Clubs and their fans

After a disappointing season for the Gunners, in which for the sixth consecutive time they won no major trophy, and lost humiliatingly, even in the Wembley final of the legendary League Cup, disappointment has inevitably been rife. Fans are gunning for manager Arsene Wenger's head, but the masses are not always right. Over to Brian Glanville.

Clubs and their fans, in England, in Italy, in Spain, in Argentina… How far, you might ask, can the tail wag the dog and how far should fans ask questions which are prompted by the recent, surprising address of Arsenal's chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, who cut his teeth on the administration in the United States, to over 200 members of the Arsenal's Supporters Trust. After a disappointing season for the Gunners, in which for the sixth consecutive time they won no major trophy, and lost humiliatingly, even in the Wembley final of the legendary League Cup, disappointment has inevitably been rife.

Gazidis declared that “Arsene (Wenger, the manager since 1996) is ultimately accountable to the fans. They are the ones who ultimately make the judgment.” (That adverb seems much favoured by Gazidis). A statement which in fact elicited, as indeed it deserved to, “murmurings of laughter from the audience.” Undaunted, Gazidis pursued, “They have the ability if they choose to do that to make it unsustainable for him to stay… We know what the fans think very well and follow it closely across all the distant groups. That doesn't necessarily mean that fan sentiment dominates that decision, but if you are seeing the relationship between the fans break down over time, that is unsustainable. I don't think we are anywhere near that.”

One would hope not. My own mind goes back to that day in 1996 when it was announced that Arsene Wenger would leave his managerial post in Japan where he had been in charge of Grampus 8 to take over at the Highbury. This immediately provoked a spate of ignorant, insulting protests in the popular Press, in which the motif was who? A question anybody with a reasonable knowledge of European soccer in general and French football in particular could easily have asked. For Wenger, before his brief spell in Japan, had had five distinguished years in charge of Monaco, during which he had won the French league championship and even turned down the chance to manage France's national team.

Moreover, if any testimony in favour of his prowess was needed, it could come in abundance from two England internationals who played for him at Monaco, one of them, Glenn Hoddle, the future England manager, the other, an England centre forward in the shape of Mark Hateley, both of whom eulogised him.

None of which had any effect on a pompous self-important little group, styling themselves the Independent Arsenal Supporters Association whose misguided chairman, one Alan Esparza, proclaimed, “I just hope reports about Wenger are wrong, because he wouldn't be able to attract players to the club as Cruyff would. If they are true, there is going to be trouble and David Dein (the vice chairman whose memorable coup was to bring Wenger to Highbury) is going to bear the brunt of it.”

In the event, there was no brunt to bear, unless it was borne by Esparza and his vociferous group. For Wenger, as we know, modernised and revolutionised Arsenal both on and off the field, turning both club and team into a decisive force in English and European football.

Of late, it is the supporters of Aston Villa who for better or worse have been in the limelight. The club, it is true, under their competent American aegis, have made a dog's dinner of their managerial situation. It was always going to be a physical risk to appoint the cultured and highly experienced Frenchman, Gerrard Houllier as the manager, given the heart attack which had driven him off the bench at Liverpool and so, alas, it proved. Villa at the end of the previous season had already lost a well respected manager in Martin O'Neill, odds with the board over transfer expenditure. But at the end of recent season, they realised they couldn't continue with an ailing Houllier, but who would be next?

At first, it looked sure to be Mark Hughes who had just surprisingly walked out on Fulham. That didn't happen. When it came to the proposal of Steve McClaren, cruelly labelled ‘The Wally with The Brolly' during his unhappy spell as England manager, the fans rebelled. This, though he largely redeemed himself when winning the Dutch league with Twente Enschede, even if his Bundesliga spell with Wolfsburg had resulted in poor results, with what had been such a successful team, and dismissal. Villa didn't surrender to the fans, who were furiously but vainly up in arms again with the move to appoint Alex McLeish, who had just walked out on neighbourhood rivals Birmingham City. The furore evoked memories of what happened when years back Ron Saunders left Villa for Birmingham City.

Elsewhere, fans can often prevail. When long ago Real Madrid appointed the black Chilean coach, the accomplished Pato Maturana, reactions among the Far Right so called Ultras Sur (South bank ultras) was so vicious that Real cravenly scrapped his contract.

In Argentina, the ultras who support such Buenos Aires clubs as River Plate and Boca Juniors can terrorise them into giving them match tickets. Among Italian fans, self importance reigns. One remembers Roman fans travelling south before a match to besiege their team hotel before the manager came out to talk to them.