So I finally made it to the Emirates nearly two weeks ago. Those of us who work for a living have to plan meticulously; identifying the appropriate home game, getting time-off, booking flights at the right prices, securing tickets. Damn, I felt like an event planner. Call it my English safari.
Obviously I am testifying on behalf of the “foreign-fan” who is so casually and frequently criticized as being a plastic with no vested interest in the club’s success or failure. Those of us who are privileged to afford the trip are usually making significant sacrifices to share in the match-day experience which some of our domestic-based fans seemingly take for granted. This is not counting the revenue foreign fans generate for the club in the form of expensive subscriptions to cable or satellite tv providers who usually put their PL games on premium channels. Then there are some of us who make significant outlays on replica jerseys and accessories. Guilty on all counts, your honor.
So what were my takeaways.
The Emirates may not be a fortress but the enemy is still outside
April 30th at the Emirates was fraught with portents of doom for the future of Arsene Wenger. One week prior the club had essentially lost any mathematical chance of competing for a title after a disappointing nil-all draw with Sunderland. Concurrently the Neighbors were still flying, seemingly immune to their annual cock-up in, making the annual celebration of Saint Totteringham’s Day a waning possibility. Taking advantage of the inevitable fan disappointment, the usual malcontents, Scarfists and Bin-baggers, decided a League game where the club vitally needed to secure its champions league place was appropriate to conduct a protest aimed at the manager.
As has already been well reported their pathetic demonstration with A-4 or letter-sized papers, was drowned out by chants of One Arsene Wenger and Arsenal We Love You, We Truly Do by the vast majority of the approximately 55,000 fans in attendance. I came to the Emirates under the apprehension that it was a cauldron of bile and dissent, only to leave with a more positive nuanced view.
Obviously it is naive to gloss over the fact that supporters’ feelings were ultimately shaped by the results insofar as the team eventually overcame Norwich by a slim one-goal margin. But long before Danny Welbeck inflicted the crucial blow, the vast majority of my peers within the Emirates gave the Scarfists, Piers Morgan and their enablers inside and outside the mainstream media (bloggers and podcasters included) one hell of a beating.
This is despite 12 years without a title, the consistent attempts to diminish Wenger’s consistency in keeping us among the top-four and to also denigrate the significance of two successive FA Cup titles in recent years added to five previously won. Contrast this to the moaning and handwringing by the media when Liverpool, United and Chelsea fall out of the top-four or the bigging-up of United for getting to this year’s Cup-Final. In spite of this relentlessly negative narrative, it was clear to me the fans aren’t buying it and their resounding rejection of the protests is cause for optimism.
The stadium is certainly no cauldron of rabid support for the team. To the contrary there was ample booing and whistling when Iwobi was substituted by Welbeck with audible demands that Giroud should have been the one to give way. But too many of us make the same mistake as the Scarfists, a desire for a goal-scoring Giroud is not the same as a demand to get shot of the manager. In fact it is the wisdom of the manger in persisting with the likes of Giroud or Walcott in his belief that they will come good, as did Van Persie (or Adebayor for one-season), that have sown deep seeds of goodwill for the manager even though he has been unable to pluck another phenomenon like Henry from obscurity. The fact that our travelling-fans at Man City were loud and boisterous in singing One Arsene Wenger while they were subject to the usual post-game segregation and detention was another kick to the gonads of those who foolishly think the greatest manager ever in the history of the club is somehow unwilling or unable to lead us to another title as was done thrice in his illustrious career.
On the importance of being positive
Nothing impressed me more from this trip, apart from actually attending the game, than uniting for the first time with the Positively Arsenal posse, those of us on the Sunshine Bus as Andrew Nicholl so aptly described. Having a good old piss-up at the appropriately named Bank of Friendship was like a reunification of old partisans who had been in the wars together.
It got me into thinking how important it has been over the past twelve or so years to be positively in support of the club rather than the repeated cycles of despair and negativity because the club was limited to winning the Top-4 or Top-3 title. The mainstream media now acknowledges the importance of either title apparently because it is being contested by United and City.
A quick overview. Twelve or so years ago, in the post Invincible year, I was introduced to Wengerball and decided then and there this was the type of technical, fast-paced football I would not merely support but give allegiance. Inevitably, once you adopt a club, there is need to find the proverbial “water cooler” on Monday for a post-game chin-wag with fellow fans. Living as I do in a barren desert when it comes to football in general and Arsenal in particular, I was drawn to the internet at a time when message boards were on the wane and the explosion in blogs and blogging had begun.
In those days there was a virtual land grab on the internet to become an Arsenal blogger. They literally sprang up daily like weeds. It was then some of us learnt that most blogs and bloggers do a piss-poor job of educating fans into truly supporting AFC. Apart from either lacking originality or suffering from a massive deficiency in writing skills, they either parroted what the mainstream media fed the public or engaged in wild speculation mostly without a shred of supporting evidence. As it was then and now, we discovered that too many bloggers had massive egos and would not countenance any serious questioning of their viewpoints.
After the euphoria of the Invincibles era had waned, the club had moved from Highbury to Islington and it became evident that winning titles was going to take second place to paying for the new stadium, there evolved 3 distinct market segments in the goonersphere: (1) the doom-mongers who see the club going to hell on a hand basket because it is unable and unwilling to match the biggest spenders, (2) a middle-of-the-road that supports the club in good times but able and willing to slag the club, manager and players for perceived shortcomings when the going is rough, and (3) a minority of fans who emphasize support for the club, manager and team whether in good or bad times.
Well over a decade later I have concluded that, while the context and circumstances have changed, the basic differences still remain despite naive, platitudinous calls for unity. It is like a biologist demanding uniformity in nature when in fact it is the diversity that is important for natures’s survival.
Most of us at PA initially gravitated to another blog where it seemed priority was given to supporting AFC as a club that played, attractive technically-oriented football while pursuing a self-sustaining strategy that could eventually challenge the big spenders like United, Chelsea and City. Apparently the setbacks and defeats over the years took their toll; i.e. the selling-off some of our best players after 2004, the loss of Fabregas and Van Persie derailing project youth, the smashing of Eduardo in 2008 which destroyed our title challenge with five games to go, that ignominious loss in the 2011 Capital One Cup final come to mind.
All these disappointments evidently loosened and eroded the conviction of some fans. No surprise disputes broke out within and outside some blogs about whether the club had the right strategy and whether Wenger was the right man to manage the footballing side of things. Eventually our old blog took the editorial position that Wenger had reached the End of An Era. Rejecting this throwing-in of the towel, our Blackburn George took the initiative to establish Positively Arsenal as a home for those of us who support the strategy of the club and the vision of the manager despite the setbacks.
My trip to the Emirates confirmed, despite the Cassandras of Doom, annually predicting the demise of Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, the club continues to succeed where other traditional top-4 clubs are failing. Once again securing a top-4 champions league place, a 19-year uninterrupted run, and at writing 3rd place is imminently possible. Two successive FA cup wins are in the bag. A new stadium is almost paid off. The youth teams are attracting some of the best and brightest talent at home and abroad with the U21s winning their way back to the Top Division. Thousands of new fans worldwide are becoming supporters of the club. Arsenal is financially secure with revamped sponsorship deals and eligible for a huge slice of the PL money coming in.
No wonder the Sunshine Bus was rocking at the Bank of Friendship. Those who remained positive have all the reasons to be smiling and optimistic while the negative nervous nellies have failed to enjoy what has been the most wonderful footballing ride in the past 12-years.
We love you Arsenal, We truly Do!