The sound of 9,000 happy Gooners walking down the stairs of Old Trafford on Monday night was both loud and tangible. Chants flowed effortlessly into one another, the chicken wire fences made a racket as supporters repeatedly banged them on their descent, and to a man, woman and child everyone was thinking, shouting and agreeing – “Ooh to be a Gooner!”
In the aftermath of that victory, the strangest and rarest of phenomenons has taken place – the media are praising something related to Arsenal.
The players too went out of their way to comment – where usually there are some token ‘thank you for your amazing support’s, this time the tweets were more elaborate. Aaron Ramsey for example saying “A great evening for us in front of an incredible away support. We heard you loud and clear all game, have a safe journey home.”
Here’s the thing – where Arsenal’s home crowd has a reputation for being the quietest in the Premier League, our away support is widely recognised as one of the best.
So why the discrepancy?
THE PRICE OF EXPECTATION
The usual accusation levelled is the cost of an Arsenal season ticket – if you pay that much for a ticket then you have a far greater expectation of being entertained. And I suppose that’s true to a certain extent, insofar as one of the reasons the prices are so high is because of the success and quality of football we’ve enjoyed in the Premier League era which has led us to the top tier of European football.
But it must be about more than cost – my season ticket and travel to games costs me about £70 per match all-in, yet the trip away to Manchester United cost far in excess of that once ticket and petrol were accounted for, not to mention that it enforced a day off work. Likewise, the trip away to West Brom, for example, set me back more than £100 once travel was thrown in.
It’s also not just Arsenal who have this problem, despite what the media would have you believe in terms of the “Highbury library” merely shifting it’s quiet to the Emirates.
Manchester United fans were pretty silent on Monday – I didn’t realise some were sitting the other side of the wall I was next to until they scored – and also on my previous visit to Old Trafford. Even at Spurs, since they started finishing a bit higher up the table there is less patience – the expectations are higher.
If we’re going to allocate some blame to expectation, in part, at least, that has to be because Arsenal’s record at home is pretty good – we haven’t lost more than once at home in any competition this year, with only Southampton (Capital One Cup), United (League) and Monaco (Champions League) returning home with the full spoils.
Meanwhile the away support has seen us lose to Dortmund, Chelsea, Swansea, Stoke, Southampton and Tottenham. In home games, the fans look to the team to lift them, while in the away support the reverse is true – there’s a sense of battling against the odds, and the opportunity to make a difference.
For me the level of expectation at home is demonstrated on Champions League match days during the group games. Having qualified for this stage of the competition for about a billion years in a row, it’s no longer exciting when FC Billy No Mates turns up at the Emirates having won a tinpot league somewhere.
Compare and contrast with the enthusiasm with which the Tottenham crowd welcomed Young Boys in their qualifier back in 2010.
That’s not to say the Champions League doesn’t excite – every year when we reach the knockout stages the atmosphere goes through the roof with various displays of light and colour as well as heightened noise from the crowd. It’s just that when you’re used to something being delivered every year, it’s hard to awake the same excitement.
But if price and expectation aren’t the whole answer, what else contributes?
WE WANT WHAT WE CAN’T HAVE
Access to home games is typically easier for the casual fan. For those with money to burn (and the right connections) they can pick up a season ticket, and simply turn up when the mood takes them (or when we’re not on television) and for those with limited funds, they can still pick up tickets to some games with relative ease through the club’s Red Member allocation.
This introduces two problems.
Easy access to tickets breeds a level of apathy – it doesn’t weed out the half-baked fans who aren’t as bothered about the result, and, in fact, at the Bayern Munich game last year there were three Bayern fans in the row in front of me. It was insanely irritating, especially when they were grinning away unabashed each time they scored.
The other problem is of course that of non-attendance – I pay over £1,500 a year for my season ticket – you wouldn’t catch me skipping a game for anything other than the most important reasons, and even if I had to miss one, I would make sure my seat was filled. Unfortunately, it seems there are plenty who don’t agree – even the coveted block six often has a number of spare seats available in any given game.
This has a double knock-on effect, because as I touched upon here it not only reduces the number of fans in the ground to sing, but it also inhibits those still in the ground as they feel more isolated, particularly in a ground with the size and density of the Emirates.
