Can you fall out of love with football?
It’s a question I asked myself on Sunday, when I was at the game, but unfortunately not ensconced in the away section. The tickets were a gift from my Spurs-supporting husband and were instead located up in the gods of the East Stand at the very heart of the Man City fans. He called it a present but it may have been more apt to call it mild torture. Or so I expected.
Imagine the situation: we’ve just been eliminated from Europe’s top competition with a whimper, and with two games to go, we’re playing a top four rival knowing that anything but a victory would leave Champions League qualification out of our hands, but worse, in the hands of Tottenham who could qualify in our place. And we fail to win. Imagine the scenes.
I don’t know about you, but I would bet good money that the atmosphere at the Emirates in such a situation would be pretty poisonous, and I’m not even a betting woman.
Banners? Boos? And the rest…
Yet that’s where City found themselves at the close of play on Sunday, and their fans seemed curiously relaxed about the whole situation. As it happens, they’ve gotten away with it following Manchester United’s abject failure in the last game at Upton Park, but I couldn’t help but wonder why there is such a gap between how the fans of two top clubs would react.
To put it into perspective, our situation on Sunday was somewhat similar to City’s in many ways – our ability to finish above our local rivals relied on them dropping points even if we were to win our own final games. Yet for us we were all but guaranteed the since-sealed Champions League football and associated windfall*.
*if you have any doubt as to the value of playing in Europe’s top competition, check out the impact not qualifying potentially has on Man United’s sponsorship deal.
We have an expensively assembled team who have fallen away with a mixture of underperformance, form and injuries, and we’re all pretty unhappy with how the season has gone, even those who have a little sympathy for the reasons underlying it.
But City have an obscenely expensively assembled squad who have more or less just fallen away with little rhyme or reason other than a missing centre-back and a strangely timed managerial announcement.
So why aren’t their fans more agitated?
The chap sitting behind me had a bit of an issue with Jesus Navas which, over the season I’d understand, but made no sense to me in the context of a game where he looked at worst City’s third best player.
“Can’t wait ’til you sign for Crewe Alexandra,” was his favoured refrain, but perhaps the more telling assessment of this bloke’s level of intelligence was his response to the away fans’ taunts of “where were you when you were s***?”:
“I was here when we were s***!”
Anyway I digress. The most vociferous the City fans around me became at any stage came as Bony prepared to come on to replace the aforementioned Navas. In a game which they needed to win, they were most appalled that the striker on their bench should be introduced. Imagine.
It reminded me of the negativity that surrounded Wenger’s substitution in the Norwich game, where the decision to remove Iwobi instead of the out of favour Giroud provoked unbridled anger from sections of the home support, but in hindsight turned out to be a good move.
So, Bony boos aside, the atmosphere during the game was curiously muted. At the end, their unceremoniously discarded manager, one who had delivered a league title and taken the club the furthest they’d ever been in the Champions League, prepared to give his departure speech, but the City fans streamed for the exits around us.
I couldn’t help feel bemused.
A significant proportion of the Arsenal fanbase are making noises about wanting the manager out or, perhaps just as often, the slightly more halfway house of “spend a ton of money and have a real go or get out”. Fan opinion is definitely not on our manager’s side, one way or another. Yet if that moment did come, and Arsene was getting ready to give his departing remarks, I would be shocked (and a tad appalled) if pretty much every single stand at the Emirates wasn’t packed to the rafters by fans wanting to say “thanks for the memories”.
It just struck me that, for all our division, we’re still a passionate fanbase fully invested in the past, present and future of our club. The same did not feel true for the hordes of City fans heading for the car parks in muted response to a result that simply wasn’t good enough.
While United’s capitulation midweek has given them a reprieve, at the time those fans will have known their Champions League hopes hung on a knife edge, yet they were strangely unmoved.
Perhaps the reality is they simply expect their team to channel a bit more inner Robbie Williams, to scream “let me entertain you!” And without that entertainment, little can raise them from their slumber. The problems of modern day entitlement.
At Arsenal, with each passing disappointment many of us are subconsciously trying to take a step back, to protect ourselves from the institutional harm, which is a byproduct of being a Gunners fan in recent months (or years, depending on your level of pessimism).
We too can be guilty of expecting to be entertained, and overreacting to perceived mistakes from our distance vantage points.
But the day we stop being angry and start being like the zombies I encountered at City?
That’s when it’s time to really worry.
Our love for the club, whatever we think of the direction it’s headed, is the thing that bonds us close and keeps the passion burning bright. Watching the City fans pour out of the ground as soon as the whistle sounded, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this what it’s like to fall out of love with football?
They looked thoroughly miserable on that particular day. They looked as though all the joy had been sucked out of attending a match full stop. And worst of all, they looked completely divorced from proceedings, as if there was nothing in the world that would awake them from their stupor.
They looked as though they would never get excited about the game we love again.
I just hope it never happens to us.
Incidentally, one City fan seemingly didn’t get the apathy memo, and punched a 12-year-old Arsenal fan in the face. Best wishes to the young Gunner, and let’s hope the loser gets his just desserts.