Like phlegm, the term “banter era” is both disgusting and vital. For Arsenal specifically, its purpose is to provide a frustratingly apt description of the decade of atrocities, experienced on and off the pitch, that became startlingly routine at the Emirates beginning sometime around 2006.
While it must be said that most, if not all, clubs have endured a banter era of their own, the events of Arsenal’s are truly noteworthy, as stupefying as they are eclectic, though in the spirit of every great sitcom, there are a handful of common threads and running gags that rear their head on multiple occasions, in fan service to those longest-running of patrons. Unsurprisingly, those who most dearly treasure Arsenal’s banter era are, of course, not those who most dearly treasure Arsenal.
The period in question gifted to the world of football a number of modern-day classics; Arsenal replacing the world-class homegrown hero Ashley Cole with William Gallas, the worst captain the club has ever seen, remembered for his many public abdications of responsibility; losing to Sheffield United in 2006 despite injuries forcing the Blades to improvise with centre-back Phil Jagielka in goal for no less than half-an-hour.
There was Arsène Wenger substituting-off the only recently substituted-on Emmanuel Eboué at home to Wigan in 2008, after witnessing him do very little bar repeatedly surrender possession and even tackle his own teammate; Kolo Touré watching on in impotent fury as Emmanuel Adebayor galloped some hundred yards in order to slide on his knees and thrust his arms out in celebration before an army of baying Arsenal fans, having scored in a 4-2 win for Manchester City; somehow floundering a 4-0 half-time lead away to Newcastle in 2011; and capitulating in the same year’s League Cup final against Birmingham to extend the dreaded trophy drought.
Then there was Robin van Persie being sent off in a vital Champions League tussle away to Barcelona for having the audacity to shoot at goal; scoring a potentially invaluable game-winning penalty against Liverpool in the 98th minute only to hand the Reds their own point-salvaging penalty in the 104th; the 8-2 drubbing by Manchester United; signing Kim Källström on loan despite knowing his back was literally broken; celebrating Wenger’s 1000th Arsenal game by being thumped 6-0 away to Chelsea; losing 3-0 away to lower-league Sheffield Wednesday just a week after winning 2-0 at home to German champions Bayern Munich; spending legal tender to procure the likes of André Santos and Park Chu-young. As you may well be aware, this quite incredible list of inadequacy and negligence is far from exhaustive.
Nevertheless, not all that transpires throughout one’s banter era need be negative – there is silver to be found lining even the darkest of clouds – and amidst the wreckage, there are occasionally some treasures worthy of being salvaged. These are events that fall on the right side of mad, events not unlike the evening that gave us Arsenal’s truly preposterous 7-5 League Cup victory away to Reading.
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It was the 2012/13 season, one where Arsenal, characteristically, began the campaign gunning for success, their crosshairs locked on various pieces of silverware at home and abroad – yet ended it frustratingly empty-handed. There were some flashes of vintage “Wengerball” and the pipping of Tottenham to the fourth-placed post to provide two customary causes for celebration.
It was this Groundhog Day-esque brand of finale that greeted Arsenal fans at the climax of almost every season belonging to the aforementioned era. There was a cloying kind of false comfort to be found in the routine of it all. The kind that bores you into submission. There was, however, no routine whatsoever to be found in the Gunners’ League Cup clash with Reading early in the season.
Having thrashed Coventry 6-1 at the Emirates in the third round of the then-named Capital One Cup, Arsenal’s second tie in the competition came in the form of a trip to the Madejski Stadium to take on the Royals. Premier League returnees Reading, meanwhile, were in the midst of a bloody relegation battle they’d ultimately lose.
Reading hosted Arsenal hoping that the Gunners would have bigger fish to fry as they headed towards the new year, and would find themselves some way off their A-game on a chilly October night in Berkshire. Arsenal arrived intent on disposing of their lesser opponents with unflinching efficiency and swiftly return focus to more pressing matters approaching in more prestigious competitions. The wishes of neither side were granted.
In the season’s early knockings, legendary ex-Arsenal defender Steve Bould had succeeded the retiring Pat Rice as Arsenal’s assistant manager and one can only assume that, by the time of Arsenal’s trip to Reading, he hadn’t yet been capable of imparting any of his immense defensive wisdom onto his players. For his efforts, as the two sides met on the eve of Halloween, Bould was afforded a front row seat at a defensive horror show for the ages.
