13 January ~ Back home in Lincolnshire over Christmas, I bumped into Jim, an old school friend I hadn't seen for several decades. As I'd just enjoyed a glorious afternoon at Sincil Bank, we got to talking about football. Jim used to be a Grimsby fan, with Leeds as his "big" team. Not any more though. "I've got a season ticket at the Emirates," he said. When I raised my eyebrows at this he became a little defensive. "Been a Gooners fan for 20 years now," he added. Oh, the things London can do to a man.
By coincidence, I'd been at the Emirates the previous weekend, watching Arsenal dutifully beat Hull City. I mentioned to Jim that I'd paid more for the ticket than I'd ever paid for a game in my entire life and that included any of the six games I'd seen at the 2006 World Cup. When I told him how much (I'm afraid to say it was 50 quid), he said that was pretty reasonable. His season ticket was £3,750. In fact he has two – one for himself and one for whichever corporate client he's entertaining that weekend. My raised eyebrows were now joined by a severely dropped jaw.
Bearing these prices in mind, even allowing for the fact that Jim's season ticket was at the top end of the price range, a few things about my afternoon at the Emirates began to make more sense. In one respect, the emotional involvement of the fans around me was reassuring, especially when any Hull player had the audacity to foul one of the home team. Even if the referee immediately blew for a free-kick, there was an air of aggrieved lynch-mobbery about the crowd's reaction. My fears were swiftly assuaged that this all-seater super-stadium – reminiscent of the cold, concrete structures of American Football – would be a sedate host to casual, uncaring football tourists like myself, watching impassively and politely applauding the neat passing moves of the Premier League's neo-connoisseurs.
What surprised me, though, was the speed with which home fans rabidly turned on their own players. This was a straightforward win for a top three team against a weak opponent, yet the screams of outrage that greeted a misplaced pass by any Arsenal player were disproportionately alarming, to the point of being comical. Eduardo was cursed for every minor error like he'd cost £50 million and gone a year without scoring. Do none of these people remember Perry Groves and Charlie Nicholas? The Croatian striker scored a tap-in on the hour and was then, bizarrely, given a standing ovation when substituted 15 minutes later, by the very same people who'd just been baying at him with cherry-red anger. Goals, in contrast, were greeted in a rather more subdued manner, expected as the fans' due in return for their vast cash outlay.
It's perhaps facile to compare just one Premier League game with a single encounter from League Two but I much preferred the atmosphere at Lincoln's game versus Chesterfield one week later. Having previously only scored 13 League goals all season, Lincoln's two first-half scoring headers were greeted with a raucous mixture of surprise and delight. Perfection wasn't expected from the players as they eked out their first League win in over two months, the 2-1 victory secured when Chesterfield's Jack Lester skied over a penalty four minutes from time. No one got on the players' backs, even as they struggled and almost gave up a two-goal lead. And there was nothing as pretty as Abou Diaby's third goal for Arsenal against Hull but then I didn't pay anything close to £50 to get into Sincil Bank. You pays your money, you takes your choice.
But how much choice do Arsenal fans have? There must be thousands of them who miss Highbury compared with the Emirates, a functional, overground hole purpose-built to generate revenue. Nick Hornby recently told the German magazine Elf Freunde that he knows a lot of fans who still want George Graham back. And, according to an Emirates irregular I know, many locals yearn for Wenger's departure because they would rather see burly, Steve Bould-esque battlers in the team rather than all these artistic foreigners. Players they can relate to. Nowadays, these fans are watching football at the wrong level – Barnet and Orient would surely be better (not to mention cheaper) alternatives. But unless you're socially and sportingly mobile like Jim, switching allegiance is not an option for the vast majority of fans, no matter how much they've been milked for. The joy of watching football is therefore reduced to spending a fortune and then releasing your frustration by yelling out "Fakkin 'ell Eduardo!" at the top of your lungs. At those prices success is an entitlement and failure only merits bile and scorn. Ian Plenderleith