In May 1998, Sunderland lost on penalties to Charlton Athletic in the Championship playoff final. Peter Reid's side had ended the season on 90 points, the highest total not to be promoted automatically, and had three times held the lead in the final only to draw 4-4. It could have been a devastating defeat, the sort that sends a team spinning into gloom, cursing its luck and wondering whether destiny will always be against it. A few minutes after the final whistle, though, the center forward Niall Quinn was interviewed on the pitch. He was magnificently uplifting, acknowledging the setback and calling on everybody connected with the club to use the disappointment as a spur to promotion the following season. Sunderland could have sulked; instead it came out that August bristling with purpose and racked up a record 105 points, beating every other team in the division at least once to win the title by 17 clear points.
There were other factors at play, of course, but Quinn in that interview did exactly what a senior player needed to do. He turned attention from the defeat to preparing for the next season, preventing the club, fans and players, from licking their wounds, and making them focus on what needed to be done to put things right. It was brilliantly inspirational, exactly what was needed.
Compare Arsene Wenger as Arsenal's season has fallen apart over the past two weeks. After defeat in the League Cup final to Birmingham City on Feb. 27, he was relatively gracious, but then that was probably the least of his four targets. Arsenal faced Sunderland in the league the following Saturday, knowing a win would have put intense pressure on Manchester United, who had lost at Chelsea the previous Tuesday and faced a difficult trip to Liverpool the next day.
Arsenal was poor in the first half, but picked up in the second. Simon Mignolet, the Sunderland goalkeeper, made a number of excellent saves, and Arsenal probably should have won. Andrei Arshavin had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside, and Arsenal should have had a penalty when Arshavin was barged in his shooting stride by a tumbling Titus Bramble. Wenger, afterward, pronounced himself "disgusted" by the refereeing, which was perhaps understandable given the frustration he must have felt at seeing his side squander another opportunity to close in on United.
Yet the fact is that the Bramble foul was clear only in a replay; in real time it was one of those where you wonder if it might be a penalty, but it was such an odd incident, with the defender falling and head-butting Arshavin's backside while giving him a shove, that the information fits no simple template and is difficult instantly to process. Should it have been given? Yes. Is it a mistake for which a referee should be slaughtered? No. The offside decision was similar: the linesman got it wrong, but Arshavin was only a yard or so onside; within a margin of error that, while frustrating, is explicable. Given Mignolet's slightly halfhearted attempts to stop Arshavin, the suspicion must be anyway that he had heard the whistle and that the Russian's finish was perhaps easier than it might have been.
The following Tuesday (on March 8), of course, Wenger was apoplectic about the dismissal of Robin van Persie in Arsenal's loss to Barcelona. Again, it's easier to understand why: there was something a little odd about the way Arsenal went in at halftime with yellow cards while Barca had none, despite three clear instances in which Barca players grabbed Arsenal players by the throat. Did Van Persie hear the whistle and kick the ball away in frustration, or did he genuinely believe the game was still live and shoot? It hardly matters: it's impossible to tell, and if Massimo Busacca, the referee, had the slightest doubt as to Van Persie's motive, he surely had to err on the side of leniency. It was an appalling decision, one that effectively ended Arsenal's chances, and seemed so arbitrary that it did raise horrible suspicions as to why he might have made it. But it wasn't the reason Arsenal lost; Arsenal lost because Barcelona played the same sort of football, only much better.
There are two points here. First of all, by crying wolf so persistently about referees, Wenger invalidates genuine grievances. Against Sunderland two marginal decisions were called wrongly and went against his side; against Barcelona something inexplicable happened that really ought to be examined. And, it might be noted that a linesman incorrectly gave a marginal offside in Arsenal's favor in the first leg against Barcelona, ruling out a Lionel Messi goal: those things happen, and until FIFA finally permits technology, they will continue to happen and managers just have to put up with them.
And the second is that the constant bleating and offering of excuses gives the players a get-out. Wenger is not alone in blaming referees, of course, and if Sir Alex Ferguson gets away with a one-match ban for his attack on Martin Atkinson, who refereed United's game against Chelsea, as was suggested by some media reports, then that is appalling. Ferguson's rants tend to be aimed at generating a siege mentality and/or distracting attention away from his side's failings and it could be argued that their cynical nature makes them morally far more questionable than Wenger's impassioned irritation.
Behind closed doors, though, Ferguson doesn't offer his players a get-out; Fabregas, meanwhile, has spoken of the calmness of the Arsenal dressing-room, describing how nobody ever shouts at anybody and everybody gets on perfectly. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but the result appears to be that nobody ever takes responsibility. It's always somebody else's fault: the referee, the opponent's tactics, the fact the opposing goalkeeper always has a brilliant game against Arsenal (so buy a good one yourself), bad luck.... Yes, Arsenal has had injuries, but United's injury problems were so bad it fielded seven defenders and Darron Gibson against Arsenal in the FA Cup on Saturday and still won comfortably 2-0.
Birmingham's winning goal against Arsenal came from indecision between Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny. Even though Barca broadly outplayed Arsenal, two of its three goals were the result of soft errors. Arsenal was bafflingly flat in the first half against Sunderland, as though it expected an opponent that had lost its previous four games to roll over. Chances are missed, defenders make mistakes, leads are squandered. When a 4-0 lead was lost at Newcastle on Feb. 5, all the Arsenal focus was on the performance of the referee Phil Dowd, and the red card he showed Abou Diaby while letting Kevin Nolan off a similar offense. He did get it wrong, but the bigger issue was Arsenal's panic. A team with a 4-0 lead, particularly one as good in possession as Arsenal, should be able to play with eight men and still hold out for a half.
Great teams deal with adversity; others wallow in it. Paranoia came to infect the Internazionale of Helenio Herrera and the Leeds of Don Revie to the point they almost fretted themselves to defeat in big games. This Arsenal hasn't even won trophies to feel the ache of them slipping from its grasp; what it is losing is potential and opportunity. Perhaps it can find some inner resolve, can fight off the doubts, and claim the league title, but if it is to do so, Wenger and his players have to accept that misfortune happens. Greatness is overcoming it.