Arsenal Fans Speak: The Plastic Majority Don't Know How Lucky They Are

Even more predictable than the manner of an Arsenal defeat is younger fans kicking up a storm on Twitter. In this interview with three fans who have been Gunners since the 60s, I sought to bring some perspective on what life really is like for an Arsenal fan...
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Even more predictable than the manner of an Arsenal defeat is younger fans kicking up a storm on Twitter. In this interview with three fans who have been Gunners since the 60s, I sought to bring some perspective on what life really is like for an Arsenal fan...

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No Arsenal defeat these days is complete without a total Twitter meltdown. For better or worse, we’re all familiar with the toys out of the pram brigade, the #TearsForPiers hashtag and the scores of Arsenal ‘supporters’ who have never been to the Emirates or Highbury and can’t name half of the first team but do feel qualified to shout that Arsène Wenger should resign and then jump off of Tower Bridge. The thing that sets these fans apart – apart from their idiocy, obviously – is their age.

Most are young and grew up in Arsenal’s golden age. They don’t realise how lucky they were. The Gunners have won only eight league titles since 1945; eight in sixty-eight years. Historically, Arsenal finish in the middle of the top half, between third and seventh. Occasionally they have fared better but they have struggled as often as they have triumphed. Arsenal fans through the ages have been more used to the odd cup win than any period of sustained domestic success.

It is these fans to whom we should listen, not the reactionary divs on social networks whose earliest football memories are of Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pirès and Thierry Henry. To that end, I sought out fans that started going to games in the ‘60s and ‘70s – times in which Arsenal struggled – and have kept going to the present day.

I found Steve Martin (@HarlowGooner on Twitter), Phil Wall (@AngryOfN5) and Kevin Jamieson. To a man they were generous with their time and gave answers full of sense and perspective on questions regarding their historical expectations, changing ticket prices and the current situation at Arsenal.

When you started going to watch Arsenal, what were your expectations of the club?

SM: Being a young lad of 4/5 years old my expectations were low. In fact, seeing as it was around 1962 and the last trophy Arsenal won was in 1953, I don’t think my Dad or elder brothers had huge expectations either. This being the season after Spurs had done the double (1961), I do wonder what the Arsenal Twitterati would be saying if Twitter was around then.

PW: I started going very young, with my Dad, in the ‘70s. All I hoped for really was a win on the day. I didn’t expect Arsenal to win the League – it was just Liverpool who did that. In those days away wins were statistically less likely than they are now, so going to predominantly home matches I rarely saw Arsenal lose, and the novelty of going a few times a season meant it felt great even if the standard of football wasn’t so high.

KJ: While I hoped Arsenal would win the league, I did not expect walkovers in every game. The FA Cup was winnable and I expected us to get into the later rounds of that.

Have your expectations changed? If so, how? Why?

SM: Over the years, I have been fortunate to have seen the good and the bad, the ups and the downs of the club I support. Arsenal winning after years of nothing just made me enjoy the good times even more. I was 14 when we won our first title and 32 when we won our second…Thus my expectations fall in line with the football cycle. When it’s our turn, it’s our turn. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy each game as they come and takes the rough with the smooth. Today I try to bring my son up with same views on football. Let’s just say I never let a defeat on Saturday ruin my weekend.

PW: I expect Arsenal to be challenging for trophies. I don’t expect them to win everything, but having moved to a 60,000-seater stadium for the express purpose of being able to compete with the elite, that’s what I expect. When you look at the amount of money available to Arsenal compared to most clubs, they should be streets ahead of everyone but the Manchester clubs and Chelsea. That’s what’s frustrating – I guess I have off-field expectations now as well: I expect them to be using the money much more effectively than they are of late.

KJ: In the years of the 49-game ‘Invincibles’, we built a strong, dominant team. This raised my expectations higher than ever before – we had a really strong team. I hoped and expected that Arsenal would continue to go from strength to strength. That has not happened.

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Do you think the modern incarnation of Arsenal bears any relation to the one with which you grew up? If so, has the change made Arsenal more or less enjoyable to support?

