Risky thing, ambition …
Competition in the Premier League has never been more fierce and the evidence for this lies all around in the form of the shattered dreams of the fans of Spurs, Liverpool, United and, to a lesser extent, even Man City.
The first two are evidence that simply spending a vast sum no longer buys the division and the latter two more evidence of the same yet with two, three, maybe ten times the expenditure.
Chelsea have put together a decent if largely loathsome side, though this hasn’t been achieved overnight; that they have required – or somehow acquired – the rub of the green this season in the form of outstanding refereeing contribution to elevate their position to a point where much of the media have them already crowned champions is indisputable. Game after game after game, Chelsea are gaining competitive advantage of the kind that makes an already good side appear invincible. A year ago, with Arsenal striding high, the word from the 4th Estate was simply that it couldn’t possibly last. Yet this year, the chavs are apparently indisputably water-tight. Indeed, champions elect.
How strange. And how sure they all seem.
And all around me all I hear are Arsenal fans tearing into club, players and manager.
Noisy individuals, many of whom have swapped their sunny summits of FA Cup success for a morose autumn of tragic victimhood, criminally misled by the club into thinking all would be unremittingly rosy in Arsenal’s footballing garden. That by now we would have a minimum of two ‘worldies’ (‘or even one!!’) for every position. That we would at least avoid squandering three-goal leads and jettisoning victories to low(ish)-flying Welsh opposition. That our squad would be purring like the English Champions. Oh alright, hang on, like Chelsea’s then (but without the mind-numbingly dull Mourinho-esque non-spectacle).
On Sky’s Sunday Supplement programme this weekend, four white men were reflecting on the lack of opportunity for men of any colour in the backrooms of the English game. They did this blissfully unaware of the irony of this caucasian broadcast, despite the well-meaning commentary on a lamentable and frankly shocking situation.
As I watched them, it struck me as equally ironic that at the heart of the complaints of Arsenal fans lies a perception of a lack of commitment by the club.
No commitment to spend, no commitment to keep ticket prices down. No commitment to acquire experience or to give youth its chance. No commitment to clear dead wood, no commitment to tie down players on long-term contracts. No commitment to attack, nor to defend. No commitment to buy an out-and-out goal-scorer/midfielder/goalkeeper. These are all actual charges that have been laid at the door of the club at different times in recent years and for different, doubtless carefully calculated reasons by the club’s accusers.
Charges laid by people at least some of whom’s own commitment start and end with the purchase of a ticket, the price of a Sky subscription, the five minutes invested in posting online complaints, criticism and/or abuse of the club and its staff. The irony of any critique, centring as it does on matters of commitment, appears as lost on most of the perpetrators as it did Sky’s angst-ridden, journalist debaters-turned-social-commentators.
Football is, of course, nothing without the supporters.
But the era of the traditional supporter, in the wider context of distinct club-based mass groups, appears to have passed, having been largely supplanted by a self-pitying bunch of miserable, unhappy individuals, masquerading as ‘fans’ yet behaving like ‘consumers’. Rather than being a part of something, followers give the impression of being a part from everything – their fellow fans and chosen club included.
This misery is as palpable as it is widespread.
Even those of us with a more ‘optimistic’ outlook feel robbed on a weekly basis by the perpetuation of a worsening refereeing crisis that denies us all access to justice and a sense of fair play on the field of play. Some of us favour the introduction of video-technology. Why? Because the amount we invest in following the game surely justifies the adoption of what we might argue to be ‘best practice’.
And so it goes on.
In the same week that City fans had to be bribed into their own Champions’ League hosting stadium with the supermarket style promise of two tickets for the price of one, the blight of fan apathy at Stamford Bridge was such that Jose himself was bitterly complaining of the absence of atmosphere at The Home of Chav.
Despite sovereign-scale funding in teams over many years, it is extremely telling that neither Chelsea nor City presently have real need of newer, larger stadiums.
And despite the influx of the greatest array of footballing talent this country has arguably ever seen, the discontent with football in a wider context, at least in the UK, has never been greater.
The price English football is paying for the mass ‘consumerisation’ of the nation’s once favourite game is finding expression not only in the struggles of the national side but also at the very heart of the game’s essence.
Fatally, football, for the vast majority of modern day followers, is over-promising and under-delivering.
The high costs involved in being a fan has created the sense of entitlement and expectation more normally associated with a public service-based activity. But whereas high-class hotels and restaurants are geared up to deliver and never (or at worst, rarely) disappoint, football remains as relentlessly unreliable and gloriously unpredictable as ever.
And, it would seem, no amount of money is likely to ever change that.
Southampton’s currently outstanding season is testament to that, and more power to them.
Dortmund, over in the Bundesliga, were once also capable of similar – and greater -footballing miracles. It’s sad to say that Southampton, despite the well-earned plaudits, are today as vulnerable to off-field dismantling of their carefully nurtured squad(s) as their German counter-parts, even while the Saints look so good on it.
Arsenal’s own on-field ‘miracle’ is yet to happen though Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor, even, a decade.
That the off-field miracle HAS occurred is worthy of its own acknowledgement even though few are currently in the mood to celebrate anything.
It means that once we have assembled – and tuned-up – a title winning team, we won’t be going the way of Spurs, Liverpool, Dortmund or Southampton in losing our best players the moment they emerge. Let’s face it, we’ve been there and done that; mercifully we are unlikely to have to wear that particular shirt again.
And the sooner our own fan base realises this the better. For sure we are, frustratingly, a work still in progress. But it’s long-term, sustainable progress, nowadays both stately and invulnerable.
And our own fans can expedite the process by leading the way in returning to old-fashioned ways of supporting – to be our club’s 12th man at every match.
It’s not just about player-acquisition or tactics; the sooner fan-generated confidence courses through the veins of the club the sooner the whole process will cement our place at the top tables of the football world.
Yes, of course, the club HAS to get it right, but so too do the fans.
And, of course, that requires commitment, doesn’t it?