Why Gary Neville was wrong to criticise Arsenal fans
The disconnect between football clubs and its supporters has been an issue modern football has had to contend with for a number of years. At no club is this more relevant than at Arsenal.
It’s well-known that their fanbase has been split on the future of their manager for some time now, with this set to be the thirteenth season in a row that Arsene Wenger has failed to deliver a Premier League title. Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to Chelsea all but ended their title dream, now sitting twelve points behind the leaders with fourteen games to go.
Naturally, those of the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade saw this as yet another opportunity to demonstrate their disillusionment at the running of the club from the very top. Wenger has reached a position of power at the Emirates where he is no longer held accountable; so long as he finishes in the top four expectations are met.
From a financial standpoint, it’s understandable why the board would feel content with the performance of their manager. He consistently gets them into the Champions League and is cautious in the transfer market. But that’s not enough for fans.
And that’s not enough of a defence for Gary Neville to be vilified in branding a particular Arsenal fan that protests against such mediocrity as an "idiot". The fan in reference, Kane Hopps, revealed a handheld sign which read "enough is enough time to go" at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, which drew significant criticism from Neville, who was on commentary duty for Sky Sports.
"He’s an idiot that guy," Neville said when the camera panned to Hopps. "Arsene Wenger doesn’t deserve that. Obviously, the Arsenal fans are disappointed, but to pre-empt by bringing a banner into the ground, it’s a joke."
Neville isn’t entirely wrong, Wenger probably doesn’t deserve a lot of the stick which so frequently comes his way, win, lose or draw. But Arsenal have just two FA Cups to show for thirteen years of work. That after being promised that the move to the Emirates Stadium would allow them to compete with Europe’s elite.
The last season of Highbury coincided with the club reaching the 2006 Champions League final. They haven’t been back since, and have infamously failed to progress past the last 16 of the competition in each of their last six attempts.
It’s an obvious and well-used analogy to make, but every year, almost comically, is like groundhog day for the Gunners. They start off slowly, then recover into title contention, have a blip after Christmas when the pressure starts, exit the Champions League before clawing their way into the top four when the pressure of the title has been removed from their shoulders.
Imagine the kind of stick Neville would publicly give Manchester United had they been so predictable for so long.
Protests are no stranger to football, especially in this country where catastrophic running of clubs has led to their ultimate demise. Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool, Charlton Athletic, Coventry City and Leyton Orient have all fallen foul of inept ownership and the fans have had their unquestionable say.
While the Arsenal protests are from a completely different stratosphere, one very poignant factor relates them to those aforementioned: they are all searching for the greater good. There is no personal vendetta against Wenger, many of the supporters remain grateful for the job undertaken in the previous twenty years. The goal of this is for Arsenal to become greater and more competitive than is currently the case.
Neville, since his "idiot" comments, has accepted an invitation to feature on popular YouTube channel ArsenalFanTV to debate the issues surrounding Wenger and it is sure to be an intriguing watch.
Fans spend thousands upon thousands of pounds following their team's - Arsenal being the most expensive in this country - and so often their opinions aren’t heard; Neville is paid to give his. From a fan’s perspective, if a banner inside the ground is the only way you can express your beliefs, then so be it. Any publicity is good publicity as far as they are concerned.
The banners didn’t start one year after they failed to win, not even after two, three or four years. Fourteen years it has been since that great Invincibles team and the regression of the side since that extraordinary group has left a section of fans to believe, as Hopps put it, enough is enough.
Yes, Arsenal fans have been spoiled with Champions League football year in, year out. Just ask fans of Liverpool and Tottenham if they’d take qualification every season and they’d bite your hand off for it, let alone clubs further down the English football hierarchy. But, truthfully, is there much point of being in the competition if they are perennially eliminated at the first knockout round each year?
Neville was a fierce competitor on the field, a winner. You don’t win eight Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues without that kind of character, which makes Neville’s views on the job Wenger is currently doing all the more contradictory.
His Sky Sports colleague, Jamie Carragher, described the mentality of the club perfectly post-Chelsea. "For Wenger to continually say getting into the top four is good enough, that spreads through the club and onto the pitch," he said.
"When you watched Arsenal play at Chelsea, they probably thought, 'it's not the end of the world if we lose, we'll probably still get in the top four and that's good enough for us'."
Now more than ever, what Arsenal choose to do with Wenger - or more likely what Wenger chooses to do with Arsenal - will prove to be a seminal moment in the history of the club. No matter what the decision is, it’s set to be greeted with the kind of reception we likely may never have previously seen from a club’s fan base.