The obsession with fan protest at Arsenal is second to none, with a sharp divide between those who believe it to be the only way to force change and others who say it affects the performance of the team.
The issue was thrust to the front and centre again on Saturday in the wake of Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge, with reports of fights breaking out in the stands and the widely broadcast footage of a fan posing with a banner at the end of the game.
Of course, it’s not the first time protest has exposed a gulf between differing groups of fans, with the organised walk-out which backfired towards the end of last season confirming for the first time just how deep the fissure runs.
However, the relative failure of that protest, coupled with a summer of significant squad investment, seemed to dampen any thirst for fresh displays of dissent against the manager early in this campaign.
As results have started to sour on the pitch, though, the grumblings have grown louder once more, reaching a deafening crescendo at the weekend as Arsenal’s title challenge was ended for another year.
The post-game rants broadcast within hours of the match on YouTube channel Arsenal Fan TV have also become synonymous with a rising tide of malcontent, though many fans remain critical of the way in which often quite vitriolic views are expressed and broadcast unedited, particularly when emotions are running high.
The plot thickened yet further on Saturday when former Manchester United defender Gary Neville weighed in to the debate, criticising the fans who protest against Arsene Wenger and coming to the Frenchman’s defence – a move which surprised many.
Perhaps his time spent at the helm of Valencia last year added some much-needed perspective to his punditry.
Given everything that has taken place over the last week or so, and the starkly differing views that have emerged, the question seems to me to be: Do the fans have the right to protest against the manager and the club so openly?
Whatever Neville’s motives, his view is one that is shared by a significant portion of Arsenal fans – known colloquially as the Arsene Knows Bests (AKBs) – who believe campaigning against the manager is disrespectful and ignorant, and could also be affecting the performance of the team.
While there is no definitive way of measuring the impact of fan protest on the squad, it’s obvious the issue is one that will have been talked about among the players, who have access to Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, just as readily as any of us. They are not blind to what is going on.
The manager too is long enough in the tooth to know what is going on around him. For all his perceived shortcomings, he is a fiercely intelligent man. Will the signs, banners, and fan rants be affecting how he performs day-to-day? He wouldn’t be human if it didn’t play on his mind but he has been around the block enough times to know how to handle such pressure.
In truth, we can’t really be certain what impact fan protest is having, or could have, on the team, but we can be sure the squad and the management are aware of it.
The question of whether it is disrespectful seems to be a little less subjective. Arsene has given the better part of his career to achieving his vision at Arsenal and, make no mistake, the club owes where it is now to his talents, his forward-thinking, and his ambition.
It’s no secret that Arsene could have moved on to pastures new on multiple occasions over the years, but he has remained steadfastly loyal to the club. That’s not to say his loyalty hasn’t been handsomely rewarded – because £8 million a year is a very nice reward indeed – but he has stuck with the club through some undeniably lean times – when the burden of paying for the new stadium forced him into selling his best players season-after-season.
Some of the language and abuse directed at the Frenchman, therefore, given everything he has achieved at the club, is crass and enormously disrespectful. Terms such as ‘delusional’ and ‘fraudulent’ which are bandied around online by certain sections of fans are thoroughly disrespectful and have no place in civilised debate.
But the fact these viewpoints are given life shows how much division and frustration there is at the club. It is reflective of a fanbase which is fast reaching the end of its collective tether, not least because of the amount of money shelled out by fans in tickets, travel costs, and all other expenses inbetween in order to follow the Gunners.
To simply say that fans who have been driven to despair should stay quiet and bow reverentially at Arsene in thanks is equally as disrespectful. Watching your club fail in the same way, at the same time, almost every year for a decade – and paying a lot of money to do so – takes its toll and, while simple change is not always the answer, there comes a time when change is inevitable.
What’s clear is that the board and the chairman are moving rapidly towards a crossroads in the club’s future. Come the end of the season they are going to have to act, one way or another. It seems as if, until then, we find ourselves in a state of limbo as we all try and second guess what Ivan Gazidis and his fellow board members will do.
But whatever is going on behind the scenes, the voices of the fans must be recognised and must be respected, from both sides of the debate.
Should fans be allowed to protest openly at games? Yes, of course they should. This isn’t a communist dictatorship, this is a football club. Without its paying fans, the club is nothing. The diversity of opinion is what makes football the greatest sport on earth, it’s what fuels endless hours of debate and discussion in workplaces and pubs up and down the country. It makes and breaks weekends, changes lives, and creates spectacular memories.
Removing the voice of the average fan from that rich tapestry would be a disaster for the sport and would erode the very heart of what sport is all about.
But there must be a line. Honest debate and peaceful, well-intentioned protest should be distinct from vile and abusive ranting, violence, and threats. Nobody should have to tolerate the latter and it’s most certainly not good for the future of the club.
As in all things, balance is the key. Fans have the right to voice their opinion, and other fans have the right to disagree. When all is said and done, all anyone us want is the best for the club and protest, as well as shows of support, are key parts of that.
More than ever in this age of rolling updates and instant reaction, fans have the chance to share their opinions with thousands of like-minded followers, and that is a great thing. If it is done in the right way, and without the recourse to violence, long may it continue.