Cash in the bank but few trophies in the cabinet: Highbury did not die for this
Sometimes you wonder what the hell is wrong with Arsenal fans.
Take this week. The Gunners are still in the Premier League race, still in the FA Cup and still, technically at least, in the Champions League. Yet many of their supporters have spent the last few days indignantly calling for Arsene Wenger to be sacked.
Some are insisting that, even if Wenger wins the league this year, he still has to go in the summer.
Have the fans gone mad? Well, yes, many have – they have been driven mad by the club. The process began 10 years ago, when they were torn from their beloved home of Highbury, that classy, idiosyncratic gem, with its art-deco stands and marble halls.
The traumatising eviction was performed without consultation but on a clear promise: the move to a modern super-stadium would cement the club’s place in the absolute elite of Europe and ensure domestic trophies would be won on a regular basis.
Severed from their spiritual home, they obediently followed the club over the footbridge that divides their past and current residences
10 years later, Arsenal have claimed just two FA Cups. It’s a disappointing tally anyway, but particularly so when you compare it to the trophy haul from the 10 years before the move: three league titles, four FA Cups and that glorious unbeaten league campaign in 2003/04.
What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul, goes the saying. Many Arsenal fans feel they have lost their soul and gained almost nothing in return.
Severed from their spiritual home, they obediently followed the club over the footbridge that divides their past and current residences. They were hurting from the Highbury exit but excited for the promised new era.
“Come with us,” beckoned the directors, “and we’ll fill the cupboard with silverware.” Instead, they have filled the bank with gold. According to football finance blogger Swiss Ramble, Arsenal are the most cash-rich club in world football. No wonder a lot of supporters feel conned. Highbury didn’t die for this.
New era, loss of character
There are so many more things to football than winning trophies, including the warm reassurance of tribal identity, of which a distinctive headquarters is a crucial part
The ghost of the old ground is but a stroll away from the Emirates. After home matches, thousands of fans queue at Arsenal tube station. Looming over them are the remains of their former home, which multiplies their pains and disappointments when they’ve just watched their team lose and fall further away from attaining silverware.
The collection of flats that Highbury has been converted into can seem artless and grey to the outsider. Yet it is a carnival of charisma, soul and spiritual pulsation when compared to the soullessness of the Emirates. Opposition fans, even Spurs supporters, would speak with open envy of the boundless charms of dear old Highbury. None make similar noises about the new home.
Try as they might, Arsenal don’t seem able to instill any authentic emotional identity into the Emirates. There was a moment of optimism when, following the FA Cup win in 2014, the triumph was added to the list of club honours etched along one of the tiers, but that didn’t prove enough to shake the feeling that Arsenal fans are lumbered with an anonymous, corporate venue that could host any big club anywhere, or indeed any big event. The fact that the X Factor holds auditions at the Emirates says it all.
There are so many more things to football than winning trophies, including the warm reassurance of tribal identity, of which a distinctive headquarters is a crucial part. The move to a characterless bowl has robbed Arsenal fans of that. So who can blame them when they become so unattractively preoccupied with winning?
Title slipping away
As the run-in gathers pace, the curiously apathetic team - who have managed just four wins in their past 11 league games - have waved others ahead with an even politer: “No no, after you…”
When victory is not forthcoming, it is Wenger who faces the wrath of the livid fans. In this small-picture, short-term world there are question marks over his current performance. One after another in this barmy season, Arsenal’s rivals in the title race have mysteriously stepped aside, ushering the Gunners forward with a polite: “After you.”
Yet as the run-in gathers pace, the curiously apathetic team - who have managed just four wins in their past 11 league games - have waved others ahead with an even politer: “No no, after you…”
For as long as the club is in the hunt for the title, only a fool would hurl abuse at Wenger and the players, but the anger is about far more than just team affairs. Pro-Wenger supporters routinely defend him by pointing out that, as well as winning trophies galore, he ‘built’ the new stadium. Could it be that part of the anger the Frenchman faces comes not in spite of that fact but because of it?
Was it worth it?
Ten years on, the bereavement of the move is still painful for fans old enough to remember the club’s classy former home
The Frenchman was the spiritual architect of the move to a new ground. It was he who walked into our beloved, quintessentially Arsenal home and said: “no, this has to go.”
There is no going back now, something I was painfully reminded of a few months after the move. On my way to a meeting at the new ground about a writing project, I emerged from Arsenal tube station to see a part of Highbury being knocked down.
I stood transfixed in horror as the machinery tore into the place I loved so much, tearing into my heart too. I watched as Arsenal killed Highbury.
Ten years on, the bereavement of the move is still painful for fans old enough to remember the club’s classy former home. Healing will only come when Arsenal fulfil the specific promise with which they tore followers from it, particularly now that the period of fiscal austerity dictated by the relocation has long since finished.
That means finding a way to return to, and then exceed, the levels of success the Gunners enjoyed in the years before the move. The start of that process can be a winning run that gets this year’s title challenge back on track, which may even end with Arsenal snatching the trophy. For that, the onus is on Wenger and his players.
And yet despite that fact, it is hard to escape the feeling that the true problem is not in the dressing room or dugout, but in a boardroom that has lost its way since the days of David Dein.
Dein was idolised by most fans for his passion and commitment to matters on the pitch; the current directors seem to scarcely even pretend they share such qualities. Instead, they charge record-high ticket prices, with millions sitting pretty in the bank and only erratic investment in the team.
Dear, oh dear. Highbury really was the holy ground, but the Emirates Stadium was built on the site of a waste disposal estate. If Arsenal aren’t careful it’s going to start reeking over there pretty soon.