To protest or not to protest?
When is popular protest justified and what form should it take inside the football ground? It’s an extremely contentious issue, as the events at Stamford Bridge (and at Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park) proved on Saturday.
In West London, irate Arsenal fans vented their anger about the 3-0 defeat in front of Arsenal Fan TV cameras and one supporter, Kane Hopps, held up a banner that read “enough is enough time to go” in the away section.
Not many people would have taken too much notice of the one-man dissent if it hadn’t been for Sky pundit Gary Neville, the best man in the business, interrupting his typically brutal assessment of the Gunners’ assorted shortcomings to call Hopps “an idiot” and declaring that “Arsène Wenger doesn’t deserve that. Obviously the Arsenal fans are disappointed, but to pre-empt that by bringing a banner into the ground, it’s a joke.”
It’s clear from these lines that Neville’s argument was as much with the form as with the substance of the anti-Wenger sentiment. Let’s, for the moment, concentrate on the former. It’s true that the banner itself, a folded A3 sheet of red paper, didn’t look particularly impressive.
There’s often something desperate and involuntarily comical about men holding up banners, irrespective of the context. We associate banners with blowhards, or with those poor souls advertising a “Golf Sale” on Oxford Street.
A man with a banner can’t really win, either way. A carefully designed protest note, manufactured well in advance of the match, immediately invokes the accusation of defeatism. Ad-hoc banners after the final whistle, on the other hand, scribbled with black marker on a bed sheet, look even more pathetic, amateurish and infantile.
Until technological advances turn your smart phone into a portable printer, there isn’t really much choice for any self-respecting protest-note bearer but to assume the worst and have the negativity spelled out pre-emptively.
It might have been better for Hopps to sing “enough is enough” at the final whistle, possibly to the tune of Barbra Streisand’s and Donna Summer’s eponymous disco hit, just as it’s somehow okay for players and managers to shout for a booking, in contrast to the crime against British football’s moral values that is waving an invisible card in the air. Protest: it may be heard but must not be seen.
So much for the messenger. But what about his message? Firstly, it should be noted that Hopp’s demand for Wenger’s abdication was spelled out matter-of-factly, almost apologetically; more a heart-felt plea than bad-tempered irreverence. Compared to the language used in the stands, on social media and on the aforementioned Arsenal Fan TV, it came across as a polite notice to Mr Wenger to perhaps consider his position after thirteen years of failed title challenges.
Plenty of Arsenal fans will agree with that notion, plenty will disagree. What made Neville’s casual dismissal of Hopp’s mild-mannered protest so baffling, however, was the fact that the banner had merely taken the former Man Utd full-back’s critique of the North London team to its logical conclusion.
Hopp, just like Neville, had seen enough institutional meekness, mysteriously frugal transfer dealings, serial tactical ineptness and - worst of all - a lack of ambition and real pressure to succeed that runs through the club from top to bottom like a varicose vein over the last decade or so to conclude that change can only be delivered by a new man in charge.
To arrive at that point, reluctantly, after showing much more patience than any other club of a similar status would have mustered, is neither idiotic nor disrespectful. On the contrary, Hopp’s banner only said what Neville, for whatever reason, couldn’t or wouldn’t say - despite concurring with the underlying analysis - maybe out of fear of a back-lash.
As such, denigrating a man who voiced his considered disapproval of the existing regime in the only way possible to him - and precisely without the use of crass language that might well have garnered more attention on social media - was a cheap and unnecessary shot.