It is hardly uncommon for a former player to attract cult enemy status after leaving a club under a cloud, but some have this ability more than others.
Arsenal fans have had to deal with a number of high-profile departures in recent years, with the likes of Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri and Ashley Cole all coaxed away at the peak of their powers.
But one departure hit home in a very big way before a ball was kicked or a pitch-length celebration was made: that of Robin van Persie to Manchester United.
It’s easy to forget that a couple of years before the August 2012 transfer, there was no suggestion that Arsenal’s adoration for Dutchman was strong enough to provoke such anger.
“For most of his Arsenal career it would have seemed unthinkable that, a) we’d get one of their star players and b) Fergie would gamble on someone with such a long litany of injury hit seasons,” notes Manchester United fan and Rant Cast co-host Paul Ansorge.
Indeed, up until his final campaign in North London, Van Persie had never played more than 30 league games in one season. His final two seasons were the only ones where he topped 11 league goals, too, but Ferguson had clearly decided the Dutch international had the goods to help United rebound from 2012’s final day heartbreak and return the title to Old Trafford.
Not that United were particularly lacking in attack – with many believing other positions needed much more attention. As the Magic Spongers blog put it so eloquently at the time:
‘If you’re in the bath with the door open, not only are you getting cold, but there’s a chance people might see your balls and start laughing. So, do you pour in more Radox and hot water, in order to create even more bubbles, cover up your balls and keep yourself warm – even though this wastes your resources and threatens the composition of your bath (which was fine before), or do you just get up and shut the door so no one can see your fucking balls? ‘
Less than 18 months had passed since United defeated Arsenal in the FA Cup with a midfield of Fábio, Rafael, Darren Gibson and John O’Shea, suggesting reinforcements were needed, and this gave some Arsenal supporters hope that rumours of Van Persie heading north were mere paper talk. But that only made news of his eventual move harder to take.
“It made sense for him to want to leave, but to go to United, that was a kick in the teeth,” recalls Dan Gallagher, an Arsenal fan who lives minutes from the Emirates Stadium.
“It was like getting dumped on a night out rather than a breakdown of a relationship like with Cesc [Fàbregas’ move to Barcelona].”
While things have since changed a great deal, it is no great stretch to say Arsenal were – like United – still in the conversation for the Premier League title, especially with Van Persie in the form of his career.
Hatred for a former player can often be exacerbated by a feeling of ‘there but for the grace of god go we’, and this is never more significant than when said player is winning the domestic trophy you have coveted for so long.
“This was the worst of the lot, because he went to a domestic team we dislike at the peak of his powers,” says Tim Stillman, a football columnist and an Arsenal season ticket holder since 1992.
“Nasri blew hot and cold, Henry had become a bit of a pain in the arse and had sciatica when he went to Barca, (so) there was some justification there, even though he was a club legend. Cole had burned his bridges at Arsenal and at least his departure ended up becoming a swap deal with William Gallas. Van Persie moving to United at his peak and virtually winning them the title single-handedly really stung.”
The manner of the move, or rather the goings-on as the move played out, also left their mark, as Stillman recalls:
“During the summer of 2012, I think there was an inevitability about him moving to United [and] had he left quietly I don’t think too many would have begrudged him.
“But the ‘open letter to the fans’ nonsense was hugely misjudged and everyone saw through it for what it was. He was trying to make his position untenable at the club to force a move, but trying to dress it up as faux concern and respect for the fans was silly really.
“Gazidis was on business in the US when the letter was released and van Persie said he was “on holiday”, which, whatever you think of Ivan Gazidis, was very low. Maybe in the summer of 2017 with a much more disgruntled fan base it would play better, but it didn’t go down well at all.”
Arsenal’s other business over that summer didn’t help, either – or at least the timing of the deals didn’t help. Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla all became first team mainstays to various degrees, but the trio all arrived before Van Persie’s departure. The lack of a follow-up signing to compensate for their star-man’s departure was another kick in the teeth for supporters.
“Had we sold van Persie and then bought those 3 players, I think the perception would have been different,” Stillman adds.
“As it was, people were disappointed by the time the window shut. But we knew the Van Persie sale was coming and it still felt raw, even if we had procured some decent players in the meantime.
“I don’t think any amount of future proofing shields you from that, because the first response is an emotional one – then you start to consider the footballing implications.”
Had Van Persie left a team with no Champions League football, there might have been more sympathy. But it’s also easy to forget the role Sir Alex Ferguson played in the move, and how – had United been desperate for a striker 12 months later with David Moyes at the helm – it may well have been a different story.
“It was abundantly clear that he loved [Ferguson] and I think (this is not meant as a dig, just a sincere analysis) that he recognised Fergie was by this point just much much more of a winner than Wenger, something Van Persie clearly valued,” Ansorge tells me.
Indeed, Rio Ferdinand’s anecdote from his open letter to Van Persie upon the Dutchman’s move to Fenerbahce seems to reflect this.
‘The moment Sir Alex Ferguson told us in the changing room at Carrington that he was retiring, I looked to my left around 6 lockers where I saw a totally devastated looking RVP… he was shaking his head in shock, completely disheartened it seemed,’ Ferdinand wrote.
Of course we all know what followed. Ferguson retired a winner, with Van Persie scoring 26 goals including a stunning title-sealing volley against Aston Villa. He also scored in both meetings with Arsenal that season.
“We knew he would be excellent and that made it hurt even more,” notes Stillman.
“He scored home and away against Arsenal that season and we had to give United the guard of honour when we played them at the Emirates. It justified his decision to leave and that made it that little bit more raw for us.”
Tribalism in football rarely brings its own moments of regret and self-reflection, but the Van Persie saga might be the one exception.
Gallagher has not backed down on his feelings about the way the move panned out and how it hurt the fans, but he does appear to have softened a little towards Van Persie as a person.
“Obviously when he went to United, all the chants that used to be sung at us, were now sung at him by our fans, which was moronic and embarrassing,” he says.
“It hurt more because our fans treated him so badly and goaded him which backfired. It will never make sense to me, after the first game he just wanted to score against us – and I don’t blame him. “