By Matthew Bazell
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Last season during the 125th anniversary a whole host of Arsenal legends made a return to the club and were paraded on the pitch at halftime against Everton. I was heartened to see George Graham and David O’ Leary among them and looking happy and relaxed to be part of the event. This was because both have had moments where the fans have turned against them, almost to the point of no return. In Graham’s case the bitterness wasn’t down to the bung scandal that cost him his job, but the fact that he joined the enemy. Graham returned to Highbury in 1997 as manager of Spurs and I was one of the thousands shouting ‘Judas’ at him from the stands. A friend of mine, who worships Graham, spent £75 on a black market ticket just so he could dish out some abuse at the fallen King George. As far as I was concerned this venom was only to last whilst he was manager of spurs, and I’d say that standpoint was fairly widespread among Arsenal fans. Once Graham left the swamp, wounds quickly got healed, because the good he did for us over the years far outweighed the wrongs.
David O’ Leary was a world class defender and could have left Arsenal for other clubs in Europe, especially during the ban on English clubs from 1985 to 1990. He was a player who truly loved Arsenal and only left when he was pushed out in 1993 after passing his prime. In the following years as manager of Leeds and Aston Villa, David O’ Leary wound up Arsenal fans with comments against Wenger’s teams, almost to the point of no return. But as time passes by, what are a few petty comments when weighed up against 18 years of loyalty and more club appearances than any other player. Generally speaking, I would imagine that O’Leary will be welcomed back from this point on, just so long as there are no more spats.
The best reception I’ve seen former player get whilst playing for another club is Charlie Nicolas when Celtic came to Highbury for a friendly in 1990. Charlie scored against us in the second half and many of the home crowd applauded in delight. Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars both left Arsenal for Barcelona on reasonable terms in 2000 and when the two returned to Highbury for a pre-season friendly they were given a warm welcome, as did Henry who returned with Barcelona in 2010. When these players left, I think the general feeling was that they’d done great things for the club and sometimes in life people just move on.
Other players in past years have not been immediately welcomed back. For example, Michael Thomas - despite giving us our best football memory he moved over to Liverpool in 1992, which was not taken well considering the Scousers were our bitter rivals at the time. Although Thomas got stick when he came back to Highbury (for the Michael Watson testimonial) the ‘hatred’ was not to the point of no return. Memories are long and Thomas has gone back to being an Arsenal legend. Like Graham and O’Leary, it all comes down to weighing up the good against the bad. Today when we think of Michael Thomas we remember what he did against Liverpool, not what he did for them. Some players reach a point of no return with the fans but come back anyway. I’m thinking solely of Graham Rix, who was at the legends’ parade at the last ever game at Highbury. By this point Arsenal fans had expressed vocal contempt for Rix because of his affiliation with Chelsea and an underage sex conviction.
The likes of Alex Song, Gael Clichy and Kolo Toure have had no major fall out with the fans and will have little problem showing their faces at Arsenal in years to come; but they’re not legends. With other departures in that time it’s been a different story. In the Everton anniversary game in 2011 the genius of Robin Van Persie won the game with a great volley. A year on and RVP has already reached the point of no return, despite being one of only a handful players to have scored over 100 goals for the club (one good season for the club - really?). That stat, you could argue, put him on legend status and how sad that someone with such a record will be a permanent outcast. Wounds won’t get healed with Van Persie, mainly because of chants that bring up false claims of rape. That kind of bitterness is on a far deeper level than shouting ‘Judas George’ at Graham or ‘Arsenal reject’ at Michael Thomas. We’ve become like that person in a relationship whose been rejected and hurt, therefore goes around the community making up bullshit claims: “I was with him for eight years and he was a horrible bastard, and I might add, a rapist to “Really, and you were okay with that for eight years!”
So metaphors aside, I predict that Van Persie will not be at the 150th anniversary celebrations. Nor will Sami Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor and Ashley Cole. Cashly is the most upsetting of that list. A local lad and boyhood fan (supposedly) he should have been an Arsenal legend but instead became a major part of Chelsea’s recent history (or in other words - Chelsea’s history). Adebayor has been on a successful mission to be the most despised former player of all time and reached the point of no return fully when celebrating like a rabid ass-clown in front of Arsenal fans in the away end at City. All good fun and pantomime I thought - though such a liberty can’t really be forgiven. To put the icing on the cake Emmanuel now plays for them up the road. Sami Nasri didn’t do much wrong other than leave the club for someone else with more on-field ambition. But in three years as an Arsenal player he was only world class for the first five months of the 2010/11season. That bit of form put him in demand so he dually buggered off and now the fans hate him. If the point of no return carries on at this rate we’ll have no one at all to show up to the next anniversary in 24 years time. I say that partly in jest, but these broken ties do seem to be becoming more common.
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Matthew Bazell is the author of 'Theatre of Silence' Which you can buy here in paperback or on Kindle
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09 Nov 2012 16:44
09 Nov 2012 16:04