Here’s a piece from The Times on 13 December looking at the attitudes of us fickle Arsenal fans. Matt Hughes at least tried to get some sense out of the supporter groups rather than go on his gut instinct and a misguided belief that being a journalist he is qualified to write on anything.
“Arsenal fans split over Wenger’s future” says the headline. Not exactly news, that one, but Matt doesn’t write the headlines and it does tell us what to expect so we’ll move swiftly on.
It seems the appearance of the infamous “Thanks for the memories” banner at West Brom, followed by a bit of fisticuffs and then the even more infamous ‘stationgate’ incident that followed the match at Stoke have led Matt H to ponder just what is up with us Gooners. “It would never have come to this at the Highbury Library” he says. Not sure that’s true – it’s a long time since we went nine years between trophies at Highbury. And of course there was quite a bit of fan pressure to ditch Terry Neill 30 years ago – though Highbury was less of a library in those days.
Mr H goes on: “Arsenal have numerous fans’ groups dedicated to representing the interests of supporters, yet the only thing they seem to agree on at the moment is the extent of their division.” Well there is some truth in this, though it’s a statement that warrants more explanation. There are three main fan groups: the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust (AST), the Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association (AISA) and the Black Scarf Movement (BSM). There is also RedAction, a small group dedicated to improving the atmosphere in the stadium. RedAction don’t have members in the way the other groups do, and their remit is deliberately limited. The other three groups all support RedAction’s aims and as far as I’m aware tend to have no quarrel with their actions. Similarly, I think it’s fair to say that RedAction agree with most of the aims of the other groups.
I’ll come back to the divisions between groups, but next in the article is the claim that the subject fans love to argue about, Arsène Wenger, “they all appear to recognise as the greatest manager in the club’s history.” Well firstly I’d just say: Herbert Chapman. And secondly I’m not aware that any of the groups takes a particular stance on who Arsenal’s greatest manager might be. (But it’s Herbert Chapman.) However, rehashing that argument is not the main purpose here, so let’s get on to the quotes from the fan groups themselves.
First up is David O’Leary (not that one), described as head of the BSM – which may be news to some of the others involved who I’m sure believe themselves equal. Mr O’Leary gives his personal opinion rather than that of the BSM, so we are none the wiser from this as to whether the BSM has a policy on Wenger in/out. (As I understand it they don’t, as they want to represent fans on all sides of that debate.) DO’L reckons Arsène should have left after the FA Cup win, and you know what, I am kind of with him on that one. Not because I’m desperate to get rid of Arsène – I’m not, he has his good points – but because it would have been a fitting end to a career that might well tail off into anti-climax and further acrimony. Arsenal will find it very difficult to win the Premier league or Champions League in the foreseeable future against much richer teams, so Arsène may have been better off calling it a day on a relative peak rather than a distinctly possible trough.
Back to Matt Hughes, who says the BSM has 30,000 members. They don’t have 30,000 members. They have an email list of about 20,000 people, but does signing up to receive emails and take part in polls make you a member? I’d say members are people committed enough to put their money where their mouth is. I rather wish any supporter group had 20,000 people willing to put their hands in their pockets for membership, because that would certainly strengthen their hand in any dealings with the club.
We move on to the AST, and some more shaky figures. “As representatives of 3,000 small shareholders responsible for 0.5 per cent of the club’s equity, the AST takes a more corporate view.” Corporate view, yes, certainly. But there aren’t 3,000 small shareholders; more like 600. Unless you count all the members of the soon-to-be-closed Fanshare scheme (about 1,800), in which case there are 2,400. But they don’t have 0.5 per cent of the shares, they have three per cent. Unless you just mean the Fanshare shares, but they’re only 0.2 per cent. Unless you mean shares held by AST members, but then where does the 3,000 come from? Or is 3,000 the number in Fanshare plus paid up AST members? But then what’s the 0.5 per cent got to do with them?
The comments from the AST are easier to understand than the figures: Some fans get frustrated by “seeing the same failings being repeated. Fans pay some of the highest ticket process in world football to create big financial resources, which then sit in the bank when the club has clear weaknesses in key positions on the pitch. They also see a manager who has refused to restructure his coaching team, and doesn’t appear to be subject to any challenge from his board.” Not everyone will agree with every word of this – ‘weaknesses in key positions’ are clearly in the eye of the beholder, and Arsène’s greatest supporters might like to argue that bringing in Steve Bould amounts to a restructure of the coaching team, there’s a scale on some of this stuff. Nonetheless, most fans would certainly agree with most of this – certainly members of the AST would, judging by the responses to annual survey questions.
