Photographs: Finn Taylor
“Over-entitled bunch of whingers.”
“Perfectly pleasant, except when talking about Arsenal.”
These are all answers to the question, ‘How would you describe Arsenal fans?’ It was asked because it has become increasingly obvious that, in 2017, Arsenal fans have overtaken Manchester United’s as the most hated by other football fans. Not hated normally, like you’d hate local rivals or neo-Nazi ultras, but hated in a ‘special’, annoyingly non-specific way.
As an Arsenal fan, this hurts. Nobody wants to be hated, but it wounds more if you don’t know why you’re hated. People just say stuff like: “bloody Arsenal fans”. Answers are needed.
I begin with a brainstorm – just my brain – scribbling down every possible reason I can think of for this loathing.
We’re moaners. We’re fickle. We think a top-four finish and the FA Cup is a bad season. Envy. We’re all middle-class ‘prawn sandwich eaters’. We’re owned by a syrup-wearing Trump supporter. We see ourselves as the artisanal sourdough of English football, versus the sliced white of other clubs. #WengerOut. We’re self-obsessed. The press is obsessed with us. You’re all obsessed with us! Piers Morgan is an Arsenal fan.
That’s one long list. Many can be scratched off as simply ‘being a football fan’. And, pleasingly simple as it would be to pin it all on Piers Morgan, a potato-faced man with the footballing insight also of a potato, not even the most ardent anti-Gooner thinks we’re all like that melted Colin Firth waxwork. Help is required.
I ask Toby Moses, Arsenal fan and The Guardian’s assistant opinion editor, for his thoughts.
“So many reasons,” he says. “There were the boring Arsenal years, when fans were willing to accept mediocre football if it produced results. Then there was the Fever Pitch mid-’90s years, when Arsenal became the byword for a sort of middle-class, ‘not real’ football fan at the dawn of the Premier League era. The perception that we’re all middle-class twats might not be entirely undeserved, but it is incorrect.”
He’s a member of the fifth estate. What about this notion of media obsession?
“Arsenal fans are definitely more discussed than most, but I’d say [Manchester] United and Liverpool probably both still get more press coverage as a team, and whatever we might think, they still have more fans. But Arsenal outnumber them on Twitter I reckon – which makes it an easy story for hard-pressed journos.”
The internet. Social media. In literally any discussion of anything anywhere in the past 10 years. And yet they were not on my list. I’ve been so blind. Especially as the internet has given us one phenomenon that Moses sees as highly culpable.
“Arsenal Fan TV,” he says. “It takes itself too seriously – and in the process makes us all look like idiots. I get why they do it, but when it’s taken as representative of all of us, it’s not a great look. I can get as animated as anyone about Wenger’s choice of left wing-back, but I’d rather keep that to the pub than a global broadcast.”
Arsenal Fan TV (AFTV) is football’s primo YouTube channel, a bona fide ‘internet sensation’.
Its simple formula of presenter plus camera plus genuine match-going fans speaking in the heated aftermath of battle reels in millions of views from fans of all clubs and has spawned a national network of copycats. Derided and adored in equal measure, some view it as a car crash, others a political rally against mainstream punditry (an extension of the anti-‘expert’ culture?). It deserves closer attention.
Which is why, at 6.30pm on a chilly Monday evening, 90 minutes until Arsenal kick off against West Brom, I’m outside the Emirates Stadium with a tall, stocky middle-aged man, who, every 10 paces, gets stopped by someone wanting a selfie with him. He is Robbie Lyle, creator and presenter of AFTV, and the most famous person this side of the changing rooms. I ask him my burning question.
“We’re a bit miserable,” he says, his voice full of Saturday-morning-kids’-TV-host affability. “That’s the world’s opinion of Arsenal fans. But every fan is miserable. With Arsenal fans, though, when we have a poor week, you see it more.”
But do we really have that much to moan about?
“Arsenal fans have been very patient over the years. Remember, [at the old stadium] you’re winning year in, year out. If you don’t win the league, you’re challenging. Suddenly you’re losing your best players, you’re paying the highest ticket prices, and not getting anywhere near winning the league. Your rivals up the road, who used to be miles behind you, are passing you. The fans have a right to be a bit upset about these things. There are issues that are unique to Arsenal.”
By broadcasting this frustration, AFTV stands accused by some, such as Moses, of being part of the club’s image problem. Robbie, unsurprisingly, disagrees.
