The Banter Era Starting XI: goalkeeper

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.



  1. Banter goalkeeper really doesn’t do “ Coco Almunia” justice.It was much worse than that.He cost us at least two prem titles ,maybe three with a number of his pathetic performances.The guy was weak.Mentally weak.Lehman was disgusted that he was pushed aside for him.Zero respect for his abilities.There was a reason he played in the Spanish third tier.

  2. Love it. The perfect keeper for your banter XI. I look forward to the series.

    Actually Almunia had several good games for us. He kept us in the tie in the ECL semi-final away first-leg at the Old Toilet with some superb saves and we were optimistic that we could turn them over at the Emirates until our flaccid defence (much as you describe above) were blown away three times by breakouts by Shrek and Ronaldo in the first 20-30 minutes to kill the game. I carry that scar.

  3. I’ve held similar feelings for Almunia over the years. He was definitely below other top notch premier league goalkeepers. He did make costly mistakes. The treatment he received wasn’t his fault. He was chosen to play for a team that needed a better keeper to win titles. What was he to do? Decline? Insist someone else started over him? The blame lies with management. He wasn’t a bad guy. And found success in other clubs.

  4. Spain had Iker Casillas in goal and might have been happy if Almunia had played for England.

  5. Szcz had back-to-back Golden Gloves (shared with Cech who replaced him) in England and in Italy (where he kept a world record transfer for a goal keeper on the bench before replacing the GOAT at Juventus). Wenger sold him for an absolute pittance.

    Szcz’s iconic moment as a Gunner has to be going face first into a one-on-one challenge with Bale in a NLD, Bale coming off second best and Szcz winking at his teammates while taking up a position in goal for the resulting corner. Hardly a banter keeper IMO.

    Honourable mention to Flappyhandski though.

      1. You’re welcome sir.

        My views are that a case can be made for seeds of the Banter Era to be sown even prior to the CL final in 2006.

        Going out on goal difference (a 119th minute goal as well) against Wigan in the League Cup semifinals in 2005/6 when Wenger played a really strong first-team was definitely not ideal. I felt that Wenger really did want that trophy that year.

        1. Wenger had such a weird relationship with the League cup. Still, I think we should have won it when Fabregas reached the final against Chelsea. But Howard Webb (now head of PGMOL) made sure that we didn’t.

  6. Lol. Tim Stillman’s comment on Partey’s availability in his column today “we have long since reached the stage where Partey’s availability should be treated as a surprise- like finding a crumpled fiver in an old winter coat”.
    OToH feel very bad for Smith-Rowe. He was just starting to get more minutes and get back into form.

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