Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Shake it up, baby

It’s notoriously difficult to explain to people that aren’t interested in football precisely what it is that is so addictive about the experience of a live game. Many can understand why the game itself might be compelling, even if it doesn’t stir their own loins. But it’s difficult to relay why one would spend vast fortunes, brave extreme weathers and forego many a Saturday lie in to actually go and watch it in a stadium. Not least in this day and age when almost every game is viewable via your television or laptop.

‘Faith based’ arguments have never satisfied me, so mealy mouthed rebuttals such as “you just don’t understand” or “you have to be there” aren’t an attractive prospect. Despite the emotional torpor football fans go through when they watch their teams, the struggle is to relay just how much fun it is. I’ve never taken somebody to a game that has not really enjoyed it. Over the weekend, this video emerged of Coventry fans at half time at the Emirates on Friday night.

Coventry is a club in a quite ghastly situation. Obliterated by boardroom mismanagement, they were a fixture in the top flight for 34 years but have been relegated twice; they have had their home ground taken off of them and have to play 35 miles away in Northampton. They’re owned by a murky web of faceless hedge-funds. When this video is shot, they are losing 2-0 at half time, away to the Premier League leaders with whom they rubbed shoulders for so long. They have absolutely no chance of even drawing the game and everybody in the stadium knows it.

And yet, you would never deduce from that video clip that any of these appalling circumstances had been foisted on those supporters. They are still having fun in the very meaningful sense of the word. My intention isn’t to patronise Coventry here, to pat them on their adorable, provincial heads and congratulate them for having their nice little day out in our stadium. This is a universally applicable phenomenon.

With the possible exception of the truly gut wrenching results – I’m thinking Paris in 1995, Bolton in 2003, Wembley in 2011 – I struggle to recall many Arsenal games in my life where I have had “Nooooo Fun” as Iggy Pop might have it. Coventry fans were, if you’ll excuse the terminology, ‘relegated’ to using the match itself to highlight their plight and protest against their continued mismanagement.

It was gratifying to see Arsenal fans respond favourably to Coventry’s protests. Some things transcend tribalism. It’s also worth noting that as Coventry City are consumed by corporate avarice, it’s not Sky Sports or Barclays or Coventry’s official mobile phone retailer devoting time, energy and money to restoring the club and fighting to bring it home. It’s the supporters that man that particular trench.

A little over 60 hours after the Coventry game, I sat in the Woolwich suite in Club Level as the Puma kit deal was finally announced. I admit to not being much of an aesthete, I stopped buying the shirts some years ago. My interest in such cash injections is confined to two areas. Firstly, that the funds help to improve the playing squad. With Özil in the bag and plenty of smoke wafting onto the horizon from Gelsenkirchen, it looks like the club are prepared to meet that condition.

My second interest is possibly more parochial and selfish. The club have indicated that improved commercial deals will enable them to take the pressure off of ticket prices. With a 3% rise in the offing next season, they don’t look quite as serious about that promise. Gazidis made some pointed comments during the conference about the Puma deal representing a vindication of the path of self sustainability that Arsenal have chosen.

He went onto say that, “When Arsenal do achieve success, it will be so much more meaningful to everybody that has been on this journey.” Jeremy Wilson speaks a little more about that ‘journey’ and Arsenal’s husbandry here. It was a comment that made me reflect in a navel gazing, somewhat self piteous fashion.

I’ve been on that journey too. Every last game of it. Few have been more invested in terms of personal finance, time and energy than I and people like me that helped the club through the years of (very) relative austerity. Price rises to the power of salary freeze is an equation that is increasingly tough to compute. Arsenal are arriving in their promised land. When the train starts serving gravy, I hope I can still afford the fare. But I’m not a dreamer, I am coming to terms with the fact that my participation in Arsenal’s journey will become a graudally diminishing one soon enough.

I understand if that sounds selfish or entitled. I’m certain I’ll invite a slew of responses that variously invite me to shut up, stop moaning, stop going or other assorted forms of surrender. I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m just relaying that I and many others are undergoing a personal journey too where their relationships with the club are about to change forever and not for the better. (Afterall, if I can’t be a touch self indulgent in The Tim Stillman Column, where can I be?!) Many, many more have already been left to glare on from the platform as the gravy train chugged off into the distance.

Balancing Arsenal’s need to compete against affordability is a difficult equalization. It’s by no means one that is exclusive to Arsenal either. Where you stand on how well Arsenal are achieving that balance, or whether you necessarily think it’s not their fault if they are not, is a matter of personal opinion. Coventry and Arsenal are clubs that have experienced the flipsides of football’s corporate boom. Yet both sets of supporters find themselves in existential angst about where they fit in their club’s future, if indeed they fit at all. That being the case, it’s impossible to argue that football is getting it right.

It’s true that there is a sense of complicity in this mutually assured destruction. By coughing up, you’re facilitating further price rises. But whether you abstained (through protest or necessity) now, five years ago or whether you do five years into the future, the bottom line is that you’ve been forced to surrender. I also understand that there are many, many worse things in the world than not being able to go to football. The same is true when your team concedes a goal or loses a prominent player to injury. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel aggrieved when it happens. So if we must twist, don’t expect us not to shout. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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