First off, I need to say this: There’s no single correct way to be a fan. People can support their team however they wish - or, conversely, choose to stop supporting a team when the team no longer makes them happy. There’s no right answer, no correct set of behaviors to employ when one follows a team they choose to - or are born into - love.
There are, however, some patently silly things to do if you’re a fan.
Over the past five seasons or so, there’s been a great amount of discontent and frustration in the Arsenal fan base, as Arsene Wenger’s influence declined and then Unai Emery came through, all the while seeing the club sink further and further into a state in which none of us want to see them.
As with generally being a fan, there’s no right or wrong way to react to Arsenal’s current condition. Some might think “we’re on the road to improvement”, some might think “this is dire, blow it up and start over”, and there’s any range of opinions in between those ends of this particular spectrum, as well. And they’re all fine! You, and everyone else, are entitled to the reaction you wish to have!
But there’s one reaction that jumps out at me as being a little...let’s go with silly. One of the more toxic, in my opinion, strains of reaction to Arsenal’s current state of affairs is the “WE WANT OUR ARSENAL BACK” mindset. That state of mind, often espoused online by people barely old enough to actually remember the Arsenal they seem to want back, posits that everything was absolutely perfect at Arsenal in (pick whatever date during the early Wenger years is convenient for your argument), and if the club could only Get Those Values Back, all would be fixed and life would be grand.
I hope I don’t need to point out all the holes in that thought process, but the biggest one, for me, is that the Arsenal that people seem to want back isn’t really what they want - they mostly want Arsenal to return to being a competitive team, and are framing that desire as “we used to be good, so let’s go back to that”.
I am sympathetic to that interpretation, even if I don’t share the nostalgia piece of it, because at the end of the day, that’s what we all want - for Arsenal to be competitive again. I don’t particularly care if they’re competitive in the same way Wenger’s teams were, when they were (and let’s not forget, they weren’t - at least for the league title - more than they were in the last decade of Wenger’s time); I just want Arsenal to always be evolving and moving forward, and doing whatever they can to get good again.
The concept of evolving and moving forward brings us to one Stuart Morgan.
Described in the Athletic as a “lifelong Arsenal fan”, Morgan, of indeterminate age (but who is probably close to my own age of 50, from reading the piece), has decided that Arsenal is no longer for him, for a lot of, honestly, valid reasons (club performance, overcommercialization, match day pricing, soulless atmosphere, etc).
Instead of just walking away from Arsenal and finding a local lower league club to support, like a lot of people might do, Morgan’s doing something else. He has decided to start his own lower league club (Athletic link, behind paywall). He sees it as an analog to AFC Wimbledon - he wants to start a club called Dial Square, located in Woolwich, Arsenal’s original home until they moved to Islington in 1913. Dial Square, of course, was Arsenal’s original name before the rebrand to “Arsenal”.
He’s not a total novice at running a club. He has a love for the lower leagues, had been a director of Camberley Town, and he wanted to put that experience to work doing something that would also channel his love of Arsenal into an avenue he could feel good about.
Where I feel the need to poke some fun, though, is in his stated reasoning for starting Dial Square in the first place. While I’m sympathetic about the changes in Arsenal and the Arsenal experience over the seasons, those changes weren’t all made just because Arsenal wanted to change for the sake of it; the flood of money in the game has changed every Premier League team dramatically from what they were when the league started (and also from the First Division of the post-war era as a whole). If Arsenal want to be a winning team, they have to float down the stream in the same general direction as the other fish, not swim against the current. That is obviously going to change the match day experience greatly.
Let’s take a look at some of his reasons for starting Dial Square, shall we?
“The club has lost its identity in so many different ways,” Morgan explains. “This Arsenal team — the club, the set-up, the stadium — is nothing like it was in its heyday.”
Last I checked, its identity was Arsenal Football Club. That identity has not changed. Your experience of the identity has, absolutely, but Arsenal are still Arsenal. In a way, it’s like a car manufacturing plant. Back in the old days, that plant was full of people doing specific tasks for 11, 12, 13 hours a day, six days a week, spitting out cars at a rapid clip. Today, that factory is automated, runs with far fewer humans, and yet still spits out cars at a rapid clip; it’s the same thing, it just has different guts. If you don’t like that, that’s absolutely your right, but “it’s nothing like it was in its heyday” doesn’t really mean much, because you know what else isn’t like it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or whenever years ago? Literally almost everything. That’s how the evolution of society works.
It’s so commercialised… I sit in club level.
Wait. HOLD ON. HOLD THE PHONE. You sit in club level, which costs three figures a game, includes half-time drinks, a match program, and free admission to the club museum on match days, and you’re....upset about the commercialization of the game, which your club seats are in no small part helping to pay for? You’re JUST NOW noticing or caring that Arsenal are a commercial enterprise? Really?
The first time I went to Highbury, in about 1993 or ‘94, one of the first things I saw was a giant Nike swoosh painted on the seats of the East Bank. That same swoosh was plastered absolutely everywhere that Highbury had a blank space (other blank spaces, of course, were taken up by the JVC logo). Highbury also added executive boxes in 1992, so let’s not pretend that rampant commercialization is a new thing in professional sports, or in English soccer.
It’s soulless, it’s lifeless…it’s not Arsenal Football Club.
Those two statements do not necessarily agree with each other in this day and age; just because it’s one doesn’t mean it’s not the other. What it means, Mr. Morgan, is that you don’t enjoy the way Arsenal Football Club, or the Premier League, has evolved. Which, again, is fine! But for at least one generation of fans now, maybe two, this very much is Arsenal Football Club. Sitting in the posh seats and bemoaning how Things Used To Be Better In My Day doesn’t really resonate with me, nor would it with many younger fans. Everyone’s experience of what Arsenal is is different, and that’s OK - again, there’s no right answer here.
The reason I wanted to do this project is to go back to beginning, to try and get back to that original Arsenal.
The main problem with this is that, as mentioned above, everyone’s definition of “that original Arsenal” is different. Mine, as a US-based fan, is vastly different from that of Morgan’s, of someone who grew up going to Highbury every week because their dad and grandpa did. And someone whose first exposure to Arsenal may have been through FIFA/FM about 10 years ago (or more recently) has a different “original Arsenal” from those. None of them are wrong, and none of them are bad - they’re just all different. Arsenal, the team, has one origin story, but Arsenal’s supporters all over the world have thousands. Millions. Everyone’s is unique, and nobody’s is inauthentic or wrong.
With this course of action laid out, Morgan has set himself up as the gatekeeper for what Original Arsenal should be, and to me, that is not really the best look. I’m all for him starting his own club, if that’s what he wants to do with his time and money, and I am a sucker for the burgundy color scheme, but for me, at least, the club he’s going to start isn’t Original Arsenal, Authentic Arsenal, or We Have Our Arsenal Back FC. It’s going to be a local, lower league club, which has its own charms and attractions and whose growth and development should absolutely be encouraged, but it’s not a “purer” form of Arsenal, nor should it be.
It’s going to be a new club, trading on unearned nostalgia, that exists as wish fulfillment for a person who chooses not to accept that the Premier League of 2020 is, inevitably, going to be different than the First Division of 1986, and that that state of affairs isn’t automatically a negative. After all, Arsenal are Arsenal, no matter whether you stand on a concrete slab dodging thrown beers and standing in...other fluids, or whether you sit in the club level getting beers handed to you pleasantly at half time.