By Tony Attwood
Continuing my little saunter around the WeCareDoYou docment which was put out by a couple of Arsenal fan groups and some blogs… I was interested in the phrase “…make Arsenal a place where fans have a real sense of belonging”.
No indication was given in the document as to when Arsenal had been a place where fans had a sense of belonging, and how that was achieved in the past. And certainly many of the reports I’ve dug up during my travails of writing about the history of Arsenal, there has been little of a sense of belonging since 1910, when the torpedo boys left the club as their factory was moved to Scotland.
Being a gent of the older variety I’ve got memories of Arsenal going back a very long way – not least because my father and grandfather were both Arsenal men, and my first home was just a few miles from the ground, so I was Arsenal from my earliest memories – which were of going to watch reserve games at Highbury with my dad. If my mate and I wanted to go without the adults then Wood Green Town (very sadly no longer with us) was our venue, just a few hundred yards away.
So I was Arsenal from the very start – long before I knew what Arsenal meant or what it was really all about. But now, looking back, I am not sure I have ever related to the club, except at those moments of supreme triumph. My relationship is primarioy to my friends with whom I go to the club. Let me try and explain.
I guess what my mates and I did, both at Highbury when going to into the north bank before it was all seated, and later at the away games, was form a little group that travelled together and stood together. The togetherness was an issue of being with my pals and that we all supported Arsenal. But it was nothing much to do with the club in terms of what we did and how we did it. It was us.
The exception has come with the triumphs. Being with my friends to see Arsenal win the match that clinches the league; it is the “with my friends” bit that is all important. Occasionally I have attended all-important matches without my mates, not least because as we get older family duties call, and tickets for things like the FA Cup final get harder to find. I recall the final against Villa – a supreme triumph, and going on my own because my friends didn’t have the number of credits to get a ticket. I loved the match of course, but after, walking from the ground without anyone to talk it through with, it was a real let down.
Indeed even the last game of the unbeaten season against Leicester was limited in its togetherness because, due to a variety of factors I won’t bore you with, I went on my own rather than with friends.
Then again, think of Mr Wenger’s last match. Obviously I felt affection for the guy; he’d written the intro for a book I published, and I had worked with friends of this site to produce the “Football is an art” banner which the BBC used as a focal point for the last Wenger home game – and which of course is still in the stadium. And we were all there at the end to cheer him around the pitch.
But “belonging”? My belonging again was to the little group of friends that I have who I travel with or meet up with, have a drink with before the game, debate the team with, have a laugh with…
Of course there have been moments when I have felt connected – but they are not moments that can be replicated on a broader basis. For example, the first time I met Mr Gazidis when he was looking for ideas for Arsenalisation, in the early days of the new stadium. I went to a small meeting to put forward the notion of statues around the ground as a way of commemorating past heros and as a set of places which fans could use as a meeting point – as some do indeed do. “I’ll meet you Tony Adams,” has more power than “Outside Entrance D”, and so I think the idea has worked. In particular we discussed the statue of Chapman – my suggestion was one of the manager looking up at the new stadium as if to say, “I did this.”
Getting that idea accepted and getting the statues built did indeed give me a sense of belonging to the club, and that feeling in terms of the suggestions made was far stronger than anything I got from (for example) being a regular columnist for the programme for a while.
I suppose if, one day, someone really did take notice about how awful the catering facilities in the ground are and invited me to work with them to put things right, and that made a difference, I really would feel a sense of belonging, but that is a bit of an extreme position. I still don’t see how the feeling is generated by any club other than through a) groups of friends being together and b) the moment of supreme triumph, which most of us remember for ever.
So all things considered I am not too sure what this sense of belonging is all about. I am one of about 45,000 season ticket holders. I have an association with Arsenal all my life, and I’ve had a bit of involvement beyond the norm. But what could be done beyond that?
When we have won the League or Cup and I’m with friends then that is fantastic – I feel part of a big happy family. But otherwise, yes it is my club, it has always been my club, but “belonging…”? I am not sure and I’d love to find out what people of other Premier League clubs that are not currently having a run of constant success feel. I suspect “belonging” primarily works in terms of being with your friends while the club wins something. Otherwise, for a major club with support all over the world… I would like someone to tell me.
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