“Are people going to believe in what we’re doing?”
That was the question Mikel Arteta asked in the first episode of the new season of “All or Nothing”. Arsenal had just lost their first three matches of the 2021-22 season, a season in which Arsenal would feature in no European competitions for the first time in a quarter of a century. The Gunners had conceded nine goals, scored none, and sat dead last in the Premier League table. As the cherry on top, Spurs found themselves in first.
At the time, Arteta was right to ask this question. Only months prior, fans had held “Kroenke Out” protests at the Emirates Stadium. Early on in the first episode of “All or Nothing”, famous YouTuber KSI speaks about how “being an Arsenal fan right now sucks.” As Arsenal succumbed to a humiliating 5-0 defeat at Manchester City, a fan outside the Etihad Stadium states, “It’s just upsetting, because the passion we’ve got, we just don’t feel it’s being reciprocated on the pitch.”
In the wake of a dwindling end to Arsene Wenger’s reign, Arsenal supporters felt disconnected from their club. New owners Kroenke Sports and Entertainment had acquired sole control of Arsenal in 2018. “Silent” Stan Kroenke, notorious for his seeming unwillingness to interface with Gooners, remained perched atop an unscalable ivory tower that offered no accountability as his regime distanced itself from how Arsenal had operated during the time of their greatest-ever manager. Rumors of infighting among the hierarchy and glad-handing with agents circulated. Unai Emery was brought on, not as a manager, but as a “head coach” after reportedly giving an impressive PowerPoint presentation. On and off the pitch, veterans of the industry arrived and did little more than collect a paycheck. Arsenal felt corporate, soulless, like a stranger. Things only got worse throughout the pandemic, culminating in the revolt against the club’s participation in the European Super League debacle.
In hindsight, it’s no wonder that this detachment coincided with the worst few years in the club’s recent history. Arsenal seem to have realized that as well; throughout Arteta’s tenure as manager, they have appeared quite conscious of their need for a bond with supporters. Arsenal have recognized that supporters won’t believe in and therefore won’t contribute to something they don’t feel part of. They have realized that the club motto — “Victoria Concordia Crescit”, Latin for “Victory Through Harmony” — not only applies within the confines of London Colney, but extends to their relationship with those who cheer them on.
To that end, the club have spent the last year working to reconnect with the fans. In order to achieve harmony with Gooners, Arsenal have enacted initiatives that fall into one of two categories: transparency and inclusion. Transparent initiatives pull back the curtain on Arsenal’s behind-the-scenes activity, without revealing much in the way of proprietary information, to showcase the process supporters have been asked to trust. Inclusive initiatives seek to weave fans into the club’s narrative, giving Gooners a moment in the spotlight or even soliciting their input regarding club operations.
Perhaps the most notable of Arsenal’s ventures into transparency is the club’s season of “All or Nothing”. Over the course of eight episodes, the Amazon Prime Video program treated viewers to a rare inside look into the club. Training sessions and canteen conversations unfolded before our eyes. The show unveiled good, bad, and ugly locker room moments. Interviews with players, coaching staff, and club executives humanized them, revealing insecurities, motivations, and passion previously unseen by fans. Through this series, Arsenal supporters relived last season in a brand-new way, observing the intimate highs and lows within their club in a way not before afforded to them.
The documentarization of Arsenal does not stop there, either. Arsenal teamed up with Adidas to create “Inside Hale End”, which follows academy manager Per Mertesacker as well as U-15s coach Adam Pilling and U-16s coach Adam Birchall. The series marks the first time cameras have ever been allowed behind the walls of Hale End.
Edu, Arsenal’s technical director, has also provided transparency in the last couple seasons. In 2021, he gave an exclusive interview to Sky Sports regarding Arsenal’s transfer policy at the time. The Gunners had brought on Nuno Tavares, Sambi Lokonga, Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale, Martin Odegaard, and Takehiro Tomiyasu over the summer, yet languished in last place. To Geoff Shreeves and to the world, Edu explained the strategy: to bring in young, talented players to build a foundation of youth and inject quality into problem areas from the previous season.
During the 2022 preseason, Edu gave another interview. This time he addressed Arsenal’s repeated termination of players’ contracts, which he championed as having been done in order to “clean” the squad. The technical director laid out the factors that make players hard to move on, justifying his methods. The second half of the interview emphasizes the passion the Brazilian has; he swears as he bemoans the mentality at the club that was present when he arrived, and reveals an anecdote about a Dortmund player who, when approached by Arsenal, seemed more interested in money than in the badge.
In addition to Edu’s chats in front of the camera, board member Josh Kroenke appeared as a guest on the Road Trippin’ podcast in February of this year. Among the subjects he discussed on the podcast was his experience with Arsenal. Kroenke detailed how his father’s company first acquired sole ownership of the club in 2018. He expressed his desire for Arsenal to return to the heights reached by the Invincibles. He also explained different elements of the leadership structure implemented at the club, as well as the thinking behind the team’s European Super League involvement.
