Why is it that whenever I ask people for the first time which Premier League team they support, I keep hearing the same response?
I am not asking this question in Newcastle pubs or in the Manchester City club shop; this is a question I have posed to various people in Scotland, and – during my recent travels in South-East Asia and Australasia – travellers from all over the world.
Most of the time, the answer I get goes something like this: “I don’t actually support anyone in the Premier League… but I really like Arsenal.”
I fail to understand why so many people who don’t actively support any club in England’s top flight feel drawn to this one particular team. Perhaps there is a mysterious charismatic charm to the London club that none of the other 19 teams in the Premier League possess. If there is, I’ve yet to fall under its spell. Of course, people can support whichever team they choose. I am just curious as to why it seems that Arsenal is, more often than not, the default pick of the neutral.
Based on personal experience, I feel like I am well qualified to discuss this issue.
From a fairly young age, as an Aberdeen fan, I was acutely aware of the gulf in quality between Scottish and English football, and craved a team to support when glued to Match of the Day. As a result, I was constantly switching my allegiance between a team whose manager I liked (Coventry, because of Gordon Strachan), a team with a cool shirt (Tottenham in 2002/2003) or the team of a player I admired (Aston Villa, because of George Boateng – don’t ask). I also found myself branded a glory-hunter for jumping on the Manchester United bandwagon after I followed their Champions League progress devoutly when they lifted the trophy in 1998/1999.
In response to hearing that a person “quite likes” Arsenal, I immediately ask them the obvious follow-up question: Why?
Invariably, I hear something like: “I just quite like the way they play.”
It is common knowledge that the suitably named Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, likes his team to play short, quick passes, with the onus on attack rather than defend. Yes, it can be visually pleasing to watch an interchange of neat passes, as well as the occasional piece of outstanding skill, but is this really the major draw for the neutral? I suppose it is hard to rouse passion for a team you have no obvious affinity for, so controlled, tidy play is as good a reason as any to ‘support’ a club. (It certainly makes more sense than my girlfriend’s policy of siding with a team based on the attractiveness of its players.)
Many neutrals claim that Arsenal’s style of football is the best in the Premier League. However, West Bromwich Albion adopt a similar ‘keep the ball on the ground’ style to Arsenal; why is it that this Premier League underdog is never given a mention when it comes to teams whose style of play they ‘quite like’?
In saying Arsenal’s style in the best in the country, the styles of Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham (to name the other top-6 teams of the Premier League) are, by default, considered worse. In spite of this, come the end of this season, Arsenal will have gone six years without winning a trophy (barring a freak series of results in the last few matches of the Premier League season). If their style is thought of as the best, the evidence clearly indicates that it is not the most effective.
At the moment, I am reading Arsenal fan Nick Hornby’s excellent ‘Fever Pitch’. In the book, Hornby says that for him “consumption [of football] is all; the quality of the product immaterial.” For many others, though, it now seems as though the quality of the product is the very basis for their support.