Back in August, I wrote a piece about the volatile atmosphere at away matches. I wrote it in the wake of a 0-0 draw with Leicester when, by my reckoning, a concerted chant of “we want Wenger out” was audible from significantly more than just a small pocket of supporters for the first time. The article did not land particularly well at the time. Not because people didn’t agree- at least I don’t think that was the reason.
In the ensuing five days between that Leicester game and the column being published, news had circulated that Arsenal were on the brink of signing Lucas Perez and Shkodran Mustafi. A couple of new signings had abated some of the anger fomenting in the fan base and, I guess, people didn’t have the same appetite to read about a sense of mutiny in the away end. (Also, it was apparent that the TV cameras had not picked up the chanting at Leicester).
I think by now it is obvious that there is something fundamentally wrong with this team that cannot be solved by a couple of transfers. In January, there was very little clamour amongst Arsenal fans for new signings. I think the majority of us felt it might even compound Arsene’s issues, as he struggles to work out how to use the players that he has.
There have been a collection of insipid away performances since that sunny evening in August and, as such, the sense of mutiny has multiplied. Aeroplanes and other such stunts have lent a sense of farce to proceedings, but I think Philippe Auclair said it best on Monday night, when he tweeted, “These chants from AFC fans at Selhurst Park far more meaningful than choreographed ‘demos’. Something is broken, that cannot be fixed.”
He was of course referring to the chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” which emanated from the Arthur Waite Stand. At one point, a fan a few rows in front of me refused to return the ball to Hector Bellerin as the Gunners won a throw in. Chamberlain, Özil and Bellerin were all at close quarters as another impassioned chorus of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” rained down upon them. I don’t think it was necessarily aimed at those three players in particular, they just happened to be the closest.
I admit to harbouring a slightly child like view of Arsenal. I consciously try to marginalise negativity- or rather- I consciously try not to channel it. I can acknowledge and confront it, but I don’t want it to consume me. Going to football is something I do for fun. I enjoy getting wrapped up in it and emotional about it, but ultimately, after the 90 minutes are over, I don’t much see the point on volunteering misery onto myself for days and days afterwards.
But I must admit that I felt, well, not glad, but satisfied with the players receiving the brunt of the opprobrium for a change. For too long they have been allowed to take refuge underneath Arsene Wenger’s petticoat, as the Arsene In / Out circus conducts its nationwide tour. There are obviously very serious issues with the manager that need to be addressed urgently, but the players have gotten a completely free ride for far too long.
For all of our motivational / tactical / coaching issues, these players are capable of better than what they have served up recently, even with no manager at all at the helm. They deserve equal billing in this menagerie of incompetence, which runs from the board, to the training ground, to the pitch. The players have been concealed by the increasingly maddening soap opera of Arsene’s future and the deafening silence of our CEO and owner.
They have taken shelter beneath the planes, billboards and banners. Either Arsene Wenger isn’t telling them that they’re not pulling their weight, or they’re not listening. So I admit to feeling a sense of justification that they were finally forced to stand and listen to it from the paying public. On the touchline at Selhurst Park, there was no hiding place. Perhaps it will even do the players good in the long run to have their bubble pricked, but I hardly think the prospect of them losing motivation to be much of a deterrent at this stage. That consequence has been realised well in advance.
You only have to listen to the players themselves. Hector Bellerin said “we didn’t feel like we were ready” after a shambolic first half at Anfield. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain told Sky cameras that “It’s not acceptable for Arsenal football club to lose in the way we did today,” following the limp defeat to West Brom. Theo Walcott, captain for the evening, delivered the coup de grace at Selhurst Park when he said, “I think they just wanted it more, you could sense it from kickoff.”
The first time in living memory that Walcott’s words haven’t caused me to slip into a coma through boredom and he comes out with that! That Walcott thought that was a reasonable explanation is, in itself, very alarming. The casual, matter of fact delivery suggests an insulated culture that has gotten more than a little rotten at Arsenal. It was an oddly frank admission given that Walcott surely has an awful lot to gain by Wenger’s continued employment at the club. Theo’s string of England omissions- from a variety of different coaches- tell you that Wenger is the only manager to invest continued faith in him during his career.
But if we are talking about suicidal soundbites, Ivan Gazidis must punch himself in the face every day for telling supporters in 2011 that, “Ultimately, Arsene is accountable to the fans.” I was in the room when he said it and maybe my memory is deliberately deceiving me as the situation becomes more poisonous, but I distinctly recall a murmur in the room and a hesitation before the words escaped his mouth.
He was answering a pertinent question from the floor, “Who is Arsene accountable to?” Ivan clearly did not want to tell the truth and say “nobody”, so he thought on his feet. Alas, he simply ended up pissing all over his own shoes. I do not like or enjoy the volatility at away matches at the moment. But this is what a vacuum of accountability looks like. If the fans do not think the players are accountable to the manager or that the manager is accountable to the board, they will step into the breach.
As the ball disappeared into the rumbling mass of disquiet on Monday and the players were forced to stare down an unhappy public, I was minded of the famous Julius Cesar quote, “It is not these well-fed long-haired men that I fear, but the pale and the hungry looking.” It is an entirely unhealthy situation for the fans to become the only perceptible body of accountability at a football club.
In any organisation, the customers should be the focus of your operation, not an active part of the decision making process. This is doubly the case at a football club, because we as fans are incredibly emotional and emotion is the enemy of reason. But when the authorities abdicate, mob justice is pretty much all that you are left with.