One of the central tenets of being an Arsenal fan is “trust David Ornstein”. He’s got a source (or sources) inside the club, and for years now, they’ve used him as an “official leak”, for lack of a better way to put it. If it’s about Arsenal and Ornstein says it, it’s truth, and can be taken as such.
Which is what makes today’s Ornstein article in The Athletic (behind a paywall, but the Athletic is well worth it - and if you download the app you get three free articles a month) so unsettling.
There is a lot to unpack in the piece, and I think we’ll probably have a few different writers weighing in on it in the next couple days, but I wanted to focus on one sentence of it in particular here. The gist of the piece, of course, is that the Arsenal front office are 100%, fully, totally committed to Unai Emery, and are not going to fire him before the end of the season, if at all. Which, fine, that’s not what we wanted to hear, but whatever. The club’s defense of Emery included this line, however, which is deeply troubling to me:
They are adamant their project is sound, well-planned and will bring success, provided the external atmosphere allows it to do so.
With that one line, Arsenal are saying “We don’t want to fire him, but if we do, it’s because you people outside the club made it so we have to”. They’re saying the “external atmosphere”, in other words the fans, might make Emery’s job untenable and force their hand in firing him. They’re removing all culpability from Emery, they’re ignoring all the obvious signs that Emery’s job isn’t going at all well and hasn’t been for months, and they’re saying literally the only reason they’d fire him is because the fans threw a fit.
That is a horrific, contemptuous stance for a club to take towards its fans, especially when paired with this:
They hope the international break comes at a good time for the Arsenal squad — allowing them a welcome change of scenery — but accept the absence of domestic matches will increase the “noise” around Emery
So the same fans who are solely responsible for Unai Emery’s ultimate fate at Arsenal are also just “noise” that the club hopes can be handwaved away because the club is on vacation?
It’s important to remember here a bit of the history of soccer in England (and probably in other countries too, but I don’t have the knowledge of how the relationship between club and supporter worked in other countries). Up until the late 80’s, supporters in England were largely treated by clubs on a spectrum that ranged from indifference to contempt, and were viewed by clubs (and by the government) as an inconvenience at best and a menace at worst.
A quick look at the vocabulary that clubs used to describe supporter seating areas (they often referred to terraces as “pens” or “enclosures”, as if people were animals), and the total lack of care for how many people they put in those seating areas, is a window into what the club thought of the fan at the time. Essentially, it was just shove ‘em in, seal ‘em off, and give ‘em a show. And don’t even get me started on the ID card idea.
After Hillsborough, though, as the economics of the game changed dramatically, so did the way clubs viewed fans, or so we thought. Descriptors like “pen” and “enclosure” went away, stadia got much more comfortable and fan-friendly, and the rise of the “experience” gave the fan the impression that they mattered to the club, where maybe they didn’t before.
Despite all the fancy new trappings, though, at heart the relationship between sports team and fan is very much one-way. We as fans pour a (sometimes unhealthily) large amount of ourselves, in the form of time, emotion, and money, into loving the team we choose to love. This isn’t unique to soccer, of course, it’s the way all sports work.
This one-wayness has always seemed more magnified in soccer, at least to me, because soccer has sold itself as the sport of the people, up from the grass roots. This rosy fiction ignores the fact that at the top level, soccer is no different than the NFL or NBA or MLB - it’s a huge, lucrative business, predicated on extracting as much money from its customers as possible.
In the other direction, the team doesn’t invest anything even remotely resembling that kind of energy into us as individual fans. They view “the supporters” as a collective, and tend to see them only in terms of the money they spend and the in-house atmosphere they create. They certainly don’t engage with us as individuals or see the relationship between fan and club as personal or generational, as many fans do.
And for the most part, we accept this lopsided relationship, because that’s just how sports works. We get fun and entertainment out of it (usually), and they get our money for doing so. It’s an unspoken, uneven partnership, and it’s generally fine that way. But occasionally, the curtain gets pulled back and we see the reality of the club-fan relationship dynamic laid bare. That creates a pretty massive reflection point, where we realize just how the powers that run our clubs view us normals out here in the world, consuming their product. And that view, as evidenced by the quotes above, is...not a positive one. It’s a deeply cynical, poisonous one that sees you as a negative when viewed through the lens of the club.
Arsenal have given you a choice today. You can choose whether you want to exist in a relationship where the club will be holding you responsible for doing something they don’t have the courage to do, while gladly accepting your money and time as if you mattered to them. Is that something you want to be a part of?