Running a club like The Arsenal...

WARNING: this is a long piece and possibly boring. For those who are short on time or just have short attention spans, skip straight to the end for a link to a video summary of how to deal with hecklers.
There has clearly been a shift recently from opinion or discussion towards direct action from the fans to affect the running of the club. This has been predicted on the notion that the club is being mismanaged. It first became evident to me on September 1st when the transfer window shut without Arsenal buying any star players, whilst nearly everyone bemoaned this as a mistake some people went further and called for direct action in response. On various websites people suggested ways that they could display their disgust: petitions, pickets, letters, and game day protests. I read calls for all of these. I would directly link this to the recent booing at the Fenerbache game.
Whilst this may in reality be an isolated group of marginal influence, it still raises questions of principle and prudence. It would also be presumptuous to assume that this will remain the case through the season. If things go badly objections could become more widespread; remember it was a home draw that left us top of our champions league group at the start of November that prompted the last outcry. Quite aside from all that, it is the first time I can remember ever having heard the team booed off at home.
As far as I know, I encourage education on this subject by those better informed, there are 2 obvious models for direct fan participation in the running of clubs. The first, which is predominantly found in Italy and especially Argentina, is the connection between powerful fan groups and the clubs. This usually has violent and hooligan implications, whereby Ultras are actively courted by the clubs or too powerful to ignore. I won’t dwell on this as it seems safe to assume that rabidly reactionary violence is neither viable nor desirable in English football or at our club anymore.
Those people who protest that booing is mild in comparison to the treatment other teams get simply offer up a cheap route to the lowest common denominator. Roma fans egg the players, Lazio fans storm the training grounds, and threats are made against players from Boca, so we are justified in a bit of petty abuse. I don’t buy this logic, if there is any to the argument.
The other model of fan participation and influence that comes readily to my mind is that at Barcelona and Madrid. In this system the fans vote for the president of the club who runs on a platform designed to woo them, this usually involves promises of high priced players. The obvious difference between this and Arsenal is that the fans do not own the club, although the idea of fan participation as prudent could still be put forward. However, the situation at Barcelona and Madrid is very different to that at Arsenal, specifically the role of the coach. The big two from Spain each have a first team coach rather than a manager with overall control. They are financially superior to the other teams in the league and largely compete amongst themselves for the best talent from within Spain. They also have state of the art and productive youth centres that exist beyond the scope of the first team coach.
Even after a bad season or two they will be able to recuperate and reassert themselves, it is unclear at present if we are in a similar situation or remain one of Europe’s most consistent teams for a decade due to individual brilliance at the management level. Some fans at Arsenal seem to assume we are: they take for granted that we are a ‘big club’ and expect and demand performances that are perhaps unrealistic. (I am obviously using the term ‘big club’ on a level above that which totters and Geordies bicker about)
At our club Wenger is responsible for transfers and operates with a budget beneath that of his nearest competitors, whatever the long term benefits of the Emirates they haven’t arrived yet. He still has a massive role in the acquisition and training of the young talent at the club. Whereas Madrid and Barca can switch coaches often and have little detrimental affect, only the most rabidly anti-Wenger spurs fan or retarded Australian would suggest that replacing Wenger would be easy, if at all completely possible at the present moment. Perhaps with disproportionate amounts of money, status, infrastructure, and talent production in relation to our rivals we could switch managers every bad run, but none of that looms on the horizon in the near future. The first one looks particularly unlikely baring the complete shift globally to alternative and renewable energy sources.
The third, less direct route, that fans can influence decisions is through booing, protests, or simply staying away from games. It is not uncommon to see directors make populist decisions to please fans; this is quite common in Italy and Spain for example. However, I again do not think that this is a completely analogous situation to our own, nor may it be desirable. To start with if you gave up your seat at the Emirates it would be filled in a heartbeat, there is still little financial incentive of that nature for the club to pander. It also seems very dubious to presume that a football club run, even partly so, for the whims of its fans rather than a detailed and thorough sporting and technical agenda would last long at the top level of the most competitive league in the world. Lastly, booing and other petulant protests, by English standards at least, are reflective of a lack of class and generally seen as shallow and stupid.