Now AISA, represented by “a member who did not wish to be named”. Why not? The unnamed member talks in generalities to begin with, but ends with “Overall the mutiny is quite small”. Well, Guy Incognito, this really depends on what you mean by ‘mutiny’. If you mean the number of people holding up banners, then yes, that’s quite small. If you mean the number of people who think Arsène has gone a bit stale and could do some things better than he is, then that’s not small. That’s almost certainly the majority, as recent independent polls indicate. As usual there is a scale here: there are some who would excuse Arsène Wenger anything and happily provide justification for every decision he makes, from pre-planned substitutions to starting the season with just enough defenders to make up a team (if fit), to putting years of faith in Diaby. In defending the manager they even defend Board decisions to pay KSE for spurious advice and raise ticket prices, they are that blinded. There are others at the opposite end of the scale who think Arsène is doing such a bad job that literally any manager could do better. All the extremists are wrong, of course. The truth is somewhere in the middle and the majority are somewhere in the middle.
The question is where the Wengometer is currently pointing. A bad loss to Stoke and it dips alarmingly; win a couple of games in a row and it rises again. (Imagine the rise if we actually beat Chelsea, Man City or Utd!) But of course the Wengometer reading can be skewed: after a couple of losses the shouts from the WOBs are louder, and after a couple of wins the AKBs are in bigger voice. This is fairly obvious, though not to some journalists on twitter it seems. There are some ‘floating voters’ whose mood towards Arsène changes with results, but there is a hardcore who aren’t the least bit fickle, they just turn the volume up or down according to circumstances. Naturally there have even been arguments about when is a ‘good time’ to protest. For Arsène loving extremists there is no good time really, but they might concede that if it has to be done, then not before a match (ruins the atmosphere, upsets the players), not during the match (ditto), not when the players are still on the field (disrespectful), not when it’s likely to cause trouble (it’s always likely to cause trouble). So basically in their own living room, on their own and preferably with no internet connection. The two sides aren’t going to agree, are they?
Which brings me back to AISA. Because AISA don’t seem to agree much with the other fan groups. AISA like to stand alone – or at least those in charge do. They believe – well, they say they believe – they have more chance of influencing the club that way. It should be obvious that they don’t, because influence on a football club only comes from large amounts of money (and even that isn’t getting Usmanov far) or large numbers of fans willing to withhold money. At the moment it’s easy for the club to divide and rule, because there isn’t a large enough and united enough group of fans to stand up to them. This is perhaps a different debate to the Arsène in/out argument, though it does seem that those who don’t want to challenge the manager don’t want to challenge the Board in general either. (NB: that doesn’t necessarily mean that all those who want to challenge the Board also want to challenge the manager, or get rid of him.)
For an independent association, AISA are very reluctant to criticise the club over anything. Fair enough if all their members believe they should never say a bad word about the manager, that is their right. (I know for a fact that not all their members support that stance though.) But why do they stay silent over ticket prices, and even accept further rises? Why do they refuse to join the other groups in condemning actions that are blatantly not good for fans? Perhaps they really believe they can do more by cosying up to the club, or perhaps they just like the access they have. Who knows. The unnamed spokesman/woman is not giving much away.
Back to Matt Hughes. I’d almost forgotten him. “The decision to prohibit anti-Wenger banners from the Emirates Stadium resulted from health and safety advice”, he says. Really? What are they made of, asbestos? I assume the reasoning is that there is potential for fighting if ‘inflammatory’ banners are displayed. But surely to the WOBs pro-Wenger banners are inflammatory, so shouldn’t they also be banned on the same grounds? (And indeed in the same ground, ho ho. I’m here all week.) I mean really, come on, this is more spin, and Matt Hughes has accepted it without question.
Anyway, history already shows that Arsenal beat Newcastle and then got a favourable Champions League draw for once, so the Wengometer is swinging back towards ‘Arsène In’ at the moment. But rightly or wrongly 18 years of top 4 mean it’s going to get harder and harder for the League’s longest standing manager to excite the fans, so expect the needle to move left again before too long. Every manager has a shelf-life. The only question is when he and everyone else recognise the time is up.