Arsenal: The Big Change?

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Please welcome new columnist, Neil R. (@chimpthegooner), as he talks about his experiences as a fan in his debut blog for A Bergkamp Wonderland – OG

Football is one of my earliest memories. My life as a Gooner began from birth; I guess you could call me a third generation fan. My Dad is, and has always been, my biggest football influence. He started taking me to Highbury from the age of three, and I have been lucky enough to have held a season ticket ever since. My Dad has just about collected every home programme from 1960 onwards so this gives you some indication into the Gooner world I grew up in.

I’m now into my 30’s and I have experienced so many highs and of course some low moments whilst growing up in this environment – which is natural being a football fan of course (!) and even more so being an Arsenal fan. The lows never really go away and still hurt. Let’s take for example Paris when we lost the Champions League final, domestic cup finals against Liverpool and Birmingham, and all the games we should have won, which is typical Arsenal. I also have firm memories of the high moments – I’ve seen some great away days, the stand out games for me, being in the San Siro when we won 5-1 and in Prague to see Thierry break Ian Wright’s record.

I have lived through the most successful years in Arsenal’s history and of course the recent “trophy drought” years were certainly not something I was used to, but we have seen the club go through huge changes in many aspects, which has affected this. These changes have resulted in the ‘new age’ fan – a type of fan quite different in comparison to the fan that I was, and have been all my life, before some of these changes arose.

The ‘new age’ fan expects and demands success; the younger generation have known very little else and recently have shown a high level of criticism and hatred towards the club, Arsène and various players when things don’t go the way people expect them to. This is something relatively new to the football world and I feel it’s mainly due to social media with Twitter being the foremost arena for people to vent their anger and voice their opinions. Before Twitter, people couldn’t vent publicly during or after a game and could only do this in social circles, unless you participated in a football phone-in. I have always felt fans should have a voice though, especially fans who have paid money to be at a ground and if they feel that booing the side is the right thing to do, well then they have some sort of right to do so. It is very simple now for the keyboard warriors to send abusive messages to players and people in the media mostly to get attention from other social media users.

This isn’t suggesting that Twitter has only given a forum for negativity, it has allowed someone like me to speak honestly, voicing my opinions as well as engaging in debate with others who have differing views on games, players and Arsène, as well as the opportunity get to know some fantastic people, not only in the UK but also around the world. It has certainly brought together communities of Arsenal fans, which in the big picture has to be a good thing.

Aside from Twitter, the Internet has also benefited supporters around the world as it has assisted in the education and understanding of Arsenal’s history. Let’s take for example YouTube, where the new age fan who was not there to see Michael Thomas scoring at Anfield or Andy Linighan’s header against Sheffield Wednesday can find it and watch it at the click of a button.

In addition to the Internet, television has of course changed the face of football, which has been a huge benefit to so many genuine football fans around the world. Arsenal has fantastic support globally thanks to worldwide television coverage – some who know the history of the club inside out and are as devoted as me. Arsenal really is today a global club which is exactly where they want to be and it does genuinely amaze me to see photos of supporters clubs in all corners of the globe and pre-season tours are a perfect example of this.

The club has had to move with the changing times of football. As we know Arsène would never have taken the squad to the Far East for a pre-season tour, he liked to go every year to Austria for our training camp and that would be that. That of course isn’t good enough these days – there is money to be made and shirts to be sold in a very competitive marketplace. The club knows that if they don’t go that bit further, a Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester club will be ready to pick up any extra support or revenue that it can in our place.

Arsenal felt they had to move grounds to keep them competitive with the other major clubs in the world and it was the right decision for the club, but I am left with a question: did Arsenal leave its soul at Highbury?

For me the answer is yes.

As a fan you never stop loving your club whether it is Arsenal or Accrington Stanley.  It is just a part of who you are – it isn’t something you can get bored of and change clubs.  This is a lifetime commitment. There was a certain magic at Highbury – you could almost smell the history and the ground being so old just made it special. It was a fantastic ground for atmosphere (no matter what other supporters say) with the players were so close to the pitch. Going to Highbury was special and I simply don’t get the same feeling when I go to The Emirates; however much I love the club it still doesn’t feel like home.

The new stadium in many ways is fantastic of course with simple things like better facilities, no poles in the way etc. but it certainly doesn’t have the same soul as Highbury did.  Maybe that will come over the years but I feel extremely privileged to have gained my football education by going to Highbury which newer, younger fans will not be able to experience. I guess for these younger fans, they might feel the magic at The Emirates as I did at Highbury – for some it is all they know.

The game and club as I have mentioned have certainly moved on but so have the crowd that I see on a Saturday at the games themselves. It is quite common every home game to be sitting around different people every week and I have noticed a change in the general behaviour of some people in the ground. Let’s take for example those taking ‘selfies’ – there is a new craze for using selfie sticks to take photos – are those that bring these to the game real fans who are there to watch the game intently? Or are these tourists who have brought along a new global trend to the stadium?

The number of tourists or first timers coming to the Emirates has expanded and has made me ask myself… am I actually the type of fan that the club really want now?

In one sense yes, as they know I am a sure bet to renew my season ticket and will buy a shirt every season but that is it from me. I arrive at the ground fifteen minutes before kick-off, no alcohol or food bought in the ground and no trip to the Armoury. The devil in me suggests that the club would prefer more tourists every week, do they want somebody who will be there ninety minutes before the game, buying lots of memorabilia in the club shop, probably two or three programmes and someone who will purchase the extortionately priced food that is on offer at the ground.

I hope that the club do want the genuine support and not just want the tourist and selfie stick brigade but sometimes I am just not sure as of course there is money to be made. This need has brought about some of the changes I have mentioned and the need for more and more money to come into the club is of the highest importance.

The move to the new ground was to give Arsenal an advantage or at least a level playing field with the biggest clubs in the world. Arsène has done an extraordinary job to keep the club in the top four through all the tough years where the budget was extremely tight. I don’t think there is any other manager who could have masterminded such a project and kept the club competitive. There has been a lot of unfair criticism and some fair, but what can’t be questioned is that this great man has always just wanted the best for the club.

Certainly the shackles have been released and the signings of Alexis and Mesut Özil are an indication of how far the club has come, two world class players, from Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, this couldn’t have happened during the stadium budgeting days. I think that Arsène has earned the right to spend and see where his vision without having his hands tied can take us. Arsène has built a squad with a core of young British players, who can be the base of our future success, players who understand what it means to wear the shirt and mix that with some of the best players in the world – well that sounds good to me.

The Arsenal is a club of rich history and is known around the world for doing things in the right way with a touch of class very much unlike that lot up the road. I hope that this is something that will never change and something that we can all be extremely proud of and often we are the envy of other fans around the world. It is the core beliefs still held by the club that make me think My Arsenal won’t change, it is just the landscape around the club that has changed and it has simply moved with the times, but most importantly, has kept the all important values that it was built on and that I grew up on.

Neil

Neil is our newest regular columnist here at #ABW.  Go give him a follow on twitter (@chimpthegooner) and say “hello.”

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