“It’s like a radio station – it’s the opinionated fans who ring up. But you get a lot of fans that are pretty reasonable when they see good performances.”
The proof of the pudding will be in the watching. After an ultimately comfortable 2-0 Arsenal win, I exit the stadium and trot towards a bright white light that’s attracting fans like moths. I barge my way to the front, where Robbie is waiting, microphone in hand, to film his first interview. One after the other, amateur pundits step forward, offering their thoughts, while I indulge in some classic on-screen gurning.
Around me, the crowd swells into the hundreds, a sea of club merchandise. Standing anywhere they can get a view, waving phones, laughing, is a rich mix of ethnicity and age: a portrait of modern London. It could benefit from a few more female faces, some older ones, too, but there are few other clubs that can say they have a more diverse following. As the more boisterous regulars arrive – DT, Kelechi, a bloke who says “fam” a lot – their names are chanted, and the space contracts; people want my front-row spot; but I ain’t budging.
Bar one or two slightly bizarre observations, opinions are mostly calm and fair. Perhaps that’s because we won. But tonight lacks the kind of neck-throbbing rants that Moses finds so embarrassing. If AFTV is part of the problem, it is certainly not all of it.
The following evening, I’m a guest on the Footballistically Arsenal podcast, where I plan to continue my quest. With me are regular hosts Josh Landy and Boyd Hilton, plus Daniel Levine, who, coincidentally, promotes ‘influencers’ like Robbie.
“I’ll give you my theory,” says Hilton. “We’re contributing to it with this effing podcast, but there are myriad podcasts, there’s Arsenal Fan TV, there are more ex-Arsenal pundits on normal TV than any other club – Lee Dixon, Wrighty, Martin Keown.”
Not to mention Alan Smith, Thierry Henry, Charlie Nicholas, Stewart Robson, Matthew Upson and Paul Merson.
“And then there are loads of celebrity fans,” he continues. “I do feel like Arsenal have covered all areas of media more than any other club. And there’s the fact that we’re in this state of frustration. All these factors add up to this image we have of being spoilt twats.”
“The overwhelming majority of fans in this country would give anything to swap places with us,” says Landy. “From the outside, they can’t believe our luck and our audacity to complain about what this great man [Arsene Wenger] has brought to Arsenal. And I’m convinced we’re disproportionately [discussed in the media] and that must annoy non-Arsenal fans.”
“Not to mention Twitter,” I say, remembering it this time.
“I forgot about social media and blogs,” says Hilton, making me feel better. “There are hundreds of blogs.”
“There is a theory around millennials,” says Levine, who knows about such things. “Millennials who support Arsenal had it really good. Now, these millennials, who have a platform, are savvy on social media, and are disgruntled about Arsene Wenger, can tell the world.”
I know it’s fashionable to blame millennials for everything, but the theory does have legs. A generation of fans around the world suckled on the teat of The Invincibles – the Arsenal team that went the 2003-04 season unbeaten – often solely on TV. They’ve been raised on Football Manager and FIFA improbability, Sky Sports’ over-dramatisation, and intrusive levels of analysis. Rightly or wrongly, they expect more and think they know more.
And while older fans whinge at the pub, millennials go global. The timing of Arsenal’s on-field demise has coincided with Earth-altering technology. If social media is the ‘new pub’, then we’re the loudest, braying sphincters in the saloon bar. It’s impossible to ignore us, and therefore like us.
So, the answer to my question is not a simple one and, true to form, Arsenal fans can’t agree on it. But we do have two saving graces: we’re not Spurs fans; and we have the self-awareness to know that we’re unpopular and probably deserve to be.
“I hate a lot of Arsenal fan behaviour,” says Moses. “I hate the fighting among ourselves, people leaving five minutes before half-time and five minutes before the end. And I hate myself for moaning when we’ve only finished behind Spurs once in the past 20-odd years.”
Maybe things would change if Arsenal fans have some kind of collective ego death, forgetting all that has gone before. Or if we just won the league. Both unlikely.
So perhaps we just suck it up. In the ‘30s, people hated our success. They called us ‘lucky Arsenal’. We didn’t mind. Then, for decades, they hated our boring football. Defiantly, we liked that. Now they hate our fans. Perhaps we should embrace that, too. Perhaps, perversely, our incessant airing of dirty laundry and internal bickering – and the ridicule it brings – could be the one thing to unite us all.