SM: I think football has changed, not just Arsenal. It’s all hype today. TV has made it better in that I can see more Arsenal matches, but the downside is the hype that surrounds live football. Social networking, while good at getting people’s opinions across, can be annoying and can take the enjoyment away if all people want to do is moan and find ways to knock the club. Modern football meant I had to leave my Church (Highbury), but I understood why: Arsenal needed a bigger ground and more income to challenge the super clubs of Europe. I also understood that it would take a bit longer than seven years to achieve this. I also think Chelsea and Man City put the table back somewhat.

PW: Well, it’s the same club! Things have changed in football as they have in everything, but much is still the same really, especially the basic premise: 22 men kick a ball around and the winners are the ones with the most goals at the end of the game. Read programmes or books from any era and they always think things are in decline and hark back to a mythical golden age. Herbert Chapman talked about it in the 1920s! Again, that’s no different to life in general. I don’t find it less enjoyable to watch – though I think watchability hit a peak for Arsenal between 2002 and 2004 because that was simply an extraordinarily good group of players, a once in a lifetime combination of talent and style that was a far cry from the George Graham era or anything else I could remember. How could it not be enjoyable to watch? It was up there with Brazil in 1970. If it was still like that the matches themselves would be more enjoyable! Overall experience? I don’t miss having Millwall fans trying to take the North Bank or toilets that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, that’s for sure. And I’m not daft enough to think that the Board have ever really cared about the fans. Managers sometimes have, but not the Board.

KJ: The team plays better football in the modern version of the sport so in that respect it’s more enjoyable, but it feels less “homely”, less of a fan-fuelled environment than before - but isn’t this the way modern football has gone? We have better facilities ‘behind the scenes’, too – the training ground and global profile are an improvement on the club I grew up watching.

Would you say that your views are representative of Arsenal fans who grew up going to Highbury?

SM: Hard to answer. I know mates whose views fall in with some of mine, though not in all aspects on the club.

PW: They’re representative of the sensible ones! Some can’t let go of Highbury. I loved Highbury and it holds special memories for all kinds of reasons, but as a football ground for Arsenal it was too small and too old fashioned for the 21st century, that’s the sad fact. Fans who accept the need to move are happier, but there will always be some who don’t see it.

KJ: Simply put: yes.

How does the Arsenal squad of today compare to the one you first watched?

SM: Over the decades footballers have changed. Today’s footballers are fitter, stronger and more athletic. I feel a little less emphasis on speed in football would make it more skilful. Give me an Anders Limpar or a Marc Overmars to Theo Walcott any day of the week. Also I find it hard to accept that I am watching 22 millionaires kicking a ball around.

PW: It’s not much different in some ways: it isn’t going to win the title soon, but it’s too good to be in real trouble in a 20 team division. We had Liam Brady as the mega-talent in the 1970s, one of the top ten Arsenal players of all time undoubtedly, and I hope Jack Wilshere proves to be similar in stature and effect. Brady was surrounded by a changing support cast, but little in his class. At least now there is the opportunity to bring in players worthy of being in the same team as Wilshere. In between the two we’ve had mediocre teams and great teams, boredom and brilliance.

KJ: We have more foreign players today than before, obviously, but they’re of similar age and experience than the Arsenal I first watched. It’s more athletic nowadays, but less ‘physical’. We play a much better style of football, that’s for sure. There was more of a team spirit in ‘old Arsenal’, though – there’s less loyalty now.

Are you happy with the cost of watching Arsenal now? Would you accept current results if tickets were less expensive?

SM: Catch 22… I doubt anyone would be happy with paying over £1000 for a season ticket – in my case it’s £1300 – but price of everything in life is high today. Market forces, I am told. I would be happy for prices to come down but maybe this will also have an effect on how the club operates.  Less money might mean lesser players and the Twitteratti complaining about us being a mid-table team with £500 season tickets and £25 match day tickets. Price reduction would only work if all clubs did the same. Also, relying on sponsors is dangerous: the club should be self-financing.

PW: I’m not happy with the cost, and it’s a big reason why I gave up a season ticket and don’t go to as many games as I used to. I don’t think it’s right to say ‘The tickets cost X, therefore the standard of football should be Y’, because that only applies if ticket income is ALL the income – and it’s not. It’s less than half for Arsenal. I’d just say, given the budget available to spend on players compared to other clubs, where should we be? The club should get what it pays for in a sense, and a good manager makes sure it does. Obviously football would be boring if every result was decided on wages and cost of squad, and sometimes you get bad luck or bad decisions or whatever, but (for example) we should beat Bradford 8-0, they shouldn’t have got a kick. Their keeper should have had backache from picking the ball out of the net. That’s what I don’t accept: the players aren’t motivated to beat Bradford 8-0, and that would be unacceptable even if tickets were free.

