Can I play?
Au Revoir Arsenal
I was born in Whittington Heath Hospital, high on the third floor, with an almost panoramic view over Finsbury Park, Holloway and Islington. From that window, at which my father held me whilst my mother rested, I could already see the red and white terraces of Highbury stadium.
I know, I’m taking liberties with nostalgia, a new born child sees hardly anything, but I was born in a room that overlooked Highbury Stadium.
I know this because my father would take me back to that room some fifteen years later, by which point the moneyed monolith named The Emirates would be looming over the landscape of north London and Highbury would be flats for the gentrified.
At the time we accepted this because it was the promise of a new dawn, Arsenal football club would cement its place within the footballing elite.
What actually lay ahead was the slow and gradual erosion of all things I knew to be Arsenal. But I was still a teenager at the time and all I envisaged was a bigger and better arsenal, as most fans hope for their team.
Like myself, I imagine you were born into the team you support, much like you are born into the group ofpeople you call family.
It’s a tribal thing, it runs deep and so when your club exchanges heritageand home, for modernity and money, nothing really changes except everything, but you are too in love to notice.
I fell in love with arsenal through our lounge window. You see we lived in Finsbury park and were nestled in a row of houses between both Highbury and The Emirates.
When Arsenal scored my dad would mute the TV, fling open the window and the roar of the stadium would surge into the lounge, washing over us and seeping into the very mortar of the house itself.
Our home was an Arsenal home
As a little boy I would hear the warbled tone of the announcer celebrating, “Bergkamp! Henry!”and as I grew older the announcer at The Emirates still found its way into our home, “Fabregas, Van Persie!”
I was surrounded by Arsenal, steeped in it, clothed in it, slept in it and had my walls adorned with it. I even advanced through trials and age groups with them and may have done well, but a shattered kneecap shattered that dream.
Then again with Arsenal’s record of singing injured players, perhaps I missed a trick. In truth Arsenal was more my obsession than my father’s, where he liked Arsenal, I loved Arsenal. How could I not, I grew up with the steel of that old back four with legends like Tony Adams, and heroes up top like Ian wright.
At barely 12 I was hoisted up by my sister to sit atop a post box, the 2001-2002 double winning team passing by our house on their open-top bus parade – my sister adamant that Henry was giving her “the eye.” Then came The Invincibles; unbelievable, unrivaled, whatever the superlative, their feat still stands today. A feat that was overseen by one Arsene Wenger, le professeur, the father. He was the namesake of our club and we loved him, right up until we pushed him out, me included. But that’s the curious thingabout humans, we absolutely fear change but we yearn for it.
Only now, as I sit here in my thirties writing this, the day after football’s elite feebly tried to plunge us into their moral morass called the super league, I find myself remembering ArseneWenger’s parting words, “To all the Arsenal lovers, take care of the values of the club.”
What is it that you value in your football club?
Success and trophies? Or perhaps heritage and stories? Or better yet buying the best and biggest stars? Or is it surviving relegation or getting top four?
For my father it was about having local lads in the team and at arsenal we excelled at that. But for many that value isn’t enough.
We Arsenal fans moan about the amount of time since we won the league but fans from Norwich or Exeter may just laugh and say “you don’t know good you’ve got it.”
Other fans, myself included, will say it’s about being entertained; that we don’t want park the bus football even if it gets us a trophy.
But many football fans, pundits and pros will say trophies are the be all and end all. Personally, I think the trophy argument is the most laughable one, because our sport’s turnover is terrifying; how many times does a manager win a trophy only to be sacked six months later with fans in despair at the state of their club – forgetting that this privileged state of sorry affairs exists only for the top 1 per cent of the football pyramid and is ultimately a nice headache to have, if we’re being objective.
But that’s just it, there is nothing objective in football, it is a tribal thing beyond reason so much sothat I often find myself trying to give reasons for why I love the sport to those who don’t.
Take my wife and father-in-law for example, they couldn’t care less about football, to them it is pointlessand boring at best, morally bankrupt and hopelessly out of touch at worst.
I remember one night, my father-in-law asking me, “but I don’t get it, your values, your morals...how can you support this game that pays players half a million a week.”
Indeed, how can I? I came from a working-class family, lived in a council flat with a father who was a socialist and always fighting for the causes in his community, but that community loved football, that community-built football, “football is ours, we love it” was my reply.
