In October 2006, Arsenal played Watford at Emirates Stadium. It was a balmy late autumn day and the Gunners strolled to a 3-0 victory against Aidy Boothroyd’s side. Pre-match, there was a pitchside presentation for Arsene Wenger, who was marking his tenth anniversary in charge of the team. “Ten more years, ten more years, ten more years” gushed the home crowd in response.
The retort ten years later might have been ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Ten years on the fan base had largely turned against him. I have recalled this moment in October 2006 many times over the years because, I think, it was the last time I felt there was proper unity in the Arsenal fan base.
Thereafter, different supporters fell off the Wenger bus at different junctures (many never did, of course), the support became schismatic and, by the end of Wenger’s reign, the atmosphere at games became outright poisonous. I left a number of away games early during the 2016-17 season due to the levels of literal infighting. By Wenger’s final season, that acidity had given way to total apathy, which was in many ways the worst stage of all.
Unai Emery failed to unite a divided fan base and it has taken Mikel Arteta some time to do so but it feels like we have finally arrived at that point. I think there have been a confluence of factors driving this. Back in August, I wrote something vaguely existential about the quest for satisfaction, nay, happiness in following Arsenal this season.
One of my new season resolutions is to just try to enjoy things more and having a player who seems really, really happy to play for Arsenal is nice, isn't it? https://t.co/LvjMid2FQ3
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) August 26, 2021
A few weeks later I wrote a piece observing a different, younger demographic emerging in the away following in the post-peak pandemic landscape. The support feels as though it has been given a fresh, slightly more youthful injection just as the team has. There has been an increasing sense of a bond building between team and supporters right from the off this season, even when the team was not playing quite as well as it is currently.
Then, earlier this month, I was moved to write a piece about Mikel Arteta, specifically when he would personally feel the benefit of that increasing connection and when some of the love the players have been experiencing would be conferred upon him. I didn’t expect my question to be answered this quickly but, on Saturday, we saw it.
We’ve got super Mik Artetaaaaaa pic.twitter.com/CZaftiRnPi
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) March 19, 2022
The refreshed, more youthful vibe that has permeated away matches this season has also been seen at home games. A group of younger fans have been congregating in the Clock End lower tier which, crucially, does not house any season-ticket holders. They are also some of the cheaper seats in the stadium, right next to the away support. It’s a fertile breeding ground for younger fans to gather and gather they have this season with the express intention of creating an atmosphere and birthing new songs in the seats and in the concourses.
— Lee (@JoshuaMentoza) March 13, 2022
All these factors and a new, young and exciting team have come together at the same time to create that feeling of unity that, in my estimation, has not truly been present for at least 15 years, more or less the lifetime of the Emirates Stadium. The stadium factor is probably not insignificant either, the move from Highbury saw lots of people separated from one another.
It stands to reason that it has taken around 15 years for new alliances to form, for a generation of supporters who did not really know and therefore do not really long for Highbury to appear. But the main factor will always be the team on the pitch. When Ruben Neves and Ashley Young grumbled about the severity of Arsenal’s celebrations during recent 1-0 victories at Wolves and Aston Villa, they made a cognitive error that lots of us make in everyday life.
They witnessed the experience of others and immediately centred themselves. Neves and Young thought the celebrations were about them, about a fallen club just happy to win games in the West Midlands. They both spectacularly missed the point. It had nothing to do with them. It was about us. It was about a break with the past and an excitement for the future Arsenal fans have not properly experienced for over a decade.
It was about a group of players and a coach not burdened by the baggage of the recent past. At Wolves, Arsenal fought manfully with ten men to protect their one goal advantage. This isn’t the type of victory the travelling support have become accustomed to in recent years. At Villa, the home side won a free-kick deep into stoppage time and an opportunity to equalise.
Arsenal repelled it and it just so happened that all eleven players were within 15 yards of one another at the final whistle, in front of their travelling support. It was an adrenaline propulsing moment. Had a Bernd Leno goal-kick been the final action of the game, the scenes would not have been quite the same.
This is not to apologise for the ensuing “scenes” of course. There is simply no logic in declaring that players and fans can’t celebrate victories. Otherwise, none of us would ever celebrate anything. What next, no more celebrating goals in case you concede one later on? Should we all just not celebrate anything at all and wait to see the final table in May when the season is over? Don’t have a toast at your wedding just in case you get divorced in a few years?
The ”celebrations” are not about a sense of achievement but a sense of unity, a sense of something building, a sense that, for the first time probably since the stadium move, Arsenal are going in the right direction. That is not quite the same as saying that the team are ready to conquer the world tomorrow; but it is worth celebrating for Arsenal fans and how others interpret that is, frankly, not important. It’s not about them, it’s about us.