With the announcement that home attendance is once again not going to play any part in the allocation of tickets for the FA Cup semi-final (did I dream the club announcing it would after last year?) there simply have to be more consequences for people who can’t be bothered to turn up.
Away tickets are that much harder to come by particularly for bigger games, and they are also regularly bought on a game-by-game basis. This hugely decreases the number that are bought by people who won’t end up using them, and because they are generally less available, it also means that when you do go, it feels like a bigger deal.
You always want what you can’t have that little bit more, and tickets to the Emirates are that little bit more accessible.
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME
As I’ve touched upon then, it’s not as easy to be the equivalent of a season ticket holder for away games.
It takes a lot of dedication to go to every game – not only is there the cost involved, but with the increasing number of midweek games and late kick-offs, it requires early starts and days off work. In fact, it’s simply not achievable for most people.
A consequence of this is that the regulars get to know each other, building up a rapport and developing close friendships. If you’re going to travel with someone for several hours, you’ve got to enjoy their company after all! Unless you want to miss kick-offs, you also tend to have to leave some extra time for travel to counteract any possible delays, and all this lends itself to a more encompassing way of supporting the club.
Where many home fans turn up a minute before the game starts and leave at the final whistle (or sometimes before!) the away fan is in it for the long haul. It leads to a certain sense of ‘sod it, I might as well enjoy myself‘.
At away games, I find myself hugging random strangers, and on Monday night even my mum (who felt “sorry” for Southampton when we scored our fourth past them a couple of years ago) was joining in the singing. At the Emirates there are few people prepared to start chants, in the upper tier at least, for fear of no one joining in*.
In the away section it’s more a case of choosing which of the chants currently in progress to join in with!
*Yes, I know there will be people who tell me to start chants myself – I’d love to, I’m just a midget with tiny vocal chords. I will always join in with songs, but I don’t have that ‘special’ voice required for starting songs in that more placid atmosphere. It was a highlight of my year to be up against the corrugated iron wall on Monday night and be able to use it as a drum to make a much louder noise than my voice is capable of.
STAND UP FOR THE ATMOSPHERE
The other part of being with the away fans which contributes to the atmosphere is a simple one – everyone stands. If you don’t stand, you don’t see. At the Emirates, it is only the Red Action section down in and around block 6 who remain on their feet throughout the game – hardly a surprise then that it’s this area which is renowned for its singing volume.
Admittedly in away sections, the fans are generally crammed in like sardines (although not at the Emirates, where comfy seats and extra leg room saw us voted Away Day of the Year in 2013!). For our home support, the openness of the stadium and the distance from the fan next to you is far from conducive for creating a great atmosphere – the same holes in the corners of the bowl designed to let air in to help the pitch also let sound flow out.
Safe standing would not only allow us to get more fans into the ground (subject to local travel constraints) but also get people back in close proximity to one another, intensifying the noise and building the atmosphere. The beauty of the Emirates is that it is large enough to have a mix of stands – it is perfectly conceivable to have standing sections around the lower tier but keep the upper tier all-seater for example.
SING UP FOR THE ARSENAL
Ultimately though, there is only one thing the fans can do to turn the Emirates into the kind of hostile fortress that, much as it pains me to admit it, often makes the difference when we go to grounds like Stoke.
We can’t take remove the gaps letting the sound out, we can’t reduce the space between fans or the distance to the pitch, we can’t pack more fans in or force the club to allow safe standing.
What we can do, is sing up.
It is down to each and every one of us to stretch our vocal chords to the maximum to give this Arsenal team the best possible chance of winning.
We’re all guilty on occasion of just wanting to be entertained, and it’s hard to remember that if we want the coveted success at the end of the season, sometimes we have to put that entertainment to one side and allow ourselves to be distracted by the business of winning.
With an adrenaline-pumping game last Monday and a huge game on Tuesday night, our weekend fixture against West Ham is a classic banana skin where our players could get caught with their heads in a couple of different places.
It’s easy to get up for games against rivals, for cup ties and for finals, but often the players are already up for those games too.
Sometimes it is matches like this where they need us most.
We often talk about referees being the twelfth man for the opposition, but we have our very own twelfth man at the Emirates, we just have to convince him to come out of hiding.
“And it’s Arsenal. Arsenal FC. We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen…”