The home side drew first blood on 12 minutes. A stray Theo Walcott pass was picked up in his own half by Nicky Shorey, who played it forward to Noel Hunt. Hunt played it wide to Hal Robson-Kanu, eager to get at his full-back, who wrapped his foot around a pacey cross that found the welcoming boot of an unmarked Jason Roberts. One-nil Reading.
Six minutes later, Reading’s lead was doubled. A swift succession of passes between Chris Gunter, Mikele Leigertwood and Gareth McLeary down by the touchline saw Gunter played in behind the Arsenal defence courtesy of a nutmeg on the youthfully gullible Ignasi Miquel. Gunter’s routine cross appeared to have been cut out by the outstretched leg of Laurent Koscielny, until his attempted block flashed past Emi Martínez at his near post. Two-nil Reading.
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It took Reading just another two minutes to find their third goal of the evening. Having shimmied all too easily past Francis Coquelin, and subsequently been afforded the kind of space usually reserved for lepers, Leigertwood tried his luck from the edge of the box. Speculative though it may have been, his thwack arrived with sufficient sting to trouble Martínez, so much so that his attempted save only saw him paw the ball over his own reaching frame and into the goal behind him. Three-nil Reading.
The home side, huddled in celebration, could hardly stifle their laughter. Arsenal were sometimes guilty of underestimating lesser opponents, or expecting to waltz through games unchallenged, but it was never supposed to be this easy. Dazed and confused, the Arsenal players looked as though they’d just been awoken by an air horn. Still, they remained asleep long enough for Reading to work a fourth.
Worked wide by Leigertwood, McLeary received the ball with acres to progress into. His right-footed cross was swept high into the area, where, waiting for it, was Noel Hunt, able to leap above Carl Jenkinson with ease and direct his header past Martínez and into the net by way of the foot of the post. Four-nil Reading.
“Reading are running riot,” Sky Sports commentator Rob Hawthorne called out in astonishment. “Arsenal are being annihilated!” They were, and many fans had seen enough. Whether embarking upon expeditious trips to the bar for a much-needed beer or the exits to begin the depressing drive home, Arsenal fans began evacuating in droves. But, before the half was up, the visitors were handed a much-needed lifeline.
Andrey Arshavin suddenly found the ball at his feet on the halfway line as an attempted headed clearance from Reading defender Kaspars Gorkšs found only the Russian’s chest. Walcott turned and sprinted between the centre-backs and Arshavin found him with a neat through-ball. Finding himself rather quickly one-on-one with Adam Federici, the volant forward dinked the ball over the goalkeeper and finally landed a first glancing blow on the chin of their opponent. Shortly after, the half-time whistle blew, and both teams made for the dressing rooms; Reading buoyant, Arsenal bemused.
Likely the only event of the day that went anything like as expected, the second half began with Arsenal on top and searching for signs of life among their shellshocked troops. Given a rallying call by their manager, Wenger’s men set out on the front foot and, on 64 minutes, reduced the deficit to two. A fierce Walcott corner was met by the head of Olivier Giroud whose simple angled glance squeezed between defender and goalkeeper on the line.
It wasn’t until the 89th minute, after a near half-hour of unusually untroubled goal nets and a growing belief that the Royals may just, finally, be on their way to a first victory over the Gunners, Arsenal made it 4-3. From another wicked, inswinging corner, Koscielny was the first to Walcott’s whip as he nodded the ball downwards, making it impossible for Federici to parry and ensuring his name was to be found on both sides of the scoresheet. The Frenchman hurriedly retrieved the ball from the net and sprinted towards the half-way line. Arsenal had stoppage time plus change to find their equaliser.
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The whistles from the crowd grew louder. Ninety-four minutes had passed and still the game toiled on. Having ricocheted out of play, a member of the Reading crowd held onto the match ball for dear life, refusing to allow Arsenal to take their latest throw-in for fear of contributing to their historic comeback. Eventually, Miquel did just that. Short to Coquelin it went.
The defensive-midfielder tossed the ball optimistically into the area and found the head of Marouane Chamakh, who nodded it into the path of Walcott. Reaching it an inch ahead of a swinging Reading boot, Walcott improvised his control and quickly prodded the ball past a statuesque Federici, but whether it crossed the line before being fumbled away became an immediate source of confusion.
“Walcott with the chance; was it over!?” called out Hawthorne. Evoking Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous line from the 1966 World Cup, he continued, “It is now,” as Carl Jenkinson volleyed in, extinguishing any lingering doubts over the legitimacy of Arsenal’s fourth. Almost 96 minutes on the clock, the sides were once again level.
