How the contemporary Arsenal supporter has become whiny and morally high-handed
This coming Saturday, Arsenal will play their first match on American soil in twenty-five years as they take on the New York Red Bulls to kick off their pre-season preparation. This represents a wonderful and rare opportunity for US-based Gunners fans to cheer their team on in the flesh, and also an opportunity for the rest of us to test our patience in coping with the arrogance of the modern Arsenal fan.
One of sport fandom’s universal truths is that, inasmuch as it is ostensibly about love—of a team, a town, a badge, a player that captures your heart—it is also about hate. The passion that fans feel for their own chosen team is inextricable from the dislike they inevitably have for their local/historical/championship rivals. Part of being proud of “us” is that that we are not “them.”
Manchester City fans, before their club was the recipient of a billionaire’s largesse, defined themselves for decades in contrast to their bigger crosstown rivals. We are a proper fanbase, nothing like that plastic, glory-hunting lot. A key aspect of one’s indoctrination as a United fan is learning to despise Liverpool, Leeds, and City.
The justifications for these strong negative feelings are, of course, highly subjective and almost always utterly silly. That is part of the allure of fandom; things that essentially mean nothing come to mean everything, and your love for one side is forever intertwined with an abhorrence of some other. Occasionally though, there is a set of supporters that transcend traditional rivalries to achieve something greater: across-the-board hatred. Usually, this kind of contempt is the result of a period of sustained success, and is laced with bitterness and not a small amount of jealousy. The same success that, for example, made Bayern Munich the biggest and most popular club in Germany is also what makes it the most hated among rival fans. There exists a select group of fans, however, that are universally loathed for reasons that have little to do with their team’s success, or even frequent moronic behavior (ahem, Millwall). Enter, Arsenal Football Club.
Until the FA Cup success of last season, the typical Arsenal fan of the last decade or so had a familiar cycle of emotions during the course of the season. A summer of bullish optimism about the development of their “young” team; an autumn of arrogant conviction about their team’s title chances; and a spring of crushed hopes as their team falters at the last hurdle yet again. All of these emotions occur against a backdrop of a relentless smugness about their “brand” of football, moral high-handedness about how their team’s “net spend” compares to their rivals, and their “tradition” of uncovering and developing young players. All fans are by nature blinded by their support for their team and hopelessly biased, but Gooners manage to do it in a way that can irritate even the most even-tempered among us.
Ever since the heady days of the genuinely impressive “Invincibles” of 2003–2004, Arsenal fans have suffered one trophyless false dawn of a season after another. To compound their grief, they also had to watch as their heroes abandoned ship every other summer, almost invariably gaining instant success at their new clubs (Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, Mathieu Flamini, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, and even long-forgotten Alexander Hleb all won trophies after leaving the club, while Arsenal’s drought continued). That barren period seemed to create a new, altogether unbearable strain of Gooner; a pretentious, self-important, pseudo-aesthete who drones on about their morally superior approach to playing the game.
For a while, Arsenal’s annoying, insufferable fans were a reflection of the team itself. With a lack of true dressing room leadership, the teams of the last several years were largely molded in the identity of whining crybabies and talented nearly-men who lacked the stomach for a real title charge. Even Arsene Wenger lost some of his luster, with most observers becoming bored to tears with his complaints about officials and other teams bullying Arsenal out of matches. In the stands and in pubs, fans echoed these sentiments. You would be hard-pressed to find a Gooner after an Arsenal loss that didn’t think that the best team—or even worse, the team that played football “the right way”—had been defeated. Fans who either erased or never possessed the memory of the “boring, boring Arsenal” teams of the early 90s, are always quick to get on their high horse about their team’s style and attractiveness, with the implication that their support of the team was in itself a reflection of their more refined individual tastes. When the results and the medals dried up, suddenly it was the means that mattered more than the ends, and the pain of annual disappointment could apparently be washed away by a river of self-congratulation.
But now, with their trophy drought finally ended, and with a second consecutive summer of top-class talent signed for eye-catching figures (and the possibility of more to follow), there is the chance that Wenger is finally on the brink of creating his next great team. Good for them. Wenger is an all-time great manager, and an Arsenal team that is truly competitive no doubt makes the Premier League more exciting. Pity for us though, the rival fans. Because if the Gooners were tiresome and haughty before, imagine when they start winning things again.