Friday, 11 February 2011

Accusations Of A Conspiracy? There's No Defense!

A week on from the incredible scenes at St James' Park you would think that people would finally have accepted what had happened and moved on. Sadly not. The conspiracy theorists are still at it.

According to the theories, not only does all of the blame for Arsenal's collapse against Newcastle lie at the feet of referee Phil Dowd, but this game is only part of a wider conspiracy against the total football approach of Arsenal by referees, the Football Association and anybody else who happens to wander into view. The paranoid element of the Gooner family are in their element. Are these fanciful claims of a group of fans still smarting from the disappointment of what took place, or is there no smoke without fire?

Arsenal's fans are not the first to claim unfair treatment at the hands of referees or the football authorities. All clubs have an element of fans who will look first to blame officialdom rather than looking closer to home for any faults. Claims of unfair treatment, bias, conspiracy theories and hidden agendas are nothing new in football. They are an integral part of post game banter in any pub as fans discuss the events on the pitch. Without complaints about refereeing decisions, football phone-ins and internet forums would be much less entertaining and lively. The sheer volume and persistence of the complaints coming from North London, however, indicates something taking place beyond normal football banter. Something, or someone, is fuelling a genuine concern that Arsenal are getting a raw deal in football.

The old adage that everything balances out over the course of a season may be a generalisation, but it is close enough to the mark to take care of most feelings of victimisation. All teams experience times when a number of decisions go against them. During these times fans may well feel justified in making claims that their team is getting the short end of the stick. Stoke City, the very antithesis of Arsenal's total football, began the season wondering what else could go wrong. Were referees punishing them unfairly for their practical rather than beautiful interpretation of how the game should be played? It certainly did seem for a while that Stoke were enduring a period of some very unfortunate examples of bad luck. Post game analysis showed a number of examples of decisions that fans had a genuine reason to feel hard done by. However, even the most blinkered Stoke fan would have recognised that the tables had turned in their recent game against Sunderland. The decisions in that game may not undo all of the bad decisions from earlier in the season, but they clearly showed that luck can travel in either direction. That is why, when decisions go against our team, we have a good old moan, feel hard done by, and then a week later move on and await the next installment in the soap opera of football. So why is this not happening with Arsenal fans?

From the outside it could look like a case of a successful team's fans adopting the philosophy that they have a right to win. Decisions are not allowed to go against their team that will prevent them achieving victory. Similar accusations have been thrown at Manchester United and Liverpool fans in the past. However, forgetting football loyalties, Arsenal fans have always come across as some of the more intelligent of football's connoisseurs. They are not the sort to fall for such blinkered and ignorant lapses in judgement. There has always been a thread of reason behind any widespread movement or cause from their fans. If Arsenal fans are feeling hard done by, then it is because they are not seeing football's natural balances in decisions leveling out. They are not seeing dubious decisions going for them as well against them in the same way that fans of other teams are seeing.

And therein lies the problem. They are not seeing the balances. That does not mean they are not happening. It would be easy at this stage to draw parallels with the Arsene Wenger's famous line about not seeing things that take place on the field of play. However, such a comparison would be a cheap shot. As annoying as it is to fans of other teams to listen to this line, we need to see it for what it is. Arsene Wenger is a French manager operating in an English speaking world. When he says "I did not see it" then it is simply his way of saying no comment. It may be annoying, and may set him up for a number of specsaver jokes, but I do not believe it is intended literally. It is a non-story, and is best left to the satirists to exploit.

The factor that is far more relevant in this discussion is that Arsenal, and its fans, genuinely do feel hard done by. The strength of feeling in this belief is preventing them from seeing what is really happening on the pitch and to their football club. Unless they are able to see it, accept it and deal with it they will be unable to enjoy the success that their brand of football deserves.

As an example, to look at last Saturday's game, there were a number of debatable decisions in the game, and one that was clearly wrong. The irony is that the one decision that was clearly wrong went in favour of Arsenal. While there is no doubt that the second penalty was soft, it was a decision that could be defended to the letter of the law. It is also one that if referees implemented consistently would see five or six penalties awarded in every match. It is not difficult to see why Arsenal fans would feel unfortunate to have conceded it. Penalty decisions are often contentious, but any neutral fan can see that they do balance out over time. The decision to rule out a Newcastle goal for offside was the one decision that was not debatable - it was plain wrong. The fact that Arsenal fans are concentrating less on this than on other decisions shows where the real reason for their frustration lies.

