The infamous Arsenal “banter era”. Stretching from 2007, when Thierry Henry left the club for Barcelona, to 2017 when the signs were on the wall that Wenger was going to be fired, Arsenal’s “banter era” covered over a decade of ups and downs, winning some trophies and coming close to winning the League (twice), but was largely defined by a team of players who were almost good enough, who our own fans fought over constantly, and who opposition fans often ridiculed. The banter era players were both a testament to Wenger’s genius – that he could keep a team in the top four with these guys starting – and also a sign that there were deep problems at the club. But these are players who always made us at least laugh at the ridiculousness of Arsenal’s situation at that time, if not at their own actions.
A lot of folks are going to say that Wojciech Szczęsny is the club’s banter era keeper and they have a good case. He was loud, he was brash (no one can forget his instagram post about Tottenham), and most infamously he once smoked a stogie in the showers after making two gaffes to lose to Southampton in 2015. Arsenal also ended up selling him for a pittance of what he was probably worth as he went on to prove his credentials as a top world keeper by starting for Juventus in Italy and winning the Serie A three times.
There is no denying that Szczesny had a ton of banter elements, including bantering off all of Spurs, but there is one Arsenal goalkeeper who ended up bantering off the entire nation of England: Manuel Almunia.
Almunia was literally Arsene Wenger’s first signing after the Invincibles. And he got his first start in the League Cup on October 27th 2004. That means he sort of pre-dates the banter era, since Arsenal were still basking in the glow of the greatest footballing achievement in English history. Almunia even played a part in Arsenal’s 2005 FA Cup win, keeping a clean sheet against Sheffield United and making two penalty saves in extra time to help Arsenal book a place in the FA Cup quarter finals. It all started great for Manuel, but it wouldn’t be long before he started racking up banter points.
I believe the banter era started for Almunia on the night of the Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris. Arsenal went into that match with an unparalleled defensive record, and had even held Real Madrid scoreless over two legs on the road to the final. But one rush of blood by Jens Lehmann saw him get a red card and in came Manuel Almunia for Robert Pires. Subbing Almunia in wasn’t a bit of banter itself but putting him on for Robert Pires, one of Arsenal’s most prolific attackers, a player who had a great rapport with Thierry Henry, a player who’s name is not ALEX HLEB, and a player who probably deserved to play the full 90 in front of the home crowd was quite the decision. Robert Pires would later cite that substitution as the reason why he demanded to be sold in the summer. The banter era was probably bound to happen because of the stadium funding situation at Arsenal in 2005, but the decision to sub off Pires instead of Hleb accelerated the inevitable.
It’s important to note here that Manuel Almunia wasn’t a bad dude. I’ve never heard a bad word spoken about him by anyone. He also isn’t to blame for being selected 175 times for Arsenal. I mean, if Arsene Wenger picked me at 5’8″ to play in goal for Arsenal, I wouldn’t say no even if I would be incredibly bad at the job. And that’s the thing too: Almunia wasn’t atrocious in goal, though he wasn’t great in goal either. There was always just a sense that we could use someone better. That he was just a level below what we needed. That he didn’t command his box very well. That he wasn’t great on crosses.
But the whole team had problems at this time, Arsenal played high in the opponent’s box and didn’t have the structure needed to prevent counters so we often conceded huge chances which made every keeper look worse than they were. And the back line also had huge problems dealing with aerial threats and really any physicality at all. Teams like Stoke City used to just park someone on the Arsenal keeper and then use their physicality to bang in goals. It’s funny I mention this right now because for the last two years Arsenal have used this exact same tactic on corners – sending Benjamin White or another defender up to literally just screen off the keeper and occupy a defender. Sometimes we get called for it and sometimes we don’t. Just like every team used to do against Arsenal’s keepers.
So, it’s not how he played that makes Almunia a banter player. In fact, he was voted man of the match by Arsenal fans on numerous occasions and he is considered a hero to many Watford fans for his penalty save against Leicester. No, it’s not his play.
The thing that makes him the perfect Arsenal banter era keeper is that in one single interview he suggested that he could play for England and in so doing, he bantered off an entire country. It was just a flippant remark made to a reporter and he would later back off the comment and make it clear that he didn’t want to step on any toes but it did. This was before the 2010 World Cup and England’s goalkeeping options were Joe Hart, David James, and Robert Green. And if you remember the tournament Robert Green had a nightmare against the USA and David James had a poor game in the first knockout round against Germany. I’m not saying that Manuel Almunia would have been a better choice but the point is that England’s goalkeeping options were so bad that Fabio Capello had to at least consider a guy born in Pamplona Spain – a guy with zero English heritage, not even the kind that England routinely exploits to steal players from Ireland – as an option.
It never came to fruition. Thank god. Because it probably would have started another war with Spain.