Arsenal’s surprise loss to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final a little over a week ago prompted a post-mortem. The Blues pulled into Wembley at 2pm wearing their Sunday best; the Gunners stepped off their coach shortly afterwards kitted out in tracksuits and trainers. Some have argued the difference was purely aesthetic – however both style and substance play a role, on and off the pitch.
Former Arsenal defender Lee Dixon was quick to condemn his old club. “I’m not happy with them turning up in a tracksuit,” he said on the BBC’s coverage, “You’ve got to get suited and booted for Wembley, whether it’s your first time or your fiftieth.” There was a sense of irony that Arsenal (renowned for attractive, stylish football) should turn up in their casual wear, while Birmingham (known as a blood-and-thunder club) should turn up looking so dapper.
The Blues’ squad had pleaded for specially-made cup final suits, though an ordering mix-up with Harvey Nichols meant they had to wear their normal bespoke suits which were made three months before – but with new ties, belts and shirts. The misunderstanding might be pardoned though – trophy-starved Birmingham aren’t accustomed to preparing meticulously for such a grand event!
Of course, both sides had resorted to shorts and shinpads for kick-off, but the build-up was symbolic of their respective attitudes towards the final. After all, you wouldn’t turn up to a wedding wearing jeans and a t-shirt just because the hosts aren’t close friends. The occasion itself merits a level of respect. It was revealing of Arsenal’s attitude that they should treat a trip to Wembley – and the ceremony that should go with it – with such disregard. If it was a psychological ploy to get the players in a ‘just another game’ mindset, then they overlooked how seriously Birmingham would take the affair.
For the Birmingham players that had never played at Wembley before, the whole day was a moment to savour regardless of the result. The Gunners side will face more glamorous ties (tonight they face Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the Champions League, for example), but their fledgling squad can’t claim to have matured until they start acknowledging their opponents and the competitions.
Perhaps it was indicative of the very fabric of the sides. Birmingham are a proud city-club with its own identity – Arsenal on the other hand are a cosmopolitan outfit with a diluted worldwide following. Many enjoy watching the Gunners’ scintillating displays, but few empathise with a squad lacking in camaraderie. Things have changed at Arsenal since Dixon’s day.
Plenty of managers and players have curious fashion sense. Roberto Mancini still wears a bizarre suit-and-scarf combo on the touchline for Man City, while Bolton manager Owen Coyle wears shorts on matchdays. Countless players have an array of outlandish hats. But when cup final day comes – whether the FA Cup, the League Cup or any other – the occasion should be treated with due respect, and that includes dressing the part. If players are footballers 90 minutes per week, they should be ambassadors for the rest.
This article was submitted for publication in Doncaster Rovers’ matchday programme for the npower Football League Championship match against Coventry City on Mar 8th 2011.