In addition to actively letting supporters in on more of the club, Arsenal have also taken steps to include Gooners in the club’s operation. In the months after the announcement and subsequent collapse of the Super League, the club established the Arsenal Advisory Board. Comprised of representatives from the Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association, the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, Gay Gooners, Domestic and International Supporters’ Clubs, Arsenal Disabled Supporters’ Association, and the Fans’ Forum representative for fans aged 18 to 24, the Advisory Board meets with club representatives at least twice a season to discuss off-field matters. Among the club representatives are Josh Kroenke, Tim Lewis, and Vinai Venkatesham. It may have taken a legitimate fiasco for it to happen, but fans are entering their second season in which they genuinely have a voice in the room with the Arsenal hierarchy.
Outside the boardroom, Arsenal are also using their resources and influence to assist fans. As part of an initiative titled “Arsenal Supporting Supporters”, the club backed Gooner-owned businesses hurt by the pandemic by producing adverts featuring players from the men’s and women’s teams, as well as notable Gooners, to raise awareness of their services. Rob Holding, Per Mertesacker, and The Athletic writer Amy Lawrence starred in an ad promoting a local pub called The Tollington. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang appeared in one of his trademark supercars for a commercial supporting Autoparts. Emile Smith Rowe nodded approvingly as presenter and content creator Michael Timbs got a fresh cut at JNF Haircutters. Aaron Ramsdale and David Seaman parodied a chant Leicester supporters levied at the former in a commercial for The Chip Inn Fish Bar. All of these ads featured the beloved dulcet tones of the Arsenal Vision Podcast’s Clive Palmer.
Arsenal have also strengthened their bond with fans by adopting an anthem created by a supporter. Louis Dunford, a singer-songwriter and supporter, put out a track at the beginning of the year that paid tribute to the North London area. The song, “The Angel (North London Forever)” has rang out within the Emirates and wherever else Arsenal have played since the end of last season. As revealed by “All or Nothing: Arsenal”, Arteta himself made a conscious effort to incorporate the song into the club’s culture.
However, it isn’t only local fans that Arsenal are striving to reconnect with. In July, the first team traveled to the United States for a preseason tour. For many supporters who are unable to be near the club on a regular basis, this presented a rare opportunity to watch their team in the flesh. It didn’t matter that none of Arsenal’s three matches Stateside were just friendlies. For two weeks, American fans in Baltimore and Orlando treated themselves to their own version of the matchday experience you would see in London. They enjoyed pints before and after matches. They sang their hearts out as Arsenal, the Arsenal, played in front of them. They left feeling closer to a club that sometimes feels so far away.
During the tour, Arsenal were joined by David Frimpon, a social media personality and Arsenal fan who is now a social editor and “hype man” for the club. Frimpon regularly provided content during the trip in the form of “The Arsenal USA Tour Diary”. These videos followed players as they engaged in activities such as spending a day at Universal Studios, competing against one another in mini golf, and being interviewed by Frimpon.
Another bit of Arsenal content released during the tour featured Poorly Drawn Arsenal, an artist and Gooner whose trademark cartoon depictions of club figures have garnered widespread acclaim online. As Frimpon oversaw proceedings, Poorly Drawn competed with Matt Turner and Granit Xhaka to recreate a photo of Mikel Arteta and the Emirates airline pilot who flew the first team to the States. While no one managed to finish their drawing in the allotted time, Poorly Drawn produced the undeniable winner. In the midst of Arsenal’s stay in the America, the inclusion of a fan like Poorly Drawn Arsenal and showcasing of his artistic skill was a classy gesture.
But perhaps the best example of the club’s push to include fans in its story is the involvement of Aston Mack. Mack, an activist from Orlando, Florida, first made headlines in the summer of 2020 when he wore an Arsenal jersey to a Black Lives Matter protest. His story went viral, getting picked up by the “Men in Blazers” show. Arsenal eventually contacted Mack as well.
During The Arsenal USA Tour, Mack featured heavily. He served as a focal point for the rollout of the new away kit, starring in its announcement video. He made media appearances with the likes of Martin Odegaard and William Saliba. Just as much as Arteta or any of the players, Mack was a star of the tour. For this piece, he was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the experience.
Sham (Dope Gooner): You were an integral part of Arsenal’s preseason — you were the subject of a video promoting Arsenal’s US tour, narrated and appeared in the “Welcome to Little Islington” ad that introduced the new away kit, did an interview alongside Martin Ødegaard, and were a guest of the club throughout the tour. What was that experience like?
Aston Mack: It was honestly surreal, from the moment the club contacted me, to shooting the commercial and even right now it still feels like a dream. After the last game I had some friends reach out and say “Hey, they played your commercial at the Emirates,” and my head just about exploded. It has been honestly incredible, and every person from Arsenal has been class, going beyond the extra mile for me, and I can’t thank them enough.
