuse Roy Keane
“Arsène Wenger mentioned them being mentally strong. They’re not mentally strong. There’s weaknesses, lack of characters, lack of leadership. Against Everton, they played like a veterans’ team. Football’s a running game, and they don’t do enough of it.”
To watch Roy Keane as a television pundit is to catch a chilling glimpse of what life might be like under a Roy Keane government. The old, the infirm, the feeble and the impoverished would surely be purged at a stroke, consigned to a lifetime of medical experimentation along with the fey, the brittle, the sensitive and the mildly asthmatic.
The word “pity” does not appear in Keane’s dictionary. It goes straight from “pitchfork” to “pizza”.
Millions would starve, yet their cries of hunger would go unheeded. Human emotion would have been reclassified as a vice, a weakness to be preyed upon by the strong. The only organised football to survive this revolution would be the Champions League, and this would consist of a maximum of four teams; possibly five.
Wigan Athletic, it is fair to say, would not make the cut. That much was implicit in Keane’s words on Saturday evening, as Arsenal celebrated their triumph at Wembley. Where most of us saw a jubilant squad who had just reached the Cup final, Keane could see only deep moral decay.
“These Arsenal players need a reality check,” he spat. “They’re celebrating beating a Championship team. We saw last year, when they got into the top four, they celebrated. This is Arsenal. It’s about winning trophies.”
Sometimes Keane’s ire appears a little confected. It is highly unlikely, for example, that he holds any genuine opinion on England. But I suspect his disgust with Arsenal’s current vintage may actually be real, borne of a certain nostalgia for those bruising duels with Patrick Vieira around the turn of the century, so adeptly explored in last year’s ITV4 documentary Best of Enemies.
Keane hated that Arsenal, but he can barely summon hate for this Arsenal, which paradoxically is why he hates them all the more.
The common reaction to Arsenal is more measured. The idea of Wenger ending his career with one final trophy, one final vindication, seems a fitting reward for one of English football’s great pioneers and a man who is, despite everything, a fundamentally decent bloke.
Yet against this must be set a stark and incontrovertible truth. Watching Arsenal slip up over the past nine years has been intensely funny: one of the rare jokes that actually gains value with each subsequent retelling.
Losing to Barcelona was wryly amusing the first time, positively uproarious the third. Birmingham City at Wembley was a comedic masterpiece that Larry David could not have scripted better. The sniggering generated after the defeat by Bradford City on penalties could have powered the National Grid for a week.
With the possible exception of Tottenham, Arsenal lose more hilariously than anybody else: a mirth-obligating tableau of slapstick defending and choreographed chaos, legs akimbo, faces forlorn, Thomas Vermaelen arriving on the scene with perfect comic timing, asking: "Did I miss anything?"
And really, this is a quality all too often overlooked in football.
Liverpool may be more successful under Brendan Rodgers, but they were much funnier under Roy Hodgson. Sir Alex Ferguson may have earned our respect, but David Moyes has earned our laughter, and secretly we all know who we prefer. Thierry Henry was the complete footballer, but there is one important respect in which he cannot touch Yaya Sanogo: a hysterically inept footballer, a human newel post, a man whose legs appear to be constantly arguing with each other.
The overall effect has been to crown Arsenal with a curious quasi-underdog status: we want them to keep winning, but only so they can ultimately lose.
If Saturday’s euphoria was anything to go by, it is a role they have enthusiastically embraced.
“Wigan have got bigger fish to fry, you have to say,” Lee Dixon concluded afterwards, and indeed it was hard to shake the sense that Arsenal were the real story here. Little Arsenal in an FA Cup final: just imagine! How the Cup of fairy tales doth overflow!