Overjoyed at their comeback, the final whistle quickly following the fourth Arsenal goal, Frenchmen Coquelin and Giroud trotted over to the noisy contingent of travelling Arsenal fans and threw into the crowd their shirts: reward for their support. That was until the players were reminded by a combination of teammates and pitchside staff that they were indeed contesting a League Cup fixture, one permitted to continue into extra-time in the result of a draw. Coquelin and Giroud sheepishly called out to those briefly lucky fans, gesticulating and miming the act of getting dressed. The fans acquiesced and, eventually, the duo were ready to begin the first period of extra-time.
In a moment of rare quality – a goal unique to this game, crafted at the whim of ingenious play as opposed to diabolical defending – Chamakh accepted a pass and flicked it behind him for Giroud to run onto. Holding onto the ball for a beat or two, Giroud fed a timely ball to Arshavin who obligingly nudged it onto Chamakh, seemingly setting his heart on striking from 20 yards. Strike he did, and the ball whizzed between Gorkšs’ legs and into the bottom corner, agonisingly out of Federici’s reach.
Reading heads dropped. For the first time that evening, the Gunners had a lead to hold and fans of every persuasion seemed resigned to the inevitability of an impending Arsenal victory. Reading evidently felt as though they’d blown the most unlikely opportunity, and Arsenal struggled to believe their luck. Somehow, they were winning. But given the events of the first 103 minutes, you’d think those in attendance might have known better than to presume anything.
On 116 minutes, four minutes away from the whistle that would bring the curtain down on an utterly bewildering tie and certify Arsenal’s unlikely progression into the quarter-finals, Reading surged forward. A cross from Robson-Kanu evaded everybody in the box bar Gunter, who collected the wayward pass on his chest. Improvising a half-volley of sorts, his shot floated into the airspace directly above Pavel Pogrebnyak, whose instinctive nod redirected the ball past a flailing Martínez and brought parity back to proceedings. “Absolutely astonishing!” Five-apiece read the ever-changing scoreboard.
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With penalties looming, Arsenal flooded forward. Pouncing upon a Reading error, the red arrows flew up-field, Arshavin in possession supported by Walcott, Giroud, Chamakh and even Koscielny, bombing on through the middle. Arshavin endeavoured to end the tie alone, firing a low effort in the direction of the far post, but a desperate leg stopped it. The block only served to lay the ball on a platter for Walcott, though, who completed his hat-trick by slamming a shot through a maelstrom of bodies to give Arsenal a 6-5 lead. One final hurrah remained.
Defending an expected blue-striped onslaught, Arsenal punted the ball clear at every given opportunity as the game’s final seconds ebbed away. Mere yards inside his own half, Gunter attempted a backwards flick in order to send the ball back to his goalkeeper, recycle possession, and light the fuse on one last foray upfield. But his header was fatally mistimed and awaiting the opportunity to pounce on the loose ball was Chamakh.
The Moroccan striker nipped in ahead of the panicking full-back, headed the ball in the direction of his building attack, before lofting the ball neatly over the stranded Federici. Reading 5-7 Arsenal. On the sideline, opposing coaches Wenger and Brian McDermott shared a look of utter perplexity. Neither possessed the answer as to what on earth they’d just witnessed, nor the energy to endeavour to find one.
“Well, what to say about that? What a game,” wrote Sean Ingle in concluding his live minute-by-minute match report for The Guardian. Throughout the course of his shift, in attempting to do a quite indescribable game of football some morsel of justice with mere words alone, he’d said an awful lot, made use of plenty of caps and more than his fair share of exclamation points, and utilised four incredibles, three astonishings, two amazings and even one miracle. There was little else that could be said.
Sadly – like witnessing a firefighter shimmying up a drainpipe, vaulting onto a narrow balcony, somersaulting through a broken window and charging into a burning hundredth-floor flat in order to save a doe-eyed dog from its certain fiery doom, only to then toss the pup into traffic the second they return triumphantly to ground level – in the League Cup’s following round, Arsenal totally squandered their miracle in succumbing to an abhorrent defeat away to fourth-tier Bradford, losing 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw that the word dull would’ve found dull.
Still, they had their miracle at the Madejski and the absence of a trophy at the end of the team’s journey needn’t forbid fans from looking back fondly upon one of the most remarkable games of football ever to feature their beloved team. Twelve-goal thrillers aren’t nearly as commonplace as we’d each love for them to be, and there’s a good chance we’ll never be blessed with another game quite so absurd in all our lifetimes. The least we can do is treasure it, preserved in all its bewildering, bantery glory.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp