Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Arsenal fan culture: An overdue autopsy

Posted on 19 March 2021 by Sam Stephenson

Last week the social media accounts of Arsenal’s Emile Smith-Rowe vanished.

Almost immediately the fan speculation was rife around what might have caused this sudden withdrawal.

The most common answer offered up was that the young Smith-Rowe, despite being one of the shining lights in a resurgent Arsenal side, must have been driven off Twitter and Instagram because of one thing. Fan abuse.

Only a few hours later however the midfielders accounts were all back online, with no explanation given for their sudden disappearance.

So minor was the incident that Twitter soon moved on, but it showed, yet again, the dire state of Arsenal fan culture.

The month of madness

February was something of a mixed bag for Arsenal football club.

On the pitch, results were improving yet still patchy. Starting with defeats to Wolves and then Aston Villa, the Gunners did eventually find some form, ending the month with an impressive win over Leicester.

However, as poor as some of the performances were, they were nothing compared with the behaviour of the fans.

In the game against Wolves, keeper Bernd Leno gambled and rushed out to try and punch the ball away, yet in doing so, he ended up handling outside the area. A clear red card, Leno was sent packing.

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Leno sees red following his moment of madness, leaving Arsenal down to nine men

Speaking just weeks after his red card, Leno opened-up to Sky Sports about the consequences that mistake lead to:

“I had a very bad game and then one guy on social media said to me ‘do it like Enke’.”

For those unaware, the “do it like Enke” comment is in reference to German goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life back in 2009. Leno went on to add:

“Since I read this, I realised that there are so many stupid people on social media. That is the reason I don’t read it even when everything is good. I don’t need that, it doesn’t make me better, it is wasting time.”

Yet the month got worse, with a report published by the data science company Signify that highlighted the racist abuse directed towards midfielder Granit Xhaka, along with homophobic abuse thrown at defender Hector Bellerin, all allegedly by season ticket holders.

Whilst it has to be said that one fan never speaks for the whole fan base, they can sometimes symbolise the state of it.

At the root of Arsenal fan culture there is an undeniable toxicity that seems to have seeped into all aspects of debate, leaving fans more divided than ever before.

“I do think there is a real divide now, you’re either Arteta in or Arteta out,” argues Arsenal Fan TVs James Bayliss, “it’s really sad because now we might win a game and the Arteta in crowd will say ‘where are the Arteta out’s now?’ and it really shouldn’t be like that.”

But clearly the issues in the Arsenal fan community run deeper than a simple debate on the future of a manager, on which there are grounds to be on either side of the fence. However, there’s no defence for the levels of abuse that Arsenal supporters now seem poised to throw at players at the first opportunity.

So, where has this environment come from?

Arsenal Fan TV: A mirror up to the madness

Founded over ten years ago by former surveyor and DJ Robbie Lyle, AFTV has long been a divisive feature of Arsenal fandom.

A platform for your everyday Arsenal fan to have his say, the channel took off during the days of the ‘Wenger out’ campaign, when the debate over the future of long-term manager Arsène Wenger was at its peak.

As fan frustration grew over the clear decline they were witnessing on the pitch, and the position of Wenger seemingly still as secure as ever, the post-game fan reactions became even more emotionally charged.

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As a consequence of some of the opinions voiced by fans on the platform, AFTV themselves have seen their fair share of hate over the years

Consequently, some in the community have taken against the channel, claiming that the nature of content that was coming out was a step too far in its criticism of individuals.

Yet for Bayliss, the issue is hardly so black and white: “A lot of people will say what was said was disrespectful, and some will likely regret what they said, but on the whole, would Wenger have left if the fans weren’t as vocal as they were? It wasn’t just a vocal movement; fans weren’t attending games and the Emirates was often very empty!”

Ultimately of course Wenger did step aside, as results on the pitch continued to disappoint. But how much blame over that episode can really be laid at the feet of one YouTube channel?

Indeed, the fact remains that if performances on the pitch had been better, would the fan environment be in this situation?

AFTV, and all fan channels come to that, are, at their core, a platform for fans.

“People need to realise with AFTV that one fan doesn’t represent the fan base and they might in their raw reaction after a match just want to say how they feel and they’re frustrated, and then they calm down, and it is very raw emotion,” said Bayliss, “and when you look at the comments and you look at the wider pool of everything, of all the content we do, I think you’ll find that 97% is very fair very considered opinion.”

It’s easy for people to play the blame game with AFTV, simply because they’re so popular, but to my mind that’s just lazy. It’s clear, for better or worse, fan channels hold up a mirror to the fans, reflecting back at them both the good, and bad.

The worst of a bad bunch?

To my mind it is this question that sums up Arsenal fan cultures present state rather well.

“Every fan base is the worst fan base,” argues Bayliss, “It’s always a case of ‘you’re the worst’ ‘no you’re the worst’ and I don’t know of a fanbase that doesn’t get it, except maybe Leicester!”

There’s a great deal of truth in that sentiment, as, such is the nature of modern fandom, that all sets seem to have players at the clubs who, for whatever reason, seem to come in for more abuse than others.

So why does it seem that Arsenal fans are, if not the worst, perceived to be so?

Maybe it’s simple a case of expectation vs reality. At the heart of the issue we have a club, who for decades, was used to, if not lifting trophies, competing for them. And now we have a side languishing in tenth and, in recent years, looking about as likely to challenge for the title, as they are to be relegated. Arsenal fans are simply despairing at mediocrity.

It’s this despair, and this anger that’s at the heart of it all for me. There is anger among Arsenal fans because, to put it bluntly, we’re not the team we were.

Yet even so, the inescapable truth in my eyes is that the Arsenal fandom at present is still a highly divided community, and one that is still grabbing the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

 

Credit feature image: Julian Osley/ The Emirates Stadium