Tuesday, March 5, 2024


But if you offend and insult your own captain, bring restlessness and bad mood into the team you actually support – that makes no sense to me and weakens the cohesion.” – Granit Xhaka.

While Granit Xhaka’s explosion at the Emirates crowd during the recent draw with Crystal Palace represented an immediate emotional action, it seems fair enough to say that it’s not one he overly regrets.

He may regret the action, but certainly not the sentiment behind it. I don’t want to relitigate the incident because we are all very, very tired of it. Other than to say that I think Xhaka was unfortunate to become such a lightning rod for supporter frustration, even if I think his role in the team ought to have been reduced.

It’s also true that he made an active choice to pour oil on a pretty small flame, but like I said, I don’t want to relitigate the incident. However, Arsenal unwittingly rekindled the Arsenal atmosphere debate with some clumsy back channel briefing to the very well connected David Ornstein. The word ‘noise’ was used in a rather dismissive manner, which caused offence to many fans.

Now, in fairness, we don’t know who David Ornstein’s source was for this particular story. We don’t know if some awkward paraphrasing was to blame for this missive and we don’t know the immediacy of the source to the situation. Indeed, ‘external atmosphere’ was used later in the piece and we don’t know that that was aimed at the club’s supporters.

It is more likely that it was aimed at the media, punditocracy and football’s chattering classes. Maybe the use of the word ‘external’ was deliberately included so as not to implicate supporters inside the stadium, who are responsible for a more internal atmosphere. We can only speculate, but one thing is for sure, it was a messy briefing.

However, it does re-ignite the debate as to the role of the fan. Do we, as supporters, have an obligation to provide a positive atmosphere inside the ground? Well, the obvious answer is no. Fans are not obliged to do anything other than honour the terms and conditions of their tickets. That means they don’t have the right to scream abuse either- though common human decency should suffice to tell us that.

It is important not to conflate genuine abuse- be it in person or, as it happens more often, online- with booing or barracking one’s own team. They are separate things and the conflation of them is, in my view, often a deliberate and calculated move to shut down dissent from supporters who won’t countenance any criticism of their clubs.

Being a supporter doesn’t always mean being a cheerleader. To take an extreme example, Blackpool fans made the ultimate sacrifice recently by boycotting games altogether for a higher purpose, as they successfully ousted an especially undesirable owner. Arsenal’s botched 6.5% season ticket rise from 2011 was never again repeated due to the vociferousness of fan reaction.

However you feel about the treatment meted out to Granit Xhaka, whisper it quietly, it worked. He is no longer in the team; he is no longer the captain and it looks as though he will be sold in January. The methodology is not to my personal tastes (more on which anon), but the fans got what they wanted.

Now, I understand how, for Granit Xhaka, who has been targeted with vile social media abuse, that can become amorphous with a pocket of supporters ironically cheering his substitution. That’s how stress works, it is an accumulation of factors and the person we finally lose our temper with usually wields the straw that broke the camel’s back.

There is, however, a ridiculous contention that Arsenal fans are somehow uniquely grumpy. Those that take objection to acts of dissent in the stadium will often lament that Arsenal are ‘the worst fans in the world’ which is nonsense. Ken Early wrote an excellent piece recently on why Londoners make for an especially uneffusive audience.

The same is true at Stamford Bridge, where Rafa Benitez felt the force of fan sentiment during his interim spell in charge, as did Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa- aka ‘the 3 rats’- during one of Jose Mourinho’s typically poisonous spells in charge. Last season, Chelsea fans repeatedly jeered Jorginho and chanted ‘fuck Sarri-ball’ during home games.

Outside of two of London’s most cosmopolitan boroughs, a three second glance away from one’s parochial Arsenal rabbit hole reveals fan dissent of a much more severe flavour overseas. Napoli players have recently hired bodyguards to protect themselves from the club’s unhappy ultras. Two players had their houses robbed and the wife of Napoli midfielder Allan took to Instagram recently to insist she would not be intimidated by the club’s ultras.

Real Madrid’s supporters are so demanding that they have targeted Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. I’ve followed South American football for long enough to see the ugly forms true fan resentment can take. It’s a world away from the low-level grumbling of the Emirates. Likewise, many fans make the mistake of pinning acts of dissent on the younger generation and their sense of entitlement, which is abject nonsense considering the average age of an Arsenal season ticket holder is 48. There are no young people in the stadium because they can’t afford to be there.

In any case, booing is nothing new. In Jon Spurling’s book ‘Highbury- The Story of Arsenal in N5’, Jon speaks to players and fans from as far back as the 1930s who report a grouchy atmosphere at Highbury, even during the club’s golden era. A player from the 1952-53 season recalls that the team began to use the negative energy from inside Highbury as a motivating factor for them. This in a season where they won the league title.

But the question is, should supporters express negativity? I think it’s well accepted that a negative atmosphere is detrimental to the players- or at least, it certainly doesn’t help, even if athletes are paid such huge sums due to their superhuman capacity to manage stress and perform under severe scrutiny.

Personally, I just cannot bring myself to boo or barrack an Arsenal player. It’s not in me. I rarely boo opposition players, even the likes of Adebayor and Ashley Cole didn’t move me to react. Expressing negativity doesn’t make me feel good, it just produces more negativity. I just plain don’t like it, it makes me feel bad and it makes me feel bad when the stadium turns sour.

Of course, it is not for me to tell others to feel the same and that’s why the issue of fan behaviour is such a divisive one. We all have different red lines. I used to be absolutely militantly anti-booing of Arsenal players. (Strangely I was less concerned with the human aspect of barracking referees, who are paid far less than top level athletes to deal with that sort of stress).

My opinion on it changed a little when Emmanuel Adebayor strolled his way through the 2009 Champions League semi-final at Old Trafford. When he was substituted he was met with a volley of boos from the away enclosure. I didn’t join in, but for the first time, I didn’t clack my tongue in irritation at those around me. I thought he fully deserved it.

Yet we all feel the energy drain from our bodies when we are seated next to the moaner in the stadium, who uses any and every opportunity to complain volubly. Negativity makes for a draining environment. Few of us are guiltless in this respect, we all become frustrated and tut and moan and yell. But a moment of release seems distinct, to me, from an endless stream of pissing and moaning for the sake of it.

Ultimately, this is all totally unresolvable, because it’s subjective. We all have different opinions of players, managers and owners and we all reach the end of our tether with those parties at different times, producing varying levels of frustration. Personally, I don’t like the heckling of Arsenal players by Arsenal fans other than in unique scenarios.

But how else do fans express their frustrations? Football is one of the few spectator events where you spend large amounts of money and then forfeit your right to express dissatisfaction with the ‘product’ that you have paid for. I also think the power of dissent is losing its value at the Emirates because it is expressed too readily and, frankly, too frivolously. It’s just part of ‘the noise.’ That’s just my opinion, however, I don’t have the right to enforce it and that’s why it’s an irresolvable debate.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto or like my page on Facebook

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