Football’s Winter Of Discontent Reaches Arsenal
There’s something in the air at The Emirates Stadium. Arsenal Football Club has had a difficult 2012 so far, and patience – for some, at least – is starting to wear thin, leading to a protest that has brought puzzled expressions from elsewhere. At this lunchtime’s match against Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League, a group of supporters plans to place black bin bags on seats at the ground prior to the match. But what are the reasons behind this protest, what are its aims, and are those protesting representative of the Arsenal support in a broader sense? Where Has Our Arsenal Gone has been here before, at the end of last season they protested with a march from a pub near the ground to The Emirates Stadium prior to the team’s match against Aston Villa. They have a six point manifesto – season tickets, stadium seating, commercial activity, ownership and target markets, the manager and the chairman – and it will certainly be interesting to see how many people choose to get involved in it.
While the protest of the end of last season dissipated somewhat as the team’s form picked up this season, we can be reasonably certain that recent tensions have risen on account of another dip in form on the pitch. When the season began, of course, the words “Arsenal” and “crisis” seemed momentarily entwined with each other, but league form picked up and as autumn turned to winter the team’s form – largely channelled through the incendiary Robin Van Persie – picked up and it felt as if a sense of detente had descended over the club. Since the new year, however, the wheels have threatened to fall off the wagon again. Arsenal haven’t won in the league since a scarcely earth-shattering single goal win against Queens Park Rangers on New Years Eve, with defeats that have included a sensational match away against Swansea City and a loss to Fulham. Last weekend, boos rang loudly around The Emirates Stadium as the team went in at half-time two goals down against Aston Villa. They managed to turn that match around to take their place in the Fifth Round of the competition, but hackles began to rise again on Wednesday night after a lifeless goalless draw against Bolton Wanderers.
The timing of this protest, coming shortly after the transfer window slammed shut for another season, is probably significant. Arsenal remains perhaps the Premier League’s most financially prudent club, with the sixty thousand capacity Emirates Stadium generating the sort of income that most other Premier League clubs – and far beyond – would look upon with considerable envy. Why, they may well rationalise, did the club stay relatively quiet in another transfer window when the club’s revenue is sufficiently plumpened to be able to merit spending on a clearly faltering team? It is a question that is worth asking, particularly when we consider the cost of missing out on a place in next year’s Champions League – something that looks like a distinct possibility, at the time of writing. Finishing below the fourth place spot in the Premier League this season would cost the club in excess of £30m in missed revenue for next season. Moreover, Arsenal is not the only team playing in fits and starts at present. If Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur are now starting to look like dots in the distance, Chelsea have looked similarly patchy of late, whilst neither Liverpool or Newcastle United have either shown a great deal of consistency of late. January, protesters may well believe, was an opportunity that has been spurned by the club.
Of course, the question of season ticket and ticket prices seems almost beyond debate. Arsenal increased theirs well beyond the rate of inflation at the end of last season, and they remain the most expensive in the Premier League. The question of stadium seating, meanwhile, hints at dissatisfaction at the atmosphere levels within The Emirates Stadium for home league matches, which has long – whether rightly or wrongly – been a source ridicule from the supporters of other clubs for some time. Arsenal supporters are, of course, best advised to ignore the supporters of clubs on this subject, but the matter of atmosphere is an important one. It can have an effect on the players, and a good atmosphere should be part and parcel of the match-day experience for those that have spent heavily on those tickets in the first place. On the matter of commercial activity, the question of the commercial deals that the club has signed is an interesting one. With Financial Fair Play regulations on the horizon, other clubs have stepped up their search to increase their commercial revenue but it is understood that Arsenal’s commercial activities do pall in comparison with those signed by Manchester United and Manchester City of late.
The matter of ownership and target markets again hints at dissatisfaction at the changing culture of Arsenal Football Club, with concern over “the overemphasis of the Board in targeting their ‘ideal’ match day demographic.” The gentrification of football – and in particular Premier League football – began more than two decades ago, of course, and there is a lot of truth in saying that “Short-term greed can and will affect the club over the long term”. Whether the directors of a club of this size would listen to supporters on a subject like this, however, is a moot point. It is on the final two points, however, that the aims of Where Has Our Arsenal Gone start to look a little more muddled. There is little that can be argued with in saying that, “We want to see Mr Wenger repeat his early successful years with the club”, they stop short of directly criticising the manager. Wenger has, of course, come in for criticism from some supporters this season, but his earlier success at the club means that his position at the club remains relatively secure. Questioning the direction of the club, however, seems valid. January, as mentioned above, now feels like a missed opportunity for Arsenal and missing out on a Champions League place would be costly, both in terms of money and the prestige of the club.
What is difficult to gauge, however, is how representative of the club’s broader support Where Has Our Arsenal Gone is. Certainly, the comments underneath this article on the Mirror’s website during the week suggest that supporters are divided on the subject of whether they should protest, what they should protest about and what what form any protests should take. The extent of such decisions, perhaps, can be seen from such incidents as the decision of the website Online Gooner to suspend its forum because, according to the site’s Twitter feed, “too many posts were, in my opinion, not showing Arsenal fans in a good light.” All of this leads us back to a question that we have pondered on this site before: that of entitlement. Do the high ticket prices at The Emirates Stadium give Arsenal supporters a right to expect victory and success. It has been six and a half years since the club last won a trophy, but they could yet, of course, end this season by finishing in a Champions League place – they are, at the time of writing, five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea with fifteen matches left to play: hardly an insurmountable obstacle – and winning the FA Cup.
Of course, losing today to Blackburn Rovers – who beat them at Ewood Park earlier this season in a match that seemed to summarise all of the problems that Arsenal were facing at the time – would be a severe embarrassment for the club, but the fact that Arsenal supporters are unhappy enough to protest in the first place could be regarded as a symptom of the wider malaise that is affecting the game at the moment. The number of clubs at which supporters are expressing their dissatisfaction has increased massively this season, with anger levels rising for a variety of reasons that cover the entire spectrum of issues relating to the state of the game in this country in the twenty-first century. There are some – including, perhaps, Arsenal supporters – who may dismiss today’s protests as being what has come to be known as “first world problems”, but as a symptom it is revealing that a club for which silverware is still a comparatively recent memory (compare, for example, Arsenal’s six years without a major trophy with Newcastle United’s forty-two years without one) has an element within its support that is agitating for a return to what may be considered the “core values” of the club. There will be something in the air at The Emirates Stadium this afternoon, and it won’t just be flakes of snow.
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