9 March ~ After what seems like months of comment, conjecture and tactical analysis the Champions League tie between Arsenal and Barcelona has finally been completed. But there was still time in this morning's papers for one last push of hyperbole. In the Guardian, Richard Williams stated: "Big nights involving FC Barcelona have a way of making spectators feel like winners of a prize draw for a seat at the centre of the universe." With all the recent comparisons made between the two clubs, I had expected my first visit to the Emirates, supporting Sunderland on Saturday, to feel slightly similar. But it didn't feel like the centre of anything, just a bit odd.
Possibly introduced during that great period of "Arsenalisation", the decision to introduce the home players by only their first names seemed at best twee, or a calculated ploy to introduce some sense of homeliness into an undoubtedly impressive large concrete bowl. Then there was the home supporters themselves. While I've never had a problem with Arsenal fans, finding the club's genuine followers to be fairly knowledgable and surprisingly self-aware, something has changed. The cost and culture of being a modern football fan has transformed a large amount of supporters into customers and consumers, looking for entertainment, excitement and gratification. This has happened at grounds across the country, but no more so than at somewhere like the Emirates. And the media hype must have something to with it.
My seat next to the home supporters was the ideal place to observe this. As the game went on and Arsenal still weren't able to score, the histrionics of the home fans grew and grew. Each weak Nicklas Bendtner header or scuffed Andrey Arshavin shot was greeted by increased wailing and gnashing of teeth. The sense of entitlement was palpable – they'd had paid a lot of money for this and Arsenal are the artists of English football, why on earth couldn't they just score? When I accused my nearest Arsenal neighbour of acting like a "spoilt child", he at least had the good grace to laugh.
Yet I suppose if you're told something enough times you eventually start to believe it. And the reaction to last night's game was rich with talk of Arsenal's "exquisite torture", a "pit of persecution", "darkest nightmares" and, of course, that "prolonged" trophy drought. In the Mirror, Oliver Holt claimed: "It is easy to forget that Arsène Wenger's failure to win the Champions League is one of the great anomalies in world sport." I've never found it that difficult.
While Arsenal may enjoy all this attention now, it can only have a negative effect. I fully expect the Champions League draw, an event I've lost completely interest in, to pair Arsenal and Barcelona again at some point next year. In the meantime, the more exaggeration we hear about Wenger's team and their "long-suffering" supporters, the more it's going to hurt in the long run, meaning Arsenal supporters will feel even more hard done by the next time they lose at the Nou Camp, or even draw at home to Sunderland. David Haydon