LONDON — On the night before the biggest game of Arsenal’s season so far, the fans slipped inside the Emirates Stadium to make sure everything was in place. Their leader and a handful of friends had spent weeks drawing up their plans: raising money, contacting suppliers, brainstorming themes, designing images, cutting out stencils, spray-painting letters.
Now, late on a Friday night, there was just one job left to do. They had to check that every seat in Block 25 of the stadium’s Clock End contained a flag, either red or white, for the culmination of the display.
The next day, they saw their vision realized. As the players of Arsenal and Tottenham took the field at the Emirates, Block 25 was transformed. “We Came, We Saw, We Conquered,” read one banner. “North London Is Red Since 1913,” ran another, a reference to Arsenal’s controversial relocation to this part of the city — and Tottenham territory — a century ago. Hundreds of flags fluttered under a clear blue sky.
The display lasted barely more than an instant, all those hours of effort expended for a single, fleeting moment, a reverie that broke as soon as the whistle blew. Its impact, though, lasted substantially longer.
After the game, Arsenal’s manager, Mikel Arteta, described the atmosphere inside the Emirates that afternoon as “probably the best I’ve seen in this stadium since I’ve been involved with the club,” a relationship that covers more than a decade. His captain, Martin Odegaard, made a point of thanking the fans, too. “It was amazing to play out there,” he said.
In part, of course, that can be attributed to the result: Arsenal had beaten Tottenham, and victory in the North London derby is always something to be celebrated. The context helped, too: The win ensured that Arsenal remained at the summit of the Premier League for another week, a point ahead of Manchester City heading into this weekend, when Liverpool visits the Emirates.
But this was not an isolated case. Over the last year or so, it has not been uncommon for Arteta and his players to gush over how noisy, how passionate, how ardent the Emirates has become. Inside the club, there is a sincere belief that the raucous atmosphere is a cause, rather than a consequence, of the team’s surge in form.
In a stadium long derided as among the quietest in English soccer, a crowd that had come to be seen as an advertisement for the dangers of the game’s gentrification — too posh, effectively, to push its team — has suddenly found its voice.
That transformation can be traced not only to the energy and impetus provided by the group that has coalesced around a handful of founders — the Ashburton Army, inspired by the ultra faction factions common in European and South American soccer but still relatively rare in England — but to the determination of the club itself to allow them to solve a problem that dated back at least a generation.
After all, the night before the biggest game of the season, as they sought to put the finishing touches on their work, someone had to let them in.
The blame for Arsenal’s reputation as a sedate, subdued sort of place is often placed on its departure from its longtime home at Highbury for the grand, sweeping bowl of the Emirates in 2006. Arsène Wenger, the manager who oversaw the relocation, always felt that Arsenal had “left its soul at Highbury.”
It is a poetic, faintly romantic telling of history, but it may not be an accurate one. “The reputation started at Highbury,” said Ray Herlihy, founder of RedAction, a group that has been working to improve the atmosphere at Arsenal for two decades. “It was at Highbury that I got involved. That was where the Highbury Library nickname began.” All that was lost in the move, it turned out, was the rhyme.
Unquestionably, the new stadium accentuated the issues. Clusters of fans who had sat together at Highbury suddenly found themselves separated. The Emirates’ design meant there was no obvious focal point where the noisiest, most fervent fans could gather. Highbury had boasted the twin poles of the Clock End and the North Bank; the Emirates had no natural equivalent.
Most damaging of all was the divergence between the cost of tickets and the success of the team. The Emirates, famously, was home to the most expensive season ticket in English soccer. With younger fans priced out, the crowd started to skew older. “For a while, I think we had the highest average age of season-ticket holder,” Herlihy said. “And you’re not as animated at 65 as you might be at 25.”
At the same time, Arsenal’s fortunes were waning. Wenger’s later years were marked not by title challenges but by an annual struggle simply to qualify for the Champions League, a decline that gave rise to a bitter, internecine debate over whether the Frenchman had outstayed his welcome.
“There had been years of the Wenger Out campaign,” said Remy Marsh, a founder of the Ashburton Army (though he has, he said, subsequently “stepped away” from the group.) “There was an undeniable toxicity.” Much of it was captured, every week, by the cameras of Arsenal Fan TV, full of furious rants and factional squabbles. “It ruined a whole generation,” Marsh said.