DG: As an activist, how supported did you feel to see Arsenal feature your activism and give you a platform to discuss social justice during the tour?
AM: The platform has been wonderful. Not once did anyone at Arsenal try to censor or coach me into saying anything, they literally just handed me a mic and said have at it. Fantastic experience.
DG: You were also afforded opportunities to speak with the club hierarchy. What can you reveal about that, and how responsive were they to your input?
AM: I think the thing I learned was just how plugged in everyone at the club is, and how aware they are. Vinai not only remembered who I was from years back, but could basically tell my story for me. The Kroenkes seemed incredibly aware of what we perceived as their shortcomings. Even Tim Lewis knew exactly what players all the fans were interested in. They showed me that at the very least, they are very much listening and know what fans are saying, which actually took me by surprise. Stan and Josh also seemed particularly focused on the culture of the club and drawing success from that culture change from top to bottom. From recruitment, to management, to even the staff, it’s clear they want Arsenal to bleed an elite mentality.
DG: Do you feel that Arsenal are genuinely trying to connect with supporters more than they have in years past?
AM: It’s going to sound cliche, but one of the things they really impressed upon me was the fact they feel they have only had the freedom of being real owners since 2018. Whether you buy that or not, I do think it’s undeniable that from that point on they seemed laser focused on changing our perception of them. I’m the type of person who cares more about the consequences of your actions more than their intent, so for me, if we are feeling closer to them, it has to be the consequences of their choices.
DG: Do you feel more connected to the club after this summer?
AM: Very much so yes. Between the connections we have made with each other as fans across the globe, the genuine affection we feel with the players, to the greater transparency we are getting from the administration, all signs point to a unified Arsenal, and long may it continue.
Mack is not the only Arsenal fan who feels more connected to the club these days. Over the past year, a younger, hungrier, new-look Arsenal have endeared themselves to the club faithful. Two Hale End products in Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe (and perhaps three now with Eddie Nketiah) and Gabriel Martinelli, who was signed so young he may as well also be an academy graduate himself, have served as centerpieces for the fanbase’s rekindled love affair with the club. They and the other lovable and talented players in the squad have been guided by a manager who, while proving a decisive figure from time to time, knows what it means to wear the badge.
Perhaps therein lies the reason why supporters identify so strongly with this side. On that pitch they see a group of players who care. Players who know what a privilege it is to play for The Arsenal. Players who fight tooth and nail for glory, just how those in the stands wish they could. Perhaps that is why it is so easy to root for this current Arsenal team.
All the while, the club have opened up with the fans. The wall between the two groups has been convincingly knocked down. Now, Arsenal feel like less of a faceless corporate entity, their foremost executives granting face time and access to the point of familiarity. While some things will never be public knowledge outside the club’s walls, enough has been revealed recently that supporters can feel valued and seen. On top of that, Arsenal have shown a willingness to weave their supporters into their narrative. Even the club’s anthem of choice was written by a fan. The story of Arsenal isn’t just about the players and the manager, but about Gooners too. Gooners like Aston Mack, like Frimpon, like Poorly Drawn Arsenal, like those who work at and operate local businesses such as the Tollington and Chip Inn Fish Bar.
With all that evident for supporters to see, most have fully bought into the project. Not only are the performances on the pitch encouraging and perhaps downright thrilling, but they feel part of what is happening at the club. A long-lost harmony has been found. Whatever Arsenal go on to achieve, it will belong to everyone who calls the club theirs. Because of that, the excitement around the club is as palpable as it has been in a very long time. Home and away, you can sense it, even through a TV screen: there is a twelfth man on that pitch with the Gunners.
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In the 53rd minute of Arsenal’s home opener against Leicester, William Saliba scored an own goal. For three long years, supporters had waited to see the young Frenchman play competitive minutes for the club. His inclusion in Arteta’s squad to begin the season had added to fans’ excitement. But in his first match of consequence at the Emirates, he headed the ball past Aaron Ramsdale into his own net.
Normally, such a mistake would result in unadulterated disappointment and, sadly, probably a bit of abuse as well. But a strange thing happened in the Emirates after that moment. Every time Saliba was on the ball after that moment, he was applauded by the home crowd. Anyone who started watching after the 53rd minute could be forgiven for thinking that Saliba had scored at the right end of the pitch. Arteta remarked in his post-match interview, “The way they reacted was something I’ve never seen in football.”
Aside from the own goal, Saliba went on to have a terrific game. And perhaps he would have bounced back from such a disappointing moment regardless of whether supporters lent a hand; after all, Saliba possesses a sturdy mentality that belies his youth. But the fact remains that the fans in the stadium tried to help him through the setback. They were right there with him. It looks like they will be right there with him and the rest of the team this season and, hopefully, beyond.
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