Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Bonfire of the Sanities

On last week’s Arsecast, I spoke a little about the ‘Time for Change’ protest at the Norwich City home game last Saturday, backed by three Arsenal supporters’ groups. In it, I suggested that I would not partake because, while I desire some level of change at Arsenal, I do not think I am indignant enough to volubly take arms against the manager inside the stadium.

Protests over television scheduling and ticket prices? Count me in. Aston Villa fans watching their club chloroformed into relegation by a negligent ownership model? Charlton and Blackpool fans trying to wrestle their club from the chokehold of vagabonds? Go for it, protest away. I know I would. There’s unanimity to those protests that I do not think we have reached at Arsenal.

I too feel the boredom and apathy of reliving the same season over and over again. Personally, I am not at the pitchfork stage yet, as I would be were I a Charlton, Villa or Blackpool fan. I admit that, when it comes to football, I wilfully try not to take it too seriously. I certainly do not wish to actively make myself unhappy about something that I choose to do with my leisure time, something that acts as a release valve from the stresses of everyday life. But that’s just me. I don’t wish to judge people that feel more strongly about the condition that Arsenal and Arsene are in than I do.

At least that is what I thought going into the game against Norwich. After the match, I was left feeling regretful. It felt like the online circus that revolves around Arsenal had been brought into the stadium walls. Like a terrible screenplay that somehow makes its way to the silver screen. (I do not think the supporters’ groups that backed it intended that at all). Previously on these pages, I have compared the effect of social media on the human psyche to the invention of the camera.

When the camera was invented in the 19th century, people became much more aware of their own image and began to dress far more extravagantly. The first ever photograph was taken in 1826; the ‘dandy craze’ took off in 1830. It’s not difficult to draw a connection between the two. With the invention of social media, we have all been handed a soapbox and a megaphone and, consequently, our opinions have turned into miniature works of performance art. If words are our weapons, then we are all poets now.

During the Norwich game on Saturday, the stadium became animated above a quiet, disapproving murmur on four occasions by my count. In the 12th minute and 78th minute, when the protest displays were made flesh. In the 53rd minute, as the crowd roundly booed the substitution of Alex Iwobi, itself a show of Punch and Judy petulance, and in the 55th minute, as Danny Welbeck smashed home the winner. Of those four decibel spikes, I think the goal created the least amount of excitement.

The 12th and 78th minute protests descended into abridged 60 second circus acts. A portion of the ground held their placards above their heads, a few bristled and booed those that did, a chorus of ‘One Arsene Wenger’ abounded from another section of dissenters. That is the very first time that chant has aired this season. It wasn’t so much a backing for the manager, as a disapproving veto to the protestors. I began to reflect on how bloody tiring it is to keep up with this level of internal politicking.

Worse still, these visual or vocal acts of yah booing genuinely seemed to interest people more than the game. Even more than the goal that won the game. I began to wonder what the Emirates might be like if everyone was as invested in backing the team, or, you know, enjoying the game as they are revealing which side of this imaginary divide that they personally happen to sit on. I began to look around at banners revealing all sorts of messages, some disparaging and some supportive of the manager, the regime, or whatever.

It struck me as quite ridiculous and a little vain that so many had come to watch a football match with the intention of distilling the contents of their twitter feeds onto pieces of A4 or bedsheets. I understand the thorny arguments over the most apposite time and place to protest (and it is undoubtedly during a match, because it is the only time that a crowd cannot be screened or ‘managed’). But Saturday resembled a festival of personal agendas.

I think maybe we have all begun to take our inconsequential internet opinions- and ourselves- a little too seriously, a theme Jonathan Liew warmed to this week. Arsenal’s online theatre seeped into the stadium walls, as the audience sought to write itself into a production it had paid to watch. We vied to become the hero in our own personal movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if, before long, we are urged to wear rosettes to games to declare our allegiance in this internecine internet war.

I am not interested in taking sides between these warring factions, rather lamenting the fact that there are “sides” at all. Not least because so many seem intent on catwalking their digital citizenship into the stadium. The atmosphere at the Emirates is not approaching toxic. The manager was ‘clumsy’ at best to cock a snook at the home crowd. It’s a little moany and groany, but quite British and middle class. It’s basically a few thousand people impatiently eyeing their watches and muttering under their breath in the bus queue.

British fan culture is one of the tamest fan cultures on the planet. I certainly don’t think David Ospina or Gabriel are too perturbed by the sighing and tutting at the Emirates. I suppose there is an argument that passive aggressive silence punctuated by audible fretting is more distracting for players than a baying mob relentlessly screaming blue murder at you. After a while you can probably tune out of that relentlessly intense soundtrack.

That Olivier Giroud triumphantly cupped his ear to the crowd (after an assist? Really Oli?) on Saturday suggests that he has found the griping unwelcome. Personally, I wish the atmosphere at the Emirates was a little more supportive, but I have visited about 2/3 of the league grounds in the country and Arsenal’s has not been incongruous until now. Giroud has been audibly backed plenty of times during his periodic bouts of poor form to little consequence. The Bernabeu is one of the grumpiest and most demanding audiences on the planet and it does little to stem Madrid’s peerless home form.

If we accept the Taylor Report as the turning point for the gradual pacifying of atmospheres inside English grounds, then almost none of our British players will have been alive during more raucous times. They will never have known anything other than a fairly passive, demanding crowd. Almost all of Arsenal’s foreign players come from far more volatile fan cultures than the one we have in England. Even if I wish the atmosphere was more supportive, I struggle to believe that the mood of quiet disgruntlement at the Emirates places a huge levy on the players.

But on Saturday, I realised that I actively disliked the air of dandyism in the stadium; the feeling that we have all begun to take our inconsequential internet rowing a little too much to heart. That we have all become a little too invested in peacocking our opinions and brandishing them as weapons. I think I probably see enough fruitless arguing on the internet between matches without being subjected to a live show while there is a game to watch. Football is often described as ‘a game of opinions’, it isn’t, it is a game that invites opinion, which is of course one of the reasons for its enduring popularity.

But there’s a distinction I think between having an opinion and taking one’s opinions very, very seriously. When I am in the stadium, I just want to watch a match, hopefully be entertained (!) and preferably, for Arsenal to win. Who knows? Maybe I am hopelessly out of touch now and this is just all part of the fun in football’s soap opera, like the transfer window or managerial ‘mind games.’ Maybe I am the one fruitlessly trying to enforce my will on others. Yet I fear the seal on Pandora’s Box is ruptured beyond repair and that there will be further acts to endure in this ceaseless dramaturgy.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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