By the end of the last decade, pretty much everyone agreed that the atmosphere at the Emirates was in dire need of repair. One described it as “flat.” Herlihy admitted the club’s games “struggled” to generate much noise. Marsh called it “lackluster.”
“The chants were lacking,” Marsh said. “There wasn’t much variation. It had become a stigma for the club.”
Arsenal, it turned out, was harboring much the same thought.
The Ashburton Army, at the outset, was hardly a heavyweight organization. It was an attempt to bring elements of the ultra spirit to Arsenal — the big tifo displays, the pyrotechnics; “they were always singing, always supporting,” one of the group’s leaders said, “and I didn’t see why we couldn’t have that here” — but it was based around a single group chat. The Army, then, had barely more than a dozen members.
That was enough, though, to catch the club’s eye. Arsenal was not unique among Premier League clubs in trying to solve the riddle presented by the league’s global appeal: how to maintain an atmosphere when its stadium was, increasingly, filled by corporate guests and day-tripping tourists there to sample the experience, rather than contribute to it.
Its solution may offer a blueprint to other teams with precisely the same problem. “We encourage our staff to listen informally to fans,” said Vinai Venkatesham, Arsenal’s chief executive.
When Marsh emailed the club to outline what the group hoped to achieve, they were invited to meet with the fan liaison team. The Ashburton Army wanted to remain independent, but the club was happy not only to tolerate them, but to help.
That resolve was only strengthened, Venkatesham said, by the coronavirus pandemic. “We had 62 games without fans,” he said. “It gave us perspective and time to evaluate ourselves, to ask if we were listening enough, if the fans felt like they were at the center of every decision.”
The sight of the Emirates “standing silent” for a year, he said, reinforced the idea that “fans were not just an ingredient for football, they were the ingredient.” We want fans to feel close and connected to the club,” Venkatesham said. “The Emirates Stadium is the epicenter for that, and from there it spreads out across the globe.”
Herlihy, a veteran of Arsenal’s fan outreach programs, had long felt the club paid lip service to the idea of listening to their views. “They talked a good game,” he said. “But there was no real engagement.”
That changed, Herlihy said, after the onset of the pandemic and the controversy over Arsenal’s involvement in the short-lived European Super League. “You know what they say: The streets don’t forget,” he said. “After that, there was a real change of tone. They engaged properly with these issues.”
The effects of that have been many and varied. The club has, at the instigation of the players, embraced the work of Louis Dunford, a local songwriter; one of his songs, known as “North London Forever,” has become a sort of unofficial Arsenal anthem, played before the start of every game at the Emirates. “It happened organically,” said Venkatesham. “None of it can be forced.”
Other changes have been small, barely perceptible — the club has made it easier for fans to sell tickets for games they cannot attend, and has warned that season-ticket holders who regularly leave their seats empty will be stripped of their rights to them — but have contributed, Herlihy said, to a sense that fans are being heard.
None more so than the Ashburton Army. When fans returned to stadiums, the club helped to move its growing ranks — now comprising a couple of hundred members — en masse. “When we started, we were sitting at the back of a block,” one of the group’s leaders said. “That made it hard for the noise to travel.” Their new slot, in what has been known since 2010 as the stadium’s Clock End, is at the very front. The acoustics there, they say, are much better.
“We try and support fan groups however we can,” Venkatesham said. The RedAction banner unfurled at the North London derby — spanning the width of the stadium — had, for example, been financed by the club. Arsenal does not have the same relationship with the Ashburton Army, but it does, he said, “give them access to the stadium so they can set up before games.”
After two decades of trying, the approach seems to have worked. Nobody is under any illusions: It helps, of course, that Arteta has put together not just a bright, young team, stocked with homegrown players, but a winning one, too. But just as they have driven the atmosphere at the Emirates, so the atmosphere has driven them.
“The Ashburton Army have shown the rest of the stadium how it should be done,” Herlihy said. His seat, at the opposite end of the stadium, affords him a perfect view of the group in action: 90 minutes of “noise and movement,” every single one of them dressed not in club colors, but in the black uniform of any self -respecting ultra.
“They’re doing what we all did years ago, and what we thought you couldn’t do any more,” he said. “They’re going to the football with their mates, and they’re having fun. And it’s more fun to have fun at football.”