What I would like to do is ask what the relationship between the club and its fans should be in a modern context. I personally would distinguish between fans in an ‘old school’ sense and consumers. I know which I am and which I think is most meaningful, but I write this now without prejudice. The truth is that in the last twenty years football has changed beyond recognition. That is even truer if you go back further into the immediate post war period. In all honesty for the things that have been lost, some lamentably so, we have also gained massively.
Arsenal has benefited hugely from this revolution, we were lucky enough to have individuals, Dein and especially Wenger, who capitalised on this. The fact is now that no fans, I’m assuming, begrudge us playing Champions League football every year, having state of the art facilities, one of the best stadiums in the world, or a cosmopolitan team of expensively assembled talents. This is all indivisible from the comodification of football, its popularity, and eventually the consumer fans it has attracted. To a certain extent the modern Arsenal is dependant upon them and only a particularly regressive outlook could wish them away.
In an environment where people pay a lot of money to watch the team and do so as consumers, this is everyone including those who sing when we are losing, what demands may we place on the club? The fact is that the club has made huge efforts to attract and maintain a corporate and theatre crowd; they cann ot just turn their back on that constituency when it suits them. The editor of the Gooner fanzine quite rightly pointed out, I think, after Wenger’s AGM speech that it would be a little easier to bear le boss calling for more passion from supporters if the club had not implemented and then embraced policies that clearly diminish it: over zealous stewards; being forced to sit even in areas where people know they will have to stand; the depressing text service; and other policies designed to make the game day experience palatable for people who have never stood on terraces, cried, or hurled abuse whilst watching their club
If anything, perhaps the people swimming against the tide are those who feel that the club is something more than football, individuals, or even sport; for them it is deeply personal and touches something deeper. I would direct you to a recent article by the editor of this site that put it better than I could when he explained that the football club, what makes it special, is its values. I agree with that whole heartedly.
I think the fans have a duty to try and protect the values they see in the club when they are under threat, I would vigorously oppose any takeover by Fatty Usmanov for this reason. Then again, there are those who argue that the love they feel for the club is the reason they want Wenger ousted; but I think you have to distinguish between the short term/superficial, and the heart of the club. It would take a situation of gross mismanagement, I think, for public condemnation of a sitting manager to be tolerable, if it is at all. Can policy and success on the pitch – the argument that as we are now a world class club the fans have world class expectations that should be met – be demanded from the stands?
As it stands I think not. I believe that the fans should be loyal, but not blind. However, whilst having an opinion on matters is inescapable, thinking you know what is best for the club and working to get that agenda implemented goes beyond the role, idea, or expertise of fans. As I have said many times before, thinking that there are inappropriate forms of expressing disagreement with decisions is not the same as always agreeing. The balance between short and long term, understanding the job, and knowing the trends in the game is beyond the scope of most supporters, if not all really as it requires so much inside information beyond what the dreadfully inaccurate and retarded press put out or you can get from the stands.
It strikes me as something of a unique situation, where football, at least at our club, has found itself straddling two different sets of conventions whereby the most convenient aspects of each exist for a certain group, but none of the restrictions. On the one hand it is expected that football matches are laid on in an atmosphere more akin to the theatre than the scene of tribal atavism. Passion is limited where it suits some but not others, however you may still turn up late, leave early, and go for snacks during the performance. Then alongside this, people want to have all the right to voice their opinions loudly as it suits them, just whilst seated, without swearing, and none of the vitriol can be sent their way.
Ultimately, I think even in an age of football as a product, when the humane, artistic, or emotional side of the game are subsumed by the need for results (value?) at all costs, the club should resist reactionary demands. I mean that both for the fans, management, and board. We should show a greater deal of faith in the side and be thankful that we have what we do – because win lose or draw it is Arsenal and that still stands for something. We have a duty to protect that. So to should the board, they must attempt to maintain the values of the club, which should still strive to treat the fans with consideration and grace. This means not trampling upon on its heritage or marginalising its core fan base, whilst still pursuing a modernising agenda for those that desire it. As for the manager, he should always be able to do his job with support and security; if he is any good he will know far better than us what to do.  The alternative version of all that is contained here. For anyone who doesn’t know Bill Hicks, he is usually far more eloquent than this and well worth looking up. In my view the greatest man this side of Arsene Wenger.

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