The Pain of Being a Gunner


The Pain of Being a Gunner

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

Disclosure: The writer is an Arsenal fan. Nothing you say can hurt him. As much as his team does.

A week is a long time. Ask any football fan. To be precise, ask any Arsenal fan.

Back in 2016, the Gunners were top of the table for a brief period. In that utopia, beautiful football was played for a full 90 minutes; languid and stylish players like Ozil reigned supreme. The opposition defenders would grow dizzy as Sanchez and Walcott ran rings around them. Coquelin was winning every tackle. Giroud towered to net every header. Čech saved every shot on target. Bellerin scorched the grass and the opposition defenders. Wenger was a tactical genius. And Arsenal fans were happy.

This season, already, they’re 33 points behind the leaders Manchester City. The same Manchester City they lost 3-0 to earlier this month.

Almost every year, usually around Christmas, winter begins to descend upon Arsenal and its fans. The Arsenal fan groups and Facebook pages that through the years resemble gardens of positivity full of sunshine, unicorns, and sparkles, are now death-ridden dystopias where hurricanes of negativity reign supreme. Millions of fans, suddenly awakened from their drugged state, have hit rock bottom. And subsequently the bars. To spot an Arsenal fan there one simply has to look for the glum man staring into his drink as if it is an abyss (and make no mistake, the abyss is staring back at him). If you want to spot him or her on social media, look out for posts filled with emotions, expletives and/or #WengerOut.

These fans, having seen the heady days of the Invincibles, are now relegated to watching a team that promises but doesn’t deliver. A team that could be likened to a slick and stylish gun that fires smoothly in the practice range, but gets stuck in the duel. All Arsenal fans can do is grin and bear it. Or they can smash beer bottles on the walls and cry like little babies. Nothing they do will make the pain bearable. While other teams surge forward, their fans cheering with gusto, all the Arsenal fan can do is tweak Bob Dylan’s classic ballad, and sing it in a forlorn voice:

“How many seasons must a fan see fail, before he can call himself an Arsenal fan?”

You know you are in trouble when your team’s performance becomes a meme that goes viral. Arsenal has become synonymous with fourth place, a spot on the table they are most comfortable with. In a sane world, this would have been a compliment, because it means Champions League football every year. But in a world driven by money, social media, and rabid fans it simply isn’t enough. You have to win. Simple. Nobody remembers who came second (Arsenal did a couple of years ago). This year, even Champion’s League football seems out of reach. A Europa spot would be nice too.

If Arsene Wenger doesn’t pull his socks up and zip up his jacket then he is going to lose all the support of his fans.

Year after year it is the same story. Arsenal fans are like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: Every season is their season, until it isn’t. For a long time, the excuse was that they were building a stadium. Well that’s done and dusted now, and there is money in the coffers. Money that has been spent, albeit rather reluctantly. There is no one left to blame now.

Except the man who has been leading the club for over 20 years. Beloved as he may be, if Arsene Wenger doesn’t pull his socks up and zip up his jacket then he is going to lose all the support of his fans. The #WengerOut supporters want a new manager to freshen up the club. Optimists will say we could finish fourth this year, provided Liverpool and Chelsea lose a lot of games. Pessimists will expect us to drop below Burnley. The poor old realist will say nothing, because he knows that football is the kind of game that can make the best pundits look like clowns on MDMA.

The funny thing with football is that instead of Arsenal, if you insert Liverpool, Tottenham, or Manchester United in this piece, the basic premise will stand true. Being a football fan in India is about dealing with the crises and the pain of a team thousands of miles away. It’s about keeping your chin up in troubled times and enjoying the good ones. Not many people can understand this passion and commitment, and that is good because God knows we don’t want any more new Manchester “Money” City fans (I’m allowed one dig after that last defeat).

Only time will tell whether Arsenal can eventually be accepted as legit title challengers again. Until then, all the fans can do is pray. And maybe by the end of next season, if all the planets align in the right manner and all the dice fall the way they should, Arsenal will bounce back. As Liverpool fans say, there’s always next year.

This is an updated version of an earlier published story