So Robin van Persie came back for his first return to Arsenal this weekend, his sweaty palm already anticipating closing around a Premier League medal. There are many ways of looking at the whole Van Persie situation as an Arsenal fan. Some think his actions and departure were justified, some blame the Board or manager, some hate him. Well, most hate him to be fair, but some recognise that there’s really no point getting attached to players, and once gone they are best forgotten. Support the ones who play for Arsenal now, be nice to the ones who used to and gave their all for as long as was reasonable and right, but don’t bother wasting energy on those who have left to ply their trade elsewhere.
In my head there is a scale for all issues like this. No one is 100 per cent bad, but everyone to a degree is looking out for himself. We never know the full story of who said exactly what, when and why, or why events transpired the way they did. Did Van Persie fall out with Wenger? Did he make totally unreasonable demands because he wanted to leave anyway, so justified it by saying the club would do nothing he asked? Did Kroenke insist on a sale so as not to lose the player on a Bosman a year later? And if so, did Kroenke insist on selling to the highest bidder, even if that meant vastly changing the title odds in the high bidder’s favour? Did Van Persie have the chance to go to Man City for more money, but went to United for trophies? (And more money than at Arsenal, of course, but potentially less than at City.) The answer to all those is ‘maybe’.
All we do know for sure is the content of Van Persie’s public pronouncements – which were very much in the ‘I love Arsenal’ area until fairly soon before he left – and the statistics of his career. The statistics tell us that Arsenal stood by him for a long time when he was injured, paid him handsomely and tried to keep him happy. Some say he abused that by playing in internationals for his own selfish reasons when not fully fit, contributing to further injury absences. Maybe he doesn’t come across as a particularly nice person, but it’s easy to misinterpret quotes (sometimes misquotes) in the press.
The famous incident when Arshavin replaced the Ox in January last year was probably a turning point, but at least showed Van Persie’s desire to win – and most fans agreed strongly with his opinion that night.
Where does this leave Van Persie on the Scale of Gitness? In Arsenal player terms, the manner of his leaving is not much different to Henry’s, and probably not quite as bad as Cesc – who made it quite clear he was only going to one place, and feigned injury for some months until he left, while scuppering any chance of getting true value from Barca. Henry is treated differently because of the trophies he won and the fact he kept relatively quiet, but he only stayed an extra year and got a £5m bonus for it. Then again, I’m not party to what any of these players were promised by the manager or anyone else at the club, so I may be judging too harshly, or perhaps not harshly enough.
Given all that, how should we have treated Van Persie on his return? Tim Stillman wrote an excellent column on Arseblog a couple of days ago explaining his own feelings. You’ve probably read it, but in summary Tim is in favour of childlike behaviour around football – supporting your team no matter what, chanting that they are by far the greatest ever seen (even if you support, say, Scunthorpe) and taking delight in the pratfalls of officials and the failure of rivals – but he is against vitriol and childishness – such as calling a returning ex-player a c*** for 90 minutes, threatening all and sundry with a good beating, or singing songs that you complained about other fans singing when the player was one of yours. And I fully agree. Football is not serious; it’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun. That’s why it was invented.
Maybe some people genuinely do think it’s fun to contort themselves into a rage and spit bile at someone for 90 minutes rather than try and enjoy the football. To me that looks as though they haven’t quite distinguished between childlike and childish.
In the event, Arsenal v Man Utd and the Van Persie reception all turned into a bit of a damp squib. There were some boos, some name calling, but largely the crowd was more concerned with supporting Arsenal, who looked for a good while as though they might beat Man Utd for once. Walcott was marginally offside before scoring the opener, but perhaps the linesman gave the benefit of the doubt to the attacker (as he’s supposed to do), and it was very difficult to say there was any daylight between Walcott and the last defender. On Sky, Alan Smith kept going on about Walcott’s leg being definitely offside. Err, don’t they just do it on where the torso is Alan? Not sure legs are included in the equation.
For many reasons it was preferable that Man Utd had already won the title last Monday. Obviously they wanted a win against Arsenal, but not with the same urgency that they’d have had if they still needed points to confirm themselves as champions. But for a feeble backpass and a terrible tackle from Sagna it might have been an Arsenal win. As it was, Arsenal showed enough spirit to give reasonably hope for the remaining games, though the lack of genuine options at centre forward is another ‘I told you so’ moment for Arsène Wenger with Giroud absent.
The much talked about guard of honour was also rather a non-event. Ten seconds of polite clapping from Arsenal players and mostly, it seemed, indifference from everyone else. Ho hum. What’s important is that this summer sees us build a squad with a realistic hope of being given a guard of honour be some other mugs this time next year.