Friday, October 7, 2022

Always crashing in the same car

For my sins, I have an Arsenal bowl that I keep at work for my lunch. Every lunchtime I faithfully clutch it to my bosom as I wander to the canteen for my daily dose of minestrone. A familiar pattern repeats, an estranged colleague spies my bowl, establishes eye contact and asks, “So. Do you think it´s time for Wenger to go?” (This is briefly replaced by “who do you think they will sign?” during transfer windows). It´s joined “raining again!” and “only _ days till Friday” in the list of ´awkward conversation topics colleagues and acquaintances seem oddly hellbent on bending my ear with in the lift.

On Saturday in the away end at Stoke, a group of gentlemen began chanting for Arsene Wenger´s head at three goals down. A not entirely unpredictable or unexpected response. Personally, I am not at the stage where I want the manager removed, but the chants didn’t trouble or offend me. Why should they? Why should a fully functioning adult be troubled by another group of functioning adults holding and expressing a different opinion? I just didn’t join in.

My friend decided to try and chant the name of Arsenal through this atmosphere of mutiny. A gentleman walked back two rows and across the aisle to admonish him for doing so. I laughed in disbelief. This struck me as one of the most ridiculous actions I had ever seen inside a football stadium. “We’re 3-0 down!” he insisted, as if we were somehow unaware. I thought to myself, “Why do you even care if he is chanting something encouraging about Arsenal? If you don´t feel it is appropriate, just don’t join in.”

I reflected that the subject of Arsene Wenger and whether you want him to stay or go has long since become hysterical and has actually tilted over the precipice into fanatical territory. It’s a subject that has, conversationally at least, become bigger than the club itself. It’s Arsene FC, not Arsenal FC. The subject is so repetitive and dizzying that people have forged camps with which they identify probably as much as they do with Arsenal itself. It has transcended into something tribal. Clubs within a club.

It has become hyper-real, as Barney Ronay notes in this excellent piece. On forums and social media I am observing a trend for people trying to furiously ‘convert’ non-believers to their way of thinking. Occasionally, forums I frequent and my mentions on Twitter take on the appearance of a doormat, leafleted relentlessly by some ridiculous cult.

“Do you believe in redemption, Tim? Do you believe Arsene Wenger can redeem his sins? Do you believe in a saviour, Tim? Do you believe Arsene Wenger is the saviour?” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a point I’m more than happy to discuss and it’s as worth discussing as anything else. But the subject has become so peculiarly fervent. It´s actually absurd when you step back and look at it with some distance.

This week, I have even seen some express dissatisfaction with the club because supporters are angry, which strikes me as a very curious kind of frenzy to whip oneself into. “I’m angry at you for making me and everyone else so angry at you!” Where does this concentric circle of anger end? Does it continue to get angry at itself for biting its own tail? Is this Angerception®? Quite what action the club is meant to take to heel such rifts is unclear. A free 24 hour counselling service provided as standard with your season ticket perhaps?

Writing about the Arsenal fanbase and its schisms hardly represents brave new territory. I know I have written about it many times. I am as guilty of nudging this discourse to the fore as anyone. Some weeks back, I appeared on an Arsecast roundtable which sought to discuss the effects, good and bad, of social media on football fandom.

We began to pontificate on the ease with which negativity can germinate in the age of instant media. The Man from East Lower argued that he didn’t really regard it as important whether there was a negative atmosphere amongst the supporters or not. I found the comment quite revealing, at once liberating and enlightening. Like Truman when he finds out that his whole life has been a carefully scripted reality television show.

Orwell had a great quote about life’s biggest struggle being the battle to see what’s perched on the end of your nose. With this welcome shot of renewed perspective, I stopped straining to focus on this foreign object on the end of my nose, relaxed my vision and saw the bigger picture. The man from the East Lower uttered the truth and the truth had set me free. Eureka! Of course it doesn’t fucking matter. It´s just a sideshow. Occasionally tiresome, irritating and a bit frustrating, but an irrelevant appendix note nonetheless.

Jim’s intervention and the protesting song-smith at Stoke made me realise how curious a phenomenon the Arsene Wenger debate has become. Like a reality television show whereby the audience somehow try to write themselves into the script as protagonists. At West Brom we broadcast a commercial in banner form (the banner has been around for more than two seasons, but now it has media exposure, darling) and we’re even broadcasting our own footage at far flung train stations.

Because at the coalface of reality, as much as you can call a sport as ridiculous and lucrative as football ‘reality’, none of this sideshow has any tangible effect. The fracture in the fanbase heals and soothes with a few victories and deepens in defeat. It’s pantomime really. The board are not going to dismiss Arsene Wenger, at least not until he genuinely under-performs (when his league finish does not equate with league spend). The players don’t even seem to be unduly bothered by the pithy atmosphere.

At half time on Saturday, they received a collective tongue lashing as vicious as I have ever seen from an Arsenal crowd. (I admit to partially joining in on that occasion). The air of mutiny did not prevent them from staging a vastly improved second half showing. At Reading away in the League Cup in 2012, the atmosphere became toxic as we capitulated to a four goal deficit. It did not prove to be an impediment for Arsenal´s incredible fight back.

Some years ago Arsene Wenger began implicitly talking about the Arsenal crowd as an external factor over which his team had no control and, therefore, that his players ought not to consider a crutch. There aren´t any players in the current squad that would have known an Arsenal crowd any different. They probably won´t have known any crowd to be any different, in this country at least. Arsenal are not unique in the manner of their support. My @vitalarsenal colleague Amos crafted a quite brilliant piece about waning supporter influence in the 21st century.

We have never been noisier and we have never been less influential. Everybody hears but nobody is listening, which in turn makes us yell louder still to unreceptive ears. The Arsenal fan base is undoubtedly divided. It would of course be preferable were it not, simply because it might make things slightly more enjoyable (or less irritating). But does it actually matter? I no longer believe so and, much like Albert Camus’ Meursault, I have found an enjoyable liberation at extricating myself from this emotional theatre. In the words of the brilliant Bill Hicks, it’s just a ride. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

Related articles

Share article

Featured on NewsNow

Support Arseblog

Latest posts

Latest Arsecast