During the month of January, Arsenal have been visited by a few ghosts of Christmas past. At West Ham, they came face to face with Samir Nasri, who was booed relentlessly by the away support. Lukasz Fabianski also featured in goal for the Irons that day. The Gunners were denied an emotional reunion with Jack Wilshere as he continues to recover from an ankle injury, a story Jack and the Arsenal faithful are all too familiar with.
Last Saturday, Olivier Giroud indulged in a small lap of appreciation of the Emirates, where he was incredibly warmly received. At one point, Giroud, like everyone else in the stadium, seemed to forget he was wearing Chelsea blue as he tapped his crest in acknowledgment in a kind of physical Freudian slip.
Once a Gunner, always a Gunner ?
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) January 19, 2019
The politics that govern the ‘right’ way to leave a football club are contradictory and confusing. If you were to delicately explain the circumstances of Nasri and Giroud’s Arsenal departures to somebody that doesn’t follow football, they would not understand the differing treatment. Nasri wanted to move to a rival, as did Giroud. Both played with full commitment until their moves were sealed.
Of course the perception for Nasri was that he was chasing the cash (someone that is not a football fan would also find the objection to this confusing). City had yet to win a league title at this stage and to move there was considered a financial act, first and foremost. Of course, Nasri left Manchester with two Premier League winners’ medals in his back pocket, justifying his decision on sporting grounds.
Football fans, like most people, are not good at self-reflection, but Nasri fanned the flames over the years by responding to the objection of Arsenal fans with a series of laconic responses. There was a sense that the barracking got under Nasri’s skin, which probably exacerbated the situation. But ahead of the recent West Ham fixture, the historically hot headed Nasri showed signs of maturity and reflection.
“Before I used to say things about Arsenal because I was hurt by the treatment from the fans but there is nothing but love for Arsenal.” This more mature perspective shone through in his performance, unperturbed by the barracking of the away fans, he turned in a very good display, teeing up Declan Rice’s second half winner.
I am sure that after seven and a half years, the booing was little more than muscle memory, a mere pantomime gesture. Booing has become a second language for football crowds. That irony was laid bare last weekend when Giroud, warming up in Chelsea fatigues next to the North Bank, had his name sung constantly. His expensively acquired replacements and, let’s face it, upgrades set about tearing Chelsea’s defence asunder. The sole gesture of appreciation for Lacazette and Aubameyang from the Emirates crowd was to boo the manager for substituting one of them, which, as expressions of gratitude go, was just so Emirates Stadium.
Last week I wrote about Cesc Fabregas’ Arsenal legacy and why it is still so fraught with contradictions. Bacary Sagna was greeted with a mixed reception upon his return to the Emirates with Manchester City. It’s not for me to tell people how to feel about former players, but I am telling you that if you feel animosity towards Bacary Sagna, you are wrong. Very wrong.
Of course, many would argue that he ran down his contract and joined a domestic rival. Only in the post Bosman madness of modern football could seeing out one’s contract be seen as an act of treachery, rather than an act of loyalty. Particularly for a player who played with such distinction and commitment until the very last second.
One of the significant factors in how we respond to a player departure seems to be how much we want them to stay, which is an unfair emotional tariff to levy on a footballer when you consider it rationally. Nasri had just turned 24 when he left Arsenal and it was a big emotional blow to see him move to a club that we considered smaller, yet infinitely wealthier. But from his perspective, he’ll have very few regrets about making that move.
A couple of years ago, I pondered on whether Ashley Cole’s departure to Chelsea would be viewed more generously through a contemporary lens. The fact that Giroud’s move to Chelsea has been seen quite maturely by fans made me consider this again. Have the likes of Cole, Cech and Lassana Diarra (!) gone some way to legitimising a path between the two rivals?
Of course there are far more open and shut cases when it comes to former players that stick in the collective craw as Arsenal fans. Writing a stupid fucking post on your website to force a move to Manchester United is not going to enamour you to anyone. Even John and Joan ‘I prefer the tennis, actually’ are going to understand that.
Doubtless, the van Persie wound is all the rawer because he was incredibly good and ended up winning United the league. Emmanuel Adebayor is unpopular with several clubs now, for good reason. Likewise, Nicolas Anelka. The morality around their respective behaviours is not so much a maze as a cul-de-sac. There again, in a modern context, Anelka’s antics would be considered par the course and would not draw as much opprobrium as a result.
All of which brings us onto Aaron Ramsey and his imminent departure. As a player, Ramsey has divided Arsenal fans, even during his bouts of good form. He’s a risk taker on the ball and enterprising off it. That’s not to everyone’s tastes for a central midfield player, especially one in a team like Arsenal who haven’t so much ‘left the back door open’ in recent years as kicked it clean off its hinges and left all of the household valuables on the doorstep.
Even with two FA Cup Final winning goals underneath his belt, Ramsey is not everyone’s cup of tea, which is ironic given his vanilla stylings. But his bland public persona is probably instructive. Aaron is taking the ‘right way to leave’ route and satisfying our moral compasses. Even though he is used more fitfully than his performances deserve, Ramsey is not complaining and playing well when called upon. The current situation with Mesut Özil provides a striking contrast here.
There is a unique sense of clarity over Ramsey’s future too, with the club publicly withdrawing his contract offer in the autumn. This is important in terms of his legacy, because it immediately casts him as the ‘victim’ for want of a more apposite word. The bitterness over his departure is entirely the property of the club and not the player. He also looks as though he will move abroad, which buys him yet more credit in the ‘not pissing off the terminally grumpy Arsenal fans’ account.
Ramsey, like James Milner, doesn’t have the most fascinating public persona, but that probably informs their professionalism. Nasri and van Persie were spikier characters, Ashley Cole released a pithy autobiography to force a move. Milner has played for 5 Premier League clubs now, leaving Manchester City to join their current title rivals Liverpool on a free transfer, but he is not reviled by anyone.
This is because he comes across as conscientious, much as Ramsey does. Olivier Giroud’s popularity turned on its head during his Arsenal career. I wrote this piece in 2015 about how he couldn’t catch a break with Arsenal fans and the wider public, then 2 years later, this piece about his total redemption with the same audiences.
Giroud became more popular as he was used more sparingly and when Arsenal fans probably sensed his Gunners tenure drawing to a close. The comparisons with Ramsey are irresistible in this sense. The Welshman was serenaded with a chorus of “Aaron Ramsey, we want you to stay” at Blackpool as he endeared himself to the crowd with a focused, committed performance in a game many in his position would have regarded as an inconvenience.
One could argue that this was exactly what Samir Nasri did when he put in a professional performance against Liverpool in August 2011, 24 hours before signing a contract with Manchester City, but my word limit is vanishing, as are my opportunities to appreciate Aaron Ramsey as an Arsenal player. Short of releasing an ill-advised autobiography or website post in the next four months, Ramsey has assured that he will fit snugly onto the ‘leaves with our best wishes’ shelf.