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English football clubs tell fans: Drop dead

Arsenal is a case in point, where the relationship between the football club and its fans is nothing short of high farce

Arsenal fans calling for the resignation of manager Arsène Wenger ahead of their English FA Cup quarter-final soccer match against Lincoln City at the Emirates stadium in London, on 11 March. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal fans calling for the resignation of manager Arsène Wenger ahead of their English FA Cup quarter-final soccer match against Lincoln City at the Emirates stadium in London, on 11 March. Photo: Reuters

The low point of Arsenal’s dreadful trip to West Bromwich Albion last weekend came, so to speak, high up in the sky. When not one but two planes, messages trailing, flew over the Hawthorns. One message, “NO CONTRACT #WENGER OUT", fluttered overhead just before the match started. The second message, possibly flown across the sky by the same pilot in the same plane—but on a different contract no doubt—read “IN ARSENE WE TRUST #RESPECTAW". That message, somewhat ironically, flew by just 3 minutes after Arsenal had conceded an early goal and were trailing 1-0.

There is so much to unpack in these messages. Especially the fact that both messages came with hashtags. Is a thing without a hashtag even a thing any more?

Even for Arsenal, a club of sublime highs and sublimely ridiculous lows, this was a moment of unprecedented cringe. Rarely, if ever, has the relationship between the club and its fans ascended to such high farce.

Understandably, the battle in the skies has come in for at least as much, if not more, criticism than Arsenal’s dreadful performance on the pitch. The club has hit a vein of abysmal form just in time for the end of the season. Of the last eight matches, Arsenal have won three: against Hull, Sutton United and Lincoln City. Over those matches, they have conceded 19 goals. Awful.

Fans, of course, are in a state of complete and utter meltdown. The problem is, what can they possibly do about it without coming in for ridicule?

Which raises another question: Do clubs even care about what fans think?

Arsène Wenger. Photo: Reuters

In 2011, Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal’s chief executive, told a meeting of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust that “Arsène (Wenger) is ultimately accountable to the fans—they ultimately make judgement. If you are seeing the relationship between the fans and the manager break down over time, that is unsustainable."

Six years later, as that relationship hits the lowest point in Wenger’s tenure and verges on the unsustainable, the club appears to have made a smooth about-turn that would have made Johan Cruyff nod in pleasure. Earlier this month, amid mounting acrimony and plunging form, club chairman Chips Keswick released a statement that read: “We respect that fans are entitled to their different individual opinions but we will always run this great football club with its best long-term interests at heart. Arsène has a contract until the end of the season. Any decisions will be made by us mutually and communicated at the right time in the right way."

Fans, suddenly, are no longer the makers of ultimate judgement but merely people with “different individual opinions". Also, all decisions will now be made mutually. The intention of this statement is twofold. First, it makes the quite stunning assertion that there isn’t a substantial collective feeling of unhappiness with Wenger. And second, it reiterates that Wenger’s decision to stay or leave the club is not a matter for public debate, but for internal negotiation. Thus undermining what Gazidis said in 2011.

All of which must make fans at Arsenal, and in many other clubs, wonder what it will take to get clubs to take their displeasure seriously. If they protest during a match with banners or chants, pundits will deride them for being childish and petulant. And it might demotivate the team and hit performance even more.

If they refuse to turn up for the match, fans will be charged with being glory hunters who abandon their team in a time of crisis. After all, shouldn’t they be supporting them even harder when they’re doing badly?

Rant and rave (as famously seen on the ArsenalFanTV channel on YouTube), and everyone will just laugh at you. Fly a plane over a ground and they will laugh at you even harder.

So what are fans supposed to do? Apparently they should sit around quietly and hope for the best. But not too quietly. Because then they will say your stadium is a library and not passionate enough.

So full enthusiasm always, non-stop, regardless.

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