KJ: Ticket prices are out of reach, really. As a fan, I can’t go and watch Arsenal a lot during a season but I understand that football is a business now and ticket prices bring in revenue. I would rather I only went to a match or two per season and Arsenal did well than have the club struggle with me going every week.

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In less than a year, Arsène Wenger will have gone longer without winning a trophy than the total duration of his ‘glory years’. Do you think his legacy excuses that dry spell?

SM: No! However, I do feel Arsene has been handicapped and I don’t mean just by our board. If people want to discount the fact that above us we have the world’s biggest club and two of the richest, that’s their choice. Hopefully the financial side of thing will calm down over the next few years. Also there might be something in Arsène being stubborn and not spending the money.

PW: In a word, no. His legacy is amazing, and if he’d retired in 2005 and we’re where we are now there’d be tens of thousands marching demanding ‘We want our Arsène back’. But that doesn’t excuse how he manages now. It doesn’t excuse the wasted tens of millions on sub-standard players, the lack of motivation, the failure to prepare for teams, the inability to defend set-pieces, the planned substitutions no matter how the game is going, the staleness in the coaching set up – the list goes on. You move with the times or you get left behind. Arsène has been left behind.

KJ: Yes, I do. The last few years have been hard but I hope to see a better team emerge at the end of it. My frustration comes from getting huge transfer money in for our best players but not spending big on their replacements. It’s hard to take.

Do you think it is time for Arsène Wenger to step aside? If so, what sort of manager would you like to replace him?

SM: I believe people come and go. Everything must come to an end and Arsène will eventually be replaced, either by sacking, resigning or taking another position within the club. Thankfully it’s not my choice who hires and fires and who buys and sells.

PW: I’m on the fence. He could do things so much better than he is, but changing manager and spending a fortune on transfers is not necessarily going to lead to improvement – look at Liverpool. I tweeted this the other day and got some replies saying ‘It couldn’t be any worse’. I repeat: see Liverpool. We simply don’t know if it would be better, worse or the same. It’s all very well thinking that anyone could do it given the money, but players still have to believe in the manager. Given all that, I’ll stick with him to the end of his current contract as long as we stay top four, though my hopes of any trophy aren’t high. As to a replacement, I’d happily take Mourinho – at least he makes it clear he’s boss, takes no crap from players or anyone else and is a proven winner. He’d be off again in three years, but the club would probably be in a better position than when he arrived.

KJ: No. As I said above, I still believe in Wenger and it would be a great shame if he left the club now. If he did go, however, I would like to see David Moyes step in: he finds good players and his style of football would suit us, I think.

What are your hopes for Arsenal’s future?

SM: I always will ‘hope’ we win things and never ‘expect’. The fact is I was born into Arsenal and I will die Arsenal, win, lose or draw.

PW: In a nutshell, that the Board and owners – and hell, even the players! – become more concerned with what fans want; that the club is run efficiently and is forward-looking but with an eye on tradition; that it can challenge for honours consistently. Ideally I’d like to see the Bayern model in place: much more fan ownership, former players in positions of power, a collective will to get it right. It’s not easy to replicate that. Bayern are fortunate to have a huge fanbase, far bigger than Arsenal, and a group of ex-players of the right age, intelligence and drive to take the club forward. Arsenal have an absent owner, a bunch of old men from the City and an (effectively) American lawyer – while the manager runs everything and a 30 per cent owner isn’t allowed in the building. My worry is that they’re still so busy patting themselves on the back for building a new stadium and finding a manager who has won trophies on a budget and stuck around, that they miss how far behind the club is currently falling. But things go in cycles. The Board will change, the football landscape will change. Arsenal will win things again: it’s just a question of when. The earning power of the new stadium is such that if things are done right then Arsenal can always be part of the elite and always challenge. Arsenal have been a big club all my life and long before. Most clubs don’t have that advantage, so I’m always hopeful.

KJ: I just hope we can develop a strong team again and get back to winning trophies. I don’t see that as unrealistic.

Follow Rob on Twitter: @robbro7