No matter how many debatable decisions there were in the game, the one moment that has been the focus of complaints and discussion is the Joey Barton tackle on Diaby. While it would be wrong to say that opinions from non Arsenal fans on the tackle have been unanimous, the overwhelming consensus is that it was a hard but fair tackle. Judging from radio phone-ins and internet forums, it is this interpretation of that tackle that irks Arsenal fans most. There appears to be genuine disbelief that people cannot see this tackle as dangerous and worthy of a red card.Of course, it did not help that the tackle came from Joey Barton, a player that seems to provoke stronger feelings than most due to his dark past. However, if this tackle had been made by any other player the chances are that the non Arsenal interpretation of the tackle would have been far more unanimous. So why does it rancour so much with Arsenal fans?

Arsenal have been the unfortunate victims of a number of horrendous injuries in recent seasons. Many of these have been the result of some truly bad and dangerous tackles. However, others have been unfortunate and the result of tackles that many other times would not have resulted in injury. Football has rightly been clamping down on bad tackling. We do not want to see the game's star players put out of the game due to injury. However, neither do we want to see the art of tackling, including hard but fair tackles, being removed from the game. There is a balance to be struck. A number of Arsenal fans have quoted the law that says any tackle that uses excessive force, and which is likely to cause injury, to win the ball is illegal, regardless of whether the ball is won or not. However, they are applying their own interpretations as to what excessive force is. The tackle on Saturday would have been far more likely to cause injury to Joey Barton than the Arsenal player in normal circumstances.

Arsenal's fear of injuries is in danger of becoming both a vicious circle and self fulfilling. Players who go into any tackle half-heartedly are far more likely to get injured. The constant talk of the dangers of hard tackles is starting to affect Arsenal's players. This is affecting how they play the game and could well lead to a further serious injury as they do not commit fully to tackles. It is also affecting how they react to tackles as seen by Diaby's response to Joey Barton. Such responses will only encourage more teams to tackle harder when playing Arsenal.

I believe that a second reason for this response from Arsenal fan's is an increased frustration that their brand of beautiful football is failing to win trophies. This, of course, could become a moot point if Arsenal overcome Birmingham in the upcoming Carling Cup final. However, it is hard to imagine the frustration of watching a team play such good football and failing to see it translate into titles and silverware. Such frustration naturally turns into resentment of teams that achieve success with a less beautiful form of the game. Less beautiful does not necessarily translate into less skillful though. Football has always been as much about defense as attack, and as much about tackling as dribbling. One without the other would make the game less than it should be. Arsenal are a joy to watch when they are tearing defenses apart, as they were in the first half at St James' Park on Saturday. However, no amount of conspiracy theories can hide a deficiency in their play when they are forced to defend.

Arsene Wenger seems to be on a crusade to transform football into a beautiful, attacking artform. It is a commendable cause, and one that many Arsenal fans have bought into. However, buying into this cause should not blind fans to the core values of the game. One team cannot unilaterally change what football is all about, nor should they be able to. It is a testament to the respect Arsene Wenger has earned at Arsenal that so many fans now believe that football should be played the Arsene way, genuinely believing that hard tackling is not part of the game. However, it is possible to play attractive football while still maintaining a hard edge when needed. Barcelona probably play the most attractive football in Europe. They are no mugs when it comes to standing up to teams who look to dominate them physically. It is hard to imagine them folding in the same way that Arsenal did.

One advantage of this feeling of victimisation could be a siege mentality developing at Arsenal. Nobody likes us and we don't care! Such a feeling can often galvanise a team into success. However, to take advantage of such a mentality you need an element of steel. Arsenal appear to be lacking in this regard. Perhaps it is time for Arsenal fans to stop looking elsewhere when apportioning blame and recognise that there is a place for physicality in football. There is no conspiracy against them. Many football fans would love to see the beautiful way they play the game result in success. What we don't want is to see this at the expense of the game we love

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