In a long-overdue return to writing, Paul Williams ponders the difference between Arsenal fans in the stadium and those online who seem to have very different views on what Mikel Arteta is doing at Arsenal.

Arsenal's Spanish manager Mikel Arteta gestures on the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium in London on January 23, 2022. (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)
Arsenal’s Spanish manager Mikel Arteta gestures on the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium in London on January 23, 2022. (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)

Wow, this is weird.

Dipping my toes back into the world of scribbling some random thoughts about the greatest team the world has ever seen. No, I haven’t suddenly become a glory hunting Liverpool fan, I am – of course – referring to the Arsenal.

What has got me sufficiently invested to make a return to the writing stage is the difference between the feeling of a large selection of Arsenal’s online support and the mood in the stadium at most Arsenal home games this season.

Actually, that last sentence is only slightly true.

I mean, I am interested in this cognitively dissonant situation – how could I not be? It’s fascinating, but what is really tweaking me at the moment is the difference between my experience of Arsenal 2021/22 – and my uncle Stephen’s.

For those of you who don’t follow me on social media, or may be new to my writing (fair, I’ve been quite lazy for a few years now), Stephen – Stevie – is essentially the reason I am an Arsenal fan.

He calls his work in 1988 “subtle undermining” (I thought I was a QPR fan), but I’ve always referred to it as bullying. Granted, not head down the toilet, being stabbed with a compass bullying, but bullying all the same.

I harbour no grudges, this is the family I grew up in.

Two years on from the “subtle undermining”, my mum and dad reached a crisis point and my dad kicked my mum out the house. She returned with a vengeance a month later, Boxing Day 1990, when it became clear that my dad was incapable of looking after me and my younger sisters without lots of assistance (some of it from Stevie).

Two months ago, I said to my mum that, although I had grown up in a broken home, it never felt like one. Part of that was my mum, of course, but it was also the fantastic male role models, including Stevie, I had around me, who provided the love and support my dad was completely unable to.

All of which is a long way round of saying that Stevie has been a massive influence on my life and, as someone operating in a weird, literal, half space between big brother and father figure, his opinion is one that matters to me a great deal.

I mean, I have to clarify here that even back in those glorious days we were lucky enough to live through in the first 10 years of Arsene Wenger’s reign, there were complaints from Stevie.

Thierry Henry wasn’t clinical enough, Robert Pires could occasionally be found in slippers etc… so it’s not like any of his recent complaints are particularly new.

However, as someone who spent the, not so glorious, final years of Wenger’s reign engaged in furious, damaging arguments about Wenger with my oldest mate, Harry, it’s exhausting to be back there again, Especially as Harry and I seem now to more or less on the same page.

Whisper it softly, Arsenal are on the up again.

Not that Stevie has noticed.

Despite a burst of positivity on the 26 September, the day we massacred Spurs, a shattering November defeat at Liverpool apparently destroyed any belief that Stevie had in his team – despite the fact that Liverpool are, to any objective watchers, unfortunately really quite good at football.

“Embarrassing,” Stevie declared. “Nothing I’ve seen this season will convince me that Arteta is good enough.

“Every time we come up against a top team, we are ripped apart defensively and create nothing offensively.

“The sad demise of a once great club continues.”

But Arsenal didn’t get ripped apartwhen we played Manchester City on New Year’s Day.

Did Stevie acknowledge it? Of course he didn’t.

Maybe some of you would say, fair enough. We didn’t win, losing a game we had absolutely bossed because we pressed the famously well-worn self destruct button.

However, and this is the important bit, for all the people online naysaying and refusing to accept the evidence of their own eyes, the Arsenal crowd, on New Year’s Day, recognised what they had seen.

What they had witnessed was their team go toe to toe with perhaps the best team in Europe and only be denied only by 50/50 details which, on another day, would have seen a comfortable home win.

I get goosebumps thinking about the reception Mikel Arteta’s team got at the end of that game.

Arsenal's French striker Alexandre Lacazette (C) celebrates with Arsenal's English goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale (L) and Arsenal's English striker Eddie Nketiah (R) on the final whistle in the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Emirates Stadium in London on February 24, 2022. - Arsenal won the game 2-1. (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)
Arsenal’s French striker Alexandre Lacazette (C) celebrates with Arsenal’s English goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale (L) and Arsenal’s English striker Eddie Nketiah (R) on the final whistle in the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Emirates Stadium in London on February 24, 2022. – Arsenal won the game 2-1. (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)

Having gone to a few games with my cousin James, son of Stevie, we’ve been having a great time. If the Arsenal team haven’t quite been getting THAT reaction at the rest of their home games, it hasn’t been far off; climaxing, of course, in the absolutely insane scenes which greeted our late, late winner against Wolves last week.

You remember how good that felt, right?

Here comes Stevie the grump, sat in front of his widescreen TV, ready to bring you all back down to earth.

On our family WhatsApp group by the way; “S**t we just benefitted from the fact that Lacazette can’t hit a barn door. His finish was so bad he ended up creating a lucky own goal!”

I mean, factually, I couldn’t argue with what he had said, so I didn’t, but I also felt that he  was missing the point somewhat.

So I asked him a simple question, WHO CARES?!”

He didn’t respond.

Look, I don’t want you to think that I think I’m right and my uncle is wrong and I’m using my ability to write to wash dirty laundry in public (I guess I am, a little).

I love my uncle to bits, but I just think there’s something so interesting happening with some Arsenal fans at the moment and he kind of embodies it.

It’s like the obvious improvement which has been made this season, taking us into contention for the top four is so incredible, some fans don’t want to believe it.

Remember last autumn how we lost at home to a team from the Midlands for what was a literal, miserable, month of Sundays?

Well, this season, only Chelsea and Manchester City have taken three points from the Emirates: progress.

  • Boxing Day last season – 15 points, 15th place and talk of relegation.
  • Boxing Day this season – 35 points, 4th place and talk of the Champions League: progress.
  • Goals spread around the team: progress.
  • Arsenal second only to Liverpool in xG difference: huge progress.

Arsenal have bounced back from a disappointing pair of Premier League results in January and are still well placed for a 4th place finish and a return to the Champions League.

We may not get there, but the important bit is that Arteta has reengaged and re energised (most of) a fanbase which had previously lapsed into apathy.

The rest of the fanbase? I don’t know what to say, really, but it seems clear to me there is a massive disconnect between the online discourse (Fraudiola etc) and the experience of being an actual Arsenal fan at the Emirates, watching Saka and Smith Rowe reducing opposition defences to rubble – and loving it.

Perhaps the scars of the Wenger war years still linger.

I can’t remember the last time I went to as many games as I have this season and certainly can’t remember a time where I looked forward to each game as much as I have this time around.

I didn’t even mind the 0-0 with Burnley, as frustrating as that was – the crowd largely staying with the team till the end.

On a smaller scale, it reminds me a bit of the 2007-08 season, which really felt like our boys were gonna do something special.

They didn’t, but that isn’t the point.

The point is, the Emirates crowd believed.

For all Arteta’s faults (and believe me, I am far from his biggest fan), the Emirates crowd now believe again. 

Perhaps you have to be there…

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It's a family affair... third generation Gooner, obsessed with Arsenal since the 80's. I've been writing about that obsession and, ever so occasionally, the team since 2004 in a variety of places, but have found a natural home here. As you will find out if you stick around long enough, I am a huge fan of Santi Cazorla. I'm extremely fond of cheese, Marmite, Pipers Salt n' Vinegar crisps, Pilsner Urquell, vodka tonics and absinthe. I am also hopelessly obsessed with Depeche Mode.