And for the vast majority this is the truth. You are more likely to divorce or change religion than change football club.
The Anthropologist Martha Newson called this intense belonging a kindof “identity fusion”. The ugly truth is that at the top level, they; the CEO, the chairman, chief exec, and so on, know this and they exploit this identity fusion.
At the level that draws the billions of eyeballs to TV, bringing in the broadcast bucks and turning football into business, we the fans are fast becoming the appendix of the business organism.
We can hang around but to the suits who run the game, the fans can be cut out and the business organism can function quite well without them.
So, in this age where we the fan are expendable, where super leagues seek to supersede us, I think we must pause and reflect on what it is that we value in the game of football. For most I believe it is what we could call the two C’s, competition and community – effectively everything the super league refutes.
Everything I first learned when my father set up a local team in our estate, giving us boys a sense of unity and keeping us out of trouble.
Can we have our ball back?
In short, no.
When I used to kick my ball into my neighbor’s garden, I would call over the wall and more often than not the ball would come back.
But there was always that one killjoy who would say“ball’s mine now”. I’d run back into the flat, tell my dad and he would say, “it’s yours, climb the wall and get it back”. But the wall the mega rich have erected around our beautiful game is too high for us to scale.
And that is because we allowed the Trojan horse in; first with Sky and the invention of the Premier League, then Abramovich, Kroenke, BT sports, FSG’s Henry & Werner & Sheikh Mansour - they flooded the game with money and we drowned happily in it. We told ourselves it trickles down, we embraced the PR initiatives and community investment and charitable events, but all the while the suits deemed fit and proper were scheming, fantasizing about franchise football.
Forgive me football fans if this is bleak, I know we have just achieved an incredible turn around in but a few days, and I was beaming watching Chelsea fans surrounding their own team bus. However, this event, this moment, this stain on our beautiful game should be a wakeup call.
When Monday night football’s Neville & Carragher told us to mobilize, galvanize, protest and resist, they did so from a sky studio, the very vanguard of the invading force that set the football on this path.
Sky is only aggrieved because they were outdone at their own game, do you seriously think they will not attempt a Sky Super league in five or ten years? Perhaps you think me cynic, or a killjoy like my old neighbor - “the fans have reclaimed football, we told the suits we don’t want yourleague of greed”, you might say.
To that, I would remind you of the sentiment at the time Sky birthed the premier league; manysaid they wouldn’t buy into the commercialized glitz and glam of the people’s game, they even foretold of the ruin of football.
However, the ruin didn’t come, it was instead a gravy train that brought the English game to the heights of spectacle and success.
Only now the train has pulled into the station, finding itself arrived at destination pandemic.
At this juncture the suits realized the gravy had run dry, but with so many heads turned the other way, with stadiums empty, staff furloughed, associations grappling with congested calendars and a precarious football pyramid, the suits struck. But in a matter of days, we the people, the fans, struck back. But let’s not think we won a war; we have beaten back an advance.
Our clubs remain in the hands of nation states and billionaires beyond governmental reach and even law enforcement.
These scavengers in suits, venture vultures, were deemed fit and proper by the very politicians and football associations now decrying the state of the game they helped to sell out.
So the only power is in the choice you have as football fans. I ask you not to choose forgiveness, because these owners just wiped their backsides with a hundred plus years of English culture and community and are now telling us, “don’t worry, we’ll wipe it clean, sorry for the mess”.
If we say, “no worries, god I can’t wait for Madrid Chelsea next Tuesday” then nothing will stop the owners next time, for they have just committed the greatest criminal act against the English game and all they have said is, “my bad”.How bad are we willing to let things get?
So, I am humbly asking you to show the suits we are not for sale and that they need to sell. I know it hurts, I know football is a family, but sometimes families fall out and harsh words are said.
This is why I am doing the unthinkable, sorry dad; I know you must be looking down saying “no son, we’ve won”.
But I don’t think we have dad; I think we’ve papered over the cracks and nexttime it won’t work, next time the soccerization of football at the hands of Kroenke and his cohort will be complete - unless we drive them out.
More than two centuries ago the Americans forced the British back into the sea, they did it for democracy and they succeeded, lets repay them in kind, in the name of our beautiful game.
It will take all of us, staying in the fight, for if we don’t then there is a little else I can do but say, I loved you and thanks for the memories - but au revoir Arsenal