Football fan protests are a positive, legitimate response to deeper discontent | Barney Ronay

There was something touching on Thursday evening about the sight of Martin Keown standing on a windswept dais in front of an empty super-stadium trying to rationalise the dissolution, by various structural forces, of the entity previously known as “Arsenal Football Club”.

Keown might not always pronounce players’ names correctly, but he is a good pundit and a man of substance. He did his best to offer Arsenal fans comfort after the 0-0 draw with Villarreal, another game marked by protest outside the Emirates at the club’s distant ownership. Keown pointed out that change can come from inside. He remembered that Arsenal were also badly run in the 1980s – and that they fixed themselves then, when all this really involved was getting a couple of capable people in the boardroom and maybe doing up the training ground.

As he spoke in consolatory tones about the bastardised billionaire’s toy behind him, it was hard not to see cuts of some parallel Keown: Mr Keown of Keown’s Grand Horse Drawn Tram Company, striding about in in stove-pipe hat and threadbare three-piece, doing his best to reassure the village works that this oil revolution is just a fad, that Keown’s Horse Drawn Trams survived the cholera outbreak, and that they’ll jolly well survive the complete destruction of their entire frame of reference. And so we go on, more or less, as before. There was a similar, but more studied tone to Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s take on the Old Trafford protests last weekend. Speaking before the Europa League semi-final second leg in Rome Solskjær suggested protests need above all to be “civilised”, which is a way of saying they need to be different and much less challenging. Solskjær focused on the disorder, the worst part of what happened on the day. He insisted the problem was “communication” and that the Glazer family has agreed to improve this aspect of its vampiric cash-sluicing hijack, which is good. “We are now going to let the stadium rust for two decades. Hop U ok m8.” Presumably that kind of thing.

This has been the general tone since the extraordinary events last weekend, when a group of angry, alienated people decided to halt the spectacle by occupying the space in front of it. Already that startling situation seems to have been managed and packaged up. The protests have been rationalised, screen settings adjusted to incorporate this new element in the entertainment product. The protesters’ motives have been portrayed as ridiculous or self-serving. There has been a tendency to linger on whether the protestors “acted correctly” by expressing their anger and frustration, if they disrespected the corporate HQ by doing so, or even worse, invaded the pristine space occupied by our celebrity athletes.

An Arsenal fans protests against owner Stan Kroenke outside the Emirates Stadium
An Arsenal fans protests against owner Stan Kroenke outside the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Graeme Souness is not alone in insisting (inaccurately: check the dates) this is all a reaction to Manchester United not winning on the pitch. And an ingrate one too as the owners have been so generous in allowing the club to spend a portion of its own self-generated income. It seems the mechanics of leveraged buyout are also not taught at pundit school. It is easy to see futility here, people with (lol) iPhones and Starbucks cups protesting against their own defeat in the game of hyper-capitalism. Perhaps this is just another event that will pass and be absorbed, like many other expressions of spontaneous anger and anxiety over the past year.

All of which is a long way round to the real point. Which is that protest is legitimate. Protest is positive. Protest should not be glossed or dismissed – even protest that Souness doesn’t like or protest people on the news can package up as unacceptable. Protest will not always be well behaved. Sometimes incoherence is the only reasonable answer to an unreasonable situation.

This is the wider point. These protesters are not, let’s be clear, making a point that is confined to football. Only the most pea-brained analysis could insist these feelings of alienation and profound discontent, of being commodified and beaten down by the wider world are rooted mainly in the failure to sign Dayot Upamecano. People are stretched and tired. The world has become a strange, shuttered place. There is a sense out there that private space, the basic business of being a human, has never been so controlled or invaded by outside interests. It feels as though the world is struggling for a way to arrange itself. How will it work out?

And so football will as ever became an echo box for these anxieties, because it is the place people gather, because it gives a hook to our feelings. And because English football clubs do still represent something in this balance of interests, a space that isn’t simply a unit of consumer choice, but offers community and collectivism, however much this may be a chimera now. Never has it been so clearly spelt out as the last few weeks. That thing you love, that you felt you owned. Well, you don’t.

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And yes, people may not behave well in response. Do they have to behave well? Billionaires don’t behave well. Money isn’t civilised. What voice do you have to resist when you have no power? For a start you have a bag of tins and a road to stand in. You have dissent. You have your basic physical presence. This is still an assertion of will, a space occupied.

There will be more of it too. We, the people, are about to re-merge into that outside space, a place where, despite the alleged economic bounce-back, many will feel disempowered and lost. We can rail it in. We can point to softer routes to change (which won’t work). Gary Neville can speak coherently, and in a way that makes people feel as though this awkward, authentic energy is now safely absorbed into the spectacle. But this isn’t done. And it’s going to get hot out there.


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