Chris Goreham: ‘There isn’t a Norwich City fan who wouldn’t give up their inflatable Canary to swap places with Arsenal’
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
'I wouldn't say it's been toxic, more nervous.' That was a glorious snippet of conversation I managed to catch between two stewards at The Emirates Stadium on Saturday as they discussed the state of the atmosphere at recent Arsenal home games.
It couldn't be that bad, surely? Arsenal's problems, if you can call them that, amounted to a struggle to hold on to a place in the Premier League's top four and annoyance at only winning two FA Cups in the past two seasons.
There isn't a Norwich City fan around who wouldn't give up their inflatable canary to swap places with the Gunners but during the game the size of the divide between sections of Arsenal supporters was clear for all to see.
An organised protest began to gather momentum in the 12th minute of the match. Designed to mark the 12 years since Arsenal last won the Premier League title by those who think that long-serving manager Arsene Wenger, inset, is past his sell by date, a handful of 'Time For Change' banners gradually became a few hundred and peaked at a sizeable minority.
It created a feeling like nothing else I have ever experienced in a football ground. He may not have won a league title since 2004 but Wenger's 20 years in charge at Highbury and now The Emirates have ensured that there are many Arsenal fans who will never lose faith in his stylish, professorial approach to the way football should be played.
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This was illustrated when Ozil, Sanchez and co threatened to click into gear on Saturday and my co-commentator Paul McVeigh brilliantly described Arsenal's attacking force as being like 'The Red Arrows coming towards you'. If only Mesut Ozil could blow red smoke from his backside.
The stark contrast of opinion meant that grown men were leaning over three rows of seats to confront fellow fans in a snarling style not seen at Arsenal since Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira's thunderous midfield battles in the years that Wenger became Sir Alex Ferguson's biggest threat to a bulging trophy cabinet.
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For a few minutes the crucial Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City was a sideshow to the full-on arguments being fought in the stands. Stewards are used to segregating home and away fans in a bid to limit trouble on the terraces but it's a whole new challenge when supporters of the same club have such polar opposite views.
Assuming he stays in charge next season, Arsenal might want to think about redesigning their stadium to accommodate one end for fans who are still behind Arsene Wenger and the other for those who want him out.
It is unusual because, at most clubs, once a state of affairs has got to the tipping point that fans are prepared to go to the trouble of creating their own banners it indicates a massive groundswell of opinion and usually marks the beginning of the end.
The two most obvious examples from recent Carrow Road history would be the bitter 'Chase Out' protests against chairman Robert Chase in the mid-1990s and the losing battles that both Chris Hughton and Nigel Worthington fought to keep high approval ratings in the stands once things started to go wrong for them. By the time Carrow Road was prepared to go public with its collective feelings there was no doubt that the vast majority wanted change.
That doesn't seem to be the case at Arsenal, at least not from what I saw on Saturday. This one will run and run. I just hope that my job as a Norwich City commentator means I get the chance to go back and see how things have changed at The Emirates in the Premier League next season but we still don't know whether that will be the case. Now that's what I call a problem, Arsenal fans.