Arsenal’s extended stay at the top of the Premier League table has been somewhat overshadowed during the last month by the interactions of two of the club’s star players with opposition fans.
During the Gunners’ pulsating 6-3 defeat at Manchester City in December, Jack Wilshere was pictured giving a middle-fingered salute to Manchester City supporters.
Two weeks later, an injured Theo Walcott responded to the abuse and projectiles raining down on him from Spurs fans by mockingly reminding them of the scoreline with his hands as he was stretchered off the pitch.
While Theo received no more than a reminder of his responsibilities from the FA, Wilshere was banned for two matches, much to the chagrin of Gooners conscious that Liverpool’s Luis Suárez received a ban of half that length for making an identical gesture to Fulham fans two years ago.
The relationship between football players and supporters has always been a tempestuous one. The meteoric rise of the Premier League and the corresponding growth in player salaries has seen this relationship further strained. As Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis stated a year ago:
It clearly creates a lot of issues in terms of how our fans are able to feel that they’re still connected with those players, who are earning enormous amounts of money.
No longer can Arsenal fans expect their heroes to join them in the pub for a pint. The best they can hope for is that they roll down the windows of their Bentleys and Range Rovers (or, in Thomas Vermaelen’s case, his Nissan Figaro) to sign some autographs as they drive home from the Emirates past the Tollington Arms on Hornsey Road.
As fans grow further apart from the players they support and are forced to part with increasingly eye-watering sums to watch their team play, their level of disdain to the players grows. And their feelings are reciprocated.
Just ask Ian Wright, who called the £5,000 fine he received for insulting Coventry fans “the best £5,000 I ever spent”.
Players are reprimanded for any reaction to the endless abuse they are forced to endure. Wilshere was responding to abuse about his children, Theo to a deluge of coins being thrown at him. Who were the real victims in these incidents?
Not that Arsenal fans have always been angels. Emmanuel Adebayor’s infamous celebration in front of the Arsenal fans after scoring for Manchester City against his old club was thoughtlessly provocative.
But was it any worse than the songs insulting his family that preceded it, or the plastic chair and other missiles thrown at him following it?
And his comments both before and after leaving Arsenal may have been disrespectful, but did they justify some Arsenal fans chanting at him “it should have been you” after members of his Togo team had been shot at by terrorists?
All supporters view the fans of their rivals as the bad guys, but the truth is that every club contains fans they should be ashamed of.
Although these recent incidents suggest otherwise, the relationship today between players and fans is not an entirely negative one.
Per Mertesacker showed that some players still appreciate our support when he publicly berated Mesut Özil for failing to salute the travelling Gooners after the Manchester City defeat. And the growth of social media, particularly Twitter, has helped develop connections between fans and players.
“Twitter makes players more up to speed with what people are saying,” says Arsène Wenger. “They can respond to that instantly. It also gives them freedom to respond to stories in the newspapers.” It can also help bridge the gap between the fans and the players.
However, as Wenger admits, Twitter “can be very good and very bad. If it can be a positive image of the club, it also can be bad.”
Emmanuel ‘Dench’ Frimpong is a prolific Twitter user whose enthusiastic interaction with the fans has earned him 713,000 followers.
They have also led to a number of regrettable incidents, such as in August 2012, when a Tweet from a Spurs fan telling the Arsenal midfielder “I prayed you break your arms and legs” received a response of “scum Yid” from Frimpong. He was fined £6,000 by the FA for the post.
Footballers using Twitter must have a thick skin. The aforementioned Mertesacker only returned to Twitter this week, having quit the site two years ago after his account was inundated with abuse following a poor performance against Norwich.
At its best, the growth in online interaction with supporters can help humanise the players and rebuild their connection with the fans. But it can also further the growing sense of alienation between them.
Improved communication from both sides of the wall between pitch and stands can remind everyone that while football is more than just a game, we’re all human beings. Even Tottenham fans.
By Thomas Macaulay.